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In Puerto Escondido, Brutalism and thatched roofs with a side of sand and surf

Love design? Skip Tulum

seaside view
A view of Playa Punta Zicatela and its lighthouse, at left.
Getty Images/Aurora Open

Puerto Escondido, a beach town in the southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca, has long been a well-kept secret of the world’s surfing community. Most travel guides focus on the area’s immense waves and the laid-back vibes on offer in local bars and restaurants under thatch-roofed palapas.

Lately, though, it seems the secret is out: Puerto (as it’s known to locals) is welcoming a wider variety of tourists, among them design enthusiasts eager to explore the region’s burgeoning art and architecture scenes.

About a half-hour taxi ride out of town, renowned architect Alberto Kalach—the designer behind some of Mexico City’s most notable buildings, including Biblioteca Vasconcelos and the Kurimanzutto Gallery—recently finished building eight eco-villas in an ocean-front site flanked by a large, rocky cliff.

Though today the villas appear to have sprouted from the ground along with the greenery that envelops them (from afar, one can only make out their pitched wooden rooftops), not long ago the site was completely barren, stripped by aggressive agricultural practices.

Since 2012, Kalach has focused on reforesting the area, partnering with Luis Urrutia—an engineer who specializes in regenerative projects—to study the region’s endemic flora and bring life back to the site, which is now known as Punta Pájaros.

The design team’s holistic approach recalls the work of the late Mexican architect and amateur botanist Luis Barragán, who once declared “I don’t divide architecture, landscape, and gardening; to me they are one.” Once Punta Pájaros’s landscaping had taken form, Kalach designed the series of villas, each unique and independent from one another, with fully furnished kitchens, dining areas, living rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms, and with an ample terrace and small private pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Alberto Kalach isn’t the only architect who has worked in the region: A short walk away from Punta Pájaros, you’ll find a pristine slab of concrete punctured by two pools—one long and rectangular, the other a shallow triangle—leading to an immaculate concrete structure topped with an intricately constructed thatched palapa roof. This is Casa Wabi, an art foundation established in 2014 by Mexican contemporary artist Bosco Sodi, and designed by renowned Japanese architect and poet of light and concrete, Tadao Ando.

Tadao Ando gifted two spotted dogs to Bosco Sodi after construction wrapped.
Inside Casa Wabi.
Asad Syrkett

Taking its name from the traditional Japanese concept of wabi-sabi—an approach to aesthetics that centers on the beauty found in transience and imperfection—Sodi’s non-profit foundation aims to promote social engagement through art, providing workshops, round tables, and exhibitions.

Because Casa Wabi prioritizes work between the communities and artists-in-residence , visitors to the space are only welcome on Tuesdays and Thursdays starting at 4 p.m., or Saturday mornings at 10 a.m.

A view to Casa Wabi’s pools and the ocean beyond. The foundation is open for one-hour tours on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, and Saturday mornings.
Asad Syrkett

Each tour lasts about an hour—and is worth every minute. Casa Wabi’s elegant building presents a marriage of contemporary culture and local traditions: at eye level, the sleek concrete structure rises in a scruffy landscape of cacti and shrubbery; above, a thatched roof carefully built by Oaxacan craftspeople. If you make your way there, say hello to Bonita and Chula, two black-spotted dogs that were gifts to the foundation from Tadao Ando himself.

Back in town, you’ll find that Puerto is divided into two main areas: the bustling Zicatela, where the ocean offers waves only a surfer could love, but where bars and restaurants abound (a tip for the nosy: Alberto Kalach recently finished his private residence in Zicatela, which is mostly visible from street level, so keep an eye out), and La Punta, a more laid-back area perfect for swimming and lounging. To swim in warm, crystalline waters, head over to Puerto Angelito and Carrizalillo, two coves where the waves are nearly nonexistent.

Perhaps the most astonishing natural encounter available is the rare phenomenon called bioluminescence, caused by phosphorescent plankton that light up the waters at night, and can be observed at the nearby Manialtepec Lagoon.

If, during your trip, you find yourself in desperate need of a reliable Wi-Fi connection, head over to the cozy co-working space Selina, but be sure to also give yourself enough time to unplug! Puerto Escondido is quickly being developed into Mexico’s next “it” destination, and has proven to be much more than just a surfer’s paradise.