Located in southern Mexico, bordering the Pacific Ocean, big things are happening in Oaxaca. Tourism is the state's biggest industry, and officials are working hard to up the state’s game. While its interior regions, such as its eponymous capital, have long been a hot ticket for their cultural, craft and culinary riches, its coast is less known. But that’s gradually changing.
Oaxaca has 350 miles of Pacific coast, storied by plundering pirates and mysterious (some say mystical) visitors. Huatulco is the most famous locale, known for its nine bays and 36 beaches. The destination came to life in the early eighties, thanks to Mexico's tourism development agency, Fonatur.
Since then, Huatulco has made a mark as a sustainable tourism destination, with an EarthCheck platinum certification to its credit.
Visitors from the U.S. often encounter Huatulco first as a cruise port. The city’s intriguing history, natural beauty and healthy hotel scene make it an enticing option for a return stay. Hotel choices include the familiar AMResorts brands, Secrets and Dreams, as well as intimate luxury boutiques and vacation villas.
Tourism officials are making a push to bring in Spanish brands, such as Melia, NH and RIU. The latter already owns a large piece of land there, but as yet, has announced no plans.
In the works is a 761-room Nickelodeon resort and water park. It’s part of a large development in the Bahía de Conejos, next to Secrets Huatulco Resort & Spa. The complex will also include an El Dorado Royale hotel and a Generations Resorts hotel.
In published reports, Huatulco Hotel Association manager Pia Oberholzer says the project is moving forward, after delays caused by the environmental reporting process. (Some 60 percent of Huatulco is a natural reserve.)
The expected opening date for the Nickelodeon complex is 2020.
Also on track after environmental report delays is a Fiesta Americana.
It’s in the works from Mexico’s largest hotel operator, Grupo Posadas.
"Huatulco is one of those destinations where we have no presence. We have closed on a Fiesta Americana there. It will be 280-room, family oriented all inclusive,” Rafael Lizarraga, commercial director for Hotelera Posadas tells Travel Agent.
The company’s Grand Fiesta Americana Oaxaca is set to open this year in Oaxaca city.
Some 50 miles west and a bit north of Huatulco (the coast runs east west there), Puerto Escondido is another gem. It’s a surfing haven on the southern tip of Oaxaca's Emerald Coast. In addition to pristine, cove-lined beaches, the ocean is warm there, a rarity in Pacific Mexico.
Canadian Cary Mullen searched the world for the perfect vacation spot and decided upon Puerto Escondido. Six years ago, he opened Vivo Resorts, a gated community on a 12-mile stretch of Playa Palmarito. Accommodations range from 400 to more than 4,000 square feet in size, and up to four bedrooms.
A new Club House with a business center opened in December, and new suites and residences are in the works. Dining options include farm-to-table Oaxacan cuisine featuring a daily fish catch, and tortillas made from corn grown nearby.
There’s also a general store, kid’s club and spa emphasizing botanical treatments.
“I’m not a surfer, but that’s a big part of the culture here, and it brings an international component,” said Mullen. "I was at the beach and heard six different languages."
Americans make up about 25 percent of the clientele for vacation stays at Vivo. The rest are primarily Canadian.
“We cater here to the eco-minded traveler, wherever they come from. There are lots of different excursions guests can take part in,” said Mullen.
That’s an understatement.
Puerto Escondido is home to two International Sport Fishing tournaments each year. The concierge at Vivo can arrange fishing trips for guests during mahi mahi, sailfish and marlin season.
Nearby is Laguna Manialtepec, one of the most ecologically diverse lagoon systems in Mexico.
“The laguna is great for bird watching. And, at certain times, there’s a phosphorescent effect there,” said Mullen.
Other activities include horseback treks to nearby hot springs and waterfalls and white-water rafting in local rivers. Guests can also venture to the 4,000-foot level of the Sierra Madres for tours of working coffee plantations.
But, surfing, of course, is the premiere activity. Regardless of ability level, there’s an option for everyone willing to take the plunge.
“One of the things that make Puerto Escondido so special is the town and the people. Oaxacans are so caring and so friendly. You can walk through the local market and feel like you’re in Mexico, not simply a commercialized Cancun,” said Mullen.
Puerto Escondido is surprisingly accessible, as well. The Puerto Escondido International Airport is nine miles from Vivo Resorts. Huatulco International Airport is 60 miles away.
“More airlift is coming from the U.S. and Canada, which is great news for us,” said Mullen.
He added, “When it comes to Mexico, there’s a progression of what the visitor is looking for. First, they want to do spring break. Then, they go to the commercialized all-inclusives. After that, we’re next.”