When the grandparents of Ilianet Nuñez Valdovinos settled on a piece of coastal property in the rural Mexican state of Guerrero, they envisaged in the gently sloping white sand the potential for an open-air restaurant where people from nearby pueblas could gather for chiles rellenos and beers. A pair of other families – undaunted by the lack of running water or electricity – had the same idea, and so a modest outpost emerged to provide a quiet destination for relaxing under Pacific skies.
When Tim Dorsey, Corky Carroll and other intrepid Californians later sat down at the tables of these palapas, they saw the same sand, the same swaying palms and the same open skies punctuated with pelicans that the founding families had seen. But then they also saw something else: where the ocean’s swell galloped toward a river mouth, it tripped on a rocky point to produce a perfectly peeling, perfectly empty wave that ran and ran, and then ran some more.
With a handful of compatriots, these explorers paddled out and confirmed their wildest hopes and dreams had come true: they’d struck gold in the form of a deserted left hand point break of leg-burning proportions. Drip by drip, others followed in their ecstatic cross-steps.
“When they first started coming, I couldn’t figure out why they were here!” Ilianet laughs, remembering the reaction of her 11-year-old self to these sun-scorched pilgrims from the north. Over time though, their reasons began to make sense. One of them – Greg Colyar – approached Ilianet’s family about investing to build accommodation behind their restaurant, working together with them on the small project between quenching surfs in the empty warm water out front.
It was Greg who pressed Ilianet to learn to surf. She was uninterested, maybe a little afraid. There were no ladies walking on waves to be seen, and so it seemed an impossibility. He insisted, reasoning that surfing was coming to the area and she would be crazy to miss out ahead of the stampede.
At the age of 14, finally she consented. “Don Greg” pushed her into a well-proportioned peeler. She rose to her feet, trimmed down the line, rode off into the distance and finally stepped off in the shallows. It didn’t take even a second wave for the full-blown addiction to take hold. Ilianet had found a home on top of the water. The expats – an all-male crew of the Pacific’s finest – were so thrilled to see a tiny local female in the water that they cheered for every wave she caught. Her eyes were rarely if ever blighted by bad manners or sloppy style – the rotation of visiting experts represented the pinnacle of the sport.
As predicted, the slow trickle of surf tourists surged into a rising flood. Business on the beach boomed, but so did the numbers in the water. No matter – Ilianet would awake in the dark, hitch to the beach, surf in front of the family cantina and hitch back home – all before school. She did this day after day, year in and year out, only taking a break long enough to go to college and meet her husband.
Back in Saladita, she and her new spouse took over the family restaurant that now bears her name and started a family of their own. The combination of motherhood and business absorbed her, so she surfed around these commitments when the urge and opportunity struck.
Then in 2017, things changed. A competition was announced. The Mexi Log Fest would be rolling down from Sayulita into Saladita. Ilianet had never heard of it, had never taken part in competition at all. What’s more, she’d only given birth to a second daughter three months before. But the organisers wanted to showcase local talent, and whenever they discussed who could hold their own against the world’s greatest logging legends, Ilianet’s name landed firmly on the list.
“No, gracias”, she demurred whenever they asked her to join. But they kept asking, and eventually she smiled, shrugged her shoulders and agreed to take part. When the starting buzzer sounded on her heat, she did what she’d been doing for years: gazed at the horizon with infinite patience, spotted a shifting lump that hid promise and stroked in with an unhurried blend of poise and youthful delight.
In that heat – as in all the waves she rides – Ilianet is as pretty as a picture and as dainty as a doll. Her steps flow from one graceful backside pose to another, each manoeuvre a study in feminine charm. So it came as a surprise to no one except Ilianet herself that the crowd of locals and visitors alike lost their collective mind when she exited the water, cheering until they were hoarse.
This benevolent queen didn’t grow up watching surf movies, yearning for followers or craving sponsors’ stickers on her board. She did it for the love of Saladita’s wave, and it became clear to anyone standing on the beach that the wave loved her right back. Since that first comp, she’s travelled as far as New York and up and down the Mexican coastline to rack up more heats and a fair share of silverware.
Post-pandemic, Playa La Saladita is home to a shifting scene of blow-ins, locals, tourists and long-term residents. Spanish, English and French are most commonly heard, featuring every regional accent you can think of. In this international melting pot, crowds can be an issue. Many beach break refugees and beginners may be prone to prioritise wave count over etiquette, while those with more point break expertise know the value of giving away at least a hat trick of waves in the slow-paced pursuit of quality, and even perfection.
Against this backdrop, the ever-classy Ilianet never loses her cool – nor her warmth. Her generosity and grace seem to stem from the knowledge that there will always be another set, another wave, another day. Her life on land is fulfilling, so in the water she surfs with contentment where others can be liable to display a desperation verging on greed.
The current reigning ladies longboard champion of Mexico, Ilianet’s sole sponsorship is with Hot Rod Surf, a California shaper responsible for her 9’4” signature model. Last year she starred in a TV commercial for a major corporation, and she continues to collaborate with small brands on social media when it feels right.
In a world saturated with influencers telling us what’s hot, Ilianet’s easy attitude is a cooling breath of offshore breeze. So when I asked her if she had any goals for the upcoming 12 months, we both looked at the paradise around the palapa and laughed at the absurdity of my question. It might take a bit of patience, but she knows that most anything she may need – waves, inspiration, opportunity – will eventually wash up on Saladita’s shore.
Special thank you to;