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Over a Baja barrel

Two and a half hours south of the border is a break where it's you and the dolphins.

March 02, 2004|Ryan Brandt | Special to The Times

Like most surfers, I tend to have dreams stocked with barreling walls of water. They're waves that are never occupied by anyone other than myself and a good friend to help pass the time between sets. Pure fantasyland for anyone fighting for face time from Scripps Pier to Rincon. Or is it?

A few adventures south, Baja beckons with the promise of unspoiled landscapes and set after vacant set. Whenever the water traffic becomes too much in Huntington, I head to a place south of Ensenada where the right point-break of Punta San Jose always greets me with a thunderous, and unpopulated, welcome. Though it's touted as a San Diego favorite because of its relatively convenient proximity to the border, I have rarely shared the waves there with anyone other than my friend Pat, some curious seals and a pod of cruising dolphins.

That might be because this obscure point 2 1/2 hours south of the border can be a tad difficult to find. Our first effort went sour when, an hour beyond the small village of Santo Tomas, a meandering, dusty road dumped us at the harbor of Punta Santo Tomas, 10 miles north of our destination. We had missed the mark by one inconspicuous turnoff, something we learned was not hard to do up and down this cueless coastline.

Buffeted by a furious northwest wind, we silently set up camp, waveless, knowing that our destination lay just around the next headland -- a mere two hours away by car.

The correct right turn hides just beyond the Pemex station in Santo Tomas. Along with two small grocerias, this marks the last place to stock up on gas, firewood and food. From here, it's an hour on another interminable rutted road.

It all leaves plenty of time for the anticipation to build, not to mention the fear that foul weather or a gaggle of surfers has found my spot. Thankfully, that's never been the case as we bump around the last turn to see mile upon mile of verdant ranchland. On the ocean's edge there's a thimble-sized lighthouse surrounded by a dilapidated fishing village and the white stripes of Punta San Jose's churning surf. The few shanties on site have always been vacant when I've visited, though lobster-hawking fishermen are rumored to approach starved tourists fresh out of the water.

The Sierra San Miguel forms an impressive backdrop to the break, ringing the cove with 75-foot cliffs that dive straight into the Pacific. The foothills shelter the point from the wind, and thick kelp beds pitch in to handle whatever breezes sneak through, keeping the texture of the waves as smooth as the rides.

But the bulbous seaweed can also provide some moments of trepidation, as if to remind you you're in a foreign land, the brown vines popping up suddenly after a big set.

Best on a west swell, the sets wrap effortlessly into the cove, forming a charged right over the reef off the point that keeps its shape long enough for a fast inside section on bigger sets. Even when the waves are not at their prime, though, the sun penetrates deep into the blue-green water, and the untamed landscape erases any lingering Southern California angst.

Each evening, as Pat and I break into our routine of building a fire with Pacifico, the local brew, in hand on the dirt patch that moonlights as a campground, we admire the pounding sets as they darken in the waning light.

Soon the local landowner, Victor, pulls up in his battered Toyota pickup, decked in a Quiksilver T or O'Neill tank top given to him by previous visitors. At the edge of his ranchland, we exchange pleasantries before he tires of our little moment. We fork over a crumpled $5 bill, which Pat and I agree is the best rent we'll ever pay to wake up to the sound of crashing waves and a day filled with churning rights.

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