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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So what are you waiting for? Baja is better than ever. Explore it now while the going is good!
- WiLDCOAST ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN 2012 (sergededina.com)
Yesterday I spent the morning at the world’s most important sea turtle nesting beach, Morro Ayuta beach in Oaxaca, Mexico. The area is largely cut off from communications.
After picking up my son in Barra de la Cruz where he had spent the week with a local family, my WiLDCOAST team and I returned to our hotel in Huatulco and were greeted with the news that Mexico‘s President Felipe Calderon had cancelled the Cabo Cortes project that would have destroyed the Cabo Pulmo coral reef.
WiLDCOAST has spent the past two years mountain a campaign to stop the Cabo Cortes project. We brought the issue international attention and organized people in the streets of Los Cabos and the East Cape. We made it a truly grassroots and global campaign.
Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park is considered the world’s most important marine conservation area–fish have rebounded there by more than 460% since fishing was banned in 1999.
My favorite part of the campaign was our finale–where we worked with Napanda-a freestyle rapper and graffiti artist to work with students in Los Cabos and La Paz to pain Save Cabo murals. In addition we placed two billboards in La Paz.
I have an amazing team at WiLDCOAST and I am lucky they did such a great job of working passionately and tirelessly to bring attention to the plight of Cabo Pulmo and additionally work with the Mexican government to conserve the federal coastal save of the park through federal conservation concessions.
And thanks to all of our supporters for helping us to conserve a world-class ocean ecosystem and proving that you have to fight hard to make conservation a reality.
- Mexico cancels Cabo Cortes, $2 billion Baja California (miamiherald.com)
- Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park: Baja’s Miracle Threatened (newswatch.nationalgeographic.com)
I caught my first glimpse of the Sea of Cortez as I rounded the farming and fishing village of La Ribera, on Baja’s East Cape. The sea was turquoise.
A pod of humpbacks breached in the distance.
My guide was Cecilia Fischer, a Baja native who works with me as the WiLDCOAST Cape Region Coordinator.
“We’re almost to Cabo Pulmo,” said Cecilia as we left the pavement in my rented Jeep, and headed down a rutted dirt road to the tiny fishing village that proudly abuts the only coral reef in the Sea of Cortez.
I was in southern Baja to give a talk to the residents of Cabo Pulmo and the Cape Region to update them on our efforts to conserve the reef, a marine protected area, and the coastline that surrounds it.
A Spanish company, Hansa Urbana, has proposed building a new city larger than Cancun in the empty desert just next to Cabo Pulmo National Park.
If the project is built out, conservation biologists and marine ecologists fear the reef will not sustain the impacts that are sure to come.
We arrived in the ramshackle hamlet of Cabo Pulmo and made our way to the Cabo Pulmo Resort.
“I first came here years ago,” said Cole, the operator of the Resort’s Coral Reef Restaurant. “The reef was dead and the fish were gone. But now, diving the reef is incredible.”
Back in 1999, local fishermen and the Mexican government brokered a deal to ban all fishing around the reef. The fishermen switched from harvesting the locally dwindling supply of fish to taking tourists to dive the reef.
More than ten years later, researchers from Scripps announced the results of their decade long monitoring project in Cabo Pulmo.
The population of fish or “biomass” increased 460%.
Cabo Pulmo, they declared was “the world’s most robust marine reserve.”
“We never used to see whale sharks here,” said Cole. “Now this is one of the few places in the Sea of Cortez we can dive with them.”
Marine biologists and conservationists from around the world now visit Cabo Pulmo to learn about how Mexican fishermen saved the reef and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Last fall, Sylvia Earle, the renowned ocean explorer came to Cabo Pulmo to dive and named the 18,000-acre Cabo Pulmo National Park a “Hope Spot.”
After meeting with the friendly residents of Cabo Pulmo, Cecilia and I returned to San Jose del Cabo. The sprawling city is a world apart from the desert solitude and emerald brilliance of the East Cape.
The next morning I made my way through the bustle and traffic of Los Cabos on my way Todos Santos. My wife Emily and I lived in he artsy and historic village on the Pacific Coast 18 years earlier while we were finishing up writing up our dissertations on Baja’s gray whales and the fishing folk who make their living from whalewatching.
Todos Santos is still one of my favorite towns in Baja with great food, historic buildings, excellent surf and art galleries.
I caught a few waves at a beach south of town. The surf was 3-4’, the water was 70 degrees.
On the outskirts of Todos Santos I met up with Jim Pickell, the CEO of Baja.com who has an office in a renovated historic brick building. “Baja is back,” said Jim. “Tourism is up and people are excited to come to Baja and rediscover the peninsula.”
At the Café La Esquina in Todos Santos, an airy and friendly neighborhood hangout on the west side of town I ordered a veggie panini and a carrot-beet-spinach-apple smoothie from Paula Angeloni, a local surfer.
“I came Todos Santos to surf,” said Paula, who is originally from Uruguay and moved to Mexico to study marine biology in La Paz. “But now I’m raising my daughter here.”
That evening I have dinner at the La Dolce restaurant in San Jose del Cabo. Ramiro Rivas, the owner and native of Mexico City moved to Baja more than 11 years ago.
When Ramiro is not working at his lovely Italian restaurant just off the plaza in San Jose, he loves to visit Cabo Pulmo. “I love Cabo Pulmo,” he said. “It is so beautiful.”
Over the next couple of days I greeted the sunrise each morning while surfing Costa Azul. The waves were small but the water was warm and crystal clear.
At the San Jose del Cabo Farmer’s Market, I ate the best pizza in Baja and was delighted with the quesadilla like vampiros stuffed with portabella mushrooms.
I bought beautiful abalone jewelry for Emily from Victor de la Vega. Besides making unique and original jewelry, Victor transforms driftwood into unique art.
“The farmer’s market started out pretty unofficially,” said Jim Tolbert of Baja Books and Maps who hosts a stall in the market each Saturday with his wife Judy. “But now we’re a non-profit. Thousands of people come here each week during the season.”
On my last evening, Cecilia and I drove out to the East Cape again. Our destination was the Crossroads County Club at Vinorama. Joan Hafenecker, the owner has created an impeccable oasis with a incredible view of the coast and savory food.
After giving a talk to a collection of local residents and visitors from Los Cabos, I settled down to a dinner of Asian stir-fry with pasta. When an American celebrity strolled in with his wife, no one even batted an eye.
We were too busy watching the sunset, looking for humpbacks, and absorbing the stars as they settled into Baja’s never ending nighttime sky.
Another perfect evening on the Cape.
My Southwest Surf column from May 11, 2011:
I paddled out this morning at around 8 a.m.
From the end of Elm Avenue the surf looked fun. After watching a glassy and clean 3’ set roll in next to the pier with left and right corners, I put on my wetsuit and grabbed my board.
Unfortunately it was one of those days in which it looked much better than it was. After catching a few waves on the north and south sides of the pier I caught a wave in.
The surf was horrible.
Sometimes spring can bring consistent and surfable waves up and down the beach that break all day. A plethora of wind swells can come together to create A-frames up and down the beach.
southerly and northerly sideshore winds and you have the classic springtime surf scenario.
Unfortunately the lack of any large swells this winter has meant that the bottom along the beach is almost uniformly flat. That is not a good sign for the south swell season. No inshore holes can mean long lines and closeouts.
The only good news is that the water is warm. It has been close to two years since we’ve experienced water in the normal range. With temperatures hovering in the low 60s’, it is time to dust off the springsuit or short-arm fullsuit.
So while Southern California can be so-so in the spring, destinations to the south, in the southern hemisphere and across the globe, are receiving lots and lots of southern ground swells.
So get out the map and plan a trip to either a warm water or cold-water summer surf destination.
Your best bets for the south swell season include:
Baja: South of the Border vets know that early season southern hemis consistently pound the East Cape and places like Scorpion Bay and Punta Abreojos.
Mainland Mexico: If you like long lefts, head to Sinaloa and northern Guerrero. If you are into getting giant barrels, surf either Pascuales or Puerto Escondido. Michoacan offers up cobblestone rivermouths like La Ticla and Nexpa, but Narco-violence can make travel there sketchy.
Indonesia: Perfect waves, tropical waters and non-stop surf. What more do you need?
Hawaii: Warm water, lots of surf and Aloha. We’re heading to Kauai and the South Shore of Oahu in August. For me, even the leftover waves in the Islands are fun.
Australia and New Zealand: If you want rugged coastlines, friendly people, insane waves of every variety and tons of wildlife and national parks then head Down Under.
South Africa: This is arguably the coolest surf destination on the planet. Where else can you see elephants, lions, wildebeests and surf J-Bay.
So get off the couch and start learning why there is nothing better than spending a few days or weeks surfing perfect waves somewhere on a coast that is not your own.
From my IBPatch Southwest Surf Column of April 27, 2011:
There is a lot of speculation these days on whether it is safe or not to travel south of the border. To ease concerns and dispel some of the myths, Surfline recently did an interview with me, Sean Collins and Gary Linden on how to stay safe while surfing and traveling in Baja.
Due to the ongoing drug war in northern Baja, the justified concern over safety for traveling surfers has meant that those of us who cross the border find a lot of uncrowded waves. More importantly we meet lots of friendly people, camp on white-sand beaches with perfect waves, and enjoy the warm, clean water.
Lots of IB surf families are veterans of Mexico—and especially Baja—travel. The Johnson surfing clan, Daren, Terri and Josh, took a trip with a couple of extra IB groms over Spring Break.
“Baja was fun,” said Terri. “On the way south, the guys stopped at the Wall and Conejo (Terri flew down). Neither place was epic. The Wall was flat and Conejo was windy, though they did get a few waves at Conejo.
“Then we surfed a few days in Todos Santos where it was peaky and fun – water was warm and clean. Spent most of the next week on the East Cape where we caught loads of waves with warm water and surfing in trunks. Coming home Daren and the boys surfed Scorpion Bay and Alejandro’s. Small waves but the groms still had fun.”
According to Terri, “I saw more sea turtles of all sizes on the East Cape than I’ve ever seen down that way before. Even had a big one pop up right in front of me as I was paddling into a wave at Nine Palms.”
I am looking forward to taking a family surf safari with the Johnsons to the fabled point breaks of Oaxaca in June. Should be a blast.
Daren and I both share the same philosophy about surfing with our children. We both know that we are lucky to have even a chance to spend so much fun time with them now. Because in a few years they will be grown up and off on adventures of their own.
Last year Daren and I sat on an East Cape beach watching our sons surf perfect right point waves. I nodded in agreement as Daren said, “I have as much fun watching the boys ride waves as I do surfing.”
The Merrills—Steve, Julie and Cheyne—are also hardcore Baja vets. Expert fishermen and surfers, Steve and Cheyne are as likely to score great waves and big fish. Their Spring Break expedition to the Cape Region landed both.
“Steve and Cheyne caught some great surf in San Jose del Cabo,” said Julie. “We did not have time to surf the day we arrived, but over the next two days, there were six-foot waves coming in at regular intervals. For three hours each day, between around 12:30-4:00, there were only six guys out, and that included Steve and Cheyne in the line up.
“On the third day the surf was flat and blown out so we made our way to the East Cape and checked in at Rancho Leonero, a fishing resort,” Julie reported. “It’s very quiet there and very laid back, much different from the hustle and crowds of Cabo San Lucas.
“We took a panga out the next day and caught bonita, cabrilla, pampano, and yellowtail. The hotel cooked our catch for us and we shared it with as many people as we could. It tasted incredible and we ate until we couldn’t eat another bite. Already we are talking about our next trip to Baja and have already started planning our summer road trip. Can’t wait!”
So what are you waiting for? See you in Baja!
From April 2-7 I will be touring the Cape Region of Baja California to show the Blue Ocean Film Festival “Blue on Tour” ocean documentaries and give talks on my book Wild Sea.
APRIL 2nd: San Jose Organic Farmers Market, 10am-2:00pm
APRIL 2nd: TBD
APRIL 3rd: Los Barriles Art Festival, Hotel Palmas De Cortez Los Barriles
APRIL 3rd: Vinorama Country Club, East Cape, 6pm
APRIL 4th: DREAMS Spa and Resort, @ 6:00pm
APRIL 6th: Sculpture Francisco Merino Galeria @ 6:30pm
APRIL 7th: La Esquina, Todos Santos @ 7:00pm
When I am there I look forward to seeing old friends, making new friends, and surfing the crystal clear blue water of the East Cape and Todos Santos–two of my favorite places in Baja.
Here is the video trailer for my book Wild Sea
Here is a photo essay/article I wrote for the Huffington Post.
CABO PULMO, Mexico – By the 1990s, decades of overfishing the waters of the Sea of Cortez left the coral reef at Cabo Pulmo, in the East Cape region of the Baja California Peninsula, almost void of life. To reverse this process the local community convinced the Mexican federal government to establish a marine protected area at Cabo Pulmo in 1995. Ninety-nine percent of the 17,560 acre Marine Protected Area that was established is ocean.
Today the Cabo Pulmo Marine Park is one the most successful examples of marine conservation in Mexico. Fishing was banned inside the park and local residents, along with the Mexican government, helped to bring the reef back from complete destruction.
Unfortunately, development pressures along the East Cape now threaten the fragile beauty, abundance, and diversity of the marine species for which it is famous.
“Coral reefs are very fragile ecosystems, explains Dr. Octavio Aburto Oropeza, from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and an Associate of the International League of Conservation Photographers. “They are nurseries essential to populating the oceans. Cabo Pulmo is estimated to be 20,000 years old, and is home to 226 fish species”.
A Spanish company, Hansa Urbana, plans to build a tourism mega-development on 9,875 acres adjacent to the marine park. If the development goes through, the sleepy and white sand fringed Cabo Pulmo will be joined by 40,000 new residents in a complex that will include hotels, condominiums, a 490 slip marina, two golf courses, and shopping centers.
Mexican environmental authorities had already given the green light to the Spanish company but eight months of legal and media pressures by a coalition of local residents, non-profit organizations, and researchers have made the Secretary of the Environment reconsider the project. It has temporarily revoked Hansa’s building permits pending new evidence on the impacts of the development on the coral reef.
The director of the Cabo Pulmo National Park, Javier Alejandro Gonzalez, told the media in an interview that the National Commission on National Protected Areas (CONANP) found that Cabo Cortes’ environmental-impact statement “was vague in several points” and contained figures that “had not been validated”.
“We have spoken with experts, such as Dr. Octavio Aburto Oropeza, from Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Dr Ezequiel Escurra, and others, and they all warn of dire consequences if the resort project is not cancelled’, says Fay Crevoshay, communications director of WiLDCOAST, and part of the coalition called “Cabo Pulmo Vivo!”, that is trying to raise public awareness about the threats to the reef.
Enrique Castro, whose family has lived for five generations in the small community, says, “fifteen years ago we stopped fishing and started taking care of the reef. Today we offer tourist services such as diving, snorkeling, boat rides, sport fishing [outside of the park], and lodging. And now they are going to kill the reef and what about us? Tourists will not come to see a dead reef.”
“Following 15 years of protection the Cabo Pulmo coral reef has recovered from overfishing, becoming the marine area with the highest concentration of fish in the Sea of Cortez,” said Serge Dedina, Executive Director of WiLDCOAST and author of the forthcoming Wild Sea: Eco-Wars and Surf Stories from the Coast of the Californias.