The first surfers to take surf trips to the Baja Norte or Baja California were Californians in the late ’40s, and by the early ’60s Baja California Norte—Northern Baja—was the Golden State’s favorite escape. Just across the border from San Diego lies Tijuana, an infamous party destination, and south from there stretches a nearly endless succession of reefs, points, beach breaks and river mouths. For those looking to leave behind US crowds and pollution (not to mention the Vietnam War draft) and embrace a life of exploration and adventure, in the ’60s at least, there was no better place than California’s southern neighbor.
Today, Northern Baja has changed somewhat. A variety of accommodation in the form of high rise hotels and resorts have sprung up in and around Rosarito, Ensenada and Tijuana, and a variety of restaurants and bars attract visiting surfers and weekend partiers, despite escalating cartel-related problems and various acts of violence that are increasingly targeting surfers. But one needs only travel south of Ensenada to find that the old Baja is still very much intact. Hundreds of miles of uninhabited desert and coastline are interspersed with desolate fishing villages and empty waves, peeling into obscurity and waiting for the intrepid to rediscover them. Baja has been there for us from the beginning, and chances are good that it always will be.
The Waves: As far as surf goes, Baja is a land of diversity, where secret spots exist alongside household names (sometimes only a few miles apart!), and beach breaks and reefs litter a coastline that is better known for right hand points. The easily accessible and most commonly surfed waves are all within 100 miles of the border—Tijuana Sloughs, Baja Malibu, La Fonda, K-38s and Salsipuedes, to name a few—but south of Ensenada the desert protects her secrets. With a good map and a hardy 4×4, it is possible to rediscover long-forgotten gems that haven’t seen a surfer in months, if not years.
The Water: Although it may seem counter-intuitive, the water in Northern Baja—which lies south of San Diego—is typically a bit colder than that of Southern California. This is due in large part to the Humboldt Current, which creates upwelling and dumps cold water onto the desert shores pretty much year round. In winter you’ll be looking at water temps in the mid-50s F (13 C), while summers at the warmest spots might get up to just below 70 F (21 C)—if you’re lucky. In general, you are looking at a 2/2 wetsuit in summer and a 4/3 with booties in winter.
Water cleanliness can vary drastically, depending on where you are. In and around Tijuana the water can be filthy (two days before the writing of this guide the Mexican government spilled 1 million gallons of raw sewage in TJ, rendering Tijuana Sloughs toxic and unsurfable), whereas those surfing undeveloped areas of the desert have only urchins and sharks to worry about.
The Season: Like the rest of North America’s pacific coast, Baja California is a long, western-facing continental coastline, which means that it picks up both north and south swells, with different waves thriving under different conditions. North pacific swell pumps between November and March, while southern hemi energy and tropical swells (produced by nearby hurricanes) filter in between April and October. Like Southern California, large stretches of the Northern Baja coast suffer from June Gloom, a foggy and often onshore wind trend that plagues the region during the early months of summer.
The Vibe: Surfwise, you won’t find much in the way of negativity here. The spots near the border have pretty active expatriate surf communities and can get a little busy at times, but even there the general feeling is typically one of shared stoke. And as mentioned above, the further south you go, the more likely you are to surf completely alone. The only real concern in Northern Baja is from drug- and desperation-related violence (the latter of which often targets visiting surfers). In general, it is best to stay away from party cities like Tijuana and Rosarito, avoid driving at night and keep your nose clean (both figuratively and literally). Aside from this small group of ne’er-do-wells, the people of Baja are some of the most friendly and hospitable on the planet.
Things To Do: If you intend to disregard the advice above, then you can certainly find any and all forms of debauchery available to you in cities like Tijuana and Rosarito (although after 50+ trips to the peninsula I have yet to run into anyone who has actually seen the infamous donkey show). Aside from these party-focused regions, however, there is little more than desert, surf and dusty camping…which, if you are at all serious about surfing, is why you came in the first place.
Baja Surf Accommodation: Hotels, condos and surf camps have sprung up with alarming frequency in the Tijuana to Ensenada region, but to bask in the lap of luxury is not why you go on a surf trip to Baja. A good tent is the accommodation of choice in this desert, and you can camp pretty much anywhere you want—although its wise to follow your instincts when it comes to camping in dodgy areas.
What To Bring: In a word—everything. In Baja, you need to be completely self-sufficient, so your vehicle—which is hopefully all- or 4-wheel drive—should be weighted down with gear. Water, food, camping equipment, firewood, spare parts for the car, a good map, and a diverse quiver—pretty much anything you can imagine needing in Baja will eventually prove indispensible. But perhaps your most valuable asset will be creativity. The desert can throw you a curve at a moment’s notice, and the ability to deal with situations with MacGyver-like ingenuity is worth any number of GPS units and satellite phones.
Getting There: Visa’s are not an issue in the border areas—as long as you have your passport on you, you should be fine. If you intend to venture south of Ensenada, however, you will want to pick up a tourist card/visa, which can be obtained for $22 at the Mexican Secondary Inspection building just on the Tijuana side of the border.
As far as transport goes, 99% of Northern Baja is accessible only by car. You can fly into Tijuana or Ensenada and pick up rentals there, but you are better off driving in from San Diego with a vehicle that you trust. And remember, in Mexico it is a crime to get in a car accident. Always carry Mexican auto insurance! Airport codes: SAN (San Diego), TIJ (Tijuana) or ESE (Ensenada).