When on a proper surf trip there should be little else on the surfer’s mind besides surfing itself and the plotting of future surf sessions. As such I spent my evenings in Portugal making simple dinners at the hostel and trying to figure out where I would surf the next day. After I’d been in Ericeira for 4 days the forecast showed that the high pressure that was bringing offshore winds would breakdown and thus the conditions would begin to be suspect for Portugal’s west facing coastline. However, the Atlantic would continue cranking out plenty of swell… so where would I surf?
When one thinks surfing in Europe and especially when one is a goofy-foot who prefers lefthand pointbreaks, there is one place that comes foremost to mind: Mundaka. Without a doubt this is Europe’s best rivermouth pointbreak and when Mundaka is on it produces freight train lefts that can barrel for hundreds of yards over the sand-bottom estuary of the Oka River. Like many good waves, though, Mundaka is known to be fickle. It prefers south winds, low tides, needs big but not XXL swell, and most importantly the sand must be good. Usually these factors align in the fall when the first big Atlantic swells march in from the northwest and the sandbar is built up after the spring and summer months have deposited much sand in the estuary without big waves to wash that sand away.
After some consideration of the data I was seeing on WindGuru and Surfline, I made the call that enough of those factors were in place to make the 9 hour drive from Ericeira to Mundaka worth it. Portugal would continue to have plenty of swell but onshore winds, while that same swell would hit Mundaka along with southerly, offshore winds. The “X Factor” would be the sand – whether or not it would be “all time” Mundaka is hard to predict without knowing the present condition of the sand bar, but I was curious and eager to check out a wave I’d dreamed of surfing for many years.
The following day I got up early and cranked out the 9-hour drive. Having rented the Skoda Octavia diesel Eco-wagon was awesome because I was getting like 50 mpg and cruising at 85 mph in cruise control nearly the entire drive. The border crossing was a non-event and it was neat to see the Mediterranean landscape of Portugal transform into the interior Spanish desert and then transform once again into the temperate forests of Pais Vasco in northeastern Spain. I got into the town of Mundaka around 7pm and checked into Hotel Atalaya, which couldn’t have been closer to the surf break. I had my first Spanish meal at the local pub and was surprised to see that the local language in the region was not Spanish, but Euskara, which is the traditional language of the Basque people. It is not remotely similar to Spanish, but fortunately everyone speaks Spanish as well, so I was able to communicate easily enough.
The next morning I got up at dawn and walked across the street to check out the wave at Mundaka. It was clearly working, plenty of size and offshore, and nobody out. Again, this seemed strange to me: from everything I heard about Mundaka, when it is working it is known to be one of the most crowded lineups in Europe, with surfers flooding in from France, Portugal and other parts of Spain. But I saw nobody out and I wasn’t complaining about that! Still I was a little uneasy that there was nobody out there to at least demonstrate the proper way to enter the water, where to sit, and how to deal with the gnarly currents. I hung around the point for about 45 minutes and eventually met two friendly surfers. The first was an older, heavyset gentleman originally from England but a local to Mundaka for the last 30 years who was the owner of the Mundaka Surf Shop just down the street. The second guy was his buddy, originally from Western Australia, who was perhaps a decade and a half younger and lived in the nearby town of Bermeo. These guys explained to me that the sandbar had been funky lately, but that lately the waves had been better on the high tide. Also they said that it looked good and they were about to go surf, so I ran and suited up and followed them out to the lineup.
That first session at Mundaka and all the ones to follow over the next 4 days were awesome. The wave size ranged from about 8 foot to DOH+, with the biggest sets coming in wide and kind of mushing out. Then best waves were the midsized ones that would barrel from the beginning and peel hundreds of yards down the line, offering speed lines and additional barrel sections. I was 100% stoked on my 7’4” Ed Barbera; many of the locals including the two I met were on bigger boards and the guys riding smaller boards looked undergunned. The offshore winds would smooth out the faces and open up barrels although some days were so offshore as to make it difficult to get into the waves with the wind pushing me back and the spray blinding me. I spent much time in the green room and even found my way out of a few. By far the best part was that there were no crowds. I even surfed alone at various points and the most number of guys out at any one time was only like 10 dudes the entire time I was in Mundaka. And with the swell being so consistent and the rides so long, there was no competition for waves; instead we were all hooting each other into them! The best explanations I could come up with for the lack of crowds was that European surfers think of Mundaka as a fall season wave (I was there in mid-January), or there was a better wave somewhere else, or people were too surfed out from the previous run of surf, or that the surfers didn’t bother to drive to Mundaka because of the deep morning high tides. (But like the local said, the sandbar when I was there was such that the wave was actually better on the high tide.) Whatever the case, I was stoked and in the perfect spot to surf uncrowded Mundaka every morning for the 4 days I stayed at Hotel Atalaya.
Basque Country Spain is perhaps one of the most wave rich sections of coast in the world and Mundaka was not the only wave I surfed. In the mornings I would surf Mundaka but in the afternoon, when the tide was lower, I would head to a spot called Ogella that was about a 45-minute drive to the east from Mundaka. The setup for this spot was one of the most beautiful surf locations I’ve ever been to: pine forests steeply descent to meet the coast in a crescent bay and right smack in the middle is a rock reef that produces an A-frame wave comparable to Trestles. There are waves way up to the bay to the left and right that I heard are also surfed, but for the days I was there it was all about the A-frame in the middle. The wave needs slightly smaller swell than I would prefer for Mundaka; on the bigger days the currents would make staying in position a pain and cause the wave to close out a little, but with 1-2 meters of swell it was perfect.
I mentioned in my previous post that I had run into Aritz Aranburu a few different times while I was Portugal, including at Cave, Coxos and Supertubos, and I knew I was in the right spot in Iberia once again when him and his same crew showed up at Ogella one afternoon while I was surfing. I left the water a little after the first of them paddled out; I’d already been in the water for a couple of hours and competing for waves with locals let alone pro locals is not my cup of tea. Instead I hung out on the cliffs above and took photos of them ripping.
One afternoon I called it an early session at Ogella as it was one of the bigger days where the current left me way too tired within short order. I drove east along the coast to check the beautiful scenery and scope a few other surf spots. Along the way I would weave up high cliffs and then down into rustic, centuries-old towns that were distinctively Basque. I made it as far to the east as Roka Puta, a big wave spot that can produce very gnarly waves as evidenced by this video, and I watched a gorgeous sunset. The wave wasn’t really working while I was there, but I could see the potential. During my time spent in Pais Vasco the beauty of the land and the good vibe of the people continually impressed me; this is someplace I would definitely like to return someday.
Besides the limited span of coast and waves that I checked out while I was in Pais Vasco, Spain as a whole has a gorgeous northern coastline that is littered with good waves. More big waves exist a short drive to the west of Mundaka, including the BWWT spot Punta Galea, and then as you go farther and farther west into Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia there are more and more spots, many of them big waves, some of them rivermouths comparable to Mundaka, that are more and more secluded. There is tons of exploring to do. One video that recently captured my imagination is about a section of the Galician Coast known as “The Coast of Death”. Check out this video trailer. These aren’t waves for the faint of heart!
While I was in Spain I made friends with an English guy named Will and we experienced waves and classic Basque bar culture together. Will is in his mid-to-late 30s and works as an English teacher in Peru. He was on summer vacation and visiting his family back home in England when, being a surfer, he decided to do a surf trip to Spain and then Portugal before heading back to Peru. It was nice cruising around with Will because he spoke fluent Spanish and would get good intel from the locals. We cruised to Ogella a few times and surfed together at Mundaka and even teamed up to bunk together in the hotel in order to save 30 Euros each for two nights. One evening we headed into Bermeo together to bar hop and ate tapas along the way as our meal. It was cool to have a proper tapas experience, eating one or two and having a beer at each bar and then moving on to the next spot. On another night we did the same in Mundaka and wound up watching a soccer match between Bilboa and Galicia that had the locals super bummed out after an own goal by Bilboa resulted in a loss for the home team. I covertly snapped a photo of the scene upon them losing the game; in classic Spanish style, people were super bummed to loose.
Before I knew it was time to leave Mundaka and drive back to Lisbon where I would return my car and catch a flight back to Paris. I spent about 11 days in Spain and Portugal and had a great time. Surfing is awesome.