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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

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Travel

Aug 23, 2018

Sun, Sand, and Surf, Lots of Surf, in Mexico’s Puerto Escondido

For most people, Puerto Escondido is just a dot on a map, a tourist destination overshadowed by flashier resort towns such as Cancun, Cabo, and Acapulco.

WRITTEN BY

Evan Quarnstrom

Hell, most people have probably never heard of it in the first place. There’s not much reason for the average tourist looking for a quick fix of tropics to go there. After all, there are more convenient places to go in Mexico with the open bars and infinity pools that they are looking for. But even for those who may have been there and enjoyed it, they may not fully understand how special this place really is.

For surfers, the name Puerto Escondido carries a much heavier weight (I say that as unpretentiously as possible.)

For surfers, the name Puerto Escondido carries a much heavier weight (I say that as unpretentiously as possible.) It has a different connotation. Hearing the name alone generates anxiety, intrigue, excitement, day dreams. Often referred to as “the Mexican Pipeline,” it provokes images of perfect, bone-breaking waves, waves that prove a challenge for even the best surfers on the planet. Surfers around the world know the town simply as “Puerto,” and given the thousands of towns across Latin America that start with “Puerto,” that goes to show the significance that this town holds for the avid surfer.

Now, as an average surfer from San Diego, I wasn’t even sure if I was capable of surfing the infamous, powerful waves of Puerto’s Playa Zicatela. I sure as hell didn’t have the ideal equipment to surf large, hollow waves, given that my surfboard selection has been adapted to the relatively mellow reefs and beach breaks of California’s San Diego County.

Waxing up for another session at La Punta, a protected point break at the far south end of Zicatela. It’s a good spot to surf when the surf gets too big at Zicatela, but it also was a complete zoo out there. Photo: Evan Quarnstrom

Despite my doubts, my girlfriend Madison and I decided to book a quick five day trip to Puerto Escondido for several reasons.

1) Puerto has an airport, which maximized our vacation time for a quick trip. No need to deal with rental cars and hours driving to our destination.

2) I wanted to go somewhere new. As my twelfth passport stamp into Mexico, I had covered a lot of the easy-to-get-to destinations on the Pacific Coast. Puerto had eluded me.

3) Round trip tickets are cheap as hell. (About $230 if I remember correctly, and we flew out on a Sunday, which is pricer.)

4) It’s a world class surf destination in a populated town. Non-surfers can be entertained. (Many good surf spots are in the middle of nowhere, which can get boring if you don’t surf.)

Staircase down to Carrizalillo. You can see the left that Madison and I surfed in the background. Photo: Evan Quarnstrom

So off to Puerto we went with my worn, small backpack and two surfboards, hoping to at worst spend a few days enjoying the warmth of the tropics, and at best to get some of the best waves of my life.

+++

When you step off the no frills, air-conditioned plane onto the tarmac in Puerto, the humidity of the tropics hits you like a brick wall, causing all your sweat glands to kick into overdrive.

Upon exiting the airport you have to deal with my least favorite part of traveling in Mexico (well, anywhere really), which is taxi drivers eager to make a few bucks off gringos who aren’t familiar with the local prices. I swear, these guys will go to great lengths to get you to pay way more than you should. Luckily, we were given a tip to leave the airport and get a taxi off the street. We were able to find a taxi for 1/4 the price of the airport taxis, despite the intimidation and warnings from the airport taxi drivers who were adamant that we were never going to find a ride out there.

Compared to how crowded it became later in the morning, I would classify this as uncrowded. Aside from the local Mexicans, Americans and Brazilians were the most numerous in the water. Photo: Evan Quarnstrom

I threw on my boardshorts, waxed up my boards, and lathered myself in enough SPF50 to save the Arctic ice pack.

I brought a surf rack in anticipation of putting my board on a taxi, but the taxi drivers all come prepared with their own rope and are rather well-versed in the art of tying a board down to a roof. Even before getting to the beach you can feel the surf-culture imbued in this little town, in the taxi drivers of all things.

On the first morning I woke up at the crack of dawn and peered out to the beach below, which was visible from the deck of my airbnb. It was a perfect day for a newcomer to Puerto. Not too big, but not too small. There was an ideal, medium sized swell on tap.

Anxious to get in the water, I threw on my boardshorts, waxed up my boards, and lathered myself in enough SPF50 to save the Arctic ice pack.

I spent the morning having the time of my life, picking off countless left and righthand waves. I enjoyed getting a feel for the speed and power of the wave at Playa Zicatela.

Unfortunately, I brought the wrong battery charger for my camera, so after this first session there are no more surfing photos. Madison was a champ and withstood the blazing sun to get some shots. Photo Evan Quarnstrom

I definitely got the best barrel of my life, and a few others worthy of honorable mention.

There were lots of surfers out in the water, but the playing field was so spread out that each surfer had their own comfortable bubble of space where they could claim nearly any wave that approached their zone. I surfed until the wind switched from offshore to onshore, deteriorating the conditions, and sought out some shade to halt the onset of sunburn.

This was the first of my lengthy sessions during the trip. I definitely got the best barrel of my life, and a few others worthy of honorable mention. When the swell got too big for Zicatela, I checked out some of the other waves that the town has to offer, such as the left point called La Punta. I surfed enough solid-size waves that when I came back to San Diego, I had very little desire to surf the poorly formed knee to waist high waves at my local beach break.

Photo: Evan Quarnstrom

When we weren’t surfing we explored some other more secluded beaches in the town and the surrounding area. Activities were sandwiched between long naps under fans on full blast and snacking on PB&J’s. We ate out a few times, rented a car for a quick morning/afternoon, and even got Madison on a surfboard at one of the friendlier surf spots in town. Then, next thing you knew, fives days in paradise had vanished and it was time to head back home in time for the work week.

My first trip to Puerto was a success. I fell in love with the little town, which exceeded its reputation in my book and provided an even better experience and better waves than I had hoped for. Next time I think I will rent a car to explore some of the other waves outside of town, but I know my first trip in Puerto surely won’t be my last.

Evan Quarnstrom grew up in the quiet surf town of Santa Cruz, California, where unsurprisingly he developed a love for the ocean and nature. At 18, Evan headed for San Diego in pursuit of warmer weather and an education. Evan attended San Diego State University to study International Business, finishing of his degree off with a year-long study abroad program in Chile. Evan is now the Marketing and Media Manager at the International Surfing Association.

You can follow Evan on Instagram.

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Travel

Jul 03, 2019

Rafting The Usumacinta River: Highway of the Maya – Part Two

The conclusion to a journey down the Usumacinta River, where we're reminded of the ancient past, the recent past, and the present, all amongst beautiful landscapes.

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WRITTEN BY

Jack Billings

This is the second part of Jack Billings and Linda DeSpain’s adventure down the Usumacinta River. The first part can be read here

One of our most memorable camps was el Playon, on a beautiful, huge beach somewhere in Guatemala. It is the largest sand expanse of any freshwater setting we have seen. The light at sunrise illuminated a captivating mist that hung over the river upstream and filled the low valleys across the river. The canopy stood in dark contrast on the horizon. Birds began their calls close by, and monkeys joined in from a distance of at least half a mile.

Big beach at El Playon. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

About a third of the way into our trip we were joined by an armed escort in fishermen’s clothing. We knew the outfitter had contemplated this assistance. Both Guatemala and Mexico experienced civil war or violent uprisings in years past. Desperate people were still on the move in the river basin. We couldn’t say whether the escort was necessary, but we were glad for their presence.

On the fourth morning, we came upon a group of children playing on the Mexico side of the river bank, along with women doing laundry. We pulled in to say hello and the number of kids promptly doubled. We had arrived at the pueblo of Arroyo Jerusalem. Caucasians in outfitted rafts are an obvious novelty. As we followed Herman up to the trail to the village, several of the young children guided our elbows, solicitous of our apparent advanced age.

Mother and daughter at Arroyo Jerusalem. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

Efforts to communicate with the children were hampered because their primary language is Chol, a Mayan dialect completely different than Spanish. However, we were able to play string games and pantomime with hand contortions that are universally understood. If children’s laughter is a barometer for the health of the pueblo, then this community was doing very well. While visiting with the locals, Hermann bought a live chicken, which he brought down the river for that night’s layover dinner at Piedras Negras.

String game, Arroyo Jerusalem. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

After a short run to Piedras Negras, we pitched our camp on a terraced 50-foot soft sand bank. The promontory view was worth the effort. We were set to hear rival choruses of monkeys on each side of the river. The recently purchased chicken clucked its way into nearby brush. Before long, it was lured back to the kitchen area by a trail of popcorn seed, then readied for a gargantuan pot of noodles and cabbage. One of the escorts brought us five fish they had caught, and a grille was fashioned to fry them. We joined forces with the makings of a fresh gourmet dinner. We were eager to explore after an easy rise in the morning.

For many, the camp at Piedras Negras was the most memorable. We were literally in the landing area of this great kingdom-city, where its citizens and explorers accessed the river 1500 years ago. A large glyph engraving faced skyward on a boulder next to camp. And, we had the sweet circumstance of a layover day full of hiking, swimming, and long conversations over the campfire.

Piedras Negras is too far downstream from Frontera for day trips. Except for resident park employees and conservators, almost no one visits. Four park rangers came down to chat and to appreciate a break from their own cooking.

Park Ranger at Piedras Negras. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

The ruins here are not as thoroughly excavated as those at Palenque and Yaxchilán. Yet we could see how the design and architecture were every bit as impressive and uniquely influenced. At their height, these kingdom-cities if known would have been wonders of the western hemisphere and would have rivaled or surpassed eastern progress.

Repose at Piedras Negras. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

After recovery from a drenching rain shower, we pushed on. Regrets over soggy gear faded into our next adventure. Even though our rain fly proved too small, at least we had it in place on time. We could count on the fact that we would always be warm!

A couple of hours below Piedras Negras we pulled into a cove with a most spectacular waterfall, Cascadia Busiljá. Coming down a steep canyon, its source stream plunges over travertine-coated rocks and projects into the river. Most of us hiked up a trail behind the falls to see its origin. Others cooled off below in the spray shower that envelops the outcropping.

Cascada Busilja. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

Anticipation peaked when about 15 km below the cascade, we entered the Grand Canyon de San José. Vertical, steep limestone cliffs narrow the river and rise above as high as 1800 feet. Even here, the jungle fills in the river banks and the fissures among the cliffs.

Grand Canyon de San Jose. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

The deep whirling water created many eddies. Maintaining headway in this fickle current was challenging. In many of the small swirls, we began to see bobbing plastic bottles, the tell-tale floats attached to purse-like seine nets. These mini-fisheries were managed by families and friends who collectively checked the nets daily.

Nearing our last camp, as the sun dropped lower in the late afternoon sky, we rounded a bend and found a nice sand bar across from the community of Francisco Madero. As we tied off on the bank, fellows from the village paddled across to see us. The common watercraft here is a low-draft, 12-foot, flat bottomed canoe with a transom. The boatman stands aft and paddles or poles as circumstances require. Because we hoped to camp directly across from the village, we asked permission, which was readily given. The camp area was obviously frequented by local livestock. Our trusty shovel was handy for flicking manure away from tent sites and walkways.

Flat bottomed canoe in the lower canyon. Photo: Don Dubin Photography

The next morning a man and his son came across to ply us with hand-made, wooden artesanias. He told us of his workshop and showed us his cutting boards and spatulas from local wood, melino. We now have a spatula for the kitchen which will always remind us of this trip.

People remain on the move in this corridor. On day one, as we drove to the launch point at Frontera, Herman pointed out migrants from Guatemala or Honduras, small groups of young men trekking in the opposite direction. He identified them through their darker skin, the fact that they were traveling lightly with only backpacks and carried no machetes or other farm-related hand tools.

During our week on the river, we saw several of the shuttle taxis roaring downstream at full throttle carrying a packed group of other migrants. Frequently passing in the night these drivers plied the river without a light, reflecting their knowledge of the river and the clandestine nature of their cargo.  By pooling their resources and hiring the boat, these travelers saved themselves at least a week of hot, humid and dusty plodding along the highway. Both water and overland migrants may not be headed for the United States. Instead, we understand they are willing to take low-paying Mexican jobs in the fields and for a railroad. It is a telling commentary about the desperation and violence of their own communities that these young men would launch themselves over many weeks, mostly on foot, to leave their homes and come by whatever means available.

We foresee how the future of the ancient and mighty Usumacinta is troubled. Its heart could be broken by a dam the Mexican government energy agency wants to build at Boca del Cerro, our take-out point. This dam would flood the river up to Piedras Negras, drown all the rapids in the main canyon, block the flow of sediment and fish, and forcibly remove all the residents along the river, including the entire pueblo of Francisco Madero. Perhaps the new government of President Lopez Obrador, will bring a holistic and existential approach to the preservation of this immense cultural and environmental resource for centuries more to come.

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