My Girlfriend Kim and I recently spent 6 days exploring the Northern part of Baja with friends.   She wrote a trip report, which is here. My comments were added in Green Text. It’s long, but I hope you enjoy it.

By Kim Luu and bits by Geoff Jennings

Baja California is just far enough away from Newport Beach that you can forget where you came from, but close enough that you remember how to get back there. That?s what I like to say at least. For Geoff, on the other hand, who lives so far south in San Diego that he could easily make the Duty Free shop at the border his neighborhood grocer (assuming they carried anything but alcohol, perfume, and pork rinds), Baja California is just far enough away that you can?t really go there on your lunch break, but close enough that the thought crosses your mind at least once week. In either case, Baja has been gnawing at us lately. We?re curious about the tapering stretch of land that extends below California on all the maps we?ve seen since 5th grade geography classes, and we have keys to cars that are just aching for some foreign dirt- a pretty dangerous combination.

Surfers speak of Baja with a quiet deference reserved for movies like Endless Summer and Endless Summer II. They tell of roads on cliffs that hug the coastline and overlook perfect Pacific surf breaks below. They talk of campgrounds that perch above the cliffs, down winding roads that branch off from the main highway. They mention fish tacos and tell stories that start out with opening lines like, ?there is this sweet point break that forms perfectly?? and end with lines like ??and that?s when I yanked my buddy?s thigh out of the great white?s jaws so I could beat him over the head with it for stealing my last wave.?

Sea kayakers, who have yet to have an entire movie devoted to their lifestyle, tell us of quiet bays and islands to explore on the calm, clear, waters of the Sea of Cortez side. They warn against driving at night, and tell us to watch out for bad roads with cliff drop-offs and semis.
?Okay,? I think, ?fish tacos, bad roads, fish tacos, cliff drop-offs, fish tacos, fish tacos, fish tacos.?
?Okay,? Geoff thinks, ?point break, semis, point break, night driving no-no, point break, point break, point break.?
We?re ready.

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Between the two of us, Geoff and I have enough gear to man an entire YMCA outpost. Strapped to the top of the Ford Explorer is a 21-foot long banana-yellow double sea kayak and an 8-foot long red surf kayak with two bold white racing stripes that run down the center. Other stowaways inside the car include two climbing helmets, one paddling helmet, three paddles, two pairs of climbing shoes, rope, harness, chalk bags, and 40 pounds worth of other assorted climbing gear, two pairs of hiking shoes, one boogie board, a snorkel, facemask, fins, and more Dave Matthews CDs than Napster ever witnessed the exchange of. We are clearly optimistic about our vacation. We don?t have a set itinerary, but we know we want to climb some, paddle some, relax some, and eat lots. In our six days of vacation, we decide we will drive the approximately 130-mile width of Baja from Ensenada to San Felipe to explore both the pounding Pacific waves of western Baja and the sedate Sea of Cortez of eastern Baja. In between these two destinations, we will detour into a national park and perhaps fit in a climb or two.

It?s here that experienced Baja travelers will chuckle. Kim and I made the rookie mistake, despite some warnings, of underestimating drive times in Mexico. Between getting lost, Roads that are sometimes more like trails, and the occasional military checkpoint, driving in Baja takes MUCH longer than you?d expect. As such, we did do more driving on this trip than I would have liked, but oh well, chalk it up to experience.

Driving into Mexico, there is a fence at the border of Mexico and the United States that is easily visible as you make your way towards Mexico 1D, the toll road that hugs closest to the cliffs that dip into the Pacific. And what with all the American immigrations laws that have become more stringent in recent years, it is not the least surprising that this fence is as foreboding as it is. The fence is about 20 feet high, the highest foot of which bends back toward the Mexican side, laced with barbed wire. Mounted floodlights on nearby poles on the American side aim towards fence as if it were a molar to be extracted in a dentist?s office- minus the issues of National Geographic in the waiting room lobby. None of this is particularly surprising. It is, of course, a border. And as borders go, it?s pretty innocuous looking when you remember things like the Berlin Wall, and in more ancient times, The Great Wall of China when it served as something other than a kitschy souvenir stop lacking adequate handicap access. So driving along, you think, ?hmm?a fence?a high fence?with barbed wire?hmm?interesting?? And then a bird flies by or something distracts your attention and you turn to your left, away from the blurring image of the fence on your right. And when you turn back, in a master feat of Houdini, the fence is gone. Since you aren?t driving, you crane your neck back to the stretches of road that your 45 miles-per-hour-Mexican-police-fearing SUV has passed. And sure enough, there was a fence. There was a foreboding 20 feet high fence laced with barbed wire?.that just stops. In the middle of nowhere, it stops. It ends, as though it were the villain of a Sci-fi thriller that all of a sudden decided to stop and pet the golden retriever in the background. Or Darth Vader stopping his battle with Obi Wan Konobe while Luke watches on just so they can all go out for a microbrew. It just doesn?t make any sense. And as we drive by a 3-story high bust of Jesus, followed by an equally larger-than life-sized bust of a perky topless woman that follows just a few miles down the road, we realize that none of it has to. And that is the beauty of traveling.

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In a campsite along Mexico 1D, we dine on abalone and jumbo tiger shrimp bought from the nearby Ensenada Fish Market, and cooked to a succulent light orange over the blue flames of a trusty camp stove. The fish market is held next to a marina of docked boats and occupy the length of about 8 open air tent stalls that line one side of what could either be a large alley or a small road, depending on your mood. The market isn?t particularly large, nor is it particularly charming- except for the fact that glistening squid tentacles sprawl languidly next to fish heads destined for the perfect seafood soup. Well, that and the prices are a quarter of that found in the States.
Ladies manning the Taquerias on the other side of the alley shout out to us as we browse recent seafood catches, ?Fish taco? Fish taco, Senor??
I shake my head at every stand and keep walking but Geoff is much more gracious me. ?No thanks, but I?ve already had lunch. No thanks, we just want to buy some fish,? he replies every few steps.

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About $6.60 worth of tolls south of the border is Salsipuedes, located just north of Ensenada. Salsipuedes is a surf spot that, as Geoff tells it, happens to have a beach bottom conducive to almost perfectly consistent breaks. So perfect that if you really wanted to, you can paddle out without so much as getting your hair wet if you just cut through the deep area found only 8 feet or so south of the waves? point break. The waves aren?t very large, but they are consistently clean and make for good long rides back onto the pebble beach, which can be pretty painful if you haven?t quite mastered the ancient art of G.T.H.O.O.T. (getting the hell out of there). Mastering the delicacies of the GTHOOT technique aside, the Salsipuedes break is beautiful. In the wide expanse of blue waters that cyclically swell up to meet the sky, there are only eight or so surfers sharing a wave break. A miraculous feat considering $6.60 worth of toll distance translates into only a 50-minute drive from San Diego- if even that- and no stretch of beach containing any semblance of a wave from San Diego to Santa Barbara seems to see fewer than a couple dozen surfers.

Geoff gets up at dawn and surfs for hours, while I mainly slay dragons and discover the new penicillin in my sleep. When Geoff comes out of the water, salt and sand speckle his face and his grin is so deep that it spills out into the folds near the corners of his eyes.
?Hey, how was the surf?? I ask.
?Mmmm, reef break?? He responds.
?So it was nice, huh??
??reef break??
?Did you have fun??
?Ahhh, reef break??

It was super nice surfing there. Such a nice break, and the kind of wave, that were it in California, would be packed with territorial board surfers twenty five deep, and battling for a wave would be nearly impossible. Instead, there were more than enough rides for everyone, perfect head-high conditions (big enough to be fun, not so big as to be scary), and a pleasant vibe. Several of the boardies asked about the boat, and when a big set came through, and I was one of the only ones to get in position to take the wave, I got a ?swe-e-e-e-t? from the line-up as I took off. Nice.

He tells me his arms feel like they are going to fall off but in the four hours that he?s been out there riding, he may have caught more rides than during his entire 2 year tenure as a christened surf kayaker (tenure being the point after which you pay $30 to have custom stickers made to say ?Surf Kayaking is NOT a Crime?). ?Well, maybe not more rides. That could be an exaggeration,? he adds, ?but not by much.? Indeed, he tells me that the rides were consistent, and though they weren?t the highest that he?s surfed, they were the cleanest, breaking in just one point and spreading down the coast until the depth of the beach swallows any formation of a wave. And sharing the beach with only a handful of other surfers couldn?t have hurt either.

Geoff and I are looking for a goat trail. I can?t even remember the last time in my life I saw a goat, much less a goat trail. Nevertheless, our eyes are peeled for any sign of a goat trail, whatever that could possibly be.
We?ve stopped school children, still dressed in their white tops and navy bottoms, as they walk home from school on dusty roads country to ask ?Donde esta?? and then point wildly to a 5 page climbing pamphlet we have in our hands. ?Arrampicare?? I say, pantomiming climbing up a wall. At this point, I imagine the children think I am either (1) stuck in a box and can?t get out, or (2) unintelligible and weird because not only am I a bad mime, ?arrampicare? is not the Spanish word for ?climbing? as I had hoped. That, or Mexican schoolchildren make it a common habit to stare blankly at weird lost Americans that drive on dry dusty mountainsides with kayaks in tow. We drive around the hillside, around scattered shells of houses that promise to be constructed and fields of cars that have been deconstructed. We ask a man with no front teeth and cataracts that make his eyes look a hazy gray if he knows where the ?You Are Here? arrow on our pamphlet map was inadvertently left out. When we finally find the goat trail, as our climbing guide instructs, it is a small and narrow hike able trail (even without the goats) that cut into a hillside and lead to upward jutting rock cliffs. Geoff can?t take his eyes at what appear to be some good, really good crack climbing. And as we stare out into the distance to make out what the base of our climb should be, gray clouds roll in and drops of water start to litter the ground around us. So much for finding the goat trail?

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It?s 3 or 4 in the afternoon. So far today, I surfed for 4 hours, drove around forever to find a gorgeous climbing area, then bailed due to rain, had a great lunch in Ensenada, and we?ve now decided to head for a National Park, it?s described as having Joshua Tree like boulders, while the maps show a large lagoon, and it?s up at 7?000 feet or so, in one of Baja?s little known alpine pine forests. Only 60-70 kilometers from Ensenada, I figure we?ll head there, camp, and explore in the morning. Turns out its not that easy. It?s pouring rain, and the next hour or so of driving is terrifying, I?m driving in heavy rain, gusting heavy winds, I?ve got a 21 foot kayak on the roof of my big square SUV, so I?m being blown all over the place, and pavement in these winding hilly roads with scary drop-offs is apparently expensive, as they?ve engineered the roads to be approximately a ? inch wider than the wheel-span of my car. Passing Semis cause heart flutters, and, not helping my mood, Kim keeps exclaiming ?WOW, there?s like three rusted out cars at the bottom of that drop-off!? . When we reach the small town that is our turning off point, I feel the drop in my adrenaline, a feeling I normally only notice after a hard climb, or a scary stretch of whitewater, not a drive.

So only 20-25 Kilometers to go, we start bouncing down dirt roads in the desert of Baja. The roads wander and branch like tree limbs. There are signs to the National Park, but in some kind of cost saving measure, they only put them at every 7th or 8th intersection. Which means at the other ones, you guess. We used the sophisticated method of navigation known as ?the Road MORE traveled? and it actually seemed to do us pretty well, although we still greeted each road sign with a celebration including dancing and animal sacrifice. We spotted a shack, and stopped for directions. Maps drawn in the sand get us back on track. After hours and hours of driving, and splashing through deeper and deeper puddles, we make it too the park, and camp. Smoked marlin and 3-cheese risotto for dinner. It?s raining hard, so we spend the night in the truck.

We wake to a gorgeous view. Surrounding pine trees and rocks are gorgeous. Looks like it could be a cool place to explore and climb, but it?s far too wet, so after driving around a bit, and some hiking and scrambling, we leave. Inexplicably, we find a quick road out, and 40 minutes later we?re on the highway again! Seems we took the long, LONG way there?So it?s on to San Felipe and B. De Gonzaga.

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?Cuanto tiempo a Bahia de Gonzaga?? How much time to Bahia de Gonzaga, I ask the man who has just sold us an avocado, an onion, and six eggs for about a buck fifty. ?
?Como——————?..? he asks me.
What?s he asking me, I wonder. At this point, I can either try the other phrases of Spanish that I know and tell him: (1)?Pungo mas Coke por favor? (please add more Coke, for all the useful times in your life that your Mexican rum and Coke contains too much rum) or (2) dos billetos por favor (which could result in someone giving you either two tickets or two breadrolls, I don?t remember). Instead, I respond with the universal phrase, ?Huh??
?Como——————-?.? He asks me again.
?C-u-a-n-t-o t-i-e-m-p-o a B-a-h-i-a de G-o-n-z-a-g-o?? I repeat a little slower and a little louder than previously.
The man turns to a boy by the door and shoots something out in more rapid fire Spanish. The boy sticks his head out the window and returns saying, ?Truck.?
?Dos oras,? the man turns back to tell me.
Two hours? It takes just two hours to get to the Bay of Gonzaga? According to the Lonely Planet, travel time to the bay along the road we are about to embark upon may take up to 4 hours, although that too is all too dependent on road conditions. Okay, so two hours it is.

A hint to Baja travelers, if they size up your car before telling you how long it will take, the road will suck. Really really a lot.

Three and a half hours later, we are still winding around the dark roads that curve down to the Bahia de Gonzaga going just 25 miles and hour. We hear an ocean in the distance and the sound of the washboard-laden road below us, “Kuh duh kuh duh kuh duh kuh duh.” “Good thing we’re in this SUV and not my little Corolla, huh?” I say. “Yeah,” Geoff agrees, just as a little bare bone Corolla even older than mine whizzes by us on the narrow road. We look at each other and continue driving. Apparently the two-hour drive time that the grocer gave us was the DWC (driving with cajones) time and clearly not something I would have been able to stomach.

There is no light to guide our way, only the high beam of our car to light the painted six-inch white rocks that act as road barricades on the more heinous turns. “Good thing they’ve got that pebble set up on the side of the road to keep us from swerving off the edge, huh?” Geoff says. “Yeah, ingenious,” I say. Below us, the roadside plummets into the darkness that descends into the ocean, which is probably a good thing considering that our experience on winding Baja roads thus far has taught us that at the bottom of most of these turns are rusted out car carcasses, either stripped or burned to a skeleton like a turkey at the end of Christmas dinner.

A total of 4 hours, a half unscrewed roof rack, a fully unscrewed pair of sunglasses, and a misaligned steering alignment, and a late-night makeshift overnight camp next to an open field (that later turned out in daylight to be a small-plane landing strip) later, we arrive at Bahia de Gonzaga.

The one store, one hotel/restaurant, ten-house and ten-Cessna, retired American ex-pat town (which may be stretching the definition of a town) lines the edges of the bay. Calm waters lap onto the sand, such a contrast from the crashing waves of the Pacific. The waters are almost glassy in their calm, and so clear that we see our toes in even thigh deep water. The beach drops so slightly that even 50 feet into the beach, we are still wading in only thigh deep water. Around us, are dry rocky islands that dot the panorama, and the occasional jet skis that zigzag through the bay. We share our stretch of the beach with three other tents and near-permanent beach RVs (with their wheels removed) that have each staked their claim nearly a quarter mile away. In a kayak, we explore the bay and wander up to the rocky island edges. The islands are rocky outcrops with barnacled edges. We paddle over a shallow area that extends from the mainland to a nearby island. In low tide, the shallow waters recede and a footbridge of sand emerges. As we kayak around the bay, we see some fisherman in a small boat going about their business.
“Geoff, I’ll bet we could buy some fish off of them if we asked,” I say, hungry for fish even though that’s mostly what we’ve eaten for the last few days.
“Okay, you do the asking,” Geoff says.
We paddle our double kayak over to the little boat where two men are busy filleting manta ray. They work fast and without waste, throwing the extra carcasses back into the water.
“Hola. Se vende pescado, Senor?” Hi, are you selling fish, sir, I ask in my makeshift Spanish.
“Manta ray,” he replies.
“Si, si, ma se vende pescado?” Yes, yes, but are you selling fish, I ask again. He then shows us the fish that he and the other man are fishing.
“Cuanto?” How much, I ask.
“Uno, dos, tres?” he replies.
“Si, si, cuanto?” I ask again.
“No, no,” he shrugs off.
“Muchos gracis, Senor,” we say in awe. Next thing we know, he has three fish in his hands and is looking for a spot in the kayak to put the fish. He gives us the fish, and shrugs off all of our thank-yous. “Nada,” he says, it’s nothing. “Muchos gracis, Senor,” we say again.

We return to camp and enter the sea for a swim. The water is calm and the shore, in its low tide, extend at length in only waist deep water.
“We should go clamming,” I jokingly say to Geoff.
“How do you do that?” he asks.
“I don’t know. I think you just get a shovel and you dig in low-tide sand,” I reply.
“You mean like this?” Geoff says, holding up a three-inch clam in his hands.
“Oh my God! How did you do that?!?!”
“I don’t know. I just dug around in the sand and found it,” he says, holding up another clam in his hands.
I race over to him and sure enough, he’s got a couple of clams in his hands. “That’s amazing, Geoff!”
Geoff finds one and then another, his hands fill up with clams and soon enough, I become the clam caddie, following him around as his loot of clams fill up. I dig around too, but have no luck. Geoff amasses twenty clams, even throwing away the young’ins, while I struggle to find two.
“I am Hunter-Gatherer,” he grunts, as the sun sets around him.
“Yes, Hunter-Gatherer, you wanna call it quits soon, its getting cold,” I say.
That night, Geoff makes an appetizer of clams and an entr?e of onion-garlic saut?ed fish. We eat like kings on the generosity of fisherman and sand.
“Good job, Hunter-Gatherer,” I tell Geoff.

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We leave Bahia de Gonzaga earlier than planned, the following morning storm clouds loom and the wind whips through our campsite, so we head back up the road to San Felipe. We shop for trinkets, and find a restaurant that has heaping plates of clams for $2. Another fun night on another gorgeous sandy beach, followed by shrimp omelets for breakfast, and all too soon it?s time to head home. We drive back through Mexicalli, and search in vain for the ?China Town? our guidebook promises. Finding only a few grungy restaurants, we take a pass and get in line for the border. A fabulous vacation, and over far too soon. Luckily, we only visited a tiny part of Baja, so there is still plenty more to explore. Once I get my truck fixed.

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