Saturday, January 28, 2012

My Favorite Oaxaca Beach Secrets Revealed!

How silly to keep favorite places a secret, as if sharing the information will cause crowds to descend. The fact is, my favorite beach area in Oaxaca would not appeal to resort-lovers, non-swimmers, people who won't at least try to speak Spanish, and those seeking the luxe experience. I like my beach with a palapa hut, fresh mariscos, hammocks in the shade, and waves to jump, and not much more.

The journey to my jewel of a beach San Agustinillo starts in Oaxaca city. About 3 hours into the drive, you're in the mountains, freezing your patootie off, and thinking that it's pure madness that you will be in tropical heat within the next couple hours. Relish that mountain air, because the drive is about to get barfy.

Before hitting the mountain curves, I go to the "it" spot in San Jose del Pacifico, La Taberna de Los Duendes. Duendes are Latin America's evil folkloric creatures and this is their tavern, featuring mushroom murals painted all 'round, a nod to the rainy "high" season in which people partake in the local psychedelic delicacy. In dry season, it's all about homemade cheeses, onion and tomato jams, pastas tossed in homemade sauces, and hookah pipes you rent by the hour. I bought miniature knitted mushrooms from the back wall gift shop/gallery and played a game of chess while eating pasta with olives, capers, rosemary, basil, and toasted nuts.

A couple hours later, you either dodge the rope pulled across the road by the local village woman or you donate to whatever cause she represents, and you know you're within spitting distance of Pochutla. Pochutla is the urban hub of the beach towns of Puerto Angel, Zipolite, San Agustinillo, Mazunte, and La Ventanilla. Or you can take a sharp turn to go to Puerto Escondido. Somewhere there is a different sharp turn to get to Huatulco.

I love Pochutla. You drive through a narrow, winding street that goes by cheap pharmacies, people selling coconuts roadside, and baskets of baked goods. This is the place to stop to stock up on cheap stuff, or to send someone in the car on a two-minute shopping spree as you circle the block. For the best deal on high SPF sunblock (which can be pricey in Mexico), go to Dr. Simi, my favorite generic drugs and toiletries pharmacy chain.

The wind through Puerto Angel is a tease, because water views keep alluding you. I recommend a stop or side trip to Playa Panteon, particularly if you have younger children who want a dip into mellow waters. Park at Cordelia's hotel, order a drink to rent your table space, and set the kids on soak. If the conditions are right, the stronger swimmers can do the 10-minute swim to the hidden caves and tidepools on a sand bar to the right of Cordelias.

Onto San Augstinillo. You pass Zipolite, the nude beach and home of a yoga retreat or two, on route, worth telling people about even if you don't wind up going. Then it's San Agustinillo, a place dear to me.

We find no reason to stay anywhere other than Bambu, a collection of eco-cabanas with palapa roofs. I love this place dearly, and the laid-back managers, Memo and Miguel, create just the right beachy vibe. They mean eco, too--they recycle, compost, use natural materials for much of their building, have gray water and black water recycling, and integrate their tiny development into the beach so smoothly and beautifully.

There is an outdoor communal kitchen which means you spend leisurely mornings making coffee and breakfast while wandering into the water, sitting on beach chairs or reading and swinging in the hammock. It's easy because the beach is right there, mere steps from the kitchen, and the pretty serious surf creates a beautiful cacophony.

I typically require at least an hour to get the rhythm of the surf here, and to manage the riptide when necessary. But I like a challenge.

Here, then, are some secrets I have unearthed regarding my beautiful beach town, after several visits.

--Mexico Lindo's pizza is far better than that at La Termita, the Italian-owned restaurant and B&B. This was not always the case but, according to local sources, La Termita has downgraded their cheese and it's no longer the beautiful pizza I raved about to friends and strangers alike. By the way, I have not witnessed any restaurant firing up the brick oven before 6:30pm.

--Past the second sand bar from the Bambu part of San Agustinillo, near Mexico Lindo, is a beach spot my friends call "The Secret Kids Club." I'm sorry to reveal the secret here: a soft-sand tiny pool fed by the tide, appropriate for toddlers and kids. Up the rocks, a sandy passage for creating temporary art with shells and pebbles. Underneath, an archway providing a peek of stunning blue ocean. To the right, rocks that trap interesting finds from the sea.

--Posada Jazmin's owners are curanderos that will wrap stings, bites, and burns in leaves or soak them in tea.

--If you tour the lagoons of nearby La Ventanilla by guided boat, wait as late as possible to see all the birds coming to roost in this protected spot.

--Bring cash! They don't want your credit card or debit card here.

I could wax on, about Violeta, the pet raccoon, the energy healer, star-gazing spots, but I'll save them for a part 2 post after my next visit to San Agustinillo.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Looking Forward To Looking Back

I love taking and looking at photos, but I'm dreadful at the steps between, which these days involves downloading the photos, uploading them again, sorting/editing them into books, ordering the books, and paying for them. I just haven't gotten it together to put together the pieces for the past year, which means too many photographs.

Every time we leave the house for a market, site, holiday, or art show, I yell, "Grab the camera," because I never remember to grab it, but I always remember to yell. While we're out, I implore whoever is holding the camera, "Take a picture, get one of that, don't forget that, I might need one of that."

Every beautiful sight or site in Oaxaca--that monumental sand painting, folkloric dance, giant dancing puppets in a processional, stack of mangoes at the market--is both gorgeous and ever-so-transitory. It's all about to blow away in the wind, die with the music, go into storage, or get sold, so catch it catch it catch it.

There's a desperation I have about losing things, forgetting things. Part of it is about my sister dying, part of it is about being a writer and wanting to arrive at some strange amalgamation of personal truths. So when the photo-taking and presenting overwhelms me, I have to remind myself: this is not the only way to remember things. My favorite way to remember a place, a time, a person, a moment involves a teaching term: "looping." In essence, you don't capture the deepest meaning of a concept the first time you learn it, maybe not the second or third. No worries, because it loops around again, most likely slightly different, but when you're cognitively ready and have had enough reinforcement, the information shifts from short-term memory to long-term memory.

This is my life, my joy, and my struggle. I am the one who has to order the same dishes when I go to certain restaurants (Juan's--quesadilla a la Jesus, Biznaga--sopa azteca, Itanoni for breakfast--Veracruzano). Oaxaca's ever-changing street markets have me combing the streets and aisles for the old woman with the blue-flowered tablecloth who sold me the sweetest watermelon. I return to museums to walk the same floor, find that certain painting that transformed me. Travel plans are a perennial struggle between visiting the new and retracing my steps to reenact a prior vacation. Life as a loop may seem boring to some, but I can't bear to miss the things I find beautiful or delicious, even though one part of me knows I return to things at the expense of discovering the new.

When I taught second grade, I had my students hold up invisible cameras and click photographs of the board when they had shared key information that I recorded. They'd blithely click away and I any of them remember that moment the way I do?