Mexico, La Saladita, Longboard

Where Demons Walk on Water: A Brief History of Surfing in La Saladita

How the farms and fishermen of rural Guerrero made way for a longboarding paradise, as told by lifelong resident Jacqueline Valencia
Saladita circa 1993. From the Valencia family album, shared by Lourdes Valencia

Ever wonder what your favorite surf town was like before tourism arrived? Before there was a surf shop and specialty cafe on every corner—what was life like? How would it have felt to paddle out alone, and enjoy that special wave all by yourself—or better yet with another surf-lusty travel companion?

You’ve read the tales of William Finnegan and Allan Weisbecker and heard tell of these farflung beaches where lies the perfect wave, a mythical place where not even the locals know what the hell surfing is. Your only reliable food source may be canned tuna; drinking water might be a luxury; and the amount of no see ums and mosquitoes is dizzying—but you’ve also lost track of your wave count. Some would call this the ultimate dream.

And some lucky seekers know this reality well. These wave hunters have stumbled upon some of surfing’s greatest finds, and other missions have yielded, well, just some mosquito bites and empty tins of canned meat.

One of these gems is the small village of La Saladita which lies on the central Pacific coast of mainland Mexico in the state of Guerrero. Situated just 45 minutes north of the bustling city of Zihuatanejo and its more resort-centric sister city of Ixtapa, it’s worlds away in pace of life.

Even now, in 2020, arriving to La Saladita feels like stepping back in time. Driving down the one lane road past cows and mango groves, past the sleepy taxi drivers waiting for rides, the pavement yields to dirt, and at the end of the lane you’ll find yourself in an open palm grove with one of the longest lefts in Mexico beckoning you to paddle out. There are a handful of beach restaurants lining the shore that offer local fare, and dozens of lodging options that range from very rustic to high end, but still no real infrastructure to speak of. The streets have no names, there’s no grocery store, and until recently if you didn’t go to Zihuatanejo you were likely washing your clothes in the river, unless you were blessed with a washing machine. This is a town that still trucks in most of its water from the city, and just in the year 2000 were they connected to the grid and could finally enjoy electricity.

This beauty of a wave— a perfect left rivermouth point break— couldn’t stay hidden forever, and whether by happy coincidence or by careful studies of maps and charts, the surfers started to arrive in the mid 1970s. Thankfully they weren’t met by any blood-craving insects, and they were eventually welcomed by the few farmers and fishermen that lived in the area.

Jacqueline Valencia, one of the original denizens of Saladita, recounts how she experienced the discovery of surf, and what that has meant to her family and the small village where they were raised. She owns and manages Villas Jacqueline, one of the choice lodging options located on the point in Saladita, and counts among her regular clientele some of the most famous names in surfing, from longboarding professionals to board shapers.

Interview with Jacqueline Valencia, owner of Villas Jacqueline

Villas Jacqueline as seen from the ocean, 2019.

Jacqueline and her sister, Lourdes, also dug deep into the family memory chest to find the few photos they have from that era. They had never seen a camera when they were kids, so these humidity stained photos are rare shared treasures from their youth. Thanks also to Ryan Koerner for sharing his fond memories about his days as a Texas kid surfing in Saladita—and some epic photos.

Jacqueline, 1990. Photo taken by Gary Koerner.
Lourdes, Jacqueline's sister, recalls they were always wet as they spent all their time in the ocean. Center photo: Cesar, Lourdes, their father, and Arnoldo. Lower photos show Jacqueline's brother Arnoldo, one of the first to learn to surf on a borrowed board from Ryan Koerner who frequented La Saladita beginning in 1988. This was Arnoldo's first attempt at surfing, and the Koerner's were shocked that he stood up on his first time. Glad they captured the moment!

What was it like to grow up in La Saladita? What was here before it became a surf town?

We had a really healthy upbringing in Saladita, as our parents fished to feed us, planted their own crops, and milked their own cows. We were 11 brothers and sisters, and we would play on the beach, and we would build bonfires by the sea to help the fishermen find their way back to shore since there was no electricity back then.

La Saladita used to be the land of dive fishing. Fishermen from other villages would come to fish and dive as at that time our beach was bountiful in shark, turtle, lobster, and oyster production. When I was a child, I recall seeing around 50 boats come in every day from other places to fish and to dive in Saladita.

We had a very beautiful and peaceful childhood since there were only two families that we ever saw in Saladita.

Back then the only thing around was Jacqueline's mother's restaurant, Enramada Jacqueline. Her mother can be seen in white in the photo on the left, flanked by Jacqueline in red and Lourdes in beige, the other women are surf tourists. Jacqueline's mother (in blue) serves local dishes to tourists on the right.

When did surf arrive to La Saladita? What do you remember?

The first surfer I remember was when I was 6 years old, in 1978. It was an American couple. She was named Ana and he was Jaime. They had a trailer and my dad gave them permission to camp in his coconut grove— it's the place where the bungalows are today. There they settled with their dog, Pano. My siblings and I remember that surfing couple very much because we didn't know that surfing existed and we were surprised to see them glide by in the clear waves.

Our parents didn’t like the idea of us going near them because they said they weren't normal people—they could walk on water! We watched with great curiosity from afar. The townspeople swore that they had a pact with the devil because they could walk on the waves. We weren’t allowed to go near them because people thought they were demons because of their ability to walk on water. What can I say, we were children, we didn't understand that surfing existed. We also didn’t realize that they were standing on top of a surfboard! Nobody had dared approach them; we had only observed them safely from the beach.

The second was a man who came from South Carolina, and it was he who began to teach my siblings to surf. When the time came for him to leave Saladita my siblings took to surfing on wooden boards or logs. The children from town would come to surf on broken pieces of wood. More Americans began to arrive and they would spend two to three months camped out in the palm grove and enjoying the surf of Saladita.

And it was like this that Americans started coming to ride the wave.

Jacqueline's younger brother Temo, after the American visitors went home with their surfboards. He was still stoked, so took to riding logs. Not a longboard, an actual tree trunk! He could also surf a regular wooden board too!

When was the first lodging option on the beach established?

I think the first lodging opened in 1998. It was my dad's bungalows. My dad partnered with a group of Americans, surfers. It was them who had the idea of building accommodations in La Saladita, and that group of Americans were the ones that promoted foreign tourism to La Saladita. It was then that Saladita became a village dedicated to surfing.

The small village of La Saladita was introduced to surfing in the mid '70s when surfers from the United States started to arrive. And with them Jacqueline's younger brothers caught the bug! Arnoldo and younger César here with borrowed boards from Ryan Koerner.

When did you inaugurate Villas Jacqueline?

My villas began operating in 2004; it was the third lodging option to open, and later my other siblings opened their own. It was in 2003 that the local farmers began selling their land. This is when foreigners began to buy and build their own vacation rentals and hotels.

Visitors to Saladita who camped on the point. Bottom photos taken by Gary Koerner, 1990. The Koerner's Astro van that they drove all the way from Texas. Ryan Koerner plays dominos with Jacqueline's younger brothers, Arnoldo and César.

What has been the most difficult aspect of operating a hospitality business?

The hardest part of operating my business has been my inability to communicate in English, since most of our clients speak English. For me, in my business, the lack of communication has been the biggest complication.

Jacqueline sitting around the bonfire with her youngest brothers, Arnoldo and César and visiting surfers Ryan Koerner (far right) and a friend. As Jacqueline remembers it, Ryan and his friends were the first foreign children to arrive to the beach. Ryan's family started visiting La Saladita regularly in 1988. Photo taken by Gary Koerner.

What is your fondest memory of Playa La Saladita?

My favorite memory is when my dad would return from fishing after dark. We had to light a fire on the seashore, and with all my siblings we would sit around the fire and await my father’s arrival.

Jacqueline's father would allow surfers to camp on his land amongst the coconut grove. They would build their own camps and some had trailers. Eventually he partnered with American surfers to build the first bungalows in 1998.

What worries you the most about the growing development in the village of La Saladita?

I worry that Saladita will lose its essence of being a safe, quiet, natural, rustic place. Investors will arrive who will want to build hotels; that’s what worries me the most.

Lourdes Valencia at the age of 20 seen with the first surfboard she ever used. She secretly used this board that was stored there by a recurring visitor, unbeknownst to him. And funnily enough, now she provides the surfboards to visitors at Lourdes' Surf Shop!

What advice do you have for travelers who come to enjoy the beauty of your hometown?

Well, the advice I would give to my guests is to relax. Enjoy the place and feel confident that you are safe, and that any problem that arises we will take good care of you— just let us know so that we can handle it. We look out for our guests and want to ensure that each one has a great time!

Gary Koerner, a regular visitor starting in 1988 surfing at The Ranch, 1992. Gary Koerner and Stacy Stair at The Ranch, May, 1996, photo taken by Monte Pettitt.
Villas Jacqueline is now known throughout the surf community to be the perfect spot to stay while visiting La Saladita. Here are the villas featured in Free Surf magazine.
Villas Jacqueline shown on the lower left—the circular buildings, as well as the long rectangular building—perfectly situated on the point.

It is our hope that you too will experience the magic and beauty of this special village, and of course, its incredible wave that rivals Malibu. But, are also cautious about this recommendation, as we too hope that the wild spirit of this beach endures for decades to come.

While this may be naive, and as a vacation rental website might seem to fly in the face of our very business model, it is towns like these specifically that birthed the idea of Wavecation. Our aim is to honor these beaches and help families like the Valencias be able to live better off of their already-thriving surf tourism businesses. Over 6 years ago, Wavecation began working with the Valencia family to help bridge the language and technology gap they faced by managing their online presence. Through this partnership, we have not only seen their rentals prosper, but more importantly our Wavecation family has grown in a meaningful way. We’ve built thoughtful relationships with a whole community of property owners who we communicate with daily, and on an entrepreneurial level have learned so much from these homeowners about what it takes to successfully manage oceanfront lodging, and why their guests return year after year.

Having spent most of our adult life living in Latin America, and traveling to other parts of the world for surf and adventure, we always end up with the same takeaway after a trip—it’s all about the people. It’s the people that open their doors to you, show you how to crack your first coconut with a machete, take you out to feed the local stray dogs, share insight about the local break and the best paddle out point, dig your 4 x 4 out of the bottomless mud pit it’s found itself in, or just share a cold beer with you. These are the moments that you will look back on and smile.

We’ve also made the same observation about most places we go that are off the beaten path. There’s a language and technology barrier that prevents some of the most incredible experiences from being discovered. This can be good for keeping something a secret, but not for those who are working hard to be supported by it. We hope to bridge this gap and allow a space for sustainable tourism—one where the people who have always lived off of the land, whether by sowing the fields in the past or by now receiving surfers to their guest houses, can continue to do so.

Jacqueline and her family are very cognizant of the darker side of surf tourism and how these growth spurts can negatively impact a place. They have multiple examples to look to all along the Pacific coast that tell the clear stories of how rapid growth coupled with corruption and greed can easily destroy a beautiful place. While progress and renovation may be inevitable, we’re betting that these can be smooth, fruitful transitions for locals and visitors alike.

So let us help you book your next trip to La Saladita, where you are guaranteed to catch some great waves, and more importantly connect with friendly people who have lots of stories to share and who are eager to include you in the next chapter!

Check out Villas Jacqueline for your next surf trip!

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About Ren Fuller-Wasserman

COO at Wavecation. Passionate about helping folks find their perfect surf destination so they can spend more time surfing, and less time planning!
  • Mexico City