Don't let Huatulco's Mexican colonial-style architecture fool you—most of it is just a few decades old. The brainchild of Fonatur, Mexico's tourism development agency, this is one of the country's newest Pacific-coast resorts, and it represents a carefully balanced attempt at mixing high-end tourism with environmental preservation. The Mexican government set aside about 60% of the municipality of Huatulco (pronounced wah-TOOL-koh
) as an ecological reserve, and all new construction adheres to strict codes: No buildings taller than six stories and plenty of open space and natural vegetation in between.
The result, so far, is a resort with a very different feel. Visitors are not going to find ancient ruins in Huatulco, but they won't be overwhelmed with glitzy high-rises and rowdy crowds either. What you'll discover in Bahias de Huatulco are nine gorgeous bays and 36 golden-sand beaches covering 22 mi/35 km. Many of these beaches are ringed by coral reefs, underwater grottoes or canyons that attract shoals of fish.
It's not surprising, then, that cruise ships now make Huatulco a regular port of call as part of their sailings along the Mexican Riviera. Myriad watersports as well as adventures to nearby coffee plantations, five different culturally distinct neighborhoods, a vast subtropical forest reserve and mountain streams mean there's something for most visitors to do—in addition to simply relaxing in deluxe seclusion.
Using Cancun as a model for what not
to do when building an ecologically friendly resort, the Mexican government and developers originally designated 80,000 acres/34,000 hectares as an ecological preserve. It's easiest to envision Huatulco as a complex of interconnected traditional villages and recently developed areas. Rather than build a single strip of high-rise hotels along its coast, the government picked several sites, separated by stretches of unspoiled shoreline, to be developed with hotels, restaurants and shopping complexes. So far, four of the area's nine bays have been developed, and three of these are given over to tourism: Santa Cruz Huatulco, the original fishing village and the port where cruise ships dock; Tangolunda, the deluxe-hotel district; Chahue, with just a few hotels, restaurants, bars and cafes (all several blocks from the beach), as well as a beach club, a marina and a day spa; and La Crucecita, the municipality's "downtown," with a Catholic church, market, post office, Internet cafes and other services, in addition to restaurants, bars and budget hotels. The area surrounding the remaining bays are slated to be developed in two distinct phases, but progress has been deliberately slow.
Conejos Bay has some private condos on top of the bluff, and Fonatur is developing plans for two self-financed hotels to kick-start investments there. However, there are still no services for the general public. Santa Maria Huatulco, although not to be confused with Santa Cruz Huatulco, is much like what it used to be, only less developed. Supposedly the rest of the bays are part of a national park reserve and will remain that way with no development, although there is talk locally of further ecofriendly development.
Note: Some businesses in Huatulco are located on unnumbered streets and labeled as "s/n," or sin numero (without number). The addresses are described using the closest intersection.
For much of its history, this stretch of coast 300 mi/480 km southeast of Acapulco was cut off from the interior of Mexico by the steep mountains that rise up behind it. As a result, the original inhabitants—members of several indigenous Indian tribes, including the Zapotecs, Mixtecs and the conquering Aztecs—traded goods by sea, traveling between the bays in small boats. Not much is known about the early days, but the origin of the area's name is a colorful part of its past. Huatulco is derived from a Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs and still spoken in central Mexico) word that means "place where people worship the cross." Legend has it that a white, bearded man brought a cross to Santa Cruz more than 1,000 years before the Spanish conquest. (Some believe he was the apostle Thomas.) The story goes that he converted the Indians to Christianity and then disappeared. When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, they established a trading post there, and for a time, it was more important than Acapulco. But British pirates attacked in the late 1500s, and Thomas Cavendish burned the port. The cross, however, remained undamaged by ax or fire. It has since been replaced and now hangs in a small chapel in the center of Santa Cruz. Numerous purported miracles have since been attributed to the relic.
After Mexican independence, Huatulco was largely ignored. Until the 1980s, only about 1,000 farmers and fisherfolk resided in the small village of Santa Cruz Huatulco. Just about the only visitors were die-hard surfers who wandered over from Puerto Escondido.
Government officials recognized great potential for tourism in Huatulco's nine pristine bays, however. A highway linking the coast to the interior was built in 1984, and water, sewage, electric and phone lines were installed. The influx of construction workers and service employees swelled the local population.
Development has been slower than anticipated because of Mexico's economic woes in the 1980s, environmental concerns and competition from other Pacific resorts. As a result, the initial master plan was revised to include more nature and fewer hotel rooms. The current plan calls for 18,000 hotel rooms and 1.2 million visitors per year by 2020. There are about 2,700 rooms with varying annual occupancy rates averaging out to roughly 50%, making it one of Mexico's most intimate beach resorts.
The government has been careful to preserve the environment as the resort gradually expands, building three of the best waste-processing facilities in Mexico. In 2005, Huatulco was the first resort in the Americas to be certified by the Green Globe group as an environment-friendly tourism community.
Huatulco doesn't offer much in the way of historical landmarks—most of the buildings date back to the mid-1980s. But if you're not in a rush to get to the beach, you could easily spend a few hours exploring the small villages that make up part of the resort area.
Santa Cruz Huatulco is the original fishing village, although it's been completely transformed. You can stroll around the open plaza and visit the Mercado de Artesanias for pottery, silver and leather goods. The marina is the departure point for boat trips to nearby bays and beaches.
About a mile/kilometer inland from Santa Cruz (a brief taxi ride), La Crucecita serves as Huatulco's "downtown." Everything is new, though it looks similar to a Mexican village that's grown up naturally. The town square, Plaza Principal, is a pleasant place to stroll or to people-watch while sitting on a shady bench. Several shops specializing in Oaxacan crafts are nearby, as are restaurants and bars that tend to liven up at night. (Most of the resort employees and construction workers live in La Crucecita or in Santa Maria Huatulco.) There is also a pretty, open-air church on the beachfront that is popular for weddings and baptisms.
The main luxury hotel district, Tangolunda, is 3 mi/5 km east of Santa Cruz.
Although Huatulco's nightlife is intentionally a far cry from the raucous bikini contests of Cancun or Acapulco, you can still enjoy a dance or a beer at the few good bars and discos, many of which stay open until the wee hours of the morning if the place is full of customers. Locals recommend a drink called a michelada—beer served with lime and salt—to nurse a hangover.
Naturally, you'll find seafood and Mexican specialties on every menu, but other cuisines ranging from Italian to Asian are available in Huatulco. Good regional dishes, such as chicken mole (prepared with a sauce combining chocolate and chilies, tortillas, raisins and other ingredients) and tamales, are plentiful, too. Where you end up eating may depend on the activities you choose for the day.
The hotels in Tangolunda generally offer the most upscale and expensive restaurants. Dress, especially for dinner, is more formal at these establishments than in the rest of Huatulco, although jackets are not required and each has casual poolside or beach-club dining as well.
La Crucecita's restaurants (mostly on or around the main plaza) tend to be smaller and less expensive. In Santa Cruz, your choices include dining at one of several casual, mostly seafood restaurants right on the beach or at one of the hotel restaurants. Chahue now has a sprinkling of bars and restaurants as well.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than M$100; $$ = M$100-$200; $$$ = M$201-$500; $$$$ = more than M$500.
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