Mexico’s countercultural coast: Costa Chica

Stepping off the plane in Puerto Escondido, on the Pacific Coast of Oaxaca, I gulped the thick, tropical air. After three days in Mexico’s high-elevation capital, inhaling the vital, pungent smell of sea and damp vegetation felt like a resuscitation.

I hired an “authorized” taxi and drove northwest from the airport, passing papaya farms and low hills strewn with boulders. The landscape was bright green and pale yellow with pops of fuchsia bougainvillea and flame-hued lantana — a planter box ornamental at my home in California that here grows to the size of an apple tree.

There were delays: a young man on horseback wrangling a white steer and a crew of road workers with machetes waging an endless war against the encroaching jungle. Finally, we turned off the highway and onto a narrow dirt lane lined with branch-and-barbed-wire fence and tall grass that lashed the windows, as if we’d entered a dusty carwash. With each oncoming vehicle, the taxista played the world’s slowest game of chicken.

My plan was to spend the next five days hopping from one beach enclave to the next along the Costa Chica, which stretches from the neighboring state of Guerrero to roughly the middle of the Oaxacan coastline. My family has been visiting the “Small Coast,” which is famous for its wild surf, since before I was born. I’ve often wondered if the murderous waves that initially drew my dad and uncles — but make the water much too treacherous for casual beachgoing — are what has saved the area from the Cancún-esque overdevelopment that’s been the fate of many of Mexico’s most beautiful coastal places.

Instead, the Costa Chica has developed slowly and organically over decades. Its economy, long based on subsistence farming and fishing, now includes a modest tourism industry. The area is relatively hard to get to (there are no direct international flights), but that — like all the area’s peculiarities — ends up being a strength rather than a weakness. The outsiders who end up on this stretch of Pacific coastline are here for a reason. Beyond its bohemian surf towns, the coast’s evolving culture includes world-class art and architecture at Casa Wabi, a sleek, modernist artist’s retreat and exhibition venue designed by Pritzker award-winning architect Tadao Ando, among others; a small but notable gay community in the town of Zipolite; and the New Agers and yogis at Mazunte.

Settling in at Casa Tiny

By the time we were passing Casa Wabi, which was founded by Bosco Sodi, one of Mexico’s most celebrated contemporary artists, I was painfully hungry. Between Wabi and Hotel Escondido, the glamorous $325-a-night boutique hotel next door, I’d assumed there’d be somewhere, anywhere, to eat nearby. A palapa-style beachfront seafood shack, a simple tienda — something. It seemed I was wrong.

The road dead-ended in sand and the driver pointed to a wooden gate built into a wall of dry tropical forest. There, but out of sight, was my lodging for the night, a diminutive cabin I had been daydreaming about since the year before, when I’d profiled its Mexico City-based architect, Aranza de Ariño. It was Ariño’s first major project (she was a recent graduate at the time); photographs of the simple structure, which is listed on Airbnb, had stayed with me.

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