More Than a Beach

Itineraries that immerse you in Mexico’s history and culture as well as its surf

HOW to put this delicately, without revealing too much? A couple who are perhaps not perfectly in sync about what proportion of a winter vacation to devote to cultural pursuits and what proportion to devote to the beach can find a solution to their problem in a trip to Mexico.

I lived in Mexico some twenty years ago and spent a few months traveling around the country, and last winter I heard it calling to me. I had especially fond memories of the city of Oaxaca, and so my husband and I thought it would be a good place to start the trip that we were planning (and that the Mexican Government Tourism Office generously helped to arrange). The city of Oaxaca, in the highlands of the Sierra Madre del Sur, is the capital of the state of the same name, which sweeps west and down to the Pacific. The geography allows travelers to combine several days in ancient and colonial highland Mexico with several days in beach-resort Mexico, for a vacation that everyone can enjoy. The airlines’ routes make it particularly convenient to visit Puerto Escondido, on the coast, along with Oaxaca. Or one could round out a trip to the more varied beachfront playgrounds of IxtapaZihuatanejo, a few hundred miles up the coast, with an excursion to the colonial city of Morelia.

THE city of Oaxaca, like Rome, is a time machine, able to transport a person not just to one period of past glory but to millennia’s worth of history. From about 500 B.c. to A.D. 700 the majestic ruin Monte Albán, on an artificially flattened hilltop a few miles from what is now the center of town, was the hub of the burgeoning Zapotec civilization. Monte Albán is to my mind the most evocative ruin in Mexico. Its scale is grand and yet human. Its purpose as a downtown, where municipal and religious functions were performed, is easy to take in. And its state of preservation is fascinating, with some structures standing intact and others that will strike the unschooled observer as little more than picturesque rubble. Even these unexcavated mounds are awe-inspiring, for they lie in all directions around Monte Albán and suggest a vast city awaiting rediscovery. Indeed, according to the nonprofit Monte Albán Society, only about five percent of the site has yet been explored archaeologically.

Excavation does continue. When we visited Monte Albán last year, teams of men were busily refacing a high, ancient retaining wall. In front of them the surface was irregular and encrusted with dirt; behind them the wall was neat and newlooking, like freshly repointed brick. This worried me. It was as if I had gone to see the Parthenon and found construction workers repairing the roof. Later I asked the director of the project, Marcus Winter, about this, and he explained that some repairs are being made for structural reasons and others in order to make central portions of Monte Albán more presentable for visitors. Although he admitted that some members of his profession might disagree, he said, “From an archaeological point of view, there is nothing to worry about as long as we document all interventions.” The work has also included a precise mapping of the site, some new excavation of the ruins, and expansion of the on-site museum and visitors’ center. The project was completed this past October, leaving Monte Albán well tended and more accessible than ever.

To go back in time a mere three or four hundred years—the Spanish colonial era—one need only return to the center of town. The city of Oaxaca was founded in 1532 by the Spaniards, who laid out a spacious zócalo, or main plaza, at its heart and then got busy building churches. monasteries, a Roman-style aqueduct, and various handsome stone buildings, many of which remain. In 1987 Oaxaca was named a World Heritage Site, a designation that not only carries symbolic importance but also tends to bring funding for preservation.

The legacy of colonial times is apparent, too, in the small towns nearby. Driving out into the countryside to visit ruins and Indian markets, I was again and amazed to see the bright domes and towers of churches every ten kilometers or so. An impressive church at Mitla lies cheek by jowl with another important group of Zapotec ruins. It was here that the remarkable continuity of the region came home to me, as I stood among the ruins looking across at the church and at the surrounding Indian town of Mitla, where a satellite dish poked up into my line of sight.

The colonial era is a wonderful one not only to roam through but also to dwell in (now that it’s over): Oaxaca’s finest hotel is the Camino Real Oaxaca, whose sixteenth-century building was originally a convent (it was long called El Convento, and then El Presidente; recently it was sold again). The hotel consists of two stories of rooms opening on a seemingly endless series of courtyards. Here’s one with a dainty tile walkway through it; here’s one with a fountain, one with a rose garden, a swimming pool, a gazebo. At every turn there are frescoes and shrines, statues and trees, archways and urns, for the most part in a state of voluptuous, lovely dishevelment. Shockingly expensive by Oaxacan standards, the Camino Real Oaxaca is not bad by American ones: rooms go for $145 to $200 a night. I wouldn’t recommend the minimumprice rooms—they seem to be noisy and airless. And even at the higher prices one mustn’t expect air-conditioning, a lavish bathroom, or, unfortunately, better than adequate service (though perhaps the new management has improved this). It is for the magical architecture and the sense of history that one stays here—or comes for lunch and a look around.

I don’t know what year the time machine is set for in the Indian markets, but it’s not 1994. Each day of the week a market is held somewhere in the Oaxaca area, and most have a section catering to tourists, where vendors sell the attractive local handicrafts, such as folkloric clothes, rugs, and black or green ceramics. The Saturday market at the Central de Abastos, in Oaxaca itself, is the largest, and was my favorite, even though I came away empty-handed. Under tarpaulins slung just above the local people’s heads an entire commercial city had sprung to life for the day. In the center of the market was a sort of open-air lunchroom, smoky from cooking fires, where hot meals were sold. Elsewhere aprons and handbags, fragrant cilantro and chiles, dishes and baskets and plastic buckets and tin pails, live turkeys, tomatoes, machine parts, and music cassettes were stacked or mounded or jumbled in crowded stalls. The place teemed, yet no one shouted or pushed.

In particular I loved watching the grave and graceful women going about their business. Women predominate among the markets’ buyers and sellers both. They wear a virtual uniform: a simple, sliplike dress under an embroidered apron, with strips of matching cloth twined into their long braids.

The state of Oaxaca is just northwest of Chiapas, and is almost as heavily Indian as that troubled place. I saw militant slogans painted on walls and even a political demonstration in the zócalo, but the city appeared generally middle-class and prosperous. The towns nearby did not, nor did the people in the market, who had for the most part come from those towns. No place in the highlands, though, seemed even faintly threatening. In fact, I often felt that the time machine was set for the Norman Rockwell era, as I watched shopgirls walking arm in arm, waiters leaning down to converse with children, and boys preening for their girlfriends.

WE wanted to drive to the coast, and so, of course, we had rented a car. Renting a car has its advantages, but throughout Mexico it’s very expensive, and it’s nerve-wracking, too, because of a national penchant for individualistic driving, and because the roads are riddled with topes, or speed bumps, at short and irregular intervals. Surely most visitors would be better off flying between cities. An hour or so in the air will get you from the city of Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido, the largest beach town in the state of Oaxaca.

The reason to go to Puerto Escondido is the little Hotel Santa Fe, where we stayed, just across the street from Marineros and Zicatela beaches. A Moorishaccented fantasy of curving tile staircases and small balconies, many of which overlook the swimming pool, it is charming, casual in style, and hospitable. What’s more, it has what is widely acknowledged to be the best restaurant in town. Until it was time to order dinner, we relaxed in creaky Mexican leather chairs in the open air, under a thatched roof, watching the sun set beyond the surf and eating freshly fried tortilla chips with a searing green sauce. At length we were ready for snapper a la veracruzana; each of us received a whole, nicely cooked fish under a blanket of fresh tomatoes whose spicy flavorings included martini olives. I ate every bite except for the tail and the head, which I slipped to the restaurant’s tabby cat.

Puerto Escondido is a real fishing town, not yet made over in tourism’s image. It and the nearby village of Puerto Angel, about which the less said the better, left me wondering whether authenticity is the Holy Grail that so many travelers believe it to be. Although Puerto Escondido would seem to be pleasantly sited, facing several broad beaches, some of these are lined with decrepit shacks, and others have an undertow that makes them unsuitable for swimming. Signs in the rooms of the Hotel Santa Fe warn visitors not to walk on the beaches at night —there have been robberies in recent years. Puerto Escondido is worth visiting for the Hotel Santa Fe, but virtually the only good reason to set foot outside the hotel grounds is to join an excursion to the nearby Lagunas de Chacagua National Park, known for its rich and varied wildlife.

FIVE days in Oaxaca and two days in Puerto Escondido would make a delightful week. Those who would rather spend the majority of the week at the beach should look north and west, to Zihuatanejo.

In beach towns choosing a hotel has special importance. Pick the wrong one and you’ll feel resentful and trapped. We were happy at the beachfront Villa del Sol, which fifteen years ago was in more or less the position that the Hotel Santa Fe is in now, being the only hotel in its town worth going out of your way for. Today Zihuatanejo has two other fine small hotels as well, and both it and its sister town, Ixtapa, just up the coast, are generally enjoying a touristic boom.

At first I was envious of the guests of La Casa Que Canta, one of the other two hotels, near the Villa del Sol but perched high above the beach on a rocky promontory. We strolled over late one afternoon to have a drink and were almost literally stunned by the hotel’s appearance. La Casa Que Canta looks art-directed rather than decorated, in a style as Mediterranean as it is Mexican, relying heavily on handicrafts and terra-cotta. A silver-haired tycoon in wraparound sunglasses was taking his ease in a corner of the main swimming pool; he seemed to me to embody the spirit of the place.

The third hotel is Puerto Mío, on the other side of the bay. The dinner we had there was one of the most memorable meals of the trip. This was partly because the food—fettucine with shrimp to start and then tender tuna, grilled medium rare as requested, in a succulent green sauce —was so good, and partly because the outdoor restaurant’s setting, in a dramatic cove, with torches lighting up the rocks at night, is unbeatable.

But I came to be glad we were staying at the Villa del Sol, the homiest and most comfortable of the three hotels, and the only one at which guests can walk straight out from their rooms onto the beach. The Villa del Sol is watchfully managed by its owner, Helmut W. Leins, once an engineer in Germany but now reveling in his role as a sophisticated hotelier who can chat in any of four languages with his employees, guests, French wife, and little daughter. Floating in the calm sea one day and studying the hotel’s sinuous architecture from that perspective, I thought its palm trees and thatched palapas, or beach huts, looked like symbiotic species. The Villa del Sol is what most beach resorts strive to be.

Staying in Zihuatanejo, one can enjoy any water sport, or go into town to have lunch and poke around in the shops, or ride over to Ixtapa, where the big hotels are, including the notable terra-cotta-colored Westin Brisas—like La Casa Que Canta writ large. Four or five days pass effortlessly. And then one can take a short flight to Morelia, a handsome colonial city less touristic than Oaxaca but, like it, surrounded by Indian towns.

We didn’t have time to visit Morelia on this trip. And I wish we’d had more time to explore Zihuatanejo, and the towns around Oaxaca too. Ah, well. That’s how I know I’ve had a good time—from start to finish.