“Hay problemas con los carteles aquí?” I asked our familial and well-fed taxi driver. We were already deep into the heart of Mexico. Thousands of miles away from the salted rim margaritas of Acapulco and fish taco’ed resorts of Cabo San Lucas. Beheadings, kidnappings, and a massive drug war have plagued most of non-touristy Mexico for decades. We passed roadside beggars and shanty towns built of scrap metal and half-finished concrete. We were nowhere near Señor Frogs. The taxi driver’s lip twitched. He stuttered, “No-o-o. No-o hay problemas”. He quit talking the rest of the drive. The question was answered.
Oaxaca is a place where history neighbors modernity. A land where cartels run cocaine through the fields of the native Mazateco living off the land. Where government-operated oil refineries divide cities between those that work for the Pemex and those that don’t. Our taxi driver chugged his loaded down 80’s era Celica through pit-viper infested jungles, over twisty-turning mountain passes and past slight glimpses of the ocean. It seemed nearly impossible to know which one of the hundreds of dirt roads turning off the highway would end at some secluded cove with a perfect point break or would end up in some farmers land or cartel hideaway.
Finding waves in this neck of the woods takes either years of sketchy dirt road exploration… or hiring a guide. In fact going at it alone is not only a grand proposition, surfing without a local guide is expressly forbidden. Not to mention pretty fucking dangerous. A group of friends we met came back from a hidden point break with a tale of locals getting in their face for stepping foot on their land. Their guide trumped the local’s violent threats with the prospect of siccing the cartel on them in retaliation. A minor turf war in a place where making someone disappear is easier to do than a David Copperfield show.
With a 40oz bottle of Corona in his cup holder, our guide braked at a mid-highway checkpoint. As we neared the men with badges, he accelerated. While gassing past semi-trucks around blind corners we raced away from the checkpoint. The guide rolled down the window and tossed a bag full of weed out the window. We turned off onto an unmarked, overgrown dirt road. A freshly killed chicken was the toll to pass through a farmer’s land. He blasted his squealing Suburban on to a vast stretch of a 4×4 swallowing sandy beach and past native goat herders walking their lot from mangroves to barb wired pens. At the other end of one world was a world filled with a buffet of untouched barrels, an unlimited selection of perfect point breaks and an array of waves that looked more like paintings than real life. Every wave we caught the background of two worlds smashed together melted away. We surfed till our backs were scorched by the tropical sun and our shoulders cramped. Till the sun was reddened by the smoke of the refineries and the guide was on his third 40. We surfed to escape our own world while being immersed into an entirely new one.
As we got back to our house one night after another perfect day of surf, the patio was filled with machine gun toting Federales. The sight of AK-47’s and badges filling the compound was unnerving. Did the highway checkpoint guards catch up with us? Were bribes needed to be paid and mercy be asked for? And then, suddenly, one federale leaned over the outdoor coffee table, placed a rolled up peso bill up his nostril and snorted up a finger sized line of cocaine. It was at that moment that I realized that our taxi driver was right all along. “No hay problemas aqui.”