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By Barbara Schaffer

Some of us arrive in Puerto Escondido and know we do not have to travel any further. But travel we do, if only on short journeys up and down the coast or into the mountains, because nothing becomes home more than the leaving of it. My favorite escape is to Chacahua, to those immense lagoons of still water that perfectly reflect both sky and mangroves. As soon as I am on the launch I know I have arrived inside a dream I had forgotten.

Mangroves are enormous trees with external vine-like roots that grow in salt-water lagoons. Each tree is an island hosting a variety of crustaceans, insects and birds. You can only enter a mangrove forest by canoe as the trees are often very close to each other. The motorized launch takes you through the open areas of the lagoon past the forests.

You don't need to be a bird watcher or an ecologist to enjoy the ornithological and biological splendor of the lagunas of Chacahua, but it helps to have a predisposition to abandoning oneself to great expanses of tranquil beauty: the play of light on the water, an odd shaped cloud you might not have noticed if you weren't on a boat, the lone man or woman fishing from canoes (pangas or cayucos in Spanish) hidden in the mangroves beneath branches sheltering herons and pelicans.

When, after an hour, the launch takes you to the village of Chacahua, which is where the sea enters the lagoon, you find yourself in another lost world. No cars, no internet, just a few hundred people who mostly live in palapas. But there are restaurants on the beach and cabins to stay in. My favorite is the Almendra, which is on the lagoon. It's clean, cool and comfortable and has a spectacular view.

The inhabitants of the island are mainly of African-Mestizo and Mixteca descent. Going along the lagoon, it's only a five-minute walk from the beach to the village with its school and public buildings. The houses are mainly thatched huts, often set in compounds. After the village you can continue your walk by following the dirt road that leads to the other end of the island.

Chacahua was Mexico's first national park and as such has been spared development. The mangroves are protected and can only be entered by canoe. A highlight of your visit should be a canoe trip through the dense mangrove forests at sun set - the best time to see the birds, and to experience the dark, labyrinth-like canals.

Although you can drive to Chacahua by taking the turn-off onto a dirt road at San José del Progreso, the most direct route from Puerto is through Zapotalito. The driving time from Puerto is around 90 minutes. The turn-off is around 15 minutes from Río Grande. (You can't miss it - there's a big sign for Chacahua and a military check point.) You then continue down a paved road until you get to the boat landings. There you will find launches and off-street parking.

The launches operate like taxis and can carry up to 6 people, but they are pricey. (The rate was about $60 U.S. in January.) The most economical way of going is by taking a bus to Río Grande and continuing to Zapotalito by colectivo. Then you can take a short colectivo boat ride followed by a 45-minute trip in the back of a pickup truck over bumpy dirt roads. Not good if your back can't handle it.

Manialtepec Lagoon

Only 10 miles west of Puerto is the Laguna Manialtepec. The eco-system is different than that of Chacahua, but it also features mangrove forests and many different species of birds. Canadian ornithologist/naturalist Michael Malone's Hidden Voyages Ecotours are a wonderful introduction to the lagoon and its avian life. You can make a reservation -winter months only - through Viajes Dimar on the Adoquin, or by calling Michael at 954 582-2962.

Margarito, who lives in Las Negras, a village on Manialtepec, is also a well-known guide. Although his English is limited, a trip on his canoe through the mangroves is both a spiritual and educational experience, as Margarito has a deep connection to the lagoon which he imparts to his fellow voyagers. You can often find him on Zicatela or Playa Principal looking for customers.


Chacahua and Manialtepec are west of Puerto, but the mangroves continue further down the coast. An hour east of Puerto, near Mazunte, is the seaside village of Ventanilla, which is famous for the crocodiles in its lagoon. The villagers maintain a very nice restaurant next to an environmental center, where you can arrange for a canoe tour of the lagoon. Besides being able to see crocodiles in the wild, mostly sleeping, you can also see them and other animals in cages on an island which is part of the tour.

If you go to Ventanilla you should also pay a visit to the Mexican Turtle Center (Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga) in nearby Mazunte. Besides featuring a variety of marine and land turtles at different stages of development, there is a botanic garden, exhibitions, a restaurant and a gift shop. It's open Wednesday through Saturday from 10-4:30, Sunday 10-2:30.

To get to Ventanilla, take the Mazunte/Zipolite turnoff from the coastal highway, next to a Pemex station, 35 miles east of Puerto, and then continue straight down the paved road another five miles to the end. There is a turnoff for Mazunte before you arrive at Ventanilla. Alternately, you can take any bus heading to Pochutla or Huatulco, and ask to be let off at the crucero San Antonio. From there you can take a colectivo or taxi.

Sol de la Costa, February 2009


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