Two travellers stand alone by the side of the road near the Pacific Coast, looking vaguely lost and a fair bit dishevelled. Baking under the hot sun, they gaze around uncertainly, slowly considering how exactly they are going to reach their next destination, the popular hippie hangout and infamous clothing optional beach of Playa Zipolite in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Staggering under the weight of both the heat and a full week of over-indulgence with the family, we had just horned in on the private airport shuttle Jaime, Cliff and the kids had hired to ease their transition from sun, sand and mojitos to an airport line and long day of travel. A good start, though now we had two alternatives: a potentially long wait for the next public bus, with nary a spot of shade to be found, or a series of extremely irritating negotiations with taxi drivers who took one look at our sweating, wilting bodies and desolate, unprotected waiting spot along the side of the highway and could easily picture our balls twisting painfully in their hands.
Fifteen minutes, five taxi drivers and still no bus later an agreement was reached for probably only about 100 pesos over the ideal rate. But his car had a roof, which was really our main priority by that point.
Zipolite is about an hour west of Huatulco (that’s right – west, check a map, Laynni), and boasts a lot of great street art and a nice long straight stretch of flat sand perfect for walking and sunset watching. Playa Zipolite has a long history as a hippie hangout with lots of cheap huts and tenting areas along the beach and some impressive, if dangerous, surf. The nasty currents and riptides lead to several drowning deaths every year, although that doesn’t really seem to deter anyone.
For whatever reason, at some point back in the 70’s the beach started to become popular with people who prefer to live their lives without clothes and that continues today, although its popularity among your average beach-loving tourists has increased substantially over the past decade and the vast majority of visitors do, in fact, cover their junk in public.
Nonetheless, it proudly retains the honour as the only legal clothing optional beach in Mexico. While Playa Zipolite has been attracting people who feel more free without clothes for more than three decades, the government finally gave in and made it a legal clothing optional beach in 2016.
With uninterrupted views and some fascinating rock clefts and arches at the west end of the beach, Zipolite boasts some of the best sunsets Mexico has to offer, all perfectly visible from any of the cheap bars and restaurants along the beach where you can lean back with your XX Lager and feet in the sand to enjoy the view before shelling out less than $10 to eat like a king (well, not a serious royalty-type king, but maybe a small protectorate sort of king. Or a Welsh duke. The point is, the fish is cheap).
It’s hard to say for sure, since this was our first visit, but it feels like the whole area may be undergoing a bit of an upmarket transition, possibly due to the increased volume of international flights into nearby Huatulco (mostly filled with doughy, excited Canadians), and this uneven evolution was evidenced perfectly by one short stretch of beach near the east end. Here you find Zipolite’s most modern-looking hotel – not a giant chain resort but only a modest two-story cement building with about a dozen sea-view condos.
Understated, but most likely a sign of things to come. However, directly next to this slightly upscale hotel you find a haphazard jumble of dilapidated vans, battered old school buses and small tents bursting with dreadlocks and cannabis smoke. To see this laid-back shanty town side by side with its modern counterpart gives you some idea of the wide variance of visitors who call in at Zipolite.
As usual, of course, we fall somewhere right in between these extremes, just like we seem to in all areas of travel. Not tight budget or careless luxury, not yet old but certainly no longer young, not spending our whole time drunk but not really doing any sightseeing any more either, no way I’m using a sarong as my only towel now but yet I still find myself leaving airports on foot to catch a local taxi and avoid the extra premium on airport taxis.
Anyhow, I guess that’s how we ended up in a pleasant mid-range set of cabanas up on the hill overlooking the west end. Good views, hammock, wifi, kitchen. But also no a/c, no hot water and, somewhat strangely, not really any walls. They did have good mosquito nets, however, which always cause a surge of ambiguity in me – their function is undeniable and vastly appreciated, but if I have to awkwardly climb in and out in the dark in the middle of the night one… more… time… well, someone is getting an earful. Probably Laynni, because at least she responds with a satisfying frown and grumble, while the mosquitoes just continue to dive bomb my ears.
Things to Do on Zipolite Beach
Never fear, there is plenty to keep you occuped around Zipolite (besides just wondering where you left your clothes this time).
Swimming, strolling, sunbathing, sipping cocktails – whatever beach activity happens to strike your fancy. This is a huge, beautiful beach so there is always plenty of room for everyone, whether you are looking for a secluded, rocky corner, your own open space or a fun, communal spot in front of one of the popular beach bars. Always check the water condition flags before swimming, though, as the water can get pretty rough and the current can be dangerous at times.
Playa Zipolite Surfing
There is excellent surfing up and down the Pacific Coast of Mexico and the Zipolite area is no exception. There is a good variety of different breaks to match all skill levels from expert to wobbly and clueless (I have actually considered putting this on a t-shirt).
Several of the hotels and restaurants along this huge beach have nets with games taking place throughout the day. Even if you don’t know anyone you can usually just stroll up to a game in progress and ask to join (it works especially well if you do some quick math ahead of time and see that the teams are currently uneven).
Playa del Amor
Just off the eastern end of the main beach you’ll find this tiny, picturesque slice of heaven where you might see fishermen hauling in their catch.
Shopping and Street Art
If you are looking to stock up on some mementos of your trip, there are lots of little shops and galleries along Avenida Roca Blanca. And definitely spend some time wandering the tiny streets and narrow alleys around town (there aren’t many and they aren’t long) checking out the rather famous Zipolite street art.
Festival Nudista Zipolite
An obvious one if you happen someone who prefers to be sans clothes and can plan your trip around the famous Festival Nudista Zipolite is to, well, show up and enjoy all the clothing free activities your heart desires. The specific activities, shows and parties vary each year but typically include daily yoga, beach games, body painting, communal dinners and even, dare I say it, volleyball. It usually takes place for 3 days in January or February.
What it is like to keep your clothes on when clothes are optional
So, that about covers the standard parts of Zipolite. Now, the people wandering around without clothes. We’ve been to clothing optional areas before but never for an extended period of time, and usually just to small, easily avoidable areas where sparse groups of people gathered for privacy, and showing up in clothes, even if it was just part of an innocent Auckland beach walk, for example, felt somewhat intrusive. Here, however, the people who prefer to not wear clothes and the regular beach crowd integrate to a level we’ve never really seen anywhere else which, while most of it eventually starts to seem normal, still leads to some strange scenes. All in all, the beach goers who choose to be clothing free are a riveting faction. Probably only about 10% of the people in Zipolite weren’t wearing clothes, maybe a bit more if you count topless women, although that is pretty common in many parts of the world. And then probably about 80% of those 10% are men. And then 80% of that 80% are unhealthily tanned and completely hairless from nose to toe. And about 20% of that 80% have lower back tattoos. Obviously.
Clearly there are many different reasons a person chooses the adventurous life of preferring to be clothes free, opting to break with common social norms and challenging millions of years of evolution that led humans to protect their bodies from the elements. And it’s not like it’s an uncommon practice – clothing optional beaches and resorts are becoming increasingly popular around the world, from Koh Pha Ngan to Mykonos to even Palm Springs. And while it’s not like I had a lot of deep soulful conversations with these guys while they dangled their bits at me on the beach, after a week or so I felt able to pin down several general types:
- First off, and most numerous I’d say, were the older couples (50+) who just seemed to enjoy not wearing clothes, maybe they’d finally retired after a lifetime of wearing ties and power skirts and simply find a joy in the freedom. There was often still a bit too much landscaping done to assume they were totally unconcerned with what other people think, but for the most part they appeared genuine and (relatively) unobtrusive.
- Those whose greatest fears in life include unsightly tan lines. They were probably the easiest to have around because their hairless mahogany skin often completely blended into the dark sand or wooden buildings around them.
- First-timers excited to check the “clothing free experience” box off their travel bucket list. Obviously uncomfortable and blatantly self-conscious about every move they make, from how much is showing when they bend over to rearrange their towel to constantly tugging at their penis to make sure it retains a full, pleasing look. These people didn’t usually last long – a few minutes lying awkwardly on their towel while glancing around to see who was watching, then alternating having photos taken of themselves frolicking bare-assed in the surf, then , suddenly, it was time to get dressed for a very early lunch.
- Gay male couples. These guys often fell into one or more of the other categories as well, but for one reason or another it seemed like they made up an unusually large percentage of the total. Or maybe, in some cases, I was simply jumping to conclusions (about them being gay) based on the fact that two naked dudes taking a long walk on the beach together seemed to me to be probably one of the most objectively gay things a guy can do.
- Then, of course, there were a few extremist weirdos, just like you get in any crowd of travellers or online NFL draft. Exhibitionists, perverts, men who tell their mom how hot she is on Facebook. These guys were obviously desperate for attention, likely with deep-seated emotional damage and a whole range of personal insecurities. What else would cause a man wearing no clothes to plant himself directly in front of the busiest restaurant on the beach and spend an hour working through a ludicrous and confusing exercise regimen – that he was definitely making up on the spot – and resembled a combination of yoga, judo and flexing. A lot of flexing. Although it was noteworthy that he wasn’t completely without clothing. He was actually wearing a hat, because, you know, you have to be careful about the sun. And he probably didn’t want anyone to see that he was bald.
- Some of the other oddballs were probably just straight-up crazy, like the anorexic-looking old guy doing some sort of tai chi in front of a hand-drawn sign offering “tarot and massage”. Business seemed a little slow.
In the end, though, regardless of whatever motivations, aspirations or perversions led each individual to leave their clothes at home, the end result was simply way a lot of “ugly naked”.
Men (they were always men), wearing nothing but for shoes and a backpack. One guy also wore a belt with tassels.
The old man, fully shaved and tanned to within an inch of a leather purse, actually jogging. Multiple levels of wrong.
The few groups of additional Mexican guys who came to try out the clothing free lifestyle that showed up on the weekend, generally not so self-conscious and consistently less manicured, with a couple of the hairier specimens forcing us to admit there was at least some merit to the shave-and-wax approach.
The elderly woman with fake breasts that may have, once upon a time, been excitingly noticeable, but now resembled grapefruits bouncing around at the bottom of a Christmas stocking.
The unfortunate fellow awkwardly trying to walk past all the sunset beer drinkers without drawing attention to his highly inappropriate erection. The fact that it was difficult to tell, at first, that he had an erection probably didn’t do anything to boost his confidence.
Places to Visit Near Playa Zipolite
Like most parts of the Oaxacan coast, beaches and cool port towns come in bunches around Zipolite. If you have the time it is certainly worth checking all of these out:
Huatulco is a burgeoning all-inclusive resort town (purpose-built, actually). It has superb resorts and amazing beaches. But even if the big resort scene isn’t what you’re looking for it is worth checking out the delightful old town centre of La Crucecita.
Puerto Angel is the first village in the cluster near Zipolite. This friendly, laid-back fishing village has barely been touched by tourism compared to most Mexican beach towns and is the place to go if you are looking for someplace that feels a bit more natural.
San Agustinillo is just west of Zipolite and might just be the most beautiful beach in the area. Everything tends to be a bit more expensive here, although it is still possible to find bargains if you plan ahead.
Wonderful little Mazunte is still neck and neck with Zipolite for our favourite place in the region. The beach is as tiny as Playa Zipolite is huge, but possibly even more photogenic, and the several relaxed beach bars can’t be beat. The short walk to spectacular Punta Cometa is popular for sunset and nearby Playa Mermejita is massive, in case you find yourself missing the vast expanse of Playa Zipolite.
The “Ventanilla” is a stunning rock formation worth the walk over on its own. Finally, there is the world-famous Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga (Mexican Turtle Centre), a research and protection facility for endangered sea turtles that allows visitors and offers tours.
How to Get to Playa Zipolite
Zipolite is about 40 kilometres and an hour’s drive from the Huatulco airport (Bahias Huatulco International Airport) and you can make the trip by bus, shuttle or by renting a car at the airport.
Puerto Escondido airport isn’t much farther away, just 70 kilometres and roughly an hour and a half. To get from Puerto Escondido to Zipolite there are frequent buses, as well as shuttles and rental cars. A lot of people combine a visit to Zipolite with a stop at Puerto Escondido, a backpacker favourite and popular surfer hangout.
Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s major centres (and an awesome place to visit in its own right), but is about a 6-hour drive away.
Meanwhile, Mexico City may be one of the world’s great metropolises but you probably don’t want to tackle the 12-hour drive from there to Zipolite unless you have your own wheels and love long road trips (van-lifers, we’re looking at you). There are plenty of long-haul buses you can take instead, or short, affordable flights to either Huatulco or Puerto Escondido.
Places to Stay in Playa Zipolite
There is an impressive range of accommodation on and around Playa Zipolite, and the choices are increasing all the time. Compared with the massively popular resort towns of Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Puerto Vallarta, Zipolite beach hotels are an unbelievable value, whatever your budget.
El Alquemista Zipolite is the place to go for a luxury yoga spa, with comfortable rooms, air-conditioning and a perfect location.
Casa Nudista is a good mid-range LGBT option just off the beach that has an excellent pool and, you may have guessed, caters to the clothing optional crowd.
Posada Brisa Marina offers outstanding value right in the heart of things, perfect for those on a budget, has a great restaurant and is one of the best places to watch the sunset.
Finally, Casa Demetria is also LGBT-friendly and represents one of the best mid-range options, located right in the middle of the beach but at off-the-beach prices.
Where to Eat in Playa Zipolite
There are a surprising number of top restaurants in Zipolite, some of which are located right on the beach, others that provide a luxury, air-conditioned experience. So, whether you are looking for a classy 4-course meal or some cheap tacos, you should have no problem finding exactly what suits your mood.
The Orale Cafe is set back in a quiet alley and was our favourite place to go for breakfast. Cheap, tasty, friendly and shaded, just the way we like our french toast.
The restaurant at El Alquimista is known for terrific quality and outstanding service, as well as some pretty great views of the beach.
Posada Mexico is an affordable choice right in the heart of the action – a great spot for the aforementioned cheap tacos, ideally washed down with a few happy hour beers over sunset (that method certainly worked for us). Of course, they also have great pizzas and Italian food so you’ll have options.
Sal y Pimienta is a local favourite that strikes a nice balance between a standard restaurant experience and scarfing down deep-fried food on the beach.
Ceviche is not really my thing (it pretty much grosses me out, to be honest) but for some reason a lot of people love it. And many of those people told me that Los Almendros had the best ceviche in town.
Luna y Sol Pizzeria specializes in, you guessed it, pizza. Really good thin-crust pizza made in a stone oven, to be exact. I assume that if you love thin-crust pizza you’ve already heard enough…
Finally, if you’re like me and you never like to go too long without your noodle fix, Zipolite boasts a really good, authentic Thai place called Mao Mau. Or is it Mau Mao? Or Mumu? I can never keep it straight.
First off, there is no question that Playa Zipolite is a gorgeous beach. There is fantastic surfing, great value accommodation and some of the best sunsets in Mexico (which is saying something). So even if hanging out without your clothes isn’t necessarily your thing, it is still definitely a great place to visit. And any stay is bound to be memorable, if for no other reason than to get a better look (figuratively speaking, of course) at this fascinating beach sub-culture. And after all the mocking I took at the hands of my family the previous week it was really nice to feel almost overdressed in my European-cut swimming trunks.
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