Surfers will find epic waves in the fishing village of Puerto Escondido. // © 2016 Zicazteca Surf School
It took millions of years of geothermal bubbling to create the Hierve el Agua (Spanish for “boiling water”) natural pool in Oaxaca, Mexico, but just seconds for me to decide to soak my bones in its healing waters. Perched on a cliff deep in the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains, these springs are as legendary as they are curative — the ancient Zapotec people considered the waters a gift from the gods.
And after a week exploring the rugged terrain of backcountry Oaxaca, I couldn’t agree more.
While many destinations offer tempting beaches, Bali beds and swanky bars for chilling out, the state of Oaxaca dares visitors to dive into its natural attractions and get their adrenaline pumping. With much of Oaxaca protected from development, its untamed landscape is not for the faint of heart. And that, for true adventurers, is its real attraction.
I launched my outdoor explorations in Huatulco. Here, beyond the resort zone, the still-wild Copalita River offers whitewater rafting on Class III and IV rapids. Fueled by local, organic Pluma Hidalgo coffee, I paddled a twisting, water-soaked descent through some 60 rapids while flanked by emerald jungle. At night, Gecko Rock Resort, a boutique eco-hotel overlooking a windswept beach where thousands of turtles come onshore to nest, offered a true escape from civilization.
The next stop along Oaxaca’s winding coastline was Puerto Escondido, a fishing village turned surfing mecca. The draw? The “Mexican Pipeline,” an epic wave break that lures world-class surfers to Zicatela Beach. The waves were too gnarly for anyone but the pros, so I opted for Carrizalillo, a palm-fringed bay featuring fun-size swells with plenty of challenge. Professional surfer (and graffiti artist) Julio Soto Noyola of Zicazteca Surf School offers lessons for both newbies and seasoned surfers at all of Puerto Escondido’s beaches.
To fully experience Oaxaca’s diverse landscape, it’s important for visitors to venture beyond the coast. A vaquero (rancher) and I set out by horseback from the village of San Jose into the foothills. We soon left the fields of papaya behind and forged the Manialtepec River, my horse’s hooves lifting from the pebbled river bottom until he was swimming chest-deep. At our destination, Atotonilco Hot Springs, the thermal waters were blistering hot, making it impossible to enter. Instead, I joined a Lalo Ecotours tour group and floated blissfully in Manialtepec Lagoon, where a neon glow created by rare bioluminescent plankton appeared like stars under the night sky.
I wrapped up the week with a cliffside hike to the legendary “frozen” waterfalls of Hierve el Agua, a collection of stalactites formed from the petrified mineral deposits of calcium carbonate and magnesium. As I soaked my muscles in the warm water bubbling from a fissure in the natural rock pool, it was tempting to daydream about hang gliding into the valley below. In Oaxaca, it seems the only limit to adventure is stamina.