Some background. You should read this.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then calculate the value of this video that captures the spirit of Baja, straight from Herbie and Nathan Fletcher's mouths. Watch that and you'll be on the road in about the time it takes to throw a board in the back of your pickup.
You've probably heard of the Baja 1000 off-road race. It runs from Ensenada to La Paz, or about 1,000 miles. Since Ensenada is below the northern border and La Paz is above the souther tip, that means there is well over 1,000 miles of coast, or over 1,000 miles of surf.
Baja is almost all desert - rocks, mountains, arroyos and desert. It does get tropical in the south during the summer and hurricane season when warm, wet weather moves up from the waters off Central America (Chubascos), and there are a few other swampy lagoons here and there. But for the most part, it’s bone dry—rocks, mountains and desert.
While Baja is mostly desert, it does rain. It rains during the winter in the north, down to about Ensenada, coming from the southern edges of the same storm systems that pass through the U.S. up north. Almost all of that rain falls from December to March. From Ensenada to Bahía Magdalena the rainfall rate drops by over half to just a few inches a year. Despite that, it’s enough to cause flash floods, axle-sucking mud pits, and spitting rivermouth barrels.
Rainfall picks up again in the south near the Cape, coming from the northern edges of tropical storms and hurricanes originating off the west coast of mainland Mexico south of Puerto Vallarta, mainly from June to October (peaking July through September), or from those same storms, hitting the Cape head-on. (By the way, Baja roads don’t handle rain well. The roads are not correctly engineered, so they don’t disperse the water. And most of the roads aren’t paved, so even four-wheel drive vehicles often find themselves stranded when visiting the wrong places at the wrong times.)
While deserts are known as outdoor ovens, Baja just isn’t that hot. Temperatures in the north near the ocean average from 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (16 to 24 degrees Centigrade) year-round, cooled by the California Current. California’s infamous “June Gloom”—the coastal fog seen in early summer—hits Northern Baja as well, mostly from May to July.
The Central Desert area from El Rosario south to San Ignacio can get hot where the thermometer often goes well over 100 degrees. Fortunately, it cools off a lot at night. Don’t let the high inland temperatures fool you, though. Where you’re going, near the ocean, it’s nearly always cool to chilly to downright cold, so bring sweatshirts and a jacket. The Cape gets hot, but not as hot as the Central Desert, and it gets humid in the summer as it’s in the Tropics. In the winter and spring it can get pretty chilly on the West Cape, especially at night, so bring something warm to wear. (In fact, the entire Pacific Coast cools at night, so always bring something warm to wear at night, like a sweatshirt, no matter where you go.) The East Cape rarely drops below 60 degrees, and that’s only at night. Typically, temp’s average in the 80s in the early spring and late fall, and climb up to 100 degrees in July and August.
Baja Water Temperatures
Since there’s over 1,000 miles of coast, there’s also a range of water temperatures. Let’s break this down to north and south and explore.
First the bad news: Northern Baja has cold water pretty much all year round. This comes as a shock to most surfers the first time they hear or experience this. After all, Mexico is south of California and is mostly desert, right? True, but the water is colder nonetheless. It's all about the Humboldt Current, which could be explained here, or we could just tell you to bring a 2/2 and a springsuit in the summer, a 3/2 in fall, and a 4/3 and booties in the winter and spring. For the big surf on the island of Todos Santos or the perfect Seven Sisters points add a hood. At its balmiest, which is usually around September, some surf spots in Northern Baja can get warm enough to trunk it, up to a bit over 70 degrees on a really good year, but springsuits or shortjohns are usually in order. In the winter and spring the water temp gets down to the mid-to-low 50s. Spring, the windiest time of the year usually has the coldest water. If you are heading to the area between Punta Banda and the Seven Sisters, expect the water to be five to ten degrees colder than the surrounding areas due to upwelling from the everpresent wind. Cabo Colonet, for example, can dip into the 50s in the summer. Lastly, the offshores around the Seven Sisters do a good job of blowing the warmer water out to sea, so expect it to be especially cold there.
Now the good news: Southern Baja is mostly warm, all the way in the south that is. From Bahía Tortugas south to the West Cape, the water temperature maxes out at about 75F in the summer, but even this far south it can drop into to the low 50s in the winter or spring, depending on where you’re headed. (Well, yes it does get cold.) Cabo stays pretty warm, typically above 70F, and sometimes well over 80, but drops into the upper 60s in the spring. The East Cape ranges from 65F to the mid-80s, which is almost too warm, if that’s possible. In general, the West Cape is usually about five degrees colder than the Cabo San Lucas/San José del Cabo “Corridor.” If heading to the Cabo area, bring a variety of rubber to cover yourself from the West to East Capes, probably a springsuit for the West Cape down to a rashguard for the Corridor and East Cape. You never know when you might need a wetsuit down there.
When to Go on a Baja Surf Trip?
Now! Baja is a year-round surf destination. The West Coast catches swell for much of its length from the south to the north, depending on any particular beach’s exposure. The southern tip is best from spring through fall when the Southern Hemisphere and hurricane (Chubascos) swells are working best. The only time of year when you might think twice about going is during the spring when it gets pretty windy and the water gets colder, really cold in the north. Some guys plan their Cabo trips around hurricanes, hoping to hit it just right and catch the swells as they wrap around into the East Cape points and reefs. Great plan, but there’s also the risk of actually getting caught in a hurricane or at least some heavy tropical rains complete with deadly mudslides and flash floods. Not all bad, though, as the run-off from those same tropical rains creates some epic sandbars.
Tide charts are more easily found than water temperature reports. MagicSeaweed is a good source, or Wetsand. Get more technical feeling at (Be sure to click through to the “Alphabetical list of all tidal height sites”.) You’ll find a handful of Baja tide charts, but none for Cabo. For Cabo you can also check
Baja Norte stays on the same time as California all year, Pacific Standard Time from the last Sunday in October to the first Sunday in April, and Pacific Daylight Time the remainder. Baja Sur, on the other hand, is aligned with Mountain Standard Time.
International calling can be confusing what with the different prefixes, country codes, area codes and even different codes for mobile phones. Then, just when you think you got it down, any given country can change the whole system, like going from seven digits to eight. When in doubt about calling Mexico, try checking HowToCallAbroad.com (not a broad; abroad). It is easier than consulting the phone company.
From The Surfer's Guide to Baja, available at core surf shops, SurfTravelGear.com and other online retailers.