05 May Playa Chachalacas: Dunes at the Sea
Playa Chachalacas is like something from a dream. Its massive dunes rise, the illusion of an impenetrable desert beside the calm sea. Named for the abundant Chachalaca birds that live there, visitors flock to the enormous Sabanal dunes, though honestly the visitors are few. Nearby there are hotsprings and a canyon, as well as various archaeological ruins, such as La Antigua, Cempoala and Quiahuiztlán where the invaluable remains of the ancient Totonacs are preserved.
Apart from the dunes, natural beauty abounds. Las Quebraditas, gigantic rock formations that mark a canyon near Las Villas, provide spectacular views of the shimmering chameleonic sea below, sometimes turquoise and sometimes deep emerald. La Mancha, a crucially important coastal lagoon ecosystem, receives the annual influx of migratory birds. It even hosts a festival, The Shorebird Festival, to celebrate their return north. These wetlands are key to the biodiversity of the region.
Nearby Playa Muñecos (Dolls Beach) has strange rock formations that look like giant dolls gazing out to sea. Playa Villa Rica is another beach where Cortez the Killer famously sunk his boats and crew to keep them from fleeing in fear of the Aztecs; its beautiful, shallow waters are perfect for swimming.
The Totonac people left their mark on the region, including Quiahuiztlan. Located on Cerro de los Metates, a vast network of intricate terraces, it demonstrates the advanced development of the pre-Hispanic culture that once inhabited the area. Zempoala, the Totonac capital dated at 1200 B.C.E., is also nearby. It’s prosperity is attributed to the confluence of rivers that meet there. When the Spanish arrived, they called it Villaviciosa, spellbound by it’s incomparable beauty and fertility.
Few places in Mexico are as perfect for ecotourism as Chachalacas. A small fishing village edged by miles of massive Sahara-like dunes, it’s one of the most unique beaches I’ve ever encountered. A great location for everything from scuba diving to paragliding, sand boarding to atv adventures on the shifting mountains of sand formed over 10,000 years ago. Sadly, the demand for ecotourism in the area is little, and thusly, locals aren’t taking care of the land.
When we arrived in Playa Chachalacas, we were honestly shocked and disgusted by the amount of trash. We thought maybe we had arrived at a landfill. We almost turned around before reaching the dunes. I’m glad that we decided to push on, despite how disheartening it was.
I think things change when we push them to do so. If more people arrive, wanting ecological experiences, the village may change its course as those in Roca Partida have done. Recognizing that the economic influx from ecotourism outweighs the convenience of ignoring waste management issues. Often economics are the incentive that drives people to change, and small changes can cause people to see things differently and think differently.
It’s also true that this area of the gulf receives a massive influx of trash, washing up onto the beaches, during a particular portion of the year that must be cleaned up. We spent some time cleaning up Playa de Sontecomapan in Veracruz for exactly that reason (check out our beach cleanup video here!)
We hope that despite our honest description of the area’s downfalls, you’ll decide to visit anyway and be one of the voices asking for more attention to be paid to the natural wonders of the area. Desert dunes cascading down to a rugged coastline is the stuff of childhood dreams.
Note: Playa Chachalacas is the closest beach to Xalapa, nicknamed the Athens of Veracruz. Located only 47 kilometers from Veracruz city, it’s an easy jaunt from either place.