I fell in love on my first trip to Salina Cruz in 2011. What a coastline! Raw, wild, largely unpopulated. On the drive down from Huatulco, the mountains stretched down to the sea. Rivers flowed swiftly through the jungle canyons. Hawks and sea eagles circled overhead. Turtles lay their eggs onshore. Mangroves and rivermouths deposited fresh sand into the sea. Strong swell and wind carried it down to a series of headlands fronted by giant pinnacles. The sand settled snugly inside the points and built up. Nature had created the best setups for right point breaks I’d seen anywhere in the world.
I’d been going to various spots in Mainland Mexico and Central America since 1991 and had never experienced anything like this place. I was apoplectic thinking about how many perfect uncrowded days I’d missed by not going here instead of more well-known places I’d visited. How had such a zone, just a couple hours drive from an international airport, with all of its waves literally visible from the highway, stayed off the surf media’s radar for so long? I never even saw a photo of these spots until the mid-aughts, when SURFER started publishing travel pieces featuring Josh Mulcoy and his father Bill.
The most user-friendly wave in the area was Punta Conejo, Rabbit Point in Spanish. It was closest to the nearby industrial city of Salina Cruz, and it was the most consistent and easiest wave to ride. Behind the rock, it could offer some throaty tubes, but after that it turned into an incredibly forgiving wall over a soft sand bottom. On that first trip in 2011, I went with Kelly Slater and a crew from Quiksilver, the inside of the point was incredible. The swell would grow in size there, double up and rifle into a Kirra-like tube. I’ve been to Salina Cruz every year since and have never seen Conejo as good as it was that first trip. Apart from the Surf Ranch, it was the easiest wave I’ve experienced to get barreled on.
Today, Punta Conejo’s ease, convenience, and dependability may lead to its destruction. Like a lot of problems in Mexico, the issue is thorny, complex, and there’s no clear good or bad side.
Last year, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was elected president of Mexico. His National Regeneration Movement is called Morena. His platform featured a call to help improve the lives of historically disadvantaged groups in Southern Mexico, especially indigenous people who had been drawn to the revolutionary Zapatista movement in the 1990s. Most of the population of Salina Cruz, including the first local surfers in the area, Cesar and David Ramirez, identify as Zapotec, which is a civilization that predated the Aztecs. The Zapotecs built one of the most impressive pyramids in the world at Monte Alban in the capital city of Oaxaca.
Lopez Obrador’s plan to bring back the pre-Hispanic glories for the impoverished tribes of modern-day Mexico includes an ambitious scheme to construct a land-based canal connecting the Pacific Ocean with the Gulf of Mexico. The Tehuantepec Isthmus between Salina Cruz on the Pacific and Coatzacoalcos on the Gulf is only 143 miles wide, but it takes over 4 hours to cross it on the old, rutted highway. Lopez Obrador, called AMLO, wants to build a superhighway and rail line in between the two cities to cut that time in half. He also wants to expand the ports in Salina Cruz and in Coatzacoalcos. If successful, ships could offload containers on the Pacific side, have them trucked or loaded on a train, and then put them back on another ship in the Gulf. The whole process for this new “dry canal” theoretically would be much cheaper and faster than the eight to ten hours required to traverse the 105-year-old Panama Canal now.
The current harbor in Salina Cruz is small and is mainly used to service a Pemex oil refinery nearby. AMLO wants to expand it dramatically a few miles to the west, pave over the mangrove lagoon, kill the habitat for the myriad of species living there, and build a huge breakwater in lee of the point at Conejo. If it all goes to plan, those long, easy rights at Conejo would vanish, and the change to the geography and ecosystem would threaten the other amazing waves in the area as well.
The local surfers, who’ve built a thriving surf tourism business in the area, are now organizing not to try and stop a massive infrastructure project that could provide thousands of local jobs, but to relocate it instead. There’s an unpopulated area called La Ventosa just to the east of the current harbor with no mangroves and no perfect point breaks. The Salina Cruz surfers want the port expansion to happen there.
It’s clearly a David versus Goliath fight, but all hope is not lost for Punta Conejo. AMLO’s not the first Mexican or Central American president who dreamed of building a yellow brick road for his nation in the form of an alternative to the Panama Canal. He might not be the last to try and fail. Many others have gotten bogged down with a similar attempt over the last 100 years (here’s an LA Times piece from 1996, for reference).
When you try to go that big, there are so many opportunities for error. As Dr. Serge Dedina, Executive Director for Wildcoast and mayor of Imperial Beach, was careful to point out when I interviewed him for the video above, there’s still time to organize effective opposition.
“Right now, expansion plans for the port are just a proposal,” said Dedina. “We need to make sure that we’re looking at the environmental impact assessment and the permits. So nothing has been filed officially.”
Sign this petition created by the team at Save the Waves (which has already received more than 250,000 signatures), and let’s do what we can to lobby the Mexican government to create a new plan that doesn’t destroy such a beautiful wave, coastline, and or the wildlife that depends on it.