At age eight Mexico’s most well respected surfer, Carlos “Coco” Nogales, sold gum on the street in Mexico City. He was a runaway, sleeping in bushes and bus stops. If the police caught him they would throw him in a juvenile detention center, or worse, send him back to his mom’s house. So he hid under newspapers at night and slaved on the streets for pesos by day. Anything to survive.
He saved up, and after seven months he bought a bus ticket to Acapulco. There he met another street kid, a few years older than he, who spoke majestically of a place called Puerto Escondido, a small family town where young kids could ride surfboards on the big waves.
A week later, Coco was caught by the police and interrogated at gunpoint for leads to the Acapulco drug cartel. That night he decided it was time to move again. He took the sum of his belongings in his duffle bag and bought a bus ticket for destiny: Puerto Escondido.
At 26, Coco is 18 years from when he first set foot on the dusty streets of his new hometown, the “Hidden Port,” Puerto Escondido. He’s racked up more tube time, and ridden more deadly waves than virtually anyone, anywhere. Today Coco has achieved his dream of making money from surfing, and he’s busily helping to foster the next generation of Puerto Escondido super stars.
But that’s not all. On the back of international tourism and commerce from surfers who come to ride the “Mexican Pipeline,” sleepy Puerto Escondido has become a buzzing city with resorts, restaurants and an airport, and that expansion has come with dire consequences.
The golden grains of sand that grace Puerto’s illustrious beach and form its famous sandbars are disappearing. Construction has shored up the beachfront sand flow and stemmed the tide of erosion up river.
Fearing Puerto Escondido will become extinct like legendary Mexican surf break Petacalco, Coco and others are gathering steam and taking their concerns to the Mexican government. We spoke with the native Spanish speaker (in English) about how he’s seeking to combat the degradation of his home, about the surf culture in Puerto Escondido, and his incredible ride thus far.–Ross Garrett
When did you begin to notice the sandbars at Puerto Escondido weren’t coming back as quickly as they used to?
For the last five years there’s been construction on the beach; palapas and all these concrete things. They make the sand tight, so now you need a huge swell to clean the beach. And even then, the sandbar will be good for a short while and then it gets shit again. Before, on the beach it was bushes. Natural plants. And when it rained, water would bring rocks and sand from the mountains. Also, there’s a rock jetty in the bay and the current that used to push all the sand around the bay and out to sea puts the sand on the jetty. It makes a rip, and it’s affecting the surf a lot.
So you got a group together to help stop this?
Yeah. The association of lifeguards, the association of surfing and the association of hotels, they’re trying to stop the construction. At least they’re thinking about it. They see it’s bad, but there’s a lot of signature signing and all these papers that have to go to the government. And just two days ago, I heard that between the beach and the hotels, they want to put in a boardwalk for people to ride the bikes, to skate, to put the basketball. That would be f–ked.
How else has Puerto changed since you first moved there?
Puerto used to be a very small town and it was all family. I was used to being in big cities like Mexico City and Acapulco, with a lot of violence and where you have to watch your back from all these bad crazy people. But Puerto was so nice. When I first came to Puerto, one of the most local guys, Fidencio Silva, let me stay at his mom’s restaurant and sleep in the hammock and work in the kitchen and she fed me. After that, I met Miguel Ramirez, the ding repair guy and his brother Juan. They were the tough locals back then. Juan and Miguel used to go to the restaurant to get drunk and all f—ed up, and that’s where I met them. Juan sent me to his mom’s house with his seven brothers, all surfers. I lived there for three years and I also got to help Miguel doing the dings; sanding, this, that. That got me into surfing. I was so lucky. When I came to Puerto, I met the right guys and they accepted me. I didn’t realize how heavy that was until now. Like a one in a million. They put me through school when I was living with them. Now, we’re like family. They’re like brothers.
Did you learn English in that school?
I first learned English in the beach. Back in the day it used to be all these surfers from California and they used to call me Chico Business because I was always doing some kind of business. Then I moved to California and I went to high school in Santa Monica for two years when I was 14.
What made you want to go to the United States?
These guys I met in Puerto from Venice Beach, all surfers, Rick Massie and Chris Garcia. I lived with them.
So did you finish High School in America?
No. I left in the 11th grade. I was missing Puerto so much. Venice was so different. I was used to having more freedom. I knew it was good for me, and my friends were pushing me, “Go to school. If the police see you, they’re going to lock you up, so you have to go to school.” I did two years but then I just give up. I was missing Puerto.
Did you have a visa, or were you illegal in Santa Monica?
I was illegal. I crossed the border and those crazy things. Running the border, putting your life through that.
How would you get across the border when you’d go?
Up in the mountains, the Mesa de Otay in Tijuana. You stay there until midnight and watch. If the immigration is slow, you just start running and hiding. The last time I did it, it was December and it was raining. It was so cold, and you’re always watching your back. I’ve been in Tijuana many times without money, not even 20 cents, trying to make it to the other side and just getting stuck there with no food no nothing. I remember once, I was 15 or 16, and I got lost there with no money. I was crying, I was so worried. You don’t want to go back to Puerto like that. You want to make it, you know?
What was the most terrifying trip you’ve had across the border?
The last time. It was 12 at night with this guy I met in Tijuana. It was raining, wet with mud, and we were running all night through the mountains. Finally we got to San Ysidro and there was a sewage tunnel he knew of. It was really dark and tiny but I didn’t have a choice. I wasn’t saying no. So I go inside there and couldn’t see anything. We were going in there for like 40 minutes and I like, how you call it? Asphobia?
Yeah. Like fuck man. And then walking and stepping through things that you don’t see but you go on and it’s so gross. Finally, I see a little hole of light way down there, and I made it. Even though we made it, I wasn’t doing that again. So many people die doing that.
You didn’t just want to stay in America after that?
No. To be honest, I didn’t go to America for the work. It was more for the surfing. I didn’t go there to stay and make a life, otherwise I would have done it already. The purpose was to make my dream come true because if I just stayed here in Puerto and surf, people forget about me. After that winter, I decided to go back to Puerto to do my Army service so I could get my passport and my visa.
You can’t get a Mexican passport without serving in the Army?