As we cruised through the San Ysidro border, the hillside lit up with a variation of bright colors; corrugated metals, the scrap wood used to construct the shanty houses added a redefining touch to the Tijuana landscape. It was mid-day, the heat beginning to scorch. The rumbling muffler of my 1994 Subaru Legacy wagon purred loud like a prized antique diesel engine. The large presence of the green, white, and red flag stoically flapped in the smooth breeze, stories of border-crossing hassles, banditos, and corrupt cops all fresh in our minds.
The stereo blared Manu Chao’s “Welcome to Tijuana,” a catchy cliché leading us into a new realm, ushering us between two very different countries separated by fences and walls. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been to Mexico before, but this time it was different — this was La Frontera and we were heading into no man’s land: Baja California.
For many Southern Californians, Baja is a convenient mecca for surfing — desolate (depending on where you go) beaches with long wave consistency, and virtually no crowds. The peninsula stretches approximately 1200 kilometers (745 miles) from the US border and is a mélange of desert and ocean with the Southern tip incorporating a little bit of the tropics. The Mexican Federal Highway 1 is the key lifeline of transportation and leads through the congested towns of the north through to the small dusty towns in between. The real allure to Baja for any adventurer lies off the beaten path, along the roughed up dirt and sandy paths leading to the ocean. No water, no electricity, no toilets, no people.
We were new to this scene and the sense of sporadic travel consumed us. Being residents of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California (where the closest accessible wave is at 6,000 feet when the winds pick up speed on Lake Tahoe), we discovered that this place not only includes waves but climbable rocks and mountains as well. There were many discoveries to be made.
Another disappointing season doomed the Lake Tahoe region. The effect was mutual with many areas in the states and Canada, but at four hours from the closest ocean, the Pacific coastline gave relief in cold-water form. So when a friend from Argentina who I have worked with before told me he needed to skip country and drive down in order to figure out his visa situation, I was in.
Like any idea around those who are ambitious but not organized, I figured the plan would go over the wayside as flakiness consumed the group of three that had nonchalantly committed. Would the players show? Two out of three did: Nico the Argentinian who was going out and being smuggled back in had no choice; but we lost our friend with the Jeep and would have to take my old-but-reliable rig.
Like any excursion, preparation is key. And with Baja, if you are going to do it, do it right, and be prepared for everything. Alongside the typical laundry list of food, beer, and tequila, as well as an electronic jump starter — take our word for it — make sure you pack a warm wetsuit as the water in northern Baja can at times be surprisingly cold. For our purposes, we picked up two cheap boards: a foam board for Nico and a funboard to add to the quiver for myself; as well as couple of climbing harnesses, a belt of quick draws and extra carabiners, a 60 meter rope, climbing shoes, belay devices, and a handful of runners for anchors.
Adhering to the advice of a Baja surf guide while following a couple of mediocre maps with a loaded car, we pointed south and were off.
At the border, we were welcomed with no special greetings. Border guards casually sat in dark green suits. They didn’t even acknowledge our presence. All these torturous thoughts beforehand and here we were home free!
We followed the signs to Rosarito and shot right out of Tijuana. Being in Mexico without a stamp and a Mexican travel card can give Federales and Municipal Police a reason to hassle you, and it is also required and safe to roll with Mexican auto insurance — both of these can be taken care of at the border. But if you are like us and get caught up in the heat of the moment and make a dart for it, there is an immigration office and opportunities to obtain these items in Ensenada, about two hours south of Tijuana.
The waves between Rosarito and Ensenada are excellent, but they tend to hold views of urban landscapes, carry a few more people than the more desolate zones, and in many parts have been blocked off because of development and land management. Regardless, the waves were very quiet when we arrived, and fresh ceviche called in Ensenada.
Ensenada is the third largest city in Baja and acts as a port for boats. Gigantic cruise ships slip in and out of the bay as they unload hordes of tourists who then make their way through the souvenir stands and fish market before returning aboard. Despite the frustrations brought by occasional crowds, the ceviche here is tasty, served up as a raw fish paddy on a tostado topped with avocado and a choice of spicy sauces to slather over the top.
We soon realized that the food stands next to the harbor are the best option for cheap eats.
Mariscos de la Senora Navolato is a small cart that usually hangs out on the corner of Alavarado and Highway 1. Here they serve up some mighty seafood in a shell from pata de mula (literal translation is “mules leg”) a Pacific clam to aquachile – a delightfully refreshing mix of shrimp, tomatoes, and cilantro.
While the fish industry has always been viewed as the supplier of signature dishes and even delicacy of sorts, the wine industry in the Valle de Guadeloupe region northeast of Ensenada as well as the wine region to the Southeast along the highway recently established themselves on an international scale. Although wine has been harvested here since the Spanish arrival, it is only now beginning to gain widespread attention and popularity.
The craft beer industry is also growing. In 2012, Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto and his team began to set reforms to attempt to control the historical monopolies of the country, opening up opportunity to smaller breweries. In Ensenada you’ll find Wendlandt, Old Mission, and Agua Mala. While craft breweries are big among the tourist scene the popularity has not been as large within the community. The truth of the matter is that beer for a tourist may seem rather cheap yet in a region that struggles with poverty Tecate may be a more likely choice for locals. Yet the locals still do have their hideaways and watering holes and with tourism and a stable fish industry here there is some pride and excitement to go around.
While surfing was the priority, anytime beer and good food is involved, that priority can become a bit blurry, so as the night fell we decided to head north to camp at San Miguel, a well-known break north of Ensenada. We had heard that is best to camp in campgrounds, and after our visit I tend to agree. As you go through the towns and cities along the peninsula, the problem of drugs such as meth and paint huffing become a bit more apparent and the last instance somebody wants to encounter is another human whacked out on drugs. When you’ve had a gun to your head before, it’s easy to be more cautious about these things.
The parking lot at San Miguel was practically empty with the exception of a couple of cars and a beach bonfire. We joined in and were welcomed by two Americans from Crested Butte Colorado – Chad and Clark, who had came together by chance. First was Chad, a clean cut, fidgety go-getter who grew up surfing in New England and had put his so called “life-savings” from a job as a pizza delivery boy and a snow groomer into this trip. Then there was Clark, the longhaired, chilled out, slow talker, originally from Oklahoma, who loved jam bands and would rather lay on the beach then catch a wave.’
As the fire crackled and blazed in the breeze, persistent thoughts of wanting to get out of the towns to the bare coast filled my mind. There were a lot of uncertainties of going with my older car, so I mentioned the idea of tagging along with them.
And thus, the next morning, off we went.
The waves weren’t that big and our best days consisted of four-foot breaks in a cove off of El Marron and long rides at quatros casas. We spent a week on and off road, down unknown paths to the ocean seeking whatever we could find. The desert spoke of desolation and curiosity. Red sand coated granite rocks emerging from the flat grounds like lost ships rising to the surface. Standing firm on the horizon with a dull green tint and an assortment of gigantic arms were the Mexican giant cardon cacti stemming skyward as if attempting to suck any trace of moisture from the clouds above. Every plant armed with sharp points and ready to protect its ground. The ocean was an accompaniment to the show, balancing this idea of freedom and vastness.
With no wave trackers, it was hard to tell what to expect as far as swell. Chad had taken the helm and we all quickly found out it was his way or the highway. Of course this was the trip he had been waiting for his whole life and he was trying to seek out whatever waves he could find even if there was no swell. We witnessed a transformation much like that of Jack Nicholson in The Shining — no waves, no surf makes Chad a crazy boy. It was a bit scary and unnerving.
As we approached Quatros Casas, the waves were chopped out and it would appear that luck wasn’t on our side. When we came to the lookout on the bluff in front of the hostel the waves choppiness had subsided. The cove blocked the wind from the north and the sea kelp helped to keep the water glassy. If there was a moment to gain some motivation it was now. Two to three foot waves coming off the right point break reef providing a smooth peeling wave with good ride time and a chance to throw out a smile while casually skimming up and down the subtle face.
Only four other surfers in the water meant plenty of wave sharing and positive energy. The sun would set and the consecutive day the waves wouldn’t line-up. A limited amount of time and ideas of getting far down the coast meant strapping the boards down, rolling up the tents and sleeping bags, packing up the cars and once again jumping on the dusty roads to check the varied breaks down the coast. The drive took us all the way to the dividing point between Baja Norte and Sur, the seven sisters’ breaks, more specifically the infamous The Wall. Before arriving there we would spend a couple surreal days playing around the dreary fishing village of El Marron catching waves around the hidden coves and corners. A morning of four-foot swell sprinkled with a serene scene of clear white sand beaches backed up to small cliffs and strips of striated rock bands made the experience so extraordinary that leaving would pose a challenge. That ticking clock came back into play and at daybreak we would lend ourselves to the road again. At The Wall, we arrived to an inconsistent swell that had dropped to an un-rideable level.
The hardest part was looking out to the ocean from such an iconic break to witness these minuscule waves peeling off in perfect harmony and imagining what they would be like with a little more push. This was our last opportunity to surf and we weren’t given the chance.
The next day we headed north to do some rock climbing in Cataviña in the Valle de los Cirios, finally splitting up with Chad and Clark. The area hasn’t been too mapped out for climbers but with round granite boulders popping up all around there is always something to at least boulder around on. Our hopes to do some sport climbing yielded to no avail. After asking at a small café we were just pointed in the direction of a pile of rocks and with midday sweltering heat and shade being a commodity that wasn’t present our boulder activity didn’t last the longest. The disappointing fact was that good climbing was all around but it was deeper into the desert and there were no guarantees that we would even stumble upon any routes. In that regard, going in next time with a better head on our shoulders, decent beta, and coordinates could potentially provide success.
The adventure in Baja led us through many uncertain moments. It took us to abandoned fishing villages where we encountered drunk locals with big trucks blaring music in the wee hours of the morning. And it nearly took us into a head-on highway collision at 70 miles per hour.
But the adventure also introduced us to a spectrum of diverse personalities: Goijo the Southern California who married into Mexican culture and knew nearly everything about Baja; Dale the retired ex-pat who spends one month every few months in front of the community at freighters cruising around in his golf cart and filling us in on all the wave breaks in the area; the crowds at the National Off Road Race Association (NORRA) race roaring through; as well as farmers introducing us to the social issues plaguing the community as well as locals offering an in-depth view on the drug culture in Baja.
Then there was Jose Luis, the old rancher with leathery skin, aviator glasses, and a thin gray mustache who we came upon with a flat in the middle of the desert. His spare tire didn’t fit his wheel, and he was attempting to fill the flat with a bike pump. We happened to have a wheel that fit. We then spent about three hours traveling through squat house territory infested with drug addicts and an unforgiving stretch of desert to get him home.
Surfing is often surrounded by journey. When the tides are changing or the waves inconsistent, new avenues open. To be fixated on the ride all the time is to be disconnected from reality.
And that is what we learned in Baja — the paths go in many directions, but the road is never too far from the ocean.