CITY GUIDE: Huatulco’s secret beaches, fresh fish

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Enrique came upstairs to where I was drinking coffee, his eyes dancing.

“Venga conmigo,” he said, come with me. “I have something to show you.”

Downstairs, on the back patio of my Airbnb host’s cocina, was a white styrofoam cooler, overflowing with bright pink fish, their sleek tails and scales gleaming in the morning sun.

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“Mas huachinango!” I squealed, using the Spanish word for the brilliant red snapper, as Enrique smiled, satisfied at my reaction.

A couple days earlier, he’d learned of my passion for fresh fish and cooking, when on my first full day in the Oaxacan coastal town of Huatulco I’d asked about fish markets in town.

“No sé,” Enrique’s sister, Rosa, had said then, but, she said, Enrique fished for spare money when there wasn’t enough work welding, his normal profession. 

Sure enough, he showed up the next morning with more than a dozen beautiful pescados, and called me to pick one out. I chose a petite huachinango, even though he tried to talk me into one approximately the size of my torso. 

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“Mas grande es mejor!” he exclaimed. At first, I thought he was trying to sell me a bigger fish, but when I tried to pay, he smiled, shyly and it was it was my “regalo,” gift. I quickly realized the depth of the kindness and generosity of my hosts, who soon felt like family. 

I had planned to take my fish upstairs to the guest kitchen, clumsily cleaning it (not my specialty) and cooking it in a pan. Instead, Enrique had another idea.

“I can prepare the grill,” he told me in Spanish. “I’ll teach you.”

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I stood over his shoulder as he used the large blade of a knife to snap through the fish’s thick, white ribs, exposing the organs and pulling them into the sink. Then he pulled the ribs on each side outward so they were on the same plane as the backbone, opening the fish like a butterfly. 

On the flesh side, he brushed a simple sauce — mayonnaise mixed with chipotle peppers and placed the fish between two clamping grates that rested over the hot coals, using them to flip the fish when necessary. 

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When it was done, he plated my fish, and I fetched the white wine I’d bought, adding a few cubes because of the extreme humidity. I ate it at their outdoor dinner table, adding the herb salad I’d absent-mindedly put together as Enrique grilled, and savoring each tender, flaky bite. 

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But now, it was two days later, and there was more huachinango. 

“Let’s eat,” Enrique said in Spanish. “What time?”

We decided this time, we’d fry the fish. Enrique began scaling each shimmering pescado, then chopping it into big, whole chunks, from mouth to tail, with a cleaver. 

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“Cabeza, también?” I said, pointing at the head. Yes, the fish cheeks were the most tender and glorious. He marinated it in oil, salt and chunks of garlic, and when lunchtime arrived at 2, he began systematically frying the bits in a wok while Steven, another traveler staying at the casa, and I made potatoes — fried with onions, chilies, garlic and red pepper. 

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At the table, there was, of course, a basket of warm, soft tortillas, and we had chilled red wine. 

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We were treated to some leftover “caldo” as well — fish cooked in a broth of water, chilies, onions, salt, lime, greens and garlic.

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Afterward, Enrique offered to take Steven and I to where he goes to fish, and some of his other favorite places in town, locales unlikely to be found in any tour books.

And that’s how I came to find my favorite places in Huatulco, an overwhelmingly warm but beautiful town known for its nine bays encased by dramatic, jungle-filled cliffs.

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It is advertised that there are 36 beaches in Huatulco, and many of the ones you’ll read about are magnificent, with clear, cerulean waters, colorful fish and other sea life swimming within, and stunning mountain backdrops.

But there’s more, I found.

Here are a few highlights:

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Playa el Violin:

On the way to La Entrega, one of the most popular beaches in the area, there is a small, unmarked path to the right of the road, with no signs to alert its presence. Walk a quarter of a mile down a sloping dirt path, and you’ll find a tiny, protected beach that might be among the most beautiful you’ve ever seen. Unlike many of the beaches in Huatulco, there are no oceanfront palapas serving seafood and drinks, but the serenity will make up for the lack of convenience.

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Find more on Playa el Violin here.

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Playa Pescadores:

The starting point for the area’s fishermen is so much more. With a pier that extends past a calm beach, creating two distinct areas for swimming and cooking on makeshift grills, with cliffs rising on either side, it’s as picturesque as they come. The fisherman leave early; for a chance to chance to see them returning with boats full of pescados, show up around 9 or 10 a.m. 

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Best to ask a local how to find Playa Pescadores!

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El Faro:

Named simply, “the lighthouse,” this beacon is picture perfect, sitting on rocks that plunge with gusto into the rocky sea below. There is a walking path to the left of the structure, which provides incredible views of the cliffs if you don’t have a problem with heights.

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Find more on El Faro here.

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Other more publicized beaches:

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Playa Chahue:

One of the closest beaches to the town of Crucecita, this beach is mostly bedecked with hotels and private beach clubs. But don’t be daunted. Many of the clubs allow all-day entrance to their facilities (cabanas, pools and lounge areas) with easy access to the white-sand beach for about $5 USD. Ordering food (such as these octopus tostadas) at the on-site restaurant costs more. 

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Find more about Playa Chahue here.

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Playa Entrega: 

The “party beach” of the area, expect Entrega to be loud, crowded, and full of fun. Dozens of palapas, or beachside restaurants, line the shore. Teenagers catapult from a long pier and tall, stacked rocks into the deep water below. If you want to rent snorkel equipment, a jet ski or get on a banana boat — a long, banana-shaped inter tube with several seats that is dragged behind a boat — you can do it all here.

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Find more on Playa Entrega here.

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Playa Arrocito:

From Crucecita, it’s a short cab ride or a very long walk, but once you arrive you’ll find the beach strikes a lovely balance between the hectic atmosphere of Entrega and the isolated environment of less commercial beaches. Like Entrega, there are palapas serving items like beer and pescadillos, or fried tortillas encasing fish and salsa. There are also very affordable boat tours commencing from this beach. You won’t have to look; most likely someone will approach you. Tours last about an hour and a half to two hours and include stops in a couple of bays, perhaps near Playa San Agustín, a gorgeous and popular beach with the locals, and time for snorkeling. Expect to pay between $10 to $13 USD for the entire trip.

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Find more on Playa Arrocito here.

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The city:

Crucecita, the small town at the heart of Bahías de Huatulco, was constructed for tourist purposes, but as the tourists are overwhelmingly Mexican, expect it to feel like an authentic Mexican village. The food is generally not the draw, but there are fantastic street carts, small markets and cafes, restaurants and tianguis (street vendors) selling everything from paper fans (necessary in the extreme humidity) to fresh bread to tiny, toy guitars. 

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A few favorites:

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Mama Elsa:

This tiny, outdoor operation makes only hamburguesas (Mexican hamburgers), tacos and papas fritas (French fries), and also sells sodas, beer and wine. The service is perhaps the friendliest in the city, and the ambience (welcomed fans, beautifully-tiled tables, colorful cushions on every seat) can’t be beat!

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Find out more about Mama Elsa here.

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El Grillo Marinero:

Don’t mess around here. As soon as you enter this hut-like, open-air restaurant, your eyes should be on the prize — the whole fried fish. The big, flaky white pescado comes with rice and a salad of tomatoes, avocado, lime and all the chips and salsa you can take down. Get a cold beer and go to town.

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Find out more about El Grillo Marinero here.

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La Crema:

Head upstairs from the street level to access perhaps the area’s coolest bar boasting a notable spirit selection and beer along with a Bohemian, lounge-like atmosphere. Hungry? They’re also known for their wood-fired pizzas.

Find out more about La Crema here.

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Casa Mayor cafe:

If you’re looking to grab a cup o’ java or sit for a while, this little outdoor spot connected to a guest house makes a stellar latte frio, and feels cozy.

Find out more about Casa Mayor here.

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Giordana’s:

First and foremost, you can find an Aperol spritz here. And if you’re like me and crave Aperol spritz’ no matter what part of the world you’re in, you understand me! This Italian-owned restaurant is also known for its meatballs.

Find out more about Giordana’s here.

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Where I stayed:

The best Airbnb! Although this guest house is a notable walk or bike from the center of Crucecita, the junglous path is safe and the hospitality at the home is well worth it. Stay with Rosa, Enrique and the rest of the gang (Yurek was out of town) at this spacious casa with air conditioning, a pool, a convenient kitchen just for guests, bikes available for use and the most kind and welcoming hosts.

Find out more here (the house has three rooms, all on the second floor).

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