Surf Trip By Car Through Mexico & Central America. Issue 2: The Dogs of Mexico
Guest Post by Wave Tribe Customer and Friend Walter Gualt
Since my last post, I decided to join a Frenchman named Nico in his 4×4 E350 van for some beach camping at Concepcion Bamba, possible further exploration into the more fabled point breaks of Salina Cruz, and to later check out the Mayan ruins at Palenque in the Chiapas.
We camped at La Bamba for two weeks, maybe 100 yards from the break. Our camp was fortunately and unfortunately positioned right by the entrance to the beach; we had to take only a few steps to check the surf, but we were also privy to all the foot and surf tour traffic.
I surfed at least twice everyday and as many as four times per day while at La Bamba. We watched the winds switch from onshore to howling offshore, too strong for the size of the waves and we were pushed off them . I loved being right on the break, waiting for the optimum winds, crowd, tide and waves. The end result was that I was surfed-out and exhausted after two weeks.
One afternoon, a thunderstorm moved in right on top of La Bamba; we hunkered down in the van for over an hour as the deluge emptied over our camp and thunder cracked and clapped in the gray abyss above. As the storm subsided, the ocean glassed-off and the waves started pumping. Smooth head high sets rolled in. Nico and I were the first in the water and lo and behold we were joined by Taylor Knox, Dane Reynolds and Craig Anderson, some of the best and most progressive surfers in the world.
A couple hours earlier we were studying surfing mags with pictures of these guys, and now we were trading waves with them. Like a jungle mirage, they had appeared out of the thunderstorm. It was my fourth session of the day, but being in an intimate setting with just pros and no one else, I stepped up my surf and gave it everything I had. I left the water almost in a fever, completely drained and too tired to cook up our standard dinner fare of pasta with tomatoes, onions and garlic.
Some of the surf towns, like Barra de la Cruz, have sufficient organization to charge visitors for use of the beach, as proceeds go directly back into the town. Bamba wasn’t as organized. The night before we arrived, there was serious argument over who should be collecting money for beach access. A fight broke out, as some surfers staying at Bamba’s only surf camp, CocoLeoco, were charged twice in one day.
A couple times, a group of these guys came around asking for money, 30 pesos for day-use. We didn’t pay them cause what were we paying for? Security, no. My boardshorts were stolen off our clothes line on our second night. For facilities at the beach like Barra de la Cruz, no. We would have been paying for their beer money.
Around midday sometime during our second week, a group of us were sitting at our camp hanging out, and these guys asked only one of us for the fee. One grinned, rubbed his belly and said, “Necessito comida, muy hambre.” I need food and I’m hungry! We ignored them till they left.
They got the message after that that none of us would pay them. Kind of like the street dogs that come around camp looking for scraps. They can be aggressive, but as soon as you reach for the ground, they bolt off thinking a rock is coming after them next. Sometimes it takes a good blow to the abdomen, but they usually get the message.
The bugs were feasting on our feet and legs. The sand flies and marsh flies were the worst, leaving hundreds of itchy bumps. Life on the beach is tough!
Over our stay, we had met a lot of the folks living in town, and they started becoming quite comfortable coming by our camp to hang out. Even asking for things. It’s at that point that it’s time to move on. It’s not to say that we wore out our welcome; we were becoming even more welcomed. But then it’s not private and it’s not beach camping any longer. We had become a recognizable and semi-permanent fixture of the beach, and after two weeks of surfing, walking into town to buy food and water, and conversing with the locals, it was time to move-on.
Before heading into the mountains for the ruins, we wanted to spend a night at another right point called Chepehua, which was available to the public. Some of the other more exclusive points further east are not safe to visit (slashed tires) unless you pay a guide from Salina Cruz +$250 per day to take you there. It’s bullshit because the beaches are public, and there is technically nothing they can do; but they do anyways. This monopoly on these excellent waves is reinforced by travelling professional surfers and sponsored kids who stay at the Salina Cruz camps for a week or two, where all their meals are taken care of for a couple grand. And I think they assume that most gringos travelling in the area have that kind of money to blow in a week. One look at our van would tell you otherwise.
Exhausted after a surf, I opted for the beach restaurant’s only dinner dish besides fish. It turned out to be shark, and I ate way too much. It was a fitful night of rest, but I was looking forward to a little hiatus from surfing. We were all packed up enjoying a homemade espresso, one of our little luxuries, before we left; it was around 8 am, and we were confident we could make it to San Cristobal by nightfall.
The van didn’t start. We tried for a half hour, before deciding to wait. Nico said humidity could be preventing the car from starting; it had rained heavily the night before and our car was facing west, opposite of the rising sun. We waited, and tried again repeatedly over the next two hours, taking off the air filter and cleaning some corrosion off the spark plug heads.
Our attempts to start the van continued to fail and were halted when the battery died. Several tour guides who had dropped their groups off helped us eventually start with their Dodge Ram trucks (the vehicle of choice for Salina Cruz surf tours). Nico caught a lift into town to buy a new battery and air filter. After he arrived in the early afternoon, we installed the new battery and air filter, and the van started without a hitch. Perfecto! We spent the remainder of the afternoon surfing some great waves at Chipehua.
Still reeling from my shark overdose the night before, I was so excited for another hearty pasta dinner. It’s the only relief we have from Mexican food!
We woke Thursday morning , confident that we were leaving our car troubles in the Mexico at that beach, and excited to finally hit the road for San Cristobal de Las Casas and visit the Mayan ruins in Palenque!
But of course the van failed to start…it had rained even harder last night, and we had forgotten to turn the van around so it would be facing the sun in the morning. We waited a couple hours and tried again. Nothing. Another hour. Nothing. At noon, we knew our moment was upon us. In the last hour, we’d cleaned more corrosion off the spark plug heads and were ready to go. On the second try, the mighty 7.2L V8 roared to life. Slamming doors shut we waved our hasty goodbyes and took off before the van could change its mind.
On the road again! Acceleration was rough and a few ks down the road we pulled over to a roadside mechanic. Everybody in this area of Mexico only speaks Spanish, so Nico does all the talking; I try to listen along and put together the words I can recognize. They told us we needed new spark plugs.
Back on the road, the van was sounding pretty good and we decided to push through Salina Cruz; we didn’t want to stay there anyway.
An hour and a half outside of town, we lost all power. The engine died and steering froze. We rumbled onto the side of the road exasperated. We had pushed our luck too far…fortunately, a mechanic was working nearby. We enlisted his help, and he flagged down a passing truck he recognized to give us a jump. Our problems were beyond his skill level, and he directed us to an automotive electrician 10 minutes up the road in Niltepec. Not sure if we were in the right spot, we stopped at a roadside tire shop to ask for directions. The van died, and we couldn’t get it started. Nico caught a ride with a bicycle taxi into Niltepec, found the automotive electrician named Rufino, and brought him back to the van. We got another jump and made it to Rufino’s shop.
Niltepec is a fairly good sized community just off the freeway, but tucked away and easy to miss. Suffice to say, gringos rarely, if ever, pass through. Rufino worked for the remainder of the afternoon, trying to find the source of our problems. He tested the alternator, and it was working. In the evening, under the light of my headlamp, he showed us a computer chip that acted as a capacitor of some kind for the battery and the alternator. It was almost still smoking and totally fried. We spent the night in the van in front of the Rufino’s shop, and, across the street, ate a pretty good dinner of empanadas and some local dish that was excellent—all heavily fried! Nico caught a bus into town in the morning and bought a replacement chip. Rufino installed it, and the van started smoothly, but the battery was not charging.
After another hour of work, Rufino, frustrated, had no idea why we weren’t getting a charge. He spotted a penny on the floorboards of the driver side and asked what was written on the front. When we told him, he told us to pray. Probably the last thing you want to hear from a mechanic in a remote town in Mexico! We waited and paced anxiously for another hour. Rufino discovered a short running to the alternator, rewired it, and we got a charge. For 500 pesos (roughly 40 dollars), a service worth 500’s more in the U.S., we were back on the road. In high spirits, we climbed into the highlands of the Chiapas. Our now happy and nearly purring V8 pulled us into the range leaving the coastal wetlands below us.
The first major city we passed through was Tuxtla Gutierrez, and it might have been through the grueling rows of streetlights on the main drag, had a kind businessman on an errand with his daughter not gone out of his way to guide us to the city bypass on a busy Friday afternoon during rush hour traffic. No one has ever done that for me, and I’ve never thought of doing that for anyone else! He played a huge part in smoothing out the otherwise stressful start to our day, when we didn’t know if the van would be leaving Mexico with us.
The little maps in our Lonely Planet guides were very poor representations of the streets of San Cristobal, the mountainous piney city we planned to stop in for the night. The streets were skinny, poorly marked, and often required three point turns in the van. We karate-chopped our way across town, until we found a hostel to our liking at Rincon de los Camellos. We left early the next morning. My first night in a hostel wasn’t bad, aside from some noisy roommates, one of which came stumbling in a 6am and proceeded to incessantly cough and talk in his drunken slumber; I think he spent most of the night outside, and it was cold.
Our road to the Mayan ruins at Palenque wound through the Chiapas, a historically turbulent area known to house bandits. The people are mainly indigenous Mayans, and life hasn’t changed very much for them. Some sell cokes and chips from little roadside huts. Mostly a corn-growing region, they clear steep hillsides and plant their crops on some sections so vertical you wouldn’t think it possible to walk up. Banana trees mix in with the pines, epiphytes and corn fields.
As we neared Palenque, it become obvious that were on the “touristic Mayan route,” as people aggressively tried to sell us fruit and other snacks from the road; a rope was held across our path—sometimes by kids—until it was imminently obvious we were not slowing down!
We arrived at El Panchan, our base-camp to launch into the ruins, in the late afternoon. El Panchan is a cluster of bars, cabanas and rooms for rent in the jungle right next to the entrance of ruins. We settled at the Jungle Palace, a cluster of cabanas and stayed in Cacao, a hut with ample concrete deck space hanging over a quietly gurgling stream.
We took our time in the morning enjoying a much needed rest and big breakfast before tackling the ruins. Many tourists take a shuttle because the park is a half mile from the entrance and uphill. We were dripping with sweat from our walk when we arrived at the entrance. Guided tours were offered by season veterans all the way down to adolescent kids. We couldn’t find a group large enough to split the cost, so we wandered through on our own. And there was plenty of historical information on signs in front of each ruin describing the building and how it came to be.
Palenque is a relatively newly excavated ruin with only 10% visible—the rest of it is buried by thick jungle, including the largest structure in the area, three times bigger than the first temple currently worked on by archaeologists. Breaking up the beautiful view from the back of the park overlooking the entire ruin, three generations of Italians on a tour provided some comic relief as they ascended the tallest temple, laughing, shouting and thoroughly enjoying themselves.
The next day we set out down a trail called Centero Motepa that punched straight into the jungle, starting with an observation deck over a cluster of cascading pools whose chandeliers created a terracing waterfall that reached far into the depths of the green. The trail followed the stream up and crossed several times before the gravel ended at Mayan marker for a water/sewage duct leading away from the ancient city. The architecture and planning was impressive considering the system in the heart of the ruins, and this offshoot that likely cut through dwellings. It was 4-5ft deep and lined with cemented volcanic rock from the area. In some places, large flat stones still covered the duct, even bearing reliefs and Mayan symbols that were still visible through the moss that covered them and plants that crept in around them.
We heard a rumor that unexcavated ruins could be found along the trail, and maybe we had just seen it at the aqueduct. We were sorely disappointed when the muddy trail we now followed ended at the fence of private property. Perhaps these uncovered ruins required a little more exploration and trespassing…nevertheless, we turned back and explored one of the stream crossings that was a wide open area of pools. As we made our way deeper into the gently cascading pools, we made out an enormous glowing waterfall lit by the midday sun, veiled by the Jungle.
The entrance was under a log sprouting a thick patch of mushrooms, and we contorted our bodies underneath it and over a sliver of uneven riverbed rock while dodging spiders and their large snaring webs. A tall cascade of falls, 15-20ft, opened up before us, and it was surrounded by a green wall of Jungle. An incredible sight—that light-brown, reddish tint of the falls; the yellowing oval leaves that had fallen and become wedged, now reflecting a rainbow of colors, mostly shades of orange; the long ropes of vines hanging the from the ceiling; and the green fronds of the jungle reaching out over the water.
The roar of the jungle in that place was intense, even overwhelming at times. Swimming pools worth of water was flowing; some bugs delivered piercing calls above the general hum of the others and the frogs; and the sun beat down through the top of the forest canopy. It was so loud. There’s really no way to express it in words.
At our feet, around the base of the falls, we treaded on what looked like light brown reddish rocks, the same color as the falls (probably from the heavy amount of limestone in the area and calcium carbonate in the water). Upon closure examination they were snail shells. Thousands of snail shells ranging in length from 1-4 inches! The shell had been discarded by the creature and hadn’t been picked by another looking for a home. The shell didn’t move and was slowly covered by the limestone, petrifying it in a way. However, some shells were only partially covered and some were clean blue-gray. Maybe this was the count of the local snail population by “shells in regular use.” A rolling stone gather’s no moss right!? Or they could just be recent. I don’t know, but it was cool.
I climbed up the pools, and they continued into the green abyss of the jungle as far as I could see. With the roar of the jungle and gurgling vortex in front of me, I felt on the edge of being lost in the jungle. There was something drawing me in, deeper and deeper, almost like a trance. I was snapped awake by Nico yelling below me “Don’t get lost in the Jungle!” Wow, classic. Except this time it was real, not some joke before a hike. It was crazy thinking that people had been appreciating this place for nearly 2000 years, and, probably at one point, when Palenque was at its height, it was a very special place for the Mayans. I made a concerted effort to crane my head away and climb back down. Time to leave the jungle! And back to more van trouble…
It hadn’t started in the last two days, and it rained hard every night. We spent the next morning running the fan and cleaning all the spark plug heads, trying to dry it out. It started after a few hours, and we quickly departed for the town of Palenque to solve our troubles once and for all, and before the van changed its mind, again!
Finding a mechanic is not one-stop shopping in Mexico. There are mechanicos, but they don’t work on electrical components—they tend to specialize in tire changes. Automotive electricians, or just electricians, seem to be the most knowledgeable and the hardest to find among the plethora of roadside tire shops. Also, auto parts are fairly easy to come by in Mexico, but not so much in Guatemala or El Salvador. We couldn’t afford to break down in either of those countries.
The electrician we found spotted a spark plug that had been chewed through, maybe by the mouse we’d found traces of in the van (we’ve also been housing an ant nest that migrated into the van from a tree in Barra de la Cruz—we’ve got them on the run and their numbers are dwindling!). One new spark plug and an oil change later, the van was sounding better than ever. Hopefully, this would be the last dog we’d have to shake off in Mexico.
We returned to the Jungle Palace for one more tonight before heading to Guatemala. And it was an interesting night: we slept fitfully and were awakened early in the morning by someone cutting through the mosquito net walls of our cabana…
We descended out of the Chiapas and into the coastal wetlands, crossing the border in the evening. The most noticeable things about Guatemalans are that they smile and laugh a lot more than Mexicans, they all drive Toyotas as opposed to the Nissans all over Mexico, and they drive wilder, especially the hard-cornering chicken buses, which, for whatever reason, are the most powerful machines on the road, over-taking anyone on the hills. It was raining and dark when we arrived at Huehuetenango (way-way). We found a cheap hostel but parked the van in front of the police station, so we’d come back to something intact in the morning. We had our usually fare of espresso and PB and Js, and were heading for Lago de Atitlan, a lake surrounded by volcanoes in the heart of the country. I missed the exit, so we were forced to cut through a back road, notorious for bandit activity in the past, and man, was it a back road. Thousands of patches and potholes composed a road that twisted through the steep ridges. At one point, the road was completely washed out, and the redirected route was all dirt and took us through the river at the bottom of the canyon. We made it to the lake safe and sound, but it was invisible in the clouds and fog. Skunked! We caught a glimpse on the other side where we stopped for a bite. The road towards the coast was just as bad until we reached the coastal highway. We camped on the black sand beaches of Sipacate and enjoyed a hearty meal of pasta.
We crossed into El Salvador early, but the extensive paperwork to bring a vehicle took two hours. We spent our first night in a touristy resort area at El Tunco. Even though we stayed at a hostel, it felt a little fake.
Yesterday morning we motored 10 minutes down the road into La Libertad, and found a more authentic vibe much to our liking. As I sit writing, I’m looking over my balcony at the premier point break of the Central American coast: Punta Roca. We’ve paid in advance for our two-week stay, and I’m looking into taking a Spanish language course while I’m here. Stoked to be back at the beach!