Life Travel

Rugged and real: Huatulco an authentic slice of Mexico

Robin Robinson.

By Robin Robinson, Toronto Sun

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Even without a "blizzaster" scale storm, winter is a long cold affair in this country.

So it's hardly surprising that sunny Mexico draws more Canadians every year.

The established resorts of Cancun and the Mayan Riviera are extremely popular, but Canadians looking for a more "authentic" Mexican experience are increasingly looking to Huatulco (pronounced wha-tul-ko) in the somewhat sleepy but slightly tongue-twisting Oaxaca state (wah-hack-a).

During a recent first trip there with Transat Holidays, most of the people I meet are from western, central and eastern Canada. Many are repeat visitors who say that while they love the hot sunny climate -- of course -- other factors keep them coming back.

Specifically they love the rugged setting between the blue Pacific and the treed foothills of the Sierra Madre. The jagged unspoiled cliff-lined coast stretches 35 km and is punctuated by nine sheltered bahias -- or bays -- fringed by 36 sandy beaches. They love that they can safely venture off resort -- either on tours or on their own -- to explore funky nearby towns such as La Crucecita and Santa Cruz, colourful markets, the Copalita archeological and eco-park, or sample local cuisine. But most of all they love the laid-back and friendly local people.

A sentiment, it seems, that flows both ways.

"We love Canadians," says our guide Jose Huerta Jaimes -- known to all as "Pepe Jr."

The reason? Most Canadians are friendly and laid-back, too, Pepe Jr. says, and our enthusiasm for Huatulco is boosting a fragile economy based historically on agriculture but increasingly tourism.

California-born and raised, Pepe Jr. left the United States nine years ago to break free of what he calls a "cubicle life" -- stuck in an office for long hours, never seeing the sky. After backpacking for two years, he migrated to Oaxaca -- his parents' homeland -- where he met and married a young school teacher, and settled down.

"I wanted to live a different life," he says.

While people work very hard to make a living in the under-developed region, which he calls the "forgotten child of Mexico," there are lifestyle compensations to being immersed in nature.

Of course, the ocean and the beaches are a huge part of Huatulco's draw, and those 36 beaches are great places to swim, kayak, surf, snorkel, scuba and fish. But in between worshipping sun, sand and sea, all who venture to Huatulco shouldn't miss out on a few essential experiences:

SALUD TO MEZCAL!

Recently, I've read articles trumpeting mezcal as the "new tequila."

In fact, tequila is a type of mezcal made only from Blue Agave and only in certain areas, many near the city of Tequila. Oaxaca, on the other hand, is the centre of the mezcal universe and produces hundreds of varieties, which are distilled from other types of agave, infused with smoke and aged in barrels.

In Oaxaca a local saying declares: "For everything bad, mezcal. For everything good, mezcal."

So it's easy to understand why there are many places in Huatulco to taste and buy the smooth smoky liquor, which is sometimes flavoured with fruits, honey or herbs. Flavoured creamy mezcals such as pina colada, banana or walnut are also made, but during a tasting in La Crucecita, Pepe Jr. confides that these are "primarily for ladies."

A CUP OF LOCAL JAVA

We join guide Alex Aponte for a trip to a coffee-roastery in Pluma Hidalgo, a mountain-top village at the heart of Oaxaca's coffee-producing area.

This is a trip best done with a local guide familiar with the winding mountain roads, which provide stunning views but have hairpin turns, steep drop offs -- sometimes on both sides of the narrow strip of pavement -- and are also prone to small landslides.

En route, we stop at the fascinating Garden of Medicinal Plants, and Santa Maria Huatulco, a 16th-century town with cobblestone streets and an ancient church.

As we climb to higher elevations, Alex stops the van to point out coffee trees growing on the shady hillsides flanking the road and explains how, because of the steep terrain, planting and harvesting are still done by hand.

In Pluma, the aroma of coffee greets us at a small roastery, where Antonio Franco tells us a bit about his family's coffee plantation. He describes how the beans are planted, harvested and dried, then roasted, ground and brewed.

The coffee he brews for us is smooth with hints of caramel. We drink it black, and buy some to take home. Antonio scoops the cooled beans right from the roaster and vacuum packs them for transit.

MIX IT UP WITH CHOCOLATE

Oaxaca is famous for chocolate, which is sold in many Huatulco shops. (Oaxaca City, the state capital, even has a "Chocolate Street.") The main ways locals consume chocolate is in the thick Black mole sauce, and as an after-dinner treat -- hot chocolate prepared with water and spices, and paired with a slightly sweet eggy bread for dunking.

TASTES OF HUATULCO

One of Mexico's most biologically diverse areas, a bounty of produce -- tomatoes, squash, beans, chili, corn, tropical fruits, cocoa, vanilla, medicinal herbs and much more -- grows in Oaxaca, so be sure to sample a few things, including:

-- Only Oaxacan cooks make seven different kinds of the dense flavourful sauce called mole. Prepared with up to 30 ingredients, including different types of chilis and chocolate, mole is served with many foods.

-- Tortillas: Vastly different than the flat dry discs sold at home, most restaurants and resorts make tortillas fresh each day. These are moist and light and taste like corn!

-- I become hooked on hearty Mexican breakfasts such as huevos rancheros (fried eggs on corn tortillas topped with tomato-chili sauce) and chilaquiles (tortilla strips in a warm sauce -- red or green, mild or spicy -- topped with the mozzarella-like Oaxacan cheese). Breakfast platters often come with sides of black beans and slices of avocado.

-- Nopal, slices of prickly pear cactus grilled and served as a tortilla filling or side-dish.

-- Chapulines -- I must confess to not embracing this snack but my travelling companions -- who are more adventurous than me -- report that the crunchy grasshoppers, toasted with garlic, lime juice and salt, are quite good.

Maybe next time.

SURF CITY

Surf towns have a vibe of their own, and so it is in Puerto Escondido, a funky little spot that caters to surfer-dudes, backpackers and Mexican families.

The wide, 4-km-long Playa Zicatela hosts major international surf competitions when enormous waves -- up to 16 metres high and nicknamed the Mexican Pipeline -- roll in at certain times of the year.

Zicatela is for experienced surfers only. But there are many other beaches nearby that are safe for beginners and swimmers, including Playa Marinero a short walk away and Playa Carrizalillo, a beautiful spot reachable only on foot or by boat.

The main drag across from Zicatela is chock-a-block with cafes, bars, restaurants, craft and surf shops. Prices are reasonable. At Cafecito, two large iced cafe mochas, a fruit smoothie and pastries, runs about $10. Lunch with Micheladas (a mix of beer, spices, Clamato and lime juice) at a spot in town comes to about $20 -- for five people!

Puerto Escondido is the type of place I love but may never have discovered had it not been for Transat Holidays' Experience Collection Escapades. This add on option allows travellers to change up a beach vacation by spending the first few nights at an all-inclusive resort, then heading out for an excursion with overnight stay at a local hotel before returning to their room at the original resort the next day.

Our escapade brings us to Puerto Escondido's Sante Fe hotel, a 77-room property with lush gardens, four pools and a nice vibe. Its terrace and restaurant look out onto Zicatela across the street.

Note that Escapades must be booked when making your original reservation.

ALL-INCLUSIVE PACKAGES

-- Transat Holidays has all-inclusive packages -- including hotel, flights from many cities across Canada, ground transfers and more -- for several resorts in Huatulco. Prices vary depending on resort, room type and travel dates selected. See transatholidays.com or your travel agent for more information and reservations.

-- During our stay, we checked out two resorts:

LAST BRISAS HUATULCO

Set on 20 lush and hilly hectares, this former Club Med is now a value-priced family resort with four beaches -- including one with kayaks and stand-up paddle-boards and another where you can gear up and snorkel around a small reef -- four pools, 12 tennis courts, a fitness centre, seven restaurants, two bars, a disco, live music, and daily activities. Its 454 rooms are spacious and clean. A shuttle runs throughout the property. WiFi is available in the lobby.

SECRETS HUATULCO RESORT & SPA

Chic, lux and adults only, Secrets has 399 junior and one-bedroom suites, including some swim-out suites and some with Jacuzzis. The beachfront property has two enormous infinity pools, nine restaurants, seven bars, live shows, tennis courts, elevators, a fitness centre, and a beautiful hilltop spa with a hydrotherapy pool, sauna, steam bath and salon. WiFi is available in rooms and the lobby. Secrets is part of AMResorts, a chain that includes the Dreams family resorts. Guests of Secrets can dine and take in the evening entertainment at the nearby Dreams Huatulco.

EXCURSIONS

Day tours led by Xpert & Professional Travel's knowledgeable guides can be booked at Transat Holidays' excursion desk at the resorts. Waterfall, rafting, and snorkelling tours are popular. Other tours take visitors to see wildlife -- seabirds, eagles, vultures, anhingas, egrets, pelicans, iguanas, turtles, crocodiles and more -- or visit nearby towns, markets and ruins.


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