The Best Places to Explore in Baja in 2013

Daniel gets a fun one--the light was perfect in the afternoon for photos.

San Miguel in Ensenada.

For years many Southern California surfers and ocean lovers have lived for Baja. Upon crossing the border they experienced endless empty beaches, great fishing, friendly people and perfect waves.

Then when things got a little rough in Mexico a few years ago, due to the drug war, many Baja California lovers bid adios to their old friend.

But an interesting thing happened during the years that American tourists abandoned Lower California. Rather than sit idly by waiting for tourists to show up, the peninsula’s new generation of entrepreneurs reinvented Baja. They developed a new cuisine, built beautiful new eco-resorts and boutique hotels, and produced fine wines.

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The peninsula got a lot safer as well. Highways have been improved. The increased presence of the police and the military has made travel safer.

Over the holidays my sons and I spent a few mornings and afternoons south of the the border carrying out surgical surf strikes during the recent magical run of winter swells. We scored big and never had a single problem. Lots of smiles, great food, and cool, clean, empty waves.

So here are a few of the hottest spots to sample in our sun-kissed neighbor to the south.

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Northern Baja Cuisine and Wine County: Start off with a late lunch at Javier Plascencia’s gastronomic palace in Tijuana, Mision 19. Then head south and stop for a quick sunset surf before you check into one of the boutique hotels in the Valle de Guadalupe such as the Grupo Habita eco-bungalows or Adobe Guadalupe. For dinner check out the amazingly tasty Corazon de Tierra. The next day, after sampling waves at San Miguel or 3M’s, catch a late breakfast or  lunch at either Boules or Muelle 3. After a second surf session check out the wine, cocktails and dinner at the award winning Manzanilla.

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Whale Watching in San Ignacio Lagoon: The world’s best whale-watching awaits you in this stark and pristine desert lagoon fringed by mangroves, bobcats and coyotes. Filled with more than 200 gray whales during the height of the whale season in February and early March, this is the best place in the world to encounter a friendly whale.

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Whales, Islands and Missions in Loreto and Magdalena Bay: Catch a short flight to the beautiful mission town of Loreto to catch up with old Baja. Tour the amazing azure islands of Loreto Bay National Park, be inspired by the grandeur of Mision San Javier, and take a day trip to Magdalena Bay’s Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos for a day of whale watching and wandering the dunes of the barrier islands.

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East Cape: Fill up on organic goodies and beautiful arts and crafts at the San Jose del Cabo Organic Market and then head out east and discover miles of empty white-sand beaches. Explore the coral reef and schools of fish at Cabo Pulmo National Park, one of North America’s best dive spots. If you’re lucky you’ll catch an early season south swell, but during the winter the East Cape is tranquility and heaven. Be sure to catch the sunset over cocktails and dinner at the iconic Crossroads Country Club at Vinorama, where a boutique hotel will open soon.

Whale shark.  Photo courtesy of Ralph Lee Hopkins.

Whale shark on the East Cape. Photo courtesy of Ralph Lee Hopkins.

Todos Santos: Officially the hottest, hippest, and coolest little resort town in Baja. Todos Santos is an old school Baja town remade as a trendy little village with great hotels, excellent food and a laid back vibe. My wife Emily and I spent one of the best years of our life living in Todos Santos back in the mid 1990s, so I love to visit and hang out with friends, surf pristine warm-water waves and eat tasty, healthy food.

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So what are you waiting for? Baja is better than ever. Explore it now while the going is good!

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Historic Surf Weekend in San Miguel

Sean Fowler nails it during the final heat.

“My brother Travis and I were competing in the Vans Pier Classic and lost out on Friday, March 30th,” said Mexican-American ripper Dylan Southworth, who lives in Sayulita, north of Puerto Vallarta. “We saw the swell was on the rise and figured we would head down to Ensenada.”

Dylan and Travis were part of an international crew who found themselves surfing a historic swell at San Miguel in Ensenada on Saturday and Sunday as part of the 2012 2nd Annual Walter Coloca Memorial Open Surf Contest organized by United Athletes of the Pacific Ocean (UAPO) and WiLDCOAST.

Luis from Venezuela during the opening heat.

That wasn’t all that was going on.

“On Friday March 30th, the day before the surf contest we held the first ever forum, La Nueva Ola, on the state of surfing in Baja at CETYS University in Ensenada,” said Alfredo Ramirez of UAPO.

“Scientists, surfers, coastal conservationists, politicians and business owners discussed issues related to coastal access, water quality, the economic value of surf spots and efforts to improve the current situation of the region’s coastline.”

Speakers from Pronatura, Autonomous University of Baja California (UABC), WiLDCOAST, Surf Ens, CETYS University, Locales Surf School and UAPO presented their collective efforts to engage youth in the sport of surfing and reestablish a clean and accessible surfing environment.

“Although limited coastal access and poor water quality is currently limiting economic and recreational opportunities for surfing, there is a new wave in Baja California to improve the situation,” said Zach Plopper of WiLDCOAST.

Alfredo Ramirez of UAPO.

The forum was a good way to launch the Walter Coloca Open over the weekend. More than 60 surfers from Mexico, Venezuela and the U.S. came together to surf in the second year of an event organized by Ramirez.

“The contest is about one ocean, one passion and one family,” he said. “We share the same ocean so it is important to come together and surf together. Waves bring us together across the border. We are all part of a surfing family.”

Saturday was for the junior, school and body board divisions. Venezuelan Derek Gomez ripped his way to both finals in both the age 12-15 and 16-18 divisions. Judges and spectators were amazed by his solid style and explosive surfing.

Travis Southworth.

Equally impressive was Imperial Beach’s Josh Johnson who scored a perfect 10 (the only 10 of the event) in the 12-15 semi-finals with a double barrel ride across the entire cove section of San Miguel. Josh placed second in his division.

Zach Randall, 13, from East Lake Middle School came in third. Second place in the 16-18 division went to Andres Aguirre from Ensenada.

Also making the final were Michael Roccoforte from El Cajon, and Jorge Olvera from Ensenada. Paloma Aguirre of San Diego won the Open Body Board division with Ensenada’s Jose Peralta coming in a close second.

The Open Division of the contest took place on Sunday with an increasing combination of swells. I joined Imperial Beach surfer Sean Fowler and South Mission Beach’s Craig Macias in the rising swell Sunday.

Dylan Southworth

“The swell was the product of a compact, but intense, storm that was located just a few hundred miles off the California coast,” said Kevin Wallis, surf forecaster for Surfline. He said it brought 30-50 knot-plus winds and seas of over 30 feet.

“Because of the storm’s proximity to California, the swell it created rapidly filled in and it was kind of like someone flipped on a light switch, going from small to moderate size surf from a previous swell to very large surf in a matter of 30-60 minutes as the new west swell filled in. Definitely a cool thing to witness.”

Mysto waves north of San Miguel.

When I arrived at San Miguel on Sunday, the surf was in the 3-4’ range. By the time the contest was over the sets were 6-10’.

“This was definitely the latest I can remember seeing a swell of that size and westerly direction, which allowed it to get into many SoCal breaks,” said Wallis.

“Thirty surfers put on an exceptional show of surfing for the spectators and judges,” said Plopper, who helped to sponsor and organize the contest.

Women's finalists.

Dylan Southworth surfed consistently to the final and took home first place. In a close second was Imperial Beach’s Sean Fowler.

Placing third and fourth were Cheyne Willis from Hawaii and Travis Southworth. In the women’s division big-wave surfer Narra Nunez took the win and Everardo Montoya won the longboard division. Both surfers are from Ensenada.

Zach Plopper and Men's Open Finalists.

“The 2012 Walter Caloca contest at San Miguel in Ensenada was one of the best contests. The vibes were great; surf was pumping all weekend, especially with only three other people out,” said Fowler. “Thank you to the locals and all the sponsors for throwing such a great contest.”

“Travis and I we found ourselves in the final with great waves,” said Dylan. “Super stoked to get the title,” said Dylan. “A lot of good competitors entered and everyone was ripping.”

Travis Southworth.

Zach Plopper after the contest was over when the swell started pumping.

That's me in my first or second heat. I stared the semi right after finishing my second heat, competing against the Southworth brothers and Luis from Venezuela. I was super tired and they all ripped! it was an honor to surf with them--all great guys and great surfers!

Surf and Boules in Ensenada: A Super Day in the Biarritz of Mexico

Zach Plopper ripping San Miguel after the surf started pumping after the contest was over.

Spend the day yesterday in Ensenada at the 2nd Annual Walter Coloca Jr. Memorial Surf Contest organized by UAPO and WiLDCOAST. It was an epic weekend with one of the craziest NW swells I’ve ever seen in April (the surf jumped from 2-4′ in the morning to 6-10′ in the afternoon). I’ll post more about the contest later this week.

Javier Martinez the propietor of Boules in San MIguel in Ensenada.

But besides the great surf the highlight of the day was strolling over to Boules, a 2-year old restaurant that is perched above the inside break at San Miguel. Located inside a restored vintage building, Boules is a great addition to the Ensenada food scene. Owned by Javier Martinez (Javier’s brother David owns the insanely great Muelle 3) and his wife Galia Ahlborn, Boules is Biarritz meets Mexico. An earthy unpretentious and rustic location and similar tasty, simple, but delicious food.

Efrain with the mushroom and roasted zuchini appetizers.

While I sampled roasted zuchini with parmesan, roasted artichoke, mushrooms, fresh yellowtail (jurel) sashimi, and risotto with mushrooms and duck, with my staffers Sofia and Efrain, I watched the surf roll into San Miguel and chatted with Javier.

The bar at Boules.

Surfing is just part of the reason to visit San Miguel. But like a lot of surfers and foodies, I am finding that the innovative and original food being offered up throughout Ensenada is what is going to have me coming back for more. Don’t wait to visit Ensenada before the whole scene blows up. But for now get down to Boules for a pleasant afternoon lunch or dinner. You won’t regret it.

WiLDCOAST staffers Efrain and Sofia at Boules.

Risotto with mushrooms and duck.

Sofia and Javier. For such a cool place, Javier and Galia are incredibly down-to-earth. Javier sat and chatted with us for a while. We had a mutual friend, Luis Guerena the legendary founder of Tijuana No! a seminal Mexican ska-punk band who passed away and who I wrote about in my book Wild Sea.

Mural at Boules.

What could be better than great food and watching world-class surf. That's me in one of my contest heats. My bottom turns couldn't match the vertical surfing of fellow competitors who were half my age and seriously ripped.

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