By Katie Westfall
The stars don’t shine anywhere else in the world like they do in remote Baja. Under those stars, we sipped the fine Mexican brew Tecate and micheladas – beer spiced up lemon and chili – as we danced on the dirt floor of the fairgrounds alongside the locals of the surrounding fishing towns. Everyone danced side-by-side to the cumbias and mambos of Pautazul, a mariachi band from mainland Mexico, who played in front of a background painted to be an underwater scene. Even “La Reina,” the local beauty queen, wore her crown as she politely danced next to the town drunk.
We couldn’t celebrate the sea without the help of a mariachi band.
This was part of the first ever “Féria del Mar” (or festival of the ocean) in Bahía Tortugas – Spanish for “Bay of Turtles” – this last June, a festival put on by a collaboration of fishing cooperatives of the coastal communities of Bahía Tortugas, Punta Abreojos, Asunción, and Punta Eugenia. These cooperatives are typical of Baja and are self-regulated entities that not only work to manage fishing efforts and to produce profit, but also to sustain the populations of lobster, fish, shark, and other sea life they depend on.
Our mission was to put on the first ever surf contest in Bahía Tortugas for the locals as part of the festivities. Mexican waterman Javier Villavicencio and his son Luis had contacted WiLDCOAST, the San Diego-based nonprofit dedicated to coastal preservation and water quality, to help organize and judge the contest. WiLDCOAST director Serge Dedina had been working with the region for years building local communities promoting sustainability and environmental consciousness.
Abalone is a big product for the region. These coconut shell sized abalone were served to us raw with lime and mayonnaise on a cracker.
The crew consisted of Benjamin McCue, who worked for WiLDCOAST and was the most fluently Spanish Speaking gringo I have ever met, Dovi Kacev, a vegetarian shark biologist that bears a striking resemblance to none other than Jesus Christ, and myself, an environmentalist and a writer with a strong affinity for Latin culture.
After a fourteenhour dash from the border, we had arrived in the small fishing town Bahía Tortugas. At first inspection, the town of Bahía Tortugas itself is not much. House are modest constructions of simple materials, all built on the Baja desert. Roads are unpaved and uneven, following the natural topography of the land. And while everything is built around a barebones concept, the locals definitely did not forget to paint the houses, making sure to keep the town lively with random blue, yellow, and pink buildings.
Looking inland, sand dunes stretch just as boundlessly as the sea extends outward.
The morning of the contest, we started out on a wide, pot-hole ridden road that also doubled as the town’s airplane runway, to the contest site, which was a reef break called El Playón. When we arrived, the spot was picking up the brewing south swell, and we found head high to overhead waves along with the locals anxiously awaiting us and eager to get in the water. Though the wind had already begun to pick up, both rights and lefts split off the rocks that formed the reef.
On the final day of the festival, girls of the regions competed for the title of “La Reina del Mar,” wearing dresses inspired by the sea. This contestant’s outfit was adorned with shells and flowers made from lobster tails.
It was not a contest for pros competing for a cash purse at a world class wave. But it was a stage for the surfers of the local coastal pueblos to compete for the respect of their buddies and to show off their skills in front of their family and friends who sat watching on the bluff in white plastic Tecate chairs.
When we weren’t judging the surf contest, we roamed the sand dunes along the coast with “la banda” – a group of local Mexican groms – seeking a place sheltered by the wind but still picking up the surging swell. These groms of Bahía Tortugas, including Hector, Andres, “Coña,” Ricardo, and Rafael, were a group of dedicated surfers who would pile into our truck at the prospect of scoring waves and provided evidence of the rise in popularity of surfing among Mexicans over the past decades.
After the sun set, we attended the real “feria” which was held at the towns fairgrounds just down from the pier. To one side were neon lit carnival rides, and further down, the fishing cooperatives set up booths with pictures of their prized fish and tables with some or their product to try. At the center of the fairgrounds, I wasn’t surprised to find a Tecate tent. There we spent our Baja nights taking story of great catches and amazing waves. I couldn’t think of a better way to give my thanks to the ocean.