An Average Surfer in Baja
"I'll put up a GoFundMe to pay the ransom.” That was the joking response I received from my boss when I told him I was going to Baja on Good Friday. This was pretty typical of the responses I collected when I told people I was driving a few hours south of the border to go for a surf. I understand why my friends and colleagues might respond that way and I am sure that their warnings for me not to go were from a genuine concern. Like them, I also read the news. I remember the stories of burnt-out vans, bodies hanging from bridges, carjackings, and murders. But I also long for some adventure in my life. I am a little bored of driving to Pacific Coast Highway, paying the meter, and paddling out with 50 other guys before work. Maybe I am just spoiled.
I also try to have a balanced view of those stories I’m told. I am one of those obsessive researchers, so once an idea pops into my head, I will dig up every detail I can and plan accordingly. And that’s just what I did for this trip. I dove 20 Google pages deep into every article I could find about surfing, camping, traveling, and crime on the Baja peninsula. I did so with a careful eye on who the sources were and whatever their angle was. For instance, one set of Baja crime statistics published by a tourism board would predictably present a dramatic drop in crime for 2017, while a newspaper who was selling copy based on the “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy would publish sensationalist headlines about the bloodiest year on record and cartel wars. I tried to find the middle ground as I do with all news these days.
There is no doubt that Mexico is a potentially dangerous place. Like any other place on the planet, get lost on the wrong side of town and you could be in trouble; Downtown Los Angeles or deep in Baja. One would be naïve to think otherwise. My chances of being robbed, carjacked or even murdered in either place are much higher if I am involved in gangs or drugs. That was the general sense I got from my research. I concluded that to be a victim of violent crime in Baja you have to either be involved in the drug trade, lacking some common sense or just very unlucky. Hopefully, I was neither of the last two. In the end, the biggest risk to surfers seemed to be car break-ins or robberies, deemed the risk to reward ratio in my favor, and I asked my friend Jason if he wanted to join me and he said yes without hesitation.
I have little to no experience in Baja. A quick day trip over the border 10 years ago about sums it up. I planned accordingly. I got my truck serviced, checked the spare tires, purchased some Mexican insurance, and studied the maps and swells. On Friday morning, Jason and I were on the road from Orange County at 4 am and at the border by 5:30 am. We were both a little nervous as we purchased some coffee from the café that sits not 500 yards from the infamous wall. US customs and border patrol agents dressed in police-like uniforms were crossing the street back and forth to either start or finish their shifts. Jason and I were busy stashing small amounts of cash in hiding spots within my white Toyota Tacoma. If we did get robbed or had a break in, hopefully, the thief would only take some of our cash. I had $50 in my wallet and scattered another $80 around the truck’s nooks and crannies. One can no longer afford to be naïve in Mexico.
It was still dark when we crossed the border. I felt some butterflies as we first drove past the border guard and then a couple of military personnel with machine guns. We crossed the border and kept to the right lane that led toward the coast and would take us along the northern edge of Tijuana, a city with the highest crime rate in Baja. Murders and kidnappings are somewhat common so we didn’t want to take a wrong turn, even if my research told me we would be fine.
You immediately know you’re in a different country when you cross the border. I don’t think there are many borders in the world that you can cross by land with such contrasting worlds and cultures. Mexico is an underdeveloped country with real poverty and hardship relative to the United States. It is also a country of pride, passion, and wonderful people who are welcoming, respectful, and friendly. As the sun rose in my rear-view mirror we could see the giant foreboding border wall on our right and the run-down slums of TJ on our left. It is incredible to think this place is only three hours from the manicured lawns of suburban Orange County.
We passed several surf breaks we had read about and chose to ignore. Our sights were set about 60 miles south of the border. According to the forecast patterns, the swell and wind directions were optimal for one beach in particular. And even though the swell was tiny, our destination was supposed to be a magnet, meaning we could add an extra foot or two to the forecast. That was the hope, anyway.
We paid a couple of tolls and made it to our destination by 6:45. As I pulled off the highway and onto the dirt track, I saw the first good waves of our entire drive. The gamble had paid off with solid lines on the horizon and almost no wind. How often does a gamble like that pay off?
For a couple of surfers from Southern California, it was tough to understand what we were looking at: good waves and an empty lineup. It was high tide and the wave was breaking on the far outside with an inviting shoulder. As it approached the beach, it would slow down a little and then stand up on the inside for a fast, mini tube or a few steep sections. It had been a bad winter for waves in California and I hadn’t seen a wave travel and stay open like that for months. I was literally yelling I was so happy and excited.
We got outside and a chest-high wave lined up for Jason as he paddled and I gave him a cheer. I watched as he cruised at speed up and down, effortlessly being pushed with no cutbacks needed. Three turns, then a fourth, top to bottom, and into the shallows. The wave expired and I heard Jason yell out in delight. He paddled back with a smile and threw a shaka in my direction. I still couldn’t believe there were no other surfers out. I am usually pretty quiet and keep to myself in the lineup but I had no insecurities about showing my excitement here. This was my chance to pick any wave I wanted with no competition and I wanted one bad.
Finally, that first wave came. It was a long lefthander that ran all the way to the beach. I got a couple of top to bottom turns, a cutback, and a small head dip on the inside. As far as I was concerned, the entire trip was now worth all the effort we’d applied.
This continued for three uninterrupted hours. When the session did end, we walked back up the trail to find the truck with all windows and locks intact. The dirt lot was filling up with local families celebrating Easter weekend with BBQs and tacos. As the morning turned to afternoon we saw a few more California license plates pulling up and a few more surfers paddle out. Even then, there were no more than eight surfers out and plenty of waves to go around. We ate lunch and had a beer in a little restaurant overlooking the bluff, debating whether or not to partake in a second session. The wind was rising and bumping up the waves a little so we decided against it. We hiked around the bluff for a while and took in some views, dreaming of all the empty surf spots around the next cove and what this all would be like on a summer day.
We finally headed back north toward the border next. After the inevitable long wait in line to get into San Diego, we rejoined the hustle and bustle of Southern California. Our salty souls were satisfied for the day and we were already dreaming of the next adventure.
A part of me didn’t want to share this story. Why would I want to advertise this to others? The beauty of it all lied partly in the uncrowded surf. But on the other hand, I fear for the businesses and the surf spots in Baja. If the local economy is not getting tourist dollars from surfers, then they will look elsewhere. It has already started happening with developments of harbors and docks for yachts. There is a plan to turn the west coast of Baja into a seafaring destination for rich tourists. It has already begun and we have already lost two surf spots due to development. Surfers need to start going to Baja again, spending some cash, and enjoying the waves.
If you are happy with crowded lineups, traffic, and closed out waves then, by all means, stay put. If, on the other hand, you long for an adventure and uncrowded waves, then load up your truck and head south.