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Well-Planned Huatulco

by Susan Campbell

Pristine, primal attractions coupled with world class creature comforts prove that nature and luxury can coexist in harmony. 

I am always up for new adventures, so I was delighted to explore Huatulco even though I had no idea where it was, nor even how to pronounce it properly. (It’s pronounced “wah-tool-co” and it’s on the Pacific Ocean below the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountain range located in the Mexican state of Oaxaca-pronounced “wah-ha-ka”.) But as we began our descent into what looked like the land that time forgot, I wondered for a moment what I’d gotten myself into. It certainly was remote. Directly below there was nothing but vast expanses of emerald green forests flanking craggy cliffs whipped by wild cobalt seas. But just as I wondered where in this wild tangle of nature we’d actually be able to land… a runaway appeared, and we touched down.

We were greeted by our guide Alberto Chavez of Amstar Tours from whom we received an entire encyclopedic learning about the region over the next week. His passion for the unique biodiversity of this area was absolutely infectious, and as a former biologist his knowledge was in-depth. But the foremost point he wanted to drive home was that the preservation of nature there was no accident.

A Little Background…

In 1985, the Mexican government and FONATUR (Fondo Nacional de Turismo) decided to create their first sustainable tourism region. They chose Huatulco for its eclectic natural offerings. Today, their success in creating a tourism project with minimum environmental impact resulted in the region receiving the prestigious Green Globe Award and also becoming the first destination in the Americas to receive the coveted EarthCheck Gold Certification. “We learned from making mistakes in other tourism regions- growing too fast without taking the environment into account.” says Chavez. “Here we endeavoured to build around and with nature to preserve the very attractions that draw people here in the first place.”

An eye to careful planning was also apparent as we drove through the tiny main town of La Crucecita (little cross) en route to the resort. The roads were excellent, the sidewalks clean and the neighbourhoods well-laid out in tidy little grids with beautifully landscaped proprieties. No garbage-lined alleyways, meandering chickens, beat-up pick-up trucks or wandering stray dogs in sight. Though this urban zone was built some 25 years ago, everything still looks brand new. And their lovely little church- Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe boasts a 20-meter-tall image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, apparently the largest one in the world.

There is also a small touristic zone of vendors there where you can purchase unique souvenirs like “alebrijes”- brightly painted wood carvings of mythical creatures that originated in the state’s capital city of Oaxaca. There are no fast food outlets, though there are many dining spots where you can sample local cuisine like tamales wrapped in banana leaves, tlayudas- flatbreads topped with black bean puree and quesillo (soft white cheese), and their signature moles made with local chocolate. And if you’re really adventurous, you can also try the local delicacy “chapulines”-fried grasshoppers topped with salt and lemon. (I passed on that one though.)

World Class Creature Comforts

I can’t say I was surprised by the opulence that greeted us in the lobby of Secrets Huatulco Resort & Spa. That’s because I’m a huge fan of this upscale adults-only all-inclusive resort brand. I have stayed at six others throughout Mexico and the Caribbean and they have never disappointed. They truly do deliver on their promise of “Unlimited Luxury”. Top-shelf drinks at numerous bars and in-room mini-fridge refreshed daily, first-rate cuisine in numerous dining spots where no reservations are required, beachside service and 24/7 room service keeps your thirst quenched and your hunger sated around the clock. Then there are specialty nights with massive buffets and live entertainment as well. AND no tacky bracelets!

This Secrets is one of the newer resorts in Huatulco, built in 2011 on its own stretch of golden sand in Conejos Bay, it received the AAA Four Diamond Award in 2013. And though it is a BIG complex cascading down the mountain with 399 oceanfront suites connected by an impressive sky tower overlooking a massive winding water-circuit of pools, it’s still dwarfed by the grandeur of the dramatic natural scenes surrounding it. And their cliffside spa is one of the most beautiful and luxurious retreats I have ever experienced.

As far as activities, you could keep busy for days- snorkeling, hobie cat sailing, taking their fitness and yoga classes, and joining their special events. Or you could just lounge around the beach and take in the stunning scenery. The resort is large enough that if you’re not into the vibe that’s happening around you, you can simply move on to where it is. But though it was really difficult to tear myself away from such ever-present pampering (even my swim-out suite had its own whirlpool tub) I did want to get a real sense of the region. And the only way to do that is by boat.

Maritime Pleasures & Terrestrial Treasures

With 36 stunning beaches spread across nine bays to explore, a guided boat tour is a must. The scenic vistas from the water include natural blowholes, rock art sculptures, secret virgin beaches and spectacular cliffs. But I’m an avid marine life lover so what I really wanted to see was hiding underneath the waves.

“Go find me some dolphins!” I jokingly urged the captain. Then to my surprise, he abruptly changed course and headed straight out to sea. Within minutes we were surrounded by a curious pod of my favourite ever-smiling marine mammals. Incredible! And snorkeling nearby, I spotted many species of colorful fish I’d never seen before. Diving is also supposed to be excellent in this region, and if you go at the right time of year, you’re also bound to see lots of migrating whales.

Later, we stopped for lunch at Maguey Bay- a full service beach with a carnival-like atmosphere. It was filled with families enjoying water sports of every ilk and patronizing the many surf-side eateries. We ate at El Camaron Gigante (Giant Shrimp) and their oven-fired jumbo shrimp and cream sauce baked in a half-pineapple topped with melted cheese seriously blew me away.

On land, history buffs will enjoy the new Copalita Archaeological Eco-Park-35 hectares of well-preserved ruins of ancient civilizations including a civil-ceremonial centre, plazas, temples and a ball court. There’s also a small modern museum with lots of artifacts. And a trip up to the mountain town of Pluma Hidalgo to visit local artisan coffee plantations is also fun. But not to be missed is the natural mud bath.

Where the Copalita River meets the sea, there is a mineral-rich mud that the ancients thought had healing powers. Even if it doesn’t, it’s still a fabulous natural skin exfoliation treatment. For a few dollars, you can be slathered in it, then let it dry in the sun, and later rinse off in the sea. The result is as good as any pricey spa treatment: baby-soft skin! And the scenery on that beach is also well worth the trip.

Safe, clean, modern, and yet primal and exhilarating, Huatulco is a wonderful example of the new kind of eco-tourism region savvy travelers will be heading for this year.

Airlines from Canada that go there include Air Canada, AeroMexico, United and Sunwing.