Palm trees sway in a gentle ocean breeze. Surfers bob up and down in the water, waiting to catch the perfect wave. Pristine, white-sand beaches stretch on for miles and gorgeous sunsets fall behind rocky outcroppings.
Sound like paradise? It is, and it’s just a short flight away from the large international airport in Mexico City. Skip the haul out to Cancún and visit one of the most spectacular surf spots in North America: Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Known as the Mexican Pipeline, Puerto Escondido built its reputation around the barreling waves that come crashing into the shoreline. This worldwide surfing destination has grown into an incredible vacation spot. Picturesque beaches ideal for sunrise jogging, mid-day margaritas, or sunset strolls. Numerous hotels, restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops line the streets. Puerto Escondido has it all.
Getting to Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca, Mexico
For time-strapped travelers, flying into Puerto Escondido is a breeze. Coming from international destinations, you’ll likely stop in Mexico City and then take a 1 hour 20 minute flight directly to Puerto Escondido. If you can, we highly recommend checking out Oaxaca de Juarez (aka Oaxaca City) while visiting this wonderful part of Mexico. In that case, you can take a 25-minute flight for about $150 USD from Oaxaca City to Puerto Escondido.
For us, the beach was calling our name after being landlocked in Colorado for way too long, then followed it up with a month in Oaxaca City. We loved exploring the ruins, getting lost in the markets, and sipping on world-class mezcal. But the time for the beach had come. The flight would be quick and renting a car was tempting to see the sights on the way down, but both were pushing our budget a little too far.
One of the most popular options is to take an overnight bus via ADO (Spanish-only website which does not accept American credit cards online). It takes 10-11 hours and costs around $300-$400 pesos ($15-$20 USD). But we found an alternative public transit option that seemed ideal. A passenger van that only costs around $200 pesos per person and gets you there in 6-7 hours. The reviews mentioned one downside: motion sickness. Since neither of us had a problem with twisting roads, boats in rough waters, or nausea in general, we figured it won’t be an issue. Oh boy were we wrong.
Shortly into the ride, we found out that those words of caution were spot-on. These vans truck down the steep and curvy mountain roads at breakneck speed. Tires screeching and bags flying. Jarring potholes and topes (speed-bumps) around every corner. All with a driver that is hellbent on making good time.
After 4 hours of near silence in the van filled to the brim with 17 passengers, someone finally had the cork come loose. At first, I felt a speck of liquid on my arm. Strange, I thought. Then turned around to see the six-year-old boy seated directly behind us vomiting all over the area between our seats. Good times.
His mother quickly put a bag under his mouth and handed us a rag. Kristina kindly wiped it off of my back and out of my hair. Thankfully I had no energy to spend thinking about how disgusting it was. My number one priority was the same as it had been for hours: keeping my own lunch deep in my stomach.
Lesson learned. If you’re coming from Oaxaca City and don’t want to splurge on the plane ride, take the overnight first-class bus instead of the daytime passenger van. It takes a bit longer and it just slightly more expensive, but you’ll have a much better chance at everyone arriving without incident.
Where to Stay in Puerto Escondido: The Right Side of the Road
Let’s just say that this part of our journey was full of lessons. And our first choice in accommodations led to our second lesson. I promise you’ll love Puerto Escondido, but please listen to this advice before figuring out where to stay!
Everyone knows the three laws of real estate: location, location, location. But what if you find a rental that has a hammock on a beautiful rooftop patio with an ocean view? Surely the fact that it’s across the road, just two blocks away from where we really want to stay won’t matter, right?
Wrong. Life in Puerto Escondido is vastly different on each side of the main north/south highway (Highway 200, aka Carr. Costera). On the beach side, there are plenty of great vacation destinations. But on the inland side, we found that the standards of living just don’t match what’s needed for a comfortable getaway.
Hearing the young children next door spout out more swear words than I had in my Spanish vocabulary was a first clue. The second was the stifling heat in the bedroom with nearly no ventilation. But the third and final straw was the infestation of mosquitoes that caused me to swell up with more bug bites than I ever thought possible (caused by a complete lack of pest control and plentiful standing water in the neighborhood).
After three stressful nights, we cancelled the rest of our reservation and moved into a lovely hotel on the main tourist strip: Hotel Buena Vista on Playa Zicatela.
The Mexican Pipeline: Playa Zicatela
This amazing beach stretches over 2 miles along the coastline in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico. In the heart of it lies a half-mile long area where the best waves, restaurants, hotels, bars, and entertainment are at. This is THE spot to be, especially if you want to be out and about after nightfall.
In the morning, the ocean is full of highly-skilled surfers, even pros, catching picture-perfect waves. During peak season, the beach-break waves reach over 10 feet (3 m) high and crash down so hard the earth shakes under your feet. Mother Nature’s power is evident. And beautiful. Swimming in this area is essentially prohibited due to the incredibly strong riptides and massive waves. You can go out up to your knees, but any deeper and lifeguards will be all over you.
The northern side of Zicatela beach, toward Bahia Principal, has water suitable for swimming and is a great place for a dip or some amateur bodyboarding. It’s not as amazing as swimming in our favorite cenote on the Yucatan peninsula, but it’s still great Pacific-Ocean water. In the morning, you can come to Bahia Principal to watch the local fisherman haul the day’s catch up to the markets.
Sunset was our favorite time to be on Zicatela in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico. We spent many late afternoons strolling around until we found a spot on the pristine beach. Sometimes we would grab a table at one of the beach-front restaurants. Then watch in awe as the sun disappeared past the lighthouse.
We ended up staying nearly an extra week in Hotel Buena Vista in a room with air conditioning and a patio overlooking the ocean. It cost $600 pesos ($30 USD) per night and was worth every penny. This was essentially a mid-range option in this area; other hotels ranged from $400 to $1,000 pesos ($20 to $50 USD).
Best Places to Eat in Zicatela
As the heat rises during midday, people flock into the shady restaurants. Hang out, relax with a cold drink, and grab some great tacos, quesadillas, burritos, pizza, hamburgers, or whatever else your heart desires.
El Cafecito is the town-favorite restaurant with Mexican cuisine.
La Flor De Zicatela has large burritos and great smoothies, while Spirulina offers a lot of vegetarian and health-food options. Some decent pizza places are throughout the strip.
Prices at Zicatela are a little more expensive than other parts of town, especially beachfront, but many offer happy hour deals and other specials that can make the premium worthwhile. Sativa was one of our beach-front favorites: it has an intimate terrance and couch-like seating options on the sand. Plus 2-for-1 happy hour from 4-7 pm. Inside of Hotel Arcoiris you’ll find La Galeria, which offers a happy hour drink specials, live music, and great views.
For the cheapest bite in town that still packs flavor, go to Mama Malu – located in the alley next to the Oxxo. It closes for a bit in the afternoon and you might think it’s nothing more than a stack of old chairs if you drop by during this time. It’s open for breakfast and dinner, where you can bring your own beer and enjoy dirt-cheap $15 peso ($0.75 USD) tostadas and tacos. If you want to get a cheap michelada for the beach, check out the little unnamed place next to Hotel Yurimar. It’s a bit farther away, but for 60 pesos you can pick up two liter-sized micheladas and stroll down to the beach.
If the main tourist strip sounds more like a drag to you, then I suggest heading to one of two options: Playa Carrizalillo or La Punta.
Learn How to Surf at Playa Carrizalillo
Slightly farther north you’ll find Playa Carrizalillo (car-ee-za-lee-yo) and Playa Bacocho. This is a more residential area with fewer restaurant and bar options, but lots of large Airbnb and VRBO rentals. Perfect place for families or large groups looking to escape it all and don’t have much interest in the nightlife of Zicatela.
Even if you don’t stay nearby, beginner surfing at Playa Carrizalillo is worth venturing out to. After climbing down the long staircase, you’ll find a nice cove with calm waves, leisurely swimming, and a few small restaurants. Surf schools and rental boards are right on the beach. Boards cost around $200-$300 pesos for an hour or $500 for the day; group lessons were around $800-$1,000 pesos for an hour and a half.
Playa Bacocho is another lengthy beach, like Playa Zicatela, but its waves break further out. This is usually a more suitable place for swimming. The restaurant and entertainment options here are limited, however, so you might want to consider bringing a cooler.
Puerto Escondido Away From Tourists: La Punta
Another option is to head south from Zicatela to La Punta. This area has more hostels than hotels. Filled with young backpackers, the free-spirit, yogi vibe is in full swing. Waves here are suitable for beginner or intermediate surfing (rentals onsite), and swimming is better than Zicatela since riptides are much weaker. You’ll also find a handful of small restaurants and bars in La Punta, which is still located within Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico.
The area between Zicatela and La Punta has a few small hotels, vacation homes, and some rather undeveloped areas. You can save a buck by staying here, but getting around without a rental car may be a bit of a challenge. And a little risky at night. I recommend using the extra budget on more central accommodations at Zicatela and saving yourself the transportation headache.
Overall, the most action is going on at Zicatela. It is the liveliest area with the best waves, longest beach, solid nightlife, countless restaurants, and numerous hotels. Check out the small cove at Playa Carrizalillo for beginner surf lessons, and head to La Punta for a chill time with independent backpackers.
Other Tips for Puerto Escondido
One street that’s just outside of Zicatela completely transforms at night. The road is closed down to cars at 5 pm. Vendors, restaurants, and entertainers flock to the streets for a lively nighttime ritual. This is called the Adoquin, located on Av. Alfonso Pérez Gasga, just inland from Bahia Principal. Music is bumping, lovely souvenirs are everywhere, and smiles are plastered all over the place.
A trip to Puerto Escondido wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Laguna Manialtepec. This lagoon is full of bioluminescent plankton. You can swim in the glowing water at night and wake up early for a picturesque bird-watching tour with hundreds of species in the area. If you’re interested in the bioluminescence, try to time your trip so the moonlight is at a minimum.
There are plenty of other tour options in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico: fishing tours, sea turtle hatching, even some scuba diving.
The state of Oaxaca is a magical place. We absolutely loved Oaxaca City and the fun day trips in the area (such as our favorite, Hierve el Agua), but Puerto Escondido is an incredible beach destination. Zicatela is full of life and is the place to be; the Adoquin is a great strip to enjoy a nightly street festival; Playa Carrizalillo is nice cove for beginner surf lessons; and La Punta is perfect for chilling out and practicing yoga. Whatever your desire, you won’t regret a vacation to Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca, Mexico.
What sounds better to you: a sunset stroll along the beach or a morning watching professional surfers ride some of the best waves in the world? Leave us a comment to let us know!