Puerto Escondido fights for responsible expansion

Meagan Drillinger

The surf mecca, Puerto Escondido, has long been a beachy haven for Mexican national tourists as well as surfers chasing the most perfect waves in Mexico. This Oaxacan beach enclave, with a population of roughly 30,000 people, has some of the most perfect real estate in the country and, shockingly, has managed to retain its sleepy, slow-paced vibe even as other beach resorts around it have grown exponentially.

But change is coming. And while growth is inevitable, the residents of Puerto Escondido are trying to maintain the destination’s integrity and laid-back mentality. Without naming names, Puerto Escondido is trying to avoid becoming other destinations in Mexico that grew too fast for their own good.

“If you were to sit here and tell me that [certain beach towns in Mexico] were going to turn into what they turned into, I would never in my wildest dreams think I’d be saying, ‘How did you destroy it?'” said Heriberto Sanchez, co-owner of The Puerto Experience, a tour operator in Puerto Escondido.

Keeping the spirit of Puerto Escondido, or Puerto as the locals call it, alive is one of the key concerns when it comes to expansion and development of this beloved jewel on the Oaxaca coast.

It’s understandable why developers have taken keen interest in Puerto Escondido. It is breathtakingly beautiful. I first arrived on a backpacking trip across Mexico. The plan was to keep going north, but after I got to Puerto, I decided to stay. From then on, I would visit every winter for a minimum of a month.

I’d stay in the same budget surfer lodge for $20 a night, which included a small kitchen and a private bathroom. Hot water bumped the nightly price to $23 per night. The hotel had a pool, a restaurant and a laundry room. It was a short walk to the beach down a dusty dirt hill. Along the way, I’d pass the tienda where we’d run to for our jugs of water (or a last-minute tequila purchase). For me, Puerto Escondido was heaven.

Going through changes

It’s still paradise, but it’s changing. It started when Grupo Habita opened Hotel Escondido in 2019. Grupo Habita is known for its chic, design-forward hotels in cities like Mexico City, La Paz, and Guadalajara. The aesthetic is boho chic and appeals to travelers who appreciate a low-key vibe but are big on luxe amenities and an Instagrammable aesthetic. For a place like Puerto, the idea of private plunge pools and a higher price tag was foreign, but it definitely helped shine a spotlight on Puerto for well-heeled travelers.

The 14-key Hotel Terrestre is the second Grupo Habitas venture in Puerto Escondido. The Brutalist-style architecture is different from the overall aesthetic of traditional Puerto. The design gives off Four Seasons Tamarindo vibes. It stands out, yet somehow blends in. And, again, for Puerto Escondido, it is certainly a departure from its traditional aesthetic. In 2024, ON Resorts & Residences will open its luxe resort on the beaches of Puerto Escondido. It will include a collection of villas with private pools, a sushi omakase restaurant and 24-hour concierge service.

Change is inevitable, but the residents of Puerto Escondido are hopeful that with these changes, people will adapt to the way of life in Puerto, rather than try to speed things up or overdevelop the land.

“We have a mixture and a variety of people coming to visit. That’s a good thing. The beauty of Puerto is that it has such good energy. The good energy brings people to Puerto and has them stay and want to invest because it’s an old part of the earth,” said Sanchez. “They get there, and they see Puerto is a lifestyle. It’s not their lifestyle back home. It’s completely different. The locals live a completely mellow, slow-driven lifestyle, and you can’t develop [at the same pace as other destinations].”

Responsible expansion

It’s not that locals of Puerto are against expansion and development. It’s part of tourism, it creates jobs, and no one wants to be “left behind.” But residents of Puerto are committed to responsible expansion.

Its construction laws include a Law of Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection. It’s the entity that governs instruments and provisions to organize ecology, impact and environmental risk assessments; rational use of natural resources; ecological prevention and restoration; and safety measures, control and sanctions. 

“There is a law in places where everything [developed has to be] maximum of two stories and a palapa to preserve the beach,” said Sanchez. This is because anything higher than that along the coast will block necessary wind from the mountains that help to create the perfect waves as well as push sand back into the ocean.

Saving a way of life

A prime example of this pushback is the Salvemos Colorada movement as well as the development of Playa Zicatela, the main beach in Puerto. Punta Colorada is one of the most beloved surf spots in Puerto Escondido. It is also home to more than 12 bird species and is an important part of the area’s biodiversity. But the government had decided to create a commercial fishing marina. The community banded together and fought the development in hopes that the government would name the area a natural reserve. While it has yet to receive the designation, the construction has been halted.

Similarly, residents of Brisas de Zicatela, a beachfront neighborhood, frequently take to the streets to protest the overlooking of construction laws. Construction has been halted on the top level of a building on the corner of Alejandro Cardenas and Brisas de Zicatela avenues. All construction was stopped on a beachfront building on Calle Queretaro as well. 

“The law is starting to get overlooked by city officials and municipalities so that they can get investors into the city. But the locals are pushing back and saying, ‘Hey, come to Puerto, but follow the local law,'” Sanchez said.

Airport and highway projects

Still, development does continue, and tourists are coming in record numbers — so many that the airport in Puerto Escondido is expanding. If you’ve ever been, you know that the airport is little more than a room on the runway. But plans for 2024 will surely see that change. 

The new passenger building is expected to be 83,000 square feet and will include a passenger terminal, parking lot, modernization of buildings and rehabilitation of existing areas. Similarly, a highway project to connect Puerto Escondido and the city of Oaxaca is also underway, though it has been for several years and the finish date is still unknown.

Still, the hope is that the way of life in Puerto will continue.

“You get all these people from developed countries who want their lives [to continue] in Puerto, but they can’t because the infrastructure is not there. Most Oaxaquenos sleep on the floor. But you have all the new products coming in and changing everything for the worse, only because people live so simply in Puerto. Whatever gets them by, they are happy with. The locals don’t live [with a ton of stuff]. All of this development, these big apartment buildings or big homes, is not the way we live here,” he said.

There is a way to do it right, but it’s about striking the balance so that Puerto Escondido does not go the way of other beach destinations in Mexico.

“People want to make money off the expats, and the expats want to make money off the people. If you have two people that need the other, everyone is going to be supportive of a better living wage,” Sanchez said. “But when a family who has lived in Puerto forever has their rent go up to $7,000 pesos when it used to be $2,000 pesos is gentrification at its finest. It is going to ruin the simplicity and will slowly change the culture of the place.”

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