ZIPOLITE, Mexico- “I’ve heard that around 50 people a year drown in these waves, that is like a person a week,” a young tourist informed me on Zipolite beach one sunny day. We both looked off into the waves — they were rising around four feet up from the ocean surface before quickly crashing into [...]
ZIPOLITE, Mexico- “I’ve heard that around 50 people a year drown in these waves, that is like a person a week,” a young tourist informed me on Zipolite beach one sunny day. We both looked off into the waves — they were rising around four feet up from the ocean surface before quickly crashing into the beach below. He then ran into the giant waves to show off. I walked away, unimpressed.
“Zipolite is one of Mexico’s three death beaches,” a hotel owner in Puerto Angel told me before venturing to Zipolite, a few kilometers to the west. She then told me a story of an Italian couple who took their honeymoon to the Oaxaca coast. The hotel owner told them to beware of swimming in Zipolite, the Italian guy’s machismo usurped her warnings. This couple, together, was taken away in an undertow. The girl surfaced, her newly wed mate did not.
I resolved to find out — really — how dangerous swimming on Zipolite beach is. I asked an older American hotel owner who had been on this beach for around 15 years.
“Is it true that fifty people drown here a year?” I asked.
He laughed at my rumor mongering, and stated, “That was in the old days, we haven’t lost anyone in three years now.”
“So it is safer to swim here now than before?” I questioned, wondering how this could be. The hotel owner then explained that subsequent to a few major storms that hit Zipolite in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, as well as one that struck last autumn, a large portion of the beach eroded away.
“This beach use to go out a football field from here,” he explained.
I looked out to find the surf occasionally fizzling out not five meters from the foot of his hotel.
“That’s evolution,” the hotel owner explained, “that’s just it. That’s mother nature. ”
This erosion, while causing severe damage, had the effect of leaving behind a safer beach. The owner explained how there use to be a 5 meter drop off that occurred abruptly out in the surf that is no longer there.
“When I would come here as a tourist, I would make ten rescues a day,” the hotel owner explained, “but it was naked rescue then so it was more fun.”
We laughed at this.
But the fact that a volunteer lifeguard was formed in 1995 probably also has something to do with the drop in drowning deaths at Zipolite. The next year after this force was assembled, drownings were cut in half. Now it is very rare for someone to drown here. The team of lifeguards are very active, riding up and down the beach on an ATV, watching from towers, and yelling at tourists who swim too far out. They also make rescues nearly every day.
The combined forces of natural erosion and human pro-activeness has made Zipolite beach a vastly safer place to swim, but the fact remains that the lifeguard crew still needs to make rescues daily. Although drowning is now a rare occurrence, people are still taken away by the undertow with regular frequency. And there is rumored that I have not been able to substantiate that a drunk guy swimming at night did drown on this beach a couple of months ago — but drunk guys often find ways to drown almost everywhere their is water.
I approached my New Zealand friend Luke — who has been living on the beach for the past three months — about the true dangers of swimming at Zipolite. He is an active sort of guy, strong, in the prime of manhood — a decent swimmer. He told me about how he, himself, was taken away by an undertow while swimming near the rocks on the western flank of Zipolite beach. He told me that he was standing in the shallows and was taken off his feet and pulled out to sea. While caught in the chest high channel of water he could still occasionally toe the ground surface, but there was little he could do except ride with the current out to sea, swimming perpendicular to it where he could. He eventually was able to get out of it, as the currents here are not wide, but he offers a warning:
When swimming at Zipolite, stay away from the rocky ends of the beach, as this is where the currents are the strongest: stay in the middle.
Rescue at Zipolite
A Mexican woman wailed from out in the waves on Zipolite beach. She, apparently, thought she was drowning. Perhaps she was. She was calling for the lifeguards to come and save her. They did.
I stood on shore and watched the scene. The woman was way far out in the waves but appeared stationary, it is not my impression that she was caught in a rip tide — only swam out too far for her comfort. The waves at Zipolite beach are large and break hard. This woman had positioned herself right where they crash the hardest. She was yelling for help, and two lifeguards rushed to her aid. One swam out to her from shore, the other paddled to her from out in the waves on a surf board. The two lifeguards convened upon the woman and helped her back to dry land.
This woman was saved. The entire ordeal started and ended in under two minutes. Beach life hardly had time to take a break from business as usual.
But rescues here on Zipolite are business as usual. The lifeguards record hundreds of rescues, but I am sure that ten times as many go undocumented — swimmers in need being rescued is just too much a part of the scenery to get fancy about. It is estimated that these lifeguards make over ten such rescues a day, most of them are quick and simple, as was the case with this woman who swam out too far and needed help coming back to shore.
Bad reputations about places often linger long after changes have occurred to thwart their actual causes. Places have the tendency of changing faster than their reputations can keep up with, and the guidebooks can not be trusted to keep up with this. To the easy listener, Zipolite is still a beach of death, with 50 drownings per year. In actuality, Zipolite is a slightly dangerous beach with active lifeguards, a beach where rescues are frequent but drownings are rare.
In travel, rumors need to first be substantiated prior to being repeated. Personal impressions, conversations with knowledgeable locals, common sense, measuring up what you see and observe against what you are told by some guidebook toting tourist means everything. Common sense is often the king initiator of discovery: would hundreds of people be swimming at Zipolite if a person a week drown? Maybe; maybe not. When I am told that something is dangerous, I ask where the person telling me this got their information from. If they say, “I’ve seen it,” I bow my head and take their advice with more weight; if they say, “I’ve read it,” or “I’ve heard it,” I pocket their words in temp storage and use them as an impetus for further confirmation.
The people who don’t know are all too often the most eager to regurgitate scraps of third and forth hand information. Humans seem to have a deeply rooted reaction against the unknown, so we mask ourselves with bullshit and removed from the source scardy cat warnings (hang out with a group of tourists sometime if you don’t believe me). Fact check everyone, fact check me, fact check this travelogue with your own first person sources and observations. Come to Zipolite, ride the waves, get caught in an undertow, make observations, ask questions, collect whatever information you can, find out for yourself, and then tell me how dangerous it is. I will listen.
The person who doesn’t do is the often the first person to tell you that you can’t. This goes for just about everything called dangerous in travel. A menagerie of information needs to be collected on a potential travel danger for a traveler to assemble a real picture of what they are up against. In this entry I show how I collected information about the dangers of swimming at Zipolite beach. I received various snippets of information from tourists, websites, locals, those who have experienced the dangers first hand, and then I wove them together with my own observations, impressions, and experience to come up with an inference on the impending dangers that I would face if I went into the water.
I did go into the water and swam in the waves — like everybody else who comes to Zipolite.
The methodology that I applied to discovering the dangers of this beach can be applied to just about anything else called dangerous in travel.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
January 17, 2016, 1:25 pm
I was seconds from drowning there at Christmas day 1999. I had been partying like It was 199 the day before and in the water were Dolphins. I thougt, lets swim ten strokes out to look for them, and then swim 20 strokes back before I try and see if i can feel the sand. The waves felt like a heavy book slammed in the back of the head and then arms and legs dlew around uncontrollable. i had no experience of waves and 15 years of flat water windsurfing didnt help my understanding. I had to breath 50 percent water 50 percent air mixture and I was a really bad crawler so I must have been moving outwards but I really didnt realize. I went dizzy and powerless and started to dive down before the waves hit me. I thought “how many more can I actually take?” But had no plan B like swimming sidewards or accepting to be dragged out to find a better time and place in the swell where they were not breaking. I saw a tiny mexican run towards me and he had small flippers he got into very quickly. As I grabbed his saver-thingy i relaxed all my body for a while and just focused on the hand. A bit later I made some legstrokes but to be honest: he swam with a power through this hughe washingmashine I was just not capable of. Last autumn me and a friend brought back me and my windsurfer board from an ice cold bay in Sweden because I hadnt been out since long and sat on the board for a while when my friend came up to me swimming. He later said It was no use for him to help push the board since I was such a strong swimmer compared to him. How could this be when I had no power left to windsurf back? The reason is because the Zipolite trauma I have since then practiced crawling and apnea/free diving on a weekly basis because I once realized how dangerous it is to be an ineffective swimmer. Ive even practiced on pro level with mono swim swimmin
March 22, 2017, 10:51 am
The currents in these waters are exceptionally strong, that, coupled with the force of the waves, make Zipolite a very dangerous place to swim. I spent three months there in 1980, and I recall hearing about 3 or 4 people being killed, I was once caught up in the current near the cliffs and escaped with cuts and bruises.
Returned in 1992, with my girlfriend, and while walking in waist-deep water we were both swept away outwards in a matter of seconds, it’s a terrifying feeling, because you can swim without getting anywhere forever, you get tired, and all the while you have huge waves crashing on top of you, taking your breath away….
I was able to body-surf out of it and instructed my girlfriend to do the same, we escaped, but just….I remember after that experience she wouldn’t even go anywhere close to the beach. Beautiful place, dangerous waters…..be very aware, and use a board and fins to be safe.
January 12, 2018, 6:12 pm
Have you considered that your American hotel owner possibly has an incentive to downplay the danger of the beach?
Zipolite is definitely a dangerous beach for swimming. I’ve seen several people drown there. I’ve also nearly drowned there myself after being caught in a riptide at the Shambala end of the beach. I had nowhere to swim parallel to except into the rocks which were being violently pounded by the surf. I barely made it out alive.
I noticed that sometimes for weeks at a time nobody would get into trouble. Then in one single day two people might drown and several other people would get into serious trouble and need to get rescued. So I assume the danger varies with the tides. At some point a life guard service started on the beach and I understand the number of deaths since has gone way down. But I’d still treat the water off that beach with caution. You call it a “slightly dangerous beach with a lifeguard service”. It’s actually an extremely dangerous beach with such a service.
Q: Would hundreds of people swim at Zipolite if a person a week drowned, you ask?
A: Heck ya! Everybody knew it was very dangerous. It was even written in the guidebooks. That was always part of the beach’s mystique. When you’re young you’re always immortal. And some people not so young also feel immortal. The first time I ever went there, the first people I met were a rather elegant looking French family. A father, a mother and their daughter. They were not dressed for the beach. They told me that they had come because their son had drowned there the year before and they wanted to see the place their loved one had spent his last days. It was such a beautiful place then. The waves majestic huge and very fun to play in. One makes all sorts of rationalizations to continue such pleasure: It always seems to be “somebody else” who drowns because nobody remembers their own death. In fact, it’s such an amazing nice feeling swimming there that nearly drowning didn’t deter me one bit from going back in the water. I remember being utterly exhausted after I survived my near death and then having to spend about 14 hours in my hammock because I was so depleted by my epic struggle with the sea. I slept very very solidly through the whole night. Then I woke up at dawn and I was back in the waves by about 9am. I realized that might’ve been dumb, even at the time, but I didn’t care. I thought to myself: “Well dude, just stay away from the end of the beach so if you get pulled out in a riptide you’ll have plenty of beach to swim parallel with and get back in.” If the older and wiser me was on that beach tomorrow, I’d immediately go for a swim. It’s that nice. But it isn’t safe. It just isn’t. Glad the lifeguard service is doing a good job. From the way you describe it, it sounds like they’re very busy. It’s still very possible to drown there.
May 8, 2021, 4:32 am
I nearly died at Zipolite beach in 1987. Already then, locals and experienced gringos teached us to wait and stay out in the sea when big waves come crushing in, like every 20 seconds. I don’t really know how I survived but I did. I waited and also tried to get back during 15 minutes. Finally, a wave then just spat me out and hit me on the beach. Hand of a Zapotecian God or something.– Be careful, every-one swimming at Zipolite beach!
- May 8, 2021, 4:32 am
October 28, 2018, 12:52 am
Currently in Zipolite (October 2018). I watched a man drown this morning. I was the only one who saw he hadn’t resurfaced after a large wave crashed over him. He was about 10-15 metres out by that point. Me and my partner tried to get help but no one believed us until a huge wave about 7ft tall lifted his dead body up so he looked like a puppet standing upright on strings.
It took 15 minutes from when I saw him dip under until I could get any lifeguards.
It took 6 men to find his corpse.
Don’t listen to stupid men who think they will live forever. No one thinks a drowned man is cool. Stay between the first two waves and watch your friends.
May 9, 2019, 2:35 pm
I’m sitting here in the bar at el alquimista reading about the waters in Zipolite. We saw a man drown yesterday two beaches up at Manzute . 5/9/2019
June 25, 2019, 3:41 pm
I was there in 1996 when we watched a guy drowning…he simply got behind thos rocks and was pulled out to the sea. there wasno rescue team installed, or do I remember any flags. However everybody there had been warning us of swimming there.
August 13, 2019, 1:40 am
I spent a week in Maria’s palapa beachside on Zipolite with my New Mexico boyfriend who’d been there many times. I loved it, all of it, sleeping in hammocks, communicating with Maria tho neither of us spoke each other’s language, eating her simple and wonderful fresh food. I also loved the water. And I almost drowned in it. I’m a strong swimmer and love to bodysurf but one day got slammed by one of those high and fast ‘choppers’ and was fairly ground into the sandy floor…I felt like I was in a furious washing machine. Every time I managed to surface another wave would hit me, causing me to swallow what seemed like gallons of water. the folks on the beach began to take notice and slowly started to put their books down and rise to head for me. When he saw how terribly I was floundering, my big boyfriend, easily mistaken for a Samoan, tho born and bred in Detroit, Michigan, latched onto me, steadying me enough to catch my breath so we could both ride the next wave back to shore. The onshore folks went back to their reading, to tanning, another day in Paradise on the Beach of Death, in 1994.
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