Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the foothills of the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains, Huatulco (pronounced wa-TOOL-co) is worth checking out if you’re considering visiting the Mexican Riviera or the Mexican state of Oaxaca (wah-HAAK-kah). Unspoiled beauty, eco-friendly, near-perfect weather, epic sunsets, ancient ruins, scrumptious food, and of course, crystal clear Huatulco playas (beaches) make it a great escape for couples, solo travelers, or families.
Oh, did I mention the jungle landscapes, waterfalls, colonial town revival, coffee plantations, and friendly locals? There are so many things to love here besides the golden Huatulco playas!
Huatulco at a Glance
- Aka: Bahias de Huatulco
- Area: 191.8 mi²
- Population: 50,000
- Location: Pacific Coast
- Currency: Peso
With recent concerns about cartels and tainted drinks, American tourism to Mexico has been a bit down. Note that the latest State Department warnings for Mexico do not include Huatulco in any of its advisories.
Huatulco is one of Mexico’s most recent, unique, and rapidly emerging eco-tourism destinations. In the 1980s, Fonatur, Mexico’s National Trust Fund for Tourism Development (which also developed Cabo San Lucas and Cancun), saw the tourism potential in this sleepy Oaxacan coastal region and began building the infrastructure along with the preservation of natural parks, beaches, coral reefs, and jungles.
The town is so new that none of the existing structures (including the church) are more than 25 years old. The majority of tourists are from other areas of Mexico.
The Mexican State of Oaxaca is home to 16 different ethnic groups all of which contribute to the rich and vibrant culture. The art is exquisite. Alebrijes are handmade, brightly painted pieces of folk art, from tiny to very large. They are now highly sought after and collected by travelers from all over the world. I bought my first one around 15 years ago and pick up a new one (or three!) every time I visit the Pacific Coast of Mexico. The whimsical animal figures are supposed to bring good luck – I’m all for hedging my bets!
The vibrant colors of Mexico also shine through in the handwoven textiles such as traditional clothing, heavy blankets, embroidered pillows, and table cloths.
Where to Stay
There are many types of accommodations available in Huatulco. Two beachfront hotel zones, upscale all-inclusive luxury resorts, and spas overlooking gorgeous coves, boutique bungalows in jungle settings, or budget hostels closer to town are just some of the types of places to stay.
In addition, Huatulco is a popular cruise port, docking at Playa Santa Cruz, which is the center for tourism.
I highly recommend renting a car in Huatulco. The roads are in good condition and clearly marked, and you’ll not only be able to explore the coast and jungle areas, but day trips to nearby Zipolite, Puerto Escondido, and/or Punta Comida are a must. If you have more time, do consider driving to the fabulous old colonial Oaxaca City for a few days. The pass through the mountains, with switchbacks and hairpin turns, offers stunning views and is an adventure in itself.
Altogether, Huatulco’s nine bays are called Bays National Park. They’ve been declared a protected reserve and some are maintained by indigenous tribes. The bays are backed by deep green, low-lying jungle and show off their shimmering emerald green and azure beaches that are great for snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, kayaking, and swimming.
If you’ve been reading my articles for any length of time at all, you will remember that I’ve been on a quest to find the most beautiful beaches in the world for most of my adult life. Aka, I’m a beach snob. In general, I’m not fond of the Pacific Coast beaches of the Americas; I prefer the sugar-sand turquoise beaches of the Caribbean and South Atlantic. Huatulco was an exception. From shimmering emerald green to slightly muted turquoise, the crystal-clear, palm-lined beaches were delightful.
Santa Cruz Bay is the main beach and one of the most popular areas of Huatulco. It’s also where the cruise ships dock. The beach is quite small but is lined with cute beach bars, restaurants, and small shops.
Made famous by the film, “Y Tu Mamá También,” the secluded beaches of Cacaluta Bay are gorgeous. These beaches are hard to reach but worth the effort.
Chahué Bay is closest to the small town of Crucecita. It has a marina and beautiful beaches.
Only accessible by boat, Riscalillo Bay is home to a beach of the same name. Riscalillo is known for great snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, and swimming.
Conejos Bay is another secluded area that boasts four beautiful beaches and excellent snorkeling and diving opportunities.
With two lovely beaches, Chachcual and La India, Chachacual Bay is also only accessible by boat, making it tranquil and uncrowded.
Organo and Maguey are side-by-side bays. Maguey is the easiest to get to as it can be accessed via boat or road.
Tangolunda Bay, with its five stunning beaches, is known for its upscale hotels, golf courses, exclusive hotels, and ex-pats population.
If you’re into camping, San Augstín is the bay for you. Its beaches are perfect for diving and there are numerous restaurants to choose from.
Because of its position closer to the equator than Mexico’s most popular tourist areas of Cancun, Cabo, or Puerto Vallarta, Huatulco is a year-round beach destination. Yearly, it has around 330 days of sunshine, perfect for swimming and beach activities. Keep in mind that this also means the rays are stronger, especially in the hot summer, so be sure to pack sunscreen and a hat.
Like much of Mexico, it’s located in a seismically active area, so small to moderate earthquakes occur from time to time.
#3 La Crucecita Zocalo
You’ll definitely want to visit La Crucecita, a picturesque resort town, with the Lady of Guadalupe Church, laying claim to the largest painting in the world of the Virgin Mary (on the ceiling).
The central plaza is charming and the marketplace lively. There are lots of shops – some even give demonstrations of their handicrafts and insight into their traditions and culture.
#4 Copalita Ecological Park and Ruins
Located some ten miles from central Huatulco, Eco-Arqueológico Copalita Park isn’t as prestigious as Palenque, Chitzen Itza, or Tikal, but impressive in its own right.
Set on 200 acres of Huatulco’s Ecological Reserve, it stretches from the mouth of the Copalito River, through a network of trails, lush jungle, wetlands, gently rolling deciduous forests and craggy cliffs. Like Tulum, it offers a spectacular view of the ocean below.
Unearthed in 1996, researchers found evidence of Hispanic monuments beneath the dense forest vegetation and evidence that site was once the city of Copalitlan, settled around 500 BC by groups from the Mexican Gulf. Carved into the lush terrain are remains of an ancient temple, ball court, and civic plaza, predating the ruins of Chichen Itza.
#5 Lookout Points
Driving our car up into the heights to see the various lookout points was one of my favorite things to do in Huatulco. The lighthouse lookout, naval lookout, Punta Santa Cruz lookout point, the marina lookout, the Bocana lookout, and the La Entrega viewpoint all provide panoramic views of the coast, golden beaches, or marina. In some places, you can see the Sierra Madre Mountains on the horizon.
#6 Zapotec Mud Bath
Unfortunately, I didn’t know about this because I certainly would have done it without hesitation. I channeled my inner five-year-old at mud baths in St. Lucia and Costa Rica and loved it. The Zapotec mud baths at Playa La Bocana are a cooperative where the local Zapotec-descendent women bathe visitors in a concoction of lodo – sand native to the area, saltwater, and freshwater, mixed in clay pots. This ancient massage-like technique is said to not only exfoliate your skin silky-smooth but also to have healing properties.
#7 Punta Cometa
If you’d like to do an easy hike while in Huatulco, nearby Punta Cometa will not disappoint. There are a couple of trails – the easiest, from Playa Rinconcito, is only about a 15-minute hike and has some really great views of the bay, especially at sunset. You can also get there from the other nearby beach, Playa Mermejita.
Please note that if you plan a stay to watch the sunset, make sure you bring a flashlight for your return back to town because the trail is bumpy with lots of rocks and roots and it would be easy to twist an ankle or fall.
Similar yet different than tequila, mezcal is the drink of choice for the Mexican state of Oaxaca. It’s no wonder since it’s made here from the agave plants that are native here. Locals adore the smoky flavor and mezcal bars are popular.
Interested in learning more about Mezcal? Read about my visit to an organic mezcal plantation.
#9 Eat and Drink
Due to its location on the coast, Huatulco is a seafood lover’s heaven. We enjoyed tasty fish tacos, crispy coconut shrimp, and raw and fried oysters. Our favorite places to dine were the casual open-air restaurants right on Santa Cruz Beach. It’s a little more expensive there than at El Zocalo (city park), but the festive atmosphere of the locally-owed places are worth it.
You’ll see women walking on the beach – and even coming into the restaurants – selling homemade wrapped pastries and fruit. This is how they provide for their families so don’t be afraid to buy from these entrepreneurial women if you see something enticing.
And of course, the margaritas are large and excellent!
Here are some traditional dishes to try:
- quesillo – soft farm cheese, usually served warm
- tamale – tortilla with meat or cheese, steamed in a corn husk
- tasajo – dried beef
- chorizo – spicy sausage
- piña rellena con mariscos – pineapple stuffed with seafood
- pescado empapelado – fish cooked in leaves with lime, coriander, chili
- chilaquiles – corn tortillas in mole sauce, with queso, avocado, fried egg
- chapulines – fried grasshoppers served with guacamole
#10 Zipolite Beach
Want to channel your inner hippie? Take an approximately 45-minute drive to Zipolite Beach! The laid back, beach bum vibe of the small beach town is a lot of fun. There are great beachfront places to eat as well as beautifully and colorfully decorated boutique hotels with ocean views. But in addition, if it’s your jam, there’s a clothing-option section of the beach all the way over to the right, next to the craggy hills.
It’s supposedly also “cannabis-friendly,” but I didn’t see any evidence of that.
Click here to read my article about my fantastic stay in Zipolite Beach.
I left Huatulco feeling like I hadn’t had enough time. I loved the natural beauty of the Huatulco playas and jungle, pristine old town, and fabulous seafood. Because there are so many fascinating places in the world to explore, I seldom go back to the same place twice.
But I’d go back to Huatulco again. In a heartbeat.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.