Rediscovering the formerly popular surf destination that was lost in the chaos of the narco wars.

A trip through the borderland in Northern Baja

The guard dog at the entrance to Baja Malibu takes his job seriously, though he doesn’t look the part. He is small and clearly unrelated to a Doberman, or a Rottweiler, or any sentry animal with pure breeding. There are vague lines in his face and carriage that might come from an Australian cattle dog, or a Chihuahua, but if anything is certain about his ancestry, it is the purity of his impurities. He has been assembled from a thousand different breeds, a street dog of the finest order. He sits on the cobblestones near the restaurant and watches cars pass on the Cuota. He conducts his business with quiet competence, without resorting to the indignities of making a scene. He does not bark, he rarely growls, and never slobbers. Instead he simply follows his human down from the guard shack when it’s time to raise the gate so a vehicle may enter. He sniffs the tires of the cars carefully before they pass, and trails the ankles of those on foot to gauge their intentions.

He rises and watches closely as I exit my truck to shake hands with local photographer Damian Davila. He approaches with his canine inclinations but seems bored with my gringo-scented sneakers. It’s a clear morning on the final Saturday of a weeklong holiday in Mexico, and there are other distractions to hold his interest. In addition to the locals wandering slowly up from the beach, with their sleeping bags and tarps and plastic sacks of shellfish, we can see a handful of older surfers checking the ocean, and hear English drifting from a block of American-owned residences.

The morning has the feel of a party that has paused for a breath near dawn, but is about to resume. And it’s this final gasp—the promise of one last day and then night of celebration, after a week of similar comings and goings—that has the dog carefully measuring his energy. By midday, as his owner in the guard shack informs us, this place is going to be “fucking crazy.”
The area hasn’t seen a tourism week like this in years. Mexican and foreign visitors essentially abandoned much of Northern Baja in 2007, when the narco wars erupted along the US/Mexico border. Human Rights Watch estimates that in the six or so years since, nearly 60,000 people have been killed, with an additional 25,000 missing. Details in the Mexican and American press—beheadings, kidnappings, tortured bodies, dead cartel enforcers, cops, and journalists decomposing in vats of acid—only deepened the sense of fear. To make matters worse, the narco situation was also neatly bookended by a wave of American-travel paranoia in the wake of 9/11, and the meltdown of the global economy.
The general sense now is that the violence and the recession are both easing, but the residual impact of these factors on the tourist trade remains obvious. Even on the busiest weekends, most of the clubs in Rosarito regularly operate at half capacity. Near the pier, the multiple-story building that once housed Señor Frogs stands shuttered, the establishment long out of business.

As Damian and I drive south a few exits into downtown, the streets are undisputedly crowded. But as we park and walk up to the beach, it’s also clear that most of the tourists are now visiting from other parts of Mexico—rather than from across the border. Unlike its sister cities of Tijuana to the north, which has always been adept at reinventing itself, and Ensenada to the south, which is now undergoing its own transformation, Rosarito is still a beach town, driven by an older model of tourism. The massive clubs on the oceanfront were built to fill gringo bodies with drinks and empty their pockets of dollars. Now, however, it’s mostly a local crowd: tourists from Mexicali, Tijuana, and the Mainland, the U.S. contingent all but absent.

Foreign visitors essentially abandoned much of Northern Baja in 2007, when the narco wars erupted along the US/Mexico border.
Still, things seem to be improving. On this Saturday before Easter, the zone is definitely going off. We’re down by the waterfront and the restaurants are booming. We stand in line for 15 minutes to get lunch at Tacos El Yaqui. Afterward, we cut through the lobby of the massive Rosarito Beach Hotel, weaving through packs of young families. On the main deck by the pool, girls in elegant dresses sip mimosas. Damian, whose main photography influence is Clark Little, points to the water and tells me that this is where he learned to swim.

We pass through an empty banquet hall decorated for Easter brunch, then descend a set of stairs and emerge by the pier. A farmers’ market is set up on a rare patch of grass at the edge of the sand, the vendors in the tents hawking everything from local produce to surf lessons. Just offshore, a few dark-skinned children bob around on soft tops. We watch the peak just long enough to confirm that the surf is gutless, then decide to check a sandbar near Damian’s house that has more exposure.

As we head back to the car, we pass Papas & Beer, techno pouring from the club’s dim interior. Couples sit in the sand and girls in bikinis sun themselves, showing no sign that they hear the music. A 30-foot can of Tecate towers over the proceedings. In the alley next to the club, a man hands us a flier with drink specials printed in ornate lettering. Another gentleman inquires whether we would like to pay a small fee to ride a midget pony. The tiny animal waits patiently in an embroidered saddle, tethered to a post nearby.

The atmosphere at Damian’s place is decidedly less vivid. He lives with his grandparents in a small compound a block from the ocean. He has been shooting surf for a little more than a year, lineups and water shots of the sometimes-thumping beachbreak that he mastered as a bodyboarder. He took out a small business loan from a nearby bank to buy his equipment, which wasn’t an easy process. Surf photography, it seems, is a high-risk investment in the eyes of Mexican bankers.

Despite this, Damian’s work is generating other forms of support. Last summer, the Government Institute of Culture for Baja California put on an exhibition featuring his photos. The governor of Rosarito has also commissioned him to shoot images for a promotional booklet, a plan intended to highlight the town as a viable destination.

Projects like this are important because Rosarito is the least visible of the three cities in the area. It is often overlooked and bypassed by travelers moving throughout the peninsula. Since the narco wars began, the common wisdom for most visitors has been to drive south quickly, away from Tijuana. Because of its proximity, Rosarito has been a casualty of the trend.

PHOTOS: Beyond the Border

Damian sees his photography as a way to entice people, especially surfers, to return to the area. But like the town itself, his efforts and his career are still navigating precarious phases. It’s tough to be an aspiring surf photographer, and even tougher to make changes that resonate with just a few images. It’s also unclear how much surf tourism can really help the area.

A few surfers buying beer and tacos after a session can add up for a local business, but will this ever recoup the income the city has lost in terms of large-scale U.S. dollars? The drinking age in Mexico is 18, and this has always been part of the draw for clubs like Papas & Beer. But spring breakers and underage drinkers from the U.S. are mostly unwilling to enter Mexico now, just to party legally. Domestic Mexican tourism is picking up, but that might also evaporate because the cartel situation in Tijuana remains fluid. It isn’t hard to imagine the pendulum of violence suddenly swinging in the wrong direction.

It seems impossible for such dark forces to exist side-by-side, or for them to encompass something like surfing.
The University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute reported recently that, while violent crime in the city has dropped, it has also become harder to monitor the situation: the Mexican government now restricts certain statistics. The report also outlined the likelihood that the cartels have grown increasingly splintered, and mobile, but they’re hardly gone.

To combat this, the U.S. government is apparently ramping up aid. One plan, according to the Associated Press, entails sending elements of the Special Forces to train Mexican commando teams, then deploying them to hunt down cartel leaders with methods refined against al-Qaeda. The flip side of this approach, however, is that many of the cartels, particularly the Zetas, originally came from within elite units in the Mexican Army—where they were trained in counter intelligence and combat tactics via the U.S. military to begin with.

On the beach at the end of Damian’s street, it seems impossible for such dark forces to exist side-by-side, or for them to encompass something like surfing. It also seems strange that this has been happening for years in such close proximity to these waves, not to mention the normality of suburban San Diego.
We begin to talk about how Damian has traveled throughout Mexico, the U.S., and Europe, and how, because of the surf, he just can’t seem to settle anywhere other than here. He had a Belgian girlfriend once who wanted him to move to Brussels, but the more he thought about it, he says, the more he realized he couldn’t do it. “I thought about all the waves I’d miss,” he says. “I like to get up really early in the morning everyday to check it. I don’t really drink or party because I want to be in the water. I’m focused on the waves and my photography and I wouldn’t be able to do that somewhere else.”
Up and down the beach, the lineup is empty. At a similar setup across the border, the crowd on any of these peaks would be shoulder-to-shoulder. The waves are small but the sandbank looks perfect. The sets are glassy and breaking in clear, shallow water. It’s easy to see why, on bigger days, ski teams will occasionally appear from the U.S. for a feeding frenzy.

When we return to Damian’s compound, he introduces me to his grandfather, a retired truck driver for one of the big-rig companies that rumble up and down the peninsula. Damian shows me some photos on his laptop that he shot this winter, the Gudauskas brothers boosting and pulling in, Taylor Knox and Chris Ward powering through an assortment of beachbreak runners. There’s a pet parrot in the corner of the living room, which mimics our voices each time we get excited about a sequence.

When it’s time to go, I thank Damian’s grandfather for allowing me to park in his courtyard. He points to his eye and nods—he’s been watching my truck all morning. I cruise north past Baja Malibu to check the surf again on my way out of town. The dog is busy now at the gate, efficiently inspecting each visitor. As I turn back south, his own vigilant eye follows my truck along the on ramp that leads to Ensenada.

The 75-foot statue of Jesus at El Morro faces the ocean, cars whizzing by at his feet like metal cockroaches, fearful of his sandals. As he recedes in the rearview mirror, I realize in twelve hours it will be Easter.

The road opens up dramatically as it continues south. Soon I’m winding through the cliffs that hang over the area north of Salsipuedes. I pass the massive natural gas terminal that infamously killed Harry’s in 2006. From a high bend in the road, I can see a clustered ring of tuna farms floating on the ocean, the only manmade manipulation offshore for the moment.

I link up with Juan Carlos Ruiz on the north end of Ensenada. A local surfer with family ties across the city, Juan Carlos is now studying to become an architect in San Diego. School is out this week, though, and he’s home on vacation. As he climbs into my truck, he seems exhausted. Apparently the scene in Ensenada this week has also been lively.

We pull into the parking lot at San Miguel but the cobblestone point is all but dormant. A little deeper into the city, we turn onto an unpaved track that runs across an industrial complex. We skirt the broken glass in the parking lot and paddle out at a fun little wave that resembles Seaside reef, without the crowd. At first it’s just the two of us and a pair of bodyboarders. Another local surfer joins us halfway through the session, and we take turns milking the peak as it stands up and runs through to the inside.
A little deeper into the city, we turn onto an unpaved track that runs across an industrial complex. We skirt the broken glass in the parking lot and paddle out at a fun little wave that resembles Seaside reef, without the crowd.

Afterward we head for the harbor to get something to eat. In many ways, Ensenada has been insulated from the problems that plague Tijuana and Rosarito. It’s significantly further from the border, which has mitigated the violence. Its economy is also fairly diverse. While its manufacturing sector pales in comparison to the massive maquiladora complexes in TJ, its shipping sector is a vital component to the welfare of the area. It is the only deepwater port in Baja, with more than three million metric tons of domestic and international cargo moving through each year. Traffic generated by the cruise ship terminal, as well as numerous commercial and sport-fishing operations, add to its influence. The town is also home to a significant scientific sector, linked to two prominent universities within the city, and fueled by its proximity to similar communities in Tijuana and San Diego.

We park in a crowded back-lot near the docks. A group of workers in white rubber boots unload oysters behind a warehouse. We check in at a restaurant called Muelle 3. The crowd is almost exclusively Mexican, tourists and locals. The restaurant is primarily a lunch spot, but it’s after 4 pm now and the tables are still packed, huge platters of seafood disappearing into customers. The place is owned by one of Juan Carlos’ cousins who comes out to greet us. Even with the family connection, the wait is still more than an hour. As we sip beers outside to pass the time, we watch the activity of the port. We talk about the local microbrews and Brooklyn-style craft pubs that have begun to spring up in the area.

Tourism here still depends on some of the old-school club action that packs in foreigners from the cruise ships, but in recent years there’s been a significant shift toward more sophisticated palates. While Tijuana continues to reign over most of the region’s cultural trends, Ensenada’s proximity to several wine growing valleys has created a venerated local tradition, now expanding rapidly. New vineyards in the San Antonio las Minas, San Vicente, and Guadalupe valleys, along with the established operations in places like Santo Tomas, have made the town a fertile hotbed for culinary development.

Our table is almost ready when a barefoot man in ragged pants approaches and begins to tell a story. He speaks in a falsetto at first, but then his voice takes on a rasp, becoming guttural as he builds momentum. He dances for a moment, a series of lewd gyrations, then struts away and begins to bark like a seal.

I look to Juan Carlos to translate but he only explains the local gossip: The man was a commercial diver once, until he was bent by decompression sickness. Crippled physically—and perhaps mentally—he now hangs around the port recounting his history. His sea stories are true by most accounts, but they no longer make sense and seem unconnected in sequence.

In the harbor, a fishing vessel docks at a floating pier and begins to unload its cargo. Three frat boys pass us wearing serapes on the boardwalk. Inside the restaurant we sit down and Juan Carlos orders without looking at the menu. We eat tuna ceviche, an assortment of sashimi and raw oysters, all marinated in a blend of Mexican and Asian sauces. “The thing I like about Mexican food,” says Juan Carlos, “is that it’s interactive.” He sprinkles a pinch of dried chili onto a slab of fish, dribbles it in vinegar with minced shallots, then adds lime juice.

When we return to the truck the sun is setting. The streets are jammed with foot traffic and bicycle-taxis on guided tours of the waterfront. We head inland to meet Juan Carlos’ uncle, Eduardo Echegaray, the owner of San Miguel Surfboards. We’re early so we park and wait outside of his factory. The façade of the building is painted aqua blue, a concrete lip above the doorway sculpted like a wave. To the east, we can see a rise of warehouses and a few shipping containers. On the street corner, yard workers stand in the orange dusk drinking ballenas. Like most of the surf industry, the business end of this operation resides in an industrial park, a step removed from the ocean.

Eduardo is immaculately dressed when he arrives, his collared shirt free of the foam dust and resin-stains of his profession. He lets us inside and gives us a tour of the factory. About thirty boards are scattered throughout in various states of construction. Eduardo estimates that he’s averaged 40 boards a week for 30 years—about 60,000 total. He ships his work to San Diego, Cabo, Mazatlán, and other places in Mainland Mexico. “Tablas y tablas,” he says, as if the process is never ending.
In the shaping bays, carefully maintained Skil saws wait for fresh blanks. In one corner, a life-sized Día de los Muertos skeleton hangs from the ceiling. A respirator is strapped to death’s head. “That’s what happens if you don’t wear a mask,” Eduardo laughs.

In an office upstairs, we talk about Ensenada, its past and its present. Eduardo says he remembers when San Miguel was always crowded with visiting surfers. Gringos would come by the hundreds to camp and surf at the cobblestone point. Now, he says, it’s rare to see more than a handful of Americans. Occasionally a large group will show up, then disappear with the swell, but the migration pattern is far less consistent.
We talk about the narco wars and the border itself. The reality of any border situation is complex, but the San Ysidro Port of Entry is the busiest land crossing in the world. Roughly 300,000 people move back and forth between San Diego and Tijuana daily. With that amount of traffic, there are bound to be difficulties.

The border itself is an imposing deterrent for visitors. Add a cartel war to the mix, and it starts to seem like waiting for a set wave at Blacks, instead of bolting south, is the sanest option.
A border that size is also destined to attract people looking to cross illegally. Many Americans tend to think of the illegal immigration situation as something exclusive to the U.S., but Mexico has an illegal alien issue of its own. Immigrants from South and Central America gravitate northward. When they can’t cross into the States, or establish a better life in Mexico, they’re often stuck in limbo.

Tijuana is filled with enclaves of people unable to move north, because of the border, and financially unable to return home. The city is even host to displaced Chinese, who continue to arrive but cannot make the final leg of their journeys. The human suffering, desperation, and criminal undertakings a scenario like this can breed are almost unimaginable—and there are obviously parties willing to exploit the situation. Without even factoring in the drug trade, which to a certain degree only exists to service U.S. buyers, it should hardly be a surprise that the border itself is an imposing deterrent for visitors. Add a cartel war to the mix, and it starts to seem like waiting for a set wave at Blacks, instead of bolting south, is the sanest option.

Eduardo points out, though, that Ensenada seems very far from these things. Surprisingly, he also misses sharing its waves with American surfers. The conversation shifts to the Europeans, Mexicans, and Americans who arrive now, not for the waves, but to visit the vineyards. The pattern seems backward: In the past, surfers have typically been the first to return to coastal areas after instability. Traditional tourism then follows. “Tell your friends to come back,” Eduardo says as we descend the staircase.

It’s dark now outside the factory. We leave the industrial park and drive back toward San Miguel. In a neighborhood near the toll plaza, Juan Carlos hops out of the truck, slides through a fence, and disappears into a courtyard. After a few moments, he waves me inside and opens the gate to the driveway.

I park and we enter a house with a sunken living room set around a central fireplace. The design is modern, featuring large windows facing west, deep hardwood, and polished concrete. A quiver of surfboards—modern thrusters, single-fin stingers, and guns—are arranged in the corner. The walls in the open kitchen are hung with framed surf photos and artwork depicting the ocean. “My dad painted that one,” says Kevin Meza when he greets us in the doorway.

We’ve been trying to get Kevin on his cell phone all day with no luck, so we’ve dropped by without warning. His father and stepmother are in the kitchen on their way out for the evening. They welcome us inside and offer us a beer.
Kevin is a second-generation ripper who grew up in Ensenada, occasionally spending segments of time across the border. He’s just turned 20 and is living with his father now to attend one of the universities in the city. As one of the best surfers in the area, he’s a good source of info about the future of the local scene.

“Every year,” he says,” it seems like there are more little kids in the water and they get younger and younger. But it’s hard for them around here because the water gets cold and they can’t afford a good wetsuit or a good board. There’s a kid named Javier—he rips but he doesn’t surf anymore because his wetsuit is so bad.”
We talk about some of the other changes in the area: the planned development at Salsipuedes; the proposed local surf reserve spearheaded by Surf-Ens and WildCoast; the new beach in southern Ensenada, once a shantytown, now open to the public. We talk about the old WQS events that used to be held at San Miguel, and the big-wave contests out at Todos.

Aspiring pro surfers in the area have some options, but they are limited compared to the opportunities in California. One bright spot in recent years has been the Walter Coloca Open, a pro-am held at San Miguel as a memorial for a local surfer. Now in its third year, the contest is organized by the United Athletes of the Pacific Ocean. Accompanied by parties, art shows, environmental panels, and gatherings at nearby bars and restaurants, it has become an annual touch point for the community. There’s also the circuito estado—or state circuit—which is organized by the Surfing Association of Baja California. Intended to allow local surfers to qualify for Mexican Nationals, and by extension the ISA World Games, the tour moves between Tijuana, Rosarito, and Ensenada.

Kevin picks up a trophy from a recent contest that’s lying in the living room. He reads the inscription and realizes the plaque belongs to his father. “Mine must be in the kitchen,” he says. All of these things suggest that the surf community in the region is alive and well, and prepping for the future. Events, environmental initiatives, and a community anchored by wave riding are good signals. But sponsorships are rare, and it’s hard to raise the money to compete on the Mainland, much less travel abroad for the Worlds. “In a lot of ways we’re on our own down here,” Kevin says.

It’s getting late so we stand up to go. We talk about the prospect of a new swell in the morning and Kevin mentions a recent trip he took to Todos. After surfing for an hour, he says, he was driven from the lineup by the marine patrol. The authorities had just found 120 pounds of marijuana in a cave on the island. “It’s been really hot out there for a while,” he says. “My friend went a few days ago and they did the same thing. He didn’t even get to surf. They just kicked him out as soon as they saw him.”
The story is a reminder that the border and the drug trade are still part of the texture of life here, even 10 miles offshore. It’s also a reminder that news of such events is often passed by word-of-mouth, the situation constantly changing, and driven by rumor.

The road through the hills south of Ensenada has grown bigger, wider, safer. The ditches at its edges have been replaced with breakdown lanes. Considerately worded signs urge drivers to wear their seatbelts and rest if they’re tired. Guardrails line the hanging curves in the passes instead of shrines to the dead.

Juan Carlos and I pass through the wine-growing valleys, counting kilometers. We turn west in the Easter sunlight and follow a long track out to the ocean. We bump through the backcountry, looking for a place to camp near the water.

The wind is up, hacking the swell to ribbons. In the lee of a small headland, we drive through an encampment of picnicking locals. We smell grilled meat and watch as children scoot by on dirt bikes, firing air rifles.

We stop at a sandy cove and unload the gear. A session near dark leaves us refreshed, but we catch nothing to speak of. We stake out the tents in the wind and sit by the fire to watch the stars. Occasionally a satellite speeds across the sky in high orbit. Late in the night, the waning moon lights the plain as we listen to the chatter of coyotes.

I’m standing in the bed of my truck at daybreak when an old man walks out of the desert. He carries a clam rake with steel prongs for scouring the shoreline. A straw cowboy hat sits on his head, a snakeskin tied across the headband. The tails of the knot are thin, translucent, and undulate in the wind.
When he sees me watching, he cruises up to talk. He’s wearing a backpack filled with tattered wetsuits that he uses for shell fishing. In another bag, he’s collected a few empty cans and stray bits of trash from the bushes. Juan Carlos comes over and the old man tells us he likes to clean the land because he has “mucho sangre indios.”

He moved to L.A. once, he says, but hated the city. He has a small house nearby where he’s lived for 30 years. We talk about the waves for a little while and he tells us about a surfer with a ranch in the next valley, some guy from Laguna. He also tells us about a dirt track we can take to another spot that might be glassy.

He has a hangover from a big night in town so we give him a beer. Juan Carlos asks the old man if he was in town to celebrate Easter. The old man tells us he does not believe in nonsense. When he removes his hat, it looks like something has been written above his eyes in marker. After a moment, I realize there are numbers tattooed across his forehead. “Seis, seis, seis,” he says, and thanks us for the beer.

We’re on a dirt track on the side of a mountain when we realize the old man’s rake looked a bit like a pitchfork. This only occurs to us after we’ve followed his directions—but if this is the road to hell, it’s leading upward. Rocks peel away under the tires to bounce toward the ocean. We crest a rise and enter a valley with flowers in bloom on the hillside. Quail bob along in front of the truck, then scuttle in pairs into the bushes.

In the dirt road ahead, three black shapes hunch over the carcass of a rabbit. Despite everything we’ve seen in the cities to the north, it seems like, in this valley, we could easily be divided from the present. Unlike the region along the border, the land here feels distant from manmade boundaries, beliefs, crises, and solutions, a place where the real attendants of death, and rebirth, are only the vultures.

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