There is a luminosity, a certain fractured light, to be found on the salt-splashed caminos of Oaxaca’s Puerto Escondido. Perhaps it’s the way the sun hits the cresting waves and bounces off the crushed-shell beach. Perhaps it’s how the heavy rainforest dew evaporates, sending plumes of steam and screeching birds squawking high into the cloudless sky. Or perhaps it’s a different type of light altogether – a shimmering veil of history and heritage that’s equal parts pioneer spirit and gypsy glamour.
Puerto Escondido’s privileged position on the one of the Pacific’s most bountiful coasts is remarkable. Facts are scant, but the town’s history as coffee-trading post goes back to around 1900. By 1931 the bay had become a village and by 1939 it had its own airstrip. By the 1960s, when a bunch of wayfaring Venezuelan surfers made landfall on the town’s principal beach, Playa Zicatela (incidentally the location of that early airstrip) and discovered the now-fabled Piedra de Iguana break, Puerto Escondido’s place on the global nomad map was secured. Over the next half a century, Puerto would became a coastal El Dorado for surf evangelists on a trail that linked Byron Bay, Venice Beach and Hawaii’s fabled North Shore.
These days, Puerto Escondido’s global nomads are a connected crowd – design buffs, wellbeing luminaries, writers and aesthetes. They’re drawn by the intangible allure of a region that feels both like microcosm of the wider world (the good bits) yet separate enough to be entirely disconnected. The surfers are still here in their droves – they’re the lifeblood of the town – but their ranks were swelled back in 2014 when Casa Wabi – an award-winning creative compound and art foundation by architect Tadao Ando and artist Bosco Sodi – became a magnet for digital nomads and art enthusiasts. Almost Brutalist by design – as is much of Oaxaca’s modernist architecture – Casa Wabi’s sustainability programme also served to highlight the very real need to protect and preserve this raw and fragile slice of coast. In tune with the shift towards conscious hospitality, this February saw the opening of hyper-contemporary Hotel Terrestre, the third project by Mexican architect Alberto Kalach and sister property to hipster hangouts Casona Sforza and Hotel Escondido that goes by the manifesto ‘100% connected to the earth, sun, and sea. 100% powered by solar energy and 100% local.’ Modern art and architecture would be nothing without the heritage crafts from which they were hewn, and Oaxaca’s native artisans are renowned throughout the country. Key skills in the Puerto region are Zapotec weaving – for the bright, multi-hued blankets that create the perfect foil for polished concrete interiors – and barro negro, a distinct type of off-black perforated pottery which has been implemented in large scale in some of Puerto’s smartest new homes.
Back down at Zicatela as the sun sinks lower, the waves start booming in. Wild-haired surfers, boards tucked beneath tattooed arms, are flooding toward the bay. Their acolytes, clad in Mara Hoffman bikinis and Mexican fisherman’s pants, gather at barely-there beach bars to sip salt-slaked margaritas and gossip about who’s in town. Later they’ll descend like seabirds to nibble aguachile and tiritas at Almoraduz – tipped by the New York Times as Mexico’s hottest eatery – or Chicama, where they’ll share Peruviuan-style ceviche beneath swaying rattan lamps. If these chi-chi nightspots seem a world away from that that roughshod surf scene of the late 1960s, they’re not. Because out there, in those waves, nothing ever changed.