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Bohemia, Bullets & Breakers: In Search of La Libertad

Surfer Michael Fordham reminisces on his wild and raunchy tour through Mexico and Central America in search of the perfect wave.

It’s 1988, and I’m deep in a late-adolescent Kerouac period—drifting and glad, an 18-year-old Londoner trying to be a surfer. At Noosa Heads in Queensland, Australia, I hear about a right-hand point break on the El Salvador coast called La Libertad. The name means freedom. A plan is hatched. The fact that a civil war is raging there doesn’t phase me.

Los Angeles to Tijuana

Fast-forward a year to January 1989. I sofa surf from San Francisco down to LA and end up with friends in the Hollywood Hills. We go out to some crazy LA disco. Darryl Hall and John Oates are there. It’s an ocean of crimped mullets and mustaches.

I wake mid-afternoon and steal out without saying goodbye. The world is still soft-edged as I take the train to San Diego and cross over into Tijuana with my old single fin under my arm. Just as well. The juxtaposition is harsh. I laugh at the cliché of it all and crash in a $5 hotel room, dreaming of flashing neon.

Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas

The bus for Cabo San Lucas leaves at 6 p.m. We rattle and hum down the spine of Baja California. Road runner and Wile E. Coyote are out there somewhere in my imagination. It’s rough living, and there’s no AC, but there’s a cute Mexicana sitting next to me. Day one of my Latin road trip is a success.

Cabo to Puerto Escondido

I make my way down to the dock in the morning and book a ferry to the mainland. I hook up with an old hippy from Oregon who wears a magnificent beard. He’s also, contrarily, a Buddhist. We talk all day and all night, and I wish he were my dad. We are dharma bums, and he initiates me in the way of peace. We watch a pod of dolphins follow the boat in the Pacific dawn. At Mazatlan, I hang with a one-armed Alaskan fisherman snowbirding in the southlands for the winter. He lost his wing hopping freights in the 60s—an original beatnik. He tells me he’ll give me a job in the summertime. I’ll earn bucks, grow a real beard and become a real man. But there’s no surf in Alaska (or so I thought at the time). Weeks after we meet, the Exxon Valdez goes down in Prince William Sound and ruins my prospects and his entire livelihood.

I meet Phil on the bus to Puerto. He’s a kneeboarder from the Gower in Wales who, I swear, looks like Steve McQueen. I’m almost 19 and relatively pretty. He’s 30, has a little beer belly but is too handsome for words. Women throw themselves at him. Also on the bus is a very attractive Swedish girl with platinum blond hair who happens to be built like a brick house. She turns out to be an Olympic weightlifter. There’s a little Swiss guy, too. We hit Puerto late, and the only room we can find is a huge suite with a walk-in shower and three double beds. Phil, the Swede, the Swiss dude and myself check in together. When we wake in the morning, the Swiss guy is gone—vanished forever.

That morning, Phil and I paddle out into the water, and I am humbled by the power of Puerto Escondido’s waves. This is Mexican pipeline, and I am dangerously out of my depth. I suffer my first near-death experience when I get held down under at least two set waves. I see myself from above. White light. The whole nine yards. Phil handles it better. We bond in those moments of high Wagnerian drama. I turn 19, and we vow to surf La Libertad together.

Puerto Escondido to Mexico City

We’re surfed out. Now we turn our attention to the biggest city on the planet. We leave our boards in Puerto, planning to pick them up on the way back north in a couple of months’ time. We’re sure we’ll be able to acquire a wave-riding vehicle in La Libertad. We crawl through the sprawling chaos palled in smog and violence that is Mexico City. It’s a week of urbane madness. There are parties with artists and revolutionaries and hardcore musicians at the university. A lecturer at the university who looks like Frida Kahlo’s glamorous granddaughter falls in love with Phil. I hang out with one of her acolytes. We go on a march with them protesting covert U.S. military involvement in Central America. We are hit by a water cannon. It hurts, but it’s kinda fun.

Mexico City to Mérida

We book the train to Mérida in the Yucatán. Street kids fight with us when they demand money for seats. The carriage is attacked with a hail of rocks. The trip is supposed to take two days. It takes four. The train inexplicably stops for 24 hours in a nameless town right in the middle of fiesta. Entire families, with their ramshackle livestock, board the train. We arrive in Mérida as honorary Mexicanos.

Mérida to Isla Mujeres

The island is wrecked after Hurricane Gilbert. In the rubble, the American tourists have stayed away, and a sweet, little scene full of tripped-out beach bums has risen. We dance to mad sunsets, Phil falls for a French Canadian girl and we end up overstaying our welcome. We hop back on the ferry, hunted by los hombres malos, and decide to walk into Belize. Again, we are itching for proper surf.

Isla Mujeres to Xcalak to San Pedro

On the mainland, we hitch a ride with a couple of Texans in a huge Impala convertible to the southernmost tip of the Yucatán. We’ve heard it’s possible to walk and paddle onto the island of San Pedro, Belize, from there. On an overnight stop, we drink coconuts spiked with mescaline and do the dance of the Incas with a bunch of Haitian guys who claim to be Seventh-day Adventists. After another day’s hitchhiking, we make it to Xcalak, a corrugated shantytown where all the men of the village congregate at the local bar.

The next day, we hike south for a couple of hours until the beach turns into reed-tracked swamp, and the heat and insects become oppressive. We find a man with a canoe, and he takes us across the swampy straights onto San Pedro Island for $10. We push on now, and the going gets increasingly tough. We bed down on the beach for an exhausting night of snake paranoia. We wake with the dawn and eat coconut milk and bananas, then trudge south along the beach where we meet an American Vietnam vet living alone in a shack on stilts out in the water. The shack is full of philosophical tomes and guns, which he uses to hunt wild boar in the San Pedro bush. He makes us tea, gives us cookies and tells us to watch out for the pigs, as they are fearful of men and regularly attack fishermen on the beach. That night, we shack up with a beautiful Belizean family we meet on the beach at sunset. They feed us, refuse to take our money and send us on our way in the morning, glad to be alive.

We spend another week on the island partying with British soldiers, Irish Guards on leave from the British Garrison on the mainland. Two English girls, diplomats on a weekend retreat, invite us to stay at their place in the official capital of Belmopan. A week later, after a frightening night in the crazy shantytown that is Belize City, we are partying by the high commissioner’s pool (he is away seeing the boss back in London). We enjoy full butler service and the expansive affections of the queen’s Foreign Office.

Belmopan to Tikal

Tikal is a hallucinatory ride into the distant past, deep in the jungle. We get there in an old, mint-green and white Cadillac taxi and sleep in hammocks, with monkeys and jaguars and madness everywhere. At the top of the main pyramid, I realize that this is where Luke, Han and Chewy received their medals in the final scene of Star Wars.

Tikal to Antigua to Panajachel to Guatemala City

This is where we set off to climb Mount Fuego, the highest active volcano in Guatemala. With only a 2-liter bottle of water, we nearly die of dehydration but wake near the summit to the most spectacular sunrise of mists and reds and purples. We then move on to Panajachel and rest our limbs and blisters, re-hydrating before moving on to Guatemala City.

Guatemala to San Salvador to La Libertad

The border takes hours, and mustached military men in mirrored aviators and exotic camo dripping with bullets grill us. We wish we had kept our surfboards with us for some visual validation that we are here to surf Libertad. We finally make it to the bus on the other side of the border, where the driver and his sidekick tote M16s and very tense expressions. There is a curfew in San Salvador, and the bus was late, so we pull in and stay overnight in a tiny village just over the border, where they haven’t seen a gringo in years. We drink and eat heartily, and a family leads us to the back of the bar and into a little bedroom. As we fall asleep, the sound of mortar fire and machine guns is a deadly lullaby in the distance. In the morning, we finally hit San Salvador. The city is a riot of energy, with all males of marriageable age in uniform or in the hills fighting with the rebels. There are demonstrations, checkpoints and a keyed-up atmosphere, but the energy is abuzz and the girls are beautiful. After a night in a cheap hotel, we drink with a German journalist, who conspires that the civil war is not really a lull but a successful propaganda campaign funded by the CIA. The sound of gunfire is reverberating around the city. We set off in a bus toward the coast of Libertad wtih two outriders packing M16s. Machine gun emplacements and low-flying helicopters pepper the scene until we land at the point break we had dreamt about. There are two other local surfers, ubiquitous madness and a couple of dried-up, old Californians droning on about the good old days through a bottle of Jack Daniels. We have made it to Libertad, and on some old longboards borrowed from the Americans, we surf shoulder-high rights for a week.

Photo by Santiago Llobett