At last, a Mexico resort where the only hazardous water is on the golf course.
By Norman Mark
SPECIAL TO THE TRIBUNE
Web-posted: Sunday, January 26, 1996.
Huatulco is an almost-secret Mexican paradise where you can drink the water!
A 45-minute flight south of Mexico City on the Pacific coast, Huatulco is a 27-mile-long district with nine inlets or bays containing 30 to 42 beautiful beaches. The number depends on who is doing the counting or the boasting.
Huatulco is the only Mexican resort area where the treated (or, at times, untreated) waters are not released into the nearby ocean. In Huatulco, after treatment, the water is sprinkled on the huge 18-hole golf course and the parkways.
I was told to drink the water, take ice with my drinks, open my mouth in the shower, and eat salads and tomatoesall the things Id been advising others not to do when visiting Mexico. In the course of nearly two weeks in Huatulco, no one in our party of five suffered from a single days distress. The Lomotil was never uncapped.
However, when we ate at the restaurant on Bocana Beach just outside the Huatulco area, where chickens and dogs strolled through the dining area, I returned to my precautionary mode and insisted on beer from the bottle and Fresca without ice. The grilled fish was indescribably fine.
Huatulco as a tourist destination began in 1989 when the Mexican government decided to bring employment to Oaxaca, a poor, mountainous state. Indeed, a government official told me that more than 400 people sweep the streets there every day. Whether that is an accurate figure or a boast, it explains why the thoroughfares are so clean and why most of Huatulco looks like an impeccable Mexican theme park.
An international airport capable of landing big jets was among the first big projects to be constructed. The baggage areas are under huge, thatched huts which immediately tell the American traveler that he or she is in Mexico.
There were 90 hotel rooms in 1989; 2,000 hotel rooms exist in 1996--and 20,000 are projected by the year 2018.
A delightful local restaurateur, Donna Secorro Lopez, who owns the excellent Mission Fa-Sol, said that "Huatulco resembles Acapulco in 1932," before it became popular, overpopulated and often overpriced. (Donna Secorro also proclaimed, "Im 72 and Im happy," something Id want to do at the same age.)
Today, the beaches are glorious. The climate is usually warm and sunny. Many of the hotels and all restaurant are bargains for Americans while the dollar is strong and the peso is the peso. And today, even the people selling trinkets on the beach are few and not overly insistent.
These days, Huatulco is relatively unknown even within Mexico. It is a place for those who want nothing but sun, sand and surf. When this secret paradise is discovered, some day soon, I fear that the buzz of motorcycles will approach that of a swarm.
We learned about Huatulco from my Chicago friend, Tony Palos. One night while I was working out, he began talking about the tourist villaVilla Azomallihe built in a place with a name he had to pronounce three times and spell before I understood what he was saying.
His enthusiasm won us over: My wife, Grace, and I booked the four-bedroom villa for a getaway with our three grown children.
When we arrived, we discovered a secluded, white home on a hill overlooking the Pacific. There were no living room or dining room walls facing the ocean, nothing between us and the sunrise. We could loll in the pool and watch hawks (or possibly vultures, I was never sure) watchfully circling the jungle 50 yards away. We had two Jacuzzis, and arches framed the rolling Sierra Madre mountains just beyond our backyard.
Our explorations of Huatulco began later that evening when a $2.50 taxi ride (including an overly generous tip) took us to Tangolunda, the bay adjoining Tonys house and an area zoned for big hotels and fine restaurants.
We dined outdoors at the Don Porfirio Restaurant. Grace had lobster while I ate the miscellaneous fish plate. Excellent and reasonably priced.
Later, next door in an open-air theater, the Ballet Folklorico de Santa Maria Tonameca performed. To be charitable, the live turkey that was included in one folk dance enjoyed the experience somewhat more than some of the dancers. During one folk dance, the women tried to get men drunk so they could marry the guys. With women choosing men who were passed out drunk, I worried about the gene pool of the village that fully embraced that custom.
The next night we ate at El Sabor de Oaxaca, where we had one of the great meals of our lives. It was almost as unique and good as the world-renowned Frontera Grill in Chicago.
I had mole Oaxaqueno con pollo (chicken with black mole sauce), which cost 34 pesos or about $4.75. I later learned that their mole has more than two dozen spices in it. Grace ate a memorable plate of shrimp. There were only two other occupied tables in the small restaurant where the wait staff was polite and terrific. The bill with tip came to 260 pesos or $33.15 including a bottle of fine Chilean wine, an inexpensive price for a meal of such excellence.
We also explored the towns of Huatulco, including Santa Cruz, where the government offices are located, and La Crucecita, with a town square as charming as found anywhere in the world.
While strolling around the square, one Gabriel the Owl quietly slipped us his business card. He was a seller of gold, silver and onyx carvings. His motto, according to his card:
"We wont cheat you too bad." On another day, a $3 cab ride took us to Santa Cruz, which has two banks with cash stations. Our Chicago bank cards were accepted, and we automatically got pesos at the best possible rate. As long as the automated teller machines worked (I was told that could be a sometime thing), we didnt need to cash travelers checks. (Most restaurants took American credit cards, which also automatically gave us the best rates of exchange from dollars to pesos.)
The Santa Cruz town square is a park. In the center under the bandstand is the Huatulco Cafe, where the best coffees from local growers are served. Espresso and other coffees cost less than 65 cents, iced coffee was about $1.25, and a refreshing coffee frappe was less than $2.50. Classical music was usually played.
The arts and crafts market in Santa Cruz had friendly (but not overly insistent) shop owners with a selection of fascinating goods including silver, native dresses, wood carvings and even a big laundry bag with a Chicago Bulls logo on it.
(We should have brought along a pocket calculator to ease price discussions in two languages. The calculator could quickly show what we understood the owner said it would cost, and then it could indicate what we were offering.)
The public beach in Santa Cruz featured several restaurants, but our favorite was Ve El Mar, where we often ate under the thatched roofs covering the tables in the sand. The shrimp salad here was particularly delicious and cost $5.50; tuna fillet was $4.25, and the beer cost 60 cents. Ve El Mar had a low-hanging, tin tube protecting part of the structure. To the delight of the waiters, I did the hat trick by loudly bumping my head on the tube three times.
While in Santa Cruz, we visited Pia M. Oberholzer, manager of the Hotel Association of Huatulco. That visit allowed us to learn more about the EPR terrorist attack on Huatulco in August, which had concerned us when we had read about it.
Early in the morning on Aug. 29, there was an attack on the police station and the marines in La Crucecita. Eight people died. Other states were also attacked by a group calling itself the EPR, but for two days Huatulco was the dateline for all stories about the event. Then Huatulcoand the attackdisappeared from the world stage.
I asked, "Is Huatulco safe?" and she quickly answered, "Of course it is. Would I have my kids here if it were not?"
Mrs. Oberholzer then explained that today, with the police on guard and the army patrolling the hills, Huatulco has gone back to being a quiet, sleepy Mexican district. "Now we feel safer, more calm and relaxed than ever."
We did feel perfectly safe throughout our visit, although we were a little concerned when an army truck pulled into the cul de sac to the left of Tony Palos Villa one evening and a dozen black-garbed troopers stood on the bluff looking to the sea. They left after spending a lazy hour there.
The next day, we played golf on Huatulcos beautiful 18-hole course, the first of four scheduled to be created. One hole has a sand trap that is actually an ocean beach. Another hole has a water hazard with herons quietly fishing in it. The personable manager, Antonio Valenzuela David, told me the greens fees are only $40 per day, with carts $15 per day extra (a five-day, cart-included package is $200).
There are also various tours available, including horseback riding, visits to nearby Oaxaca, a coffee plantation tour, boat rides to several bays and the jungle all-terrain vehicle tour. We decided to attempt the jungle ATV tour because it might be exciting for our twenty-something children. That three-wheel motorcycle with the rear wheels of an earth-moving machine almost proved too exciting. In the parking lot where we were learning to drive our ATVs, mine sputtered to a stop whenever I wanted to go forward. After achieving a rough proficiency on the ATV, we took to a jungle path and roared along a jungle stream with flocks of green parrots overhead. We swam in the deserted Organo Beach (which, we were told, a hotel will take over in four months) and visited two other Huatulco bays by jungle trail. A day to remember.
On our last day we took the seven-bay tour on the Tequila Boat. We saw one beach where turtles lay their eggs once a year. The only inhabitants at another beach were a Mexican writer and his painter-wife. We stopped for lunch on San Agustin Bay, where the snorkeling was superb. On board the boat sailing back to port, we easily learned the macarena.
Our explorations also took us to La Picuda, the triangle house created by the Mexican architect Carlos Herrera. Elsa, the wife of Antonio Valenzuela David, the golf course manager, was in charge of the house in the architects absence. She allowed us to see the stupendous view from the living room high atop a bluff overlooking Tangolunda Bay. We arrived as the sunset illuminated a huge, concrete bird-sphinx statue overlooking a still pool. This artistic achievement, Elas informed us, was worth about $3 million. Another night, we went to the peaceful Casa Del Mar hotel, in the same area as the Triangle House, for a sunset view from a bluff overlooking the bay. We never stopped marveling at the beauty in our midst.
But for true peace and tranquillity, we preferred to return to our villa that we came to call home. We would sit in the living room or take a final dip in the pool and toast the sunset, the sweet life and family.
Details on where to stay, where to eat in Huatulco:
How to get there: Mexicana is currently the only airline with direct service from Chicago to Huatulco through Mexico City. It is possible to fly other airlines to a Mexicana-serviced airport and then transfer to a Mexicana flight, but the Mexico City-Huatulco leg costs nearly as much as a Chicago-Huatulco Mexicana ticket.
The current Mexicana ticket price is $409 plus tax. Call 800-531-7921. Tour companies and hotels do charter American, Continental and other airlines.
Weather: It can get very warm in Huatulco in May and there were heavy rains in July, but mostly the temperature is in the mid-80s during the day, the low-60s at night with sunshine most days of the year. Call 800-THE-BAYS for information.
Hotels: The peak season is usually from prior to Christmas through Easter. Off-peak season is generally the first week in April until the third week in December.
All inclusive hotels:
Far and away the best all-inclusive hotel in Huatulco with 300 rooms with private terraces, handicapped accessible, and the best hotel entertainment with a show that approaches those seen in Las Vegas in quality. Superb beach, incomparable pools, tennis courts. Mini club for children. Double rooms range from $140 per person in the high season to $100 per person in the low season. Call 800-GO-MAEVA.
Caribbean Village: 135 suites climb a rocky hill. Tennis, small gym, childrens club, beach club. $150 per person double occupancy in the peak season to $100 per person per day from April 6 to Dec. 22. Call 800-858-2258.
Club Med: 550 identical rooms on its own peninsula. Partially inclusive with all drinks extra. Nightly rates range from $75 to $250 depending on the season. Weekly rates with air fare from Chicago $1,185 to $2,050 depending on the season. Offers circus training, tennis courts, workout room and practice golf. Call 800-CLUB-MED.
Private villas and homes:
Villa Azomalli (house of tranquillity). A new, luxury four-bedroom villa (where we stayed) with every window either overlooking the Pacific or the Sierra Madre Mountains. Two bedrooms with Jacuzzis, two with balcony views. Near the secluded El Tejoncito Beach. With maid-cook, daily housekeeping and manager who serves as guide. Weekly rates from $2,200 to $3,100. Book through Tony Palos at 312-226-7639.
Ideal Real Estate: Lists homes available for rental for $3,000 a week and up. Juan Ongay Echanoves telephone and fax is 011-52-958-7-0333. A working knowledge of Spanish is helpful.
Zaashila: named after the last Zapotec queen, ranks among the most expensive and beautiful of the hotels. 120 rooms, very few of which are handicap accessible. Resort spans 27 acres of incredible jungle-like gardens with a magnificent pool-bar-restaurant overlooking the beach. Rooms range from about $250 per night in the low season to $500 per night in the high season. Call 800-223-5652.
Sheraton: 347 rooms. Four tennis courts, enormous pools. Prices range from $135 to $800 per night. Call 800-325-3535.
Casa del Mar: One of the most beautiful settings in Huatulco, this secluded hotel sits atop a bluff overlooking a beautiful bay. 25 romantic suites, excellent food. Master suites in the high season cost more than $100 while junior suites in the low season are less than $70. Call 011-52-958-1-0102.
Hotel Binniguenda: 75 rooms, newly refurbished pool, in Santa Cruz, a long block from the beach. High season double occupancy with three meals is about $90 per person a night. Call 011-52-958-7-0022.
Hotel Castillo Huatulco: 113 rooms, on a busy main street through Santa Cruz, and has a beach club. From $60 in the low season to about $80 per night in the high season for a master suite with Jacuzzi. Call 011-52-958-7-0251.
Hotel Marlin: In Santa Cruz a short block from the beach. 28 rooms, one suite, 2 years old. Off-season rates are $35 for two people, and $55 a night in the high season. Book through Zapotec Tours: 800-Huatulco (800-482-8852).
Marina Resort: On the marina in Santa Cruz, 45 suites, a new beach club, aerobics classes. Rates range from $60.41 for two people in the low season to $120.83 for a master suite in the high season. Call 011-52-958-7-0830.
Restaurants (the best):
El Sabor de Oaxaca, La Crucecita, best in the area: Two dinners with wine for $33.15, five dinners with wine $75.46.
Mission Fa-Sol, Tangolunda, beautiful, outdoors, owned by the indomitable Dona Socorro Lopez. Red snapper Madrelena style (grilled in tin foil), extremena chicken (delicious even though were not sure how it was made), gazpacho, a vegetarian main course and wine for about $40.
Don Porfirio, Tangolunda, a lobster and steak house. Terrific food, folk dancing on Saturday nights. Two excellent dinners, with drinks $35.44; four dinners with drinks $83.40.