THE SANDS OF PUERTO ANGEL

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PUERTO ANGEL, Mexico -- What seasoned tourist hasn't complained about the paving of paradise, those once-unique destinations that have been transformed into ugly commercial monsters by developers spurred on, well, by tourists?

Take Mazatlan, for example, or Acapulco. You can have them.
 
But then there's Puerto Angel, a tranquil fishing village down the coast where developers, thankfully, have missed the boat. Here, charm and character and ease have survived.

And there isn't a swinging hot spot to be found.

What you will find, either in town or very close by, are four unique beaches, even while they share warm waters, open spaces, and an unhurried pace.

A good place to start any day in Puerto Angel is down at the municipal beach, not for swimming but for breakfast, while you watch the day's catch wash up on the beach. One by one over a couple of hours, fishermen gun the single outboard engines of their modest craft and head toward shore, only to raise them out of the water just before they hit the sand.

As each boat grinds to a halt just above the waterline, buyers race over and crowd around, vying to get the best of the haul. Then they leave, carrying two or three red snappers or tunas in each hand, using the fins as handles. How long the sales last depends on the size of the catch. Most of the mariners use simply a line and a hook, without poles, and they usually sell off their products in just a few minutes.

But some use nets, and those encounters last a while longer. Probably by prearrangement although it looks spontaneous, squads of teen-agers move in as a boat reaches the beach, to help untangle the net while the fish are extracted from its folds. The catch is sold off one side while the net is unfurled on the other.

The morning I saw this little production, a pregnant shark had been snagged by the net, and after everything else had been disposed of, the captain of the 20-footer slaughtered his prize right on board, as the curious gathered round. Most of the flesh was taken by buyers, and the captain tossed the detritus into the surf. Children took away the immature babies as though they were toys.

What isn't sold right there is collected in plastic yellow crates a tad larger than milk cartons, placed on a brown Chevy pickup and taken to Pochutla, a crossroads town a few miles away, and to farther points unknown.

If someone is keeping track of who bought what at harborside, or who contributed what for the run to Pochutla, it's all invisible to the casual eye, though that could partly be because there are so many sensual distractions: salty breezes, the sun's warmth, the browns of the low cliffs that contrast with the dull blue of the harbor. Too, there's the modest activity of a few tourists and the buskers who try to sell them T-shirts on the crumbling, concrete pier.

The best places to take in these sights are right on the beach, little huts that serve simple breakfasts, from corn flakes to ham and eggs, complete with juice squeezed at tableside. It's a bit worrisome at first to see young men at the next table tossing down a few beers so early in the day, but, someone explained, they're fishermen, relaxing at the end of their workday.

For tourists, however, it is still the beginning, and the tough work of deciding where to loll lies ahead. The choices are surprisingly varied:

How about a broad, picturesque beach with a cave in the rock at one end and gentle tidal pools at the other? Or perhaps you're ready for the nude beach with the California feel next door? Maybe you would prefer something a bit more civilized, with chaise longues and table service.

In this little corner of Mexico, all are within reach.

The jewel of these shores is San Agustanillo, a mere 40-cent bus ride from Puerto Angel that offers almost anything anyone might ask.

The water is quite comfortably warm, and so clear that you can see your toes, even when you're standing on their tips to keep head above water. The beach is more than a mile long, but is broken into three crescents by rocks that jut into the sea.

The water off the first crescent tends toward tranquillity, lapping lazily onto the sand. This is the longest section, broad and flat and perfect for runners. It begins at a rocky outcropping that is home to an explorable cave carved by the tides. Offshore are two large rocks, one completely white and the other the natural stony brown. It's a mystery at first how these twin crags can be so different, until a resident explains: The white one is the one the birds like.

The rocks that mark the end of this section and the beginning of the next house a small chapel made of stone, a shrine where the fishermen seek protection before heading seaward. It is no larger than for perhaps a family of three, but it is clearly venerated; it is clean, freshly painted inside and out, and the small altar inside is covered with ribbons, icons and lighted candles.

The surf in the middle crescent is the most lively of the three, forceful enough to be a good schooling ground for beginning surfers but not overwhelming to bathers, and the space is large enough so that the two easily coexist.

The last section of beach is quite different. It is shielded by the second outcropping, so that the surf peeps rather than pounds. And it is entirely unsuitable for swimming because the bottom is more rock than sand. But these drawbacks turn out to be advantages: What's been created is a series of tidal pools. A close look reveals dozens of inch-long baby fish, wiggling among sea plants little larger than the surrounding pebbles.

One of the amazing features of this Shangri-La is that hardly anyone goes there. On the Saturday I was there, there was never so much as a crowd; during the whole day, we saw maybe 20 people. It's true that when we returned on Sunday, to see if we had imagined its riches, there were several dozen more people hanging out, but even then, we were still the only tourists. The people were mostly there with their families, celebrating birthdays or just taking a day at the beach together.

The ride to Zipolite is even shorter than to San Agustanillo, but once you're on the beach, it can seem you have traveled farther, not only in space but in time. This could be California in the 1960s.

Hippie-ish people abound; most are in their 20s, but you'll see more than a few gray-speckled ponytails. Hacky Sack rivals Frisbee as the game of choice, and don't be surprised if you see a guy playing his guitar in the surf, or a woman doing Eastern-style genuflections toward the sun.

In the nude. Zipolite is said to be one of the last nude beaches in all Mexico.

Many of these travelers spend not only their days but their nights at Zipolite, in one of the many hammock villas that line the beach. Rentals cost merely $1 a night, $2 if you want privacy.

Another overnight option is Shambhala, a granola-style resort that spreads across the hill at the beach's far end. Known to all simply as "Gloria's" after its California hostess, it fits right into -- and helps to set -- the tenor of the beach. Typical is a meditation spot overlooking a hidden cove, decorated with whale vertebrae and suited for sunsets. The day I was there, a guest slowly thumped a stretched-skin drum somewhere in the background, completing the new-age scene.

Although the beach -- long, wide and straight -- is great for atmosphere and fun for wading into the booming surf, it is not good for swimming. It is known in Spanish as playa de las muertes -- beach of the dead -- because of a treacherous undertow that is said to claim a body a week. That is almost certainly apocryphal, but the danger comes up in almost any conversation about the place.

You'll find Puerto Angel's version of continental sophistication at Playa Panteon, a brief walk from the municipal beach, past the local billet of the Mexican navy.

The restaurants that line this smallish stretch of sand are still open-air, but they're among the largest you'll find in the area; some have more than a dozen tables. Shills hang out toward the water line, trying to draw in business. They point out their wooden recliners under advertisers' umbrellas, available for no more than the price of patronage.

Swimming here is fine, though the water is less warm and less clear than San Agustanillo. The view is across the inlet, back toward Puerto Angel.

A special feature is a beachlet off to the far side, a little sandbar that, when above water, is bounded by high rocks on two sides but open to the harbor and open ocean on two others. Although there are steps cut into the rocks on the land side leading to somewhere, the easy way in is to swim over. Care is required because the approach is guarded by submerged rocks, but seeing the ferocity of the tidal surge from the ocean side is worth the effort.

Because of geography, sunbathers often come here early in the day and then head back toward the beach at Puerto Angel to catch the last hour or two of light.

SIDEBAR:

IF YOU GO . . .

Getting there: Before you get to Puerto Angel, you have to get to Pochutla, a scruffy crossroads about 10 or 15 minutes from the coast, and mostly likely you'll get there by bus. The closest airport is in Puerto Escondido, a surfing village of world renown about a 90-minute bus ride up the coast.

Getting around: Puerto Angel is quite walkable from one end to the other, though be aware that there are no street signs or addresses. To get to the farther beaches, take one of the very inexpensive buses that ply the coast road every half-hour or so from daybreak until well after dark. There are plenty of taxis, too; drivers often slow down and ask if they can take you somewhere.

Staying there: The most common places to stay are casas de huespedes -- guesthouses in which you live and even eat with the family -- and posadas, with perhaps a dozen rooms or so. There are plenty to choose from; choices at the high end offer private baths, although in the one I stayed in, showers were turned on only six hours a day, three in the morning and three around dinnertime.