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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Surf and Turf: The Baja Renaissance

Javier Plascencia of Mision 19.

“Last week I surfed K-38’s,” said Javier Plascencia, the chef and proprietor of Tijuana’s Mision 19. “But the surf was pretty bad.”

Plascencia is from Tijuana, attended high school in Chula Vista, and grew up surfing in Imperial Beach, OB and his home breaks in Baja.

The rock-star handsome Tijuana surfer, along with fellows chefs such as Diego Hernandez of Corazon de Tierra, Benito Molina and Solange Muris of Manzanilla, and brothers Javier Martinez of Boules and David Martinez Muelle 3 in Ensenada are leading a gastronomic revolution and Baja Renaissance that is bringing the endemic and earthy colors, tastes and textures of Baja’s land and sea into our palates and hearts.

“Baja is undergoing a virtual renaissance now with a renewed interest in the region’s gastronomy, culture, eco-adventures, lifestyle and unique accommodations,” said Jim Pickell, CEO and founder of Baja.com, a Baja-based company dedicated to helping travelers enjoy an authentic Baja California experience.

This new renaissance and revival of the authentic in Baja is an important and much needed antidote to the ongoing doom and gloom reporting on Mexico that has convinced many Baja fanatics to stay away from their favorite home away from home.

But due to the amazing things happening in the kitchens of these chefs and the still heartbreaking beauty of Baja’s wilderness landscapes and coastal treasures, there has never been a better time to head south across the border.

My first trip across the border was in 1967, when I was three. My mother, an English immigrant, and I joined our Los Angeles neighbors, a Mexican-American family, on weekend trips to Ensenada, where we rode horses on uncluttered beaches.

Later we traveled to San Felipe with my Aunt Jill and Uncle Emile who were visiting from Switzerland. There we reveled in the fresh fish, unfiltered kindness of local fishing families, the endless beauty of the Gulf of California and the towering peaks of the Sierra San Pedro Martir.

That me on the right with my brother Nicky, my mother, and my Uncle Emile in San Felipe either in 1972 or 1973.

After I started surfing at the age of 13 in 1977, I frequently traveled south of the border to surf the coastline between Tijuana and Ensenada. Those quick trips turned into longer expeditions with my father and friends to central Pacific Baja in a beat-up olive green 1964 six-volt Volkswagen van.

We found friendly fishermen, pristine beaches and surfed perfect waves.

In the 1990s my wife Emiy and I spent two years in the remote coastal lagoons of southern Baja to carry out our dissertation research on gray whales and fisheries management.

During those two years, besides the perfect waves I surfed and the incredible encounters Emily and I had with gray whales, sea turtles, sea lions, osprey and sharks, some of the best expeiences I had were sharing freshly harvested seafood with ourfishermen friends and their families.

In San Ignacio Lagoon, Maria Luisa, a fisherman’s wife and daughter, would lead me and my wife on low-tide searches for pulpo, or octopus. These elusive creatures hid in the empty shells of callo de hacha, or hatchet clams. Maria Luisa would use a gancho, or metal hook, to pry the shells out of the tidal flats and then open up the shells to occasionally reveal an octopus hiding in a shell.

A couple of hours later she would serve us up ceviche de pulpo in the dining room of her plywood house on the shore of the lagoon accompanied by a cold Pacifico.

I thought of those meals when I sat down with Plascencia last week at Mision 19 in Tijuana’s modern Zona Rio district and ate grilled pulpo with pistachio and garbanzo. The complex and satisfying dish was a direct connection to Maria Luisa’s pulpo ceviche.

Sashimi is one of the other signature dishes in northern Baja that is offered up at Manzanilla, Muelle 3 and Boules.

“The only time I had eaten sashimi in Baja,” I told Javier, “was with the fishermen of Punta Abreojos.”

Years ago after being hit by an obnoxious mantaraya or stingray, I savored fresh yellowtail sashimi while sitting under a ramshackle fish shack in Estero Coyote, a mangrove lagoon midway between San Ignacio Lagoon and the rocky points of Abreojos.

My fishermen friends Javier, Isidro and Miguel plied me with cold cerveza that combined with delicacy and sabor of the sashimi, dulled the acute pain of the stingray barb.

For the Baja fans who long to return across the border, you can no longer afford to miss out on the experience offered up by these chefs and the great waves in Baja.

But if you need to quickly experience the sabor of the Baja Renaissance, you can catch, Javier, Diego, Solange and Benito at the Baja Bash on June 2nd at the Harbor Pavilion on San Diego Bay. There these master chefs will offer up the best of their innovative cuisine to the background of Tijuana’s genre busting musical innovators Nortect Collective: Hiperboreal.

You can’t afford to miss out on the new taste of Baja.

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