Bahías de Huatulco, with its surreally gorgeous nine bays, is located in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Its low-key airport with palapa roofs, make it an easy destination for a relaxing vacation, including fishing and surfing.
Historically, Huatulco was once a port under Hernán Cortés’s conquest, then a coffee –growing area, and later, the subject of Fondo Nacional Turismo in the early 1980s for tourism and resort development. The area has since been carefully developed into four main districts: Tangolunda boasts upscale resorts, which we viewed from afar in passing. Beautiful, luxurious beachside resorts such as Secrets and Dreams are pricey, secluded, and all inclusive. The small town of Santa Cruz holds the main marina harboring sailboats, fishing boats, and full-blown yachts. Chahué is the roadside outskirts between Santa Cruz and Tangolunda. La Crucecita, or downtown Huatulco, lies just inland from the beaches and is brimming with local buzz and colorful storefronts.
La Crucecita has a vibrant atmosphere, its streets dotted with cozy, local-style hotels and restaurants, well-kept parks with colorful playgrounds, a lively central plaza (zócalo), music wafting in the air, and sidewalk vendors selling and socializing. For us, it’s a nice home base in-between swells. If you ever find yourself in Huatulco’s La Crucecita, here’s a snapshot of where to eat, stay, and shop based on our own experience.
Azul Sirena (a.k.a. Hotel Flamboyant) is a beautiful three-story, blue and white Mediterranean style hotel in the center of town, next to the church called Parroquia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe and diagonally across the zócalo. All rooms have air-conditioning, cable TV, Wi-Fi that may or may not work, and private bathrooms that include towels, toilet paper, soap, shampoo, and lotion. A nice double room with a king sized bed will run about $40 USD a night. The hotel also has villas and a beautiful pool with a couple of palapas in the back, across its gated parking lot. The main hotel building is open air and built around the square perimeter of a beautiful lawn and fountain. We found our rooms from our two separate stays to be quite clean and comfortable, however, being a lively little town, the noise level in rooms facing the street might be a little much for some. The air conditioning and some earplugs helped me drown out the noise with no problems.
We usually lose weight on surf trips, but not here! We kept going back into town for mole, pastor, smoothies, and palanquetas de cacahuate, which I couldn’t get enough of.
There are so many restaurants and cafes to choose from in La Crucecita and I suggest trying different ones everyday while visiting. When traveling, I always follow my gut instinct- that is, to go to the places packed with locals and have what they’re having (or, the vegetarian version). The restaurants listed below are just a few of our favorites.
El Sabor De Oaxaca features authentic Oaxacan cuisine in a lovely open-air environment just off the sidewalk along one of the main roads in and out of town. It is set back enough to enjoy the décor and ambiance without feeling like you’re dining on the street, but close enough to gaze outside through arched open ways. Although the menu does offers spaghetti and hamburgers, I suggest sticking with traditional Oaxacan dishes. The mole here is extremely tasty, so it’s always a good idea to order anything that could be smothered with it.
Restaurante La Crucecita is a cheery, colorful family owned and operated restaurant just a few streets away from the zócalo. Like many restaurants in the area, it is essentially an open-air establishment, with bright yellow pillars and decorative wrought iron bars nestled on a street corner across from a small park playground. The interior showcases its local décor including traditional tablecloths woven by textile artisans. This became our favorite restaurant, not only for their mole and chicken enmoladas, vegetarian tlayudas, fresh orange juice based smoothies, and sparkling lemonade, but for the friendly service and great conversation. And, for your information, they do have an English menu upon request.
If you’re itching for tacos al pastor, but have a love-hate history with street tacos, Restaurante Flamboyant is a safe bet. It’s located along a row of restaurants across from the zócalo. The pastor is served with shaved pineapple, cilantro, onions, and fresh handmade maize tortillas. The service is consistently friendly and will accommodate vegetarians and vegans with off menu suggestions.
Taquería El Padrino, located behind the Oxxo gas station in the traffic circle nearest the Crucecita entrance, is perhaps one of my new favorite local-style restaurants. Tacos can be made to order, along with many plate options, including carne asada, rice, and fried chicken. The squash and mushroom tacos on fresh, hot tortillas are a real treat for vegetarians, along with their smoothies and fresh squeezed juices. Beer, cocktails, coke, and my favorite, apple soda in a glass bottle, are also on the (wall) menu.
For a hip, local, L.A.ish vibe, visit Frida’s Street Food. The colorful, open-air restaurant with a bright blue food truck for a kitchen is across the street from Chedraui, Huatulco’s Costco-like supermarket, and connected to the Galería del Ángel hotel. The menu has it all, from crispy Cajun shrimp hamburgers to roast beef and manchego tacos, to falafel pitas. There is also a wide variety of cocktails with fresh squeezed fruits. As for me, I loved my veggie tacos and tamarind mojito.
Groceries & Other Necessities
Although there are large supermarkets just outside the Crucecita, near the traffic circles, I preferred walking around the town, getting to know the little shops and meeting many locals. Small, fresh produce stores and grocers can be found along the mini-blocks of the Crucecita. Bananas, peaches, greens, chile peppers, nopales, onions, oranges, and a large variety of other fruits and vegetables are sold. Other vendors offer packages of various nuts, Oaxacan chocolate, cocoa powder, sal de chapulín or gusano, and bags of red, green, and black mole. While wandering around, you’ll also find a panadería, papelaria, a few ferreterías, a dozen mezcalerias, and pretty much anything else you might want.
Mezcal, meaning “oven-cooked agave” in Nahuatl, a language of the Aztec family, is a popular liquor in Oaxaca, and is mostly made there. Mezcal is commonly made from the agave varieties: tobalá, toaziche, tepeztate, arroqueño, and espadín. Similar to tequila, mezcal is made from the harvested core of the agave plant, otherwise known as the pina. However, tequila and mezcal are distilled differently. Tequila is typically produced by steaming agave inside industrial ovens before being distilled in copper pots. Mezcal is first cooked, barbacoa style in earthen pits lined with lava rocks and filled with wood and charcoal. This gives mezcal that smokiness it’s commonly known for. It’s then fermented in barrels or clay pots for a certain amount of time: Joven (0-2 months), reposado (2-12 months), and añejo (at least one year).
Mezcalerias are basically souvenir shops, which include a mezcal, mole, and chocolate tasting bar. Bowls of crispy chapulines (fried grasshoppers snacks) are offered with the tastings along with trays of lime wedges, sal de chapulín (salt with crushed grasshoppers), and sal de gusano (salt with crushed worms).
Long before the Spanish arrived, the Zapotec people of southern Mexico were already cultivating cotton, spinning the fibers, dying the threads using plants and insects, and weaving intricate geometric patterns and figures into rugs, clothing, blankets, and other cloths.
Colorful woven cotton goods such as clothing, blankets, table cloths, etc. are sold in many shops. However, there is a small textile factory just a few blocks from the zócalo called Telares Oaxaqueños where you can watch cloth being woven on large wooden looms with pedals. In the front corner of the shop, women sit at a large table stitching detailed borders and prints by hand.
Some of my favorite Oaxacan handcrafts are the alebrijes. These intricately painted whimsical wood carvings originated in the imagination of an artist from Mexico City in the 1930s. Pedro Linares López, at 30-years-old, was deathly ill and had feverish dreams about mythical animal and human-like creatures. He had been a piñata maker like his father before him, but after these dreams, he began creating colorful papier-mâché versions of what he had imagined. Pedro Linares went on to work with famous artists such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
In the 1940s, Manuel Jimenez from Arrazola, a small village near Oaxaca City, adopted Pedro Linares’s style in the form of hand carved and painted figurines made of wood rather than paper. Jimenez’s unique talent and imagination got him noticed internationally and his carvings soon became appreciated and popular as Oaxacan folk style art.
Wooden Oaxacan Alebrijes can be found in just about every gift shop, and depending on the size and its intricate details, vary in price. A tiny lizard may cost around $12 U.S.D. where an animal the size of your fist or larger can range from fifty to hundreds of dollars.
Moles and Chocolates
Many small shops on the side streets sell various bags of moles in different sizes. The popular types are red (rojo), black (negro), green (verde) mole, and my favorite, coloradito. Spicy red mole contains chocolate and plenty of dried chiles such as pasilla, guajillo, and ancho as well as raisins and almonds. Black mole is sweet and savory with lots of dark, bitter chocolate, and spices like cloves, cumin, cinnamon, hoja santo, and black pepper. Green mole has a spicy vegetable-like flavor with its tomatillos, pumpkin seeds, jalapenos and cilantro. Somewhere between rojo and negro in color, brown Coloradito mole shares the base ingredients of whole spices, onions, garlic, seeds and chocolate and features an awesome secret ingredient for thickening and sweetening: mashed ripe plantain.
Rich Oaxacan chocolate can be found in bar, cylinder, and powder forms. Using dark, bitter chocolate made from roasted cacao beans grown in southern Mexico, manufacturers add sugar, cinnamon, pulverized almonds, and sometimes vanilla, coffee, and chili powder. This chocolate is perfect for melting in milk to be enjoyed as hot cocoa, and for making mole and desserts.
Just across the street from the restaurant, Sabor de Oaxaca, is the large indoor La Crucecita Market. Here, shoppers can peruse up and down aisles of vendors selling local style handicrafts and foods. Most items are pretty inexpensive or reasonably priced and you’ll find just about every touristy souvenir from beaded necklaces and magnets to fine collections of textiles and mezcal.
The Oaxacan handicrafts museum, Museo De Artesanias Oaxaqueñas, just one block over from La Crucecita Market, is a live space for local Zapotec style artisans to exhibit and sell their art. You will find beautiful clay pieces, elaborate alebrijes, intricately woven wool rugs, and traditional wear. There is also a weaving loom and a mezcal tasting bar. Everything is pretty pricey, but it is worth taking a look at the gallery. They also offer tours that provide information and demonstrations on the art of weaving and textile making.
Reminiscing and writing about Huatulco definitely makes my heart ache. For me, this area is another wonderful extension of home- thanks to new friends who feel like family. I miss every moment I am not there.