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ZIPOLITE, Mexico – "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 is one of many tiny coastal pueblos that dot the Pacific 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 two kilometers (1.2 miles) between two high cliffs at either end, and the crowd is fairly evenly split between middle-class Mexicans and free-wheeling liberals from across the globe. Old hippies, young adventure-seekers, and locals all mingle with a flower-child type harmony.
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, Canada, 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 cement.
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 carnival-like scene at night, with artists and jewelry makers selling their wares, while musicians, jugglers and fire dancers perform for tips in the street.
"Zipolite after six is awesome," Bolli said, "with all the dreadlocked kids hoping to sell their creations along with a great choice of different restaurants. It's not overcrowded but you can find a crowd if you want."
Some of the most interesting diversions can found at Posada Mexico, an oceanfront restaurant. One night I watched a Cirque du Soleil-like acrobatic performance and another night I rocked out to Cainn Cruz, an amazing child guitar prodigy who brought the house down with his covers of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC.
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 about 50 percent of his guests are repeat customers.
"This gets us through swine flu times, protests, drug war scares, etc.," he said. "People come back knowing we are OK, and they tell their friends too."
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.
If You Go...
ZIPOLITE, MEXICO: Beach town in Oaxaca on the Pacific, http://mexicobeaches.net/zipolite/
GETTING THERE: The closest airports are Puerto Escondido, an hour's drive west, or Huatulco, an hour south. You can take a bus or taxi from either airport. The closest bus station is in Pochutla, 20 minutes away by taxi or shuttle.
MONEY: The closest ATM is in nearby Puerto Angel, 10 minutes by taxi. The nearest bank is in Potchutla. Most hotels will accept and/or exchange U.S. dollars or euros.
LODGING: Brisa Marina offers oceanfront rooms with balconies and hammocks as well as less expensive courtyard options. Guests can also relax on the large beachfront ramada (shaded outdoor area). Nightly rates range from 200-650 pesos ($16-$51) depending on the season, http://www.brisamarina.org . A spiritual retreat, Shambhala, offers lodging on the hill at the western end of the beach, http://shambhalavision.tripod.com/id2.html .
DINING: Zipolite is home to an impressive variety of quality restaurants with many beachfront choices, including several authentic pizzerias and trattorias, thanks to a number of Italian expats residing locally. For a romantic candlelit experience on the beach with entertainment, try the restaurant at the Posada Mexico inn. You can enjoy the entertainment without dining there by spreading your blanket on the sand nearby.