A long swell moved from the open Pacific and approached the top of the rock-studded point. The gathering green wave sparkled under the high sun and blue sky as it pushed across the shelving bottom.
It lifted against the offshore breeze, and the crest pitched amid a crackle of spray. The head-high wave broke in a cascade of dazzling white across the outside corner of the reef.
Then, following the beckon of time and tide, it peeled for 200 yards without flaw or section. The passage down the rocky shoreline and into the placid cove left a white triangle of hissing and bubbling foam the signature of perfect point surf. I stopped while paddling through the cove to watch the unraveling wall of water.
Jeff Duclos and Rickey Morris pulled alongside. We sat on our longboards and stared as the second wave of the set began to peel along the track of the first. We were mesmerized by the precision and beauty. It was, at last, the Mexican Malibu.
The “Mexican Malibu” is the echo of legend and a wave of fact. It represents the search for unspoiled perfection that was started by vagabond California surfers more than 50 years ago. First Point at Surfrider Beach, Malibu, Calif., was the standard of quality during the longboard era of the 1960s, the wave by which all others were measured. Malibu is a small wave, seldom over six feet, but ideal for the long trims and upright leverages of 9- to 10-foot boards.
Descriptions such as “ruler-edged walls” and “paper-thin lips” attempted to do justice to the machined precision of First Point during a strong south swell. The fact that longboards are back in huge numbers legitimizes that school.
Not too much adventure
Despite the oft-hyped images of horrific “barrels” in Tahiti and Fiji, and the tow-in heroics of Mavericks and Jaws, the truth remains that the average surfer does not embrace the idea of falling out of the sky onto bare reef. The idea of an uncrowded Malibu sounds pretty good.
Bill Cleary, the late surf journalist, revealed the Mexican Malibu in the lead article of the September 1965 issue of Surfer magazine. He was 27 years old a graybeard elder of the fledgling tribe. Cleary located the Mexican Malibu by tracking down and interviewing novelist and screenwriter Peter Viertel, the first surfer to find the place.
Viertel was on location in Puerto Vallarta for the filming of the 1964 movie, Night of the Iguana, at the nearby scenic village of Mismaloya. He was married to actress Deborah Kerr. While Kerr was mixing it up on the set with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner, Viertel grabbed his 10-foot Malibu shooter and went looking for waves along the desolate coastlines of the Bay of Banderas.
With fortune perhaps rivaled only by slipping a ring on Kerr’s left hand, he found the Mexican Malibu in a remote cove a diamond in the rough, so to speak. Cleary made his subsequent pitch over drinks in the Bel Air Hotel in Beverly Hills, and Viertel drew a rough map detailing the headland and the cove and the reef. If that tattered parchment remains, it surely would rank alongside anything penned by Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. At least it would among the traditional wave-riding devotees who cherish the concept of casual forward trim on a clean wall.
Cleary and his wife, Mary, struck out in dusty Jeeps and leaking pangas and, following repeated hardships and setbacks, found the perfect point tucked amid the endless rubble of second-class beach breaks and cut-rate closeouts. While Cleary rode flawless shoulder-high peelers groomed by light offshore spray, Mary shot grainy black-and-white photos.
Magazine editor John Severson was stoked and the resulting nine-page feature led off with the blazing headline: “Through arid desert and steaming jungle, on the trail of a Mexican Malibu.”
The impact among the surf community was considerable. I was one of the teenage surfers captivated by the quest. Never mind that the 27-year-old author was teetering on the edge of senility. (Don’t trust anyone over 30). The old man was a good surfer, and the article defined the lush tropics and flawless waves that were the essence of surf adventure. Cleary did not detail the specific coordinates on Viertel’s treasure map. This, no doubt, was intentional.
But the Mexican Malibu was there. And, with a bit of luck, it was within reach. It was not on the other side of the world, like Bruce Brown’s 1966 Endless Summer discovery of Cape St. Francis in South Africa. I saved the magazine, determined to one day find and ride the Mexican Malibu.
The first attempt was in September of 1967. On fire with the surf fever, I flew via prop plane to Mazatlan, but the waves at Lupe’s and Cannon’s were so good that I never got farther south than the old Shrimp Bucket bar and restaurant.
The second attempt was in June of 1976. My cousin, Vernon McGaw, and I flew via jet to Mazatlan and secured a rental car. We each had a board and girlfriend; the former being a great idea, but the latter proving to be a big mistake.
Our companions had no interest in waves, especially those involving exploration on the far side of dusty ruts, irritable iguanas and buzzing “no-see-ums.”
We drove south, retracing Cleary’s route, and just missed a dropping south swell at Matanchen Bay near San Blas. When we reached Puerto Vallarta, the party was rapidly deteriorating.
Back then, even in a semi-decent cantina, claiming a dinner plate or glass of ice cubes was like spinning the cylinder during a game of Russian roulette; we all were suffering from various stages of Montezuma’s Revenge.
McGaw and I made a half-hearted effort to rack the boards and launch an expeditionary strike force up the mysto-coast, but the effort was vetoed amid a heated argument on the quaint cobblestones of old Vallarta.
“There’ no Mexican Malibu; you guys are just too cheap to take us to Mismaloya.”
Numerous fishing and surfing trips south of the border during the ¹80s and ¹90s failed to produce a legitimate shot. The Mexican Malibu remained a teasing image. I kept the magazine, but the urgency of the quest faded. Then, nine years ago, a group of my surfing friends, led by Duclos, of Hermosa Beach, Calif., and Morris, of Houston, began renting a villa north of Puerto Vallarta.
We go for a week each year. It’s easy to reach now — blacktops, road signs and everything. And the tomatoes are clean. I pulled the tattered copy of the 1965 Surfer from my files and began retracing Cleary’s article. We were close — really close. Comparing images of the mid-tide reef and the distant headlands, we agreed on the location.
The problem was, the darned place didn’t break for seven consecutive years during our visits. We made dozens of faithful checks and never saw a surfable wave.
Other spots were excellent, but the Mexican Malibu was a no-show not enough swell, wrong angle, wrong tide, wrong week, wrong season, on and on over dispirited bottles of Pacifico beer at the cantina overlooking the beach.
Nirvana, at last
Then, as if in a dream, it was there. Last year, we pulled the board-racked vehicle to a stop and watched in disbelief as ruler-edged powder-green walls brushed by straight offshore wind peeled into the cove. We caught the Mexican Malibu for six consecutive days, with the swell peaking at 2 to 3 feet overhead. This spring, our trip was highlighted by three days of Mexican Malibu, with shoulder- to head-high sets each session. This literal groundswell of riches only can support the virtues of patience and confidence.
Certainly, better surf spots have been found, but the Mexican Malibu is a wonderful longboard wave. More than that, it is a symbol; it represents the ongoing quest to look around the next cove and beyond the far headland. And it inspires an improbable fire that can last a lifetime.
The area surrounding the Mexican Malibu has changed. Cleary would be utterly aghast at the development of the once-remote region, and he would be mortified to know that future expansion might threaten the wave. But, for now, the Mexican Malibu remains real. It is readily accessible and, no doubt, many surfers have ridden the waves without knowing the history. But you still have to find it. And, as was the case 43 years ago, I¹m not printing a map.
More on surfing: Beware the dangers
The world of surfing has expanded dramatically as wave riders continue to seek out new venues. This especially is true in Mexico and Central America.
Mexico is accessible by vehicle from the surfing strongholds of California and Texas, and daily flights from various U.S. cities are available to most of the major Pacific ports. The combination makes that country especially popular for prospecting.
The first surf destination on mainland Mexico (opposed to Baja) was Mazatlan. The waves of Cannon’ Point and Lupe’ Point were discovered and ridden by surfers from Southern California as early as the late 1950s, and word rapidly spread of the warm blue water and consistent surf south of the border. Other early mainland destinations during the 1960s were Matanchen Bay and Santa Cruz near San Blas, several hours by road south of Mazatlan, and Punta de Mita, near Puerto Vallarta.
These early destinations were followed by discoveries farther south during the ’70s. Among the standouts were Rio Nexpa, Petacalco and Puerto Escondido. Numerous other sites were mapped. Few, if any, significant points or reefs with well-defined waves are left uncharted.
No “secret spots” remain on mainland Mexico, but many remote sites known for years are jealously guarded. The newcomer on a quest for uncrowded waves is advised to proceed with caution and act with respect.
And dangers beyond localism in the lineup exist. Medical help often is beyond easy reach on remote roads and beaches; several weeks ago, an American surfer was bitten on the leg by a shark and died before he could be transported to a hospital. The attack occurred at Troncones, a small beach north of Ixtapa.
Attacks by marine life are rare, but collisions with rock reefs, sea urchins and shallow sand bottoms can be a risk at some breaks. Some regions are known to harbor criminals.
Most of the trouble in Mexico occurs near the U.S. border, but pockets of dangerous activity exist farther south.
Some of the bad guys are running drugs; others are highwaymen preying on tourists in secluded areas.
When advancing into a troubled area, remember safety in numbers.
Better yet, stay away.
But most destinations report few problems, and most locals are friendly. This especially is true on the major roads and around the better-known beaches. The biggest risk on most surf trips to Mexico is too much sun. And maybe the occasional bad tomato.