PUERTO ESCONDIDO, Mexico — Once a sleepy fishing village, Puerto Escondido is known for one thing in the international surf community: perfect — if bone-crushing — barreling waves.
Nicknamed "The Mexican Pipeline" as a tribute to Oahu’s infamous pipeline-style wave, it's one of the most powerful in the world. And during the big wave season between May and August in southern Mexico, surfers from around the world make their pilgrimage to duel with the massive walls of water breaking over just a few feet of sand.
A perfect combination of ocean dynamics and sandbank shape allows the wave to break in such a way that it creates a tube large enough for a surfer to crouch or stand in, and — ideally — speed back out of before the tube closes, crashing the wave over top of them. The bigger the wave, the bigger the tube, the bigger the thrill — and risk.
“Pleasure or punishment,” laughed Moises Cortez Villalai, a local surfer and owner of a surf shop up the coast. “Either you make it out of the tube, or you get crushed by the force of it.”
This chance to tuck into the churning tube of water and escape makes Puerto attractive to the world’s top surfers.
“[Puerto] offers perfect tubes, almost cylinders, that you can’t find in other parts of the world, and that attracts people from all over,” said the 35-year-old veteran of Mexico’s southwest coast. “A tube is the best expression of what a surfer is looking for. To feel that feeling [inside the barreling wave] that has no words to describe it. Its something beautiful and powerful.”
The life of Felipe “Gordo” Cesarno involves chasing this indescribable feeling. With a quiver of 12 boards, the Brazilian native strategically follows wave seasons around the world, waiting for the perfect wave to roll through. Mexico in the summer, Hawaii in the fall, then later Tahiti, Indonesia, perhaps Chile, home to Brazil and everywhere in between.
He is a powerful, aggressive surfer, and clear about his motivations.
“I am here waiting for the big waves,” he said from a restaurant just off the beach. “My ticket is open, I can go when I want. When I surf a wave that I am satisfied with, I will go back to Brazil.”
For Cesarno, this means standing on 30-foot thundering giants; waves that could kill a novice surfer within seconds.
Cesarno dedicates himself to pushing his limits on some of the world’s most powerful, and dangerous waves, training year-round, taking risks and surfing as much as possible. And for him, there is no better place than Puerto.
“For me, I need to feel a bit of danger to feel good,” he explains, looking for the right words to describe his passion. “When I am in the water, and it brings me a bit of fear, that is the feeling that I love.”
Laughable though it may be in the evening, accidents at Puerto are a reality, and the attitude in the water is very serious; small mistakes can be costly.
In May of this year, well-known California surfer and videographer Noel Robinson drowned after being hit by an almost 20-foot, tubing wave. The daily occurrence of mild injuries, the frequency of broken bones and the steady parade of snapped boards highlight the constant force of the water.
Australian Toby March has been losing a board a day to the crashing waves. Sitting on the beach with his latest victim in two pieces, he also has three lines of blood across his lower back where he fell on his fins; par for the course, he shrugs.
March is not a pro, but instead part of the large community of surf travelers camped out at Puerto, and other waves around Mexico, simply for the love of the game. Back home, he works in construction, saves up and takes months off at a time in order to chase waves. In Mexico to surf until December, he spends most of his days in a similar, dedicated fashion.
“I get up early, surf, go back, make a big breakfast, a smoothie, big coffee, then cruise around for a bit,” he said of his routine. In the afternoons, he works on his endurance, flexibility and core strength to prepare for the big days, before heading back for another session.
March drifts off mid-conversation, as he watches a surfer disappear in the tube of a 10-foot wave, and shoot back out seconds later. “That was easy — the wave of the day!” March shouts out, shaking his head with obvious jealousy.
For March, this very feeling — catching a powerful, tubing wave — serves as the motivation for all the travel, training and saving and is well worth the risk. Yet, like all surfers, he still struggles to put words to it.
“The feeling of getting barrels out here that feel unmakeable and you make it … its better than sex, its indescribable, eh? Man, its just an amazing feeling getting pitted.”