It takes seven-and-a-half grueling and winding hours to arrive at my favorite hotel in the mountains on the outskirts of Oaxaca City. It’s worth it, though. I kiss the owner on the cheek and somehow muster the strength to crack a smile. He hands me a joint, filled with cannabis almost as thick as my thumb. It’s a ritual we have developed over the years, and I’m grateful to be in Zipolite for the third Annual Nudist Festival, where there is no need to hide.
Like public nudity, cannabis and a slew of other illicit substances are celebrated here. They are a part of what makes the lengthy beach such a favored destination for nudists, hippies and eccentrics of all flavors. I first heard of Zipolite as I expect many early travelers here did, in impassioned recommendations from strangers along the road, from the woman selling laced desserts on another nude beach in British Columbia, and the couple sharing the tub at a clothing-optional hot spring somewhere in Oregon. Everyone agreed, “If you’re going to Mexico, you have to visit Zipolite.”
With a population of over 1,000 people, Zipolite isn’t exactly a booming resort city, but that is exactly why its’s so popular with the moon-gazing crowd for the past 50 years. As in many other villages in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, the people resist governance from the state and federal levels. Much like towns in the nearby mountains where tourism is focused on magic mushrooms, you can sit and smoke a joint in the sand while watching for whales, or spark your pipe at most of the beachfront restaurants. Cannabis culture is so accepted, in fact, that you will often see off-duty lifeguards sharing a spliff at their stations, and if you walk long enough, just enjoying the feeling of your feet in the surf, someone is bound to offer up some sort of intoxicating treat. At the same time, you may come across buzzy friction between vacationing families and frisky tourists who push the town’s permissiveness to the limits.
Just up the beach from where I’m staying, Cristina Coldabella is topless, covered in vivid body paint, dancing on a table to music that fades in and out under the sound of the waves, waving her arms encouraging folks to step up and get some color themselves. The Italy native has been living in Zipolite for almost a year–an impulsive move that came after visiting a friend and falling in love with the landscape. “In Zipolite you don’t have taboos, there is no need to fear getting naked.” She gestures to her bare breasts and paint-covered bikini bottoms. “In Italy, I’d never do anything like this, but Zipolite is a special place. It opens your mind. Here,” she says, canvassing the environment with awe in her eyes, “here you can just live free.”She sips from her beer, scored when the bar at Hotel Nude (hosting the festival) offered them to the first 30 people to sit for an HIV test, organized by Los Angeles-based non-profit AHF Mexico.
Nallely Diaz, of Mexico City, finishes painting a pair of cherries on a woman’s breasts and motions for me to step up. As she covers my chest in bright yellow-orange sunflowers and green leafy vines, she talks about organizing the festival. She is on the board of directors for the Mexican Nudist Federation and part of the planning committee since its inception in 2016. “Zipolite is the only public nude beach in Mexico,” she declares. While technically all beaches in Mexico are public land, hotels and resorts have no qualms about buying up surrounding areas and making it virtually impossible to reach the shore without paying for access. Outside of Zipolite, nudists do yoga indoors or in closed gardens, visit traditional temazcals (a type of Mexican sauna made of adobe or brick), pay the steep price of visiting beaches ruled by major chains, and plan outings to other private recreational parks. But nothing beats the freedom of this particular beach.
When Coldabella finishes painting, an intricate job that looks like it took much longer than the five minutes we spend chatting, she hands me a pamphlet and calls on her next subject. After musing that nudism isn’t about sex or swinging, and that a naked body isn’t an invitation, the glossy page directs me to call the head of security if I experience any kind of harassment or assault. There is one resounding message in this festival, whether you are a nudist seeking salt and sun, a queer person who wants to shout your love to the world, a free-love hippie who can’t afford a standard sexual health screening, or just a traveler looking to expand your literal and metaphorical horizons: You are safe here.
So save any fears you might have for the waves. Zipolite is said, by some, to mean “the beach of death” and it absolutely lives up to its name. Strong currents and large waves, especially along the rocky areas of the beach, have resulted in numerous drownings. Green, yellow and red flags mark areas where it is safest to swim, and these should be strictly obeyed. No, this beach doesn’t have the quiet, lapping waves of the Mayan Riviera, where you can laze about in the water watching for fish in the coral. The waves here crash and tumble, the currents push and pull relentlessly. But if you give the ocean the respect it deserves, Zipolite will show you a good time.
Jair Flores, manager of Hotel Nude, and president of the local hoteliers’ association, says it best: “Zipolite captivates, with the warmth of the people, with the slow pace of life. It changes your perspective. In one word, Zipolite is magic.”