In the depths of New York’s bitterly cold winter, a glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon: two friends would be available for a two-week surf trip in May.
Of several possible destinations including El Salvador and Costa Rica, Mexico surfaced as the strongest option, the west coast offering virtually guaranteed Pacific swell in the Spring. Magicseaweed, a website surfers use to get swell forecasts, predicts an average of 98 percent surfable conditions throughout May. Better yet, the seasonal average water temperature means there is no need for a wetsuit, just board shorts and a thin neoprene top. We were sold.
With flights booked to Guadalajara, we set about researching the best local surf spots. We learned that many of the most reliable and uncrowded spots are located in Michoacán province to the south. However, we quickly ran into a string of warnings from friends in both the United States and Mexico telling us the area was not safe to visit.
Further digging led us to Matthew Heineman’s chilling documentary “Cartel Land,” charting the collapse of social order in parts of Michoacán due to both the region’s mountain cover for drug manufacture and processing, and its coastal highway for drug trafficking. A picture emerged of the area’s history of violence, kidnappings and murder at the hands of the Knights Templar cartel. We learned that the 2013 Autodefensas community protection movement arose to overthrow cartel influence, although even that is suspected of being backed by a rival cartel seeking to claim the territory.
Concerned about the viability of our planned trip, we began scouring the internet, finding obscure blog posts and comments citing robberies, violence and heavy-handed military, federal and civilian checkpoints searching vehicles and bags on the local roads. Not good. We considered canceling the trip completely.
Fortunately, further conversations and searching began to offer a more balanced picture. Yes, there had been much violence in the last five years, but much of it had subsided. The checkpoints had relaxed and visiting Michoacán as surf tourists would probably be no more dangerous than the surfing we intended to do when we got there.
One of our group had surfed a spot in Northern Michoacán in the past, traveling with friends from Guadalajara. He described it as a natural point break formed by the slow accumulation of rocks and silt at the mouth of a river. The point offers peeling left waves breaking on the north side and a shorter right hand wave that breaks to the south.
Satisfied that we should be fine as long as we limit travel to daylight hours, use federal and state highways where possible, and generally keep our wits about us, we settled on a village called La Ticla as a base for our trip.
After picking up a rental car in Guadalajara, we picked a line for the coast, taking in the views of the vast, dry Lake Sayula and stopping in Tecoman to sample our first seafood “sopa” of the trip. After eating, we drove due west to see Boca de Pascuales. “Pascuales,” as it’s known, is a famously heavy, shifting beach break. Visiting surfers are warned online to bring a spare board for the likely event that one should snap. The wave looked messy, huge and almost as terrifying as we had heard. We climbed back into the car for the final hour of driving into northern Michoacán.
We had planned to stay in a coastal village in the north of the state called La Ticla. It’s a small community, only three by six blocks, with a very pretty town square and well-paved roads sloping down toward the Pacific. At the bottom of the hill, set back from the beach is the village’s Parador Turistico, a simple, community owned and operated tourist resort. The buildings are constructed to evoke a traditional style with palm-wood beams and palm-leaf thatched roofs. The resort includes an open-framed circular restaurant and bar, bathrooms and showers and shaded campgrounds dotted with giant cactus plants and palm trees.
We checked into a cabaña with a shaded balcony overlooking the turquoise Pacific. Hot from five hours on the road, we threw on boardshorts and paddled out, enjoying the last of a small pulse of swell. The surf report for the foll owing morning indicated a much bigger swell was about to arrive, so we finished our session and decided to sample the food.
We found a tiny street restaurant serving mouth-watering carne asada tacos which we supplemented with cold beer and avocados from the local store. La Ticla is a friendly and open community, so conversations with strangers in the restaurants, on the streets, and on the beach are common. We learned that this restaurant, like the others in town (except the more expensive Parador Turistico), only opens for two nights a week. In doing so, it ensures that other restaurants in the town get an opportunity to share in the custom of any visitors passing through. It is in this spirit that the whole community operates. Even the Parador Turistico is run on weekly rotations from member families. Angel, who took care of us in the restaurant the first week was tasked with a piece of construction work adjoining the restaurant the next, shifting between these roles and others to ensure all members have the opportunity to work and earn a living.
One danger of surfing a rocky point break is getting in and out of the water over the rocks, without injuring yourself or a fragile, fiberglass surfboard. To enter the left, you must scramble over rounded rocks which reach a foot-scorching temperature by noon. Flip flops are essential, but don’t help much getting over the uneven stones. At the water’s edge, the rocks are covered with slimey green seaweed which makes them extremely slippery, perfect for rolling an ankle or losing balance with an incoming wave. Finally, just a little further out, sea urchins lurk in the crevices between the rocks. You have to be extremely careful getting in and out of the water. Foot injuries are quite common. As any surfer will tell you, though, a good wave is worth the risks.
The surf lived up to the forecast, delivering sizeable overhead waves, peeling down a left point. Local conditions mean mornings tend to offer slight offshore winds, keeping the waves clean and glassy early in the day. The wind tends to turn onshore in the afternoon, making the surface of the water choppy and conditions less amenable.
While the Ostula river mouth is popular with surfers because of the predictable waves, the rocky beaches offer little pleasure to visitors wanting to simply swim in the ocean. Nonetheless, there are many people who visit the area because of its beauty. One man, a Michoacán avocado farmer, explained that he drives his family six hours to the coast to visit the resort almost once a month. His children enjoy swimming in the warm, freshwater lake at the river mouth and he and his wife enjoys the relaxed atmosphere and local scenery.
Although we met people from California, Spain and France during our trip, we met plenty of locals, too. The crowd became noticeably fuller over the weekends, with surfers and beach-goers from Guadalajara visiting the resort. Ranging from producers and filmmakers to architects and business professionals, they make the drive aiming for a late dinner on Friday evening and leave in the evening on Sunday after one last surf session to revitalize them for the week ahead.
Bernardo, a producer from Guadalajara, has been coming to surf various spots on the Michoacán Pacific coast for 14 years. He told us that although there have been times when the checkpoints have been more difficult, he has had no problems recently and generally feels safe visiting the area. “Just don’t drive at night if possible,” he explained.
We had booked an airbnb to stay in Guadalajara the day we arrived and the day before our return flight. Our hosts Jen and Caesar also spoke of feeling safe visiting Michoacán. They make regular trips to enjoy weekends on the beach and in the surf with friends: “We like La Ticla because it isn’t built up like the Jalisco or Nayarit beaches,” Jen told me. “I love seeing the moon rise and the millions of stars at night. I like that the locals run their own government and rotate the workers within the businesses in the town. I like that you can camp right on the beach and surf! Most people are kind and share the waves. The water is clean and the whole area itself is beautiful.”
During our stay, a group of professional surfers and photographers from the Vissla surf team showed up late one afternoon, paddling out to surf the right on the south of the point. For several hours, the surfers put on an amazing show of aerial surfing (using speed and the shape of the waves to take off from the water and launch into the air) while their videographers and photographers captured everything.
After enjoying the surf at the point for several days, we decided to follow a tip we’d received from one surfer from Guadalajara and check out a beach 35 minutes further south called Maruata. This break is slightly more sheltered, so it works well when the swell is getting too big on a strong south west swell. Maruata offers a sandy beach and a wedgy right-handed break. It may offer a better option for beach-goers who don’t want to surf, with plenty of accommodation options and several beautiful, protected coves and beaches where you can enjoy swimming in the ocean.
Overall, our visit to Michoacán felt safe. Although we passed through various federal, local and municipal checkpoints, they waved us through without stopping us, perhaps because we were so obviously tourists. We did see armed federal and state police and even soldiers in military vehicles patrol the beaches on some evenings. This was a strange sight for us; while we felt reassured by the obvious presence of law enforcement agencies, it was somewhat alarming to see that such heavily armed forces were necessary.
The food and the relaxed, friendly vibe in the small towns in northern Michoacán were wonderful. The accommodation was decent, with cabañas, camping spaces, and local hotel rooms on offer and plenty of availability at this time of year. The resort is not always quite as peaceful as we found it. We met a quiet, American surfer and traveling chef, Eric, who had been camping on the beach for several months. He informed us that the area gets much busier during the summer months and the beach party can get a little wild. “That’s just the Mexican way,” he laughed.