“Cartel Don’t Kill Surfers”, A Gringo’s Guide To Northern Baja California, Mexico

Guide to Surfing Baja Mexico

Baja California, a surfer’s paradise… During my adventures south of the border I’ve been robbed at gunpoint, forced to pay bribes, met felons on the run, had cars broken into, and have been lost more times than I wish to remember.

My name is Justin Gregory, I’m a surfer living in San Diego, California and over the year’s I’ve made more trips than I can count to the holy land of rights known as Northern Baja California, Mexico.

After everything I’ve been through, why the hell would someone like me keep coming back to a place like this?

Well, when I wasn’t out sniffing for trouble, I’ve scored perfect waves without a soul in sight, been welcomed by locals, stuffed my face with amazing food, met incredible friends, and in an interesting situation, had the owner of a bar trust me with the key to close down in exchange for a free hotel room.

Despite my extensive knowledge and experience traveling south of the border, I’ve always pictured myself as the LAST person to write the go-to guide on surfing northern Baja California, Mexico.

The truth is, even though I’m a harsh critic on how the media portrays Mexico I also do appreciate the fact that it has successfully deterred so many people from going down there.

“The old me” would have told you I support building a border wall if it was to keep California surfers away from my favorite, empty surf spots.

US mexico border wall
The Border Wall Separating Tijuana From South County San Diego

However, after so many years of traveling to Baja and leaving with memories to last a lifetime, I’ve come to the realization that my appreciation for such an amazing place would not be real unless I share the valuable things I’ve learned for other people to implement themselves.

In addition to this, over the years I’ve learned a lot of things that other people who are looking to explore Baja simply NEED TO UNDERSTAND. Not knowing what to expect or how to conduct yourself (especially in dangerous scenarios) will not only put you in a bad position but could possibly get you killed.

Don’t be fooled, I’m no saint. Many of the lessons you’ll receive in this guide came from me learning things the HARD way. I’ve just gotten lucky a time or two… I’ll explain later.

Before We Begin, Let Me Make Something Clear

If you’re looking for a travel itinerary with a list of my favorite surf spots, you’re in the wrong place amigo/amiga. The last thing I want next time I head down south is to wonder, “who’s the asshole that told everyone about this place?”… Only to find out it’s ME.

too many surfers on the beach
Photo: The Green Room Times

Long story short, I’m not about to have the surfing community put a bounty on my head.

Let me preface this with the truth; you don’t need anyone to tell you where to surf. Anyone with internet connection can pull a map on Surfline and check every mainstream spot anyways.

However, I’m here to tell you that you shouldn’t even do that. There’s a better way. You’ll have more fun, experience twice the adventure, and you very well might find the best wave of your life.

Stick with me here because I’m about to break it ALL down for you.

We’re going to cover:

Disclaimer: This isn’t the “call your buddy for some recommendations” type of guide, nor is it a “top ten things to do in Baja” with a bunch of unnecessary fluff. What you’re about to read is everything I’ve learned after YEARS of surfing Northern Baja. You won’t find this anywhere else. There’s nothing in here that you DON’T need to know however, we left out NOTHING you do need to know.

Scared Of Mexico? Here’s Why You Should STAY Home (Read Carefully)

Because of the political unrest many people view Mexico as this dangerous and lawless place where being a foreigner puts a target on your back. Here’s the thing, I don’t blame them. For the longest time I’ve been victim to this school of thought as well.

This was until I spent a day in Tijuana with my friend Cecilia who was born in Mexico and grew up in Tijuana. Her father was an attorney who held political influence in the city and from a young age Cecilia was exposed to the realities of how the system runs down there.

I was just a wee little lad during this time, not much older than seventeen, and while spending the day with her I took the opportunity to pick her brain.

She never excused the violence from the cartels or downplayed the fact that cops like to take advantage of naive, drunk tourists. She acknowledged these facts however, she also told me something that I never forgot.

She said, “Coming down to Mexico, you must understand that if you’re looking for trouble, you WILL find it. Trouble will find you. But if you’re responsible, Mexico will treat you like a king.”.

Reflecting on this years later, after dozens of Mexico trips under my belt, I can tell you there has never been a more accurate statement.

But let’s define what “looking for trouble” means because some of you are looking for trouble without even knowing it.

eating baja california puerto nuevo mexico
Myself and some friends eating some lobster in Puerto Nuevo

Looking for trouble could mean BREAKING THE LAW (the laws aren’t always the same down here), DRAWING NEGATIVE ATTENTION TO YOURSELF, or even any attention to yourself for that matter, and being BLINDLY NAIVE.

There’s a reason United States security personnel and military members get a briefing every time they enter a new country. Once you cross that line you enter a new world with different rules, cultures, expectations, and most of all, consequences. If you don’t know already, you’ll understand later why I’m so serious about some of these things.

Thankfully, Mexico isn’t as dangerous the other countries our service members enter into and 95% of the things you need to know will be included in the rest of this article.

Every time, and I mean EVERY TIME I’ve had issues in Baja it’s because I’ve been doing things I shouldn’t have (often without knowing).

Understanding this philosophy will take you along way. It will also force you to look at the frequent horror stories with a different perspective.

If you’re the type of person who turns a normal night out into a scene out of the movie The Hangover, I commend you. However, you’re entering Mexico at your own risk.

You may wake up face down in a cockfighting ring, with no wallet, no phone, wondering what happened to your friends… Don’t ask. Or worse, you’ll make yourself a target for desperate people who are looking to take advantage of your stupidity.

Being out VERY late at night, getting sloppy drunk, flashing your cash, buying cocaine, or forcing yourself on the wrong guys girlfriend is a good way to accomplish one of thee things:

  • Make for a good story
  • Get yourself into a sketchy situation
  • Worst case scenario, make you the “victim” in the next tragic headline we read about

If you’re a hot head that doesn’t back down from a fight, finds themselves getting into arguments, is unwilling to let little shit slide, can’t handle your alcohol, or resorts to violence, you SHOULDN’T come to Baja.

If you can’t or are unwilling to adapt your behaviors in order to respect other cultures, if you are too lazy/naive to learn about the realities of where you’re going, you probably SHOULDN’T come to Baja.

If you’re the type of person that relies on others to solve your problems, bail you out, or if you’re simply not resourceful, either travel with people that are or perhaps think twice about traveling to Baja.

For the rest of you, the holy land awaits.

Baja Essentials: What To Bring & What to LEAVE at Home

We all have different travel styles. Before a trip some people like to make detailed lists and check them twice. They bring two of everything and pack a lunch. Other people barely bring their wallets and leave home with two left shoes.

Packing for Baja should NOT be a stressful experience, don’t overthink it. Everything you could ever want or need is already down there. Instead of worrying about what to bring, focus on what you SHOULDN’T bring.

Packing for mexico surf trip
HoStevie! Surf Cap, Cash, Wax, Passport, Keys, and Sunglasses

Bring a Passport. I know, obviously. But hey, I’ve seen people do dumb things so I’m not leaving it out. Ironically, I’ve often used an enhanced drivers license which does the trick for Mexico and Canada.

They do not check documents when entering Mexico, its coming back into the states where you need to have your information ready. No need getting anxious on your way in.

Bring cash. In a place like Mexico everything is for sale and everything is negotiable. Cash is King. For a day trip I like to bring around $200. If you’re spending 24 hours in Baja, you can definitely have a great time for under $200.

It’s always nice to have a little emergency cash in case of a pinch (I’ll explain soon). As a friend once said to me, “$20 moves mountains down here”.

Bring cash, a credit card or two, but I always suggest leaving your debit cards home. In the event your wallet is stolen, a shady shop owner secretly charges you five times the price than what they told you, or you get escorted to an ATM by a corrupt police officer or thief, credit card companies are much easier to work with when applying for chargebacks on false charges or scams.

Getting your debit card swiped can be a much more stressful process when trying to retrieve lost funds. Credit cards are safe at most restaurants and stores, I’ve used my AMEX card countless times without any issues and recommend using a card similar to mine, which doesn’t add on international charges.

Pro Tip: I never use the ATM’s in Mexico unless I absolutely have to. Their service fees are surprisingly expensive and unless you can read Spanish it is a super difficult process, especially after a few Pacificos. I’ve seen friends get charged a $10 service fee only to pull out $15 by mistake because of the language barrier. Without failure, I stop at a 7/11 in San Diego and use their ATM to grab cash on my way out of town.πŸ‘πŸΌ

Bring a full tank of gasMexican gas stations have cheap gas by the liter but when I’ve filled my tank down there I’ve noticed my car doesn’t perform as well. I’m sure it’s not a huge deal, especially if you have a classic surf wagon like a Toyota that can run on salt water.

I prefer to fill up in the states but if I need to top off while in Mexico I make sure to buy their premium gasoline.

filling up gas mexico
Filling Up My Tank In San Ysidro, San Diego

Non essential items I like to bring (apart from the obvious surf gear):

  • Spare car key
  • Extra set of clothes in case I get dirty, or decide to stay an extra night
  • Second form of ID in addition to passport or enhanced drivers license
  • Tool kit
  • Jumper cables
  • Headlamp
  • Ding repair kit
  • Machete/Hatchet if I camp, along with other overnight gear

Also, many people advocate for getting Mexican Insurance on your car before driving down. I’m not a saint and I’ve often drove down without it (but I’ve also made some stupid mistakes in my lifetime). This being said I highly recommend getting a temporary international insurance plan, especially if you plan for an epic long distance adventure. Getting into a car wreck down south can be a nightmare, the least thing you can do is have a fallback.

As obvious as it may sound, do NOT, under any circumstances, bring drugs or firearms into Mexico. These are highly illegal and you WILL get thrown the hammer if caught. So unless you want to get your cheeks clapped in a dirty TJ jail, leave your second amendment home.

Below I’ve included a section on the currency exchange and a breakdown of costs so you can calculate how much moolah you’ll need.

Keep in mind Mexico is like Vegas. Rarely will you ever leave that place with cash. Whatever you bring, expect it to magically disappear.

On more than one occasion, my extra “emergency” funds turned into “more beers, more tacos” money.


Keep in mind, while paying in cash with US dollars, you will be given your change in pesos. The current exchange rate is $1 USD = $18 Mexican Pesos. I, along with most people round up to $1 : $20 to make the math easier.

Pro Tip: When given change, it’s decent practice to count it discreetly just to make sure the person you’re dealing with didn’t pull a fast one. This mainly applies when buying things from street vendors and small markets.

Here’s a rough breakdown on what prices look like in Mexico for common items you can expect to purchase during your trip :

  • Six pack of domestic beer: $5 USD
  • Gas: $4 USD / Gallon
  • Lobster dinner in Puerto Nuevo: $25 USD
  • Plate of street tacos: $4-$6 USD
  • Hotel room with ocean view: $80-$120 USD / Night

Now that you know what to bring, what to leave, and how much you can expect to spend during your trip, let’s get into what to prepare for when driving down there (the preferred method).

The Realities Of Driving In Baja California, Mexico

Driving in mexico
Car Camping At Alisitos K58 Surf Point Campground

There’s only been one occasion where I did NOT drive my car into Mexico. It was my first solo trip to Baja and to be “safe” I thought it would be smart to catch a taxi in Tijuana… Big mistake.

As soon as I walked across the border I waved down a beat-up, rusty taxi that squealed aggressively until it came to a stop. As I opened the door I noticed the dash was lit up like a Christmas tree with every caution light on imaginable.

The driver introduced himself as “Pinche” and seemed like a nice guy but it wasn’t until AFTER I buckled my seatbelt that I realized this man had only one arm. But get this, the arm he did have only had a thumb and a pinky left… a permanent shaka one could say πŸ€™πŸ½

I was speechless, in utter disbelief that someone like this could be a taxi driver. But it gets better.

Pinche begins driving with his knee and using his stoked-out claw to shift gears because… well, the car was also a stick shift.

At this point, I’m in the passenger seat losing my fucking mind as I watched this guy navigate the hectic traffic of downtown Tijuana. Just when I think this couldn’t get any worse, his phone starts ringing.


With his cell phone pinched between his cheek and shoulder, driving with his knee, changing gears with a semi-intact left arm, in a car that looked like it was purchased off the Taliban, I came to the realization that I wasn’t in San Diego anymore.

He must have recognized that I was freaking out because he diverted from his fast-paced conversation to hand me a cigarette. I politely put the cigarette in my shirt pocket but he INSISTED that I smoke it in the car and as he pointed to the dashboard he murmurs, “It’s a Honda”.

Mexico surf trip from hell fear and loathing
Picture Taken From Fear And Loathing Las Vegas

As I inhaled the final draws from what was probably the first cigarette of my life we took the Rosarito exit. With only a couple blocks left of our journey, I made the decision right then and there that if I made it out of that car alive, moving forward I’ll drive myself to Mexico.

But before I got out of the car I thought to ask for his business card. Just in case a friend needed a ride while in Baja I figured it would be hilarious if I recommend they call this guy only for them to find out that he only has two fingers and drives a manual.

If you ever meet El Pinche, tell him Justin sent you.

Transportation tijuana mexico
El Pinche’s Business Card. Somehow I’ve Managed To Hang Onto It After All These Years

If you decide to drive yourself, you’ll find it’s not that different than driving in the United States. Any competent driver should be able to handle it on their own; it’s even easier with a friend in the passenger seat to help navigate.

Mexico has cleaned up its act in recent years. There are still some gnarly potholes every once in a while that you want to keep an eye out for but compared to how it used to be, the roads are much better.

Especially once you get closer to Rosarito what you NEED to be paying attention to are the “Alto” (Stop) signs. For some reason, they’re way smaller than the stop signs in the U.S. and sometimes it’s just spray-painted on the pavement.

Half of the locals just blow through them anyways and I’ve ran through my fair share on accident but be careful at night because they’re hard to spot and cops use this as an excuse to give tourists a hard time.

traffic in tijuana & Rosarito mexico
Alto Sign In a Neighborhood Outside Of Tijuana

For some reason, people are surprised to find out that some Mexicans have a lot of money too. Especially in the past couple years around Tijuana and Rosarito it’s become super common to see nice cars while venturing down south.

You’ll also notice that half of the license plates you see will read California. If you’re worried about standing out and drawing unnecessary attention to yourself, for the most part don’t be. Any car that blends in when in SoCal should be fine in the northern most sections Baja. That is, if you stick to the right areas.

Once you get south of Ensenada you hit the final frontier. Dirt roads, small fishing towns, poorer populations, less people, empty roadways, and less oversight to crime. Driving a nice rig with a foreign license plate can sometimes draw the wrong attention. Finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time can become reality down here. Diehard surf travelers like myself are starting to question if the risk is worth the reward anymore.

My goal is to eliminate your fears and provide knowledge that will help you cultivate an epic Baja experience. The last thing I want to do is spread “horror stories” but also, we can’t ignore reality. The dangers over there (can be) VERY REAL.

I’m not saying EVERY law enforcement officer in Mexico is shady… Nowadays in all honestly, most of them probably aren’t. But I’ve had a fair share of negative experiences.

Mexican police and military in tijuana
Mexican Military Member Inspecting a Vehicle Outside Of Rosarito

In the event you encounter a corrupt police officer or even an honest one for that matter, it’s important to know how to handle yourself.

The following story is by far the worst encounter I’ve ever had when it comes to police in Mexico. I want to walk you through my experience because it highlights many of the things you should NOT do when encountering police in Mexico.

Now it’s been a while since I’ve thought about this but for the sake of education let’s get into my war story…

“That’s right, I said TAKE ME TO JAIL!”

What I am about to tell you occurred AFTER my time with Cecilia. Thanks to her I had some knowledge under my belt but even then, some lessons must be learned the hard way.

It was 3:00 am on a Saturday and I’m driving my friend back to our hotel after picking him up from a night out in Rosarito (Mistake #1).

My car at the time was a ran down Mazda 3, a perfect car for the Mexican roads. The only issue was that it had Washington State license plates (Mistake #2).

I pulled onto a main street about a mile down the road from Papas and Beer when we got lit up by a police truck. It was so immediate that I knew we were in for something bad.

Having a rough idea of what was in store, I told my friend to be quiet and let me do the talking. We pull to the side of the road and before the officer could get to my door I tell my friend to take the cards out of his wallet and hide them under his seat. I did the same (Lesson #1).

getting scammed in mexico
Photo Of A Mexican Police Truck That Is Identical To The One That Pulled Me Over

When the dark silhouette reached my window I already had everything prepared as if I was getting pulled over in the States. All the interior lights were on, the keys were on the dashboard along with my ID, and my hands were on the steering wheel.

However, when his face came into view I immediately knew something was off. Here walked a gentleman in his late 40s, wearing an Under Armor hoodie, no identification, no badge, no firearm or gear, really nothing at all that insinuated that he was a police officer for that matter, and I quickly learned he didn’t speak English.

I vividly remember thinking to myself “Oh this is going to be easy”. A rather arrogant mindset to have going into a situation like this (Mistake #3).

For a moment the “officer” just stood there in silence shifting his stare from me to my friend and then back to me. It seemed pretty clear that he was sizing us up so I gave him a look that said “is there a problem?”.

With a slight hesitation he reached with his finger and in the dust on my side mirror he wrote “500”.

This has to be a fucking joke, I thought to myself. He didn’t even say anything!

My friend looked confused but I knew exactly what this guy meant.

With a tone of disbelief, I quickly said “What!? No.”

I could tell this threw him on his heels and before he could say anything I said “Look, I don’t even have $500”.

As I pointed to the wallet on the dashboard the words “five hundred” came out of his mouth. He spoke broken English but his tone was firm.

what to do when pulled over in mexico
Photo: CNN

The following is word for word how the rest of the conversation went down.

Me: “What did I do?”

Officer: “You drunk.”

Me: “No I’m not!”

Officer: “You speeding.”

Me: “Dude, you pulled me over before I could even reach the speed limit.”

Officer: “You no stop at stop sign”

Me: “Then write me a ticket or take me to jail.”

Officer: “Okay, I take you to jail.”

The officer and I are responding to each other almost instantly, we’re only about thirty seconds into the interaction at this point. The energy was super tense and I started to get the feeling that neither myself nor the officer knew how this was going to play out.

The officer continued to stand there for a couple seconds (which felt like 15 minutes) until I repeated “Then take me to jail”, essentially calling his bluff (Lesson #2).

Without speaking the officer took my wallet and signaled for my friend to give him his. Then with both wallets in hand, he walked back to the truck.

My friend remained silent in the passenger seat and when the officer was out of ears length I said to him “Don’t worry dude, this guy isn’t taking us to jail. He’s going to take the cash in our wallets and let us go.”.

I couldn’t help but think the last thing this officer probably expected that night was to encounter an eighteen-year-old surfer requesting to be taken to jail.

About five minutes passed and I began to wonder what is taking so long. Figuring that he’s had plenty of time to ransack our wallets by now, I assume the officer is contemplating how to handle the situation he just got himself into.

At this point, I start considering that taking the spare cash in our wallets might not be the end of what this guy had planned for us.

police in mexico
Photo: WKDZ

I tell my friend to stay cool and try to record what happens when the officer comes back. My friend says “okay” and grabs my phone from the cup holder (Mistake #4 and this one quite frankly could have gotten us fucking killed).

Another couple minutes go by before I notice the officer was walking back to my car. As he gets closer and I’m able to make him out I realize this is a completely different person.

A much larger guy in full police uniform, carrying a Beretta ARX160 comes to the window and with a loud aggressive voice yells “Okay!”

I could tell he was going to say more but as soon as he saw us he stopped mid-sentence and immediately took three steps back and out of view.

I look over to my drunk friend and realize the flash is turned on with my cell phone camera.

“Fuck. Put the phone away” I tell him.

He tucks my phone beneath the seat but before he can get his arm back the passenger door rips open. I notice the original officer is back and he’s reached into the car and already had both hands on my friend’s shoulder.

I watch as my friend gets pulled out of the car, seatbelt still on. My fight or flight responses kick in and my heart starts racing. Expecting the same treatment I reach down and undo my seatbelt to make things easier.

A split second goes by and my car door rips open. Without making any rapid movements I put both of my hands up to signal I am not a threat. The uniformed officer reaches in and pulls me out of the car.

Just as I’m thinking “Okay nice, he’s not beating the shit out of me” I get slammed down HARD on the front of the hood. He didn’t even handcuff me so I just awkwardly stood there still while he started rummaging through my pockets.

He starts pulling things out like my chapstick and loose change, only to briefly look at them before throwing them into the street. I felt like a prisoner of war that has been taken captive.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see my friend face down on the pavement receiving similar treatment. The officer finishes his search and grabs a handful of my junk in what seemed like an effort to intimidate me.

Then something funny happened. Without saying a word, both officers walked back to the truck, flipped a U-turn, and drove in the other direction.

“What the fuck was that!?” my friend said as he picked himself up off the street.

“You good?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m alright…” He relied.

I patted myself down to see what belongings I still had and gathered my things from the street. They took the money out of our wallets but didn’t find the extra cash, and credit cards under the floor mat.

Mexican shakedown
Secret Stash

We reviewed the footage on my phone and when my friend went to send the video to himself he came to the grim realization that the Under Armor officer stole his phone.

Understandably, the officer was probably thinking it would be a good idea to steal the phone to clear any incriminating evidence against himself. However, my phone, the one that was used to capture the video was hidden out of sight under the seat.

Here’s what I assumed happened: The legitimate officer and his street criminal cousin were paroling the streets looking for unsuspecting tourists or victims. After realizing I wasn’t here to play their game they came back intending to give us our wallets (minus small bills) and were probably going to yell/intimidate me for effectively calling them on their bullshit. After this, they were more than likely just going to cut us loose.

HOWEVER, the flash on my camera signifying that they were being recorded massively (and unnecessarily) intensified the interaction, forcing them to steal our phones and whatever else in order to cover up their tracks.

For years I had that video saved on my phone. From time to time I would show it to friends but for the most part, it just sat in my camera roll collecting dust. I spent hours searching through my computer for it with no luck. If I find it down the line I’ll upload it to this article.

Mistakes and Lessons

I’m not proud of how I handled the situation. I like to think that if it happened again today, It would be a much quicker, way less problematic interaction. There are plenty of things I did wrong and there’s a few things I did right. Let’s go down the list.

Mistake #1

Yes, I was completely sober. Also, our hotel was only 5 minutes from where we were. Still, I should NOT have been on the road at that time of night.

Driving before light to a surf spot or after dark for a couple of hours to get back to the border isn’t as big of a deal. However, being out between the hours of midnight and four in the morning can be bad news no matter where you’re at, especially if you’re in Mexico.

If you desperately need a ride after dark, it’s best practice to get yourself a taxi. Preferably driven by a man with two arms. If there’s not a taxi within eyesight a good tip is to ask your server, bartender, or hotel worker.

Pro Tip: The local community is pretty tight and everyone seems to have the phone number of a nice person who’s down to help you out for a few bucks. There’s also almost always a taxi driver hanging near by, even if you don’t see him.

taking a taxi in rosarito mexico
Taxi In Downtown Tijuana

Mistake #2

Normally I would say having U.S. license plates that aren’t “California” is fine but coupled with driving at 3 am I was just a rolling hunk of meat ready for the taking.

If you have non-California plates and you don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to yourself the rule of thumb is obvious: don’t be the only one on the road.

PS. I still have Washington plates. I’ve since traveled with Washington plates at least sixty times and have had zero issues.

Mistake #3

I went into the situation with confidence which is fine however, my nonchalant attitude threw the first officer off. When dealing with the police in Baja it’s important to be knowledgeable but at the same time let them feel like they are still in control of the situation. The last thing you want to do is take a shot at, or challenge their ego.

The FBI negotiator Chris Voss says “The art of negotiation is letting the other person have your way”. If I would have just explained to the first officer that I don’t have $500 and I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I probably would have been fine just paying him a $10 “toll” or “gringo tax” to let us be on our way.

Mistake #4

Telling my friend to record was just plain stupid. I truly believe if I would have just avoided this, everything would have been fine.

Many law enforcement officers go to extreme lengths to conceal their identities. Almost all military personnel, but many police officers as well wear facial coverings even in the blistering heat of summer.

I assume this is to avoid being recognized and not to keep their neck warm or look cool.

Putting a camera in an officer’s face like you’re at a protest in downtown Portland isn’t going to go over well when in Mexico. Simply don’t do it.

Mexican military
Photo: The Wall Street Journal

Lesson #1

In this situation, hiding our cash and credit cards saved us hundreds of dollars, possibly thousands if the officers would have found the debit cards and decided to escort us to the closest ATM (Which I’ve heard has happened).

Nowadays when in Baja I keep $40 and maybe a credit card in my wallet max. If I ever face a situation again where my life is in danger or I’m being robbed, my strategy will be to hand them my entire wallet and act both dumb and scared.

The idea here is for them to leave thinking they just robbed you blind but you’re still able to carry on with your day with a slightly less net worth.

Lesson #2

Almost everyone that has ever heard this story thinks I’m clinically insane for telling the officer to take me to jail. Understandable… but it’s super important to understand how the scam works if you want to avoid being the victim.

Extortion is wrong. Yes, even in Mexico. If a police officer refuses to take a small bribe and tries to further extort you for something blatantly false, requesting them to write you a ticket or take you to jail can be the ultimate chess move if said with the right tone.

Requesting that they write you a ticket or take you to jail is a great response because they generally can’t do either of those things.

Remember, the officer is simply looking for money. Whatever he can get. Writing you a ticket that is only payable to the government serves no purpose in supporting his weekend beer fund.

Also, how would the officer even explain to higher-ups why he’s bringing an American into the station? And even once you’re there, it does nothing for him but waste time and raise red flags among his non-corrupt peers.

Finally, it allows you to call their bluff without being confrontational. When they give you the famous line “No ticket, you need to just pay me now”, that’s when you show them your wallet with just $10 or so in there (remember to leave your cards out).

At this point, they’ll hopefully take the decoy cash and have you carry on with your day. Meanwhile, you just avoided a huge hassle while the rest of your cash and credit cards remain safely hidden.

I know this may seem like a lot to take in… So please remember, if you’re not out looking for trouble like I was, the odds of you experiencing something like this are very low.

avoid scams in mexico
Checking The Waves Near Primo Tapia, Baja California, Mexico

Modern Realities and New Dangers in Baja

In my opinion, the experience I had can still happen today but stories like that mostly exist in the past. Mexico has since changed in the recent decade and I’m seeing less and less police mess with tourists. Local government leaders understand that a good relationship with America is essential for their economy.

They’ve likely passed the message down that “we don’t fuck with innocent gringos”. Even the local Cartels have a gentlemen’s agreement with the government not to rob or harm tourists. A drop in tourism is bad for everyone, good or bad.

Every so often you hear the tragic news of a cartel member or local thug who goes “rogue” and robs, harms, or kills what they suspect as a wealthy, unsuspecting tourist. In these cases its common for the cartel to find out which one of their members committed the crime and they either kill them in the desert or offer them up to local authorities.

I’ve even heard that cartels conspire with local authorities by offering up unfortunate individuals who didn’t commit the crime to act as the “fall guy” to avoid further “heat” or attention from U.S authorities and news outlets.

Is Camping in Baja Safe?

Camping in baja

As much as I’d love to say yes, the real answer is it depends. The more rural you go generally the safer and more friendly it gets but also being close to town offers the security of witnesses. Regardless of what you hear, Northern Baja is still home to drug trafficking routes and both high and low level criminals who don’t want you getting in their way.

If you’re camping at a designated/popular campsite with other campers, it’s generally safe. If you have a mediocre set-up, no cool toys, or ATV’s worth the risk of stealing, you’re probably safe. If you’re rural and know how to speak Spanish, you’re also (probably) okay.

But things are only okay until they aren’t. In a worst case scenario, as shitty as it can be, if you get robbed just give up your money or things without a fight. NEVER get physical in an altercation with Mexican criminals. No physical items are worth losing your life over. There’s someone out there that loves you more than you love your truck or physical belongings.

The global surfing community was hit with a massive reality check in May of 2024 when three young surfers (two Australians and one American) lost their lives trying to save their truck from getting stolen at a campsite south of Ensenada. A campsite I’ve personally visited alone.

Personally, I’d have a hard time going back after hearing the news of those three guys getting shot in the head and thrown into a well. Unless I’m with a larger group or intend to stay somewhere more populated I think I’ll have to opt for an airbnb or hotel over camping. Unfortunately this news has probably killed tourism for Northern Baja and I bet it will be a few years minimum before surfers and overlanders start feeling safe again.

Are The Cartels REALLY That Dangerous?

Are cartels dangerous?

Most people assume “the cartels kill everyone with no discretion”. This thought process (although understandable) is simply untrue. We kind of got into this earlier, but no one wants to kill you. If anything the worst case scenario is that they want to steal your shit. Don’t give them a reason to kill you or better yet, don’t put yourself in situations where you’ll even encounter them.

DON’T drive at night on empty roads. And DEFINITELY don’t do it if you’re driving a nice car or truck. “Checkpoints” and “toll booths” are sometimes set up by armed bandits and local cartels on dark, lonely Mexican roads. If you make the mistake of ignoring this rule and you encounter a checkpoint don’t panic or run off, typically you can pay them whatever cash you have and you’ll be on your way.

Also, don’t be afraid to negotiate. Haggling is expected and you can usually knock the price down by staying polite and reasonable. Welcome to the gringo tax. I’ve said it once, I’ve said it twice, and I’ll say it again; the cartel doesn’t want to kill you and the bandits just want your money. Accept the risk, give them what they want, and be on your way. Or follow everything I’ve said and you’ll likely never encounter them once in your life.

Peace Offerings & Tips For Getting Yourself Out Of A Pinch While In Mexico

Cash and cervesa. You don’t need both but I recommend at least one.

Being in a new country can bring about many uncertainties, a simple flat tire or getting lost can turn a minor inconvenience into a very stressful experience rather quickly.

Coming from a traditional Mexican family myself, the culture is very empathetic. I’ve been in a pinch or two while in Baja and I can tell you that for the most part, the people who live down there are both helpful and extremely resourceful.

I’ve always adopted the mindset that if you’re ever in a situation where you need help, BE SOMEONE WORTH HELPING! On more than one occasion I’ve gifted beers to people I’ve met in exchange for jumper cables, firewood, directions, or even as payment to watch over our car while friends and I surf.

Baja has a super strong drinking culture. The beers are cheaper than water it seems, and having a few extras to give out to people you meet will go a long way towards making friends.

The same goes for cash. Even if you have the extra beer I still recommend having some cash set aside in case something goes wrong.

Now that you understand the two types of currency; aka Beer and Beer Money, let’s get into the food.

Tacos & Seafood

Hellen Keller herself could walk five paces in any direction and find amazing Mexican food down in Baja. You really can’t go wrong no matter where you go so I won’t waste too much time going deep on this topic.

If you have a sensitive stomach or want to be as safe as possible I recommend staying away from any street vendors.

If you’re staying coastal here are my usual go-to’s:

Carnitas La Flor de Michoacan #2
Blvd. Benito JuΓ‘rez 306, Zona Centro, 22710 Rosarito, B.C., Mexico
Price: $
Quality: β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†

This is one of my favorite places to grab some tacos or breakfast when near Rosarito. It’s super cheap and very delicious. If I ever have people who are picky eaters I usually take them here since the menu is pretty accommodating.

Literally ANY Restaurant in Puerto Nuevo
Price: $$ – $$$
Quality: β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…

Puerto Nuevo is a small fishing village known to many as the “lobster village”. Enjoy some amazing seafood cliffside with one of the best views in Baja.

As soon as you pull into the one-way street people will begin swarming your car trying to get you to eat at their restaurant. Don’t jump the gun! Go all the way to the end where the road begins to turn and request a rooftop table with an ocean view.

Thank me later.

Lunch With My Friend Jay At la Casa Del Pescador, Puerto Nuevo, Mexico

K38 Taco Surf
Taco Surf, 22716 Rosarito, B.C., Mexico
Price: $ (Cash only)
Quality: β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†

This is probably the most iconic spot to eat for surfers. Right next to one of the most popular surf breaks in Northern Baja, this place whips up some of, if not the best tacos I’ve ever had in my whole life.

Grab some beers from the mart next door, place your taco order by holding your fingers up with the amount you want, and talk with some like-minded surfers.

best tacos in baja california mexico
Taco Surf

If you want to sit down and experience some of the best vibes Baja has to offer just go two doors down to Sin Fronteras Brewery. Expect to pay American prices but on the weekends is truly one of the best spots to hang out after a late morning surf.

If you want to hear some good music check out my friends while you’re down there. Their band is called Beloved Baja. They play at Sin Fronteras and “La Palapa Beach at The Lighthouse” basically every weekend.

Surf Quality & Conditions

The waves in Baja tend to be a couple of feet bigger than in San Diego while also feeling colder as well. Even during the summer months, I recommend bringing a full suit just in case you get cold.

In Northern Baja you’ll find everything from long point breaks to fast reef breaks with some mellow beach breaks peppered in between. This is a dreamland for regular footed surfers but even a goofy footer like myself can find some good lefts when at the right place.

Without naming spots, I urge you to not consider surfing until you’ve passed Rosarito. The sewage runoff in Tijuana should be considered an international tragedy.

I like to play loose when in the States but when it comes to Baja I avoid surfing if there’s been any rainfall in the last week. Trust me, I’ve seen some of the sewer drains on bad days and it’s ridiculous.

Every time I travel to Baja I implement the same strategy for finding epic waves. I check the report the night before and choose a couple of spots as my primary points of interest.

I head to the best option first but as soon as I get to Rosarito I hop onto Federal Highway 1 and drive the cliffside along the coast. There are countless breaks visible from the highway that have no names but sport amazing rides.

Keep your eyes peeled and when you spot something that looks good, pull off and find a way to get to it! By implementing this strategy I’ve scored amazing waves with no one out more times than I can count.

surfing in baja
Surfing A Mexican Break All By Myself. Location: I’m Not Telling πŸ˜‰

I encourage you to look for new spots every time you go and after only a few trips you’ll have a list of some great options, guaranteed.

There’s a sense of pride and satisfaction that is difficult to describe when you and your friends conquer a never before seen surf spot. It takes you back in time to the early days of surfing, an experience that’s hard to come by these days.

Sure I could list my favorite spots, at the end of the day I don’t mind sharing waves with cool people. But on the other hand, I would be doing you a serious disservice by completing all the work for you. If you want an easy way out just check the Surfline maps.

Best Places To Stay The Night In Northern Baja

Since I live in San Diego the majority of my Baja adventures come in the form of day trips. However, I’ve had some amazing multi-day trips and there are plenty of amazing options for staying overnight if you want to maximize your time down south.

You don’t need my advice, you can find countless good options on Airbnb and I won’t bore you by diving into something that is self-explanatory. However, in addition to Airbnb, there are also good hotels worth recommending.

Las Rocas
Las Rocas Resort and Spa, MΓ©xico 1, Baja California, 7273+4R El descanso, Baja California, 22710 Playas de Rosarito, B.C., Mexico
Price: $-$$
Quality: β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†

For about $80 you’ll get an ocean view room, two margaritas with your room key, an awesome breakfast that’s included with your stay, and not to mention all within 5 minutes from some of the best waves and food in Baja.

When looking for a place to hang the hat at the end of a long day this is usually the first place I check. But be aware, during the summer months a reservation may be necessary.

Alisitos K58 Surf Point Campground
KM-58 Carretera Libre Tijuana-EnsenadaEnsenada, BCN, Mexico
Price: $10/night
Quality: β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…

This place quickly became one of my favorite areas in Baja. After spending four months living in a van surfing the west coast, I can tell you this “campground” is one of the best car camping spots I’ve ever been to.

It costs $10 a night but almost every time I’ve been here there’s been no one at the gate collecting payment. Lucky me I guess. It overlooks a fun beach break and is walking distance to some super solid restaurants and bars.

The energy is always fun and without failure I meet super cool surfers and nice locals.

Casa Playa Baja
Casa Playa Baja Resort, Los Pinos 1, 22714 Primo Tapia, B.C., Mexico
Price: $$
Quality: β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…

This is a great beachfront option few people know about. It’s perfect for the solo surfer looking for a last-minute place to sleep but for anyone looking to lead a surf expedition with a group of friends look no further. This place can accommodate the masses.

I was in a group of about forty friends for an annual get-together the last time we rented this place and the staff who ran this boutique hotel made it their mission to ensure we were having a good time.

hotels in baja california mexico
Some Friends Of Mine Enjoying The Hot Tub At Casa Playa

From horseback riding on the beach to ATV rentals, food catering, taxi service, campfires, and even your own mariachi band, it seems like nothing is impossible.

As a nice bonus, I hope you share an experience similar to mine.

During my last morning at Casa Playa, I woke up and began taking inventory of the severity of my hangover. As I walked to grab a coffee I was in disbelief as I watched a nameless beach break going absolutely off just thirty yards from the door of my room.

Without a soul in sight about five friends of mine surfed perfect a-frames all morning while the staff prepared breakfast.

There’s no way the waves can be that perfect every time… I like to think we just got blessed with amazing surf and it was just a one-off type of morning. But then again, my dreams seem to come true down in Baja. Maybe the same thing will happen to you.

Keep in mind that these are just a couple of my favorites. There are undoubtedly many more great options that I have just yet to find myself. Look online, keep your eyes open on the road, and don’t be afraid to pull over if you see something interesting.

How To Cross back Into The U.S From Mexico

After a few epic hours, or even a few epic days in Mexico you’ll eventually reach a point where you point your sails north and head back home.

But just when you think the adventure is over, one must realize they now need to cross the busiest border in the modern world.

I won’t sugarcoat it, crossing back into the U.S. through the San Ysidro Port of Entry can be a serious pain in the ass. Getting stuck in line can be a living nightmare and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Unless you time the drive perfectly, you’re more than likely going to be waiting for a minimum of two hours.

This being said, there are measures you can take that will ease your border crossing experience.

Many people check the U.S customs website to view the wait times but similar to the apps we use to check the surf conditions, the information can be hit or miss.

I operate on the following rule of thumb that has served me well so far; I don’t even consider heading back to the U.S. until at least 9 pm. During the late evening traffic dies down. If you can go even later, I would recommend doing so.

tijuana US border line
San Ysidro Port Of Entry, Photo: Fox 5 San Diego

I’ve made it work crossing back around 8 pm, you’ll endure a two – three and a half hour wait, but should make it home before midnight. On the other hand, I’ve also crossed back as late as 1 am – 3 am and waited only fifteen minutes (I know this contradicts previous safety protocols we discussed).

Pulling an all-nighter to make it home certainly isn’t the only way to go but the later you can push it, the better off you’ll be.

If you’re a morning person, I’d recommend staying the night and crossing back the next morning before 8 am. Beware, during the week a lot of Mexicans commute to the United States for work so crossing in the morning could be a nightmare.

If you’re traveling on the weekend and can make it to the border between 5 am -7 am you should be okay.


Two lanes that exist when traveling back to the United States. There’s the global entry / ready lane which is used by everyone.

There’s also the Sentri / Fast Pass lane that requires additional documentation and membership status that can be acquired through an application.

Differentiating between these two lanes can be pretty difficult and even with a bunch of experience driving back and forth I’ve still found myself getting stuck in the wrong lane. Avoid doing this at all costs!

crossing the mexico border
San Diego Ready Lane

Accidentally finding yourself in the Sentri lane can bring about some serious consequences if faced with the wrong border patrol agent. You’re going to be dealing with an American when passing through the border on your way out so bribing your way out of trouble is out of the question, don’t even joke about it… Trust me, they don’t think it’s funny.

Supposedly you can be fined up to $5,000 or even $10,000 if repeated a second time.

Personally, I’ve gone through the sentri lane on two separate occasions. I was immediately apologetic and took every measure possible to kiss the ass of the border patrol agent taking my information. Thankfully both times I was let off with a simple warning however, this is a massive roll of the dice and I wouldn’t recommend testing your luck.

You’d think that with a fine so significant, they would do a better job labeling the two lanes but in reality, it’s genuinely pretty difficult to find your way. If there’s any sort of insight I can share with this it’s to be cautious about trusting google maps; it does a good job getting you to where you roughly need to be however, it specializes in choosing the quickest available option which is almost always via the sentri lane.

Once you reach downtown Tijuana you will start to see signs directing you towards “San Diego” and “I5”, when you see these I recommend aborting the GPS and following the road signs like the good ol’ days. On this point, if you get overwhelmed do not be afraid to circle a few times and give it multiple attempts.

You’ll know what I’m talking about when you get there… The exits come up fast and it’s easy to get turned around. If you end up making it in the right line within the first five tries I would say you did a decent job as a newbie.

Not exactly the advice you were looking for? Well, I don’t blame you… Discover Baja Travel Club created a pretty detailed PDF with instructions on how to navigate this final hurdle. In a perfect world, you can have someone in the passenger seat use this to help you get where you need to be.

Final Thoughts

That was a long one. If you made it this far I genuinely appreciate you taking the time to go through this whole article. Certainly, the things you have learned over the past few minutes will come in handy if you plan on spending time down south.

Share it with a friend or two but keep it hush-hush… Let’s have some fun and surf some amazing waves but let’s avoid turning this Mexican promise land into the next Sayulitas or Bali.

See ya out there,


Justin Gregory is an old-fashioned redneck hillbilly from Washington State who tripped over his shoelaces and found himself carrying a surfboard. For a dude in his twenties, he's seen it all. He lived among natives in Alaska, worked as a commercial fisherman in the Bering Sea, commonly paid off bribes to the Mexican police, and sold luxury real estate to foreign millionaires in Southern California. Somewhere along the line, he learned how to read and write (barely) which lead him to write surf content to keep all of you ungrateful kooks entertained. Of course, when he's not blowing off emails to catch waves in Baja or track Mule Deer in the mountains. You can read his stuff here on our blog and follow him on Instagram @Justin5Gregory.


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