From Cabo San Lucas to Tijuana, the Baja California peninsula has long been a haven for roving surfers in search of adventure. It’s off the beaten path. It’s a place full of unspoiled waves and lean crowds. It’s a place, also, that comes with potential dangers.
Ever since surfers discovered the fruits of Baja over half-a-century ago, there’s always been the possible hazards that come with traveling South of the Border – some more serious than others. But with the rise of Mexican cartels and the narco trade over the past few decades, some of the more severe dangers have become worse (and we’re not talking about merely getting ripped off by a car mechanic, or catching a case of Montezuma’s Revenge).
So, in hopes of staying safe during your next jaunt to Baja, we gathered the advice of four surfers who know the area well: Surfline’s late leader Sean Collins, Imperial Beach Mayor/environmental activist Serge Dedina, big-wave surfer/respected shaper/jack-of-all-trades Gary Linden, and Rosarito-bred surf photographer Damian Davila.
Note: this is NOT an exhaustive list on avoiding the perils and pitfalls of travel to Baja. (Nor does it even begin to bring up the issues involved in travel to Mainland Mexico.) It is three very well-qualified surfers’ perspectives – some of which are from a few years back, but the gist is still relevant today. For those serious and concerned, there are related links and contact information at the bottom of this feature. For those who have stories and/or advice, please leave them in the comments below.
It can’t be emphasized enough how important it is to use common sense to avoid problem areas, especially at night. And if you’re around other people attracting attention? Bail. To me personally, the area between Tijuana and El Rosario can be problematic with some bad people around at night and local cops looking for a little fast cash if you get caught in a driving violation. Granted, there are many good areas in that stretch, but if I’m heading farther south I want to be well past that entire area by nightfall, or holed up in a very secure hotel. If you do get pulled over by police and know that you did not break the law, feel free to insist that you’ll meet them at the police station later. Typically they will take your license and hold it until you meet later, but most of the time they just want to get some cash and be done with the hassle. Some people have been known to save an old expired license to give them to keep and not show up later at all.
Preparing your vehicle for Mexico highways is soooooo important. People get so used to just driving around at home and if anything goes wrong they can pull into the nearest gas station or call the Auto Club for help. But having a bad flat tire and bent rim in Mexico into the late afternoon without a couple of good spares can extend your stay on the highway late into the night, and at that time there may be some people on the road you wouldn’t want to meet. Your car is your lifeblood and I can’t stress how important it is to plan for all kinds of breakdowns so you’re prepared.
I carry lots of emergency tools and supplies in my truck: extra fuel filters, brake pads, fan belts, fuses, oil and fluids, plenty of water, and lots of duct tape and wrapping wire that I can use until I get to a mechanic. Most mechanics in Mexico are also amazingly resourceful and can fix just about anything, although some of the newer electronic computers in the newer cars may stump them a bit. As such, try to find a Haynes Fix-it manual for your car, and at the very least have your mechanic at home do a thorough check of your car before you leave.
Also, communication is your lifeline south of the border for emergencies and to stay in touch with loved ones at home. Confirm that your cell phone will have access in Mexico by signing up for Mexico International Access with your provider. AT&T is one of the best, while my personal experience is that Verizon offers very poor coverage in Mexico. Roaming fees will apply, and to avoid data charges you may want to turn off your auto-push feature for data and email. A satellite phone is also a great option, as they will operate everywhere. They can be rented.
I also carry a SPOT Personal Tracker with me in Mexico, as they are very effective and inexpensive for serious travelers to keep in touch with loved ones and/or for extreme emergencies. These tiny devices send out your location and a short pre-configured message when you want to issue them. You can send out “Checking in” messages, “Help” messages that something is going on, and “911” emergency messages that will also go to Search and Rescue. I set mine up with specific people to call depending on the alert I might send out, along with contacts in Mexico. Subscribers can also sign up for a very economical Medivac Service where you could be evacuated via air in a medical emergency. Once again, a great investment and these will work anywhere in Mexico. More info here: findmespot.com
[Advice given April, 2011]
I hear often everywhere I go to take pictures that Mexico is dangerous. And I’m like “yeah right.” I believe it’s more dangerous unfortunately in some countries with shootings and terrorism. Baja California can be “dangerous” just like anywhere else. If you don’t behave respectful towards the local people and the surroundings, someone eventually is going to get upset and they will ask you to calm down or go back to where you came from. I think this rule applies anywhere you visit someone else’s home.
Also, don’t be showing off and trying to get noticed. Try to be as low profile as you can, like don’t arrive in huge shiny 4×4 trucks with a jetski and tons of surfboards. This will only attract some attention and you can be an easy target for someone to steal your equipment while you are out surfing — never leave anything out of your sight. Also, for the surfers with jetskis, I just heard they are stealing them at gunpoint because they are being used to smuggle drugs and people across the US. Already happened to a couple of surfers I know.
As for the “Narcos” don’t worry too much, they are busy fighting between them for the territory and minding their own business, foreign surfers think they are like, “Look surfers! shoot them.” Haha no it’s not like that.
Overall Baja is one of the best destinations for surfing any kind of waves from beginners to experts. Make sure you check the forecast before heading there and be prepared for some epic surfing and delicious post-surf Mexican cuisine.
[Advice given March 2019]
The presence of the military is very comforting, if viewed as such. I always thank them for the hard work they are doing when going through inspection and speaking Spanish have found them to be very friendly. Also there is a special force of Tourist Police who instead of intimidating visitors are actually there to make sure we have a safe time. They are very patient and go out of their way to be of help. Politically speaking, I believe Mexico is doing a great job of trying to both stop the drug war and make the country a better place for all.
You’re really only at risk if you’re in fact part of the drug world buying or selling or using. Outside of that, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As in anyplace in the world, there are areas that you just don’t want to be in. Big cities always have barrios where the law of the jungle rules. If you go there for the excitement be prepared for the danger as well. If one assumes that most of the crime is drug related stay away from places where people with money to burn hang out as well.
Best advice is to stay on the main roads and go to surf with a good attitude. Make friends with the locals and be prepared to share cultures, waves and some extra surf gear. Learn some Spanish and don’t bring your problems with you. Respect is very important. In Latin culture, it’s more important than money and if you give it at all times you will receive more than you need. Mexico is one of the best places on earth and I’ve been to a few! With a bit of compassion and a desire to give instead of receive, you will have the experience of a lifetime.
[Advice given April, 2011]
The security situation in Baja California has, unfortunately, once again gotten worse in 2019. Narco-related violence and crime has reared its ugly head in Tijuana, Ensenada, La Paz and the Cape region. This is unfortunate because after the horrible wave of violence and related robberies and assaults on surfers in northern Baja around 2007, the security situation really did improve. But cartels are currently battling each other over turf throughout northern Mexico and the people of the Baja peninsula have unfortunately gotten caught in the crossfire.
Given all that, Baja is still a wonderful place to surf, if you take practical precautions. I travel to Ensenada all the time to surf and work out of the WILDCOAST office there, and haven’t had any problems. However, our staff was recently horrified by narco-violence near our offices in Ensenada and La Paz. And two of our staffers who were checking out coastal pollution sources on the toll road between Baja Malibu and Playas de Tijuana last summer, were aggressively followed by two men in a sketchy van, who were most likely cartel spotters.
After that incident we reviewed all of our security measures and met with law enforcement officers who work on border crime. They believe the men most likely mistook our staff and high-profile 4×4 as either from a rival cartel and or undercover law enforcement. The biggest takeaway was that we realized we should never leave our high-profile vehicle alone on the highway while traipsing around in a remote area at the end of Tijuana frequented by the cartels (I’ve done the same thing many times).
So precautions are necessary.
So what does that mean? It means that risks are greatest for surfers who believe that Baja California is like it used to be and they don’t need to exercise caution when traveling there. The bummer is that Baja has become just like any other area in the developing world where there are problems with crime. Being clueless in Baja is no longer an option. But if surfers are careful and take security seriously, they’re going to have a great time south of the border.
Camping anywhere in northern Baja should be done in established camping areas or surf spots where you are not alone and potentially a target for criminals. The increase in violence and crime related to crystal meth in northern Baja, especially anywhere near San Quintin and Colonet, means that there is a greater chance of having problems if you are camping on an isolated part of the coast.
South of El Rosario things are generally fine, but precautions should always be taken. I have talked to many surfers who have run into people along the wild central Pacific coast they believe were cartel-affiliated, just as I have. It can be an unsettling experience. That is why I always check in with longtime friends at established fish camps and ranches.
Our WILDCOAST team, who have decades of field experience in the most rural parts of Mexico, work in the most remote parts of Baja on both coasts. They all take security very seriously. That means avoiding traveling alone, only traveling during daylight hours, always checking in via their smartphones about their location and status and working with well-respected local residents.
The most important aspect of staying safe in Baja and in any developing country is to respect yourself and the locals. Act as if you are the Ambassador of Surfing. Be nice to everyone. Befriend local fishermen and ranchers. Always greet everyone with a smile, a wave and heaps of respect.
I learned this lesson while traveling in Guerrero when a wave of violence hit the state a few years ago with WILDCOAST staffers who were former journalists. I remember vividly as we approached yet another military security checkpoint, I was told, “You want to make sure that everyone knows you are not a threat. That means everyone from soldiers to the cartels.” It is a lesson I have never forgotten.
So remember, the goal is to surf and revel in Baja’s gorgeous coastline. Being smart, cautious and being the embajador de buena onda will go a long way to making sure your time there is memorable for all the right reasons.
[Advice given March, 2019]
Know Before You Go (About Current Safety Conditions):
- Baja Crime Hotline: 866-201-5060 — To report a crime or if you need help.
- Green Angels
The Green Angels are similar to the AAA in the U.S. The Green Angels are a government paid bilingual crew that patrol the toll roads throughout Mexico every day in green trucks, carrying tools and spare parts, looking for motorists in trouble. The Angeles Verdes will provide mechanical assistance, first aid, basic supplies, and towing. The services they provide are FREE of charge unless your vehicle needs parts or fuel. If for some reason you need assistance call “060” (Mexico’s version of 911) or pull to the side of the road and lift your hood, this will signal the Green Angels that you need assistance or contact them Toll Free 24 hours seven days a week at:
Baja California Highways Emergency Toll Free Numbers:
* 01 800 990 3900: Tijuana – Ensenada & El Hongo – La Rumorosa Toll Roads
* 01 800 888 0911: Tijuana – Tecate Toll Road
- US Embassy Location:
The U.S. Embassy is located in Mexico City at Paseo de la Reforma 305, Colonia Cuauhtemoc; telephone from the United States: 011-52-55-5080-2000; telephone within Mexico City: 5080-2000; telephone long distance within Mexico 01-55-5080-2000. You may contact the Embassy by e-mail or visit the Embassy website.
In addition to the Embassy, there are several United States consulates and consular agencies located throughout Mexico, listed below.
Guadalajara: Progreso 175, Col. Americana; telephone (52) (333) 268-2100.
Tijuana: Avenida Tapachula 96, Col. Hipodromo; telephone (52) (664) 622-7400.
- Consular Agencies:
Acapulco: Hotel Continental Emporio, Costera Miguel Aleman 121 – Local 14; telephone (52)(744) 484-0300 or (52)(744) 469-0556.
Cabo San Lucas: Blvd. Marina Local C-4, Plaza Nautica, Col. Centro; telephone (52) (624) 143-3566.
Cancun: Plaza Caracol Two, Second Level, No. 320-323, Boulevard Kukulkan, Km. 8.5, Zona Hotelera; telephone (52)(998) 883-0272.
Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo: Hotel Fontan, Blvd. Ixtapa; telephone (52)(755) 553-2100.
Mazatlan: Hotel Playa Mazatlán,Playa Gaviotas #202, Zona Dorada; telephone (52) (669) 916-5889.
Oaxaca: Macedonio Alcala No. 407, Interior 20; telephone (52) (951) 514-3054 (52) or (951) 516-2853.
Piedras Negras: Abasolo 211, Local #3, Col. Centro; telephone (52) (878) 782-5586 or (878) 782-8664.
Playa del Carmen: The Palapa, Calle 1 Sur, between Avenida 15 and Avenida 20; telephone (52)(984) 873-0303.
Puerto Vallarta: Paseo de Los Cocoteros #85 Sur, Paradise Plaza – Local L-7, Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit C.P.; telephone (52)(322) 222-0069.
Reynosa: Calle Monterrey #390, Esq. Sinaloa, Col. Rodríguez; telephone: (52)(899) 923-9331
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