In the old town of Puerto Vallarta beach is a scarce resource. The limited sand is shared by the hotels and the locals.
Every morning the worker bees emerge from the beachfront hotels in droves and assemble a small city of chairs, umbrellas, and tables, utilizing every square foot of space to accommodate as many of their guests as possible. Each hotel squeezes into their imaginary borders on the beach with their unique, signature style of umbrella and chair, sandwiched by the hotels that border them.
The problem is, the hotels don’t leave enough room, if any, for the locals, particularly the skimboarders who need enough room to get a running start at the waves.
It’s a struggle that in large part is a lopsided, losing battle. In fact, I would say that even calling the beach “shared” is a generous way to put it. The hotels put up their chairs as they please fairly early in the morning, obligating those who are in their path to move, with pretty much nowhere to go.
Puerto Vallarta, a city that doesn’t have many consistent, easily accessible waves to surf, has developed a strong skimboarding culture at Playa los Muertos. A stretch of steep, sandy beach, mostly devoid of rocks and shells, which also happens to be a gay mecca, stretches from the town’s new pier to the rocky outcrop to the south. Buildings, which reproduce at alarming rates year over year, tower over Playa los Muertos, working their way up into the hills overlooking the ocean. The beach is nestled in a corner of Banderas Bay that funnels wintertime swells traveling from the North Pacific, making it an ideal place for skimboarding.
To fully understand the issue, you need to understand skimboarding, which 99.99% of people do not. Let’s start from the basics. It requires a runway of steep beach where the waves crash on the shore. The skimmer sprints down the slope of the beach, stepping onto the board in stride and riding the wave back to the shore, or performing aerial maneuvers on the wave.
Here’s a video for those who are more visual thinkers.
The important part to understand is that you need room to run. Not even that much room, but more than is made available when the beach is lined with chairs at the edge of the tide line.
Long story short, the hotels cover the beach in chairs, making it so the skimboarders have to fight for room, either by running between chairs or people. One might ask, why don’t the skimboarders go somewhere else? This 200-yard stretch of beach is really the only place suitable for skimboarding in the city. There is nowhere else convenient to go.
So, who is right? The hotels or the skimboarders?
The hotel owners are feeding mouths, you could argue. They’re promoting tourism, the city’s main source of income, and creating work for Mexicans in a place where decent wages are not exactly the easiest thing to come by.
But what about the skimboarders and people that want to enjoy the beach? The locals live in a tropical paradise, with a pristine beach at their doorstep, but they can’t enjoy it because it’s being ‘rented’ to Americans and Canadians that have the purchasing power to stay in the hotels that ‘own’ the space. If you want to sit in one of these chairs on the beach, you have to pay 200 pesos (about USD $10) or buy the equivalent in food.
Having become friends with lots of the locals in Vallarta over the years, I can tell you that from their point of view the lack of beach issue is a pain in the ass.
The problem became as evident as ever when one of my good friends from Vallarta, Emilio, held the fourth-annual Puerto Vallarta Skimfest, a gathering of skimboarders from all corners of Mexico and even some riders from the US, such as myself.
“A few years ago the restaurants and hotels used to leave us room to skim on the beach,” explained Emilio. “But tourism is growing so fast in Vallarta. They’ve added a new ‘beach club’ and the existing hotels have expanded their footprints. There’s just not anywhere to skim anymore.”
In year’s past the contest had to be relocated mid-event due to the lack of space on the beach.
This year, Emilio had worked out a deal with one of the hotels to allot a small amount of space to run the contest. It wasn’t enough space to run an ideal event, especially when the high tide line pushed us closer to the chairs, but it was better than nothing.
So, how did I end up in Puerto Vallarta attending a skim contest in the first place?
I went to Puerto Vallarta for the first time in 2012. My mom had received an invitation from a friend to stay in the bougie gated community of Punta Mita on the north side of Banderas Bay. She had such a good time that she took the family the next year.
Puerto Vallarta certainly was not on the top of my list for places to visit in the world, or even in Mexico for that matter. Mexico is dotted with iconic surf spots, so Puerto Vallarta was not high on the ‘to visit’ list. I didn’t know much about PV (gringo slang), but all I could imagine were all-inclusive resorts overrun by boozed up foreigners — not exactly my cup of tea.
I must say, what I discovered in Puerto Vallarta was moderately unexpected.
The old town, located at the southern extreme edge of the city, has quaint cobblestone streets, traditional, tile-roofed houses, and authentic family run restaurants and bakeries. The aroma of pineapple juice sizzling over pork (al pastor) lures you to taco carts on the street corners. There’s a charm to the city, which has been voted among the ‘friendliest’ in the world. It’s not what I was initially expecting.
But don’t worry, if you are looking for the gringo margarita fests, you can find that too.
It only took a few days in Vallarta to meet all the local skimmers and become part of the crew. Skimboarders tend to be drawn to one another, contrary to surfing where people are mostly looking out for themselves.
Over the years I returned to Vallarta several times, staying at a friend’s house or the basic hotel by the beach. Most of those skimmers that I met my first time there that were just high schoolers have now graduated college, but when I visit Vallarta and go down to Playa los Muertos, I can still find a few of them skimboarding like the old days.
There’s no way around it. Puerto Vallarta is touristy and if you can’t get over that fact you may never enjoy yourself there. I must admit that I find myself getting frustrated with the amount of tourists at times, but I also struggle to rationalize how I am any different. It’s best to just accept it and enjoy.
This year my trip to Puerto Vallarta coincided with the Skimfest, which had never been the case before.
I haven’t been skimming much since moving to San Diego in 2010, but I figured I would enter the contest just for fun. When you don’t regularly skim and then start up again, it shocks your thighs, groin, and calves into a soreness that inhibits normal walking for about a week. It’s no fun.
Spoiler alert, I lost in the first round as expected.
The first day that I arrived in Vallarta, I headed down to the skim end of the beach to meet up with the guys. The beach was swarming with Americans and Canadians.
Playa los Muertos is a gay beach. We set up shop near some groups of men who were broadcasting details of their previous nights to everyone within earshot.
Already afternoon, the infamous chairs were in place and we were allotted about a 30-foot chunk of beach to practice for the contest.
The next day when the resort that we were skimming in front of started putting up a rope to fence off even more of the already limited area, I asked if they could leave a little room for us. The man I spoke with told me that I’d need to talk with the ‘patrones’. When asked for the whereabouts of his bosses, he didn’t seem to know or have the urge to lift a finger to help us find them.
I knew there wasn’t much of a battle to pick there. I was hoping they could be a little flexible with us, but nope. Nada.
One tourist who knew what he was doing was bold enough to set up his beach chair right in the middle of the hotel chairs, impeding their forward progress. Upon the expected complaints and intimidation from the hotel staff, the man called the police. The police sided with him. It’s a public beach after all. I am not sure how the unwritten rules are formed over who gets to own what part of the public beach, but there clearly is a mutual understanding between the various stakeholders.
The contest got underway on Saturday morning, at 8:30am Mexican time, so about 10am. (I say that with no animosity, it’s just simply how it is.)
As I mentioned, a deal had been struck with one of the hotels to at least let us run the contest in front of their fenced off chair area. They had a guard posted to ensure that nobody sit in the chairs that wasn’t a hotel guest. We slowly encroached on the space, stealing shade from the umbrellas, but not touching the chairs. He seemed ok with this nonverbal agreement.
The chunk of beach that the contest had was hardly enough to run an event, but it was what they had to make do with. The more glaring issue shifted towards the people strolling down the beach.
Hordes of people, understandably oblivious to skimboarding, were going on their daily stroll, walking through the contest. There were a few comical close calls where a competitor whizzed by a person walking in front of the event, startling the hell out of them.
By the second day there were people posted on both sides of the event, as well as a barrier of skimboards, directing people through a slight detour. Even with these measures, I would say there was about a 50% success rate.
It’s funny because some people’s initial reaction when you tell them they can’t walk on a small stretch of beach is to bitterly retort, “It’s a public beach!” I saw that happen a few times, coming from the same people who enjoy their non-public chair and umbrella on the public beach.
Anyway, the contest ran and I think the beach problem was really an afterthought. Everyone was stoked and I didn’t hear complaints from the competitors.
I wasn’t particularly enraged over it either, but the dynamic of the situation was so interesting to me. Who owns the beach? What is the social structure in place to allocate beach space?
“I think next year will be the last we hold this event in Puerto Vallarta,” said Emilio, the contest organizer. “The good wave season coincides with the high tourist season, and the influx of people doesn’t show any sign of slowing down.”
Honestly, the whole sharing the beach issue might be much more complex than I think and I’m just scratching the surface, or maybe it’s exactly what it looks like.
That said, the battle for real estate on the sand of Muertos Beach is not coming to an end anytime soon, as new developments spring up in the jungly hills of Banderas Bay and more and more tourists pour into the city every year.
I’m not sure when I’ll be back to Puerto Vallarta, but I wish the skimboarders the best of luck and hope that they can continue to access this beautiful beach for all it’s worth.