Feature

The Archivist: The Spot

Secret spots, “The Search,” and surf imperialism in Mainland Mexico. From TSJ 15.6.

Imagine the horror of the author. In a time before Google Earth, pin-dropping, and social media comments sections, he probably thought he had it made in the shade. Guided in by the equivalent of a napkin sketch, he’d stumbled onto a point wave that came to define his surfing experience. And then suddenly, outrageously, it became the site of an ASP surf contest, promoted around the world in videos, ads, and articles. Done and dusted in a single week.

Now, of course, the story seems almost quaint. The life cycle of new discoveries is instantaneous, and spewed by the worst possible stewards—anonymous voices on Instagram and Facebook. Join us, then, in this trip down memory lane, when the burning of a spot took months, not moments. —Scott Hulet


The directions I received in the Millennium summer of 2000 were pretty simple: Take a bus three hours through half-desert-nowheres-ville to a small, suddenly lush tourist town. From there, negotiate with a taxi driver to get another 45 minutes down the highway to a random dirt turnoff which leads to a much smaller pueblo—just a name, really, and a collection of small thatch shacks and ranchos deep in the heart of old-world Oaxaca. A local who called himself the “Apache” muttered these directions over late-night beers in a dark Puerto bar. He said casually that the right sand point I sought was good, sometimes even perfect. The Apache added that I’d more than likely have to walk the last couple of miles from the main highway, down a dusty dirt road, through the drowsing pueblo, past some flea bitten ranches, and finally, down a long hill to the beach. Then I would see the wave spooling along the point, and I would see those bulbous, rounded, granite rocks that even then seemed forged to become icons of something special.

I can spill these ambiguous and outdated directions now, because in the intervening six years, more and more surfers had discovered them, had become intimate with this pueblo and its wave, and told others. You tell two friends who tell two friends who tell two friends…and so on, until the death knell of secret spots occurred: a professional contest. It wasn’t any regular contest either. Its secret-spot-outing predecessors—the 1998 Gotcha Pro at Teahupoo, for example—hardly compare to the publicity that the 2006 Rip Curl Pro Search has and will bring to this tiny Mexican town. Webcasts, videos, still photos, magazine articles, Google Earth, the magnetic draw of an unnamed location, local taxi drivers just trying to make a buck, local people just trying to get along, and plain old wave lust—these elements can now turn a surfer’s hazy daydreams into the honeycombs of Uluwatu within the breadth of a few short years.

The dirt road continued on for a couple more turns until we came to the crown of a hill. And then we could see the rocks. We could see the empty waves, and we broke into a run.

Admittedly, that hot night in 2000, I carried my rough directions out of the bar with a kind of fervor of my own—never having seen a photo of the place, never thinking about where I would stay once there, or what I would eat, or how I would communicate to get either of these things. The wave had yet to gain any renown. I was simply pining for an adventure. Still, I did think about it enough to know I didn’t want to surf this sand point alone. So the next day I asked a couple of Puerto Ricans who stayed at my hotel to come along. Visibly hesitant, the surfers conferred with one another in whispers as though they’d been approached by a hammock salesman. Why would they want to leave this thumping beachbreak for some hit or miss trip down the coast. Who was I, anyway? And where did I get my information? Yet, the reasons for gambling a few days were evident enough all around Playa Zicatela. World-class barrels, the publicity, the notoriety, the crowds and development and petty theft and drugs and prostitution that follow them—whatever you want to call that process that happens when good surf spots are discovered in third-world countries—had had its way with Puerto Escondido for nearly three decades.

I remember getting out of the taxi where the cab driver said he couldn’t go any farther—he had actually turned off the highway and driven us farther into the pueblo than I expected, but the road had become less and less an actual road. The pueblo in our dust was the smallest habitation I’d ever seen in my life. Looking at the thatch and cinderblock, the corrugated tin and bamboo, I felt like the man who discovered the atom—a measurement of life smaller than anything before conceived. But getting out of the taxi here and letting it go its way became another leap of faith. We couldn’t even see the ocean yet, and we knew that if the point didn’t exist, it would be another long day or more before we made it back to Puerto.

The Puerto Ricans exchanged doubtful looks. I tried to appear enthusiastic while collecting my things. I felt a certain weight on my shoulders for having talked perfect strangers into leaving guaranteed surf for, for what? I didn’t know. Yet we let the cab go and walked with our boards down a dirt road that skirted the northern edge of a deeply green valley. Below us was a river and lagoon, palms and brush, flocks of waterfowl rising out of them. I remember the last little ranchito on that road—porous bamboo walls amazingly holding up a tile roof—the entire square footage of which could have created shade for a couple of refrigerators. The dirt road continued on for a couple more turns until we came to the crown of a hill. And then we could see the rocks. We could see the empty waves, and we broke into a run.

The people loved their town and the land and animals on it—the way that the hills stack upon themselves into inland elevations of blue, the way the turtles careen onto their beaches. They didn’t seem to desire the change afoot in other parts of the coast.

*

In 1964, native people came down from the nearby hills and established the pueblo of The Spot. They fished and built farms, grew corn and engineered a fresh-water pond. “There must have been nothing at all here at the time,” I said to the Mexican surfer who relayed this history.

“No,” he said, “everything was already here. It’s just that the people weren’t here yet.”

I carried this sentiment with me on my return trip to the pueblo because I knew by then that the people loved their town and the land and animals on it—the way that the hills stack upon themselves into inland elevations of blue, the way the turtles careen onto their beaches during full moons, the wide untouched sweep of their crescent beach itself. They didn’t seem to desire the change afoot in other parts of the coast. And I was told matter-of-factly, that the way the pueblo is now, is the way they want it.

This is why, in April of ’06, when I began to hear rumblings and rumors not only about the contest but also about financial negotiations concerning it going foul, that I decided to return. It was a simple idea, actually. Despite having traveled the world, before going to The Spot in 2000, I had never seen a beach as untouched as theirs, I’d never surfed a wave that good with only friends, and I’d never been shown the kind of humble hospitality that The Spot’s people showed me. I knew, also, that the Uluwatu syndrome was having a go at the little pueblo. Other examples of the syndrome predate me by decades, so I knew that this, and maybe the Mentawais too, was my generation’s chance to bear witness to what surfers do to good surf spots. Maybe there was a chance to take some responsibility or to make some changes.

I knew that this was my generation’s chance to bear witness to what surfers do to good surf spots. Maybe there was a chance to take some responsibility or to make some changes.

After entering the pueblo on a newly paved road, my cab this time dropped me exactly where the first one did. Now there was a gate and a boy charging a ten-peso entrance fee. Just beyond the gate were Esteban’s four month-old cabañas, a row of ten thatched structures. I distinctly remembered walking by this ranch on my first visit. There were a couple of white cows, some corn, a few shade trees, and a fence. Now there were the ten cabañas themselves, a two-month-old open-air kitchen, cars, surfboards, hammocks, and people from Holland and Texas laying in them. Esteban’s family owns the land, but Esteban said the idea to build the cabañas was his. For a long while he saw surfers only coming in ones and twos, then threes and fours, and in recent years, there were too many to keep track of. The money was staying in the nearby tourist town and just walking on by to the beach. Esteban decided his family should try to grab some of that money. His new kitchen has proposed a new problem in the pueblo, though. For the first time there is real competition between local residents for drinking and eating dollars. The more established restaurant up the track had added dormitories as well. Across from the cabañas, multiple new cinderblock structures had gone up; in fact, cinderblock seemed to be the most abundant resource in town.

The walk from here to the beach, nearly a mile, allowed me an unhurried tour of recent changes. Most of the development seemed to have happened in the town (including a new municipal building and the nearly finished health center), but each of the little ranches that line the road to the beach held a new cinderblock something-or other. Many of these projects weren’t yet finished. That last little tile and bamboo ranchito I held in my memory for six years; it had two new cinderblock structures and a solar panel on the roof of the old one. I passed by and watched the waterfowl I remembered ascending out of the lagoon. As I came to the crown of the last hill, I saw much more. At the bottom of the hill was a car park holding about 15 cars, a municipal bathroom and shower, a massive thatch palapa, and a restaurant inside it. As I stopped to check out the new pink bathrooms, I noticed a large pile of discarded signs next to it. The signs were cut in the shape of arrows. I flipped one over. It read “CONTEST.”

Sharing the two-foot lineup with about 30 to 40 surfers was a surreal experience. There were Europeans and Australians and an American crew filming their small-wave devastation. Had any of these guys witnessed this scene at home, they would have passed it up for an average beachie down the way. But now this wave had a name; it had been the site of epic WCT battles, and two-foot slop or no, each wave just had to be taken. A bit later, a traveling surfer paddled up to me and asked, “So, where’s the secret spot.” I made a note to myself: How do you know for certain that a secret spot is no longer a secret spot? When there is a pile of arrow-shaped signs pointing the way to the place and a surfer paddles up to ask where the real secret spot is.

Sharing the two-foot lineup with about 30 to 40 surfers was a surreal experience. Now this wave had a name—it had been the site of epic WCT battles, and two-foot slop or no, each wave just had to be taken.

*

“This is the most democratic town in Mexico,” said Pablo Narvaez, the current vice president of the pueblo. Pablo was part of a new guard within the leadership of this extraordinary community. He surfed, spoke English, and had worked in the U.S. for a time. He was also the man who helped Rip Curl establish the pueblo as their 2006 Pro Search site. Another American who’d spent time here in the early days introduced me to Pablo in hopes that we could learn something about the intricacies of this nearly socialist pueblo. First, Pablo discussed the numbers. There are, he said, 150 “citizens” of The Spot—all men between the ages of 18 and 60 who meet every three months to discuss and vote on whatever issues are brought before them. The majority vote wins. There are no other influences. For example, a few years back the town decided that no more foreigners could buy land in The Spot, because this would drive the price up for citizens and their families. As it was, there were already four outsiders who owned land, and today, there are still only four. These four are now citizens of The Spot as well.

A citizen can be called up for service, and that’s it, the citizen will then work for the community for free. Pablo said that he was surfing when he was called up to be vice president. He quit his paid job and rarely surfs so that he can attend to the community full time. Others are called to be policemen or simply to help build a roof or a community project like the new health center. Around 2003, the town decided that there were too many surfers camping on the beach and shitting in the bushes. So the town banned camping, established a gate, and built the municipal bathrooms. The pueblo attends to business with outsiders on the same communal basis. For example, they’ve negotiated contracts with Coke and Sol beer to be the only vendors of their kinds allowed into the town. They dealt with Rip Curl in the same democratic manner. But this is where things got sticky, because Pablo was both the Rip Curl liaison and vice president. In the heat of negotiations, he was accused of putting Rip Curl’s interests before the town’s. So, Pablo decided to step aside and the town negotiated without him. He thinks that this cost them money they all wanted for the health center.

The number Rip Curl finally negotiated with the town after threatening to move the event to Puerto Escondido, Narvaez and others have said, was $5,000 U.S. This may seem a tiny amount—the special-event fees Boost Mobile paid for the 2006 WCT event at Trestles, for example, was $70,000 plus a $25,000 security deposit—but municipalities around the world negotiate competitive events differently. Some European and Australian municipalities contribute funds toward events, considering it an investment in future tourism. Others, like the Trestles event, cost sponsors tens of thousands of dollars in licenses and fees.

How do you know for certain that a secret spot is no longer a secret spot? When another surfer paddles up to ask where the real secret spot is.

The unique aspect of The Spot fee is the community seemed to feel that it was more of compensation against the radical changes some realized their pueblo was sure to undergo. More and more surfers were beginning to arrive at The Spot, so the people could see which way the wind was blowing, but the exposure brought on by Rip Curl would put that flow into a hyper drive few could predict. Esteban’s brother, Jose, admitted openly by August ’06 that he was afraid of the changes he saw happening in his pueblo. But Narvaez put the decision on a balancing scale. “If I’m thinking as a surfer,” The Spot’s vice president said, “then the Rip Curl event was a bad idea. But if I’m thinking as a mayor who needs to make sure that his people have food on the table, then an event here is a good idea.”

Yet many citizens of The Spot have watched as the Oaxacan coast has been developed from pueblos just like theirs into mega resorts where the only locals in town are janitors and maids. Because of these very real fears, Narvaez said the decision not to name the wave was his. He said plainly, “we were not ready” for that kind of exposure. The Spot’s people love their pueblo and their way of life. The little valley that spills down from the Oaxacan hillside, the teeming life within it, and the wildly alive ocean beside it are truly unique in the world. And, fact is, the kind of publicity the Rip Curl event has and will focus on the wave and the town may not be healthy for any of this.

“Holding a WCT event there,” said Surfline’s Sean Collins, “and webcasting it for hundreds of thousands of viewers has just smoked the place. Sure, maybe The Spot isn’t as secret as it once was, but it’s still a very sensitive area. The sad thing is, it’s finished not only for The Spot but for the entire area.”

“If I’m thinking as a surfer,” The Spot’s vice president said, “then the Rip Curl event was a bad idea. But if I’m thinking as a mayor who needs to make sure that his people have food on the table, then an event here is a good idea.”

Collins had been familiar with The Spot for several years, and like many traveling surfers who’d been through the area, he kept it under wraps. Although he admits that some core surfers find fault with Surfline’s business of surf forecasting and reporting, Collins says he maintains “a strict policy of avoiding direct identification of any secret spots or frontier areas that are still open to exploration—like Mexico.” This Surfline founder was an early surfer at Scorpion Bay, which he found while ferrying yachts to Cabo San Lucas. He watched the lid cracked open on the point by a 1976 Surfing magazine exposé. Within a few short years, he said, so many American surfers had descended on the bay that a hepatitis scare arose from the volume of surfers’ shit left bleaching in the sun. Because of his experience with the outing of Scorpion Bay, and his more recent intimacies with The Spot, when Narvaez wrote to him that the pueblo felt intimidated and negotiations between Rip Curl and The Spot were not going smoothly, Collins inserted himself into the fray. He asked Narvaez what, exactly, did the town want to get out of this. The answer was straightforward: They wanted $30,000 U.S. to build a medical center. If the town could come up with the funds to build the center, the federal government would send a physician. The pomp and circumstance would leave town, and The Spot would have something other than more surfers to show for it. Thinking that a goodwill gesture on the order of $30,000 U.S. was just what the doctor ordered, Collins approached Rip Curl with a couple of options, including a swap for free advertising on Surfline. In the end, Rip Curl balked. “Rip Curl spent over a million dollars on the contest and they wouldn’t come up with 30 grand for goodwill,” Collins said. “We would have blown [the donation] up on Surfline and they could have been heroes, but instead they opted to search and burn.”

In their defense, group events manager Andy Higgins negotiated openly with the pueblo and came to an agreement. The company spent enormous sums of money to create an infrastructure for the contest and employed some 35 locals during its run. Collins entered the discussions less than a month before the event, and by then, Higgins said, his budget was spent. “Globally, Rip Curl runs 80 events, and we didn’t have the money,” Higgins said.

In response, Collins said, “it’s never too late to do the right thing.”

When asked directly why Rip Curl didn’t come up with the money on a strictly goodwill basis, global brand manager Neil Ridgway responded, “Because we didn’t need to. We had another relationship with the village.”

I don’t know a traveling surfer who shouldn’t be thinking about what kind of “surf culture” we’re leaving behind.

From this angle, it may be easy to paint a picture of the dark corporate power that raided a small pueblo, ruining at least the “secret” part of a surf spot and leaving a pittance behind. But the episode echoes the way many of us travel—when we haggle over what amounts to a few pennies in our own currency, when we paddle around locals who can’t surf as well as us, when we shit in the bushes. I don’t know a traveling surfer who hasn’t done these things, and I don’t know one who shouldn’t be thinking about what kind of “surf culture” we’re leaving behind.

*

One of those residual aspects is surf stoke. There are about 15 local surfers in The Spot now. There isn’t one who’s been surfing longer than five years, but all of them are quickly learning to surf their point break well. The most blatant surf-stoke story I found involved a kid named Solome. He’d made a deal with an American staying on the beach that had Solome delivering water in exchange for the use of the American’s board. Solome lived in the next town down the coast and rode his horse up the beach every day for a surf. In the heat with that deep sand, it’s a hard ride. But as Solome became more and more enthralled with surfing, he rode that horse harder and faster up the beach each morning. On a day of pumping surf, he blazed up the beach, parked his horse in the shallow lagoon to cool, grabbed the board, and rushed into the lineup. When he later returned to the lagoon, his family’s horse lay dead on its side. The animal had overheated, drank too much water too fast, bloated, and died. Surfing can be hard on a lot of things.

As a traveler I know that surfing The Spot in quieter times entitles me to nothing. The happiness and desires of the people of The Spot and their environment are ultimately the most important factors in any of these discussions. There’d been other surfers before my friends and me, and many would spend extended stays afterward. Yet, for those few sessions and days, I’d felt like I’d really lucked into something special, and that we’d discovered something, if not the wave for the first time, maybe something in ourselves. Keeping secrets is just too painful for most people, and this is why the process of revealing secret spots has—and will happen over and over again. But realizing this, we need to think seriously as surfers, about what we’d like to see happen after the cat is out of the bag. Surfing does weird and awful things to some places. We should think about how we’d like to see those places, how they could appear to us upon return visits, how we’d like to remember those places after we can no longer travel there.