Surfing in Mexico with the Queen of La Saladita

Catcha la Ola!

Until recently, I lived in San Antonio, and whenever I looked out my window I saw one of two things: buildings or live oak. And neither is very conducive to surfing. When I wanted to learn to surf, I instantly realized that I live in the wrong place, two hundred miles from any ocean and more than a thousand miles from a surf break.

To be sure there is a surf culture in Texas, but most of its followers reside on the sweeping beaches around Corpus Christi or Galveston and sometimes must spend hours in the Gulf waiting for wind swells to prop them up over the waveless expanse.

Pacific Rollers

Thus, I knew I had to venture out of the Gulf of Mexico and traverse the continent. I knew I would find my learner’s break somewhere along the Mexican Pacific coast. I learned the word Zihuatanejo from a surf video as a teenager. I remember the lush mountain backdrop and turquoise colored waters that made the very word ring with excitement and adventure.

As a bonus, I soon learned it’s not difficult to get to Zihuatanejo; surfers typically drive a day and a half from the border. There are also flights from Houston and buses from various destinations within Mexico.

I began to research breaks around the quiet fishing village located in the state of Guerrero, packed my duffel bag and set out, not to find the perfect wave, but the perfect beginner wave.

La Saladita

Lourdes Valencia, 29, is a local hero in La Saladita, small surf village located 40 minutes north of Zihuatanejo and a short drive down a dirt road from the village Los Llanos. She is known as the “Queen of la Saladita”, won various longboard competitions, and was even sponsored in the heyday of her surfer fame.

Still, she never left La Saladita, where she grew up watching gringos cruise over the picture perfect left-breaking wave. Her name is still spoken by all, and posters of her “hanging ten” adorn her family’s restaurant. Surf stickers featuring a cartoon caricature of Lourdes dancing in a grass skirt and a lei are seen on lampposts and bumpers alike.

“One day when I was 20 years old, I asked myself why I didn’t surf. If all the gringos could do it, why couldn’t I do it?” she tells me under one of several palapas precariously propped up along the beach.

Lourdes runs Jaqueline’s restaurant and villas at La Saladita and is witness to the growth spurt experienced by the surf paradise, which has gone from salt mining to wave riding. Or as she puts it: “from nothing to everything”.

Can’t get enough at La Saladita

The family runs a surf-camp that extends a mile along the coast and rents surfboards for $15-20 a day (ubiquitous rental price along the Costa Grande). Villas Jaqueline has accommodations to fulfill the desire of any wave seekers: rooms from $20 a night to entire cabañas for $150 a night. If that is still too much, you can camp on the beach for free.

She leads her ten brothers and sisters by running the family business. Any of her three sisters can be found in the kitchen preparing sopapillas or fresh seafood platters of oysters and fish. The restaurant is perfectly priced for the traveling surfer.  Meals start at $4, and a cold beer costs an extra $2.

Besides Villas Jaqueline, a few American ex-pats have constructed beachfront surf-camps, and there are currently a number of condominium-like villas going up on the quiet beach. In high surf season from March to June there are dozens of surfers, beginners and experts, out in the water. Mid-season is from June to November, and surfers are significantly fewer.

“Beginners can come down all year long and get a nice wave to learn on,” Lourdes assures me. In fact she says it’s better to come down in the autumn when there are fewer surfers floating in the water.

Lourdes says she’s too busy to impart her longboard knowledge, but her brother Temo gives classes to beginners like me, who are just starting to understand the longboard technique. For monolingual gringos he instructs in English but insists that amongst surfers there is only one language: las olas (the waves).

That same day, as I paddle out to try again, I catch a glimpse of Lourdes running down her longboard on a shiny wave. She probably doesn’t even see me.

The Wave Machine

Waiting for Waves

The break at La Saladita has made quite a splash in the world surfing community. It is often dubbed the “Wave Machine” because of its consistency and grace, though locals call it ubilam.

The wave forms at a point break (as opposed to a reef break), curls left and sputters out at the north end of the beach. You can stand on the beach and watch the Wave Machine churn out one silky swell after another, all in the same direction and breaking at the same speed. Getting in the driver’s seat of the Machine is somewhat difficult at first. A tiresome riptide makes paddling seems counterproductive. But on a good day the wave can be ridden for up to 1,500 feet.

Longboard Magazine describes this break as a “reverse Malibu” and timed the average ride at a minute and a half, a very long ride on the surfer’s clock. Lucky for the beginner, the bottom is covered with round rocks at the south end and sand at the north end.

Lourdes and her crew also offer local excursions to other breaks, which have yet to be “discovered” by surf junkies. She tells me about El Rancho, 25 minutes north, that offers three different breaks, but can only be reached by boat.

With the increase in tourism and surfers, Lourdes has gone from celebrated longboarder to business-minded hotelier.

“If I want cash, I can’t have the waves,” she reasons for not searching out her dream of surfing the South Pacific. “And if I want the waves I can’t have the cash.”

She guarantees she can still hold her own, though. “When a gringo comes down here and beats me on the longboard, I’ll retire from surfing.” It sounds like a challenge.

One Gringo who will never beat the Queen

Los Troncones

After riding a total of a few minutes in the span of a week, I decide to search out another break along the Costa Grande before departing. Thanks to La Saladita my confidence grew, and I decide to stop at Los Troncones, 20 minutes north of Zihuatanejo.

I find myself sitting on a yoga mat overlooking the beach, listening to electro-lounge and lunching on a vegetarian platter of eggplant-portabella skewers and sautéed basil prawns. No, I have not been transported to another planet, I am in Los Troncones, a hidden jewel along the Mexican Riviera that even today manages to keep corporate resorts away.

Troncones has made a name for itself especially among yuppie couples looking for an escape from Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa’s high-octane tourism.

The surf is a left-rolling reef break. Although the reef is six to ten feet deep, some local knowledge can help any surfer avoid natural hazards like rocks and coral.

The Present Moment Conscious Living Retreat isn’t a place for piña coladas. The complex, which stresses holistic values, offers more than just a surfboard and a lesson. There’s yoga, meditation, life coaching, drumming, and dance, all practiced outside to the soothing sounds of the Troncones break and the Pacific wind.

Prices at the Present Moment Retreat reflect the exclusiveness that Troncones has gained as an alternative destination. For example, an hour of yoga and meditation costs $12 per person, and a massage runs $90 for 90 minutes, while accommodations run from as low as $175 per night with a yoga class to $1,600 for a seven night stay and all the enlightening activities your mind and body can muster.

I decide to forego the surfing and spend the rest of the day with a book and a green tea latte. The Troncones break is a bit too dangerous for beginners like me, but seasoned surfers abound and the beach bustles with traffic: kids, surfers, yoga mats.

“Maybe tomorrow,” I tell myself, taking in the sight and sound of a massive, roaring wave.  Maybe tomorrow.