freshfruitpuertoescondido

Puerto Escondido, Mexico

Last spring, I went to Mexico for work. We visited the state of Oaxaca, a word I learned to pronounce when I learnt about the trip. It isn’t a Spanish word but rather an inheritance of the native language of the region. This was a theme I encountered while traveling and conversing with the inhabitants of the coastal town of Puerto Escondido. 

We settled in Puerto Escondido to visit a school as part of a partnership with the university I work for, and traveled around the area visiting turtle and iguana sanctuaries, multiple beach towns and eating local specialties like Oaxacan cheese and the fisherman’s day-catch. 

The best way to reach Puerto Escondido, or “Hidden Port”, is by air. There are roads from the big cities but the trek is long and uncertain, as the locals told us. By air is an hour fly from Mexico City in a 40-passenger plane battling shifting winds. The view from the low-flying plane is wide and mountainous, especially when leaving Mexico City where El Ajusco (12,894 feet), Nevado de Toluca (15,354 feet) and Iztaccíhuatl (17,126 feet) peaks frame the scene. 

We arrived in Puerto Escondido at 6p.m., after leaving Denver at 5a.m., due to a three-hour delay in Mexico City. The landscape changed as we approached our destination. The plane swarmed around the coastline charging toward the ocean and descending as a graceful goose preparing to land in the water, with a gently tilt we turned around to face the airport and the tiny runway. I won’t lie, it was frightening and I mistrusted the entire situation, thankfully the pilot proved me wrong with a smooth landing. 

The sticky hot air blew as we walked from the plane into baggage claim where our host waited for us. “Welcome! How was your flight?” they asked with big, warm smiles as we exchanged hugs and kisses on the cheeks. “Beautiful!” I replied while walking to the van for a 5-minute ride to the hotel. The sunset was a minute away from exploding in orange and gold hues and we rushed from the parking lot of the hotel to the pool where the uninterrupted view allowed the magic of the sun to glow on the palm trees. 

Puerto Escondido is a small enough town to create a feeling of community, but large enough to have multiple traffic lights and crowded streets, and a food market covering four blocks. Nearby towns provide an oasis for tourist, with restaurants on the sand where the chairs sink as you sit and hammocks strung from bamboo poles under kiosks beg to be used. We visited during the low season and enjoyed the solitude of beaches barely sprinkled with tourist. Our host told us, “Next week is Easter and for two weeks you won’t find a place to stand on the beach, let alone lounge and leisure, plus prices double.”


The Market


The next morning, after a walk, barefoot on the blonde sand,  we went to the market with a student from the school working as our guide. The warehouse-like building crowded with piles of mangoes and pineapples brought me back to my younger days in Colombia and the melancholy of sweet, ripe tropical fruit memories. We stopped at a booth selling peppers, fresh and dried, and homemade sauces where my boss decided to try his spice resistance, a brave move if you’d asked me as my spice resistance stays at 0 on the Scoville scale – or the equivalent of a sweet bell pepper.

puerto escondido farmers market

Around the corner from the produce aisle we found the meat department. Booths upon booths of butcher shops with sheets of meat hanging next to cow, pig and goat heads. Traditionally, the meat is hang to dry as a preservation method, and even though refrigeration is widely available, the food culture runs deep and many traditions hold strong to this day. On the tiled countertop rested tongues, feet, and an assortment of offal perfect for long, slow cooked meals that feed entire families economically. 

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Growing up in Colombia prepared me for the display of animal body parts, but I hadn’t experience the curtains of dried meat separating vendor and buyer, and the strong ‘tartar’ odor floating around the aisles. 

The fish aisle offered endless choices of seafood, small and large. I envied the vendors’ skills scaling, gutting and filleting the fish, within minutes they cleaned and sliced a dozen of fish and kept all of their fingers (!)
We recognized many of the fish and shellfish on display, but the vast variety of species represented the true catch of the day. Many of the fish are consider inferior for bigger markets as we demand the same varieties, like salmon, tuna, halibut, etc., because they are easier to prepare and we feel comfortable with their taste. But utilizing the entire catch is sustainable and cheaper, and with skill we can change a simple, average fish into something delicious.

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As we walked away from the fish stalls a lady carrying a small basket approached us, “Chapulines!” she said, I turned to our guide and she said, “grasshoppers!” I asked again as I thought I heard wrong, “Yes, grasshoppers,” she replied, “cooked and spiced with chile and salt,” she seemed honestly delighted. I looked at my boss knowingly that I wasn’t kidding anyone, “we all know I’m not adventurous, you try them,” I told him. 
His tall frame shifted as he hesitated for a minute. “Fine,” he said, and he took a few in his hand and shuffled them like popcorn into his mouth. I tried to keep a straight face as his eyes shifted from floor to ceiling while he chewed. “Not bad,” he said, “but a few is enough. Gracias señora.”  

Insects are a huge staple in Oaxacan cuisine, including ants, maggots from the maguey plant, and grasshoppers, to name a few. It has been a cultural staple for hundreds, even thousands, of years, and like many of the Oaxacan traditions it’s a source of pride of their diversity and identity. 

In the afternoon, we returned to our hotel, located on the far north corner of the town surrounded only by palm trees and residential homes. Below it, by the beach, we found two balnearios, beach-resort like bar/restaurants with claimed beach real estate and lounging chairs sheltered under straw tents perfect for a few margaritas and ice-cold beers after a sweaty day of market and classrooms visits. 

 


Iguanas and Turtles


The following day our host picked us up early morning for what he promised to be an all-day travel adventure. I woke up early to explore the beach and indulge in the solitude and the grandiose Pacific Ocean before our busy scheduled day. Far on the coastline, I encountered a few sea turtle skeletons mounted on each other like a made up altar, like a shipwreck treasure against the backdrop of the ocean and the clean sand.

 

Puerto Escondido and surrounding beaches are a heaven for sea turtles looking for a tranquil place to lay their eggs. Tourist come from all over to see the spectacle and locals take advantage of the gift from nature to make a living. Great for both, tourist and locals, but not for the turtles whose eggs become food or a toy for humans to play. 

That same afternoon after we visited the Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga, where we learnt about conservation projects to increase turtle population, I returned to the beach and found a rainbow of people around a booth selling baby turtles. Those who purchased took them to the edge of the ocean to follow their life-legacy, like their ancestors have done for hundreds {or thousands} of years. It was beautiful to see them wiggle their tiny bodies against the sand, rushing to the turbulent water, but I felt guilty to entertain myself through the uncertain life of a tiny creature. I didn’t buy any, but couldn’t help stopping to admire their struggle.

The same day, we stopped by an iguana sanctuary where we learnt about their breeding habits and how the biologist work with it to increase their population. Iguanas, as well as turtles, are part of the local cuisine. Restaurants offer Mole de Iguana, or Sopa de Tortuga, and in part the overhunting of iguanas brought them near extinction. Female iguanas go underground when pregnant to lay their eggs, which are an easy prey for predators, the biologists go out through the day and spy iguanas ready to lay and bring them to the sanctuary where they put them in similar conditions. This way they have increased the population and created a more sustainable process, raising iguanas in enough quantities to release into the wild and to sell. 


Eating Out


I admire and vow to the Oaxacan culinary traditions, but I was ready for a familiar face on my plate. For lunch we went to a place near the beach where I indulged in a whole fish, deep-fried and bathed in lime juice. Since I was young I’ve always loved it, the crispy skin covering the tender flesh made fish-eating a delight. The first time my husband went to Colombia and I ordered this style of fish he wanted to cover the head with a napkin, {and I thought I scared easy.} 

To me the most remarkable part of the meal were the handmade corn tortillas. The dexterity from the tortillera standing at the entrance of the restaurant, kneading dough, making small round balls to flatten them into tortillas kept me entertained while waiting for my fish. The flat dough goes on the hot comal to cook, the result is a tender, sweet and utterly delicious corn tortilla unlike any other I had before. It was a true tortilla.

Later that evening, after an exhausting travel day, we stopped for tacos al pastor at a busy place where locals watched the soccer game while drinking a few beers. Our flight departed late morning the next day giving me time for a last visit to the beach. Mexico never interested me before; but the calm, quite beach and the deep culture dive I experienced was unlike anything I’ve heard from fellow Colorado friends who told me about Mexico beach vacations that involved Americanized resorts dispensing margaritas by the pool and where the true culture of the country was always outside the walls. 

XO
~ Paula

2 thoughts on “Puerto Escondido, Mexico”

  1. I agree your experience seems richer and memorable with heartfelt human contact from the native land. I am glad it was a safe one I held my breath as you described that plane ride!

    1. Yes, the plane ride wasn’t exactly my favorite experience but the contact with locals and the discovery of a rich culture definitely made for it.

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