Oaxaca; Don’t always believe what the surf report says…

The State of México - corn fields in the flats, peaches and apricots on the hills.

About a week ago I got a tip from a friend that the sand bars in Oaxaca were particularly good. All of the surf forecasts predicted two solid weeks of good surf and good conditions. Like any good swell chaser, I packed our bags and hit the road. We bid our friends in Morelia farewell (until we meet again) and set off to the east. We took the arco norte toll road around Mexico City, which dropped us in the state of Pueblo. This first leg took us through the altiplano, on a tour of the highland agriculture. The peach and apricot orchards in the state of México made me nostalgic of my previous farming experiences in California and Florida.

From Puebla, we caught another toll road that slipped through the craggy Sierra Madre, all the way to Oaxaca City. We made a significant portion of the drive at night and stopped half way at a Pemex station to sleep. We awoke to find ourselves in a truly foreign world. We were still very high up in the mountains but the rich agriculture of central Mexico had changed to parched, rocky, alkaline soil. The only crop that seems to fare well here is the Maguey, a close relative of the Blue Agave. The first storm of the rainy season loomed overhead and the thirsty soil begged for the clouds’ moisture.

We arrived in Oaxaca City on a Sunday morning. The city was bustling with activity with car sales on the street and lines of food vendors. We remembered that we needed a few provisions when we spotted the Bodega Aurora. The place looked packed so we pulled in. To our surprise, the steel doors remained closed at 10:30AM. An angry crowd of people sat in formation, blocking access to the Bodega and all other department stores in the plaza. We quickly caught the vibe and got our asses out of there.

Next we pulled up to the row of food vendors, which was certainly open for business. We spotted the most popular tent and ordered up the daily special of pozole. We ordered tamales and a fried quesadilla to accompany the soup. The couple sitting with us at our table turned out to be friendly and told us that the locals were striking at the Bodega this morning because of a disagreement with the management.

Maguey, maguey, and more maguey.

We got on the road and headed towards Mitla, Oaxaca. Mitla has two things that people come for – the ruins and the mescal. We stopped at two different mescal distilleries. The second distillery gave me an in-depth explanation of the process of making mescal from the maguey plant (mescal post coming soon). We left Mitla with a full stock of mescal (plenty of barracho in one bottle) and headed south east towards Salina Cruz.

Down, down, down we went; riding the low gears to control our speed through the switch-backs. We descended from the dry, cool altiplano into valleys full of palm trees and papaya. The farmers still planted maguey all around, even on some incredibly steep hillsides. The temperature climbed into the low 90’s when we hit each valley floor. The highway would then ascend up over another ridge, and into the next valley. We repeated this about five or six times, over the longest hundred miles I can ever remember. When we finally got to the last mountain range before the Pacific, the dry monte of the previous landscape turned into a lush cloud-forest, full of broad-leaved trees and vines.

The winding highway, descending from the altiplano.

Somewhere near Tehuantepec or Desiderio on the toll road we approached a routine military checkpoint. The soldiers were only checking cars going the other direction, until they saw us coming. The officer in charge walked all the way over into our lane and flagged us to the side. I spoke my best Spanish to him and answered his questions. He wanted to see in the back so I invited him into our casita. All was going well until the young officer saw my little red flashlight hanging on our key rack. He used it to check out some of the darker areas of the camper (a little more thorough than normal) and then asked for the flashlight as a gift. I explained that I was about to be camping for a few weeks and I really needed that flashlight. He looked at me with a glare that I’ll never forget and repeated “Un regalo por favor”. I understood that he had the power to pull everything out of my camper onto the tarmac and make our lives a lot harder than they needed to be. I gave into his request and we were on our way shortly after. Our first, and hopefully last, mordida (Spanish for “little bite”).

We pulled up to Salina Cruz on Sunday afternoon, only to find the waves totally blown out from the east wind. We stayed the night on the jetty, riding out the torrential downpours. We enjoyed the lightning and thunder from the dry side of the windows. Sometime early in the night flashlights shined on our windows. I looked outside to see a police truck next to us with about four police officers surrounding our camper. I poked my head out the window and told them that we were alright and we were just trying to sleep. This seemed to be the right answer and they got in their truck and left us alone.

Somewhere between Mitla and Salina Cruz.

The next day we put the truck into 4wd and headed across the beach to Punto Coñejo. The NE wind still didn’t work very well and the surf looked like “turds” (my favorite saying for ugly conditions). I ended up surfing sometime around mid day. I got a few fun waves before I ate it on a big set and broke two of the fins out of my favorite board 😦 (Ward if you’re reading this I’ll need another 6’1’‘ ASAP). I got on the internet and did a little more research to find the wind charts for the Gulf of Tehuantepec – at least a week more of bad east winds! I looked back onto the Surfline and MagicSeaWeed forcasts – all were calling for good to great surf for the next week. Sure the swell was showing up but the winds were horrible for the area. With the omens of the broken board and the mordida, we decided to split Oaxaca for the time being and come back when the wind charts were showing more favorable conditions.

On our way off the beach some local surfers motioned us over to them. I thought they wanted to know what the surf looked like over at Coñejo; I was wrong. They started by telling us of a meeting that the local surfers had before this summer surf season. They explained that they didn’t want to keep people out of the water, and that the ocean is for everyone. But what they don’t want is one independent surfer telling four of his friends, who then each tell four of their friends. “We don’t want people coming here by themselves. We decided that you need a guide to surf this area.” Most of the surf industry around here relies on the Salina Cruz-based surf camps (one of which I visited last year). This way the local surf industry capitalizes completely from the visiting surfers. The locals seemed to have a little problem with independent travelers just showing up in their trucks, like us. In perfect English, the local surf mafia told us that in order to surf the waves around here, we were going to have to have a local surf guide with us at all times. They offered their services at $30/day. We asked them to write down their contact information and told them we’d be in touch when we returned. On our way out, discussed the experience in such a way as to minimze our feeling of being extorted. “They’re creating jobs.” “It’s community development.” “We understand where they’re coming from….” Then we started to wonder, who was the “we” who had a meeting before the surf season to decide that we needed a guide? We’d found the place using a paper map – the Guia Roji, not even a GPS. Did our guide need to be one of their crew? A surfer? Or would any local do? Amy is dying to get back and pay the $30 just to get an interview to find out more.

The Pacific-side of the Sierra Madre; lush and green.

One last event worth mentioning on our way out of Oaxaca: We drove north through Tehuantepec, and got stuck in a nasty traffic jam. We, and everybody around us, fought to turn our rigs around and find an alternate route. The locals told us that the road was closed due to “problemas con la gente”. So our first 48 hours in Oaxaca – strikes, mordida, broken boards, intimidation, and road blocks. It took us this long to find the Mexico that we’d been warned about. Lets keep moving…



  1. Ana, de Morelia said,

    June 18, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    What a shame! It is almost the same if you try to park your car in Coayoacan, DF. The street has “owners”: los franeleros. A guy with a franela would direct you to the spot and take care of your car, but you have to pay him about 3 usd. Gente con iniciativa.

    Try to follow the local news in radio. Maybe you can hear about a road block before you get stuck in it.

    Good luck and patience,

    • June 18, 2010 at 10:18 pm

      Thanks Cristina! I try to buy the local papers to find out what’s happening, but we’ll try the local radio too. Waiting to see what happens during the elections – July 4th I think.

  2. annonymous said,

    June 22, 2010 at 10:13 am

    ach! sorry to hear of your troubles guys. keep your head up.
    you’ll find the waves soon.
    big love

  3. July 23, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    […] Mescal in Oaxaca and have quite a bit to catch up on. After our first rather unsuccessful visit to Oaxaca we decided to keep on moving into Chiapas. We’ve spent the last month in Chiapas and went far […]

  4. December 16, 2010 at 8:49 am

    Later on we learned that the best place to stay to avoid threats and extortion from these jokers is to camp with Leo and Coco at Cocoleoco surf camp in Concepcion La Bamba. They have a great set up for tent camping, palapas, and cabins to rent, and you can also get a very tasty dinner. Just head out to the beach from the blue sign at the highway and look for the sign in front of their yard, or ask for Leo!

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