“You’re going to like it here in Zipolite,” Daniel Weiner, the owner of Brisa Marina hotel, said with a wry smile as he handed me the keys to my quarters. “You’re not going to want to leave in five days.”
A few lazy days later, I began to realize why so many guests rent their rooms by the month. Whether it’s the laid-back vibe or the tranquil setting, Zipolite has a way of making people stay longer than expected.
A sleepy town with one main street and no ATMs, Zipolite (pronounced ZEE-poe-LEE-tay) is one of many tiny coastal pueblos that dot the Pacific shores in Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca. Stretching from Puerto Escondido to Huatulco, the region is sometimes called the Oaxaca Riviera.
The hippie crowd discovered Zipolite in the 1960s, and since then it has slowly evolved into an offbeat tourist spot popular with a certain type of visitor. Its pristine beach stretches 1.2 miles between two high cliffs at either end, and the crowd is fairly evenly split between middle-class Mexicans and freewheeling liberals from across the globe. Old hippies, young adventure-seekers and locals all mingle with a flower-child type of harmony.
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It feels light years away from the areas of Mexico that tourists now avoid due to drug violence. Not only has the U.S. State Department spared Oaxaca from its travel warnings about Mexico, but Zipolite in particular seems lost in time, a place where visitors think nothing of leaving their belongings unattended on the beach and backpackers sleep in hammocks strung along the coast.
Zipolite also has a few claims to fame. The climactic beach scenes in the Mexican blockbuster movie “Y Tu Mama Tambien” were filmed here. And it’s gained notoriety as one of Mexico’s few nude beaches, although the majority of sunbathers remain clothed. (Farther east, past an outcropping of rocks, is the cove known as “Playa de Amor” where nudity is more openly practiced.)
Mike Bolli, a retiree from Vancouver, B.C., says he has been visiting the area for the last 10 years without “accident, issue or injury.”
“I have only ever met the nicest and friendliest eclectic mix of locals and visitors — it’s a great throwback to the ’60s,” Bolli said. “So it’s all good and safe, from my viewpoint.”
Zipolite has no high-rise hotels. Many of the beachfront structures are thatched-roof palapas, umbrella-shaped huts with no walls. Brisa Marina itself started off as a wooden structure with a palm roof, but after a major fire in 2001 that destroyed 23 buildings, Weiner rebuilt it with concrete.
Visitors expecting a party-all-night, Cancun-like atmosphere with fishbowl-sized margaritas and waitresses in bikinis passing out shots of tequila will be disappointed. There is a night life here, but it’s nothing like that. Instead, folks gather on the beach in an end-of-day ritual to watch the brilliant sunsets. Many restaurants and bars offer live music and entertainment. And the only paved road in town turns into a carnivallike scene at night, with artists and jewelry makers selling their wares while musicians, jugglers and fire dancers perform for tips in the street.
Adding to the groovy ambience is Shambhala, a spiritual retreat perched high on a hill in a bucolic setting. Tourists are welcome to hike up the resort’s stair pathway where a meditation point sits atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific. Shambhala advertises the “Loma de Meditacion” as a sacred location where visitors may experience a higher consciousness and oneness with nature. The center rents rustic cabins and hosts visiting artists and healers.
The name Zipolite is said to derive from indigenous languages. Some sources say it means “bumpy place,” a reference to the local hills, and other sources translate it as “beach of the dead,” a reference to strong ocean currents. The beach has volunteer lifeguards, and areas with dangerous currents are marked with red flags.
Weiner, who has a deep tan, a working uniform of board shorts and flip-flops, and a crusty, carefree sense of humor, splits his time between California and Zipolite. He’s owned his hotel since 1997 and estimates that 50 percent of his guests are repeat customers.
And sometimes they have a hard time leaving. As Weiner predicted, after a few days in Zipolite, I called the airline to change my flight. I had to stay another week.