Photo Credit: Kristy Ambrose
I tell the friendly camionetta1 driver that I don’t need directions, and he’s surprised. I smile and mime smoking a joint. Now he understands, and gives a hearty wave as he pulls back onto the highway. The folks who know Zipolite know it well.
No rush on this journey. I’m high already. The few hits I took of that nice, fat salad roll2 before I left Puerto Escondido an hour ago are just starting to wear off. I’m looking forward to a pleasant come-down on the next leg of the ride, which consists of an old truck careening through the jungle. It’s scenic, breezy and social. The perfect metaphor for life on the Oaxacan coast.
The Oaxaca region of Mexico has yet to see development on the scale of other notorious cities like Acapulco and Cancun. You’ll still hear sad stories about how Playa del Carmen went from fairly rugged and peaceful to a gaudy tourist trap in less than a decade. People curl their lips a bit when they mention Acapulco, about eigh thours up the coast in the neighboring state of Guerrero. The attitude here is more independent. Tourists come to Oaxaca on local terms—shameless authenticity and a quiet, steadfast pride. Don’t like the rough roads, Spanish-only menus, or showers with no hot water? Here’s a bus ticket to the Yucatan Peninsula, snowflake. And don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.
The transportation I regularly take from Puerto Escondido is what folks back home might refer to as a “chicken bus.” And yes, I have seen chickens on it, along with dogs, cats and huge bushels of fresh produce. I have yet to see a bale of fresh cannabis, but hope springs eternal. It’s a bit of a rough ride, as the quality of the buses or vans tends to vary, but if you don’t mind paying extra for a comfy seat and a more reliable schedule, cross the street and grab an OCC or a SUR. Those don’t leave as frequently, but there is a regular daily schedule.
The junction of San Antonio is the first place I change buses. It’s about an hour and 15 minutes east of Puerto Escondido. For those coming from Huatulco, it’s about the same distance, but you’d get off at the crucecita3 of Pochutla instead. Take another camionetta through the seaside town of Puerto Angel to reach Playa Zipolite. Private taxis are also available, but cost a lot more. It’s easy to get used to the much more economical public transit system if you spend a lot of time here, and I do; the whole trip from Puerto Escondido to Zipolite takes less than two hours, and costs 70 Mexican Peso. That’s 3.67 United States Dollar.
Excellent. More money for seafood, cerveza, and cannabis.
The Road to Zipolite
The ride from Puerto was fairly comfortable. I shared a seat with a commuter from Pochutla. It’s common to chat with total strangers on buses here. He’s heading back to his family home after doing some work in Puerto, and jokes that he wasn’t sure if he should talk to me at first, since guerros don’t like to talk to strangers. When he finds out where I’m going, everything makes more sense. Only long-term residents or more serious tourists can find Zipolite.
Walking just a few meters past the junction, I find some shade while I wait for the next ride. I’m not alone for long. An older lady with a plastic tub, and a cooler filled with snacks, drinks, and other edible goodies is also waiting. She’s heading to the beach to sell her wares to stoned and thirsty tourists, and I’m pleased to give her a head start. Happily, I purchase a bag of roasted peanuts. They are rich, oily and crazy delicious.
We’re soon joined by a few other tourists as other buses and taxis drop folks off at the nearby junction. The little camionetta is already full when it comes by, but this is Mexico—there’s always room for one more. After a moment of everyone working together to rearrange the bags and make a little space for me and the Peanut Lady, we’re off.
It’s standing room only as I’m near the front of the truck, having a clear view of the road ahead. The first leg of the journey takes us past a few lush fields and open ranches, then we make a few turns and the jungle closes in around us. We’ve recently had some heavy rain, so the trees are thick with leaves; the air smells like wet earth and fresh flowers. My sense of smell is heightened while I’m stoned, which can be good or bad. Right now, it’s glorious.
There are several stops along the way, but the first real city we reach is magical Mazunte. No, seriously, this is one of Mexico’s “Magical Towns;” it’s the closest thing to a tourist trap in the region. It is stupid tourist flypaper. Most folks who don’t know any better stop here and never go any further west. That’s what I’m thinking as I watch the whole camionetta disembark.
Good, less people to mess Zipolite up.
Don’t get me wrong, Mazunte is nice. But that’s the problem. It’s a haven for hipsters, cruise ship passengers from Huatulco, and folks looking for yoga retreats and vegetarian restaurants. There’s some great shopping here, and when I have some extra cash, I stop for clothing, cosmetics and maybe a new pipe. Today, I’m happy to let others enjoy Mazunte while I move on. The last stop in town is by the Turtle Museum; one person embarks to keep me company on the road to Zipolite.
The scruffy gentleman has lived in Mexico for a while (like me). He looks like he’s been here since the 1960s; from the odor it’s possible that he hasn’t bathed since then, either. But he’s holding a fat, oily roach in his hand, which he smokes as he stands on the edge of the bumper. The heavy purple cloud helps mask the perfume of an old-school naturalist. I nod and smile, too overwhelmed with respect to let the smell bother me. It’s because of people like him that Zipolite is what it is.
He offers me a haul, but I can smell the tobacco mix and politely decline, explaining in English, “That’s not how we roll them in Vancouver.” He smiles and laughs, a slight British accent showing through his reply, “Oh, the organic! Good show!”
In the hippy heyday several decades ago, there was virtually nothing connecting the Playa Chica to the outside world. There are tales told about the single dirt road that led to Oaxaca, or the occasional boat that would leave from Puerto Angel or Huatulco, but that was all. The neighborhood of Zipolite stayed isolated longer than others. The dangerous currents that surround the beach make it too awkward to land a boat, so any transportation to Zipo back in the day was extremely limited. Despite that, a few intrepid foreigners who loved the alternative lifestyle managed to find it in the late 1960s. They brought with them cannabis, nudity, general tolerance, and an appreciation for simple living. The legacy endured for others that followed.
The camionetta turns down a gentle curve, and we are just outside of Zipolite. I used to get off at La Crucecita—a bit further down—but I discovered a small back lane that takes me to the main street a lot faster. Old Hippie waves as I hop down. He lives nearby, but today he’s heading to Pochutla to find a bank machine. No idea if the back lane has a real name, but that’s what I call it. Used as a road, the lane occasionally turns into a muddy river bed. It used to fork off to the right, but after a tree fell during a spring storm a few years back, it has been reduced to a rugged path. The tree trunk blocking the way is covered in yellow flowers.
I pass a few hostels, houses and shops. Most people recognize me from previous visits and wave from their front windows. It’s late spring and the tourists that saturated the place a few weeks ago have gone home. The paved road opens up to the street known as Adoquin, and up until three years ago it was the only paved road in town. There’s no shortage of upscale hotels here, but only if you know where to look. The nudist and naturalist community loves Zipolite, and there are more than a few hotels that welcome the lifestyle.
Zipolite is the only nude beach in Mexico; one of the best in the country for scenery. If you’ve seen the filmY Tu Mama Tambien (And Your Mother Too), then you’ve seen the expansive Playa Zipolite. Great for selfies, but not for swimming. The deadly currents that prevent the construction of a boat launch make for ideal afternoon surfing, but are deadly for swimmers. It’s theorized that the people who lived here in ancient times actually used the strong undercurrent to dispose of their dead, or offer them to the gods, leading to the theory that zipolite is an ancient indigenous word that means “The Beach of the Dead.” That also might be why hardly anyone wanted to live here. The immigrants from the north found a virtually untouched beach when they arrived 40 years ago.
To combat the problem, a group of volunteer lifeguards was formed in 1995, cutting the mortality rate in half. Those guys are still here and they’re the backbone of this beach. I’ll be visiting them soon. They’ll save your life in more ways than one.
I’m not staying the night this time around, but I’ll stop by my favorite posada4 and greet the owner.
Turning right at the sign with the whale, I’m on the beach. The little hotel forms a square archway. I walk through it and find my friend lounging in one of many hammocks. As usual, he’s accompanied by a thick bit of pulp fiction and a thermos of iced tea.
“Dave!” extending my hand as I greet him. “Long time no see!” This is a joke; I was here about 10 days ago.
We take a few minutes to get caught up. He plans on heading north again soon. Dave is originally from California, and he loves cannabis just as much as I do. He’s been in Mexico since the 1990s, when the place was still mostly virgin forest; he was the first person I met in Zipolite.The concierge always has a nice, fat joint waiting for me when I arrive if I’m staying the night. This time, it’s just a day trip for lunch and a bag of green goodness. Dave has a special treat today anyway. He digs into the fridge and brings out a plate filled with brownies.
“I know you’re more of a smoker,” he says with a grin of mischief, “but a friend of mine made these, and they’re exceptional.” He wraps two into a paper towel. Dave says the treats are perfect for the bus ride, and I thank him profusely as we walk back to the hammocks. Now it’s time for me to head next door and get down to business.
I’ll call him Jesus, as I consider him to be my personal savior. I’m sure there are others that think of him in the literal sense. If Jesus had a Peso for every distressed swimmer that he’s pulled out of the deadly riptide during his career as a Salvavida5, he could pay for Trump’s border wall all by himself. When he’s not cheating Death, he’s selling weed. I stand by my belief in his divinity.
Of course, Jesus has his chosen Disciples. The dangerous nature of the ocean means there’s a whole team of Salvavidas, and if he’s not here there’s always a kind friend to help you out. Today, it’s fairly quiet; Jesus is here with his apostles, Matteo and Juan. Matteo has a frisbee on his lap and is rolling a joint; that’s the brilliant method of rolling a joint on a breezy shoreline.
Juan and Jesus are discussing surfing, and Juan is motioning towards the Roca Blanca side of the beach, so he doesn’t notice me right away. Matteo sees, greeting me with a frisbee and offering me his seat. It always gives me a secret joy to see these rough surfers in their board shorts and tattoos being such perfect gentlemen. He knows what I need, and since it’s not a busy day on the beach, he can grab it for me while Jesus and Juan keep an eye on the swimmers. I’ll finish the joint while I wait! Gracias amigo!
By now, Jesus and Juan turn and say hello. They call me Maestra, a reference to my career as an English teacher. It’s what originally brought me to Mexico. When I first started coming to Zipolite, I worked at an Oaxacan university about four hours down the road. Juan has decent English and likes to practice every chance he gets. And there are many chances, since the whole world comes to this beach. Jesus speaks some English and French, but he and I usually speak in Spanish.
Life is basically good, but they have concerns. The mafia comes sniffing around once in a while, limiting their ability to sell. Jesus has a good relationship with the local cops, who look the other way for the most part, but there’s always the federal guys—someone is always on the take. The drug trade is big money here, especially in the high season, and the local organized crime is always trying to get a piece. The Salvavidas know I come here; I can buy weed outside of the crime element. Luckily, Zipolite is well protected by a small, close community that’s more like an extended family. They were here before the mafia, the police, or even the road, and the organized crime thugs have some respect for that. There are warnings, some harassment, but no deaths or beatings. Independent dealers in bigger cities are not so lucky. That’s another story.
I finish rolling. The joint is impossibly fat, and I had to bust up the greasy buds with my fingers. Jesus proudly proclaims that he grew this himself on his patio. Totally organic and perfectly flushed, his own secret stash. The thick blue smoke rises from our circle of plastic chairs. It beats the hell out of that skanky overpriced “Oaxaqueña” that I find in Puerto. About halfway through, Matteo returns with a small bag filled with delicious weedy goodness. I roll another joint from the weed from the bag. It’s the same stuff as the frisbee joint, which doesn’t happen often. It’s low season, Jesus explains, so he can break out the good stuff for the regulars.
As if listening to a sound that only he can hear, he stops speaking and turns quickly back towards the shoreline. Juan is already grabbing a flotation device and his whistle is between his teeth. All three bolt out from under the palapa6 without another word. I hear the lifeguard whistle sound as I find a place on the beach to stretch out and get some color sans a pesky tan line. Matteo won’t mind if I keep the frisbee for the time being. I’ll get another joint ready for their return, and start thinking about shrimp cocktails and beer.
This is Zipolite. Bring your gay partner, a bag of weed, the dog, and your bare ass. All are welcome. A true paradise on Earth.
 A form of public transport that ranges from a minivan to a truck with a canopy.
 A cannabis joint mixed with kief or hash.
 A junction of a highway with a city street or main urban road.
 A small hotel with basic amenities.
 A lifeguard. The literal translation is “lifesaver.”
 A roof made with an intricate woven pattern of palm tree fronds.