Want to learn to ski? Head to the bunny hill. But if you’re on a sun and sand vacation on Mexico’s Pacific Coast and catching a wave catches your fancy, head to Sayulita.
About 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta, on a crescent-shaped beach below verdant hills, you’ll find perfect learning waves that pop up over a sandbar metres from shore, offering a break big enough for the novice, even if the only surfing you’ve done is on the Net.
Call it the tropical equivalent of the ski resort’s magic carpet.
Sayulita’s surf is seductive. I started the week wading with the kids, then gave the boogie board a try. Certainly I wasn’t the only 30-something dad who seemed to be spending as much time in the water as their children. Down the beach, however, the real thing beckoned.
“It’s a real family friendly atmosphere,” says Javier Chavez, who teaches surfing in Sayulita and, through his Wildmex tours, offers trips to larger nearby breaks and surf camps. “The beach is great to chill on with the family. While some surf, others can have snacks or do other activities.”
Learning to surf is pretty simple: Lie on your board, paddle out a bit, wait for a wave, paddle, paddle, paddle to get out ahead of it, pop up to what amounts to a runner’s start position, gripping the board about a quarter of the way back — stand up.
The golden rule is also simple: Don’t steal someone else’s wave. While the talented locals are generous, sharing their breaks with newbies, give them respect. Mornings are best for learning. When the waves get bigger after lunch, sit back and watch the show as the young rippers take over on the trickier left break just down the beach.
Even on low waves and frothy burble, the “stand up” part is not as easy as it looks. You can expect to fall a fair bit, or be driven nose-first to the bottom if you’re too far forward on the board, as you get the hang of hanging-10. Thrown into the swell, you’ll be spun around by the bigger waves like a shirt in the washer, the board leashed to your ankle spinning over your head.
After an hour or so of struggling with my board and watching more experienced surfers, I got up a few times. I was surprised at how elevated I felt, even on a modest wave.
“I used to think anyone could learn to surf,” says Chavez. “Sadly, this season we have had a couple of people who just can’t. Basically they can’t lift their weight from the board, even when the board is lying on the sand. So what I would say is, if they can do a push up, they can surf. If they can’t, they should work on their fitness and then learn to surf.”
Chavez says a good teacher will go through the finer points of popping up (standing up the right way on a board), body positioning (having your body on the right place when lying on the board), paddling technique, reading waves, timing, posture on the board while standing and surfing etiquette.
You can get a jumpstart months before you hop on the plane. Get in the pool and swim. Go to the gym and work on your arms, chest, lats and back. For balance, spend some time on that half-ball with the board on top that sits in the corner of many weight rooms.
If you decide boogie-boarding is more your style, Sayulita is a great beach for that, too, although you should be a reasonably strong swimmer as there are riptides in some areas. Watch for the red flags.
If you’re taking a lesson or renting a board, you’ll probably be out on the water longer than your usual dips between sips of margaritas.
Slap on lots of sunscreen, and wear a water shirt and hat if you have to. There’s nothing cool about a surfer with a peeling nose.