Mexico’s contentious new ‘superhighway’

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Mexico’s newly inaugurated “superhighway” known as the Barranca Larga-Ventanilla highway promises to revolutionize travel to the picturesque and culturally vibrant coastline of Oaxaca. However, as the region braces for an influx of visitors, questions arise about the preparedness of local communities to manage the impact of increased tourism.

For me, the allure of the Oaxaca Coast had always been irresistible, sparked by captivating tales from a friend who spent a year immersed in the region’s yoga retreats and spiritual ceremonies. Last December, after residing in Oaxaca City for five months, I embarked on a journey to this stunning Pacific coastline, eager to witness the crashing waves of Playa Zipolite, soak in the sunset at a legendary cape rumored to hold Aztec treasures, and explore the spiritual enclaves of Mazunte.

Yet, reaching these idyllic destinations was no small feat. The Oaxaca Coast, shielded by the rugged Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains, was previously accessible only via a treacherous mountain road notorious for inducing motion sickness. Enduring seven to eight hours by car or 10-12 hours by bus, the journey was a logistical challenge, especially with a busy work schedule. Alternatively, the costly option of flying to Puerto Escondido, a coastal city, seemed to be the only solution. Opting for a night bus, the dizzying twists and turns left me feeling like I had survived a wild rollercoaster ride.

Fast forward a few months, and a weekend escape to the beach has become remarkably convenient. The inauguration of the 104km Barranca Larga-Ventanilla highway, linking Oaxaca City – lauded as the world’s best city by Travel & Leisure in 2023 – to Puerto Escondido, the gateway to nearly 600km of pristine coastline, has slashed travel time to a mere 2.5 hours.

“The new highway is a game-changer for those seeking a seamless journey from the city to the coast,” remarked Colleen Palmer, an American traveller I encountered during my trip. “The buzz surrounding the highway was palpable in Oaxaca City, and even more so upon our arrival in Puerto Escondido.”

Exploring the so-called Oaxacan Riviera for nearly two weeks, I found myself captivated by the tranquil charm of Mazunte, the quaint fishing village of St. Agustinillo, and the vibrant LGBTQ-friendly atmosphere of Zipolite. These laid-back communities, characterized by their off-the-grid lifestyle, are a sanctuary where ATMs often run dry, and reliable Wi-Fi remains elusive. Immersing myself in crystal healings in Mazunte and savoring the lively ambiance of Zipolite offered a perfect blend of relaxation and adventure.

Yet, the allure of the Oaxacan Coast extends far beyond these quaint villages. Venturing south from Zipolite unveils the wonders of Huatulco National Park, boasting nine bays, 36 beaches, coral reefs, and lush jungles. Alternatively, exploring Puerto Escondido, renowned for its towering 20ft waves dubbed the “Mexican Pipeline,” opens doors to a myriad of natural wonders, including the biodiverse lagoons of Chacahua National Park and the enchanting bioluminescence of Laguna de Manialtepec.

Beyond catering to tourists’ desires, the local government envisions the highway as a catalyst for economic growth and improved access to essential services for remote communities. With an investment exceeding 13 billion pesos (approximately £609 million), the government has demonstrated its commitment to enhancing trade and travel infrastructure in Oaxaca. Moreover, initiatives such as the expansion of Puerto Escondido airport and the ambitious Interoceanic Corridor underscore the region’s potential as a burgeoning hub of commerce and tourism.

However, amidst the optimism surrounding increased accessibility, the highway also poses challenges. Gentrification looms large as rising costs drive locals away from their traditional communities. Environmental concerns, exacerbated by inadequate infrastructure and unchecked development, threaten the region’s natural beauty. Moreover, tensions simmer between the government and Indigenous communities, highlighting deeper issues of equity and representation.

As visitors flock to this coastal paradise, it is imperative to approach tourism with mindfulness and sensitivity. Supporting local businesses, minimizing waste, and embracing sustainable practices are essential steps in preserving the ecological and cultural integrity of the Oaxacan Coast. By treading lightly and respecting the land and its inhabitants, travelers can ensure that their exploration of this enchanting region leaves a positive impact for generations to come.

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