As the sun begins to slip into the ocean in this idyllic town located in The Pacific coast, initiates a silent migration. Groups of people, most of them gay men, many of them naked, They walk through the playa towards a high rock.
They climb a winding staircase, cross the cliff, and descend into a hidden cove known as Love beach. As the sun turns an orange orb, the sky turns lilac, and the numerous black and tan, curvaceous and chiseled nude bodies are covered with a golden patina. When he finally dives into the water, the crowd erupts in applause.
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“Love Beach at sunset; the first time i saw it, really, made me want to cry”, said Roberto Jerr, a 32-year-old man who has been visiting Zipolite for five years. “It is 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 by its golden beaches, countercultural vibe and a practice of nudism that embraces bodies of all shapes.
But as its popularity has grown, attracting ever-increasing numbers of gay and straight visitors, the city is starting to transform: foreigners are snapping up land, hotels are multiplying, influencers flock to the beach, and many residents and visitors now fear that what once made Zipolite magical 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 beginning to leave places without resources.”
Once a community of farmers and fishermen, 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 spirit (it is one of the few nudist beaches in Mexico) that also began to attract queer people which were welcomed by most of the residents. In February, Zipolite chose the first openly gay person to lead the council.
Zipolite, a place where everyone can be who they are
It is Tolerant attitudes are rare outside of Mexico’s big cities, where conservative Catholic values persist. Even though gay marriage is legalized in more than half 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, an advocacy group in Mexico City.
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 practiced what he calls “practically an exorcism” to remove homosexuality: “That’s when I realized it was a hostile place.”
In Zipolite, you have found a place where you can feel comfortable in your sexuality and safe with your body. “I felt like hope,” Bernal said of his first visit in 2014. “It finally seems like now There is a place where we can be who we want to be.”.
As word of this opening has spread, the city’s LGBTQ population has grown: gay bars and hotels have multiplied, rainbow flags are common.
Yet despite the acceptance of many locals, some believe that Zipolite’s identity as a laid-back town that welcomes anyone from Mexican families to Canadian retirees is eroding, transforming into a gay party town.
The rise of tourism: good for the economy, bad for the community
Miguel Ángel Ziga Aragón, a local resident who is gay and calls himself “la Chavelona”, has seen the local economy boom, not only because of gay tourism but because of an increase in tourism in general. Whereas it was once home to mostly rustic cabanas and hammocks along the beach, Zipolite’s tourist scene has become what he calls a little “more VIP”: beachfront suites now run as high as $500 a night.
The growth of tourism in Zipolite reflects a statewide trend in Oaxaca: from 2017 to 2019, revenue from the hotel industry increased by more than a third to nearly $240 million. In the same period, the number of tourists visiting hotels in the coastal region that includes Zipolite increased by almost 40 percent to about 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 a identity crisismany fear a environmental crisis. It has been built above the mangroves, the wildlife is disappearing. Residents complain of a lack of clean water, which could worsen with further development.
Although most residents agree that more planning is needed, some saytransformation 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 fear that Zipolite will go the way of many Mexican beach towns that have become thriving resorts, like the popular gay destination of Puerto Vallarta or, more recently, Tulum: the Caribbean beach, once a bohemian paradise, has become in a lucrative real estate market full of luxury hotels, famous influencers 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 that it felt “like a part of Mexico colonized by the party”.
Farsani heard about Zipolite through some Mexican friends and visited it for the first time in January 2021: he was delighted.
“When I have seen other gay environments, they have been very stereotyped,” he said. “What happened here was that there were people with all body shapes, ages, socioeconomic statuswe could all meet here.”
The body positivity in 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 especially profound.
“I am very happy with my body, but I’m not the ken doll type“, said. “That scares people in Europe, whereas here my alopecia makes me stand out a bit more.”
However, as Zipolite’s popularity has grown, its hippie vibe is changing. The bars are noisier, the restaurants are getting more ostentatious. LGBTQ tourism is also changing: increasingly dominated by the Americans, it becomes less diverse.
Ivanna Camarena, a trans woman, spent six months in 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 in her first few months there.
He remembers going to a strip party that was almost exclusively gay men. “When I arrive it’s like wow: ‘I mean, what is a trans woman doing here? Like they get out of the wave ”.
Less hippie, more hedonistic
Among the most noticeable changes is the Playa del Amor, which used to host bonfires and guitars and now usually has laser lights and DJs playing music house. People used to converse between different social groups; now the beach has been segregated more into small groups.
The sex scene has also evolved. While for decades visitors, including straight couples, have had sex on the beach after dark, in recent years it’s gotten more brazen, with dances sometimes turning into group sex in the shadows.
“It’s getting more and more hedonistic, and more hedonistic, and more hedonistic,” said Ignacio Rubio Carriquiriborde, a sociology professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University who has studied Zipolite for years. “Now it is one more dynamic of constant blowout.”
Many residents are feeling uncomfortable. The city council recently voted to enforce a 9:00 pm curfew on the beach in order to stop such activities.
“One thing is freedom and another thing 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 that partygoers often leave the beach a mess. He remembers that once, while he was diving out of the cove, 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 men, Playa del Amor’s open sexuality is part of its power.
“Since you were a child, they spend it prohibiting you things: don’t be like that, don’t say this, don’t do that,” said Bernal, who now lives in Puerto Ángel, a nearby town. “Then, suddenly, with sex, as being an act of catharsis, too many things are released.”
But Bernal also worries about the future of the town, where tourism is booming, natural resources are scarce and so many foreigners are buying property that land prices have become largely unaffordable for locals.
“Everyone comes on vacation to consume something,” he said. “A piece of the beach, a piece of your body, a piece of the party, a piece of nature”.