Puerto Escondido, Mexico
Credit: Courtesy Designhotels.com

Sometimes the appeal of a place is right there in its name. That's how it is with Puerto Escondido: the "Hidden Port." Clinging to the tip of Mexico's elbow, on the country's sparsely populated southern coast (a.k.a. "the Oaxacan Riviera"), halfway between Acapulco and Guatemala, this formerly sleepy fishing village is slowly undergoing a tourist boom – but one that has avoided the crush and commercialization of its more famous neighbors. It's growing, but it doesn't feel overgrown.

I arrived near the end of November, the tail of the rainy season, on a prop plane from Mexico City. My hotel, the Villas Carrizalillo, was near an area called the Rinconada, a 10-minute walk from town. A grand old boulevard with a small art gallery and several amazing restaurants, the Rinconada used to be the town's airstrip, until the town outgrew it; still, these days, the airport is only five minutes away. The hotel, really a collection of 12 villas, is situated on a bluff overlooking the cobalt-colored thumb of Carrizalillo Bay. The American co-owner, New York-via-Georgia transplant Amy Hardy, found the place 10 years ago, abandoned by its previous owners, and she and her partner did a full renovation. It now boasts a nouveau-Mexican restaurant (sweet mango mahimahi ceviche, pineapple guacamole) and a private staircase down to the little-used beach cove, where you can surf a gentle beginner-friendly break, standup paddle with sea turtles and manta rays, or enjoy shrimp quesadillas or a cold michelada (beer with lime and spice) at one of a handful of beach palapas (thatched-roof gazebos).

Ricardo Maya, the bartender at the Villas Carrizalillo, grew up in Mexico City. The first time he came to the Oaxacan coast was in the early 1980s, when he visited nearby Zipolite. "I don't even remember Puerto then," he said. When he came back in 2004 to teach Spanish to travelers, he could hardly believe the growth. Still, he said, the place suited him: He'd lived near Aspen for several years, and – in both climate and down-to-earth demeanor – Puerto Escondido was pretty much the opposite. Then he poured us both another shot of Fidencio – Amy Hardy's line of organic mezcal, hand-distilled in Oaxaca by a fourth-generation mescalero who worked the same ground as his great-grandfather. (My favorite was the Fidencio Tobalá, distilled from 100 percent wild agave harvested during the new moon.)

There's a lot of this going around P.E. these days: a sort of Puerto Vallarta meets Portland vibe, fueled by natives and expats alike. There's the French woman from Montréal who opened a patisserie inside the mercado and the Italian who rents scooters out of his gelato shop. In Mazunte, an eco-tourist town (it's home to the National Mexican Turtle Center) a little way down the coast, a locally owned cooperative manufactures organic cosmetics, and closer to home, just off the main backpacker's drag, a young couple named Sabrina and Graco (she's Austrian; he's from Veracruz) gutted an old storefront and built out their own wood-walled restaurant called La Olita ("the little wave"), which serves the best fish tacos east of Ensenada.

You'll find a similar up-and-coming micro-scene in Tulum, on the Yucatán Peninsula, but Puerto has something the Caribbean side doesn't: killer waves. Tourism-wise, surfing is Puerto's bread and butter, and quality breaks can be found for miles in both directions: Chacagua and Puerto Ángel. The marquee spot, though, is Playa Zicatela, a thrilling three-kilometer beach break right in the middle of town, which draws so many top surfers from all over the world that it's earned the nickname "the Mexican Pipeline." The pummeling current isn't for novices, though; people have drowned, so if you're just getting comfortable on a board, proceed with caution.

One afternoon I drove out to the Laguna de Manialtepec, an unofficial nature preserve about 30 minutes outside town, where, for 75 pesos (about $5.75) an hour, the ladies at Restaurante la Flor del Pacífico rented me a kayak and paddle and even threw in a cold Bohemia. As the bottle of beer sweated in the cup holder, I spent two blissful hours kayaking around the lagoon – which I had entirely to myself, if you don't count the herons and hummingbirds and majestic black hawks, as well as the biggest flock of cormorants I've ever seen. Then the gigantic red sun (it somehow looked bigger than it does at home) dipped below the tree line, and it was just me and the water and the stars.

Back at the dock, I met up with Lalo Escamilla, an avian biologist who studies birds for a nearby university. When he's not counting egrets or tracking spoonbills, Lalo leads eco-tours on his 12-person boat. I was in luck, he told me: "The phosphorescence is here!" Three or four times a year, certain spots in the lagoon are visited by phosphorescent microorganisms, which glow silver and shimmery in the inky black water, transforming an already gorgeous nighttime swim into something truly otherworldly. It was only after we'd been backstroking around for about 10 minutes that a young boy on the tour who was visiting from Mexico City, asked if there were any crocodiles in the lagoon. "Yes," Lalo said with a grin, preparing a joke he'd clearly made before, "but don't worry." He pointed to the bioluminescent trails we all left in our wake. "You can," he said, winking, "see them coming."

Not far past Manialtepec, at the end of a bumpy road down a rugged stretch of coastline, is a possible glimpse of Puerto's future: the Hotel Escondido, which opened before Christmas. Operated by Grupo Habita, a boutique chain based in Mexico City (imagine a Mexican version of the Standard or the Ace), it comprises 16 individual thatched-roof bungalows, each of which has beachfront views and its own private pool. A spa and sauna and an underground music lounge (literally, it's underground) add to the feeling of rustic luxury; other high-design copycats might not be far behind.

But the surest sign that change is on the way to Puerto is a brand-new highway, 125 kilometers, cutting through vast fields of almonds, papayas, and mangoes, between Oaxaca City and the coast. When I was there, orange-vested construction crews were hard at work, on pace to finish the project by early 2015. When it opens, the highway will cut the travel time from Mexico City in half and make it possible to drive from Oaxaca City to the coast in a little more than two hours – down from six. Some of the expats I spoke with were a little worried that the road might destroy the town's quiet charm. But the locals were pretty excited. "Claro!" a taxi driver named Jorge – who was born in Puerto – told me. It would bring more visitors, more money, cheaper goods to buy. What's not to love? And if it meant slightly bigger crowds waiting for waves every weekend, or a few more overpriced hotels, well, no importa. Change was inevitable, after all. Puerto could take it.

Getting there: Fly to Mexico City; connect to Puerto Escondido.