Vince Gibbs is our 20-something party-travel writer, who has just returned from the surf trip of a lifetime.
This surf trip was epic. Absolutely epic. And I’ve decided to begin with one of the first of many great adventures on what made it so.
When entertaining the idea of a surf trip I, like most Australians, immediately think of Indo, Maldives and Fiji. Then perhaps Hawaii, Cali or even through Mexico and Central America. It wasn’t until I was getting sick of the European party scene, and travelling up the coast of Portugal, that I thought about giving the beers a rest and waxing up a stick for the first time since leaving Australia.
The cost, the solitude and the sometimes rough Atlantic ocean were a lot to consider and I’d become lazy and comfortable travelling from hostel to hostel, city to city. Whilst in Spain and Portugal I re-kindled my love of skateboarding as it is a great way to see the sights quickly and cheaply, whilst meeting like minded locals. But it was only once I met an Aussie by the name of Reed from Margaret River that I decided to forget my plans of travelling up through France to Paris. Stoked to meet such a legend, and persuaded by his plan to surf across the top of Spain and down through Portugal, I quickly became excited for what would become the highlight of my overseas travel.
We used San Sebastian as a base to get set up for our trip, which included me buying a board and wetsuit and trying to purchase a car (I spent 6 hours in a police station and ended up getting an N.I.E number which is Spain’s system for taxation, which also means I could purchase property in Spain). I think there was a few translation issues so in the end Reed and I decided to rent a car. We were in our rental car for about 6 minutes before being chased by police into an underground car park; there’s quite a few one way streets that we were unaware of so be mindful of that if you do try drive in Spain.
A couple of minor set-backs but we were off! I was really keen to get up to France for a surf, and the swell charts agreed so we drove up past the border at about 5pm. Due to the time it was getting quite dark so Reed suggested a break he had heard of quite close to the border in the town of Saint Jean de Luz called Lafitenia. The sun was well and truly setting as we arrived at a break our eyes didn’t first believe. Think long right hand point break, a good 200m, clean and punchy. We surfed well into the darkness and finally called it quits at about 9pm. We were so amped from it that we thought we’d try it again in the morning, even though there had been a huge crowd. It was only upon searching for dinner and then accommodation that we realised it was a public holiday in France and everything was closed!
We managed to find a pizza place open at about 11pm, got a well needed meal and tried to wifi some motels. The only motel we found had an automated check in machine at the door, but it didn’t accept any of the three bank cards we had. Considering it was a mild night, and remembering the remoteness of the beach front, we did the only logical thing, which was to try to sleep on the beach. We shifted uncomfortably on the sand until 1am before Reed struck a thought.
“Bro, we are only about half an hour drive from San Sebastian, and everything in Spain is open until about 3… Lets just drive back!”
Duh. That we did. Got a good night sleep back at our old hostel, and that 6 hour surf remains the only 6 hours I have ever spent in France.
This story is just one of many great adventures I had with my new good friend Reed, and I hope it sets a good scene for your very own surf trip, where accommodation is almost always improvised and exploring all aspects of travel in order to make your experience unique is imperative. With this being said, I have written down a few things to give you somewhat of an idea as to what you’ll need and places you must visit. Take from this what you like: it is just scratching the surface of helping you organise a great surf adventure of your own. I have modelled a rough itinerary based on my own experience but please don’t hesitate to explore elsewhere or ask any advice. I have left out all my interactions in the cities, where countless more funny stories were made, as there is plenty of documentation on the web of what to do when in San Sebastian, Porto, Lisbon and Lagos. I’ll quickly note though that I do recommend you stop in each of these cities on the way, particularly spending a lot of time in Porto, and not so much in Lagos if you are trying to avoid the party scene.
There is no doubt in my mind that each person would find a different, fun, secret surf spot on a trip like this and I urge you to keep a record for yourself like I did so you can find it on a map and relive it one day.
Good for 2 People
Assuming you are going to try do this trip quite budget, and have a small Peugeot 208 packed to the rafters like Reed and I. Otherwise, if you are happy with other transport arrangements, no more than 4 people as lets be honest, we’re all a bit greedy with waves. Ha.
Dates: Any time from mid April through to Mid June
A few reasons for these dates; April is when the winter swells begin to die off. “What!? We want peak swells!” you say. Well if you are happy to take bigger crowds, colder weather and water, less camping availability and quite often waves that are too big for mere mortals, then be my guest. Rangers are strict on beach camping but as April trails into May enforcement numbers are scarce. Water was a low as 15 degrees C when I was there and that was moderate for how cold it can get. I’d rather not surf in booties unless there’s reef under me so after mid April is best. Just to put any chargers minds at rest, when I say winter swells are dying off, I still saw plenty of 8-10 foot beach breaks. (Australian measurements from back of wave, so easily double over head faces).
Length of trip: 6 Weeks
Easily could have done 10 weeks, but I’d also understand if those a bit more in need of civilisation would want to cut their trip to 4 weeks. Reed and I collected some very interesting statistics over the course of our trip, one of which was that we showered only 7 times in 6 weeks. In our defence we were surfing twice a day.
$3000 is generous. A couple of items you’ll need are listed below although most will have a decent resell value so think of it as a deposit! The car hire for myself and Reed was under $1000 each. That included the damage of us trying to drive up a trail I’m not so confident a 4WD could have handled, let alone our Peugeot 208! (We also reversed the poor girl into a pole.) It is much cheaper if you can hire the car through someone who is 25 or older.
Besides that, the cost of living is super cheap. Save a bit for fuel and then a staple diet of canned beans and some trail mix will give you plenty of cash to have a couple of stays in hostels for showers, as well as the chance to spend some money on girls drinks in the few cities on your itinerary. Depending on how many girls you buy drinks for, you’ll probably have plenty left over from that $3000.
What you’ll need
(Prices are per person assuming there is two of you and are all in euros.)
- Gas cooker plus 3 spare butane bottles. €15
- Tent, solid 2 man; it can get windy €20
- Sleeping bag, nothing fancy, you’d rather save money by sleeping in thermals if you have to €20
- Blow up mattress. Make sure two singles fit in the tent you buy. €15
- 12V car plug in mattress pump. Totally worth it. €10
- Stock up on water, try to always have about 10L.
- Canned beans such as prepared lentils, chick peas and kidney beans are as cheap as 50c a can. You’ll only need 2-3 cans between the two of you and a bunch of curry powder and chilli powder make it great. Plenty of energy. Plenty of gas too so beware. Figure out a meal plan and stock up for maybe 5 days at a time.
- Trail mix such as raw almonds, sultanas, cranberries and hazelnuts are cheap in Spain.
- Surfboard. A decent second hand will cost you anywhere between €150 to €250. I wouldn’t pay more than €280 for a second hand board.
- Wetsuit. 4:3 is imperative. It gets cold. Believe me I paddle around a lot when I surf and a 4:3 would give me a good hour before my tootsies would start to numb. Booties are an option but I don’t like them; a 5:3 would be overkill. San Sebastian is a good place to buy a wetsuit if don’t bring one. Make sure you ask for any specials on last seasons models. I picked up an perfect O’Neill Psycho for €180.
- Two spare fins each. Do it. We snapped three between us and there isn’t many surf shops between towns.
- Its unlikely that you won’t have one already in this day and age, but a smart phone or tablet is great for hooking up to Wi-Fi, or even get yourself a months data plan so you have a GPS for the car, but more importantly get onto the swell and tide charts, and read what the different breaks work best at.
To be honest depending on your vehicle, you’d rather try get an all round board that can handle some swell and has enough foam to paddle onto the smaller waves rather than carrying a bunch of boards. I’m just under 6’2 as is my mate Reed and we were both riding 6’3s that were just under 20″ wide and both about 2.3″ thick. I prefer to ride slightly bigger boards so a fatter fish would definitely be an option but remember to cater for big and small waves.
Spots you must Hit
- Lafitenia (from my story above)
- San Sebastian. East side of river called Praia de Gros
- Zarautz. As you start to head west from San Sebastian- about 30mins drive.
- Mundaka. Close to the town of Bermeo. The best surf of my trip. World famous river mouth that is dead flat on high tide and a lengthy, sometimes dredging 6-8ft left hander on low tide. We got extremely lucky with this one. Had only 5 others out when we hit it at dead low. Was a cranking 6-7 foot with a seemingly endless powerful wall. Unfortunately wasn’t tubing for us but still the most exhilarating rides of our trip. 40 minutes later and easily 40 people had got the memo and rushed in. Definitely try time this one with the swell charts.
- Sopelana. A big walk down a cliff, trace a straight line on a map out from Bilbao, on east side of river.
- Oyambre. On the east side of the River in the town of San Vincente. Funnily enough Reed and I had arrived onto the west side of the river at about 8pm. Desperate for a surf and knowing it takes forever to drive back to the east side, we suit up in front of a full restaurant on the river and jump off into the river. The current was moving extremely fast out to sea so we paddled diagonally across and managed to clamber up the break wall. Had a great fun surf on dusk. The only thing more entertaining for everyone in the restaurant was probably the route coming back as we had to try time our paddle against the current to land back at the restaurant where our car was! Quite dark by that stage too.
- Foz. Such a fun break. Right on the highway, this was honestly a perfect little 3 foot A-frame that broke only about 30 metres out, and basically you pull into a little head dip, try get one turn in and then bail of the back of the wave as it terminated on the break wall that runs up to the road. Every now and then you’d get some great backwash action.
- Patos. Bit of a jump in breaks here but that’s because generally speaking the North West corner of Spain is inaccessible due to strong winds and sheer cliffs. No doubt I missed out on some secret breaks amongst these areas but the conditions were treacherous when I was there. Patos is a fun little cove protected from the strong Atlantic swells. Quite cold in this spot. One of your last surfs before entering Portugal!
- Espinos. Easy to find. A dredger if the banks are right. Start crusing down from Porto and its off one of the many piers. Ask a local for the exact break, but either way along this shoreline you’ll get a decent wave.
- Nazare. Now world famous. A satellite image of this place tells you all you need to know. A deep scar in the Earth’s crust runs in a lightning bolt shape all the way into the coast where Nazare sits. This mean huge amounts of water from the deep funnels straight down this channel, and when it gets shallow near the shore it tosses up to what is now the largest surfed wave on Earth.(Almost 100ft!) That’s why the month of may is good to see it when it is a regular surf-able break. Beware though, it’s a super heavy lip and is usually just a massive shore dumping wave.
- Peniche, Praia de Baleal and the famous Supertubos. You got to do it. Praia de Baleal is the northern most and least crowded of the two. I had some great surfs here still but if you want to take your trips WSL breaks counter to 3* then you must try Supertubos if you can avoid the crowds and possible locals only heckling. (*Mundaka isn’t on the tour any more but it used to be.)
- Arrifana. Down in the north of the Algarve. A beautiful looking beach with a winding cobble drive down to the sand. Caters for learners at one end and is super clean and a decent size at the other end. Reed and I had the most of our surfs here and definitely some of the most enjoyable. If you’re lucky and you get some swell check the right hand point break of the North wall. It gets pretty gnarly.
- The Algarve is definitely the region to spend a good two weeks just for consistency, convenience and weather! Just near Arrifana, and providing greater swell capability is Vale Figueira. Some sweet barrells are to be had here and the locals aren’t very pushy. Be careful though; snaking anyone is a bad habit and definitely shouldn’t be committed at certain beaches.
- Castelejo. Links up to Cordoama on the south side and is out from the township of Villa do Bispo. There’s a big rock on the south end of Castelejo which you want to jump in at to paddle out as a nice rip runs of it. Then head diagonally north and you can get some awesome A-Frames coming off a rock reef there.
- Ponte Riva is a punchy left hand point break but is prone to strong currents and can be inconsistent. Good place halfway down the drive to camp though.
- Not-so-secret spot… but a lengthy traverse down a cliff which deters most so you’ll often have this break to yourself. The easiest way to get here is to visit the lighthouse called Cabo San Vincente, which is a good thing to do as it is considered Europe’s most south-western point. Once you’re there though you need to look north and you will see a huge red-coloured cliff that juts out and forms the next cove. The waves you want to be on are at the base of this cliff so if you jump in the car from the lighthouse, follow a couple of dirt roads and it should be about a 15 minute drive.
This last break really iterates what this sort of trip is about though- discovery. I have mentioned only a handful of spots Reed and I surfed. My advice is to stick just to the coastal roads and avoid the highway where possible. This way you will notice any swell off the coast and try to recognise a nice protected bay that will shelter most of the harsher Atlantic elements and allow for a well formed wave.
Where to Stay
Where ever you damn please!
This is the beauty of having camping gear. Reed and I often wouldn’t set up until dark, which means its unlikely you will get caught by a ranger unless you leave your tent up for too long in the morning.
Having said that, we often found ourselves on a completely isolated part of the coast where we left our tent up and surfed a break to ourselves for the entire day. We camped on grass, rock, dirt, sand and even in abandoned houses. There is a number of abandoned houses along the coast that are quite scary, even though they are in the middle of nowhere. (Actually, maybe because of that!) Due to the often harsh conditions on the coast, they provided a great shelter from wind and rain.
When it is nice weather though, take advantage of camping up on some of the beautiful cliffs along the coast. We even set our tent up on an empty lot in the middle of the city in Porto, right between two houses one night. It sounded like a dodgy neighbourhood so we were up and out of there at 6am. Ha.
I hope this helps, motivates or interests you. I feel I could have gone on and on about many hilarious stories but I think I’ve included what is necessary and you can create an adventure of your own.
Feel free to ask questions, particularly about other breaks, but if you need help navigating the cities, especially Porto and Lagos I have spent a number of weeks in both and so can probably help you out. Enjoy and safe travels!