The drive, and an opinion regarding the town's development
Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.
On my first trip to Huatulco in 1991, part of a driving tour throughout much of the country, the town was is its infancy, only recently having been created by FONATUR, the federal government tourism branch. Apart from a Sherarton and Club Maeva, there was little more, and the Zócalo consisted of just a few shops. It seemed all too contrived for my liking…and furthermore the highway to get there we fondly remembered as the “vomit trail.” Now, with improvements to Highway 190, even those who have been resisting getting behind the wheel in Oaxaca can take an enjoyable trip to the coast in a rental, kids and all, without so much as a map in hand, avoiding the loathed Mexican traffic, and soaking up all that Huatulco has to offer. Both the drive and the town are at times criticized in favor of respectively, flying or busing, and Puerto Escondido. Huatulco has a great deal to offer, distinct from its sister town up the coast. The drive itself can be informative in terms of presenting a range of climates and cultural adaptations, and rather pleasant if you opt for the longer route on the better highway.
Leaving bright and early in the morning makes the 6 hour ride more doable, since you can end up on the beach early in the afternoon while at the same time take in some wonderful scenery and a diversity of local culture en route. Just head out towards Mitla, take the well-marked Highway 190 cutoff to the mezcal capital of Matatlan, and continue to the coast, towards Salina Cruz, following the signs right into Huatulco. The highway, while consisting of perhaps a couple of hours of curves and switchbacks, is very smooth with wide shoulders and clear markings. It straightens out before reaching the coast, and then eventually, after you’ve been rejuvenated by driving on flat curveless open road, has some further “easy” bends. Pemex stations, while not in abundance, are well-placed along the route, so that as long as you leave with at least a half a tank, you won’t run into a fuel shortage.
You’ll have an opportunity to witness the changes in vegetation, beginning with short mixed brush and candelabra, nopal and other cactus, followed by denser forest, then becoming more tropical in nature with coastal palms, mangroves, etc. You’ll traverse two major maguey growing areas, early on in approaching Matatlan, and a couple of hours into the trip in the mountainous region, the entire route flecked to some extent with agave.
Stop periodically for a short break, have a light lunch or snack, speak to the local inhabitants and continue the trek. Along the coastal highway, see what vendors are offering for sale as you slow down to pass over the topes, and don’t forget to stop for fresh, cool, coconut juice. You’ll stop once to pay a 25 peso toll. You’ll drive through a couple of military checkpoints, and in all likelihood will simply be waved through. Regardless, they’re there to protect us all, keeping a look-out for drug-runners, and to a lesser extent arms traffickers.
If you are traveling with children, while knowing that the beach is not too far off should help to keep them in check, before departing buy a few inexpensive CDs or cassettes for the road…the 100 pesos or so will seem like a bargain once you need them. Another easy way to keep the kids occupied is to play the “spotting game.” Have them count and keep track of the number of soaring birds of prey, donkeys alongside the road, fields of agave under cultivation, or even how many times they see the words “Comedor” or “Miscelánea.”
In the course of building up Huatulco with its multitude of hotels, both luxury and more middle-of-the-road, came the golf courses, wide palmed boulevards, air-conditioned mall with 4 screen Cineplex-type theatre complex and all the other facilities deemed necessary in order to “sell” a man-made oasis in the midst of one of the poorest states in the Republic. Hence years ago there developed a stark distinction between this Miami Beach style of vacation spot and the “authentic” Mexico up the coast.
What we find today is very different…from this unique urbanization process developed a sociological phenomenon which has dramatically transformed the town, resulting in a “the best of both worlds” resort. As Huatulco was being built (and continuing today), there came the need to service the “imported” local population of predominantly building trades and tourism personnel. We therefore find hotels of a more modest nature, the produce and meat market, and a wide diversity of retail, service and government health and welfare establishments. With the influx of people to provide these goods and services came their families, and thus further needs to be met.
The result has been the creation of a micro-society not unlike what we find right here in our state capital, complete with a meshing of regional cultures. A major difference is that all this has developed over a period of about only 25 years.
So what then are the implications for the tourist wanting a respite on the coast for three days? There is now the diversity of hotel qualities that previously was non-existent, with many away from the beach and close to the Zócalo. Within blocks of the Zócalo you can find not only shops and services designed to attract the tourist dollar, but also what the local population requires for its day-to-day living. Since this populace has now, a generation later, become more diverse in age and socio-economic level, the range of offerings which benefit tourists has correspondingly increased. We find much more so than previously, a resort town with establishments frequented by both tourists and local inhabitants alike, making for a much less “artificial” ambience. What caters to tourists must also cater to non-tourists, and vice versa, to make the marketplace work to its potential. Prices must reflect this developing reality. Hence, as we recently learned, for example, four can dine deliciously on a bountiful array of the freshest of seafood, including appetizers and three rounds of drinks, for 850 pesos; during the “off” season (if not at other times depending on your level of negotiating skill), notwithstanding a stated hotel rate of 1200 pesos, a couple can end up with a junior suite including breakfast, for 450 pesos.
The range of tourist products and services together with indigenous cultural traditions found in other resort towns which developed more naturally and slowly, has fast arrived in Huatulco…and for the traveler, arriving can be more than half the experience. After that first anxiety-free drive, the rest of Mexico, cities and all, might no longer seem all that frightening from behind the wheel.
Alvin Starkman received his Masters in Social Anthropology in 1978. After teaching for a few years he attended Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, thereafter embarking upon a career as a litigator until 2004. Alvin now resides in Oaxaca, where he writes, leads small group tours to the villages, markets, ruins and other sites, is a consultant to film production companies, and operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com) .