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Swim Among the Stars in This Hidden Mexican Beach Town

Go for the glow-in-the-dark lagoons; stay for everything else.

The small Oaxacan town of Chacahua possesses a mythical quality. From its inception, the village has relied on its secluded location hidden among Oaxaca’s coastal cliffs to stay out of the public eye. Founded by runaway slaves in the late 16th century, Chacahua is home to many African Mexicans, a minority that was overlooked by the Mexican government until 2015. But despite the village’s inclination to remain off the grid, word of its extraordinary natural wonder—Las Lagunas de Chacahua, the area’s bioluminescent glow-in-the-dark lagoon—has leaked out.

Part of the mystery of Chacahua lies in its location:  Far from the tourist trail, inside a national park, and bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the lagoon, the secluded paradise is difficult to find and to access. While you’ll often hear that “somewhere” in Oaxaca there are beaches with water that turns electric blue when disturbed, not many people know Chacahua’s name, much less how to get there. Further muddying the metaphorical water is the nearby Laguna de Manialtepec, the country’s other, more accessible, bioluminescent lagoon. But unlike La Laguna de Manialtepec, bioluminescence can easily be seen year-round in Las Lagunas de Chacahua. 

This place looks completely different when the sun goes down
Adding to the mystery is the lack of photographic evidence. According to local guides, photographers hoping to capture the bioluminescent plankton regularly come back empty-handed (getting long exposures on a boat in the middle of a lake is fraught with difficulty), making Mexico’s tourism slogan, “Live it to believe it,” quite apropos.

Even when you see the phenomenon with your own eyes, it seems unreal. The first time I saw the plankton light up, I wasn’t sure what I’d just seen. I blinked. I pinched myself. I blinked again. But they were still there: little points of neon blue, LED-like lights floating in the water around my body and trailing my every movement with polka-dotted swirls. It’s mesmerizing and magical and brings to mind the scene in Disney’s Cinderella, when Cinderella gets outfitted by her fairy godmother.

However, this phosphorescent magic is the work of dinoflagellates, bioluminescent plankton that glows to scare away predators. When the creatures feel threatened—say, when the water around them is agitated—the plankton shine blue. And while the creatures are native to the ocean, they get caught in the Pacific-fed Las Lagunas de Chacahua. 

Although intrepid travelers seek out Chacahua for the phosphorescent light shows, they soon find out that the village is just as delightful in the daytime. Beachfront cabañas, surf-ready waves, friendly manta rays, and meals of fresh-caught fish make the town an ideal escape—and the lack of cell phone service creates a mandatory digital detox. Mexico may be filled with plenty of paradise-found beach towns, but thanks to the local population of dinoflagellates, and a little mystery, Chacahua packs enough natural wonder to impress even the most experienced traveler. 

Getting There
Getting to the village takes some commitment, although it’s not nearly as hard as it sounds.

Chacahua is located about two hours north of Puerto Escondido, a popular surf town. From Puerto, you can take a bus or a taxi to the neighboring community of Rio Grande, and from there, take a colectivo (a ride in the back of a pickup truck with villagers) to Zapotalito. Once in Zapotalito, hop on the speedboat/pickup truck combo that runs on the hour, transporting villagers first across the lagoon in a motorboat and then to the village of Chacahua by pickup truck. It may be tempting to rent a car, but wheels won’t do you much good because there’s no ferry across the lagoon. And really, getting there is all part of the adventure. 

Where to Eat and Stay
Traditional luxuries are hard to come by in Chacahua, simply because they’re hard to transport to the village, but the village’s abundance of natural beauty more than makes up for it. In Chacahua, luxury comes in the form of mosquito nets and cotton hammocks, fresh-caught fish and Señora Inez’s can’t-miss Mexican antojitos, or mid-afternoon snacks. (Señora Inez actually announces her daily offerings over a loudspeaker, so you literally can’t miss them.) In terms of cabañas, try Las Cabañas de Siete Mares or Ishamar Restaurant and Cabañas, both of which are nice, clean options with private bathrooms. If you absolutely must connect to the world, there’s Wi-Fi in the village. And of course, you’ll find both satellite TV and Coca-Cola. Because in Mexico, no matter how remote a place, or how little cell service there may be, you can always—always—count on those two constants. That, my friends, is the beauty of this country.

How to See the Plankton
Chacahua is very small and informal. The best way to organize a tour is to ask the owner of your cabaña to set it up for you. While you can see the bioluminescent plankton year-round in Chacahua, there are ways to maximize your experience.

- Avoid going during the full moon. Too much light can make it difficult to see the plankton glow; it’s best to go on the new moon or soon after.
- Cloudy nights make for better viewing.
- May is Chacahua’s “high season” for phosphorescence. At this time of year, the concentration of dinoflagellates in the lagoon is at its highest and the glow is at its brightest. While the “crowds” don’t compare to high seasons in other tourist areas, you will encounter more people here at this time than during other months.

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