Nobody knows her name. “La Escondida,” the hidden woman, that’s what they call her. It’s a good story, one of those that grow inevitably in the telling. A couple of centuries ago a pirate named Andres Drake (brother of Sir Francis Drake) kidnapped a beautiful young maiden from a native Mixtec village along the coast of south-western Mexico, dragging her aboard his illicit ship. His intentions, we can only assume, were nefarious, but the brave young woman would not be held captive for long. A few weeks later, while the ship was anchored in a small harbor she made a daring escape, dove overboard, swam ashore and fled into the thick jungle that surrounded the tiny bay, disappearing without a trace. Her charms, however, had left an impression on Drake and every time he returned to that secret safe haven he would send a search party into the jungle to look for the missing girl. They never found her, but her name and her spirit, La Escondida, lived on and became the name of the bay. Later it would come to be known as Puerto Escondido, the hidden port.
Today, Puerto Escondido isn’t very hard to find. A small dot on the Pacific Coast in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, home to twenty thousand people, it even has a little airport, PXM, with daily flights from Mexico City and Mex 200 -the coastal highway- runs right through the middle of town.
However you get there, follow the signs to Zicatela Beach; walk past the cafes and beachside bars and across the sand. If the swell is up, and it usually is, you’ll see what makes ‘Puerto’ as it’s known in the surf world, so special, and why surfers from all over the world come here to put their boards, bodies, and sometimes their lives, on the line in pursuit of Zicatela’s legendary waves. A deep-water canyon just offshore amplifies and funnels swells onto an ultra shallow stretch of sand, producing the type of awe-inspiring, butt-puckering, and shockingly beautiful waves that have earned it a reputation as The Mexican Pipeline and placed Zicatela in the top 3 big wave spots in the world. Far from perfect, the shifting, powerful and unpredictable waves of Playa Ziacatela will administer a lot more beat downs than dream rides to even the best surfer.
That’s one of the things that keep so many of us coming back again and again. No matter how good you are Puerto will eventually humble you.
So why do I keep going back to Puerto? I’m not sure exactly, but the easy answer is this; Puerto’s got soul. Ever since the first time I rattled into town in an old beat up suburban during a long drive south from Alaska to Panama I’ve loved the place. It’s raw and it’s got a bit of an attitude, but that just makes it feel real. It’s not over done or neutered with fancy resorts, and it hasn’t fallen victim to the high-rise nightmare like Cancun or Acapulco. It’s an authentic Mexican town that just happens to have a beach endowed with some of the best and biggest waves on the planet and even though an average surfer like me spends way more time getting pummeled than barreled, every time I paddle out at Zicatela there is the distinct possibility that I will get the best wave of my life.
On land, I can feel the soul of the place walking barefoot down the dirt roads in the morning on the way to the harbor where local fishermen will sell you last nights catch. I smell it in the central mercado, one of the most legit markets I’ve found anywhere, with it’s colorful food stands full of fresh fruit and vegetables, smiling senoras cooking empanadas, hunks of raw meat hanging from the ceilings of carnecerias, and pungent smoked fish stacked in wicker baskets. I hear it blaring out of every taxi and pumping through the enormous speakers on top of tortilla delivery trucks. Spend a month in Puerto and you’ll be able to touch it, shaking hands with shop owners and high-fiving the machete sharpener who rides his converted bike/wheel-grinder along the beach leering at the pretty girls who tan topless.
Of course, life in Puerto isn’t all about the waves. The nightlife is spectacular and a funky international vibe along Zicatela keeps the bars and nightclubs rocking well into the morning hours. Annual music festivals, amazing communities of artists, ex-pats and young Mexican families on vacation all add to the community appeal of Puerto.
I guess to sum it up I’ll quote a good friend of mine, Noel Robinson, who passed away surfing Zicatela last year. After 20 years as the unofficial mayor of Puerto, Noel would spend half the year in his native Northern California and the other half living quietly in a small bungalow on a hill above Zicatela, and he surfed the place better than almost anyone. A couple years ago, after a particularly good day of surf a group of us were sitting around a table sharing a meal of the homemade beans Noel was famous for. I remember him leaning back in his chair, a cold corona in his hand and saying happily, “you ever get the feeling that you’re in the right place at exactly the right time? That’s what I feel like every day here in Puerto.” It made sense to all of us at that table, and the wide smiles, easy laughter, and sound of bottles clinking confirmed it.