Along the Pacific coast of Mexico on a wave of nostalgia


In the late ’60s in LA, my husband Jim and his college friends loaded surfboards onto a battered van and drove south along the Mexican coast for spring break, stopping in Mazatlán, San Blas and Punta de Mita. They slept in their van or under palapas on the beach — never spending more than $2 a night — and relied on local fishermen and vendors to provide them with fresh fish and fruit.

After years of listening to Jim’s idyllic-sounding surfing stories, I suggested a road trip to revisit the places of his youth. We started in Mazatlán, at the mouth of the Gulf of California on the Pacific coast, where we now spend the winter months. Our goal was to find not just the towns, but the exact stretches of beach where he stayed, where geography, winds and water currents converged to create world-famous surf breaks.

Under a cloudless February sky, the dry desert air from the nearby Sierra Madre Occidental mountains warmed the tarmac on the dual carriageway and made for perfect road trip conditions on the drive to San Blas. Along the route the landscape changed from swamps and lagoons to mango, agave and banana plantations.

Trucks streamed past in both directions, overtaking each other in an imaginary but mutually understandable middle lane. Roadside truck stops offered dried shrimp, shrimp ceviche, shrimp tacos and tamales, as well as jicama, jackfruit, coconuts and water jugs.

We got to San Blas in less than four hours. Located in the state of Nayarit on the northern edge of Matanchén Bay, it is a sleepy town known for its history as a shipbuilding center and port during the colonial era. its naval base; its bird watching opportunities; and its bugs (gnats and no-see-ums) that swarm at dawn and dusk. San Blas is also celebrated in the surfing community for its fine sandy beaches and what was once touted as the world’s longest surfable wave.

Finding Jim’s old surf spot wasn’t difficult as the development didn’t spoil the landscape in San Blas. We drove through the colorful arch at Playa Las Islitas and turned onto a dusty dirt road along miles of beach lined with palm trees, thatched-roof huts selling beach gear, and open-air oceanfront restaurants serving grilled fish, ceviche, shrimp, and beer serve .

Although the beach looks the same, artificial jetties and a hurricane have filled the bay with sand, requiring visitors to wade out quite a distance to swim. The waves are now more suitable for surfing beginners or children. Surfers looking for bigger waves these days head to Stoners Point, which is reached at the end of Las Islitas via an unpaved dirt road.

Jim said he and his friends used to ride the beach, taking turns picking each other up at the end of their half-mile or longer rides. “Those days are over,” he said. “But the beach is still stunning.”

Spectacular scenery is not limited to the beach. At the top of San Basilio Hill, the ruins of a 1770 fortress, La Contaduría, offer sweeping views of the city and port. Just steps away, the romantic stone shell of the Church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario, built in 1769, provides an Instagram-worthy backdrop. The crumbling church was also the inspiration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s final poem, The Bells of San Blas.

We couldn’t leave San Blas without an afternoon of bird watching. Our hotel concierge suggested the perfect guide: 74-year-old Chencho, a San Blas native who knew the estuaries, mangrove coves and coves of La Tovara National Park as well as I knew the trails to my favorite forest swimming spots in my hometown .

On our mangrove cruise we were able to approach and identify 28 species, including familiar birds like egrets, egrets, ibises and anhingas, as well as species new to us like the dainty vermilion flycatcher and the primeval-looking boat-billed heron.

After three nights in San Blas, we turned our eyes to Punta de Mita in search of the cute surf spot formerly hailed as the classic Malibu-esque point break, a long break that wraps around a small, rocky reef. Jim referred to it as “my own little Shangri-La,” a place where he and his buddies would surf all day and share a palapa under the stars at night on a powdery beach. It proved almost as elusive as the fictional Shangri-La.

About a three-hour drive south of San Blas and about an hour northwest of Puerto Vallarta, Punta de Mita — a button-shaped peninsula at the north end of Banderas Bay — has changed significantly since 1969. Much of the sparsely populated fishing and farming community is now a gated, private reservation with luxury resorts, private homes, golf courses, and upscale restaurants.

We wandered disoriented and consulted online maps, hoping to match Jim’s memories with the changed landscape. We got our answer from the owner of Accion Tropical, a surfing and snorkeling center in the lively village. The area we stood in — a stretch of beach with lively beachside restaurants, surf centers, craft shops, yoga studios, and boutiques — had emerged in the early 1990s when the government relocated residents from an area now in Punta de Mita.

The addition of rocky piers extending into the sea to provide safe harbor for boats changed the currents. The result was a huge loss of sand, leaving a pebbly, rock-strewn beach ahead of the previously perfect break.

No wonder everything looked different! Lalo Fernandez, the owner, suggested we visit the other end of the beach, near where the area’s oldest restaurant, El Coral, had its usual lunchtime patrons.

There, beyond the furthest jetty, Jim recognized the spot – and the wave. “I remember looking at the mountains and the beach and thinking this was such a beautiful place,” he said. Two 100-foot yachts from Italy were anchored offshore in what was once a remote, uninhabited spot.

Of course it’s still a beautiful place. We celebrated with lunch at La Pescadora restaurant by the sea. A salty breeze cooled our sun-warmed skin as a whole grilled snapper marinated in smoky adobo arrived with mounds of rice, lettuce, fresh corn tortillas and fries with two salsas. We toasted with Bloody Mary and Pacifico beers and declared the trip a success.

Today, surfers can be found much further south along the coast, at Playa La Lancha. They park off Highway 200, grab their skis, and follow an unmarked trail for a 10-minute hike through an overgrown, jungle-like landscape. Eventually they reach a sandy beach with an A-frame point break and, if the waves cooperate, 6-foot waves – their very own Shangri-La.

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