Evidence of the two big storms that rolled up the Mexican coast in recent days - Hurricanes Odile and Norbert - is clearly visible from high on a hill just north of HUATULCO, the capital of the state of Oaxaca, where the foothills of the SIERRA MADRE DEL SUR MOUNTAINS meet the Pacific Ocean approximately three hundred miles south of Acapulco.
I'm looking down at the mouth of the Rio Copalita where it meets the Pacific Ocean and both the river and the ocean are brown with thick mud carried downriver by heavy rains that lasted for several days. Thankfully the storms have moved north; today the sky is bright blue and the sun is hot. Some of Mexico's best and less-touristed surf beaches line this coast, suggesting the place is destined to change. In part due to 330 days of sunshine a year; the recent flooding rains were an anomaly, in some respects much needed.
From this vantage point I look out over the ocean at bird's eye level and I am not alone: Pelicans, rosette spoonbills, stilted boobies and a variety of vultures soar about, fishing in the fertile river, the long-legged ones patrolling the sand near the shallows.
I had befriended Cornelius in town, and had followed him into the nearby forest and up this short hill. A part-time bell-boy at the elegant Camino Real hotel and piano player, his friends call him 'Nayo,' his true love is birding and as we walk he somehow - miraculously to me - spies hummingbirds and herons, warblers and parakeets in the thick bush. We walk past an archeological team reconstructing a pair of sizable stone altars at a site called Punta Celeste.
"There are more than 700 bird species here," says Nayo, "and I don't think I am exaggerating if I say I have seen them all." Along the climb we stop for long minutes as he plays tag with several small birds, whistling for them and engaging in a call and response as they flit closer and closer through the thick jungle.
Its name comes from the Náhuatl word cuaúhtolco, meaning "the place where the wood is adored." Historically, it was the seat of the refined ZAPOTEC CULTURE, which became home to Spanish traders, pirates and farmers, all using the same vital port until the late 18th century. After the Spanish Conquest, Huatulco thrived as a port under Hernán Cortés' control serving as a vantage point for Spanish galleons and a distribution centre for supplies on the Pacific coast. Since then it boomed as a fishing village, until the Mexican government began developing it as a planned 20-mile long tourist complex in 1983.
Huatulco, and this park, are examples of a long-term government plan to build tourist-attractions literally out of the sand. Acapulco is an older model; Cancun, Tulum, Cozumel more recent versions. This version is built around nine adjoining bays and running for 15 miles down the jagged coast, already boasts a handful of high-end hotels. In 1984, FONATUR (Fondo Nacional de Turismo), a government agency dedicated to the development of tourism in Mexico, acquired 21,000 hectares of land to develop a tourism center, similar to that in Cancun. The existing population - mostly coffee growers and plantation workers - was relocated to Santa Mar’a Huatulco. The plan resulted in the improvement of roadways and other infrastructure. It also had populated areas interspersed with "green zones" to make the area more ecologically minded, primarily by trying to keep the bays clean by keeping tourist waters out. In fact, this is one of the cleanest developments in Mexico. Interestingly, for the moment eighty percent of the tourists here are Mexican, due to the fact that getting here by plane is tricky. The drive from Acapulco is scenic, but has more than 300 speed bumps...
I have long admired the Mexican government's long-range vision for tourism. It is a sizable segment of the country's economy and whether you like Cancun or not, it is efficient in attracting a lot of dollar-spending gringos to a relatively small slice of beach, generating lots of jobs and taxes. Here the government's stated goal is to leave 70 percent of the land undisturbed. So far, so good.