The Magic of Puerto Escondido, Mexico

Puerto Escondido is a port town in the municipality of San Pedro Mixtepec on the Pacific Coast in the state of Oaxaca. The name roughly translates to “hidden port.”  Surfers have been making their way here for the renowned Mexican pipeline, one of the top ten surfing spots in the world. 

I arrived in Puerto Escondido hoping for the perfect place to relax and unwind from Los Angeles. It’s a harder-to-reach spot than the more common destinations such as Puerto Vallarta or Cabo, mainly because the closest airport to Puerto Escondido is domestic and not filled with hoards of tourists.

I took a short three hours and ten minute flight from Los Angeles to Mexico City, where we were greeted with pouring rain. I took this as a good sign, as it had been unbearable dry and hot in Los Angeles.  From there, it’s a quick one-hour flight to the small airport in Puerto Escondido, and then a 20-minute taxi ride to my destination:  Casona Sforza. The last few minutes of the dirt road leading up to the entrance told me I was in for a taste of magic. 

Casona Sforza was the dream of Ezequiel Ayarza Sforza who had traveled to Puerto Escondido wanting to give back to the community. Thus Puebla del Sol was started. Puebla del Sol is a community project in the Sierra of Oaxaca to preserve the artisanal traditions of indigenous Oaxacans. One hundred percent of the proceeds from Casona Sforza go back to Puebla del Sol. The touches can be seen all over the property, from the monochromatic texture-rich furniture to the grey daybeds made of cotton and natural wood on the beach for watching the ocean, to soaps made with 60% honey, even to the coffee mugs and coffee.  

Just eleven neutral hued, scalloped suites were designed by Mexican architect Alberto Kalach, and each room has staircases leading down to the sand.  The chef, Oliver Martînez, creates the farm-to-table cuisine. 

All photographs appearing on the http://www.hannahkozak.wordpress.com blog are copyrighted and protected under United States, Canadian and International copyright laws. The photographs may not be reproduced in any form, stored, copied or manipulated without prior written permission from hannahkozak.com, the copyright holder. A derivative work is the use of any of these photographs as the basis for, or part of another photographic concept or illustration and is in violation of copyright.

Images may not be copied, printed or otherwise disseminated without the expressed written consent of Hannah Kozak.
Casona Sforza bedroom suite
The pool is so dreamy that I included two angles.
Breakfast at Casona Sforza
Tostado de atún marinado en salsa macha de tamarindo con aquacate, cacahuate y semilla de calabaza 
Tuna tostado marinated in tamarind macha sauce with avocado, peanuts and pumpkin seed
All photographs appearing on the http://www.hannahkozak.wordpress.com blog are copyrighted and protected under United States, Canadian and International copyright laws. The photographs may not be reproduced in any form, stored, copied or manipulated without prior written permission from hannahkozak.com, the copyright holder. A derivative work is the use of any of these photographs as the basis for, or part of another photographic concept or illustration and is in violation of copyright.

Images may not be copied, printed or otherwise disseminated without the expressed written consent of Hannah Kozak.

The morning after my arrival I ventured out to Playa Principal, where the fishermen gather to head out for the day’s catch. My next stop was Playa Carrizalillo, a small beach in a sheltered cove where 157 steps and a view that made me smile brought me to the local hideout. I took in a bit of sun and made some photos with my Nikon F4S film camera, and Kodak Portra 400 film. I photographed only film on this journey, no digital including this photo of a surfer girl, as this is the place for beginning surfers to learn. 

All photographs appearing on the http://www.hannahkozak.wordpress.com blog are copyrighted and protected under United States, Canadian and International copyright laws. The photographs may not be reproduced in any form, stored, copied or manipulated without prior written permission from hannahkozak.com, the copyright holder. A derivative work is the use of any of these photographs as the basis for, or part of another photographic concept or illustration and is in violation of copyright.

Images may not be copied, printed or otherwise disseminated without the expressed written consent of Hannah Kozak.
Playa Carrizalillo
Surfer girl midway down the 157 steps.
All photographs appearing on the http://www.hannahkozak.wordpress.com blog are copyrighted and protected under United States, Canadian and International copyright laws. The photographs may not be reproduced in any form, stored, copied or manipulated without prior written permission from hannahkozak.com, the copyright holder. A derivative work is the use of any of these photographs as the basis for, or part of another photographic concept or illustration and is in violation of copyright.

Images may not be copied, printed or otherwise disseminated without the expressed written consent of Hannah Kozak.
Surfer Girl – Puerto Escondido
All photographs appearing on the http://www.hannahkozak.wordpress.com blog are copyrighted and protected under United States, Canadian and International copyright laws. The photographs may not be reproduced in any form, stored, copied or manipulated without prior written permission from hannahkozak.com, the copyright holder. A derivative work is the use of any of these photographs as the basis for, or part of another photographic concept or illustration and is in violation of copyright.

Images may not be copied, printed or otherwise disseminated without the expressed written consent of Hannah Kozak.
Two sisters – Playa Carrizalillo
"We aren't asking you to clean the beach. We are only asking that you don't leave it dirty."
“We aren’t asking you to clean the beach. We are only asking that you don’t leave it dirty.”
No dejes mas que huellas – Don’t leave more than your footprints. Llevas tu telefonica?
Tu cartera Tu basera. Did you take your phone? Your card Your trash.

I made my way to Playa Zicatela one evening to have dinner at Chicama, a Peruvian restaurant with a floor of sand. This adorable dog greeted me. I ordered Savignon Blanco, papas hervidas acompanadas con nuestra tîpica salsa Peruana con queso fresco, aceitunas negras y huevo duro. That’s boiled potatoes with typical Peruvian sauce with fresh cheese, black olives and a boiled egg. 

Self Portrait – Playa Zicatela
All photographs appearing on the http://www.hannahkozak.wordpress.com blog are copyrighted and protected under United States, Canadian and International copyright laws. The photographs may not be reproduced in any form, stored, copied or manipulated without prior written permission from hannahkozak.com, the copyright holder. A derivative work is the use of any of these photographs as the basis for, or part of another photographic concept or illustration and is in violation of copyright.

Images may not be copied, printed or otherwise disseminated without the expressed written consent of Hannah Kozak.
I loved how present they were together. Playa Zicatela
I met these two young men who run a surf shop in Playa Zicatela.

Kindness is everywhere in Mexico. Playa Zicatela
I saw these three young women sitting together in front of a store. I got out of the car that took me to this part of town and walked all the way back hoping they were still there. I asked them in Spanish if I could make a photo. Playa Zicatela

There are all kinds of activities to do in Puerto Escondido, including releasing baby turtles into the ocean, as turtle conservation is an issue. Next time I visit, I will plan for this. There is a massive waterfall near Puerto Escondido called La Reforma that I’d like to venture out to see next time, too.

From its location on a private beach to the caring service, Casa Sforza was magical from beginning to end. It’s a unique experience where tiny touches include the honey-infused soap, shampoo and conditioner, fruit drinks, and even a hand-woven straw beach bag in the room for bringing your book, lotion and camera to the beach. Not a detail is overlooked.

Playa Zicatela
One of my favorite novels. The last time I read it I was traveling in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Even better on the re-read.
If you’ll notice the bookmark is a Polaroid SX70 film cover.

Each person who works at Casona Sforza cares about making it an unforgettable experience. Upon checking out, I found a note written on my little takeaway box along with a smiley face filled with a custom-made pizza for my flight home and a note from reception letting me know that people like me make the job worthwhile. From awakening to the sound of crashing waves, roosters crowing, birds singing, I felt the stress leave my body.  To say that traveling to Mexico always connects me with heart-centered people may sound cliché, but it’s true. 

 

Beach in front of Casano Sforza
Self Portrait Puerto Escondido, Mexico

Untethered in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

© hannah kozak
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

 

© hannah kozak
Self Portrait – Lake Atitlan, Guatemala @ Hotel Posada del Angel

Feeling the need to recharge myself and go within, I decided to head to Guatemala.  It’s a place that connects me to my family of origin as my mother is from Guatemala, to the indigenous Mayan people and to the Spanish language that I love. I choose Lake Atitlan and made my decision to try Yoga Forest for the first time.  After a quick stop in Guatemala City’s La Aurora airport, I made my way to the colonial city of Antigua.
 

Antigua’s churches remind me of wonderfully decorated wedding cakes, with white details on a pastel yellow background. Wandering on the cobblestone streets I passed colorful, colonial churches, crumbling ruins, and terra cotta roofs with red and orange bougainvillea trailing down the sides of walls. My first day and night were spent at the luxurious, intimate boutique Hotel Posada del Angel in Antigua on a quiet cobblestone street, where every detail has been curated by local connoisseurs who want to share Antigua’s Maya and Spanish heritages.  Even the little soaps are designed by a local alchemist who created a signature scent called “Semana Santa” from frankincense, orange, myrrh, clove and cinnamon.  Raw honey comes from San Cristobal el Alto, coconut oil from Belize, palm oil and cocoa butter from Guatemala.

© hannah kozak
Hotel Posada del Angel

 

 

© hannah kozak
Hotel Posada del Angel

© hannah kozak
Hotel Posada del Angel –

© hannah kozak
This woman was selling the typical Guatemalan dolls that look like the ones my mother had as a little girl so I bought one from her. Her face is wonderful.

© hannah kozak
Three brothers – Antigua, Guatemala.

© hannah kozak
Man in Antigua, Guatemala speaking of his beliefs in a higher power.

 

I headed out on the Carretera Panamericana also known as Centroamérica 1 – the Panamerican Highwayto Lake Atitlan.  A three hour drive on a collective brought me to Lake Panachajel, where I hopped on a boat (lancha) to San Marcos La Laguna, my peaceful, spiritual spot to escape the world.

 

© hannah kozak
Local Mayan woman – San Marcos La Laguna – Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

 

© hannah kozak
Two sisters – San Marcos La Laguna – Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

 

 

 

© hannah kozak
Local Mayan woman heading down the route from The Yoga Forest

 

Lago de Atitlan is one of the most inspiring places I have ever visited.  Nestled between three volcanos that loom over the entire landscape, (Volcán Yolimán, Volcán Atitlean and Volcán San Pedro) at an altitude of 5,125 feet, it’s the deepest lake in Central America.  As far as I can see are the deep blue waters that inspired Aldous Huxley to write. Viewing the lake in silence is a true recharge while being surrounded by jogate and mango trees.

 

A young boy came running up to me, asking if he could carry my bags and I let him because I wanted to give him work. As he lugged my bags to Circles Café, I began to see the familiar signs in San Marcos that I love. Mayan women selling basketfuls of avocados, children running up and down the main path, the smell of tortillas cooking as I passed shady coffee plants near the lakeshore.

 

It’s a twenty-minute hike up a steep hill to get to Yoga Forest and it’s worth it.   If you are looking to disconnect, here is the place. No wi-fi without a twenty-minute hike back to the pueblo, no electricity in your room and a compost toilet. After living on a kibbutz on Israel, I learned that I needed very little stuff everyday to be content.

 

Henry Ward Beecher once said, “The first hour is the rudder of the day.”  By committing not to turn on technology first thing in the morning, I received so many benefits including going inside for all my answers.  It required discipline to power off all electronics but the benefits are a much fuller life. At night I lay in bed listening to the sound of the crickets, birds and animals singing to their heart’s content.  Solitude helps us ground to the world around us. Stillness and quiet is required to evaluate our lives and reflect on the messages our intuition sends us.

 

Off the grid, three local woman lovingly prepared meals with fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh blue tortillas, oatmeal, and pancakes. Even the coconut to sprinkle on our food was freshly grated.  These women embody my belief of “in a world where you can be anything, be kind.”  Even when it’s not the easiest response, it’s always the answer.

© hannah kozak
Maria at The Yoga Forest – San Marcos La Laguna

 © hannah kozak
Magda at The Yoga Forest – San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala.

© hannah kozak
Magda cooking vegetables – The Yoga Forest – San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala.

© hannah kozak
Magda cooking tortillas at The Yoga Forest – San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala.

 

The view from the top of the mountain of the volcanoes is the best scenery in all of Central America. Jungle foliage and trees were medicine to my heart.  The highland Indians’ colorful clothes that they make themselves, their traditional way of life of farming, their local markets, and the art they create, are all like stepping back in time before all our modern ways.  Add in the Mayan culture and it’s a place that comforts and speaks to my soul.

© hannah kozak
Shooting nearly my entire visit in film made the photos even more magical for me.

One terribly upsetting factor in San Marcos — and all of Central America for that matter —  is all the stray dogs running around.  One morning I saw a dog with a bloodied ear that had flies covering the wound.  I found the only pet food store in San Marcos and waited an hour and a half for a mobile vet that was due to arrive. He never came but I exchanged contact with the girl who worked at the pet store.  When I returned home I contacted her and a great big smile was on my face when she told me that not only had she found the owner of the dog but also that treatment to heal its ear had started.

© hannah kozak
Micaela Pichilla – the girl who helped me find the owner of the dog in San Marcos.

© hannah kozak
Micaela Pichilla at the pet food store she works at in San Marcos La Laguna.

There is so much to do once you’ve settled in at the lake. Exploring other villages by boat, studying Spanish,seeing the weaving and arts created by locals and of course, yoga and meditation.  Not to be missed is Las Pirámides meditation center on the path heading inland from Posada Schumann, where you can have a massage, practice yoga in the morning and early evening, and come to study metaphysical and meditation courses. Lake Atitlan is not a place just to travel to, it’s a place to come and live for an extended period.  After moving to Israel when I was twenty years old, I developed a serious case of wanderlust and I have never stopped exploring. Part of why I travel is to have no regrets at the end of my days, because I will have explored places out of my comfort zone, traveled alone at times and had serious adventures. Not to mention getting out of my comfort zone taps into parts of my brain that create new synapses that stir creative thought. Not everyone has traveled to a place like Lake Atitlan as it requires work and an adventurous spirit to arrive there. It’s a promise that you will never forget the beauty and sounds at the lake, the smell of fresh tortillas being cooked, and will return home with peacefulness from being surrounded by the beauty of not only the lake’s water but also the indigenous people with the warmth and kindness in their hearts.

© hannah kozak
Girl playing near Lake Atitlan.

© hannah kozak
One of the yoga teachers adopted Mala and brought him back home to Berlin.

© hannah kozak
Self Portrait – Lush in San Marcos La Laguna

The Hill of Crosses in Lithuania – A Symbol of Hope

The Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

I made a side trip from Warsaw to visit The Hill of Crosses in Lithuania. From Warsaw, it’s an eight hour drive on tree lined roads. Since the times of the Crusaders, people have been making pilgrimages to this unusual site. It is neither easy to get to nor easy to find but The Hill of Crosses in northern Lithuania is well worth the journey.

Entering Lithuania
Entering Lithuania

As we drive on the road, I see broken lamps; metaphors from the days of communism. The further east you go, the more symbols like the broken lamp one sees. My friend Hanna says “I have cake from my mother, special for you.” Her mother had baked a coffee cake for our road trip, another act of kindness. We listened to Michael Jackson, we listened to silence.

En route to Lithuania
En route to Lithuania

Poland was and is full of trees along the roads. The trees served a purpose during WWII; the main strategy was to hide the tanks from the planes. Even if a plane noticed the tanks, it’s hard to hit a tank so close to many trees.

The Road from Poland to Lithuania
The Road from Poland to Lithuania

On a hill, in the town of Siauliai, are thousands of crosses in every size and shape. Not only crosses but crucifixes, Virgin Mary statues, Lithuanian patriot carvings, tiny rosaries and effigies.The crosses combine elements of architecture, sculpture, blacksmith art, and painting. I left a wooden cross from Mexico and another from my dearest friend in a corner of the hill that seemed perfect. My friend from Poland, along with her gentle, kind son who drove us, left four crosses.

Entrance to The HIll of Crosses
Entrance to The HIll of Crosses

The Hill of Crosses
The Hill of Crosses

The first crosses were placed there 182 years ago by relatives killed during an anti-Russian uprising in 1831. This site is a symbol of hope, of father and freedom for the Lithuanian people.

As I climbed up and down the narrow paths, I felt stillness and in the quiet, I could sometimes hear the wind chimes blowing in the breeze, creating a special musical sound. The Hill of Crosses, like Jerusalem, is experiential. My photos cannot do justice to seeing this sight in person.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, Lithuania was occupied three times: first by the USSR in 1940, then by Nazi Germany in 1941, and finally by the USSR again in 1944. Mass deportations continued until the death of Stalin.

The site has been destroyed multiple times. The Soviet government could not tolerate such spiritual expression and in 1961 completely destroyed the hill. Every cross was bulldozed, burned and recycled. The crosses returned. The Soviets destroyed it again in 1973 and 1975. The exact number of crosses there now is unknown but there are estimates of put it at about 100,000 in 2006.

The Hill of Crosses took my breath away as I could feel the undefeated faith of the Lithuanian people along with hope and devotion, even amidst the suffering. The country suffered a 33% population loss due to the Holocaust, executions, incarcerations and forced emigration.

Leaving my friend's cross
Leaving my friend’s cross

The Hill of Crosses
The Hill of Crosses

The Hill of Crosses
The Hill of Crosses

The Hill of Crosses
The Hill of Crosses

The Hill of Crosses
The Hill of Crosses

Two crosses I placed; one from Mexico and one from my closest friend.
Two crosses I placed; one from Mexico and one from my closest friend.

The Hill of Crosses
The Hill of Crosses

The Hill of Crosses
The Hill of Crosses

Hannah & her son, Bartek
Hannah & her son, Bartek

Self portrait in Lithuania
Self portrait in Lithuania

En route to Warsaw, Poland
En route to Warsaw, Poland

Lithuanian proverb: Visur gerai, namie greasier. “Everywhere is good to live, but home is best.”

The Hill of Crosses in Lithuania