Posted Online: Jan. 26, 2013, 5:50 pm

Huatulco: A view from the water

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By Mary Lu Laffey

Photo: Mary Lu Laffey / Small Newspaper Group
Leisure boats and those for hire moor in the harbor in Huatulco.
Photo: Mary Lu Laffey / Small Newspaper Group
Golfina turtles nest along the bays in Huatulco.
On the western edge of Mexico's Sierra Madre Mountains, about five hours by air from O'Hare International Airport, the tiny town of Huatulco on the Pacific Ocean side of Mexico welcomes millions of visitors from all over the planet.

Huatulco has 36 beaches along 20 miles of coastline cut into crescents forming nine bays of calm, pristine water. Each has a name more romantic than the other: San Agustin, Chachacual, Maguey, El Organo, Santa Cruz, Chahue, Tangolunda, Conejos and Cacaluta. I didn't visit them all, but those I did? Ay ay ay.

Tangolunda is home to several resorts, including the expansive Dreams Huatulco Resort & Spa, where I stayed. Like most resorts in Mexico, Dreams in an all-inclusive resort, but this one is a cut above. Rated Grand Turismo by Mexican hotel standards, it's also a member of the Preferred Hotels group, an international distinction.

We left the resort to drive to Santa Cruz for a half-day snorkel cruise on board the Rumba, a canopied boat that took us along the coastline toward Huatulco National Park, established in 1998.

Leaving the harbor, we spotted jet skiers who kept well away of the coral reef areas, other tour boats and a wind surfer. Thanks to the experienced eye of the captain turned tour guide, pods of dolphins seemingly leaped on his cue.

From the water, we had an excellent view of the massive Huatulco National Park, about 6,000 acres of lowland jungle extending into marine areas that add about another 5,500 acres. These bays support the most important coral reefs in the Mexican Pacific.

The park is open for hikers, scuba divers and bird-watchers. Seven years after the park opened, Huatulco earned Green Globe International Certification for its efforts to create and maintain a sustainable tourist area — the first tourist location to be so recognized in North America and third in the world next to Bali in Indonesia and Kaikoura, New Zealand.

We stopped in a small cove with no other boats around and only a few people on the wide sandy beach. A few minutes after our group was in the water, one of the crew reached into a coral reef and turned around holding a blowfish.

After the last diehard snorkeler re-boarded, we cruised to Maguey Bay's harbor for a beachfront snack under a large, shady palapa — think the size of a small pole barn. We dined at communal dining tables. There was plenty of fresh seafood, but the spiced salsa and guacamole served with warm chips from the oven never tasted as good as it did that day.

Maguey is known as a family beach because of its calm water, variety of water sports and fresh food close at hand. On the walk back to the boat, I saw someone in our group buying wooden spoons from a vendor. She said she uses the hand-carved spoons for entertaining, especially when serving more than one salsa. Intrigued by the prospect of gifting my gastronomically talented nieces but also by the smiles on the vendor's face and that of her daughter, I bought spoons, too.

I liked the "please don't haggle" approach to shopping in Huatulco. In this part of Mexico, travel literature reminds shoppers of the time it takes to create folk art, jewelry, clothing or, in my case, utilitarian pieces: "We should not underestimate their work by bargaining."

Driving back to the resort, the view from the van was all green as the road toward Tangolunda curves near the lowland jungle.

Tourism information: Passports required for travel to Mexico.
Huatulco tourism information:
Getting there: AeroMexico serves Huatulco through Mexico City. Check travel agent for details and packages from tour operators. Average flight time? 5 hours and 20 minutes.
Staying where: Each of the 9 bays in Huatulco has at least one a dreamy resort and there are many price points including Gran Turismo-rated Dreams Huatulco and Camino Real Zaashila Huatulco, Categoria Especial-rated Secrets Huatulco Resort & Spa, the five-star Barcelo Huatulco Beach resort and Las Brisas Huatulco and the four-star Hotel Castillo Huatulco Hotel & Beach Club and Las Isla Huatulco with beach club.

About Huatulco
Huatulco is the first tourism community in North America to earn EarthCheck certification for creating and maintaining sustainable tourism development. The site of the Eco-archaeological Park Copalita, which opened in December 2011, dates from 500 BC. Situated on the Bays of Huatulco and along the Capalita River, the land once formed a border between the Mixtec and Zapotec peoples. Now a national reserve, similar to a United States National Forest, the park measures 89 acres and includes a museum, visitors center and trails that lead past remnants of pre-Columbian civilization, ecological wonders to the cliff tops for a view of the bays and the Pacific Ocean beyond. I estimate the height at 10 stories between the rocky fronted beach below and the jungle terrain behind. The view is well worth the climb.