Puerto Escondido and the surrounding virgin beaches of Mexico’s Oaxacan coast were considered off-the-beaten-path until just a few decades ago. 

However, news of unparalleled surfing and spectacular sandy beaches soon transformed this sleepy fishing town into a bustling traveller destination. Having been branded the ‘coolest holiday hotspot for 2022,’ by The Times, Puerto Escondido gained international acclaim among backpackers and tourists for the paradise it is.

Photography by: Jack Lawes, check out his work here

The influence of the Ocean here is significant. Humpback whales breach the surface as they migrate along the Mexican coast. There are four species of turtles and bottlenose, spotted and spinner dolphins that make this coastline their home.  ​​Along what’s left of the coral, colourful puffer fish and angelfish swim among the feet of paddlers. For the locals of Puerto Escondido, the Ocean is their lifeline. From surf instructors to fishermen and freedivers to tour guides, the ecosystem centres on a healthy Ocean. And, it has helped tourism flourish - much to the benefit of local businesses. 

While many visitors come to enjoy Puerto Escondido’s Ocean, more complex issues have arisen behind the scenes.

Puerto Escondido...A Paradise in Crisis?

Puerto Escondido’s influx of tourism has placed a massive strain on its infrastructure. Construction levels are at an all-time high, and a new highway is likely to see the population of 56,000 balloon. What’s more, sanitation and waste management have fallen short of the increasing population. 

Most alarming is the mountain of garbage gathered just a 15-minute drive away. 

Photography by: Jack Lawes, check out his work here

A group of 20 informal waste pickers known as ‘Pepenadores’ sift through the trash at the overflowing, open-air site to select recyclable materials that are sold for pennies. Their work is not recognised by the Mexican government which means they have no salary, pension or worker’s rights. With bare hands, they sift through hazardous materials to make their daily living while dealing with the outbreak of fires that spread dangerous fumes across Puerto Escondido. Open landfills are 23 times more dangerous to the environment than carbon dioxide. 

What’s more, many Mexican states have a ban on single-use plastics but it appears that federal support for recycling initiatives is scarce. 

When the rainy season arrives, the rubbish and chemicals wash down toward Puerto Escondido’s beaches and gather as plastic waste in the pacific Ocean. One day, a well-meaning beach clean up volunteer may collect the plastic and send it back to the dump it came from.

Protecting Puerto Escondido's Ocean

Eight years ago, Jesus Omar began collecting plastic to keep the beaches of Puerto Escondido clean. Pulling the cart behind his bicycle, he collected 350 kilos of plastic within 11 months before finally cashing in his stockpile. Omar told Outlawes that he cried when he was paid just £27 for almost a year’s work. 

However, instead of being deterred, he was more resilient than ever and set about dedicating his work to more plastic collections. Eventually, he landed a plot of land, a truck and even some volunteers. His organisation, called Jungla Plastica, is now thriving.

Every day, the small team travel to over 200 plastic collection points in Puerto Escondido where residents have donated their plastic and cardboard. Just last month, they finally raised enough money for a compressor that will help them to recycle even more.

Not too far away, another initiative called Mares Limpios (Clean Seas Lab) opened its doors this year.  Ana Martinez also has a poignant story about how she was inspired into activism and  helping the Pepenadores. 

Photography by: Jack Lawes, check out his work here

She explained that the lab was “a citizen-led hub where we can all learn together about the plastics we use, why we use them…most of all, how and where we could recycle them.” On-site they have a machine that can melt plastic and recycle them into new plastic moulds. One of their latest experiments included making a mould for plastic skateboards. 

Elsewhere, Travis King explained to us that he’d lived in Puerto Escondido for several years. Frustrated that so many expats were complaining about the trash and not going anything about it, he took it upon himself. “I can’t help but think that all of this will outlive me,” he said about the fizzy drinks in the supermarket. “All of it. This is a really depressing thought and I think we need huge systemic changes going forward.”

King created several collection points around the beach for plastic rubbish, which he later takes to Jungla Plastica. Once a week, he hosts a thriving open mic night of which all proceeds go towards funding the plastic recycling programme. 

Puerto Escondido - Behind the Scenes

As filmmakers living in Puerto Escondido, we had the unique opportunity to document the grassroots efforts taking place to change the narrative of plastic pollution.

From the unforgettable stench of the open-air dump to the mountains of plastic at Jungla Plastica, the impact of human consumption has left a lasting impact on our perspective of the world. 

Puerto Escondido’s plastic crisis is sadly not unique. Nor is the solution to this wide-reaching problem straightforward. However, one thing certainly stood out for us. Puerto Escondido’s community has been completely energised into grassroots activism. The residents are vocal about the challenges facing the town and empowered to make the changes themselves. 

It seems that the deep connection toward the Ocean that sustains this town has become too powerful to ignore. 

Tamara Davison is a journalist and the producer of Paradise in Crisis. This documentary film by Outlawes Films follows the journey of plastic activism in Puerto Escondido.