Zipolite is a beach oasis for the LGBTQ community in Mexico. Can it last?

ZIPOLITE, Mexico — As the sun begins to slip toward the ocean in this idyllic Pacific Coast town, a silent migration begins. Groups of people, mostly gay men, many of them naked, walk along the beach towards a towering rock.

They ascend a spiral staircase, cross the cliff, and descend into a hidden cove known as Playa del Amor. are covered with a golden patina. When he finally dives into the water, the crowd erupts in applause.

“Love Beach at sunset; The first time I saw it, it really made me want to cry,” said Roberto Jerr, a 32-year-old who has been visiting Zipolite for five years. “It’s a space where you can be very free.”

For decades, this former fishing village turned hippie hangout has been transformed into an oasis for the queer community, drawn to its golden beaches, countercultural vibe, and a practice of nudism that embraces bodies of all shapes.

But as its popularity grew, attracting more and more gay and straight visitors, the city began to transform: foreigners snapped up land, hotels sprang up, influencers flocked to the beach, and many locals and visitors now fear that this once magical Zipolite may be lost forever.

“Everyone in the community should know a place where they feel comfortable, where they feel free, like Zipolite,” said Jerr, who is gay. “But on the other hand, there is ultramassive tourism, which is also starting to leave places without resources.”

Once a farming and fishing community, Zipolite became a popular destination for European hippies and backpackers beginning in the 1970s, when many flocked to the beaches of Oaxaca state for an exceptionally clear view of a solar eclipse. . Hippie tourism gave the town a bohemian vibe (it’s one of the few nudist beaches in Mexico) which also began to attract queer people who were welcomed by most locals. In February, Zipolite elected the first openly gay person to head the board.

Such tolerant attitudes are rare outside major Mexican cities, where conservative Catholic values ​​persist. Even though same-sex marriage is legal in more than half of the country, homophobic and transphobic violence is common. Between 2016 and 2020, some 440 lesbian, gay and transgender people were murdered across the country, according to Letra Ese, a Mexico City advocacy group.

David Montes Bernal, 33, grew up a few hours from Zipolite in a conservative community where machismo and homophobia were entrenched. When he was about 9 years old, the village priest performed what he calls “virtually an exorcism” to get him out of homosexuality.

“That’s when I realized it was a hostile place,” Bernal said.

At Zipolite you have found a place where you can feel comfortable with your sexuality and safe with your body.

“I was craving hope,” Bernal said of his first visit in 2014. “It finally feels like there is a place now where we can be whoever we want to be.”

As word of the opening spread, the city’s LGBTQ population grew: gay bars and hotels sprang up, rainbow flags were commonplace.

Yet despite acceptance by many locals, some believe Zipolite’s identity as a laid-back town that welcomes everyone from Mexican families to Canadian retirees is eroding, turning into a gay party town.

Miguel Ángel Ziga Aragón, a local resident who is gay and calls himself “la Chavelona”, has seen the local economy explode, not only because of gay tourism but because of an increase in tourism in general. While it was once mostly home to cabins and rustic hammocks along the beach, Zipolite’s tourist scene has become what he calls “more VIP”: Beachfront suites now cost up to $500 a night.

Tourism growth in Zipolite mirrors a statewide trend in Oaxaca: from 2017 to 2019, hospitality industry revenue grew by more than a third to nearly $240 million. Over the same period, the number of tourists visiting hotels in the coastal region that includes Zipolite rose by almost 40% to around 330,000 people, according to government figures.

“It’s a good change for the economy, but not so good for the community,” said Ziga Aragón.

In addition to an identity crisis, many fear an environmental crisis. It was built above the mangroves, the wildlife is disappearing. Residents complain of a lack of drinking water, which could worsen with further development.

While most residents agree more planning is needed, some say transformation is inevitable.

“It’s the life cycle of any tourist destination,” said Elyel Aquino Méndez, who runs a gay travel agency. “You have to seize the opportunities.”

But others worry that Zipolite is following the path of many Mexican beach towns that have become thriving resort towns, such as the popular gay destination of Puerto Vallarta or, more recently, Tulum: the Caribbean beach, once a bohemian paradise, has become a veritable lucrative real estate market filled with luxury hotels, influential celebrities and, increasingly, violence.

Pouria Farsani, 33, who lives in Stockholm, enjoyed the combination of beautiful nature and fun parties when she first visited Tulum in 2018, but when she returned last September she found it “like part of Mexico colonized by the party”.

Farsani heard about Zipolite from Mexican friends and visited it for the first time in January 2021: he was delighted.

“When I’ve seen other gay environments, they’ve been very stereotypical,” he said. “What happened here was that there were people of all shapes, all ages, all socio-economic statuses, we could all meet here.”

The body positivity at Zipolite is part of what makes the nude beach special for many people, gay or straight: For Farsani, who suffers from alopecia, a condition that causes hair loss, it was particularly profound.

“I’m very happy with my body, but I’m not the Ken doll type,” he said. “It scares people in Europe, whereas here my alopecia makes me stand out a bit more.”

However, as Zipolite’s popularity has grown, its hippy vibe is changing. The bars are louder, the restaurants more ostentatious. LGBTQ tourism is also evolving: increasingly dominated by Americans, it is diversifying.

Ivanna Camarena, a trans woman, spent six months at Zipolite last year and only met a handful of other trans people. “The bodies were very athletic and very masculine,” she said of the people she saw on the beach during her first few months there.

He remembers going to a strip party that was almost exclusively made up of gay men. “When I arrive, it’s like wow: ‘I mean, what is a trans woman doing here? As they come out of the wave”.

Some of the most notable changes include Playa del Amor, which used to host bonfires and guitars and now usually has laser lights and DJs playing music. home. People used to converse between different social groups; now the beach has been further separated into small groups.

The sex scene has also evolved. While for decades visitors, including heterosexual couples, had sex on the beach after dark, in recent years it’s become more cheeky, with dances sometimes turning into group sex in the dark.

“It’s getting more and more hedonistic, and more and more hedonistic, and more and more hedonistic,” said Ignacio Rubio Carriquiriborde, a sociology professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who has studied Zipolite for years. “Now it’s a momentum of more constant blowout.”

Many residents feel uncomfortable. The city council recently voted to impose a 9:00 p.m. curfew on the beach to stop such activities.

“One thing is freedom and another is debauchery,” said Ziga Aragón. “You can have sex with whoever you want, but in a private space.”

For others, the concern is more environmental. Miguel Ángel López Mendoza runs a small hotel near Playa del Amor and says revelers often leave the beach messy. He remembers once, while diving out of the creek, he saw condoms floating “like jellyfish”.

“Everyone is free to do what they want with their body,” he said. “The problem is that there is no conscience.”

For some gay people, Playa del Amor’s open sexuality is part of its power.

“Since you were a kid, they keep forbidding you things: don’t be like that, don’t say this, don’t do that,” said Bernal, who now lives in nearby Puerto Ángel. . “Then suddenly, with sex, being an act of catharsis, too many things are released.”

But Bernal is also worried about the future of the city, where tourism is booming, natural resources are scarce and so many foreigners are buying up property that land prices have become largely unaffordable for locals.

“Everyone comes on vacation to consume something,” he says. “A piece of the beach, a piece of your body, a piece of the party, a piece of nature”.

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