On the surfing trail in Mexico

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One of the cabanas that line the beach in La Ticla

One of the cabanas that line the beach in La Ticla

“The shop on the road down was closed when we passed it,” said Joel, a Canadian surfer, “there were a couple of crosses out the front so I hope they couple who owned it weren’t killed.”

This is how visitors, and sometimes locals, talk in La Ticla. People don’t die or pass away. They are killed.

La Ticla is a rural, beachside town in the Mexican state of Michoacan. It is a 2 hour bus trip from Mexico’s biggest Port City, Manzallio (3-4 hours if you allow for Mexican time). It’s known in surfing circles for having some of the best waves on Mexico’s west coast. My brother, Thomas, is a keen surfer which is how we knew about it. A quick google search of the town will prove that the only way to hear about it is through word-of-mouth or on surfing forums. From the months of March through May surfers from all over the world converge upon its shores – well, they used to.

The number of surfers that visit La Ticla has dropped since word got out about intense violence in the area. The violence was a result of the Indigenous community’s fight for their right to own the land. A few years ago the Mexican Government tried to take the land from the local Indigenous people of Otsula – the wider community that La Ticla is part of. Locals felt their land was being taken away unjustly – so they went to war.

As the violence escalated the local Indigenous people blocked the road to La Ticla to stop the Government coming in.

“We were protecting our land and families, everyone was armed and ready to fight for our rights,” Crisheila, a 20-year-old student told me.

Fights over land rights in Mexico aren’t new and, as with a lot of countries over the world, there is still ongoing anger, violence, and mistreatment of Indigenous people in many states. Not all Indigenous people take matters into their own hands like they did in La Ticla, though. The Mexican state of Oaxaca is in the middle of a media war over its mis-treatment of Indigenous people. Thousands are being forced from their land through extreme poverty and migrating to Oaxaca city where visible but peaceful protests are ongoing.

In La Ticla the story has a somewhat happier ending, though, with the local Indigenous people eventually winning the right to keep the reserve. The fact that it is a reserve means no non-Indigenous people are allowed to set-up any sort of business there. Visitors to the area are still few and far between, though.

“The violence was very localised but it scared a lot of people away and they are still staying away,” Crisheila said with a touch of sadness in her voice.

The poverty in La Ticla is obvious as you drive through the town to get to the bungalows and many people rely on tourism for any income at all. Visiting surfers stay at a series of bungalows on the beach which are owned by 10 local families. Locals fondly refer to the area as ‘Hollywood’ or ‘mini Hawaii’, whether this is because it’s the nice part of town or the seedy part wasn’t made clear.

Indigenous families who don’t own the bungalows are given a parcel of land on which they cultivate their own crops. They create means of income by selling fruit, vegetables, and bread to visitors. Others have created small business and set up restaurants at the front of their house or make money by driving visitors to the nearest town for groceries, cash machines, or whatever else they might need. Despite its fame in international surfing circles, Mexicans were the ones who brought most of the money into La Ticla and Mexicans are the ones who are still concerned about visiting the area because of violence. Now La Ticla is keen to let everyone know they are open for business again.

Visitors are obviously still a little wary as well, while I was there a fire cracker went off. A number of visitors down at the bungalows jumped and looked for signs of a gunman. In general, though, the place feels safe and somewhat untouched.

“I’ve heard of robberies and violence in the area but I’ve never seen it happen in front of me,” Mathew, a Canadian surfer, told me, “I keep coming back so it doesn’t concern me and I’ve never felt unsafe here.

This is the general sentiment of most international visitors to La Ticla and locals are hoping this will spread to the wider Mexican community. A lot of effort has been put into into ensuring the town remains safe. In years gone by stories of Banditos coming down from the mountains and pillaging the towns have been plentiful. Now night watchmen patrol the bungalows with walkie talkies (there’s no phone reception in La Ticla) to make sure there’s no one hanging around who shouldn’t be and stop any violence they might see. This is all part of the towns ongoing efforts to improve its image and bring the visitors back. Whether it will work is yet to be determined, the town is holding a surf competition at the end of March for Mexican nationals only. They are hoping word will spread of the newer, safer La Ticla. Only time will tell if it works.

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