Once it opens in 2018, the much-anticipated Oaxaca coastal highway will shrink the daunting drive from Oaxaca City to Puerto Escondido from seven hours down to two. Go before that floodgate opens to savor a pristine swath of Pacific coastline where sea turtles swim and huge waves lure big-name surfers. Though a recent influx of artists and chefs has brought sophisticated touches to Puerto’s three neighborhoods (the Playa Zicatela surfing hot spot, the downtown promenade, and the boho-chic Rinconada), there’s not a high-rise in sight: Instead, palm leaf–roofed palapas on the beach are still the best place to enjoy tacos and coastal-style mole made with the fresh swordfish and tuna brought in on sun-bleached local boats.

Thirty minutes north of Puerto’s center, claim one of 16 palapas at Hotel Escondido, an enclave best described as tiki meets Mad Men, with sleek-lined sofas, an underground nightclub, and an infinity pool that overlooks a vast, untamed shoreline. Walk to neighboring Casa Wabi, a minimalist cement-walled gallery and artists’ retreat created by Mexican-born artist Bosco Sodi.

A 500-peso taxi ride gets you to Puerto’s Rinconada district, where several galleries have cropped up and new restaurants offer unprecedented quality. Gota de Tierra exhibits biomorphic porcelain jewelry and geometric tapestries. Spanish expats re-create tapas and seafood paella at La Lolaila, which offers sunset views from the rooftop patio and live music most weekends from November through February. And at Almoraduz, Quetzalcóatl Zurita uses his culinary school training to transform the traditional foods of his indigenous Chatino forebears into haute cuisine: Pork ribs glisten in a musky black-ant sauce, and local tusta chilies electrify fresh-caught shrimp.

To explore Mercado Benito Juárez, the chili-laden market where Zurita (and everyone else in Puerto) stocks up, schedule a tour with Gina Machorro. Her energetic narratives intersperse eye-rolling wisecracks with insights into Puerto’s evolving customs—like the way locals embraced Italian basil not as an herb, but as a bouquet that imparts good luck.

But the ocean is the real soul of Puerto. Walk to the nearby waterfront to watch fishermen fillet swordfish on the beach. Then step inside La Tortuga Loca, where Ceferina Burón turns those hauls into ceviche and cotorra a la talla (chili-marinated grilled fish) using recipes she learned 50 years ago, when she became a fisherman’s wife. To splash in Puerto’s most pristine waters, head to Bacocho, a sandy Rinconada beach that just earned Mexico’s playa limpia (clean beach) certification and showcases papaya-colored sunsets over the Pacific.

Location Southwest Mexico

Flight Time 75 minutes from Mexico City

Population 45,000

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