The small coastal town of Puerto Escondido, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca is world renown for housing the heaviest beachbreak in the world, Zicatela, aka Mexican Pipeine. At this world famous stretch of sand over sized swells march up the Pacific coast of South and Central America and come to an abrupt end on Zicatela's infamous shores. This place is not for the feint of heart as the lack of Continental shelf off the coast of Zicatela means that the large ocean swells lose little of their size, power and strength. Swells in the 8-12ft plus range are more than common place during the peak swell period between May and October each year.
I have to admit that I was more than a little intimidated when I first made the decision to visit this wave rich town as a big wave surfer I am not. As many of you I grew up watching countless surfing videos and pawing over numerous magazine images of this iconic wave throughout much of my youth. Images of this unforgiving and seemingly perfect wave are well ingrained into my brain.
However, what I (and many others) did not realise until my arrival is that the wave is not as perfect as the surf media would have you believe and it is in fact predominantly a closeout...a hard fact to swallow when you are about to play Russian Roulette with 8-12ft plus closeouts. Despite seeing wave after wave of perfect makeable barrels flaunted through the media you need to know that for every perfect barrel there are at least 8-10 unmakeable ones. This fact alone can make the wave very intimidating and then when you factor in an extremely wave hungry, at times aggressive and highly skilled surfing crowd then the situation can be very challenging indeed.
I spent a total of five weeks living in this beautiful surf town with two weeks spent there during the off season and with three weeks during the peak swell period. During my second visit I was fortunate enough to be on hand and witness the 2016 WSL Big Wave Challenge where the scale and ferocity of the 6m swell blew my mind. During the off-season while the larger swells are more rare they still come through and Zicatela can still be super fun on the smaller days.
Both North and South of Puerto there are some really fun peaky beachbreaks that work well on smaller swells and tend to attract less crowds. During the peak swell period swells of 8-12ft and much, much larger are common place but there are also many manageable days in the 4-6ft range. It tends to be offshore almost every morning until around 10-11am and if you are an early riser and paddle out before first light you can usually score the waves with limited crowds for one to one and half hours. During the peak season Mex Pipe is relatively crowded and these crowds can get particularly thick when a XXL swell is on the cards with pro surfers from around the world flying in specifically to tackle these super sized days.
While the wave can be extremely intimidating, at times dangerous and highly crowded I still managed to have many enjoyable surfs and sneak more than my far share of barrels off the pack. As long as you are respectful, wait your turn but remain competitive you are bound to lock into a few cheeky drainers. [Continued below]
If heavy crowded surf is not for you and you are looking for something a tad more low key then the pointbreak of La Punta located in the South end of Zicatela may be more up your alley. Alternatively there is always the option to tackle the pointbreaks three hours South near Salina Cruz for more manageable but still world class pointbreaks when a big swell is running.
However, unless you are staying in one of the local surf camps or hire a local surf guide the breaks around the Salina Cruz region can prove difficult to access. If you want to surf the breaks independently then I would recommend staying in the Cabanas located near Barra de la Cruz and Playa Bamba where you can access the nearby points by foot and hire a guide to take you to other breaks if the need be. I really feel that there is a massive gap in the market here for a more budget hostel type surf accommodation in the region and it would definitely create more surf tourism and jobs for the local community although it would admittedly bring more crowds also.
From a photography perspective Puerto is a surf photographers dream and it is one of my favourite places to shoot from the water due to the epic hollow conditions, stunning sunrises, early morning off-shores and hardcore surfers. When the larger swells kick in you are better off shooting from land because once you add notorious rips, vicious undertows and strong currents to already maxing swells you are literally taking your life into your own hands by entering the water. Taking this into account I never shot in the water in over 6-8ft surf but I still managed to nail some of my best shots ever. [Continued below]
Surfing aside I really enjoyed my time in Puerto Escondido and it is definitely one of my favourite places in Mexico. I found Puerto to be a super friendly, welcoming, safe and beautiful coastal town without being overly touristy. In the region there are numerous stunning beaches and coves, good quality affordable accommodation/restaurants and a fun low key night life.
There are plenty of activities to keep one busy when one is not in the water and it is definitively worth a visit even if you are not an avid surfer. Make sure you make time to check out the baby turtle release located at Playa La Barra as this is a feel good experience that you will not easily forget. Also on Wednesday nights there is a Moonlit outdoor cinema at Playa Bacocho in front of Hotel Suites Villasol's beach club and Thursday's Salsa Night at La Congo are super fun and great way to mix with the locals. I found the locals to be among the friendliest I have encountered in the Latin Americas and you will find that a friendly "hola" and a big smile will go a long way. I mostly hung out with the local bodyboard crew who were super friendly, humble bunch of guys and complete legends both in and out of the water. [Continued below]
If you are considering a surf trip to Puerto Escondido just stop thinking and book your flights already. Amazing waves, warm water, tropical climate, safe, affordable and super friendly locals....what's not to love? Don't be intimidated by the big wave tag book your flights and you will probably score some of the best waves of your life.