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Apr 2004
Issue 047

KS Classifieds
Issue 22 OUT NOW!

Zipolite – The Beach of the Dead

Every year at this small Mexican beach on the Pacific Ocean people are swept out to sea by invisible, fast-moving currents, and drown before they can be rescued. For this reason Zipolite is also known as Playa de los Muertos, the Beach of the Dead.

Suprisingly, this does little to deter a steady stream of holidaymakers from making the journey here all year round, and people still swim despite the warnings. Perhaps this element of danger entices those seeking a bit extra from their beach holiday. It also keeps the crowds down.

Zipolite is not Cancun; there is no resort atmosphere, no towering luxury hotels, no swimming pools or tennis courts, no sweaty discos and still retains its rustic and easygoing charm. Up until 1955 only one family lived here. This is a beach for those on a budget who merely want to do as little as possible,.

The west end of the beach, known as Playa del Amor, is the most popular with foreign travelers and has the best places to eat and to stay. Nestled between rocky outcrops and sheltered from the rest of the beach, it is accepted as a clothing-optional spot, mostly utilized by a scattering of ageing hippies. Playa del Amor is also a popular choice for many gay travellers.

Arriving late in the busy Christmas/New Year period, after rushing around the sights of Mexico for two weeks, we had five days left to relax. An eight-hour bus trip from Oaxaca City dropped us off in the nearby town of Pochutla, and we crammed into a taxi with some Mexican teenagers from the same bus. The taxi ride around the winding hills, flying from bend to bend past crumbling cliffs, dusty cactuses, snoozing dogs and strutting chickens revived our travel-numbed selves. With all windows open to let in the breeze, Spanish dance music pumping from the tinny car stereo, we caught our first exhilarating glimpse of a vividly green and sparkling sea.

It was late afternoon before we got to Zipolite and we soon realised that finding suitable accommodation was going to be a problem. Stumbling through the sand weighed down by our heavy packs, place after place was full. With sweat dripping, despair rising, and darkness deepening, we came to a rundown restaurant with half a dozen empty tables. A tiny old woman appeared and in very broken English offered us a room with two hammocks. Readily agreeing we followed her to our ‘room’, which consisted of wooden planks haphazardly nailed together, a roof of palm fronds, and a sand floor scattered with cigarette butts. The door had to be wedged shut from the inside with a concrete block and our luggage stored in the woman’s already crowded one room house with her large family and wall to wall furniture.

At first the notion of spending a night in a hammock seemed wildly romantic and appropriately rustic. By the morning however, things appeared differently. A hammock, while good for dozing, is not a comfortable sleeping place for the unaccustomed. The mosquito bite count from my legs alone came in around one hundred. Discovering that the shower we were supposed to use consisted of slimy concrete blocks with a trickle of cold water, and the toilet seatless, blocked, and unflushable, did nothing to aid comfort.

However, after a slow and hefty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, tortillas, beans and freshly squeezed juice, luck was with us and we found a room at the Posada Brisas Marina, one of the largest places to stay. 120 pesos ($12US) got us a comfortable room with two double beds, mosquito screens, a fan and a good strong shower, and we happily settled there for our remaining nights. The Brisas Marina is owned and run by a straight-talking American ex-pat named Daniel who is always on hand to answer questions and boasts the only facilities to change traveler's checks at Zipolite.

All day, locals wander the length of the beach plying their wares, which range from strings of pearls and coral beads, embroidered cotton clothing, and dried chillies, to homemade pizzas and cookies, and fresh coconut milk served straight from the shell. For those intending to stay a few days a good investment is one of the multi colored hand-woven hammocks sold by the beach vendors, cheap to purchase and well worth it as most beachfront accommodations have frames set up for guests to hang their hammocks across during the day.

Apart from sunbathing, braving the dangerous waves to cool off, sipping from a coconut or an icy Sol (the beer of choice here), or sampling the fresh seafood flavored with garlic and chilli, there isn’t a lot to do — which is the attraction of Zipolite.

We did make a special effort one morning, rousing ourselves reluctantly, to be up and dressed by 9am to catch a ride in a rusting Volkswagen van lacking doors, seats and horsepower, to the neighboring beach, Puerto Angel. A tour boat leaves here every morning offering a day of beach hopping and snorkeling. While visiting four tiny beaches along the coast there are opportunities to see a variety of interesting wildlife – dolphins, turtles, sea snakes, nesting pelicans and the occasional whale, as well as getting a close up look at handfuls of brightly colored fish and coral.
If time permits, the neighboring beaches make good day trips for a change of scenery and atmosphere.

On the west side is Mazunte, similar to Zipolite in size and appearance but slightly less populated. Mazunte was once the sight of a major turtle abattoir where 50,000 turtles were slaughtered every year as they came ashore to nest. In 1990 the Centro Mexicana de la Tortuga was established, a research and education center dedicated to the protection and preservation of the seven species of sea turtles that live in Mexican waters. The center is open to the public and visitors have the opportunity to see all seven species.

On the other side of Zipolite is Puerto Angel, where the shore and the hills behind are crowded with hotels and restaurants, attracting large numbers of families. The sea here is calm and ideal for a swim but because of this it is busy with splashing children and boats of all shapes and sizes.
Nearby beaches can be reached on foot from Zipolite but there have been reports of robberies, even during the day.

Taxis and local buses pass fairly frequently, while the more adventurous or thrifty can climb aboard a colectivo, a large truck converted into public transport and driven by locals, costing only a few pesos. Expect to share with any number of tourists and locals and hold on tight.

At the end of every day an unmissable sight is of literally thousands of pelicans returning en mass from a day’s fishing. Like a cloud of mosquitoes they travel from over the horizon in a long line, before circling, and finally landing on, the appropriately named Roca Blanca (White Rock).

The sun sets bloodred and breathtaking on Zipolite every evening, softening the air with a mellow glow. This is the perfect time to take a stroll along the shore in the cooling sand or settle in for the night at a beachfront table with a plate of king prawns and a pina colada.

Text & Photos: Josie Steenhart


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Travel Tips

How to pronounce it – Oaxaca: Wah-HAH-kah, Zipolite - Zee-poh-LEE-te

When to go – The Oaxaca coastal area is hotter and more humid than the state’s highlands. June to September are the wet months where everything turns green and lush, while May is the hottest and driest month. The peak tourism seasons on the coast are from mid-December to mid-January, and July to August.

How to get there – Travelling from Mexico City to the Pacific Coast, it’s best to cut the journey in half by stopping at the beautiful colonial city of Oaxaca, known for great shopping, food, art, and handicrafts.
From Mexico City there are direct flights to Oaxaca, operated by Mexicana four times daily and Aeromexico three times. The flight takes one hour and costs around $150US. A 1st-class bus takes 6 hours and costs between $30 and $50US. From Oaxaca City take a bus to Pochutla, another 6-7 hours, and make your way to Zipolite from there by taxi or colectivo. The bus journey from Oaxaca City to Pochutla along the winding roads of highway 175 is spectacular and passes through both pine and tropical forest.

Visas – Visitors from some countries need to obtain visas, but most only require the Mexican government tourist card which is free and easily obtained at airports and border crossings.

Currency – Mexico’s currency is the peso. US dollars are also accepted in some places. The ‘$’ sign is used to refer to pesos in Mexico, and any prices quoted in US dollars are usually written ‘US$5’ or ‘5 USD’.

Language – Most Mexicans speak Spanish, but especially in larger cities and towns many people know at least a little English. There are also about 50 indigenous languages spoken by over 7 million people, 15% of whom don’t speak Spanish at all.