Mexico Without the Crowds, or Attitude

June 8, 2012 by
Categories: Mexico

From the New York Times.

Oaxaca (Mexico)EAGER young men waving us toward empty parking spaces by an eco-tourism kiosk, two excited toddlers in the back seat, and no way to turn back: tourism hell seemed to be upon us. After a long sigh, and a glance at the pristine Pacific in front of us, we gave in.

And then the Costa Chica, as this region of Oaxaca is known, surprised us. “It’s 400 pesos for a private boat tour with a guide,” one of the young men said. “But if no one else shows up, you can just pay the group price.”

My wife and I looked around; we were completely alone. So we ended up with a chartered boat for the price of a crowded one — paying the equivalent of about $10 for a 90-minute trip through mangroves teeming with mating birds, lazy crocodiles and neon-green iguanas. Our guide paddled the boat quietly while identifying the animals. Our children squawked with delight, and as we re-emerged to stunning views, my wife and I stared in awe.

This stretch of surf was one of those rare places — extremely hard to find in Mexico and the Caribbean — with natural beauty and tourists, but not a squeeze-the-tourist attitude. There was no charge for the beach chairs at the waterfront; no waitresses waving plastic menus to coax us inside. Instead, chefs in open-air kitchens offered to cook us affordable food not on the menu if it meant our kids would eat. Then toys, a cat or a playmate (same age as our children, occasionally nude) would often magically appear as we were seated.

The friendliness seemed unforced during our four-night stay at a rented house in San Agustinillo this spring. And it was a counterpoint to the monstrous waves and dangerous undertows that have kept the area from being overrun. Indeed, the Costa Chica was once hardly fit for tourists. For decades, the four small neighboring towns here — Zipolite, San Agustinillo, Mazunte and Ventanilla — were nearly empty except for fishermen hunting sea turtles or harvesting their eggs. Residents said the golden sand was often covered with turtle entrails, and with roads that were rocky at best, boats were the preferred form of transportation.

That all began to change in the 1980s, as the turtle population dwindled and the first mass of Italian tourists arrived. When the Mexican government banned turtle hunting in 1990, the coast here became a test case for how to shift from an industry that created environmental degradation to others that are eco-friendly. And now, with investment from government, nonprofits and green-minded businesses (like the Body Shop founder who helped establish a cosmetics co-op run by local women) the shift is nearly complete.

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