Is Baja Dangerous? – Un Cuento Cortito de Baja Norte
May 6, 2011

This post seemed proper for the day after Cinco de Mayo. I scheduled it to coincide with all your tequila headaches. Enjoy!

We left for Mexico on a Friday evening. The day before, my grandpa waved his hairy finger at me saying, “Not a good idea son, NOT a good idea at all!” So I had my concerns when we got to the border just before midnight. Our last minute decision to head to Baja after work put us behind schedule, but the thought of fresh tacos and caguamas lured us south despite everyone’s best advice.

Common phrases when you say you’re headed to Mex.. “BE CAREFUL! Don’t get killed over there!” or “Come back with your head still on your shoulders!”

Even though we were frothing over the buoy readings all week, a day full of pessimistic small talk definitely poked some holes in my dream canoe. Any mention of Baja to friends or coworkers and they’d start talking about beheadings, killings and anarchy… Not really what you want to think about as you near the border.

As soon as we could see the twinkling lights of TJ, my brother and I started searching for reasons to double back. At the MexInsur booth we asked the lady if it was dangerous driving over the border at nighttime. Fishing for a bloody cartel story or something of the sort, we sat there bracing for the worst. To our surprise all she gave us was a warning for possible foggy driving conditions near the coastline. A bit confused we then prodded about the drug war, the killings and such. Her response, “If you guys don’t have any drugs on you then you should be fine, Have a safe trip!” and then she slid the window closed.

You know what happened next? Nothing! absolutely nothing. We took the road south and aside from a slight detour through town, everything seemed normal. We arrived to our destination with fresh beers in hand and our friends greeted us with tequila shots and similar stories of an equally safe arrival. I remember thinking, “Maybe the MexInsur lady was right, maybe Mexico is safe.”

Usually the story would end here, or there wouldn’t even be a story, but I happened to meet Jacinto, owner of the k38 surf shop the next morning. After grabbing a Torta at a little taco stand, I stumbled across his shop. There, scribbled across the front store window in big capital letters, read, “CARTEL DOESN’T KILL SURFERS.” It hit me hard when I saw it. This one little phrase pretty much summed up all of the almost unsubstantiated feelings of safety I had experienced the night before.

So over more tequila shots and friendly banter, Jacinto told about the situation in Mexico. He said the cartels aren’t running around gunning down innocent people, but instead they’re only targeting those who are deeply involved. According to Jacinto, the whole structure of the cartels work under a system of “Divine Justice.” You mess with the gangs, you get punished. Yes, the country is bloody war zone, he explained, but this is a battle being fought between cops and robbers, not innocent gringos vacationing on a weekend trip.

“What about getting caught in the crossfire?” I asked him, trying to cast some doubt on his tequila fueled monologue. He laughed and said, “You’d have to be the most unlucky person to get shot… You have to be sitting on the target’s lap with a bull’s-eye on your forehead and then maybe you’d get caught in the crossfire. These are well-planned killings by ‘professionals.’ If the assassin misses his mark he will probably get killed himself for making a mess.”

It all made a lot of sense and after about the hour or so encounter with this crazy surf shop owner, I felt much better about my decision to venture South of the border. I’m not saying I took everything he said as fact, I’m just pointing out that based on my own experience the whole trip seemed to match up with what both he and other locals were saying. And really who should I listen to? The nay sayers back home who haven’t ventured South in nearly a decade or the actual locals who live and work down there on a daily basis? It seems like a no brainer.

Sure I’ll agree though.. Mexico isn’t safe. Baja has changed. It’s no longer an ideal Spring Break destination for hoards of obnoxious gringos looking to blackout. But, that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t enjoy the place.  If you keep a low profile and you don’t let your guard down, there should be no reason for alarm. Just learn a little Spanish, respect the area and you will be rewarded with a culturally enriching experience and possibly some mind-blowing surf. Why not take a little chance?

Here’s an analogy for ya: Surfing Baja is like surfing sharky waters. Of course the threat’s always there, but most of us don’t mind taking the risk when we paddle out at Nor Cal, South Africa, or even Hawaii. We do this because we respect the ocean and know that sharks aren’t out there looking for humans. We man up, we take the chance and don’t let it bother our session.

In short, Jacinto told me his window message is for the American surfers who used to frequent the local breaks. Yes, he does enjoy surfing epic lineups by himself, but he – like the rest of region- relies heavily on tourism to make ends meet. Right now times are especially tough and so he’s on a self proclaimed mission to clean up the mess that the cartels made. I was asked to write this post to invite back all the surfers who used to vacation South. Go down there and stop by the k38 surf shop. Buy some tees, buy some wax, buy whatever because ultimately more legitimate US dollars down there means a better Baja for everyone. If you’re lucky, Jacinto might just be around ready to pour you a shot as well.

Special thanks to Contour Cameras! All pictures and video on this page were taken with the Contour GPS video camera now available at SWELL. The pictures above are still frames grabbed from the crystal clear HD video. This palm sized camera fit discreetly in my front pocket during my entire Baja trip.

About the Author: Morgan rides a segway to work and loves the color purple. He enjoys long walks on the beach, rollerblading, and the occasional game of leap frog (esp. while wearing his blades). He works as a pro-bono yoga instructor for swell, and manages the gear section in his spare time