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I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville

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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.

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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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How-To

Sep 09, 2019

How To Choose A Safe Whitewater Rafting Company

Whitewater rafting is a unique experience in nature, filled with adrenaline and excitement. Recently though, we have been reminded of the real risks involved.

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WRITTEN BY

Benjamin Baber

Last year, headlines from around the world were plagued with tragic river accidents. Four Americans passed away on a rafting trip in Costa Rica. Two Australians passed away in separate kayaking incidents in Nepal. The southeast U.S. alone had four separate whitewater kayaking deaths. And these examples are only a small sample of the river tragedies that occurred in 2018.

While some accidents are unfortunately inevitable, there are many situations where an accident can easily be avoided. Unfortunately, most countries lack standardized rules that you might expect from within the whitewater industry. This is more common in less economically developed countries. However, it’s important to stress this doesn’t mean that all companies in less economically developed countries are unsafe. You just have to set a few basic standards, and know how to pick the best one! No matter where you are in the world, there are a few basic things to look for in a rafting company to ensure you have a safe and enjoyable whitewater experience.

Rafting in Morocco. Photo: Ben Baber

Leader to Participant Ratios

The whitewater industry has general safety standards for guide-to-participant ratios on commercial rafting and kayaking trips.  

A safe industry standard on a fourteen-foot raft is one guide to every six participants. Most companies won’t live up to this standard, but if you want the safest experience – this is it! Ask your company what their leader to participant ratio is! 

It all boils down to this – any raft can flip. When that happens, one guide is expected to rescue the raft, re-flip the raft, then save each participant. If you are one of those participants, do you want to be the sixth person to be rescued or the ninth? The better companies will reduce the number of people in the raft to keep the weight balanced, the trip safe, and to maximize the rafting experience.

Kayaking carries greater risk than rafting simply due to the fact that the participants are in control of their own boat, rather than a trained guide. Instead, the guide is usually in their own kayak telling you how to manoeuvre from a separate craft. Industry standards recommend a ratio of one guide to every four participants for kayaking and canoeing. However, this ratio may decrease and become 1:3 or even 1:2 as the whitewater gets more challenging and consequential.

Read next on TOJ: A veteran river runner turns 70, and heads off into the Peruvian wilderness to raft the Rio Marañón, the headwaters of the Amazon.

Safety Boats

Safety boats are your best friend on the river. If a participant falls from a raft, they run the risk of being swept away by the current. This is when the safety boat shines. It will pluck you out of the water and give you a safe ride back to your raft or shore. It is a recognized industry standard to never have a single-boat trip. If there are only enough customers to fill one boat, then there should always be a safety kayak or safety raft along with the participant-filled raft.

With multiple rafts on the river, there should always be a safety kayak or safety raft to support the trip. This may pose an extra financial burden for the rafting company, but it is a small price to pay to increase participant safety. Problems sometimes arise when companies try to cut corners, perhaps deciding to take a guide off the water and undercut the competition by 5 dollars. If your company doesn’t have a safety craft, find out why.

In some locations, it has become standard for single or half-day trips to not have a safety boat when they have 2 or more full rafts. The theory here is that the other boats on the river will provide safety for one other. This is a debatable standard, but in some locations, you might not be able to find a company that uses safety boats for shorter trips. Certainly for multi-day trips, no matter how many rafts, there should be a safety boat.

Rafting in Nepal. Photo: Ben Baber

Cut-Off Levels

Every river rises and falls according to snowmelt, rainfall, or changes in upstream dam release. It can happen with the changing of the seasons, or it can happen in ten minutes with changing weather patterns. Companies should have a set cut-off limit for each river they operate on. This cut-off level should be based on their own expert knowledge of that river.

One good way to double-check a company is to find out the cut-off levels for several other companies running that river. Call them up, send them an email, check their website – whatever you need to do to find out. If your company’s level is much higher than the competition’s, ask why! Is it because they have more experienced guides and provide more safety kayakers or rafts? If not, it may be a money-motivated decision that could translate to a dangerous experience for customers.

Equipment

Properly maintained and up-to-date equipment is a vital part of whitewater safety. All participants should wear a Personal Floatation Device (PFD), closed-toed shoes, and a helmet. If the guide hasn’t checked that your equipment is fitted correctly, don’t get on the water.

The shelf-life of most outdoor gear is around 10 years. You can use this as a guideline when deciding which equipment will keep you afloat and keep your head intact.

All PFDs from the United States must be approved by the United States Coast Guard. They will be marked to show they have been through a standardized testing process. You will see this written as “USCG Type V.” Any product from Europe must have a certification “EN ISO 12402-5 / 12402-6.”

Find out more information on IOS standards relating to PFDs here.

For Helmets, look for the CE standard CE EN 1385. This ensures your helmets is suitable for whitewater and has been tested accordingly.

Further reading:

Buying a canoeing & kayaking helmet – what does the CE mark really mean, and Sweet Protections guide to Helmet testing.

Whitewater Kayaking in Nepal. Photo: Ben Baber

Alcohol

It is forbidden for guides and participants to consume alcohol on the river. Intoxicated participants can pose as much of a threat to the safety of the trip as an intoxicated guide. Take note of the company’s alcohol policy, and if you have any concerns that your guide or another participant may be intoxicated, make sure to raise those concerns.

Qualifications

There are various different qualifications for whitewater guides. From the British Canoe Union, to the American Canoe Association, to Rescue 3 International. The trouble is that certifications cover different skills according to the river and country in which the certification process took place. However, no matter how much the certifications vary, every guide should have a minimum of a swiftwater rescue certificate, a First Aid/CPR certification, as well as some sort of whitewater guide certification and/or in-house whitewater training.  

Conclusion

Whitewater activities are risky. There is no way around it. However, with proper training, skill, equipment, and experience, this risk can be mitigated. Take the time to research the company you go with, and make it a lasting memory for the right reasons.

Rafting in Nepal. Photo: Ben Baber

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