Feature

Excerpt: Tranquila La Plaza

For a hundred or so local surfers, day-tripping Sinaloa is—tentatively—back on the table.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.