An army of ants had convened outside our cabin door but we thought nothing of it. The hotel was in the middle of a forest, after all. Our chateau was spacious yet simple.
I know it’s not a politically correct one, but I’ve got a confession to make: earth-friendly hotels stink. There, I said it.
It seemed like the perfect way to end a three-week, low-budget trip to Mexico: spend the last few days in a drowsy, unspoiled fishing village on the Pacific Coast. My husband Peter and I had visited the museums and murals of Mexico City, climbed the silver-laden hills of Taxco, scaled the pyramids of Monte Alban, cavorted with street urchins in Puebla's squares, and witnessed a beautifully solemn Nativity procession in Colonial Oaxaca. Avid hikers and campers, now we longed for the great unwashed outdoors.
Although Puerto Angel is roughly 150 miles from Oaxaca, it took eight hours to reach by bus via the treacherous road that wound through the southern spur of the Sierra Madres. Our driver was a skilled Ralph Kramden clone who sucked on sugar cane chunks while he spun the great steering wheel with much effort. The road was so curvy that a shoeless schoolboy actually puked out the window.
Finally, Peter and I reached Pochutla. We transferred to a rickety, revamped school bus which whisked us eight miles to the coast. One glance at the ocean and we were redeemed. The Pacific glittered a warm, silvery blue. Simple cinder block houses lined the hills and the beach, Playa Panteon. This was going to be paradise!
We strapped into our backpacks and walked through the dusty streets to the Posada Hormiga.* It was the only place we’d made reservations the entire trip. Both our guidebooks extolled the virtues of its quiet hillside setting. The owners, an American family, had not only reforested the entire canyon but installed compost toilets. Water was recycled for its resident plants and animals (including us). It sounded ideal.
The Hormiga had plenty of common areas rich with carved wood, local crafts, and books, but our room was downright tiny. I mean, Manhattan-hotel miniscule. Cheerful, hand-sewn spreads covered two sad, single beds. Our dark little corner of paradise was brightened by awful paintings. Then there was the bathroom. It just…smelled. Bad. Like rotting poop.
Peter and I endured one night in our ecological cell then inquired about the Hormiga’s famed bungalows. The price was more than double, but they sounded so lovely we decided to go for it. We climbed a complicated network of ramps and foot trails, passed through the open-air dining room festooned with potted plants and caged birds, slowly scaling the canyon. En route, we saw a huge, glorious outhouse on stilts. It stunk, too.
An army of ants had convened outside our cabin door but we thought nothing of it. The hotel was in the middle of a forest, after all. Our chateau was spacious yet simple. When Peter turned on the bathroom faucet, a clump of ants plopped into his hand. There were ants marching up the walls, ants parading in the shower, ants on the windowsills. For a few minutes, the profusion of ants made us forget the stench of our compost toilet.
We complained to the staff about the insect problem. They seemed seemed surprised, yet not exactly apologetic. Sometimes a few ants came in the afternoon, they explained, but they usually leave. “This is more than a few ants,” Peter told them. “This is more like headquarters.” Besides, they weren’t paying for Bungalow 4; we were.
There was all sorts of poop propaganda strategically placed throughout our room about how the ancient Chinese had public compost toilets like palaces and how human excrement was sacred. I read this doubtfully as the tropical sun baked the collective feces into a fetid mess. The odor was infernal. I’d never smelled anything quite like it before or since. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get the stench out of my nostrils; my mouth; my throat. It burned my eyeballs.
Now, mind you, I’ve done my business in a hole in the ground in Guatemala. I squatted on footprints in a primitive Italian gabinetto. I sat on a lawn chair with the bottom cut out before my high school buddy Sarah had indoor plumbing at her beautifully rustic Wisconsin cabin. Even the john at Miahuatlan’s crumbling bus station, which an attendant flushed out with a bucket of water (sometimes two!) didn’t smell this bad.
The next day, I became ill with food poisoning from tainted shrimp at a beachside food shack. I was so sick I didn’t care about the ants…at first. My head was wedged into the stinky biodegradable toilet as I retched. The ants started crawling up my legs as I knelt at the bowl, holding my nose and trying to throw up simultaneously. It didn’t work. My ears popped painfully. That’s when I started to cry. This wasn’t a vacation, it was an environmentally-safe hell.
The following day, on wobbly legs, I made my way down the canyon with Peter. When we described our ant invasion in exquisite detail to the owner’s daughter, she stood there with her mouth slightly ajar then offered a flimsy, “Sorry, we’ll have to check that out.” Not one peso came off the bill. A Mexican proprietor would have been mortified, offered profuse apologies and given us a refund.
Instead of arguing, Peter and I held our breath, packed our bags and hightailed it to La Buena Vista, leaving the Ant Farm in the dust. In addition to the sweeping view it was named for, there were tiled floors, gorgeous black Oaxacan pottery in our suite, a large balcony and a nice, fresh bathroom…with a flush toilet. I sat and I reveled.
So, if anyone tries to sell you on compost toilets or “green” resorts, take it from me, they smell like shit.
* The name has been changed to protect the guilty. Posada Hormiga means “ant hotel.”