Tubes and Tapas: Surfing in Northern Spain

Zach Plopping surfing an island wave that only breaks during massive winter swells.

The tapa or pintxo, with the gelatinous and vegetable covering, looked delicious. Since the bartender in this historic district Santander bar was typically rude if not downright hostile, I didn’t bother asking what the ingredients were.

But my first taste caused me to gag and push away my plate as our guide Robert Amasuno, a longtime local surfer said, “You know that gelatin is made from pig’s feet.”

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The last time I was in Santander, on Spain’s stunning northern coast in Cantabria, was the fall of 1983, when I spent a few days surfing on a trip with my little brother Nick and my mother. We had taken the ferry from Plymouth to Santander on our way to Meknes, Morocco, where my dad was working on a United Nations project. I had spent my senior year of high school in Madrid and after our trip to Morocco, I spent a semester at Madrid’s Complutense University.

Back then, the coast around Santander provided endless empty beachbreak waves, warm water and just a few local surfers. The food was excellent. I’ll never forget a dinner of braised rabbit at a rustic country restaurant.

Today northern Spain is a different world. Endless rows of abandoned vacation condos litter the coast (seeing the numerous abandoned construction cranes and vacation villages in Spain is a great way to understand the European and Spanish financial crisis). Surfing is now a big deal with skilled and experienced surfers populating beach cities.

But northern Spain still has a rustic charm that is hard to ignore. The massive Cantabrian range provides a rugged backdrop to the green coast. Hikers enjoy the wildlife and scenery of the rocky shoreline. Picturesque cafes and restaurants serve up mouthwatering seafood.

On this trip I was with Ben McCue and Zach Plopper of WiLDCOAST who had spent a year studying in Santander while undergrads at UCSD. We had  attended the inaugural Global Wave Conference in Biarritz and San Sebastian, and were anxious to sample the world-class Spanish surf.

The second day of the conference took place in San Sebastian at the ultra modernist Kursaal Conference Center designed by Rafael Moneo at the east end of La Zurriola beach. I had previously visited San Sebastian in July during a trip with my two sons and French cousins.

When we arrived the surf was firing. A small crowd rode double overhead offshore waves at the west end of the beach. Bigger bombs to the east went unridden.The minute the conference ended later that day, participants, grabbed boards, stuffed themselves into wetsuits, and paddled out for the evening surf. The surf was well overhead and still offshore.Soon the lineup was populated with surfer-conservationists from South Africa, Spain, France, England, Japan, Portugal, Australia, and the U.S. who shared the plentiful peaks and hooted the best rides.

After our surf, we assembled at the seaside People Café and Lounge on the malecon overlooking La Zurriola to sample pinxtos, jamon serrano, San Miguel beer, and Rioja wine.

It was a great ending to an inspiring conference.

The following day we headed out to Mundaka. Unfortunately the swell had dropped and everyone from northern Spain seemed to have descended on this gorgeous Basque village.

The harbor at Mundaka

We paddled out through the ancient port, caught a couple of waves and then paddled back in.

At a bar overlooking the epic lefthander, considered to be one of the best waves in the world, we ate bocatas de tortilla de patata, and admired the framed photo of the world’s best surfers who had surfed here when Mundaka was an important stop on the ASP Dream Tour.

With south winds still howling and providing offshore conditions (when storms move in from the north from the Atlantic the wind on the north coast of Spain turns offshore for days), we decided to drive west toward Santander.

“We’ll hit up this cool beach we love to surf,” said Ben. “It should be firing.”

About an hour later, we found ourselves winding through a river valley and driving alongside an empty wild beach. In the distance we spotted offshore peaks.

Soon after we were surfing 3-4’ uncrowded A-frames. After our surf we found a nearby café and dug into bowls of pulpo and and calamar.

That evening we found Robert in Santander. Over pinchos and cañas de cerveza he promised a great session at another beach the following morning. “It will be pumping,” he promised.

The following morning I found myself overlooking aqua colored offshore peaks from the cliffs of Dunas de Liencres Natural Park. Pine covered dunes and sandstone cliffs protect the sandy shoreline and a large estuary.

The lineup was empty and there were sandbar peaks up and down the beach.

Out in the water, we all rode hollow overhead waves. A couple of Spanish surfers paddled out, but there were plenty of waves for everyone.

“Most of the time in the winter I surf here by myself,” said Robert.

Back in the carpark after our session, the wind was still offshore and the tide had dropped, shifting the swell down the beach to an insane right peeling off an inside sandbar.

A week later after I was safely home, I received an email from Zach, “Yesterday we scored Rodiles [a left point] – Mundaka’s little, yet hotter, sister. We have been blessed with two weeks of offshore south wind and swell.”

Note: Zach and Ben flew to Bilbao via Paris on Air France. Your best bet is to rent a car and explore the coast, and lodge at small hotels or pensiones in the coastal villages. While Spanish surfers aren’t that friendly, the same advice applies as it does anywhere; never fail to say hello and smile. While nothing is cheap in Europe including Spain, it doesn’t cost anything to be friendly and learn to say, “Hola, buenos dias.”

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