The check-in process was a breeze. The airline, Tucan Air, had but one desk smashed in between Interjet and Volaris, and only one employee — and there wasn’t a soul in line. The tickets cost $100, which we bought on the spot, brushed through security, and were at the gate within 15 minutes.
We took off from Oaxaca in a single-engine Cessna at 7 a.m. I quickly fell asleep with my head straight back and my mouth wide open. The previous four days had been a mezcal-fueled bender of sorts, so at this point, sleep came easy.
But it did not last long, we descended and landed in Puerto Escondido at 7:45 a.m. Fifteen minutes later we were outside hopping into a taxi. We did our best to haggle the price but the drivers remained firm, charging a whopping $5 USD for our ride to the far side of town. It was mid-June and the Puerto Escondido Big Wave World Cup had just been confirmed for the following day. It was not like my buddy or I were there for that reason, we had only heard about it as we were waiting for our bags.
A bit of what brought me to this point: In May, I got a call from an old friend summoning me to Oaxaca to work on his new endeavor. Long story, short, it involves mezcal. I told him I had some time in June. Naturally, I planned for six days when he said he’d need my help for four (you know, for good measure).
Now, I knew next to nothing about Oaxaca when I purchased my tickets. I did a quick Google search to see where it was. Mexico, after all, is huge. Oaxaca, which is both a city and state, sits at the southern end of the country, separated by only one state (Chiapas) from Guatemala. I briefly scrolled through some images and saw that the city itself was beautiful. I didn’t search too deeply because I wanted a majority of it to be a surprise, better to just pack light and keep an open mind.
Upon arrival, I had an extensive four-day crash course in all things mezcal. My buddy filled me into some of the many intricacies of the complex spirit as we cruised from dive bar (cantina) to fancy bar to marketplace to restaurant to his apartment—-where he had an impressive (and dangerous) collection of over 25 varietals. The most interesting experiences took place when we traveled to the palenques (mezcal farm/distillery) themselves. We hit nearly 10 palenques in less than two days. Each mezcalero had at least three varietals, so, well, you do the math…
After four days of steady sipping, I was ready for a break. One thing I did notice in my brief Google search was that Puerto Escondido, the much-talked-about “Mexican Pipeline,” was also in the state of Oaxaca. I knew I would have to see this mythical, sand-bottomed beast with my own eyes.
While there are popular spots in the area, the famous wave lies just offshore of the main beach, Zicatela. Underwater is a deep canyon that channels swell energy until it unleashes and detonates on that zone of beach. While it is invisible to the human eye, the waves there are clearly larger and more powerful than anywhere else.
I had seen many clips on Instagram and YouTube of the famed wave, but I caught my first real glimpse from the taxi. We were over a kilometer away, high above sea level, and it was still unlike anything I have seen in my life. The wave I saw was undoubtedly beautiful, deep blue with a pure white spray whipping off the back of the apex right as it flew down some 25 feet to detonate on the shallow sand bottom at its base – but it was also an absolute monster.
I found the scene on this side of town (La Punta) to be like something out of a movie, a barefoot bohemian stretch of unpaved road lined with all the offerings of a backpacker’s cosmopolitan: charming hostels, yoga classes, Thai food, surf shops, bikini boutiques and even a great little health food store. While some of the spots seemed out of place for rural Mexico (likely owned or managed by gringos), the others seemed straight out of a Corona commercial. After a quick breakfast, I found a board to rent. Like most rental scenarios, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted but it would do the trick.
The board was fishy, kinda wide and kinda thick, not too much rocker but plenty of drive. The fins were of a plastic composite I had never seen north of the border. They were shaped normally enough but they were, to put it one way, flimsy. It was either this 6’1” hybrid blue cruiser, or a potato chip 5’6” thruster with pancake-sized body dents; the other option was a 7’10” gun that looked like it had been snapped in half at Zicatela every year for the last decade.
In the water, the crowd was strong, to say the least. With the main break nearing 30-plus feet all but the most daring and talented surfers were pushed down to La Punta. The waves were beautiful lefts, all at least 10 feet with sets closer to 15. Too big for the surf schools but certainly still crowded. I watched the rhythm of the lineup and it seemed like there were two paddle out points, and multiple take-off zones. I timed my launch from the beach in between sets and made it out fairly easily. The paddle out itself was surreal—those first paddle out feels.
The water was warm; super warm compared to California. It was barely 9 a.m. and the air temp must have already been 90 degrees. I sat on the outside watching for a while, undulating with each passing wave. After five minutes, I started to enter the fray and paddle for waves. After 10 minutes, I caught one. It wasn’t spectacular, the rental cruiser felt a bit clumsy under my feet, but I rode it to the end. My heart rate spiked and a Cheshire-cat grin crept onto my face as I paddled back out.
After a few more waves, the board didn’t seem so awkward and I was getting comfortable. Most locals hung out near the rocks and took off in one of the wave’s more critical sections. Some hung out back and knifed impressive drops dangerously close to exposed, jagged rock. Others hung inside, right next to the rock and air-dropped into the pit of the wave before pumping their way out to the shoulder. I wanted to get into the wave early, but it was still too soon to thrust myself balls deep in that mix of locals. The bigger waves would often close out the inside section and if there wasn’t already someone on it from way out back, it was open game for anybody sitting on the shoulder. Once up and riding I would stall and speed up accordingly—it had a dualistic nature to it, at times peeling and steady, at others, fast and spontaneous. There were some close calls, some hoots, some hollers, some missed, but many made. After a few hours, my arms were lead, my skin was burning, and my stomach was grumbling.
The second session was even better than the first; the board and I were in sync, the crowd was (slightly) less aggressive, and the waves came one after the other without fail. Even with a packed peak, there was enough to go around. I must’ve caught close to 20 waves and was feeling pretty good about myself. Then, on a not-so-epic wave, I dropped in and was blatantly snaked. I had already made it past the first section and was cruising fast down the line when I saw the intruder. We made eye contact and he continued to paddle, I yelled out, “yo, yo, yo!”
I was nearly on top of him when he dropped in but he made a lightning fast dash down the line and left me in his wake. I straightened out and saw him bust a huge air above the lip. The kid could rip. When we both emerged out of the white water he turned and waved his arm at me, the universal sign for, “fuck off, dude.” We were too far apart for me to hear what he said but I’m sure it was along the lines of, “pinche gringo!”
I just shook my head and shrugged. I may have only been in town for less than 12 hours but I knew this was not someone to mess with.
Puerto is home to many visiting surfers from all over the world: Americans, Aussies, Brazilians, Brits, Germans, French, Safas, and even Russians. That’s a pretty considerable mix of competitors for an otherwise sleepy beach town. The legendary wave at Zicatela put it on the map years ago, while the safer wave at La Punta kept mortals coming back. In the meantime, heaps of locals learned to surf and joined the industry by working in the surf schools, hostels, shops, and bars and restaurants. The boho vibes down in La Punta were not so different from the Bukit: throngs of tan-skinned, tattooed travelers with multi-colored passports and a universal penchant for acai bowls.
The next day was a big day for the World Cup. Zicatela was massive and so the comp was called on in the early morning. It was a sight to be seen, they said. I wouldn’t know because even though I had all the intention of watching the comp, I stayed at La Punta. Between futbol and the big wave contest, everyone was pulled away from the waves there. After I finished my breakfast I counted three guys in the water (compared to over 30 the day before). I could barely believe my eyes and ran back to the house and was paddling out within minutes. I kept thinking that at any moment a crowd would show up. This anxiety prevailed for four hours but the crowd never came. I can’t even begin to recall the wave count, let alone more than one specific wave. It was like I was in some sort of transcendent blackout for nearly four hours. I had swapped boards and grabbed a 6’3 thruster that had seen better days but was more suited for the size that day. The waves had gotten a couple of feet bigger so most were coming in with 12-foot faces at the peak, some bigger.
As for that one wave, I took off late with an air drop down the face and then two critical pumps to get in front of the lip. I skated my way as best as I could to get out front and set up one big wraparound right as the backwash hit the wave. I managed to stay on my feet and was in deep as the wave began to hit the inner sandbar and run along the shore. I pumped fast. All the energy I had left went into that wave and it paid off as I made it all the way to the lifeguard tower where it finally met it’s other half and closed out with a bang. The whitewash rag-dolled me onto the shore and I nearly collapsed as I took my first steps. The sand was scorching hot and I realized I was completely dehydrated. There was a family sitting in the shade under the lifeguard tower and the old man gave me a thumbs up and said, “Buenas Olas. El ultima fue muy rapido.”
“Gracias,” I said panting. “Ahora estoy muerto y necesito agua.”
His wife looked at me and then pointed to the shack behind them and said, “Temos cocos gelados, son buenos para el calor.”
Ice. Cold. Coconut water. I literally couldn’t think of anything better, depleted and exhausted of all serotonin reserves after hours of endless stoke.