MICHOACAN: Mainland Mexico’s Southern California of the Past
No major airports. A paved road along the coast only completed in the 1980s. Many areas still without electricity. Nobody out at many firing surf spots visible from the main road. This is Michoacan, probably the most consistent surfing region in all of Mexico.
The term Mainland Mexico conjures up a few images-the crowded barrels of Puerto Escondido to the south, banditos, roughing it. While Puerto Escondido has the fame and crowds, Michoacan’s surf remains virtually uncrowded and much less known. Almost gone are the days when bandito roadblocks were of constant concern. Roads are well-traveled and generally well-maintained, purified water and plenty of food is available everywhere you go, and recently acquired internet access and satellite TV can keep you connected to home, even so far away. ATMs at banks in larger cities mean you don’t have to carry wads of cash.
Yet, coastal Michoacan is still very rural and rustic. There are no major hotel resorts. No timeshare condo pushers. Stores still close for the afternoon siestas. Many people still do not have cars and use the very reliable bus system. Traditional meals are still prepared daily, with hand-made tortillas and fresh caught fish. Very few people speak English and many speak with a mixed Spanish and indigenous dialect. But, they are patient and tolerant of those who attempt to speak their language and will usually help you out in a very gentle way. Homes are made of cement and brick. But also of sticks, boards, and palm fronds. Some people sleep in beds. Others have hammocks slung across their bedrooms. Education is mandatory through eighth grade and basic health care is available to virtually everyone in the region. Food sources are abundant and relatively cheap for the locals; very cheap for Western visitors.
What about the waves? Oh yeah. Coastal Michoacan is roughly the size of Southern California from the reefs of Bixby Ranch at Point Conception to the beach breaks of Tijuana Sloughs south of San Diego. There are point breaks, reef breaks, beach breaks and rivermouths. Michoacan has waves year ’round, every day. It’s not a matter of if, but where. The region faces the southwest and connects with any south, southwest, west, and northwest swell (except for the most extreme norths) that come its way. Which spot is the best depends on the time of year, swell direction, and size. You can cover it end-to-end easily in a day, but you can also find yourself staying in one spot for days, weeks, or months on end, until the waves stop.
Today, more than ever, Michoacan is easily accessible. Two major airports in neighboring states to the north and south offer year ’round daily, nonstop access from major U.S. cities. While most tourists on these flights park themselves at the hotels of Manzanillo, Colima (to the north) and Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, Guerrero (to the south), surfers can grab a rental car and be on quality surf within about an hour’s drive from either airport. Those who want to drive from the U.S. will find more and more autopistas or calle cuotas (highways or toll roads) to get you there faster and safer tore.
But, once you hit rural, coastal Michoac, it all slows down. The main road, Highway 200, is one lane each way. There are limited turnouts, virtually no shoulders, and tropical plants grow to the road’s edge. Average speeds slow to about 40 miles per hour. But, this is good, because you come to Michoacan to slow down. You come to Michoacan to surf the stiff morning offshores, relax with a scrambled egg, tortilla, and fresh fruit breakfast, take a siesta, drink a cerveza, surf in the evening, and go to sleep early, only to repeat this over and over again until you leave. Except for major holidays, the pace is very slow. Ask any local why he or she lives in Michoacan, even when many have visited or worked in the U.S. and a common word comes out of their milo.
Sure you can go to well-known and popular spots like La Ticla, Rio Nexpa, Playa Azul, or Pascuales and surf or wait to surf. But, you should also consider exploring other options. Check out Hua Hua, Villa Dorada, or San Juan de Alima. On my last trip, I surfed 20 days straight. On 12 of those days, I surfed at least one session, if not the whole day, alone. These were not blown out, junky sessions. The winds were offshore, the water clear, and the waves at least chest- to head-high-conditions that would draw huge crowds at home and which most of us crave at our home breaks osis.
So, go and surf. Go and explore. Go and experience the coastal Michoacan that brings many people back month after month, year after year. Oral
Here are a few spots we hit on our last trip:
La Ticla (Km 183)Probably the most consistent reef break on the coast, La Ticla produces ridable waves almost every single day, picking up virtually any swell. Waves break over cobblestones at the mouth of the Rio Ostula. Rights break to the south, with longer lefts breaking into a small bay to the north. Directly off the rivermouth you’ll find a-frames breaking both ways. In many ways, this wave reminds me of Trestles-a combination of both Upers.
Because of its consistency, La Ticla is visited by surfers year ’round and can get quite crowded. Nonetheless, there are plenty of days (and times of day) when you can getelf.
Morning offshores blow hard down the rivermouth canyon, especially in winter. This is my favorite time of day to surf La Ticla, but for some reason it is also the least crowded. During my last trip (in winter, the most crowded time of year), I surfed three mornings in a row by myself for the first hour even though there were at least 50 surfers in camp able to see the waves directly in front of them. And it was eet.
From what I understand, many don’t like the offshores because the takeoffs are late. You do need to get right under the peak and really paddle hard, but the set up is perfect for the take-off-turn-and-pull-in type tubes. Some of the middle inside sections can also get pretty hollow, especially as ops.
Another option for surfing alone: the left up the beach. Most surfers opt for the rights and a-frames in front of camp and the rivermouth. But, if you cross the river north and head into the bay a few hundred yards, you’ll see several left lineups. Simply paddle out, line yourself up with some palm trees and/or palapas on the beach and wait for sets to swing your way. It can get shallow toward the inside, so use caution there.
The best time to go is probably early fall/winter, with November and December being good months (though I and several friends have caught it good at least once every month of the year). It’s not necessarily the biggest, but November offers late-season souths and December starts to show the west/northwest from way up north-well groomed and fun. This is also definitely the most crowded ear.
Much less crowded and usually much bigger is summer. When the big south/southwest swells hit, the rights all but disappear and the big lefts fire into the bay. I’ve surfed solid 8-10 foot lefts with one other guy out for five days in July. But it’s hot, sticky, and can be rainy. If you want to charge big La Ticla, this is the time.
Even when it’s flat, La Ticla will produce small, ridable waves out front just from wind swell. There are many days I’ve surfed it at 2-3 foot with only a few people out (because most were over it after surfing several days of solid swell the week before). But, if you think about the fact that it’s at least as good as your home break, it’s relatively uncrowded, and it’s warm, you can’t beat it.
With as many quality breaks as there are around the area, La Ticla is often the first and final destination for visiting surfers. Many show up, set up camp, and never leave until their vacation is over. Expect to see a regular contingent of surfers from Guadalajara and other inland cities, as well as several Texans and Californians. Throw a few Europeans and Aussies into the mix and you have a typtup.
For such a popular spot, La Ticla has both come a long way and also hasn’t changed a whole lot. It has improved in that the locals understand more and more that catering to visiting surfers is better than stealing from them. Rip offs, including full-on armed robbery were common just a few years past. These days, such incidents are few and far between and common, petty theft only usually only happens to careless travelers who leave enticing things out at night. But, La Ticla’s rural, rustic nature hasn’t changed much over the years. The Rio Ostula is a clear, beautiful river with tropical birds and great wetland scenes. The town and neighboring El Duin, also on the river, at the highway, have changed little over the years. Big time tourism won’t be coming here anytime soon; jers.
Access to La Ticla is easy. Take the dirt road turn off at about Km 183 for about 3 kilometers to town. The turn off is well-marked with a very large sign, lately sponsored by Corona. It seems to change. In the old days, it was an old, rusty, hand-painted thing you could hardly see. Once into town, take the second left all the way down to the beach. You can’t get lost here. The other option is to take the turn off at El Duin, at about Km 186. As you wind down out of the mountains, you will cross the Rio Ostula (sometimes labeled Ostuta on maps) and come to some topes. Take the first dirt road right through town, taking the left fork downhill. This will wind around, then back up hill through a couple of switchbacks and run along a cement irrigation ditch. Take the second right as you come to La Ticla down to the ocean. This is the lesser-known entrance, but it’s faster and the usual one taken by locals coming or going from the north. It’s also more scenic and less dusty.
El Zapote de Tizupa (Km 103.5)This is Michoacan’s answer to San Onofre. It is an open bay, about 1.5 kilometers across, with a large rock island in the center, to the north, about _ kilometer out. It has a shallow, gently sloping sand bottom that allows you to stand up in chest-high water even at theak.
An empty wave, perfect for beginners, longboarders, and really fun on fat fish boards. It breaks right and left on shifting sand bar peaks in crystal clear water. It takes just about any swell, though really big souths can close it out with a lot of water moving. In Winter, West/Northwest swells and wind swell produce fun surf up to head-high, but often smaller. It has an outside/inside reform to it, making it fun for many skill levels.
Rio Nexpa (Km 55.5)Formerly a secret spot with what seemed to be the annual, unnamed photo in surf magazines, the wave at Barra de Nexpa (known commonly as Rio Nexpa) is a world class, left-hand point break. On virtually any direction swell (but not too North), this cobblestone point can fire 100 to 300+ yard lefts down the beach. Even on smaller days, the surf potential is very clear. Rio Nexpa’s popularity these days is obvious by the number of internet sites advertising its beach accommodations and displaying photos of many classic days.
While known as a South/Southwest swell spot, where its perfection lights up, even on modest North/Northwest swells, you can surf Rio Nexpa, but it is much more sectiony and not necessarily the classic point set up that it’s known for. On the smallest days, especially when there isn’t any South or Southwest swell running, surfing out at the very top or on the other side of the rivermouth (to the south, which is really the north end of Playa Guerra) can be fun. On my last trip in late December, the left point was only about waist-high for about three days and was perfect for beginners and longboarders. Meanwhile, I enjoyed shoulder- to head-high rights and lefts off the top, usually by myself. You can’t necessarily see these waves from the camp area and have to walk out to the sand bar fronting the riverook.
The entire break is a cobblestone reef, much like La Ticla and Hua Hua, but more perfect. On big days, the rocks can make it very difficult to get out of the water, as the current not only moves north down the point, but can produce huge closeouts in La Liquadore (The Liquidator) down the beach. Many people, including my fearless brother, have been stuck after a long ride trying to get in through the shore pound on the often rocky beach, as the paddle back out through the current is next to impomes.
On average 4-6 foot days, the wave is fun, fast, hollow at times, and well worth the trip. When it’s on, though, it can be crowded. But there’s it.
(These are excerpts from Scott Valor’s upcoming book, The Surfer’s Guide to Mainland Mexico: Michoacan, which is due out this Fall. It is part of the Surfer’s Guide series, which includes guides to Baja, Costa Rica, and Panama.
Check out www.surfingtravel.com for more info.