I wrote this feature for the Dallas Morning News. It was published on March 30, 1998.
ZIPOLITE, Mexico – Like something out of a Cheech and Chong movie, a shaggy-haired hippie strolls along an ivory stretch of sand, peddling his wares to naked sun worshipers. “Want any suntan lotion? ” he asks a woman wearing a nose ring and little else. “No? Well, how ’bout some weed? I got good quality. ” Such odd appeals are remarkably common in this little beach town, a laid-back hideaway for nudists, pot smokers, turtle watchers and gray-haired spiritualists from around the world.
Now though, some Zipolite loyalists fear for its future. First came Hurricane Pauline, which swept away half of the town in October. Hurricane Rick hit a month later. And just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, they did: The builders arrived.
Armed with electric drills, claw hammers and government disaster loans, these enterprising small-time developers are changing the face of Zipolite, some say for the worse. Three- and four-story hotels are springing up where breezy thatched-roof huts once stood.
Restaurants made of concrete blocks are replacing quaint taco stands with menus scribbled on blackboards. And many longtime residents are angry.
“It’s like we’ve been invaded,” said Gloria Hope Johnson, who runs Shambhala, a guest house and cafe for the New Age crowd.
“Can’t they just leave a place natural and simple? ” Others disagree, saying the march of civilization can’t – and shouldn’t – be stopped.
“Most of the locals here are poor. They need more than just hippies and drugs,” said Vit Sojka, 34, a Czech travel agent and Mexico City resident who visits regularly. “They need to attract people with money. ” Zipolite, with a population of several thousand people, lies along the southern coast of Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest states.
Backpackers, adventurers and hippies discovered its then-deserted beach in 1970 after hearing it would be a prime spot to see a solar eclipse that year.
The beach became a town, but remained unspoiled into the late ’80s, residents say. Americans and Europeans hiked in because the road from nearby Puerto Angel didn’t exist yet. The travelers slept in hammocks rigged under open-air huts called palapas, paying no more than a few dollars a night. Sea turtles laid their eggs in sandy coves, and authorities left most people alone even when they stripped off their clothes and smoked marijuana.
Residents say it was a great place to live cheap and do next to nothing. One man arrived in a van that promptly broke down, so he decided to stay. Ten years later, he’s still there and so is his car, unrepaired along a gravel road.
By the mid-1990s, locals had opened several dozen oceanfront restaurants, with rickety tables, plastic lawn chairs and handwritten signs touting the day’s fresh catch.
Tour guides from nearby resorts in Huatulco and Puerto Escondido started promoting Zipolite as “Mexico’s last nude beach,” and soon camera-toting gawkers and curiosity-seekers began to outnumber those going au naturel .
Even so, the town has continued to attract new fans with the help of the World Wide Web as veteran “Zipol-heads” share their adventures.
“I went to the Zip a couple years ago and had intended to stay for only a few days but somehow ended up there for a few weeks,” Chicagoan Kevin McNeill said by e-mail. “You must understand that Zipolite isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind.
“I remember late nights around campfires where we cooked rice and beans and listened to stories that international vagabonds tell. This dude from Italy would play bongos while the local Oaxacans played their guitars and shook these long, fig-like things. I sometimes wonder what has become of my friends from Zipolite. ” Electronic chatter about the town reached new intensity after Hurricane Pauline ripped through the region with 180-mph winds on Oct. 8. No one in Zipolite died, but dozensof homes, restaurants, hotels and the Pina Palmera orphanage were leveled.
Before the storm hit, one group of residents climbed onto a neighbor’s roof to guzzle beer and watch what they thought would be an ordinary gale.
“What was that? ” one of them remembered asking.
“I think a roof just flew by,” said his companion, and they quickly decided to take cover.
Ms. Johnson, 57, rode out the hurricane with a friend, a baby and a German shepherd named Shaman.
“Everything was blowing so fast around our little house,” she recalled. “Dishes, pots, chairs, even the tables went off the terrace. We were dripping wet, and leaves stuck all over our skin.
Our hair was blowing straight up. ” She and others tried to prevent the roof from blowing off, but eventually gave up, hiding in a small concrete room until the storm ended.
“It’s like we were in a cosmic blender and we came out liquefied,” she said. “We were shocked. An iguana that had used a tree trunk as a life raft was now being carried out to sea.
Two-hundred-year-old cactus trees were ripped apart. Every part of our bodies hurt. We were so happy to be alive. ” As residents rebuilt, Hurricane Rick struck Nov. 9. And while it wasn’t nearly as powerful as Pauline, it swept away roofs, downed power lines and scattered debris all over the pristine beach.
Those who are putting up concrete-block hotels say the new Zipolite will be better protected against the next disaster.
Others, such as Luis Castellano, 33, said they’d rather not see concrete and iron bars along the beach. “Wood’s OK. Not concrete.
Not any of that. ” All 10 of the little huts he owns were destroyed by Pauline.
“What took me five or six years to build was wiped out in just a few hours,” said Mr. Castellano as he pounded a nail into a new palapa.
Even with its emerging new look, Zipolite is a spectacle not easily described.
On one recent afternoon, a French woman stepped gingerly around a skinny crippled dog named Angel, stripped off her clothes and waded into the water.
A Canadian musician who said he came to Zipolite “to get healthy” smoked a marijuana cigarette, then offered it to a Californian.
“Is this any good? ” she asked, taking a toke. “I buy only the good stuff in San Francisco. Four-hundred dollars an ounce. One puff and you’re stoned for three hours. ” Another Californian, a health food store employee named Brett Fisher, said there seem to be more drugs in Zipolite than ever before.
“I’ve been offered LSD, pot, coke and just about everything else,” she said.
No matter, a red-headed friend of hers who goes by Revi Airborne said. She loved the place and planned to stay at least a week.
“It’s totally paradise,” said Ms. Airborne, a violin teacher.
“In California, the ocean water is so cold, if you’re not swimming, you’re dying. But here it’s like a big bathtub with lots of adventure thrown in. It’s gorgeous. ” She sat on a blue and white tie-dyed cloth and drank a Squirt as other travelers trudged by in the hot sand.
“It’s an intense heterosexual pickup scene,” she said. “There are a lot of single, roving men. Mexicans, Europeans, Americans.
It’s definitely a scene. ” A group of locals walked by, saying they were going to Ramon’s, the grocery store, where they planned to sit on the steps and drink the cheapest beer in town.
“A lot of people here can’t make it anywhere else,” said Joyce Ferman, an English teacher and Zipolite regular. “You find everything, dropouts, free-lance missionaries, drunks, druggies.
You name it. ” Just then, a nude couple ran into the water.
“Someone ought to do a calendar – The Boys of Zipolite. Or even The Girls of Zipolite,” Ms. Ferman said. “It would be a hit. ” Behind her, workers labored on what will be a four-story hotel.
“Zipolite is definitely changing,” said Ms. Ferman, glancing toward the building. “I’d call it a paradise in transition. ” An Italian who gave his name only as Billo agreed.
“With big restaurants selling hamburgers, hotels and fancy toilets everywhere, Zipolite will be like any other beach,” he said. “Already, the atmosphere has changed. The hurricanes did it.
They blew away not only the palapas , but the energy, the magic.
“So someday we may have to say Zipolite is finished. But we’ll find another place. Another paradise. “