Wowed in Oaxaca

Twenty years ago Russell and I honeymooned in Mexico, traveling for two weeks between Huatulco, on the coast of Oaxaca, and Mexico City, and so to celebrate our anniversary we decided to revisit the Oaxacan Coast seeing how much the cities of Huatulco and Puerto Escondido had changed.  We also planned to stay in the village of Mazunte, where we had never been before, located between the two cities.

Whereas the first trip to the Oaxacan Coast took place in June of 1997, when it was so humid you were sweating in the pool, we did this visit in March when it was still 90 degrees everyday but much drier.  When I asked the manager of the hotel when it rained last, she replied, “November?” The result was a landscape that looked like one spark away from a forest fire.  Definitely not the lush, rainy season look I had recalled.

We flew into Huatulco on a nonstop from Minneapolis and were transported by Best Day to the Hotel Santa Fe  on Zicatela Beach in Puerto Escondido, about two hours west.  We had stayed here 20 years ago, solely based on its sign boasting aire acondicionado.  I remembered the area to be rather desolate around the hotel.  Not anymore! Playa Zicatela, an internationally known area for surfers, had exploded into a community more happening than Puerto Escondido itself.  We settled into our room at the Santa Fe and grabbed some lunch from their restaurant, recreating our photo from 20 years ago.  The hotel had expanded with a new wing of rooms, adding a second pool and patio area.  It was so colonial and beautiful and very peaceful as we were surrounded by travelers from Europe and Canada that were mostly of the 40+ demographic.

The first night we walked down the beach to dinner at a restaurant called Fresh, and arrived just in time for sunset.  Maybe it was the people watching on the sand, maybe it was the sun painting the sky, or maybe it was the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc I was drinking, but for some reason I forgot to photograph any of the food we had there, even though it was some of the best.  The Mussels Rockefeller made me want to cry.  We were stuffed when we declined their offer of dessert, but miraculously about two blocks later I found myself buying a Magnum ice cream bar from a mini-mart.  Funny how the stomach works.

The following day began with yoga on the patio overlooking the Pacific and then a trip to the breakfast legend of Playa Zicatela, Cafecito.  We made the mistake of both ordering chilaquiles  when we probably couldn’t have even finished one order.  That, paired with great coffee and huge glasses of fresh orange juice, made us sleepy enough to head back to the hotel for a mid morning poolside nap, disguised as reading.  This day we were joined by a new friend, a large iguana whose family pretty much had the run of the place. I alternated between watching him, reading, and swimming in the pool with my new favorite toy—the noodle doughnut!  I loved this thing and basically claimed it as my own the first day I arrived, only to be greatly annoyed later when it went missing, only to be discovered in the other pool around a small child.  I was really proud of the restraint I exercised by letting him have it so I rewarded myself with a detour to the bar and a piña colada, which, like my lost toy, made the pool more fun.

That night, which would be our last in Puerto Escondido before heading to Mazunte in the morning, we decided to walk the beach into town to the Adoquín a pedestrian street in the heart of Puerto.  I figured we would stroll around here before dinner for awhile, visiting shops, and hanging out.  However, the street was a heat filled canyon cluttered with junk vendors that after one lap had us searching for a cool (temperature, not ambiance) restaurant to escape to.  The winner was a French restaurant mentioned in many guidebooks called Pascale.  The tables on the deck overlooking the main beach had a glorious breeze, thank God!  With great music playing in the background, we shared a terrific meal of mixed grilled seafood with grilled vegetables and a nice bottle of wine.  We even splurged on a crème brulee, that was outstanding.  I was thinking it was one of the most memorable meals I’ve had, but as I said earlier, funny how the stomach works.

That night I was awakened by that stomach at 4:00 am. I won’t get into the ugly details but let’s say I either had food poisoning or cholera.  Luckily Russell was fine, except for having to be in the room with me.  This sickness lasted the next three days.  Luckily I survived the taxi ride to Mazunte, but the three day “flu” could not come at a worse time.  You see, in Mazunte we had booked three nights at the Hotel Zoa Secreto .  This exclusive property had just five private cabanas set on the side of a hill with infinity pool and everything one would ever imagine in a getaway in paradise.  But most importantly, we had booked a honeymoon package that included all of our gourmet meals.  While we were there, there was only one other couple two of the nights and we were the only guests one night.  So basically we would have a private chef.  For a foodie like me, this was going to be a dream stay!  Yes, the place was gorgeous, but it was All. About. The. Food.

So one can imagine my disappointment when I had zero appetite and an unwelcoming stomach the ENTIRE time we were there!  The chef would come out and tell Russell all about the fresh catch of the day options, detailing his preparations—all the things I live for on a vacation.  Russell would make his selection of a shrimp Diablo or grilled seafood tostada and I would request either a boiled chicken breast or a plate of plain cooked spaghetti, or when even those didn’t stay down, “tea, please, yes, just tea”.  The chef felt bad, but not as bad as I did.  But once I had resigned myself to not eating, I just went with the flow (no pun intended) and enjoyed myself to the fullest.  Lounging by what was basically our private pool, requesting hibiscus water, lemonade, tea, and ice water all day was still pretty great.  We would lie and read in the hammock area and I ventured down to the tiny beach/cave area.  I even felt well enough to do yoga on the deck of our cabana every morning.  I just couldn’t eat.  Russell would rave about the food and it smelled and looked great, but the urge to eat was gone.  I even asked Russell one day, “Will I ever be hungry again?” (the answer is yes—in two more days) One upside was that I was the thinnest I’d ever been half way through a vacation.  I wished I’d brought a scale!  Ha, ha.

On the last day of our stay, after we had lovely massages near our cabana,  I was feeling good enough to venture into San Agustinillo, where the hotel manager said I might find a nicer artisan shop than in Mazunte.  We walked into town to the shop and then along the beach which is one of the best that I have ever been on.  During our walk back to the hotel, UP the hill, I begged Russell to let us take my new favorite transportation, pasajeras, which are small pickup trucks with benches in the back and a tarp over the top.  These are how the locals get around and we saw them all over Oaxaca.  I love this kind of thing, but Russell just gave me that look and we kept walking.  Drats.

Back at Zoa, the chef and staff were busy preparing for our special private dinner.  All efforts were being made to create a private area away from the main dining area (even though we were the only guests that night, so really the whole place was private!).   That evening we were greeted by the chef at the end of the swinging bridge and led down the stone steps, now strewn with flower petals and lit by candle luminaries.  The hammock area had been transformed into a private, candlelit dining room and it was spectacular.  After being served our wine and an enormous appetizer of mahi mahi and octopus Carpaccio, I was determined that I would eat even if wasn’t hungry.  After we polished off the appetizer clearly meant for eight people, the chef brought down the main entrée—an entire salt encrusted red snapper.  And a bowl of whipped potatoes.  My stomach had shrunk to the size of a raisin, but I pressed on.  Even Russell looked like he might pass out.  And so we ate more and it was fantastic and the ambiance made it a really special evening.  If you have the chance to visit this amazing hotel, please do it.  They sure know how to treat their guests.  They really cover all the details.  They even greet you when you arrive with a wet washcloth that was in the refrigerator and an ice cold glass of hibiscus tea. Nice!

The final morning there, my appetite returned so I not only had a gluttonous breakfast, but Russell spotted three whales in the distance so that was awesome.   A few more laps in the pool, sighs on our deck, and we were out the door headed to Huatulco.

Huatulco can best be described as a “created city”.  The Mexican tourism department known as FONATUR used a computer years ago to identify the next big tourist area.  This is also how Cancun was created in the 70’s.  When we visited back in 1997 they were still setting up the infrastructure for the area and it has changed greatly.  Because of the “inorganic” way it came to be, Huatulco lacks the soul of other towns on the Oaxacan Coast, but it has the best airport in the area and nine bays of beautiful beaches, so a person could do a lot worse on vacation.  After spending three days feeling like celebrities we pulled into the Hotel Quinta Bella in Huatulco on  Playa Chahue.  The beach was great and the hotel was nice but it is tough to go from a chill place like the Hotel Santa Fe and the Shangri-La that is Hotel Zoa to the 20 room Quinta Bella.  All of the rooms have private plunge pools and all overlook the pool and beach.  It is very beautiful but there were a few families there and it was the first real “kid noise” we had experienced in days so that took some adjustment!  The infinity pool there was great for gazing out at the bay and all of the boats coming and going from the nearby marina.  The restaurant served really great pizza, which I inhaled now that I was back to normal.  That paired with an afternoon of sipping cheladas (beer over ice and a squeezed lime) was pretty fantastic.  The hotel is quite new and is nice, with the exception of some of the tacky room décor including this lamp–WHY?

However, one of my complaints here was one of the parents by the pool.  She had two small children that she basically left unsupervised all afternoon.  Oh, she was in her chair, right by the pool, but her nose was stuck so far into her phone for hours that she failed to notice her daughter shrieking for no reason every three minutes and her son climbing over the side of the infinity pool, falling onto the sand of the beach, rolling around in it, and climbing back, sand and all, into the pool.  Mamá of the Year!

That evening we taxied down to the Zocalo area of La Crucecita, which is essentially the “town” of the Huatulco area. We had a nice time strolling around, watching an impromptu break dance performance, visiting the church with the largest image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the world, checking out local vendors on the plaza, buying a bunch of tiny alebrijes, Oaxacan wooden folk art, and just soaking it all in, including this sign outside a bar.

The best meal we had in Huatulco was at a little Italian place overlooking the marina called 7 Tavoli La Taverna.  On the way there, we passed by a construction site and I’m guessing it’s been awhile since they have showed up to work!

Anyways, back to 7 Tavoli–they had a great menu plus specials on a big chalkboard they would drag from table to table.  We had a stellar dinner of a gorgonzola crostini, mixed seafood pasta,and shrimp pasta, the meal topped off with tiramisu and cappuccino. It was probably flavor-wise our best meal of the trip so it was a nice end to a trip that really was supposed to be all about the food, even though sometimes, stomachs do not cooperate.  Oh well, at least now I can join all the others who “went to Mexico and got sick.”


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