"If we get up that hill ahead and down the other side without being stopped, I'm happy," Jeff says.
We are on the road to Playas de Tijuana, the stretch where the border fence acts as guardrail on the right. Jeff has agreed to tutor me in the ways of surfing Baja California. A San Diego native, Jeff surfed Baja once a week in his late-’70s high school days. Now in his 30s, he doesn’t come down as often, and he’s noticeably nervous about driving in Mexico. “This is always the scary part of the drive,” he says as he shifts in his seat and grips the wheel with both hands. “Heck, it says 60 kilometers per hour on the pavement, but we’re doing 80 and people are flying past us.”
“Do you obey the law or try to fit in?” I ask.
“I try to fit in. I figure if I don’t, I make myself stand out, and that’s what you don’t want. Almost every time I’ve been stopped down here has been on this road. One time, we went about 600 miles down and I had a Toyota truck stuffed to the gills with a week’s worth of provisions. We wanted to get a big jump on it — we weren’t sure where we were going to end up — so we left really early. We were on this road at about three in the morning, pitch black, there’s not a soul anywhere, not a light, not anything, and we got pulled over. The guy said, 'Amigo?, three violations, $150.’ We told him, ‘We know we didn’t commit any violations. We’ve got to get out of here, we’re trying to make some time. How much is it going to cost?’ I think we ended up whittling him down to $20."
Once we make it to Playas and the toll road starts, Jeff relaxes his white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel and leans back in his seat. At the first toll booth, the clerk greets Jeff, “Hola. Que tal?" “
“ “Bien, bien. Y tu?” “ Jeff responds in confident Spanish (with a bit of a Califomia-surf-guy accent) and hands him two dollars. Receiving his dime change, he thanks him — “ “Gracias, 'migo” “— and drives on. “I took two years of Spanish and got Ds,” he laughs. “I couldn’t speak it until I started coming down here. There’s a core group of phrases I use, and if I ever have a problem, I just ask, “Como se dice? “ That kind of gets us working together. They would much rather have you butcher Spanish than have you say, ‘No, I only speak English.'
“An obvious rule,” he adds, “is never bring dope down here...well, if you do, don’t have it when you leave. Never, ever bring pot back over the border."
Jeff smiles at an old memory. “I’ll never forget this one trip. It was formality, protocol, if one guy drove, all the other guys would bring a joint. One morning we were coming down to this first spot I’m going to show you and we all had brought the skunkiest skunk you’ve ever seen, just the most crypto dope, and we said, ‘Well, we’ve got six of them, we’d better start smoking them now because we’re not going to be able to do them all on the way home.’ So we’re smoking them at six in the morning just because we had to get rid of them by the time we came back up. I remember being stoned as a gopher paddling out here and it was huge! It was so mean and powerful and we just got waxed a bunch of times! It was a great day.”
The road south of the first toll booth runs two lanes in each direction divided by a grass median. As we speed south, Jeff says, “This kind of Baja trip is different from loading up your car and going for a week. It’s also different from getting on a plane and going down to Cabo for a week. Every kind of trip has a different set of do’s and don’ts. This is the classic day trip. It’s a no-brainer. Any knucklehead from Newport Beach can do this.”
What do you need for this kind of trip?
“Boy, nothing but a board, a suit, a towel, and your driver’s license. Just the simplest thing it could possibly be. You’ll need a little money too.”
“Enough for tolls, and maybe lunch. Twenty, 30 dollars. You don’t want to have a lot of money with you in case you get pulled over, because if you don’t have it, they can’t take it from you. And get your gas in the U.S. The gas is bad down here. You can smell the difference. If you can make the trip on one tank of gas, buy it in America.”
Halfway between Playas and Rosarito, Jeff points toward the beach. “This is a real famous break right here. Most people call it Baja Malibu. From the bridge we just crossed over a couple miles back to here, all of it can be good. It’s a beach break, which means it’s sand. Sandbars can change and the surf is affected when they do.”
Between the toll road and the ocean run the free two-lane road and a bluff that falls away to the beach. Houses in various states of repair dot the bluff. “None of this was there when I started coming down here in the 70s,” Jeff says. “You could drive along that road down there checking the waves the whole time, and if you wanted to surf you could pull off and surf.”
We pass ten acres of undeveloped, brush-covered land on the right. Jeff gestures toward it. “This is what it all looked like,” he says, his voice higher and more excited. “You’d just drive out onto this little outcropping and, ‘Yeah! Let’s go surf!’ ”
Five or six miles south of Baja Malibu, a smokestack right on the shore rises 150 feet into the air. “You see the smokestack there?” he asks. “That’s Power Plants. There’s a real good break right there. It’s a beach break, but there’s a little inlet there. Surfing is typically good around inlets and where there is an outfall, a river mouth, because sand tends to pile up. It makes sort of a sand reef. It’s different from flat beach. If you were to go to Coronado, there’s no contour there. It’s sand and only sand. But where there’s a river mouth, there’s automatically a change in the contour of the bottom.”
That affects the wave?
“Absolutely. And it’s different each time. Every single one of these breaks I’m going to tell you about is different.” As we approach Rosarito, the toll road swings inland skirting the town. “It’s amazing,” Jeff comments, “this town has become a full-on metropolis where it used to be one strip, one road with stuff on either side and that was it.” Five miles south of Rosarito, the road returns to the coast, which has become rocky, craggy. Jeff says, “We’re just now starting to get into reef country, where the beach breaks go away and you start to get more rocks and more contour, more geography. You start to get some real good breaks. Believe me, this stretch of beach is pretty famous for surfing. Just look at surfing magazines — Northern Baja, it’s not like Hawaii or anything, but it’s famous just the same. San Diegans sure are lucky to have this so close. People from Newport, from L.A., will drive three hours just to get to the waves down here. We got here in half an hour."
Are they coming for uncrowded waves?
“Well, chances are, if you come to Northern Baja you’re going to be with people. Though — and this is kind of the beauty of surfing down here—you never know what you’re going to get until you come. I’ve been down 600 miles and found crowds, and I’ve been right here and found it empty. It’s a get-lucky kind of thing. But it’s rare that you get this place empty when there’s good surf.”
But will it be less crowded than San Diego beaches? “Definitely. But on a Saturday morning, if it’s really good here, you could see 50 guys at any one of these breaks.” Thirty kilometers south of the border the road starts a gradual rise. At the summit, just before it turns left paralleling the coastline, Jeff pulls off onto the grassy shoulder. “There’s a break called Mushrooms right here. I’m pulling over so we can get a quick look. ’’
We hop out of the car and walk up a knoll. At its crest we have a view down past the free road to a rocky point on which stands a hotel. Above the point, the coast runs north-south. Below, it cuts in and runs east-west for a quarter mile before curving back to the right and south. “That’s the Calafia Hotel,” Jeff says. “This is a real famous point. Right on the north side of the hotel, in that little bay, is Mushrooms.” Jeff points to the east-west portion of rocky beach south of the hotel. “This is a break called Calafia. You can see we’re facing south, so if you come here in August during a good-sized south swell you’re going to see big old lines of swells coming in. Most of these places are best in the summer when the swells come out of the south.”
Jeff s voice is getting higher and higher. “God, I’ve seen waves here bigger than your house just rumbling all the way into this bay. This is all reef, there’s no sand. It’s a pure reef break, and you can only ride it right.”
“That means, from the surfer's point of view, the wave breaks right. Standing on the shore, it looks like it’s going left.” Which is better, left or right?
“Doesn’t matter to me, but some people are picky that way. A lot of people like to surf on their front side, but I don’t care. I’m goofy foot” — he surfs with his right foot forward — “so a left would be what’s called front side to me. If I’m going left. I’m facing the wave. Some people prefer that. I have friends that are only good on their front sides.”
From our vantage point, 300 feet above the water, we can just see another point to the south with another hotel on it. “That’s 38,” Jeff says, “a really famous right-hander.” Back in the car hurtling down the coast we approach Kilometer 38. Between buildings, we catch glimpses of a handful of surfers in the water. “All these buildings are new. In the old days, 20 years ago, it was all flat and barren, not a concrete block within miles. We’d be down on that road”— he points to the free road — “and it was” — high-pitched voice again — “ ‘38’s firing!, 't’s go!’ and we’d pull off and surf. Fifty people could be camping on this point, all totally legal. Now, you can’t even park your car anywhere. I was down here with some friends recently and I saw a ripoff right in front of me. Two Mexicans broke into a car, ripped off everything, and were gone in ten seconds. We chased after them and threw rocks at them, but they had a getaway car waiting. They ran to it, threw everything in, and they were gone. Because of that, unless I had a dog or something waiting in the car, I wouldn’t park here.”
Ever get people to watch your car?
“Yeah. There used to be this guy up near Baja Malibu, his name was Santiago. You’d give him five bucks, and your car would be fine the whole time. It was great peace of mind.” Continuing south, the warm spring sun pours into the car. It’s getting hot and the blue ocean looks inviting. I ask if the water is warmer than in San Diego.
“No,” Jeff answers. “In fact it can be colder down here. It’s because of currents, I don’t know from where or why, but it’s often five degrees colder here than in San Diego.”
A little way after Kilometer 38 Jeff exits from the toll road onto the free road. “This is the road you drive on if you’re looking for surf,” he explains. Take the toll road if you know where you’re going, but if you’re looking for a spot, you should be on this road because the beach is accessible from this road. If you’re on the toll road and there’s no exit, you’re not getting off. By the way, there’s a break called Teresa’s we just passed.”
On the two-lane, open-access free road, travel is slower but more scenic. The road passes through the middle of small towns and settlements. Restaurants in the towns have names with surfer themes, such as Taco Surf, but outside the towns, stretches of beachfront fence bear signs stating No Surfers. “Plenty of places don’t want surfers,” Jeff explains. “Californians don’t have the best reputation. I’ve been on surf trips where there were Hawaiians, Brazilians, Texans, and surfers from all over the world, and Californians are the loudest mouthed and most offensive. It may just be because of numbers. We’re greater in number than anybody else.”
Does this road go all the way to Ensenada?
“No, it turns inland north of Ensenada and you have to get back on the toll road. The road does run all the way back up to the border, though. I remember days when we were kind of low on dough, we’d take it to avoid the tolls. The problem is you’re more likely to be hassled by a Fed than you are on the toll road. He might be having lunch in one of these towns and see you go by and decide to stop you.
“It used to be,” Jeff recalls, “when we got pulled over, we would always try to get the bribe down as low as possible and pay it Then, when he said, ’Hundred dollars or we’re going to the station,’ we started saying, ‘Okay, let’s go to the station.’ That threw him for a loop. He’d go, ‘What?’ like he’d never heard that. The theory was, they couldn’t get a bribe out of us once they got to the station, but you see, none of us had ever been to the station so we weren’t sure. What would happen is, he’d say, ‘Okay, let’s go to the station,’ and we’d follow him for three blocks or so and he’d pull over again and say, ‘Okay, what do you got, ten bucks? I’ll take it.’ So we kind of got tough with them, but we were scared.”
The road turns sharply to the left, a steep drop to the water on the right, no guardrail. “This turn always scares the hell out of me," Jeff says. “This is a spot called Kilometer 55. Up ahead there’s a point my friends and I used to camp at. We can go and look.”
Another three kilometers along, we cross a bridge over a small estuary. Jeff slows the car and turns in under the high gateway of a fenced compound of rental cottages, some half-built. “This is where we used to camp. We called it La Fonda. In those days nothing was here.”
Rolling in, we pass a man who’s taking apart the carburetor of his early-’70s Ford pickup on a piece of cardboard lying on the sand in front of the truck.
He doesn’t lift his head to look at us. A posted sign tells us parking is $10 a day and directs us to the office with a left-pointing arrow. We ease past both man and sign and drive to the edge of the bluff. Jeff s face wears a smile of recollection. “Here’s the spot we used to camp. It was so much fun! We spent a lot of time here. It’s a really good break. If you look to the right, there’s a river mouth here. This is a beach that is affected by that river mouth. I’ve got pictures of this place just firing! Really, really good lefts and rights, mostly lefts, especially in a south swell. I saw the only shark I’ve ever seen in California right out in that bay right there. It was a big shark too. I was surfing with two guys from Florida at the time. When I saw the shark, I paddled right in, but the Florida guys stayed out. When they finally came in, I said, ‘You guys are crazy! I know you saw that shark.’ They said, ‘We’re from Florida. These are the best waves we’ve ever surfed. There was no way we were going to paddle in.’ ”
Just south of La Fonda, the free road crosses under the toll road and goes inland up a pretty little river valley. Jeff pulls a U-turn. “This is what I hate to do because if a Fed saw me making this U-turn, it would be a reason to hassle me. They’ll take any opportunity to pull you over.”
Back on the toll road, we’ve traveled another 15 minutes south when the road turns abruptly left and a vista of the Bay of Ensenada spreads out 1000 feet below. Another two or three kilometers and we pass a sign for Salsipuedes (translation: Leave If You Can). “Down there is a famous, only-breaks-when-it’s-really-big spot,” Jeff says. “A very heavy wave.” Heavy?
“Heavy means really powerful, where the wave breaks from top to bottom.”
So it’s not just the size... “...but the way it breaks. A place like O.B., it’s a good beginner’s wave because it’s mellow out there. But if you go to a place like this, or Baja Malibu, that wave is square and really hollow. The lip of the wave bends all the way over and touches before the wave breaks. And when it hits, it’s coming down with a lot of force. It’ll snap your board like a twig.” What kind of board should you use down here?
“It depends on the conditions. You pretty much know what’s going on before you come down. Say it’s summer and the surf is good but not huge, you just bring your standard board, your 6'6" or whatever you like to ride. You'd bring a biffer board, maybe a 7'8" or something like that if it's going to b really big. If you can, bring more than one. It's better to have and not need than to need and not have."
Just after the last toll booth, on the north edge of Ensenada, is an off-ramp for San Miguel. "This is the last of the day-trip breaks here, Jeff says, taking the off-ramp. "Anything farther than Ensenada is really a camping trip, packing some food and water and spending the night in a tent or sleeping in our truck or something like that."
Once off the toll road, we drive past a $5 Daytime Surfing sign into a dirt parking lot next to a rocky beach. "This is San Miguel," Jeff says, smiling, "Faaaaaaamous break her, very famous. If you were going to try to surf Mexico for the first time, I would come here. You'll never have a problem at this parking lot because it's protected and there are usually plenty of people around. Plus, there are bathrooms, and it's a good wave."
Jeff parks next to the sand and we get out. San Miguel sits on a point with the coast running southeast below the tip. Coarse black volcanic sand on the beach gives way to basketball-sized rocks in the water. Nobody is here on this Wednesday afternoon, and there is not much of a swell.
"I don't know, that's a fun little wave right there," Jeff points to a small curling wave breaking 30 yeards offshore. "If I had a longboard with me, I would paddle out into that. When it's firing here, the wave grew north 50 yards out and up the point. I've ridden waves here al the way from the point into that bay." He turns and points down the beach 500 yards. "It is such a good wave!"
Jeff's excitement level and voice are rising again. I can see he's itching to get in the water. "This is very surfable right now!" he says. "You and I could paddle out there and have a great time, especially if we had longboards. And if it was a foot bigger, God, it would be so much fun!"