PUERTO ANGEL, Mexico- My first impression was that Puerto Angel was, simply put, a butt town. Most of the shops were closed down, many seemed abandoned, the sidewalks were gruff, the stuff in the supermarket caked in dust, nobody was really in the streets save for a few barnacles who only seemed to move in order to ask me if I wanted a taxi, some buildings were falling down, the beach lacked a clear view out to sea, and I ate some meal in a restaurant which only served to make me sick.
My first night in Puerto Angel I landed myself in a negligently managed hotel for 200 pesos — the most that I had paid yet for accommodation in Mexico — which stank, had holes in the wall, and lacked even a seat on the toilet. The manager also did not seem to understand why I wanted to change rooms when I realized that the door of the one she put me in could not be locked. A truly bush league hotel, but my family and I were weary from the previous day’s travels and just wanted to crash.
I wrote in my notebook: Puerto Angel, butt town.
But what I did not know then was that the true butt town was a few clicks to the west, the nude beach of Zipolite. It is my impression that the mention of a nude beach puts a sparkle in the eyes of many men, and a sense of excitement in their words. But gentlemen, my experience can only attest to the fact that the only nude things you are going to find on a nude beach are the bare, hairy butts of your brethren. On Zipolite, these men can be found en masse, naked, milling about idly knee deep in waves with their business sides facing into the surf. You look out to sea and only see a lot of butt.
I wrote in my notebook: Zipolite, really a butt town.
I had arrived to Puerto Angel on a Sunday, the impact of which I had clearly underestimated. Early Monday morning I changed hotels to a good one for 150 pesos a night, and quickly went to search for a place to stay in Zipolite, which was planned to be my next destination. But my discoveries there sent me retreating right back to Puerto Angel in the afternoon, and I was surprised to find that in my absence the place had come alive:
It was Monday night and the streets were fully peopled, kids were laughing, men were drinking beer, there was a big volleyball game in the central courtyard, fishermen were hauling their boats back up on the beach, there were the sounds of talk, the sounds of music, and the few tourists there were seemed dejected as they idly navigated the periphery of this joyous local scene. Puerto Angel all of a sudden did not seem too bad after all. I happily put down a week’s rent on my hotel.
While Zipolite, Agustinillo, and Mazunte are tourist beaches in this part of Oaxaca, Puerto Angel is a working fishing port. There are many hotels, a few tourist restaurants, but the place has clearly not been gentrified by the strong arm of tourism. During the day, the fishermen work out at sea; at night, the streets are alive with people just hanging out talking with each other. There is a row of street food stalls on the main road that flanks the beach, and they are usually packed with people eating tacos, tyluda, tripe, and burgers each night. Monday through Saturday this place is overwhelmingly joyous, on Sunday everyone seems to stay at home. My initial impression of this town was skewed by the day of my arrival, and I have since found that this is truly a good place to be.
It is essential in travel (in life) to be able to figure out what makes you happy — this is the journey, perhaps. It is my impression that it is tricky to know precisely when you are happy somewhere, as the harbingers of misery are far easier to detect than the subtle messengers of happiness. I know that tourist beaches are sometimes fun places to visit, but they don’t make me happy enough to want to stay.
There is something phony about tourist towns, something lacking in their cores, an absense of the meat of living and life that makes me feel fulfilled in my travels. No matter how beautiful, amazing, or one of a kind a place is, I don’t feel good when the people there look through me as if I don’t exist — as though I am nothing more than yet another wave crashing into the beach: here for a second, then gone, inconsequent either way. It makes me feel worse when I am just something for the local people to sell at. I want to be places were people see me, where they know that I am a person, not a bank chit, when I am asked questions that are not a prelude to a potential sale — and I know that I can’t get this in any established tourist town on the planet, but I can easily in Puerto Angel, Mexico.
Perhaps the object of travel is to gold pan the world in search of the knowledge of what makes you happy, and then going and getting it. World travel is about traveling to places, but the only thing that makes this pursuit worthwhile are the people you find when you get there.
I know that towns like Puerto Angel make me happy. The tourist towns, the Mazuntes, Zipolites, and Augustinillos are as inconsequent to me as I, invariably, am to them.