Getaways: Wave Runner

Finding sand—and surf—in Mexico's hottest new beach town.

November 2008


Because of Sayulita’s relaxed personality, the fishing-village-turned-beach-town doesn’t attract the fancy SoCal clientele. Sayulita’s target demographic is twenty- and thirtysomething American adventure travelers looking for an off-the-beaten-path escapade. And that means it’s an alluring vacation destination for outdoor adventure–loving Coloradans, and lots of them flock there. By chance, we saw three people we knew from Boulder during our three-day trip. “People call this town Boulder by the Sea,” says Javier Chávez, a 27-year-old surf guide from Guadalajara and our go-to guy for the weekend. “This town is really outdoorsy, just like Colorado.” 

Chávez runs a company called Wildmex, an adventure-tourism business that offers surf lessons and camps, plus fishing and kayaking outings, yoga classes, and even mountain bike trips in and around Sayulita. He has set me up with Michelle Richards, a Canadian longboarder who’s been tasked with acclimating me to the ocean. When she’s not traveling the world to compete in surf competitions, she works for Wildmex, teaching beginners like me. Over the years Chávez and his team of teacher-guides have shown my husband several surf breaks in the area: windswept beaches with names like Burros and Punta Mita. “There are other breaks I like to surf, too,” Chávez explains to me as we sit on beach chairs in front of Villa Amor, our beachfront hotel. “But I’m not going to tell you about those,” he laughs. “There are a few places we Mexicans have to keep secret.”

I’m secretly hoping that Day One of our vacation—filled mostly with beach time and margaritas—never ends, because Day Two is surfing day.

But Richards, my surf instructor, arrives at the hotel the next morning as scheduled, surfboards stacked high atop her van. She leans out the window and yells in a Canadian accent, “I hear someone here wants to learn how to surf!” Yep, that’s me…I guess.

Before we begin the lesson, I confess my wave phobia. Richards doesn’t seem surprised—she’s clearly run into this before with her students—but she doesn’t seem the least bit empathetic. She taught herself to surf in the freezing-cold waters of Nova Scotia. She’s not the kind of person to let a little fear get in her way—or mine.

We start our lesson by standing on the beach and watching the waves. She talks to me, pointing things out. Here’s how a wave breaks. That’s when you’ll want to paddle. See, a wave won’t hurt you…unless you let it. Then, lying on the beach, next to our boards, we practice popping up—an all-important move when you go from lying on your board to standing and riding the wave. Then, she decides I’m ready for the water. 

A few meters offshore, I lie on the board letting waves pass underneath me. The waves are tiny; they’re so small, in fact, that Richards is able to stand in the water next to me and hold my board in position. The hardest element for me is the paddle—getting my scrawny arms around the board and into the water takes Herculean effort. But with enough coaxing and practice, I’m mastering it.

“You’re ready,” Michelle says. “Let’s catch this wave.” I spin the board around and watch the approaching wave over my shoulder. Somehow, the formerly tiny waves now look colossal. “Not yet,” she cautions. “I’ll tell you when to go. OK now! Paddle, paddle, paddle!” I’m paddling like a madwoman. “Now stand up,” she screams. And I do—before immediately falling over into the churning, frothing wave. The lesson goes on like this for hours: me standing up on the board for mere seconds before crashing into the water. But…it’s OK. After every fall I realize that I’m not dead in the water. I’m actually just fine. In fact, I’m having a great time. I’m a terrible surfer, but I’m enjoying it too much to be afraid.