Exploring Baja Norte’s Thriving Surf Community With Steve Sherman
Remember those good ol’ trips south of the border? The waves had more oomph. The tacos had more flavor (and only a buck each!). And that same girl who wouldn’t give you the time of day at Salt Creek… well, it’s amazing how tequila shots and a ride on Señor Frog’s mechanical bull can bring people together. What glorious and exotic times they were, always waiting just a short drive across the border.
And then the party stopped. In 2006, Mexico’s then-president, Felipe Calderón, vowed an all-out war on Mexican drug traffickers. On the streets, the cartels battled with police and each other for control of the border zone. Blood flowed and the “narco wars” were all over the U.S. media. And so we stayed home for fear of being found face down in some Tijuana ditch. Meanwhile the locals and businesses that depended on gringos crossing the border and spending their dollars in the Tijuana to Ensenada tourist corridor fell into a “narco recession.”
Of course, swells don’t stop at the border, nor do they stop for cartel wars. So in February, when perfect winter conditions aligned for Baja’s infamous beachbreaks, Rosarito-based surf photographer Damián Dávila invited SURFING’s Steve Sherman to come down and score, just like old times. What Sherm came back with was more than just photos of stand-up Mexican pits — it was the story of a burgeoning border zone surf culture. Surfboard factories and surf shops. A local economy on the rebound. And a new generation of Baja Norte surfistas ready to keep the party going.
SHERM: Damián Dávila’s family has lived in Rosarito for three generations and he’s deeply embedded in the culture of Rosarito surfing. Damián’s a photographer and super talented shooting from the water. He learned to shoot water in the heavy beachbreaks down there, and with his long arms and legs he swims like a fish. Damián’s actually a rock star in Mexico, but you wouldn’t know it, he’s so mild mannered. He plays drums in a band called Delux and they’re like the Blink 182 of Mexico. He flies all over Mexico for gigs and then flies home. This is Damián in front of the gates to his family’s place in Rosarito. It’s the surf compound where his friends from California gather and can park their cars so they’re safe.
SHERM: Mariann Lozano is a hardcore surfer from Rosarito. She recently went down to Puerto Escondido to compete in a national surf contest and you can see that her bedroom wall is covered in surf posters. She’s 14 and works at her parents’ restaurant in Rosarito called La Güerita.
DAMIÁN: Here in Rosarito we call it the “narco recession.” When Calderón tried to dismantle the big drug cartels, he captured and killed some of the big leaders. Then the rival organizations tried to move in and we basically had a war between the police and the cartels as well as the different cartels killing each other for control of this area. I remember almost every day there were shootings on the streets, naked bodies hanging from bridges and headless bodies left with warning messages. The violence was well publicized in the U.S. media and visitors stopped crossing the border because they were scared. It was a heavy period and a lot of the tourist businesses in this area were hurting for a long time. Now that things have cooled down, we are seeing more tourists coming again — surfers, spring breakers and families — and all this is helping the local economy and businesses like Mariann’s family’s restaurant.
SHERM: Man Cave Surfboards is the only surfboard factory in Tijuana. It’s literally a block from the border fence in the heaviest neighborhood — right where people would sneak across the border back in the day. José Sariñana (middle) is the shaper and owner. He works as an architect, but building surfboards is his passion. José Miguel Mercado (middle left) is the glasser and lives down the road in Las Playas. These guys supply all the hot local kids in Rosarito and Tijuana with surfboards. It seems out of place to have a surfboard factory in this part of town. It’s usually where you keep driving, don’t speed and pray you don’t get pulled over.
SHERM: The beach on the Mexican side of the border fence is called Playas de Tijuana. There’s street art everywhere here. That area has changed drastically since I was a kid. After 9/11 they beefed up security and a few years ago they built a larger, reinforced fence. It’s a weird, edgy feeling there at the border.
SHERM: Where the border fence meets the Pacific Ocean is an interesting zone. The fence literally sticks out into the water for about 100 yards. The Playas de Tijuana locals told me that the wave can get quite good right there. And sure enough we went there at first light on this morning and it was just firing. But if you’re on the Mexican side and you surf too close to the fence, the U.S. border patrol will call you off. They’re constantly watching it.
DAMIÁN: Even when a lot of the surfers stopped coming from California, the waves never stopped here. We still got really good days, just with less people. The narcos are still out there, but now that they’ve settled their problems about who’s going to be the leader of this region, they’re operating quietly. These days they never mess with people. Narcos definitely don’t care about surfers. They have other interests.
SHERM: This is Ezequiel Garcia, but everyone calls him “Zicki.” He’s a hot goofyfoot kid from Rosarito who lives in that wave rich area down there where some of the best beachbreak is. Zicki’s a lot like the average 16-year-old California kid. He’s got his skateboards. And his room’s covered with surf posters. You can see he’s got some little hookup sponsors stickers on his board. And this is how he gets to the surf every day.
SHERM: When you pull into the gate at Baja Malibu there’s a corner store right where you park. Luis Soto and his mom live above that corner store. Luis is a true Baja Malibu local and he charges. He lived in the States for a while but then his mom got deported so they had to come back down. Just another surf-stoked teenager like in the U.S., except he’s in Mexico and happens to live next to one of the best beach breaks on the west coast.
SHERM: This was on one of the bigger swells we had this winter. I couldn’t believe how many jet skis there were down there this day — it looked like Waterworld. This is the zone away from the main peaks where the jet skis are somewhat accepted. On this morning the offshores kicked in and next thing you know it was looking like Puerto Escondido with some triple overhead closeout sets. On this one, the driver went over the falls so bad. Almost all the guys who tow out here are from California. And I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some tension between the local surfers and the tow guys. There’s been some tires flattened and some windows broken this winter. When it gets good and the tow guys are just zigzagging around the locals who are paddling, I think the locals feel like they’ve been taken over. Then again, on a day like this there’s not too many takers trying to paddle in.
SHERM: The stairway to heaven — also known as Baja Malibu. These are stairs Baja Norte style. In Mexico people make use of whatever they have. The Baja Malibu locals had these old tires, so they mixed some concrete and made a stairway down to the beach with them. They look like they’ve been there for years and have probably taken a pounding from swells at high tide. But they’re still there.