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This beach in Mexico is an LGBTQ refuge. But can it last?

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ZIPOLITE, Mexico – As the sun begins to slide toward the ocean in this idyllic beach town on the Pacific coast of Mexico, a quiet migration begins. Groups of people, mostly gay men, many of them naked, go down the beach to a high rocky outcrop.

They climb a winding staircase, over the jagged cliff, and descend to a hidden cove known as the Beach of Love, or Beach of Love. As the sun turns an orange orb, the sky turns purple, and the many naked bodies, black and tanned, curved and chiseled, are brushed with gold. When he finally dives into the water, the crowd erupts in applause.

“Love Beach at sunset, the first time I saw it I really wanted to cry,” said Roberto Jerr, 32, who has been visiting Zipolite for five years. “It’s a space where you can be very free.”

For decades, this ancient fishing village that has become a hippie meeting place has been an oasis for the queer community, which is attracted by its golden beaches, countercultural atmosphere and the practice of nudism that embraces bodies in different ways.

But as its popularity has grown, attracting a growing number of gay and heterosexual visitors, the city is beginning to transform: foreigners are taking over land, hotels are multiplying, influencers are approaching the beach, and many residents and visitors now fear what he did before. Magic Zipolite could be lost for good.

“Everyone in the community should visit a place where they can feel comfortable, where they can feel free, like Zipolite,” Mr. Jerr, that’s gay. “But on the other hand, there is also this other part, this ultra-mass tourism that is starting to leave places without resources.”

Once a community of farmers and fishermen, Zipolite became a popular destination for European hippies and backpackers from 1970, when many came to the beaches of the state of Oaxaca to see an exceptionally clear view of a solar eclipse. Hippie tourism gave the city a bohemian spirit (it is one of the few nudist beaches in Mexico) that also began to attract queer people, who were welcomed by most residents. In February, Zipolite chose the first openly gay person to lead the city council.

These tolerant attitudes are rare outside the big cities of Mexico, where conservative Catholic values ​​persist. Although gay marriage is legalized 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 killed across the country, according to Letra Ese, in a defense group in Mexico City.

David Montes Bernal, 33, grew up within hours of Zipolite in a conservative community where masculinity and homophobia were ingrained. When he was about 9 years old, the city chaplain did what he called “virtually an exorcism” to force his homosexuality.

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

At Zipolite, she has found a place where she can feel comfortable in her sexuality and safe in her body.

“I felt a kind of hope,” Mr. Bernal on his first visit in 2014. “It finally looks like there’s now a place where we can be who we want to be.”

As the voice of this opening has spread, the city’s LGBTQ population has grown: gay bars and hotels have multiplied, rainbow flags are common.

But as so many locals agree, some believe that Zipolite’s identity as a relaxed city that welcomes anyone, from Mexican families to Canadian retirees, is eroding, turning it into a gay party town.

Miguel Ángel Ziga Aragón, a resident of the area who is gay and called “La Chavelona”, has seen the boom of the local economy, not only for gay tourism, but for the increase in tourism in general. Although formerly housed rustic cabins and hammocks along the beach, Zipolite’s tourist scene has become what he calls the “most VIP”: beachfront suites now cost up to $ 500 a night.

The growth of tourism in Zipolite reflects a statewide trend in Oaxaca: from 2017 to 2019, the hotel industry’s revenue 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 grew by nearly 40 percent to about 330,000 people, according to government figures.

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

Along with an identity crisis, many fear an environmental crisis. Mangroves have been built; wildlife is disappearing. Neighbors complain about the lack of running water, which could be aggravated by increased urbanization.

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

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

But others fear that Zipolite may follow in the footsteps of many Mexican beach towns that have become thriving resorts, such as the popular gay destination of Puerto Vallarta or, more recently, Tulum. Formerly a bohemian paradise, Tulum’s Caribbean beach has become a lucrative real estate market full of luxury hotels, influential celebrities and, increasingly, violence.

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

Mr. Farsani learned about Zipolite from some Mexican friends and visited it for the first time in January 2021; he was delighted.

“When I’ve seen other gay scenes, it’s been very stereotypical,” she said. “What was happening here was people of all body shapes, ages, socioeconomic status. We could all get together here.”

The positivity of the body in Zipolite is partly what makes the nudist beach special for many, gay or heterosexual: for Mr. Farsani, who has alopecia, a hair loss disease, it was particularly profound.

“I’m very happy with my body, but I’m not the Ken-doll type,” he said. “It scares the people of Europe, while here my alopecia is nothing more than making me stand out a little more.”

However, as Zipolite’s popularity has grown, its hippie environment is changing. Bars are noisier, restaurants are more elegant. LGBTQ tourism is also changing, becoming more and more Americanized, less diverse.

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

He recalled that he had gone to a nudist party that were almost exclusively gay men. “When I got there I thought, ‘Wow, what does a trans woman do here?’ Like, they were weird. “

Notable changes include what has happened at Love Beach, which once hosted bonfires and played guitar and now often features laser lights and DJs playing house music. People used to chat through different social groups; now the beach has become more segregated into cliques.

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

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

Many residents have become uncomfortable and the city council recently voted in favor of a curfew at 9pm on the beaches to curb these activities.

“One thing is freedom and another is debauchery,” Mr. Ziga Aragon. “You can have sex with whoever you want, but in private.”

For others, the concern is more environmental. Miguel Ángel López Méndez runs a small hotel near the Playa del Amor and says that partygoers often leave the beach a disaster. Once, while diving out of the cove, he remembered seeing condoms floating “like jellyfish.”

“Every person is free to do whatever they want with their body,” he said. “The problem is that there is no consciousness.”

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

“You’ve been banned from so many things since you were a kid:‘ Don’t be like that, ’‘ Don’t say that, ’‘ Don’t do that, ’” said Mr. Bernal, who lives in the nearby town of Puerto Angel. “Suddenly, when sex is an act of catharsis, so many things are released.”

However, Mr. Bernal is also concerned about the future of the city, where tourism is booming, natural resources are scarce and so many foreigners are buying properties that the price of land has become largely unaffordable for locals.

“Everyone comes here on holiday to have something to eat,” he said. “A piece of beach, a piece of your body, a piece of partying, a piece of nature.”

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