Photo: Jirela

MAR DEL PLATA IS the surf city of Argentina. 600,000 people live in this beach town south of Buenos Aires, and sometimes it seems like most of them are out in the lineup. The waves aren’t the greatest in the world, but the vibe is stellar and the locals know how to party.

Fall and winter pack the best swell, with Antarctic currents making the water feel like, you know, it’s coming from the Antarctic.

During the summer the beaches are literally packed with Porteños, vacationers from Buenos Aires, as well as sun-seekers from the rest of the country. While the swell tends to die, the water temperature rises nicely…like the countless thongs and killer nightlife.

Weather conditions

Water temperature varies greatly. Summertime temps hover around 20 degrees. Fall cools down and by the time winter arrives in June, the water’s generally slurpy-brain-freeze cold: like, 8 degrees on average.

A 3/2 shorty suffices in the summer; spring and fall you can get by with a 3/2 full suit; winter demands a minimum 4/3 suit with booties, gloves and hood. The best swells come from the south. In the summer you should be happy to get four or five feet at a period of anything more than 8 seconds.

The rest of the year you can expect something like this on a pretty consistent basis, but five-day dry spells are not at all uncommon. If you’re making the five-hour trip down from Buenos Aires be sure to check a swell report or grab a look at the breaks on a webcam.

The best time to be in the water is early morning before the wind picks up. Of course, the best time to be in a nightclub is early morning before the doors close. It’s the true dilemma of the Marplatense surfer! However, if a large night has outbid an early morning wake-up, the wind will often die for about an hour around sundown, giving you a great time to be in the water, especially during the summer when crowds will have thinned.

Sharks, no. Shit, yes.

There are no sharks in Mar del Plata — because they would have nothing to eat. Really, you will be lucky to see any sign of life at all in the water. There is a large port and the corresponding filth emanates south of Playa Grande.

Migrating trash from the beaches, especially during the summer, makes for some less-than-lovely paddling encounters. The largest concerns, however, come from post-storm runoff and the sewage processing plant located about 10km north of the city.

Processing here is definitely something of a euphemism: the sewage is oxygenized to expedite the decomposition and then pumped out in a giant pipe. Pretty gross? Lets call it the less glamorous side of the South American experience.

Fortunately swells generally come from the south or east. On the chance that your visit corresponds with a northern swell, the further south you can go the better.

The breaks:

Mar del Plata’s coast has been refitted with a swarm of jetties which, depending on the placement, have either created or destroyed the city’s surf spots. Most of the jetties are north of the city center in the neighborhood of La Perla.

Depending on swell direction and size these jetties can throw off some fun, hollow, little waves. Most of the time, though, their quick close-outs are more suited to body boarders. Look for something coming from the southeast at 5-7 feet for them to be working.

Playa Varnesse

Heading south from the city-center and its filthy, surfless beach (Playa Popular) the next beach you hit is Playa Varresse. Varresse used to be home to Mar del Plata’s best wave, a long right point break that was used for the Pan-Am games in 1995.

Shortly after this the point was blocked by the construction of a jetty and the wave was lost. Now the beach is substantially protected, but does pick up an eastern swell and can be a good place for beginners.

It’s also definitely worth checking on a big southerly where the classic point can still go off in front of the southern jetty.

Playa Grande

The most well-known and consistent breaks in Mardel come next as you’re heading south. Signage will indicate the beach: Playa Grande. The spot to be will shift from the north jetty to the south jetty depending on swell size and direction; sadly, it’s almost never hard to tell: unless you’re on dawn patrol, the pack should be thick.

The northern break is called Biologia, and is the most consistent spot during the small summer swells. The southern break is called Yacht, gets going during the fall and can be a really quality right point. Both receive wind protection from the respective jetties that they abut.

However, both waves also host some of the city’s most competitive crowds, whose presence and size can at times be debilitating. Like anywhere where there aren’t enough waves to go around, the vibe isn’t exactly friendly, but people are respectful and mostly just focused on catching what they can and having fun with their crew.

The exceptions are a few snaky body-boarders and teenagers—basically, city surfing as normal. In any case, comply with typical etiquette and surf with some confidence and you’ll have no problem.

Hell, get out before 10am with a decent swell and you’ll probably have a rocking good time.

Waikiki

Keep heading south and after about 3km you’ll pass Punta Magotes, the most familial of Mardel’s beaches. This ends at a point break called Waikiki. Waikiki is exclusively a longboarder break at anything under 5 feet. Even on larger swells the wave is considerably mushy—like the real Waikiki, but not as good.

Still, as far as longboarding waves go, this is the best option when there isn’t enough swell for things to be working at Playa Grande. And, since the crowd is generally older, the vibe is a good deal more relaxed.

Playa Mariano

After Punta Magotes comes Playa Mariano (it’s sometimes also referred to by the names of its balnearios, such as Honu Beach). This is Mardel’s beach break with the most exposure to southern swells, so it is generally faster and more powerful than the beaches closer to the city. It is also cleaner and, with a variety of peaks, it’s far less crowded. It is particularly wind sensitive, so getting out early can be really advantageous.

In front of the lighthouse, at the south end of the beach there is also a long right point that will go off on a large southerly, and is arguably the best wave around. However, conditions for this are fickle, and even locals have a hard time predicting its appearance.

On a given day though, Playa Mariano is probably the best place to look for waves in the Mar del Plata area. Further south there are more waves and fewer people. It can be a fun place to explore with miles of beach break to choose from. Quality generally increases as one approaches the little town of Chapadmalal in the south; from there you’re getting close to Miramar and a whole new scene.

Access

If you have a short-board, you can grab a bus. The 221 runs all along the coast and accepts change—fare of about $1.30. From the city center the 571 and 511 will take you to a stone’s throw of Playa Grande, but you’ll need a bus card, which you can buy at the main bus terminal or other kiosks around the city.

The 511 and 221 will also get you as far as Playa Mariano and the other beaches in the south.

Equipment

All the major surf beaches during the summer have surf schools offering rentals and classes. In addition Birdband has boards, wetsuits, wax and a super friendly shaper/owner Pepe Hill. It’s located in front of the cemetery on Almafuerte between Pellegrini and B.D.Irigoyen.

Casi Nuevo buys and sells all sorts of new and used boards, wetsuits and the necessary supplies. It’s in the city center at the corner of Rivadavia and 14 de Julio.

Accommodations

Hostel Playa Grande is a five minute walk down the hill to the breaks at, yep, Playa Grande. The hostel has a fun, young vibe, and caters to surfers, with boards to rent and organized surfing classes.

Another inexpensive option is Hotel Pergamino, which is located in the city center and is normally about $5 cheaper per night; its downside that it’s located a 30-minute walk or 10-minute bus-ride to any surf.

This piece was originally published on March 12, 2008.

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