Last weekend Michael and I drove down to Baja for a little sun-drenched getaway full of cantinas, beaches, and Mexican cerveza. Prior to this trip, my Mexico vacations had solely consisted of all-inclusive resorts in Puerto Vallarta and the Mayan Riviera- which offer far different experiences than the country’s Northern peninsula- so this trip was almost like visiting Mexico for the first time.

Friday morning we hopped on the 5 from Solana Beach and arrived in Rosarito less than an hour later (faster than the drive to Los Angeles). Rosarito is a quiet little coastal town with a traditional Mexican vibe contrasted by a tourist culture guaranteed to entertain foodies, winos, and spring-breakers from North of the border. However, while the main strip was heavily concentrated with people, I was actually surprised to find few American tourists.

Within an hour of checking into our hotel, we were personally escorted to a palm tree adorned, beach-side cantina where we instantly attracted endless Mexican vendors. One of my favorite memories from this day was buying a hand-painted shell from a 5-year-old boy for $2 (double his asking price) and seeing him ecstatically skip away to show his mother the extra cash (try getting an American 5-year-old that excited about something that doesn’t involve a screen). The beach was initially empty but by the time we gulped down the last sips of our extra-large (extra strong) pina coladas, it was teeming with Dos Equis-drinking fiesta enthusiasts.

Before the sun set, we ventured down to the famed K-38 surf break and popped inside an adjacent surf shop (aptly named K-38 Surf Shop) for Michael to get the local low-down. The super friendly owner informed us that we were a day late for the swell, but invited us to come back another time and stay at his chill surf hostel right next to the break.

That night we indulged in the $12 open bar at the infamous Papas & Beer, a 50,000 square foot nightclub with all the typical riffraff- a dance floor made of white sand, girls in bikinis attempting to ride a mechanical bull, lifeguard towers to show off your booty-poppin’ dance moves, body shots galore, and energetic bartenders pouring shots into the mouths of sombrero-clad tourists. Definitely worth the $12 if solely for the people-watching hilariousity.

The next morning we were riding the proverbial struggle-bus but managed to make the drive down to Ensenda, a colorful beach town known as the “Cenicienta del Pacifico” (Cinderella of the Pacific). Ensenda possesses the friendly flare you would expect from a Mexican tourist town- the narrow main strip was dotted with souvenir shops, folk art boutiques, and sleepy cantinas with margaritas bigger than your head.

That evening, we drove up to Michael’s usual Baja surf break, San Miguel, a deserted rocky beach surrounded by gorgeous homes and breathtaking mountainous views. Apparently this break is normally packed with surfers, but we were thrilled to discover a perfect right point break with not a soul in the water- Michael’s version of cielo. He scored a great sesh while the sunset’s ombre blend of orange and periwinkle pink melted into the summer sky.

I was all buckled in and ready to go the next morning when we saw police lights pull up next to us. A police officer began speaking to us in Spanish and demanded that we follow him to the police station, but not before searching our car. We ended up getting away with a $50 ticket for littering (he saw Michael toss a freakin paper towel on the street) and a slightly inconvenient 20-minute detour.

Upon leaving Ensenda, we found the main road back to the border blocked off due to a 40-car-pileup (how does that even happen?). If we had not been stopped by the police officer, would we have been part of this pileup? Maybe we got some good karma from giving the 5-year-old an extra dollar in Rosarito. We received some vague directions of an alternative route (in Espanol) and found ourselves driving East into where-the-eff-are-we Mexico with no signs of civilization (sin cell phones and GPS). Luckily lost is not a bad place to be when you’re with someone you love. This road-to-nowhere took us through Tecate (yes, that is a real place, not just a beer) and eventually spit us out into the slums of Tijuana where we navigated to the border using the Arch as our North Star.

I had an awesome time escaping reality for the weekend in Baja, and highly recommend any SoCal residents to make the trip themselves. Michael brought up a great point that so many people are missing out on such a fun and accessible vacation spot simply because they are afraid of Mexico given all the negative press its been receiving lately. I think it’s worth pointing out that not a single tourist has been harmed from the cartel violence in Baja, and as long as you’re not stupid, it’s probably a safer place than some American cities. Besides, sometimes you have to step outside of your comfort zone to feel alive. As Hunter S. Thompson said, “Who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?”

Hasta luego, Baja!