When it comes to winter travel destinations for surfing and kiteboarding, the Baja Peninsula in Mexico (a stone’s throw from the US) is a diamond in the rough. From Ensenada all the way down to Los Cabos you’ll discover empty lineups, butter flat slicks, phenomenal fishing and a friendly welcoming culture.
Traveling Baja via Highway 1 with a full rack of gear is the quintessential waterman’s road trip. For the adventurous, Baja is long held as the last place in North America where you can still discover the unexpected. But beware; this isn’t your grandma’s Sunday drive. Mexico can be a dangerous place if you go unprepared.
Before you leave the states take your vehicle to a mechanic for a once over. Your vehicle is your lifeline in Mexico, so make sure everything is up to spec. Also stock up on tools, full size spares and any special parts you may need in case of a breakdown. Highway 1 has a group called the Angeles Verdes (Green Angels) who patrol the 1 in green service trucks looking for breakdowns, but they’re few and far between so you don’t want to solely depend on them. Finally, US car insurance is invalid in Mexico, so make sure you get the proper foreign insurance through MexiPass, AAA or your insurance provider. This is also a good time to make sure you have a proper Mexican cell phone plan to avoid excessive roaming charges.
What to bring:
Packing for Mexico is easy, just bring it all! This is a huge advantage of road tripping through Baja; you can absolutely stuff your vehicle with supplies without worrying about baggage fees or the ability to get four board bags from the airport to the beach. For kiteboarding expect to use 10m and smaller in the waves on the Pacific Side and 10m and larger for the flats on the Sea of Cortez. For chasing surf a quiver of boards weighted for good to epic beach and point break surf is crucial. There aren’t many surf or kite shops in Baja, so bring one with you. Kite and glass repair kits, bladders, pumps, extra bars, wax, leashes, fins, more wax and an extra repair kit are gold in the Baja. Bring extras to barter with the locals. For rubber: a shorty and a full 4/3 will cover most days depending on how far south you plan to go. For clothing: jeans and a hoody will be perfect for chilly desert nights. Finally, pack at least a few days worth of food and water. This will come in handy if you find yourself posted up at a mysto deserted point break and want to stay a few extra days.
Crossing the border:
Today visiting Mexico is safer than ever. Tourist related violence has been on a steep decline since 2007, but the majority of crime still occurs in the border regions. It’s crucial to limit the amount of time you spend in these places, which is okay because all the good sessions are south of the border anyways. If you’re crossing the border from San Diego, make sure to afford yourself plenty of daylight hours to make it through customs AND make it south of Tijuana. The last place on earth you want to be is lost at night in Tijuana. If your first night’s destination is south of Ensenada, hit the toll road immediately after crossing the border and enjoy the strait shot to sessions. If you’re traveling into Baja Sur, make sure you grab the appropriate paperwork at the US/Mexico border. You’ll need to present these papers when crossing from Baja Norte to Baja Sur.
Traveling at night:
The number one rule of traveling by car in Baja: DO NOT drive at night. Driving at night in Baja is dangerous for two reasons:
1. Animals, particularly cows, like to migrate to the warm highway pavement during chilly desert nights. Depending on your vehicle hitting a cow can halt your Baja adventure in its tracks.
2. Breakdowns happen. Daytime breakdowns are a hassle, but nighttime breakdowns can be deadly. There are stories of banditos in rural areas robbing stranded tourists at night, so just don’t put yourself in that situation. Drive during the day and if you need to crash for a night, do so in an established hotel, resort or designated camping area.
If you are cruising Highway 1 you’re going to come across multiple military checkpoints. While slightly intimidating, I’ve never ran into any issues dealing with the Mexican Military. They’ve set up these checkpoints to control the trafficking of drugs and weapons, so as long as you’re not transporting either you’ll make it through these checkpoints easily. Smile, speak Spanish if you can (even if it’s a little you get points for trying), follow directions and move along. It is within their rights to request a complete search of the vehicle so be prepared for this. On previous trips we brought a case of Monster Energy drinks to give to the soldiers after they cleared us. They reciprocated by notifying the next checkpoint that we were clear and could pass through without an open door search. In Mexico when you give respect, you get respect.
Eating while traveling through Mexico is a treat. I’ve never eaten better on the road than when traveling down the Baja. Best bet is to find the busiest corner café you can. You’re almost guaranteed the freshest Mexican dish you’ve ever had, everything from tacos and tortas to tamales and enchiladas. Make sure to request bottled water and never drink the tap water. Avoid ice, especially in margaritas, as it’s usually just frozen tap water and will make you sick.
Pay with Pesos and always have a solid stack with you at all times. If you get pulled over by a Federale (state cop), it’s likely the easiest way out will be a bribe. Don’t get caught empty handed.
Baja truly is a shining diamond in the rough. However, like any good diamond, it takes a little work and preparation to get Baja to really shine. By doing the necessary research and traveling prepared, Baja becomes a no-brainer for everything from an inexpensive weekend getaway to a month long road trip discovering the empty Mexican point breaks of lore. So read up, pack up, and discover the playground that is the Baja Peninsula.
Nate is the main master behind the lens for REAL, lives in Cape Hatteras and is an avid kiteboarder and surfer.