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Tranquila La Plaza

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We’re running up the coast in gray light. First waypoint: the tollbooth burritos at El Marmol. Tollbooth burritos are a Sinaloan specialty in a land of specialties. The state is revered for its cuisine. Aguachile negro, ceviche de sierra, callo de hacha, robalo zarandeado. All of the joy, all of the art, all of the beautiful Spanish euphony of the local seafood preparation is matched by the gifts of the land. The grass-fed beef, the wild chiltepin chiles, tomatoes so luridly plump and curvaceous that the local Pacific League ball club is called the Tomato Farmers. That horn of plenty is funneled right into the humble roadside burrito, five for three bucks, including a cafecito

Sinaloa is Mexico’s grocery store. The pharmacy, on the other hand, is up the coastal plain in the Sierra Madre Occidental. It’s been that way since the first Chinese laborers planted poppies in the days of Porfirio Díaz. Food and meds. Vons and Sav-on. Everybody knows it. No use in hiding it. Opium gum and weed, now synthetics. Rivers of slivers, all heading north. It’s complicated. Complicated enough that the proceeds end up goosing our 401(k)s. There should be Wall Street bankers locked up in supermax blow-drying Chapo’s socks. But let’s talk surfing.    

The light turns a nicotine yellow and we’ve got the pedal down, making tracks before the devil makes wind. Our caravan comprises three cars, two Sinaloan photographers, two national rippers, and two half-time Mexicans—Skip McCullough and yours truly. We’re on the spoor, snouts to the ground, hunting rife sand cones. 

The swells surge up the eastern Mar de Cortés in patterns defined by their angle of access. When entering the Sea of Cortés’s mouth from an appropriate window, their repeated passage carves out cusps and scallops, pushing sand north to the next headland. You see their flexing backs from high spots on the road. 

The sun’s rays skylight the Sierra. We stick out like boar teats with our racked boards. This is a district where it pays to have your hackles pricked, your ears to the ground and, from David Mamet’s Spartan, your motherfuckers set to “receive.” In the dicier parts of rural Mexico, situational awareness is an art. It’s having eyes in the back of your head while appearing nonchalant, like you don’t care what befalls you. This attitude will provide some window of escape should fate come knocking, the sort of surprise defense relied on by hedgehogs and pufferfish. An “only hope” type of thing. Our crew performs the most natural human response to uneasiness: nervous laughter.

The first offering of a rising swell in the eastern Sea of Cortés.

Things are generally cool right now. The Sinaloa Cartel maintains an impregnable grasp on its home state. The plaza, as they say, is calm. The local government likes it this way. Furthermore, following the mysterious murder of two Australian surfers in 2015, the authorities (and here that includes the extrajudicial) have issued a tacit “don’t dick with turismo” edict. I know this is true because a taxi libre driver told me, waving away my concerns like flies. The murders brought heat to the plaza. Bad for business. When this happens, some usual suspects are rounded up, mineral-watered into a confession, and dog-walked off to crime college.

For now, locals say, the car jackings, kidnappings, and sundry banditry have backed down. People are seen smiling as they drive Mex 15, not squeezing the wheel and bracing for evasive maneuvers. One no longer feels like a misery-tourist here, blithely averting their gaze from some atrocity visited on the populace. Besides, we’re on the beach, not up in Culiacán, that Versailles of narcocultura. Famous throughout the land. Personal zoos. Narco juniors cashing out Lambo Huracánes from Fendi man purses. Ocelot hat bands. Air conditioned marble crypts. Ass implants.

Here on the coast one can play the margins. There’s some brinkmanship involved, but it’s a far cry from recent memory. The local surfers feel it. Rodrigo Arregui, a surfer from down the coast in Mazatlán, confirms. “We have had difficult times,” he says. “But now it’s just like anywhere in the world. You don’t get in trouble if you’re not messing up.”  

Rodrigo is riding with us this morning. He works this area’s waves like it’s his job. Local surfers from Culiacán to Mazatlán are once again day tripping the handful of quality spots dotting the coast along the southern Los Mochis Bight. One of the top surfers from his town, Rodrigo looks at such road trips the way that we all do. They offer hits of discovery. A respite from the mundane. Waves beyond the normal pale. But in Sinaloa—especially in Sinaloa—there are no promises. That goes double for gringos. 

El Mantaraya de Guerrero, suavecito with a dose of deadpan humor in his performances, Carlos surfed both square and screwfoot, forward and reverse.
Carlos’ sheer daily caloric burn had to have been in the tens of thousands, and his ability to rack wave count left two pro-level shortboarders scratching their heads.

We stand out. It’s nothing racial. But profiling makes for efficient, if imperfect, security. Outside the obvious tourism zones, a gringo traveling though Sinaloa is an inscrutable and unwelcome presence. Those in the Funny Business will make you as a narc, a spook, a rat, or all of the above. 

As a U.S. citizen, our government makes it abundantly clear: do not go to Sinaloa. Travel Advisory Level 4. Same as Syria, Yemen, Somalia. Baja Sur and Norte clock in at Level 2. The State Department reserves the same grave language they use for straight-up war zones, adding that they may not (read: cannot and will not) help you should things jump the curb. Federal employees are not allowed anywhere near the joint.

All of which makes our trip not the best way to surf Sinaloa. At least not for Skip and me. The best way, oddly enough, might be to book a week at either Cardon Resort or Sinaloa Surf Adventures, the two regional surf camps. The travel warnings still apply, but you won’t be nearly so exposed. They have left points on lock. Literally, in the case of the latter camp. Doubts? Try surfing El Patole, the coast’s best pointbreak, as a non-guest. The entire headland and point are fenced off. The guard is deputized and said to keep a toaster in a shoulder holster. This isn’t some egalitarian, no-one-owns-the-ocean drum circle. This is Sinaloa. There are maybe four thousand other waves in Mexico where one can surf without such considerations. Not here.

“They don’t want us locals,” says Rodrigo. “It’s annoying sometimes. Like, I haven’t surfed El Patole for about nine years. Cardon is not too welcoming either, but we find our ways and once we are there the waves are amazing and you get to surf with the guys from the camp. Nice people most of the time!”

I am told that every need is provided for at the camps. Three gourmet-adjacent squares, cocktails, massages. You will be compounded up and limbo’d down. Nightly video playback. Trophy largemouth fishing at a local presa. Guest chefs. Distillery tours. Sounds nice.

City life, as guided by Rodrigo, included water taxis, hikes, and truck shuttles—and the exceedingly rare Sinaloan right.

Again, not our path. We’re flogging it local style. My Sinaloan friends have been hounding me to visit, and they’re housing us in their own grand fashion. They know my fondness for octopus and bachata, for the sincere and gracious Patas Saladas (“salty feet,” slang for natives) of the Pearl of the Pacific, for the snook and the miracle of riverine jaguars in the southern esteros. The waves brought me here long, long ago and opened a cultural passageway in the way fine writing does. They didn’t have to ask twice.

We pull off the toll road and into a sort of palapaville. A series of local-knowledge-only turns and we’re at the bottom of a left point. Carlos Rocha, “El Mantaraya,” leaps from his car and and executes a triple jump, landing atop a fence post. He’s muscular and compact, built like a lightweight boxer or knife fighter. He’s been invited to join us based on his reputation as a Phil Edwards-conjuring stylist. 

Skip McCullough is on his heels. He’s Windansea to the bone and our token gabacho. Pops has hauled him to Mexico his whole life and it shows. He has humorous and fluid use of obscure, street-level Mexican idioms. He scythes away on little Xanadu blades. There’s an F.U. to his line choices, and one can’t help but feel a synthesis of Andy, Dane, and maybe—how can this be possible?—Chris O’Rourke. He’s fresh off a WQS win in the Philippines. His wallet is jammed with Filipino pesos, English pounds, millions of rupiah. There’s an undeniable natural gift on display here, in both talent and rootsy charisma. 

The drive north had Skip in a car with the Mexicans. He copped an earful of Sinaloa intel, and quickly downloaded his learnings. “Chalino Sánchez is the Tupac of Mexican culture,” Skip says. “Rodrigo, Mantaraya, and I had Chalino bumping at full volume the whole ride. They told me if you don’t listen to Chalino Sánchez while you’re in Sinaloa…well, did you even go to Sinaloa?”

Rodrigo Arregui, confirmed Sinaloense and Pata Salada, rips his home turf just as one would suspect.

Rodrigo joins us on the berm and spits knowledge. It’s good, he says, even for here. Overhead, glassy, and unabated. He and Skip seem properly mounted with low-fat, Formula 1 thrusters. It’s barreling, after all. Carlos, on the other hand, is dragging a heavy 9’6″ single-fin down the beach by the nose. Just a man, some trunks, and a board. Our Pata Salada, Rodrigo is economical and accomplished. Skip carves in a way that should have some much higher profile Californians checking their swagger. But Carlos blew all of us out. He proved inventive, was a dervish paddler, and displayed such style that you cursed your lesser blessings. He made mince out of the challenging longshore sweep, catching 30 waves an hour. That’s including a couple of long bodysurfs chasing his leashless board. It was uncanny. Dude’s suavecito to the nth. 

The success of the day’s score has us cackling on the run back to town. It’s midday and all is well. There are cars on the road. No sketchy halcone lurkers giving us the once over. Not a surfer in sight. We make plans to repeat on the morrow.

Two days later and the winds change. Rodrigo suggests heading south to a deep-water harbor entrance. It’s one of his home breaks and he’s amped, both at the conditions and the chance to share a spot with his new clique. A short hike is involved. Rounding the corner, we find two spongers out enjoying the proceedings. And by that I mean getting relentlessly, serially pitted. The wave? In a nutshell, it looks like a short piece of Honolua Bay grafted with Salsipuedes. Too generous? I’ll flip to Skip, who surfs for his bread: 

Skip McCullough had the needed speed to fling himself down the line from bowl to bowl—his no-grab barrel transits looked like he was hanging at the foot of Palomar Ave.

“What an incredible wave. If you have heard anything about surf in Sinaloa, you’ve heard about this place. The wave barrels. And I learned that the water is always way colder out there. I’m glad as hell I had a wetsuit jacket.” 

“Ardilla [Rodrigo is known locally as “Chipmunk”] is a super-technical surfer who knows exactly which waves to go on. He would wait and wait, but he was always on the best waves. Mantaraya, though, dude doesn’t give a fuck. No cord. He was taking off and surfing like he had a brand-new leash. He would do turns, walk the nose, pull in. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t connected to his board. He lost it a couple times, basically demolished it. In a hasty scramble, we found a guy who could crudely fix it that afternoon. The next day, on a heavy first wave, Carlos lost it on the rocks again. Young guy, old school. Just part of the game for him.”

We called Skip out for dancing on the rocks, clutching his nuts and howling, “That wave spit eleven times!” He stared us down, rounded up, and made it an even dozen.

We celebrated over pizza in a converted boatyard. Rodrigo and Carlos fist-knocked their fortune. We knew what they were on about. This was a pregnant pause. A time wrinkle in U.S./Latin policy. For a variety of reasons, ranging from privatization to fear to State Department no-fly proclamations, non-surf camp Americans from the other side had more or less ceased surfing here. Crowd-wise, one could hear a pin drop. We saw virtually no other surfers. The locals, such as they are, are infrequent visitors. The peak swell days get ridden, but there’s plenty meat left on the bone.

A history of piracy. Mantaraya, back from the points and straight out at Los Pinos.

Hailing as he does from a surf town of millions, Skip was dumbfounded. “I’ve been two hours from a south swell, sand-point heaven and didn’t even know it.” 

Rodrigo assured us the situation could turn on a dime. For now, the vibe was a sort of hushed gratitude. One gets the feeling that there’s a lot of that going on in coastal Sinaloa.

Illustration by Luis Fernando Safa.