I hadn’t chased a swell in six months—partly because there weren’t many places that I could go, and partly because I wasn’t sure it was the smartest thing to do. Travelling in the midst of a pandemic—particularly in the early stages, when many countries had still avoided widespread infection and it wasn’t clear how things were going to go—seemed a bit irresponsible.
But 10 months into this new reality of ours, with community spread having infiltrated virtually every corner of the planet, travel restrictions have lifted in dozens of countries, even as the spread of COVID-19 increases and certain regions reinstate local lockdown protocols. And while a vaccine likely won’t be available for a few more months, we have learned a lot about this virus, and what can be done to lower the risk of transmission. Plus, there was a run of back-to-back-to-back swells for Mexico in November, which is sort of historic. I figured the time had come for me to dust my passport off and get back on the horse.
For the COVID-conscious traveller to Mexico—or anywhere, for that matter—there are a number of steps that can be taken to ensure you are travelling responsibly. The first is to get a COVID-19 test, which these days has become pretty easy to do. If you are willing to spend a bunch of money on an airline ticket and burn a day flying to Mexico, then the least you can do is pay $150 and dedicate an afternoon to getting a PCR test and ensuring that you are COVID-free and not bringing the virus with you.
Of course, once you get your negative results you’ll want to make sure you are socially distancing at home so you don’t inadvertently get exposed before your trip—but that’s something we should all be doing all the time anyway.
Once you actually leave home, it doesn’t take much to keep yourself and others safe. People talk about “pandemic fatigue” and how inconvenient it is to have to wear a mask and stay six feet away from people, but honestly, if that’s the worst thing you have to deal with during this crisis, you are better off keeping your complaints to yourself. Border crossings and flights are actually pretty easy these days. Everything is standard, by-the-book procedure, except that now everyone is covering their faces—something travellers in Asia figured out decades ago.
Obviously there’s always a chance of infection in any enclosed area, but mandatory mask usage, high-powered air filters, and a ton of hand sanitiser have been found to keep transmission in airplanes pretty low—much lower than the restaurants, bars, and other social gathering places back home that people have been flocking to all summer, and that are now being shut down again as infection numbers skyrocket.
The vibe in Mexico is actually pretty relaxed too. More people are in masks than in the US—the police have roadblocks set up in major cities to make sure you are wearing them, with strict penalties for those who flaunt the mask mandate. And while tourist zones are definitely seeing a constant stream of visitors, there isn’t much of the free-for-all, fuck-the-world attitude that you’d expect from dirt bags, backpackers, and jet-setting elites. Tables are separated, diners keep their distance, and most people are pretty respectful of the situation and the rules.
Of course, the best way to minimise your impact is to stay away from crowded areas altogether, and that’s exactly what we planned to do—spending only one evening in a large town due to a late-night arrival, then heading toward a lesser-known region early the next morning. Because as it turns out, there’s a lot more to Mexico than the handful of spots we see online and in the surf guides.
Forget, for a moment, everything you think you know about Mexico. Forget Puerto and Barra and Conejo and Chivo—the entire state of Oaxaca, for that matter. Go ahead and forget all the other spots you’ve heard of, too—Sayulita and Saladita, Nexpa and Ticla, Zippers and Monuments and Stoners and Troncones. There’s no reason to follow the crowds to these well-known spots—to battle them for waves during the day, then risk picking up COVID while partying with them at night.
Instead, we headed to a quiet, unassuming village somewhere far from any place you’ve ever heard of—one of a thousand such villages on the thousand empty beaches strung along Mexico’s Pacific coast. It’s a place that is infinitely safer than the US right now, where a contentious election and mass social unrest aren’t threatening to spark civil war and street violence. A small smattering of homes and hostels lines the sand, petty theft and cartel violence are non-existent, and only a handful of locals and tourists lounge along the water’s edge.
The village has a river running beside it, and if you brave the crocs and paddle across, you can take a short walk over a hill to a random jetty build decades ago. The jetty has a slabbing right on one side and a mutant left on the other, and gives way to a mile of hollow, shallow, river-fed beach break peaks—one of the best setups I’ve seen in years. We end up surfing it for a week without ever running into another surfer, trading barrels while trying to decipher the fickle tidal changes that shut down peaks and turn others on without any rhyme or reason.
On the last day of our trip, I chatted with our host while packing for the flight home. Despite keeping my distance from people and sanitising the shit out of everything all week, I’d still been a bit leery of COVID while in the village, and mentioned my concern to her as I zipped my board bag shut, asking how many people had come down with the virus so far this year. “None,” she replied. Incredulous, I rephrased my question, thinking that perhaps something has been lost in translation. “How many people have gotten sick and had to travel to a hospital?” I asked. She shook her head emphatically. “We see the COVID-19 on TV, but no one in the village has gotten extremely sick this year.”
I tossed my bag into the back of a waiting truck, then told her that the US had recorded 185,000 new infections and 1,500 coronavirus-related deaths on that day alone. “Dios mio,” she replied, shaking her head. “Why would you go back?
Why indeed. Considering everything that’s happening right now, going home may be the most irresponsible thing I’ve done all week.