Nature and man in harmony in Barra de Navidad
Surrounded by graceful mangroves, clouds of birds and the cerulean blue of the Colotepec River, it’s easy to forget that Barra de Navidad is just a 15-minute drive from Puerto Escondido’s busy commercial centre. While much of the news in the rest of the world is focused on the ongoing struggle of “man vs. nature” this quiet corner of environmentally-significant wetlands demonstrates harmony between human beings and nature and is an ideal destination for birdwatching and wildlife viewing.
Its two distinct eco-tourism zones and their community-led projects are ideal spots to spend a relaxing morning or evening sunset.
The Colotepec River empties into the Pacific in a wide estuary that fluctuates with the tides. At low tide, you can wade across the shallow waters, but at high tide, your best bet is to head to La Luna Azul, a restaurant operated by a cooperative of local families.
From your table surrounded by birdsong, you can watch fishermen cast their nets into the surf or bring your binoculars and see how many species of birds you can identity and engage in some serious birdwatching. More than 37 species of resident birds and 27 species of migratory birds (including the colorful roseate spoonbill) gather in the river’s wide shallow waters to fish, wade and rest. The flocks of black-necked stilt, pelicans, egrets and great blue heron make for a particularly impressive display at sunset.
Other pleasures include hiking through the mangrove forest. Although the formerly well-groomed trails were washed away by Hurricane Carlotta in 2012 and are now just a shifting path in the sand, a walk in the forest offers the opportunity to experience the unique vitality of a living mangrove system. The intricate mesh of mangrove roots serves as an incubator for young organisms and supports a wealth of aquatic life. You can see gigantic termite nests suspended in the tree canopy, lush ferns, blue morpho and ruby-spotted swallowtail butterflies as well as other flora and fauna.
Given the dozens of species of snakes in Oaxaca, it’s wise to wear hiking boots for protection in case you stumble upon a barba amarilla, coral or other venomous snake.
Located east of the mouth of the Colotepec River is a fascinating lagoon eco-system called Laguna Palma Sola, and is best accessed by road rather than riverbank. Several government agencies, such as National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) and the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI) have partnered with a cooperative of 23 families from the Santa Maria de Colotepec Barra de Navidad community to ensure the protection, conservation, restoration and development of the lagoon’s unique eco-system.
To visit the heart of this eco-tourism project watch for the Embarcadero Palma Sola sign where a guide is available to offer a tour of the lagoon channel in a non-motorized boat. During the tour, he will point out the resident population of crocodiles. Once hunted for their meat and hide, crocodiles were nearly wiped out along Oaxaca’s coast. Now, thanks to recovery efforts, more than 350 crocodiles make their home in the Palma Sola lagoon alone.
Unlike Hollywood movies that show crocodiles aggressively attacking anything that falls in the water, these crocodiles seem more interested in snatching egret than people. Iguanas can also be seen sunning on large tree branches or munching on vegetation.
The roots in the mangrove forest are important to Oaxaca’s coastal system and the survival of its wildlife. Mangroves serve as a filtration system, stopping soil sediment from washing out to sea and reducing erosion from storm surges. During the rainy season, the lagoon meets the ocean and tiny fish, shrimp and shellfish enter to spawn in the lagoon. This, plus the accumulation of nutrients delivered by the rivers, supports a healthy diversity of flora and fauna.
When you’re finished your lagoon tour, head to La Ballena, the cooperative’s restaurant. Located on a nearby stretch of undeveloped beach, this humble eatery, named after a 21-metre long grey whale that washed up on the sand, offers a shady palapa where you can enjoy a cold cerveza or soft drink, grilled seafood and handmade maize tortillas. The bones of the whale were relocated from La Ballena’s former location at the mouth of the Colotepec River and are proudly displayed at the new restaurant.
Olive Ridley turtles also lay their eggs on this long beach and the cooperative operates a sea turtle corral, regularly hosting baby turtle releases once the eggs have hatched. Call ahead to check for dates and times.
From bird-watching in the river estuary to crocodile tours in the lagoon — no matter which section of the Barra de Navidad Colotepec ecosystem you choose to explore, you’ll be supporting a harmonious blend of community enterprise and nature. Your support of the restaurants, eco-tourism projects and other services offers valuable assistance to the local community and will help preserve this pristine outpost.
If You Go
To get to Barra de Navidad, take a colectivo marked Barra de Navidad from anywhere along Highway 200 Carretera Costera going southeast. Don’t take the colectivo marked Barra as it stops on the opposite side of the Colotepec River.
Disembark at the last stop in Barra de Navidad, a small farming community. An interesting iguanarium is located in Barra de Navidad and is well worth a visit.
From the colectivo drop-off point, it’s a 30-minute walk to La Luna Azul restaurant and a 40-minute walk to La Ballena restaurant. The road is well-marked and partly-shaded by tamarindo, chico and mango trees but be sure to bring water, a hat and insect repellent. Modern cabanas have recently been constructed to accommodate tourists who wish to overnight. Check at La Ballena restaurant for costs and availability. Donations are always welcome.