Words by Scott Hulet |
Photos by Mark Kronemeyer (unless otherwise credited)
Light / Dark
Two kinds of people travel for beachbreak: big-wave surfers and the crowd-averse. If you’re not the air-vest and double-leash-plug sort headed for Zicatela or Tecomán, you’re probably cool with head-high, spindrift-addled sandbars. And you might cotton to 82-degree water and a jungle-scented land breeze. Alone.
If hell is indeed other people, these are challenging times to be a near-metropolitan hominid. In today’s “everyone surfs” epoch—primary venues cheek-to-jowl, secondary zones jugged with commercial camps, third-tier spots infested with surf schools—point and reef options can feel like they’re drying up.
But there’s a play beyond complaining or piling on to the scrum. Sometimes one needs a respite from oversaturation. A damn-the-algorithm hunch. Consider tunneling down to less-obvious plays. Places with dependable, if not national- or even world-class, beachbreak. Places with a sidecar of discovery, surprise, and strong odds of surfing with vaguely welcoming locals curious about your very presence. Places like Acapulco.
While a far cry from glory-spot quality, seclusion has its privileges. There’s something freeing and surreal to be the only one dragging a board bag through a Mexican coastal air terminal in 2022. The weight of expectation disappears. There’s an unstudied feeling. You’re no longer party to the most over-examined lifestyle and industry on the stinking orb. You’re merely a traveler with some oddly shaped luggage. (Try that on a flight from LAX to Cabo.) And overhead spitters are firing within a kilometer of the taxi stand.
Made internationally famous in the 1950s by Elvis and Sinatra, Acapulco was the spot to party during your grandparents’ time. When Cap d’Antibes and Gustavia seemed gauche and overplayed, Aca slapped like a fat-bottomed mango dropped from great height. It put Mexico on the jet-set map. The sort of place surfers generally take pains to avoid, sure. But Lord, did it have some intangibles. Topography, music, vibra. All still there, and all made decidedly more valuable by the lack of the greater “us.” International tourism crashed more than 15 years ago, the result of some extremely ugly mafia flare-ups. It’s still a sketchy little city, and you can easily find trouble if you go looking for it in the barrios behind the beaches. This is no place to pursue what Mexicans refer to as la vagancia.
Keep to the beaches and you’ll find your surfed-out self reveling in the diabolically old-school Hotel Las Brisas, the Boca Chica, or Los Flamingos. Venues perfectly suited to linen-clad treachery—hatching a life-insurance scam or jacking a casino cage. These joints retain the ghosts of capers past, waiting for new hosts. All of those old haute monde haunts have a way of inspiring a touch of larceny.
The susceptible might be better served staying down by Revolcadero. This historically resonant beach south of the city is where Mainland Mexican surfing was born. Before Puerto Escondido was even a gleam, the first national surfers left the swell-bound bay of Aca for the exposed bars stretching toward Oaxaca. Setting up out front of what is now the Pierre Mundo Imperial hotel, a local scene developed. The river mouth, sheltered by a jungled headland, offered an automat of peaks. Talent burbled to the top, and veteranos like “El Campeon” are still proudly cited by the young bucks.
Today, Playa Bonfil—another mile south of Revolcadero—is the modern hub of hardcore surf activity. A few dozen surfers claim it as their local. It’s a scruffy stretch of ramadas fronting a clean, stray-dog-patrolled beach. The ramadas open at 8 a.m. or so, serving up café de olla, papaya, and huevos al gusto.
A handful of foreign visitors arrive in the winter, prime time for Bonfil. Beyond that, there’s not a hell of a lot going on.
The neighborhood backing the beach is spotted with markets, shoe-repair shops, and hardware stores. There are also a dozen or so hostelries, ranging from backpacker squats on up to two-storied pool hotelitos. A pair of traveling surfers could get by here on 50 bucks (about 1,000 pesos) each a day, no sweat. Just don’t count on meeting many fellow hunters. What you can count on is hanging with Aca surfers, who seem especially warm and good-humored. With such light traffic, it almost harks back to California of the mid 50s, when surfers would pull their cars over and rap out when they saw another wagon with boards hanging out the back. Almost. Mostly, though, one can count on an air of pleasant indifference. When you engage, do it in Spanish—however threadbare. You’ll be invited into the shade of a palapa, handed something cold or fragrant, and queried about your waves back home. Just don’t come in summer.
Local surfers like Chelo Trujillo wait patiently through the hot season, nothing short of Sumerian in the depth of August.
“That’s when we drive to [Huatulco],” Chelo says. “It’s too big here, and just closes out. We wait for big winter swells—like, Waimea swells—to come down to us. Then the beach turns into rights. Hollow, long rights. Not even like a beachbreak.”
Checking the sandbars with Chelo in November, one gets a taste of the shoulder season. It feels good. Fair weather, slack winds. The sand has settled from the hurricanes, mixed swell carving out rip channels. A dozen or so local surfers, nearly half of them women and girls, set up on opposing sides of each rip. These aren’t hard-hitting barrels of the Pascuales variety. There’s some tube riding going on, no doubt, but these are performance waves. Thin-lipped, pitching, curvaceous little benders perfectly suited to straight-up schralping. A touch of tide makes it amenable to noseriding. Something for everyone.
Los Costeños de Aca By Jesús Salazar
Surfing was introduced to the Acapulco region in the late 1950s. Oral history from the area notes that Hollywood actors, artists, and other members of the leisure class brought down the first surfboards. Mexicans became interested in wave riding through observation. Los Costeños (coastal dwellers)—especially in the state of Guerrero—were already gifted watermen. Theirs was a well-rooted ocean culture and lifestyle, and they learned to surf and became good at it fast. By the time of the shortboard revolution, in the late 1960s, surfing was already popular in Mexico. Due to the lack of a native shaping industry, local surfers would share one board for long periods of time. Getting one’s own surfboard was a big deal. Many surfers stole boards from the gabachos (Americans), and they’d surf them communally until they disintegrated. The old surfers don’t talk of this as doing something wrong. To the contrary, they remember how it helped surfing develop in these places. By the end of the 1970s, Mexico’s first expressions of surfboard building and promotion were seen in beach towns across the country. While Mexican surfing started in Baja Norte in the 50s, then in the Mazatlán area, Acapulco is known as Mexican surfing’s third base—before Los Cabos, Zihuatanejo, or Puerto Escondido. The Acapulqueño scene bloomed at Revolcadero in the 1960s, where it became became the local surf and hangout spot of the first generation, which included the Padilla brothers, Luis and Ignacio, Toño Llorens, the Briseño brothers, Pepe Hernandez, Luis Diaz, and Ivan Blanco. Other names followed: Pin Alvarez, “Tiki” Villalvazo, Pilon Consuelo, “El Japo,” Hector Añorve, “Chino” y “Pollo” Vega, Paton Torreblanca, Pancho Salcedo, Hugo Soberains, Adiel Maldonado, and “El Capi” Olasalga, from Zihuatanejo. Saltiel Alatriste and Antonio Ochoa became the earliest surfers from Mexico City to surf Revolcadero. Then came the Polidura brothers, Poncho and Fernando, and Jorge Fenton, who started surfing shorter boards in the early 1970s. Shortly after, guided by their exploratory instincts—a common trait of the 70s surfer—“El Princess” beach became the hot spot, as it had beautiful A-frame peaks. Coastal development pushed the surfing scene south through Punto Muerto, Copacabana, and Bonfil. In 1968, Club Surf Safari—the initial Acapulqueño surf club, and one of the first in the country—was founded by Rodrigo Huerta. Guerrero managed to organize their inaugural state championships in 1971. Acapulqueños and the state of Guerrero became leaders in organized surfing in Mexico and a strong generator of talent like national champion Evencio García Bibiano, Javier “La Charra” Hernández, “El Moro” Miguel Angel García, Enrique Collins, Paco Soberains, Roberto Sauri, “El Yeye” Palma, and “El Pille” Lopez, followed by Ricardo “El Frijol” Díaz in the 1980s. Through a combination of local energy and the steady waves just south of the city, Acapulco became the most vibrant home of Mainland Mexican surfing. The fact is not lost on the new generation of Playa Bonfil.
Including Chelo, a prime local product. He lives in a pueblo just inland of Bonfil, but hardly finds that a problem. He’s here every day. A grab bag of local sponsors keeps him clothed. Tall, light-footed, and flicky—it would come as a surprise if he weighs 130—he nonetheless keeps his board planted through hard down-carves and bottom turns, artfully finding projection until a barrel presents, which he quickly inhabits. He exits one, prones out to the beach, and trots up to find Arturo Monroy Astudillo watching him from a beachside table.
Arturo is a lifelong surfer in his middle sixties, a stalwart promoter of surfing in Guerrero, and a lighthouse of knowledge regarding the area. Trim, well-spoken, and enthusiastic, his historical recall is as sharp as his boosterism for the young rippers like Chelo. He needs little prodding to relate one of the more compelling stories from Acapulcan surf lore.
“Well, let me begin to tell you about ‘El Campeon,’ Arturo says. “Evencio García Bibiano was the best local surfer here by far—a many-time national champion. It happened here during a heat to decide the state champion. One minute he was there, and the next he was gone. Thirty meters from the beach. Judges, lifeguards, spectators—no one saw what happened. He disappeared. His body was never found.”
Pointing up the beach to the north, Arturo notes the river mouth. He says that it’s notorious for shark attacks. One of the more horrifying examples occurred “a few years back,” when a Japanese surfer-fisherman was hit while wading out to a sandbar. He was never recovered. “El Campeon” Bibiano likely met a similar fate, Arturo says, but he admits that no one knows for sure. No body, no autopsy. No face, no case. Regardless, the state of Guerrero in general and Acapulco in specific have a well-deserved reputation for man-eater-class tigers.
Shark attacks, falling squarely into the “What can you do?” category, don’t seem to trouble the Bonfil clique. Indeed, little does.
The crew rallies around Victor Perez’s Bonfil Surf Shop. They voyage north and south to famous waypoints and waves you’ve never heard of. They listen, rapt, to the old boys telling about the sessions of yore. Watching another barrel pleasantly caving in, you’re reminded of the gifts of scale. And of appreciation. Beachbreak does that. And, for a surfer, so does Acapulco.
[Feature Image: …and the windup: José “Yuko” Trujillo, Playa Revolcadero.]