Surfing El Niño: Baja's Lost Coast

El Niño

Second Stop: Baja's Lost Coast

Words + Photos: Mike Townsend

Baja calls you back. Before you’ve arrived and well after you’ve left, many factors go to work on you at once – the definitively Seussian contours of the Cataviña landscape, for one, a place you know from children’s books shone into tangible relief as soon as you pass Rosario on the 1. The truck you dialed in the day before with an extra spare and reserves of duct tape, superglue, and first aid becomes your spacecraft into this previously imagination–bound dimension. There’s the obligatory taco stop in Ensenada and the best-taco-in-Baja debates that hungrily preempt it. ‘Your’ spot is the Mexican version of In-n-Out, a clean, well-oiled machine that seems to operate on the smoothly turning gears of more red-capped employees than necessary and consistently fresh ingredients, like green cebolla and radishes piled high on the counter. It’s the kind of place two people leave stuffed for under $10.


These repeated actions – prepare car, pass Rosario, stop for tacos at that place – become part of the call back. Etched in your subconscious, they’re folded into an elaborate ritual in which one step necessitates fulfillment of the rest.

This winter, I found myself in Cataviña twice. We all have our go-to destinations, especially in winter; if it’s an El Niño winter, Baja’s even more of a no-brainer. This year, storms off the coast were far enough away that by the time the swell reached the points we were exploring they were breaking cleanly and consistently, with just enough of the source’s unforgiving strength to organize into perfect sets.


The wind came in offshore from the side, keeping conditions steady all day. And thanks to El Niño, the normally beige and brown landscape was swathed in green brush and dotted with desert blooms like I’d never seen. The water was clearer and more vibrant than usual, reflecting the milky-blue opacity of the sky.

My first trip was cut short almost immediately when a friend I’d met up with fell on his rail and cut his eye pretty badly. We doctored it up to the best of our ability and waited out the night (there’s no driving out after dark), but by morning it was clear that someone needed to escort him the 10+ hours back home, where his girlfriend and 14 stitches were waiting. It was hellish, but you go there knowing that between the reef and the road, anything can happen.


The second time I drove down, I intended to stay for a while; luck held and that’s what I did. My good deed a few weeks prior was rewarded with days of waves, getting lost going around the corner to the next point, and the next, and the next. With no one around for miles save the occasional fishing co-op, this area of Baja – the Lost Coast – lures you into thinking the next point will be better, the surf checks lasting almost indefinitely. The thing is, with so many nooks and crannies, sometimes the next point really is better.

They say it’s about the journey, and between the elaborate choreography I follow to get down there and what can happen once I do, this seems like solid advice. But whoever asserted that the journey has more to offer the traveler than the destination never surfed Baja.

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