The Mexican border officer flagged our van down and pointed us in the direction of a separate queue. We were told to get out of the vehicle and leave all bags inside as we waited behind a solid wall while our van was x-rayed. I tried to not fiddle with the money belt that was hidden under my clothes containing passports and cash. What were we doing driving our van down to Mexico? Hadn’t everyone warned us about how dangerous it was? Thoughts of gang violence, corrupt police and drug cartels ran through my head. As Sam and I were planning this trip we had heard about two Australian surfers that were found murdered inside their burnt-out van in Mexico. Sitting behind a concrete blast wall contemplating the scenario unfolding around us, the similarities were stacking up… We’re Australians, we surf, we’re traveling in a van…In Mexico. We were nervous.
We were told about a place called Scorpion Bay (San Juanico) by some surfers in San Diego. With a heavy south swell due to hit within the week, it was the place to be - if we could get there in one piece. Scorpion Bay is approximately half way down the Baja Peninsular 1,300km south of San Diego, 16 hours or about three days of driving if you’re in the Sheriff (our fondly named 350 Ford Econoline Van) By day one it was clear we had underestimated the length of the peninsula! But when there’s good surf and adventures behind every 30ft cactus, what’s a bit of a drive right?!
There is only one ‘paved’ road that runs the length of Baja (it’s paved, but fixing holes in the road is apparently not a priority). On a serious note, driving in Mexico shouldn’t be underestimated, endless potholes, sparsely marked lanes, chaotic semi-trailer drivers and a healthy dose of wild and domesticated stock crossing the road will keep you alert. Never drive at night and drive to the conditions.
After passing through military checkpoints, incredible national parks, beautiful coastal towns and forests of giant cactus we arrived at Scorpion Bay. A small township set between a mountain range and seaside cliff. As we drove closer to the township we caught glimpses of the surf. Perfect right hand waves were peeling in across multiple point breaks as it wrapped around the headland. After some fanatical, joyous cheering, we parked up, overlooking one of the main breaks – metres from the cliffs edge. This was Scorpion Bay. For the next week we camped along the cliffs, surfing four times a day, riding perfect and seemingly endless waves. It was bliss. A little pack of surfers had popped up along the cliffs, creating a small community. Everyone was super friendly, exchanging food, cervesa and stories around each other’s cliff side setup.
Just when we thought Baja couldn’t get any better, we were proven wrong! One night as we sat around the campfire trading travel stories we noticed the waves on the far break starting to glow. The whitewash against the black sky stood out so bright with a fluorescent green it was hard to comprehend what we were seeing. One of the local guys we were hanging with explained it was a natural occurrence when dinoflagellates (a tiny bioluminescent marine creature, a species of plankton) is disturbed, giving off a bright green/blue light. When these little guys come into the bay by the millions, any bit of usual whitewash lights up with an incredible glow! So what would a group of surfers do? We quickly changed, grabbed our boards and carefully made our way to the waters edge.
As we paddled out, each stroke we took was completely lit up by the luminescence, the outline of our hands glowed green and small fish wizzed past under our boards leaving a trail of neon light like a small firework display. Taking off on waves was pretty tricky, the night sky and ocean were jet black, with only the whitewash and stars to help us position on the shoulder of the wave. Once we got onto the waves, the outline of our boards became visible as it cut through the water lighting up like some kind of scene from Avatar.
Eventually the swell dropped off at Scorpion Bay, our little community of surfers became restless as wild rumours circulated of a large hurricane swell that was to hit the southern tip of Baja within the next couple of days. The bandwagon of vans, trucks and beaten up cars packed up and shot back into the desert, fuelled on the stoke of large swells. Another 2 days of driving got us to a place called ‘Nine Palms’. The beach was actually about 50km from any major town, along a dirt/sand road. We trundled down to a little arroyo (dried river bed) right on the beach, set up camp and waited for the swell to hit the following day.
The next morning we were greeted by what I can only describe as ‘corduroy’, the rumours had proved true, the hurricane had pushed the swell in alright! The lines of swell were stacked so closely together it looked like giant ripples all the way to the horizon. It wasn’t until we started paddling out past the beach break that we realised how big the swell was. The waves were breaking at least 200m deeper than yesterday afternoon and the size had almost tripled. Our Scorpion Bay amigos agreed the waves were within the 8-10ft range, shared amongst only about 8 of us!
We had reached the tip of Baja and it was time to turn the Sheriff back. We cruised along the eastern side of the peninsula that skirts the Gulf of California, swimming with giant pods of dolphins and schools of pigmy manta rays. Small fishing towns provided fresh fish tacos, ceviche and the perfect place for a cool off swim in the calm turquoise waters. Eventually the road heads back across the centre of the peninsula through remote desert. This is the most spectacular desert we have ever seen. Having spent time in the Australian’s deserts we anticipated something similar, but this desert is next level.
The desert in Baja grows some of the most incredible flora in the world. Some of the cacti are three stories (30ft) high and plants that look like something out of a Dr Seuss book. It’s incredible to see how these giant cacti are able to grow so large in such hostile environments, everything seems to have some kind of defensive spike or way to conserve water and just survive. Each afternoon we would pull off the highway to find a secluded patch of alien-scape terrain, surrounded by weird and wonderful desert plants. We watched the colours change as the sun set over the desert. Once the campsite was established there was nothing else to do but practice a new method of drinking tequila that the locals had taught us, this was truly the way to see the Baja Peninsula!
Looking back on how terrified I was during the border crossing, it seems ridiculous after the amazing Baja adventure that followed. Of course, there are parts of Mexico that are dangerous, and it is always best as a traveller to stay vigilant, but with a little common sense and local advice the Baja Peninsula can be an exciting and rewarding road trip. Emphasis on the word ROAD TRIP. Don’t fly into Cabo San Lucas like every other tourist. Drive down the Baja Peninsula, it’s worth it!
Tips for a Baja Road trip
- Never drive at night
- Always check with the locals if it’s safe to camp
- Get Mexican vehicle insurance
- Avoid the border towns (higher crime rates)
- Make sure you apply for a Mexican visa at the border. This is not always obvious when you cross the border, but it is occasionally checked down south and you can be sent home/arrested if you don’t have one.
- There are roadside checkpoints along Baja. These are military checkpoints that are checking for weapons and drugs. We had no problems with any of the soldiers from these. Just be polite and friendly and let them search your car or van.
- Take along some children’s toys. Mexicans are big family people and these can be used as gifts at roadside check points and for making friends with locals.
- Don’t camp within sight of a major road (in case you draw attention of unwanted visitors)
- Fill up with petrol wherever you can (gas stations can be few and far between)
- Be careful of sea urchins (bring a first aid kit that includes tweezers/antiseptic cream)
- Drink tequila, eat fish tacos and surf your heart out!
How to drink Tequila like they do in Mexico - *spoiler – forget everything you think you know about tequila, if you do it right, it tastes amazing*
You’ll need: Tequila (100% Blue Agave is best), limes, salt, glasses.
Uno – Cut the limes into classic wedges
Dos - Sprinkle the salt liberally onto the cut limes, (don’t go loco).
Tres – Pour your tequila into the glasses
Cuatro – Place the salted lime into your mouth and squeeze the salty juice and swish it around (don’t swallow).
Cinco – Shot the tequila, making sure you mix the tequila with the salty lime juice in your mouth first before swallowing.
Seis – As soon as you swallow the shot, *breath out*, this will force all the face crinkly alcoholic fumes out of your body, leaving you with a smooth, zesty flavour in your mouth.
Siete – look around in amazement as you have just mastered tequila!
Acho – Repeat if necessary
Cheers your amigos and recite the classic Mexican chant
- !Arriba! (glasses up)
- !Abajo! (glasses down)
- !Al centro! (to the middle)
- !Pa’ dentro! (drink it down)
Written by Sophie Matterson. To see more of Sophie's work, head to @sophiematterson