Swimming, surfing, windsurfing, snorkeling, scuba diving, and kayaking are Oaxaca’s water sports of choice. For details on local conditions, favorite spots, equipment, and rental shops, see the destination sections of this guide.
Snorkeling and Scuba Diving
Many exciting clear-water sites, such as the Bahías de Huatulco and Playa Estacahuite near Puerto Ángel and Playa Angelito near Puerto Escondido, await both beginner and expert snorkelers and divers. Veteran divers usually arrive during the dry winter and early spring when river outflows are mere trickles, leaving offshore waters clear. In Huatulco and Puerto Escondido, professional dive shops rent equipment, provide lessons and guides, and transport divers to choice sites.
While convenient, rented equipment is often less than satisfactory. To be sure, serious divers bring their own gear. This might include wetsuits in the winter, when some swimmers begin to feel cold after an unprotected half hour in the water.
Surfing, Sailing, Windsurfing, and Kayaking
Oaxaca has the Mexican Pacific’s acknowledged best (but most challenging) surfing beach, the renowned Playa Zicatela “pipeline” at Puerto Escondido. The surf everywhere is highest and most exciting during the July–November hurricane season, when big swells from storms far out at sea attract platoons of surfers to favored beaches.
Sailboarders and sailboaters can often find the moderately breezy conditions that they love during the Oaxaca winter or spring. Then they gather to enjoy the near-ideal conditions at many coves and inlets near the resorts.
Kayakers who, by contrast, are happiest in tranquil waters, also do well in the winter and spring in sheltered coastal bays and coves, notably the Bahías de Huatulco. Mangrove lagoons, furthermore, especially Laguna Manialtepec near Puerto Escondido, and Laguna Chacahua farther west, or Laguna Corrallero, near Pinotepa Nacional, near Oaxaca’s western border, offer abundant kayaking opportunities.
While beginners can have fun with the equipment available from rental shops, serious surfers, sailboarders, sailboaters, and kayakers should pack their own gear.
As viewed from Oaxaca beaches, the Pacific Ocean usually lives up to its name. Many protected inlets, safe for child’s play, dot the coastline. Unsheltered shorelines, on the other hand, can be deceiving. Smooth water in the calm forenoon often changes to choppy in the afternoon; calm ripples lapping the shore in March can grow to hurricane-driven walls of water in November. Such storms can wash away sand, changing a wide gently sloping beach into a steep rocky one plagued by turbulent waves and treacherous currents.
Undertow, whirlpools, crosscurrents, and occasional oversized waves can make ocean swimming a fast-lane adventure. Getting unexpectedly swept out to sea or hammered onto the beach bottom by a surprise breaker are potential hazards.
Never attempt serious swimming when tipsy or full of food; never swim alone where someone can’t see you. Always swim beyond the breakers (which come in sets of several, climaxed by a big one, which breaks highest and farthest from the beach). If you happen to get caught in the path of such a breaker, avoid it by diving under and letting it roll harmlessly over you. If you do get caught by a serious breaker, try to roll and tumble with it (as football players tumble) to avoid injury.
Poisonous sea snakes, although rare and shy, do inhabit Oaxaca waters. Much more common, especially around submerged rocks, is the moray eel. Don’t stick your fingers or toes in any concealed cracks.
Now and then, swimmers get a nettle-like jellyfish sting. Be careful around coral reefs and beds of sea urchins; corals can sting (like jellyfish), and you can get infections from coral cuts and sea-urchin spines. Shuffle along sandy bottoms to scare away stingrays before stepping on one. If you’re unlucky, its venomous tail-spines may inflict a painful wound.
For advice on what to do if you suffer a coral scratch or jellyfish sting or become injured from sea-urchin spines and sting-rays, see Sea Creatures under Health Problems in the Health and Safety section.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition