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Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico: Embrace the ancient and the new

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On the western edge of the Sierra Madre Mountains, the tiny town of Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico, welcomes visitors from all over the planet. 

Drawn by the warmth of the Mexican sun and the lure of outdoor adventure, groups unpack from Germany, Canada, Mexico City and the United States.

Pronounced “wha-TOOL-kho,” the area boasts 36 beaches tucked along 20 miles of coastline cut into crescents that form nine distinct bays of the pristine Pacific Ocean. Each has a name more romantic than the next: San Agustin, Chachacual, Cacaluta, Maguey, Organo, Santa Cruz, Chahue, Tangolunda and Conejos.

Tangolunda is home to a number of resorts — including the expansive Dreams Huatulco Resort & Spa, where our group stayed. Dreams is an all-inclusive resort; it is rated Gran Turismo by Mexican hotel standards, is a member of AMResorts, a collection of luxury resort destinations, and is certified by the Rainforest Alliance for sustainable tourism practices.

Snorkel, anyone?

We left the resort to drive to Santa Cruz to sign on for a half-day snorkel cruise on board the Rumba, a canopied boat, which took us along the coastline toward the Huatulco National Park. The park was established in 1998. 

Camino Real Zaashila in Tangolunda Bay in Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico

Photo: Group Tour Media/Mary Lu Laffey Camino Real Zaashila, Tangolunda Bay, Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico

Leaving the harbor, we spotted jet skiers who kept well away of the coral reef areas, other tour boats and a single windsurfer at one with the elements. Thanks to the experienced eye of the captain-turned-tour-guide, pods of dolphins seemingly leapt on cue.

From the water, we had an excellent view of the massive national park; it measures 27,000 acres of lowland jungle and marine areas. The bays support the most important coral reefs in the Mexican Pacific. The park is open for outdoor enthusiasts of any level, from hikers and scuba divers to bird-watchers. Seven years after the park opened, Huatulco earned Green Globe International Certification for its efforts to create and maintain a sustainable tourist area — the first tourist location to be so recognized in North America, and third in the world to Bali in Indonesia and Kaikoura, New Zealand.

Huatulco is also the first tourism community in North America to earn EarthCheck certification for creating and maintaining sustainable tourism development. The site of the Eco-Archaeological Copalita Park, which opened in December 2011, dates back to 500 B.C.

Situated on the bays of Huatulco and along the Copalita River, the land once formed a border between the Mixtec and Zapotec peoples. Now a national reserve, similar to a United States National Forest, the park measures 89 acres and includes a museum, visitors center and trails that lead past remnants of pre-Columbian civilization and ecological wonders. At the cliff top, views of the bays and the Pacific Ocean are beyond breathtaking. I estimate the height at 10 stories between the rocky fronted beach below and the jungle terrain behind. The view is well worth the climb along a stone walkway.

Shopper’s envy

We cruised to Maguey Bay’s harbor for a beachfront lunch under a large, shady palapa-like pole barn. We dined at communal dining tables. There was plenty of fresh seafood, but the spicy salsa and guacamole were the stars across the menu. 

Flower seller at marketplace in Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico

Photo: iStock Flower seller at marketplace, Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico

Returning to the boat, a member of our group was busy purchasing wooden spoons from a vendor. She told me she uses handcarved spoons for entertaining, especially when serving more than one salsa — one spoon for green, one for hot, etc. Intrigued by the prospect of gifting my gastronomically talented nieces and also by the smiles on both the vendor’s face and that of her daughter, I bought spoons too.

After deciding on a purchase, I sometimes suffer from shopper’s regret — I may covet a buy that another in my group might find. Not so with my spoons. Sure, I could have waited to shop at the Santa Cruz folk market or the Plaza Principal, but why wait. That moment in the harbor would not happen again. 

I am relieved to report about the “Please don’t haggle” approach to shopping in Huatulco. Travel literature reminds shoppers not to underestimate the time and care it takes to create folk art, jewelry, clothing and, in my case, utilitarian pieces, by bargaining. 

En route from Santa Cruz to the resort, the view was all green as the road brushed against the lowland jungle. I couldn’t wait to walk through the open lobby at the resort. I needed one more look at the sparkling Pacific where I had spent the day, dined on its shore and found souvenirs guaranteed to stir both salsa and memories of Huatulco. 

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About Author

Mary Lu Laffey, Editor

Mary Lu Laffey is an award-winning editor and writer who has spent most of her adult life under a travel umbrella that is the perfect size for packing. A frequent contributor to the Worldview section in Group Tour and Student Group Tour magazines and always upfront in her From the Editor message, Laffey likes to hear a good tale even more than telling one.

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