“The Land of Contrasts and and Cold Tecates.”
Baja California Sur is hot, dry, harsh and unforgiving. Baja’s deserts stretch relentlessly from the Sea of Cortez to the Pacific Ocean. Prickly cactus, sharp rocks, and hot hot heat fill your view as you wind down the nearly 1,000 mile Transpeninsular Highway from the Slums of Tijuana to the lands end.
In stark contrast to and rising out of the abrasive landscape are things of ridiculous beauty. Brilliant green cactuses tower over reddish brown desert expanses. Deep dark gray storm clouds dump buckets of warm rain over barren landscapes. Blue-green salty sea water laps the empty shores of the Sea of Cortez.
To me, Baja is probably the most beautiful, awe-inspiring place I’ve ever been to. And more so than most places I’ve seen, traveling in Baja is 100% about the journey and not the destination.
WHEN SHOULD YOU GO?
Both the air and sea water in Northern Baja is often cold. Expect to wear a wetsuit and a sweater. The closer you get to Cabos San Lucas, the warmer, even in winter. The surf is good all year around but particularly good during the Northern Hemisphere’s south swell season (May through October).
Rough going. Get your 4 X 4 tuned up and bring supplies. You’ll inevitably pass overturned Baja warrior trucks, decaying shells of RVs of someone’s dreams of yesteryear, and other unfit vehicles. Heed their warning: come prepared or suffer the consequences. The Transpeninsular Highway has undergone many improvements – wider lanes, more signage, and warnings – but is still not Interstate 5. Scary passing situations, wrecks and many Federal police checkpoints are a given. If you are venturing off road, say to Scorpion Bay, make sure you have tools, extra tires, plenty of water and extra fuel. Baja is a good place to test your luck and your truck.
If all this Mad Max-esque barging sounds too difficult, fly. There are direct flights from both San Diego and Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas, La Paz and Loreto. You can rent a car once there or hitch a ride in a beat up Mazada while you hold your suitcases outside of the window. It’s been done.
Tijuana and Baja Norte
My family and I have been going to Tijuana, Rosarito and Puerto Nuevo since as long as I can remember. My mom is the queen of the strategic Tijuana strike: drive to the border, get a cab to La Revolucion, eat lunch, shop at the grocery store and pharmacy, buy something with the Virgin of Guadalupe on it, have a beer at Hotel Nelson, walk back across the border and be in La Jolla by sunset.
For a while, our strategic strikes to Tijuana, Sundays eating cheap lobster in Puerto Nuevo and weekends at surf spots like Salsipuedes (leave if you can) altogether stopped because of rumors of violence and turmoil due to the drug cartels. Today, I believe things in Baja Norte have turned around. I’ve been going back to Tijuana and Northern Baja without incident. Nothing compares to being able to hop over the border into a wild and foreign world for an afternoon. I think that tourists’ fears will continue to decline as evidenced by the popularity of the Valle de Guadalupe.
San Juanico AKA Scorpion Bay
Let’s see, if I doing a super fast flash list of everything that’s great about San Juanico, it goes something like this: boards, burritos, boats, babes, brown vans and local legend and surf guide, Daviel (even though he doesn’t start with a B). Actually, there’s a lot more to be said about Scorpion Bay besides B-words.
Scorpion Bay is a series of right points with a variety of set-ups and bottom topography that fires when there’s a south swell. Surfers have been known to connect mile-long waves from 4th point to 1st point. It’s also the best place in the world for a first point party and a game of dizzy bat. Culturally speaking, you can make a lot of local friends on the beach and maybe even attend a local baile (dance).
In all seriousness, this is an amazing wave and place. The best accommodations are the Scorpion Bay Club, which boasts San Juanico’s only pool table, hot showers, air conditioning and the most comfortable beds.
Sea of Cortez
The stretch of road that meanders along the Sea of Cortez from Santa Rosalia to Loreto is particularly memorable for me. After tough going through the hot desert, the truck eases down Devil’s Crest and onto the coast. The salty Sea of Cortez alternates shades of aquamarine, kelly green and deep dark blue. Quaint fishing villages seem sleepy during the hot midday sun. As you continue south passing Bahia Concepcion numerous red sand islands jet out the sea. At one beach you stop for a swim and meet a friendly fisherman selling alemejas patas de mula (clams) you eat out of the shell while they are still alive. Each picturesque beach you pass has the whitest sand and most glittering blue-green water you’ve ever seen until the next beach. This dream-like trance of ethereal beauty continues until you hit Loreto and speed back inland toward the working class town of Constitucion. You never forget that along the Sea of Cortez life is but a dream.
Cabo San Lucas
There’s more to Cabo than El Squid Row. Duh, there’s the Office, Nowhere Bar, Cabo Wabo, Mermaids and countless other places to down tequila whilst whistles blare. Besides watering holes, other places to get wet and wild abound. Favorites include Pedergal, a beach in private community that is home to seriously pounding whomp. Think lose-you-bikini-bottoms shorebreak. Lover’s Beach is a nice place to cruise out to on a jet ski and have a look around.
The East Cape might be the happiest place on earth for a regular footed surfer. My family and I visited the East Cape of Baja Sur since I was a baby. In fact, I am pretty sure my first international trip at the ripe age of 1 year old was to Palmas Del Cortez at Las Barrancas on the East Cape. It was also a beloved place of my grandfather. Since then, my adventures on the East Cape include bountiful surf and fishing trips. If you drive east from San Jose Del Cabo, several worthy surf spots lie along the bumpy road before you turn north towards the best fishing in Baja. In my life, I rode some incredible waves at Shipwrecks, caught a 125-pound marlin off of Palmas, and weathered a hurricane on an East Cape Beach. Plus the happiest, coolest, most inspirational couple I’ve ever met live down the road. No surprise the East Cape is my favorite place in Baja and perhaps the world.
Tacos! The best tacos!
La Especial Taco Shop (Tijuana, Baja Norte)
For years, my family ate at this family-run restaurant tucked into a small arcade off of La Revolucion every time we were in Tijuana. La Especial made the most amazing tacos – a mix of beef and potato on a corn tortilla – that have been a personal favorite for as long as I can remember. Due to the tourist recession, the sit-down dining room has closed. Today, all that is left is the taco stand on the street and those magic tacos. Support my old-school homies and get a street taco from La Especial.
Traylors (Ensenada, Baja Norte)
Stop at Traylor’s Taco Shop on the main drag through Ensenada. Order whatever looks good but I especially love anything made Vampiro style. The taco man, aka your new best friend, takes a corn tortilla, covers it in cheese and heats it to a crisp before topping it with carne, street-style guacamole and salsa.
El Malarimo (Guerrero Negro, Baja Sur)
El Malarimo is a legendary mid-way stopping point on the way from San Diego to Scorpion Bay. It is both a hotel and restaurant. Pull in, rent the suite with the loft and have dinner at the only restaurant I know of that has a photograph of a whale’s penis on the wall. Upscale (for the middle of Baja) mariscos will satisfy the hunger of 1000k sweaty Baja kilometers. I like the ceviche and the seafood soup and the margaritas of course.
Under a bridge ceviche (Cabo San Lucas)
This is an overarching recommendation. Eat on the street! Do this everywhere you go: it’s part of the adventure. That being said, be smart about street food. Look for high turnover, other locals chowing down and overall hygiene. When you see a group of locals eating ceviche out of Styrofoam cups under a bridge between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose Del Cabo, eat there and make friends!
Back streets locals’ joints (Cabo San Lucas)
Cabo San Lucas is full of touristy, overpriced, and Americanized dining opportunities. Drive down the streets away from the harbor and the beach and once again check out where the locals eat. Restaurants in these areas range from taquerias with salsa smorgasbords (think salsas every color of rainbow, deep fried onions and jalapenos, fresh guacamole, habanero cabbage salads) to sit-down family affairs that serve shrimp cocktails the size of Jay Leno’s cabeza and feature (good) live mariachi bands that serenade the jefes (bosses) of Cabo.
Carnitas “Los Michoacanos” (San Jose Del Cabo)
This is a carnitas mecca. White uniform-clad young gentleman cook pork in giant copper pans before dishing out the golden crisp carnitas with fresh corn tortillas, salty lime saturated salsas and the ubiquitous thin taco guacamole. On one journey to the carnitas promised land, a seasoned Mexico veteran and close friend proclaimed he had “the perfect bite.”
SO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE ADVENTURE HAVEN JUST OVER THE BORDER
“One’s options in this world are as vast as the horizon, which is technically a circle and thus infinitely broad. Yet we must choose each step we take with utmost caution, for the footprints we leave behind are as important as the path we will follow. They’re part of the same journey — our story.”
― Lori R. Lopez, Dance Of The Chupacabras
I am always shocked at how much beauty and serenity I find in such a ridiculously rough, hard place. The Baja peninsula is massive and full of adventures from Rosarito to Shipwrecks, anything can happen. Every Baja trip is different and you’ll certainly face your share of challenges. Baja builds character and makes you a better traveler. Your Baja story is waiting to be told.
Author Audrey Hill
Audrey is a 5th generation Californian who called La Jolla home for most of her life before moving to Sydney, Australia. She now splits her year between Manly Beach, Australia and La Jolla. You can usually find her surfing, body surfing, camping and adventuring when she’s not working on her blog www.surfstokedmoms.com or chasing after her 2 year old daughter, Valentina.
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