“Ohhhhhh, Mexico,” Jimmy Buffet once famously sang. “The sun’s so hot, I forgot to go home.”
In less than a dozen words, Buffet summed up many an expat’s Mexican experiences. And no wonder. Mexico is to the US what Indonesia is to Australia—a warm, cheap, exotic, adult’s equivalent of Disneyland, where you can get anything you want, whenever you want it. Oh, and the waves are epic too. Pretty much all of the time.
Mexico has a number of things going for it, as far as surf destinations go. For one, it’s located just above the equator, with a wide-open fetch facing north, west, and south. In other words, it is one of the most wave-rich countries on the planet, regardless of the month. South swells pump all summer, lighting up Mexico’s entire Pacific coast, from Oaxaca’s famed points and big wave beachies all the way up to the sandbars in Baja Norte.
But winter can be just as consistent, with northwest swells not only filtering into the points, reefs, and bombies in Baja, but also sending swell to the beach breaks down in Mainland Mexico. In other words, regardless of the type of wave you want to surf or the season you want to surf it in, you can find it in Mexico.
On top of that, the Mexican people are notoriously friendly, the food and culture are exquisite, the weather typically ranges from balmy to downright tropical, and the cost of living is a fraction of what you’d spend in US—even when camped out in Mexican tourist traps.
There’s a reason surfers have been flocking to Mexico since the 1960s—and why many never come home. Jimmy Buffet had it right all along: “Ohhhhhh Mexico…I guess I’ll have to go now.”
A foreign, rugged, coastal desert located right across the border from San Diego, Baja Norte is the easiest surf trip a Californian can take—simply load up the car, drive across the border, and disappear into the moonscape. With waves ranging from border-town beach breaks and infamous big wave spots to dozens of point breaks that bend raw winter swells into groomed perfection, northern Baja is a wintertime surf fest with something for everyone—as long as you don’t mind cold nights, hot days, and camping in the dust.
Baja Sur is a lot like Baja Norte, except a little warmer, a little less developed (if that’s possible), and thriving under south swell conditions rather than north. Points, beach breaks, and the occasional reef, all breaking in empty, azure water along a picturesque desert coastline—for those who are willing to drive two days to escape the California crowds.
Located in central mainland Mexico, with a convenient airport and a ton of accommodation options (including surf camps), the Puerto Vallarta region is home to dozens of user-friendly waves (such as Sayulita and Punta Mita, two of Mexico’s best and mellowest points). Whether you are traveling solo or with family, staying cheap or living in luxury, looking to noseride or racing down the line on a shortboard, Puerto Vallarta has it all—Margaritas included.
The original big wave beach break, Puerto Escondido’s Playa Zicatela is a heavy, sandy barrel from head high to infinity, which is why it spent a few years on the Big Wave Tour. But the town of Puerto Escondido has more than just oversized kegs on offer. The area’s resort vibe makes it a great place to take the family, the left-hand point break called La Punta is as user-friendly as they come, and there are numerous other waves in the region as well. For a mixed-bag surf experience in a comfy setting—with the option to go as big as you want—Puerto Escondido punches the ticket.
After the world tour exposed the sand-bottom point potential of the Salina Cruz region, it was only a matter of time before it blew up. A decade later, Oaxaca’s most popular surf zone sees a non-stop stream of tourists, most of whom come for the numerous world-class right-handers that peel perfectly from waist high to double overhead.
WEATHER: While the majority of Mexico enjoys a hot, humid, tropical climate, Baja is a bit different. The desert peninsula south of California tends to be cold at night and hot during the day—and extremely dry. But regardless if you are in mainland Mexico or Baja, the one thing that holds pretty constant is the wind. Generally speaking, Mexico enjoys glassy to offshore mornings, and then tends to blow out around midday with winds from the NW. The swells for mainland Mexico and Baja are also pretty similar, with consistent, large, long-period south swells during the summer (April through September) and W/NW swells out of the North Pacific during winter (October through March).
CURRENCY: The Mexican peso is the local currency, and is currently exchanged at around 20 pesos to 1 USD, which is quite favorable for visitors. That being said, many of the heavily touristed areas will also accept US dollars.
STAYING CONNECTED: Most towns and cities will have Wi-Fi available, and there is a pretty comprehensive cellular network available throughout the country, provided by companies such as Movistar and Telcel.
LANGUAGE: Spanish is the official language of Mexico, although many service providers in tourist areas will also speak some English. Many people don’t realize that the Spanish spoken throughout Latin America varies slightly from country to country, and is considered to be somewhat unsophisticated by Spanish speakers from Spain. Mexican Spanish is utilitarian and easy-going, and the locals love to speak to you in their language, even if your Spanish is no bueno.
A few common phrases in Spanish:
- Hello: Hola
- Good morning: Buenos dias
- Good afternoon: Buenas tardes
- Good night: Buenas noches
- Goodbye: Adiós
- Please: Por favor
- Thank you: Gracias
GOOD TO KNOW & LOCAL INSIGHTS:
- Mexico has a reputation of being quite dangerous, particularly in regards to theft and cartel-related violence. Generally speaking, if you keep your nose clean, stay away from drugs and out of border towns, and don’t drive at night or party in seedy areas, you will be fine. That being said, check out the US Department of State Travel Advisory for safety updates and knowledge about safety in different areas. The US gov recommends avoiding certain states altogether due to ongoing cartel violence.
- The recent political atmosphere in the US and Mexico has led to some tension, particularly with Mexicans who feel that the policies of the US government reflect the attitudes of all Americans. But once you break the ice, get to know the locals, and demonstrate that you appreciate them and their culture, they are quite welcoming and friendly.
- Siestas are a big deal in Mexico, which is great if you enjoy an afternoon nap. Of course, if you are looking to get business done between noon and 2 p.m., you may need to invest in some patience.
- Religion is quite important in Mexico, with most locals identifying themselves as Catholic. Many of the local holidays are religious in nature, and most people attend church on Sundays.
- Family is the cornerstone of Mexican culture, and most families are quite large, featuring traditional gender roles. Hosting parties and other social events are a big deal, with the quinceañera (a girl’s 15th birthday party) being one of the biggest. Elders in families are highly respected, and family members tend to support each other in a variety of ways.
TYPES OF SURF BREAKS: Mexico has just about every type of wave available, from endless point breaks and reef slabs to high-performance beach breaks and big wave spots. Different regions tend to have high concentrations of one specific type of wave, so where you go will depend on what and how you want to surf.
LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY: Depending on where you go, you could surf a mellow point break, some of the world’s heaviest beach breaks, or anything in between.
SEASON AND SWELL INFO: Summer (April through September) tends to have consistent SW swells, with the occasional tropical storm swell mixed in. Winter (October through March) sees the southern regions go a bit flat, but north- and west-facing coasts enjoy consistent W and NW swells out of the north Pacific. Due to Mexico’s central location near the equator, the wind is pretty consistent year round, with light offshores in the mornings and strong sea breezes starting around midday.
CROWDS: Popular surf zones such as Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca’s point breaks, and the waves around Puerto Vallarta can be extremely crowded. That being said, one of the best things about surfing in Mexico is the huge number of waves available. If you want to surf alone, it doesn’t take much more than a 4×4 vehicle and a bit of an adventurous spirit. Baja, in particular, has over a thousand kilometers of coastline with only a half dozen spots that see surfers on a regular basis.
WATER TEMP BY SEASON: The water in Mexico ranges from freezing in northern Baja during the winter (around 15 Celsius, or 59 Fahrenheit) to downright steamy in mainland Mexico, especially during summer (when water temps can be as high as 30 Celsius or 86 Fahrenheit). Thus, depending on where and when you decide to surf, you could wear anything from board shorts to a 4/3 full suit with hood and booties.
GETTING TO THE SURF: Mexico is a classic road trip destination. Baja is over a thousand kilometers long and has highways running down both coasts, while mainland Mexico has good road access to most spots, so it is quite easy to be self-supported and search out your own surf zone. That being said, there are surf camps set up through Mexico, and some regions (such as the points in Oaxaca) have local “rules” in place that require you to hire a local guide if you want to surf without being hassled or having your vehicle damaged.
TOP SURF BREAKS IN MEXICO
PUERTO ESCONDIDO: One of the heaviest beach breaks on the planet, and formerly a Big Wave Tour stop, Playa Zicatela in Puerto Escondido is a booming barrel from head high to humongous, with the brown, sandy tubes detonating just offshore, right in the middle of town—making for one of the greatest spectacles in surfing.
SAYULITA: A long, mellow, user-friendly right-hand point near Puerto Vallarta, Sayulita is popular with beginners, longboarders, and anyone who enjoys a nice, mellow trim line in warm Mexican water.
SCORPION BAY: The quintessential Baja discovery, Scorpion Bay is a series of right-hand point breaks that occasionally connect, offering rides of over two minutes. Third Point is the stuff of legends, Second Point is arguably the best noseriding wave in the world, and there are five other points to choose from, depending how much swell is in the water. The only problem is that the zone is quite fickle, requiring a specific swell to break. Also, it’s a 15-hour drive through the desert to get there.
PUNTA CHIVO: One of Salina Cruz’s crown jewels, Punta Chivo is a long, hollow, rippable right-hand sand point that is groomed by the daily sea breezes due to the fact that it bends swell lines into the wind.
BARRA DE LA CRUZ: The wave that inspired a thousand surf trips, Barra was the site of the 2006 Rip Curl Search world tour event, which scored the wave about as good as it gets, and is considered by many to be the greatest surf contest of all time. Yet another endless, hollow, sand-bottomed right-hand point in Oaxaca (a state littered with them), Barra lost its form for a few years due to development but is rumored to be improving each year now that the development was washed away by the river.
PUNTA CONEJO: Another of Salina Cruz’s classic right-hand sand points, Punta Conejo breaks off a rocky headland and peels along a lengthy sandbar, often for upwards of a kilometer.
CHIPEHUA: One of the only right-hand sand points in the Salina Cruz area that you can surf without a guide, Chipehua is yet another perfect peeler that offers up both barrels and turn sections, with swell often wrapping more than 500 meters.
KILLERS: A classic big wave bombie breaking off the island of Todos Santos near Ensenada in Baja Norte, Killers is a huge, heavy, boiled-out right-hander that was formerly a stop on the Big Wave Tour, made famous when Taylor Knox paddled the 50-foot+ K2 wave back in the 1990s, winning himself over $50,000.
SURF TRIP COSTS IN MEXICO
Mexico may be the most varied surf destination in the world. You can drive into the Baja desert and do a completely self-supported, feral surf mission for little more than the cost of gas and tortillas, or you can check into luxury resorts in Oaxaca and spend $300 per night.
Most people end up splitting the difference, with affordable accommodations, cheap food and beer, and the occasional surf guide. In general, expect to spend around $100 USD per day if you are doing independent travel in a popular area.
For transportation around Mexico, either drive into Mexico from California or fly in and rent a car. There are great highways throughout Mexico and road access to nearly all of the waves in the country. Mexico has been the classic road trip surf destination for wave riders from the US for nearly five decades.
If you’re planning on going feral to more remote spots in Mexico like Baja, a 4-wheel drive will definitely come in handy. It varies depending on the area you’re driving through, but in general, it’s best to drive during the daytime and avoid driving at night. And be sure to check out the US Department of State Travel Advisory for the safety lowdown in different regions.
WHERE TO STAY
There is a huge range of accommodations in Mexico and your money can go a long way in this department. You’ll find everything from free camping to luxury resorts and everything in between. Generally, the most popular and populated towns and areas will demand the highest prices, and more remote locations will be more budget-friendly. That being said, there are plenty of places to stay for every budget.
If you’re on a lower budget, campsites with amenities run $5 – $15 USD per night (or you can free camp), or you can find casitas that run $20-$40 per night. $50 – $130 USD per night will get you a pretty lovely room in a boutique hotel with a pool and amenities. And $150 – $300 and up will get you into the luxury range with all the bells and whistles.
Here are a handful of recommendations for every budget (prices in USD):
BUDGET • up to $100 per night
MID-RANGE • $100 – $300 per night
LUXURY • $300+ per night
Mexican food is legendary, and for good reason. Burritos, tacos, enchiladas, carne asada, fajitas, tamales, Margaritas, pina coladas, ceviche, and every form of seafood you can imagine—it doesn’t matter who you are, there is something in Mexico for everyone.
- A cheap local restaurant or street food will cost around 100 pesos ($5 USD).
- A mid-range restaurant will cost around 150 to 300 pesos per person ($7.50 to $15 USD), including a glass or bottle of beer.
- A high-end restaurant could cost anywhere from 400 to 1200 pesos per person ($20 to $60 USD), depending how fancy you decide to go.
- A can of local beer costs around 20 pesos ($1.00 USD), and imported beer around 40 pesos ($2 USD).
- An 11-oz bottle of water costs around 10 pesos (around $0.50 USD), and you typically want to avoid drinking tap water, or eating anything that has been washed in it.