Of Surf and Ceramic Monkeys II

| posted on February 26, 2012

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

The recent act of turning down a dirt road brought back memories of Baja. Memories of surf, but of other things too. Of campfires, washboard ruts, Federales, questionable taco stands, close calls, tarantula hawks, trippy-looking cacti, blistering heat, watery feces, fly swarms, flat tires, sandy tents, hospitable locals, lobster for trade, rain squalls, bribe strategies, panga rides, and ceramic monkeys.

Like warm urine in a fresh wetsuit, it all came flooding back.

The welcome delight of these peripheral, non-surf memories made me realize that for a California surfer, going to Baja is less about finding waves than I thought. It’s more about finding an alternate universe. About the possibility of getting into a vehicle and driving yourself and your friends from one world to a very, very different one.

Further down the road, I picked up a whiff of something. I couldn’t quite identify it, but then I realized why: it was a combo smell of some sort. Maybe boat gas and burning trash and tamales. Maybe not. But it was definitely a Baja smell, an odorous reminder of things past: tequila chased, scorpions blowtorched, mahi panfried, Bullfrog smeared, beans digested, carburetors flushed.

It is with this sensory driven nostalgia that I recently dug through my files and selected some lesser and non-published photos to post on this blog. Maybe not the best photographs, but treasured moments just the same.

Only in Baja can an abandoned, ablaze VW van seem normal. Photo: Gilley

Read instructions carefully: A found-on-the-side-of-the-road Baja security baton left us in stitches. Photo: Gilley

The old days: A twenty-story condo tower now stands in this exact spot.

Just one solid tube at Razors can make an apocalyptic fly swarm seem trivial. Photo: Gilley

Mark Cobb and Roscoe turn a thigh-high day into a memorable session. Photo: Gilley

Having the right tool for the job is the key to maximizing your Baja surf experience. Photo: Gilley

  • zeno malan

    Going to “the BA-HA” !!! – pronounced in a high pitched warbling mariachi like sing-song voice, was the battle cry amongst the peers of my day.
    Can’t count the number of days in and around Ensenada in the 60’s until even then it was getting crowded.
    (first trip 1961 – CantaMar Trailer Park – friends mother drove 4 of us in cab-over camper for a 2 day trip)
    2 years later drove with a friend, parental permission notes at 17 not needed as we were waved thru at the border. Had to pay $5 to bail friend out of Ensenada jail for being drunk and accusing bar tender of stealing $5.(the irony)
    Miscellanei subsequent trips, including a sweet señorita romantic romp in the back of my 63 Chevy panel truck w/fold out (my const.) bed- 4″foam, on same K-38 bluff in photo.
    1972 trip down all paved except last few miles up and over the hill to Cabo San Lucas, surfing isolated Zippers alone(La Palmilla only hotel in the distance)
    Crossing ferry from La Paz to Topolobampo and on to Costa Rica stopping at San Blas, Sta. Cruz, Pta Mita (Mex Air Force bi-planes target practicing w/50 cal. mounted machine guns 50 yds. away from desolate Mita campsite) -Petacalco(Pat Tobin on 15′ wave riding 11′ Rhino Chaser), Puerto Escondido – alone but girlfriend on beach watching . – nothing on beach in Puerto except one cantina/rest. extreme north end/camped adjacent, then south to Salina Cruz and probably one of the first surfers to head north of the harbor to the first point north, offshore perfection sand point – alone – again – w/girlfriend watching on beach-camp in scrub behind sand-dunes.


    Pay to surf Indo excursions the only thing left to a Baja road trip lover.
    And a south Pacific isle in near future where a dentist rules the break.

  • Elgenio Dervez

    In Baj a good 4×4 with a winch is good extra cash pulling out the dummies and tourists. For the dummies and tourists 4 boards, a shovel and a lot of work can get you out of a lot of places.
    The spot with the tower is like Punta de Mita. It’s all high dollar homes,golf courses and hotels. Google it. Its disgusting. It was a palm thatch fishing village with a typhoid well. But the palapa store got ice on Tuesday and Thursday for cold beers. We had fresh eggs, handmade tortillas and sodas while the chickens clucked around the table where a skinny old dog slept for a dollar. No fresh water so the girls bathed in salt water while we watched for tiny man of wars. There were also poisonous sea snakes (slow as hell) and of course big sharks. Haha.The crabs came up every night and cleaned the latrine. We didnt eat crab. Oh. Forgot the scorpions. I was stung in the back once. I got pretty sick and hallucinated for 2days. Also sliced my hand open poping shellfish off the rocks. About an 8 stich cut fairly deep. We tied it up and kept on surfing.
    The point broke best on a north swell and did a crack the whip around the point to break on a coral reef about 2-3 ft. deep. On the perfect swell it peaked off the point repeaking for backdoor entries to a series of peaks for about a half mile. Best July to Sept. The waves were so good one year we got caught by the rainy season. Luckily we had a Vdub van and floated over the deep spots. Had some hassles with “federales” but we talked our way out of them. I speak Spanish as well as i do English and that helped a lot. That was early 70s. When we got home after 3 weeks there wasn’t an ounce of fat on anybody. We ate eggs, beans, tortillas, fruit and caught a lot of fish. Oh the biggest bay on the Pacific side of Mexico is now a sewer. We watched huge boils of fish with hundreds of birds diving and whales came in the bay. All killed off by the big hotels. Unfortunately surfers discovered most of these tourist spots and began their trip to ruin.

  • zeno malan


    I wonder if we ever were at Mita at the same time? Back in the late 60’s and early 70’s after baja was getting over-run, Mita became my go to place. We usually hung out in Sta. Cruz, Nayarit waiting for a swell to show. Mita is exactly as you describe it and I have photos of the desolate point and the waves too. Speaking of the ‘sling-shot’ effect and back door – threading those two rocks and riding almost to the tiny fish camp.(we had resin and helped a local fisherman do repairs to his panga)
    Your comment was a reminder from those days. Scorpions, Federales at 6AM rousting your dreams for a seed, the two crazy brothers with the best campsite and variety of drugs(how they survived – if they did?)
    It was a world unto itself.

    I too am saddened what became of Mex. now – truly sad.

    I guess we contributed to it by being part of this generation?

    I smoked some once.

  • Elgenio Dervez

    @zeno. God how I would love to see your photos. I lost all of mine. My name is Mike Kelso. I was known as Miguel. I sat between those rocks many times. I rode a 5’4″ kneeboard that looked a lot like today’s boards but with a wide diamond tail. We always stopped in at Guadalajara for a shoe box full. Lol

  • Elgenio Dervez

    @zeno look for me on facebook. My wife and I use the name Gloria Miguel.

  • zeno malan

    @Elgenio aka Mike;

    It’s doubtful that Surfer will ever want amateurs like me to post photos, especially the low quality ones I have of Mita. I had a Kodak box camera back then but I printed the 110 negatives and have them in my album to this day in my ‘Mita’ section. I have shots from the only ‘hill’ on the point , I had shots of the bi-planes strafing the target at the end of the runway (I’ll have to search for those in a large box) I have shots from the takeoff spot looking down the point towards the village a kilometer away show how long the ride could be. I have my fav of me threading ‘those’ two rocks heading to the village. Shots of the coral, my girlfriend and I sitting on a log in our campsite and other shots no one would be interested in.

    On flat days I would often spend time on the west side(our camp was on that side cuz of the breeze) surfing the crappy reef break, one day next to that small island it produced a fairly good right.
    Shark vertebrae were everywhere and I do recall once a group of shark fishermen were just leaving their encampment on the west beach.

    Other than that you aren’t missing too much from my photographic history of Mita, but I loved that place.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if we did cross paths out there. There was never more than 6-10 people out there and that meant about 4 trucks/ campsites(wherever you parked your vehicle was a campsite)

    The two brothers had the ‘spot’ – of the E edge that had a large ‘bush’ they incorporated with a tarp tied to their camper for shade. It was party central for all of us on that one trip. Never saw them again.

    I am on FB too. I will ck out your site.

    Good talking to you. Thanks!

  • vin robitaille

    A high school buddy of mine moved from CT to Law Street, San Diego right out of high school (1980). My visits to his apt. and sessions at PB in the late 80’s began my surf addiction which included surfing Maine and NH in the winter to get better before my next trip out. We made our first foray to Baja in the early 90’s. While on our way to surf K38 we saw this angelic head high A-frame peak breaking in the distance. We immediately stopped our car and got out to to take a better look. We were up high on a cliff and the only way down was a rocky ravene. A mexican local allowed us to park our car on his dirt front yard, we gave him $5.00 I think. Our rubber beach slippers were a key pickup in Rosarita when we stopped for fish tacos. (I smelled the same thing Rob did there!) We (myself, my buddy and a friend) proceeded to surf this break (mostly rights) alone all day while local fisherman watched us from the rocky shore. I, being the kook of the group, was the first to test how safe the break was by going on a wave I should not have and went OTF. My buddy was actually yelling don’t go as he went underneath me as I pitched over him! I got a few waves to their wave count competition going on but the waves I did get (using a great 6’8″) changed my life. The sun, cliff visuals, seclusion, it felt like time stood still. I’m 50 now with three kids and I still look to surf whenever I can, albeit with a bit more company.