As I veered off Interstate 5 onto highway 94 towards Tecate and the Mexican border, I found myself humming James Taylor’s “Oh, Mexico.” Although LA’s January this year has had more than its share of 80-degree weather, I had a bad case of the post-holiday blues that I hoped to chase away with a weekend in Tecate and the Guadalupe Valley, two lesser-known gems of Baja California.
Since I’ve come back to LA, I can’t stop talking about Tecate’s laid-back charm, the beauty of the Guadalupe Valley, and how well I ate and drank. Serious foodies and wine folk, start planning your trip! There are a food and wine explosion going on in Baja you don’t want to miss.
California’s ubiquitous strip mall clutter soon gave way to rolling hills of green as I traveled south/southwest from San Diego towards Tecate on Highway 94. The forty-mile trip brings you to Baja’s easiest border crossing in under an hour. Altogether my trip from Los Angeles took just over three hours on a busy Friday morning; so much faster than entering Mexico via Tijuana.
I left my car on the American side, paying five dollars a day to park in the TC Worthy/Payless lot (406 Tecate Blvd.) and wheeled my luggage a hundred feet to the Mexican border crossing. With a current passport and driver’s license, you’ll be in Tecate in minutes just as I was. If you plan to stay overnight, don’t forget to get a tourist visa, a cost of between $25 to 30 USD.
Juan Carlos, the first of two guides generously provided to me by the State Secretariat of Tourism for Baja, met me as I walked into Tecate. While being driven around allowed me to sightsee more freely, I found Tecate well laid out and easy to navigate for drivers new to the area, aided by the prominent Tecate Brewery sign and the almost as large McDonald’s’ Golden Arches (Yes, McDonald’s!) that serve as directional guideposts.
Drive straight from the border south on Calle Cardenas and in a few blocks you’ll hit Parque Hidalgo, the old town square chock full of every traditional Mexican craft you might want – great for back home gifts. Giant trees shade the entire park, a hangout for locals and tourists alike, and benches scattered around the park offer prime people-watching opportunities. This is the place, too, if you want to catch some traditional Mexican music and dancing.
Calle Cardenas intersects Avenue Juarez, another major street, at the park. Turn left (east) and you’ll soon find El Mejor Pan de Tecate, a well-known and well-loved home of every kind of Mexican pastry imaginable. Turn right (west) and in three miles you’ll see the gates of Rancho La Puerta, where I was lucky enough to spend my first evening. Continue straight on Calle Cardenas two blocks to Hidalgo, turn right at the painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe and you’ll find yourself at the Tecate Beer Garden and Brewery. Everything is close by and easy to find in Tecate.
Though growing, Tecate retains much of the charm of a traditional Mexican town. I kept marveling at the town’s cleanliness to Juan Carlos, so different from its rowdy neighbor to the west, Tijuana. No one knows exactly what the word “Tecate” means although most agree that it has indigenous origins. Long before it became a town in the late 1900s, Tecate was home to the Kumiai people. The recently opened Museo Comunitario de Tecate (Tecate Community Museum) does a marvelous job of documenting this culture, dating back to prehistoric times, using exhibits as well as multi-media presentations in both Spanish and English. Children will enjoy the traditional Kumiai house made of twigs while adults will want to see the photographs of historical Tecate in an adjacent building designed to resemble a Mexican rancho. Visit www.carem.org/museokumiai/ for hours of operation and directions to the museum, an easy trip from the town square.
I love Mexican beer, so I was delighted to have the chance to tour the Tecate Brewery. Apparently I am not alone in this love, for the brewery averages 30,000 visits annually. The spotless factory is completely computerized and mechanized, producing 1,600 cans of beer a minute. Tours are free with reservations by calling 011-52-665-9478.
The brewery began in the 1940s, locating in Tecate because of the taste of its river water, and is now owned by Heineken along with other Mexican beers including Dos Equis, Sol, and Bohemia. Beer lovers will want to visit the Tecate Beer Garden located adjacent to the brewery. You’ll be able to taste beers you can’t find in the U.S., just as I did. My favorite was a Bohemia Chocolate Stout that I will dream about until my next trip down south. The best part – tastings are free. The Beer Garden’s open M-F 10 to 5 and S 10 to 2.
At dinner that night, I got my first taste (literally) of the food renaissance going on in Baja. Three long blocks east of Parque Hidalgo on Juarez, Juan Carlos turned left at the sign for the restaurant Asao. Up a long and winding road to the top of the hill we went, arriving at a massive stone and wood event center and the restaurant. A luxury boutique hotel is also planned.
I’ve been to many fine restaurants around the world and can happily report that Asao matches them in setting and service. Diners look out over the town and the mountains from inside an elegantly appointed dining room; behind them is an open kitchen where you can watch your dinner being prepared. Asao means “to eat” in the Kumiai dialect and eat I did. Asao puts a contemporary spin on traditional Mexican cuisine to fine effect – I loved my grilled shrimp with hibiscus mole paired with a gewurztraminer style Mexican wine. Food lovers will love the prices, too. Make reservations by calling 011-52-665-654-4777 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
RANCHO LA PUERTA:
We have a saying in the South that we have died and gone to heaven. That’s how I felt entering the gates of Rancho La Puerta, supposing heaven has xeriscaping. Wearied souls come here to recharge with a week of healthy living and plenty of exercise in a luxury environment of jaw-dropping beauty nestled at the foot of Mount Kuchumaa. I had a villa with a view of this ancient mountain, complete with fireplace and private sun porch, but I was too busy wandering the miles of paths through RLP’s 3,000 acres to spend much time in my villa. This grandmother of all resort spas, begun in 1940, still enjoys an international reputation for being on the cutting edge of mind/body/spirit fitness. I found myself relaxing even before my hot stone massage and a late night snack of the healthiest carrot cake I’ve ever eaten.
This kind of pampering doesn’t come cheaply; expect to pay low to mid four figures depending on accommodations and extras. Still, there’s something about RLP that draws people back year after year. I did not pass a single person on the trails who did not greet me with a smile and a hello. Imagine that happening in the big city! For more information, go to www.rancholapuerta.com.
RUTA DEL VINO DE VALLE DE GUADALUPE:
Juan Carlos and I turned south onto Calle Cardenas and swung around the McDonalds to the well-marked (for Mexico) entrance to Highway 3. Highway 3, the direct route to Ensenada, has recently been widened and resurfaced, and the light traffic on Saturday morning made the forty-some miles through the mountains and into the Guadalupe Valley easy traveling. Like the Napa Valley, this valley has a broad flat stretch of farmland bordered on either side by mountains. Pacific Ocean breezes cool the evenings after sunny days, making this the perfect environment for growing grapes and olives.
What you won’t see in the Guadalupe Valley are throngs of tourists and overly commercialized wineries. Each of the thirty or so wineries are so-called “boutique wineries” with limited wines and limited production lots. Likewise, I didn’t find a standardized style of winemaking or even type of grapes at the four wineries I visited.
Navigating Baja’s wine country is easy with the wonderful guide the Baja California Secretariat of Tourism publishes in English. Visit www.DiscoverBajaCalifornia.com for this guide as well as any and everything you need to know about Baja. Wineries are located for the most part off of two main roads – Highway 3 and a small road that branches off of it.
At the first winery I visited, Bibayoff Vinos, I bid Juan Carlos adios and continued my journey with Gabriel, a guide based out of Ensenada well versed in all things along the Ruta del Vino. Legend has it that Russian immigrants settling in the area in the early 20th century brought the first grapevines with them; what is certain is that David Bibayoff, a descendant of these settlers, is the only Russian-Mexican making wine today. He graciously allowed me to sample his wines in the barrel before proceeding to the tasting room. I particularly enjoyed his Zinfandel, a big wine of intense purple color that will hold up to cellaring. Email email@example.com to set up a tasting.
My next winery, Mogor Badan, marries winemaking with organic farming in a way that was to become familiar to me as I continued my travels in Baja. My next three meals incorporated fresh-picked food from the garden in a way that Americans rarely experience. Mogor Badan and Adobe Guadalupe Vineyards also keep chicken coops. Meat is locally sourced as well, yet another reason foodies need to get down here.
Natalia Badan runs this second-generation family-owned vineyard and winery. Her family, originally Swiss-French, make only two wines – a wonderful Bordeaux style red and the only white wine in the Guadalupe Valley made from Chasselas, a Swiss varietal. Perfect with that Swiss favorite, raclette, Natalia and I agreed. To arrange a tasting, which I very much recommend, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
My wine tasting Saturday was crisply cool, the cloudless sky a rich blue. Perfect weather for outdoor dining at Dona Lupe’s. Dona Lupe, who greets everyone in her signature broad-brimmed hat, offers a variety of locally produced products in her store as well as Italian fare in her garden. The glasses of Cabernet and Merlot I had were eminently drinkable, perfect accompaniments to my pizza. Both wine and food are organic. No reservations needed, but you will want to email email@example.com as getting from Highway 3 to her winery is a bit tricky.
This restaurant, a former olive oil processing plant, stands out for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that this was the first time I had dined on food hunted by the chef who prepared it. Chef/owner Miguel Angel Guerrero has three restaurants in Tijuana; this is his first outpost in wine country. The chef arrived shortly after we did in hunting clothes and soon starting sending out plate after plate of food, each as delicious as the next. As the child of a hunter, I long ago decided the game was not for me – Guerrero has changed my mind with his deer pate, venison tacos, and mixed game sausages. He calls his style of cooking Baja Med, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients prepared with Mediterranean, Asian, and Mexican influences. A unique experience I hope to repeat soon. Getting to the restaurant involves several dirt roads so make sure you get detailed directions when you call for a reservation (664-648-1267).
To learn more about Guerrero and the other chefs changing the food scene in Tijuana and Baja, check out www.newyorker.com for an article by Dana Goodyear in the January 30, 2012 issue entitled “Letter from Tijuana”.
Driving through the gates of this winery/horse ranch/bed and breakfast where I was to spend Saturday evening turned out to be another “died and gone to heaven” moment, even before I met the energetic couple, Tru and Don Miller, who own it. They moved from Laguna Beach, California, in 1996 determined to grow grapes and make wine and though they started from scratch, they have succeeded beyond expectations. Large open rooms surround a courtyard entrance. The six bedrooms for guests are opposite the communal living and dining rooms. These rooms in turn offer views of the vineyards that surround Adobe Guadalupe. The feel of the rooms is distinctly European, not surprising since Tru was born in the Netherlands. Guests enjoy a relaxed formality in the dining room for dinner, dining on a multi-course meal with the Millers and enjoying wines carefully paired with the meal. Breakfasts take place around a large farmhouse table in the middle of the kitchen. And what a kitchen – I was impressed to learn that chef Rick Bayless has cooked there. Loved it, too, that I got to meet the chickens who laid my morning eggs.
Speaking of animals, no description of Adobe Guadalupe is complete without mentioning their eight free-roaming Weimaraner dogs and their numerous thoroughbred horses. Visitors can arrange horseback riding through the vineyards.
Don Miller makes serious red wines, most named after archangels. Each is a blend of two or more grape varieties with a big Rhone-style punch that I particularly enjoy. Since these wines sell out quickly in Mexico, my biggest challenge is finding a way to get some imported into the U.S.
A visit to www.adobeguadalupe.com will give you all the information you need for reservations and wine tastings. You will want to meet the Millers, too, the heart and soul of Adobe Guadalupe and a big part of the Guadalupe Valley wine scene.
One cannot write an article about travel in Mexico without addressing the crime problem. It exists, though happily the New Yorker and New York Times both did recent articles indicating that crime statistics in Baja are down significantly. I never felt unsafe and would not hesitate to drive myself in Tecate and the Guadalupe Valley. That said, I would exercise the same caution I would in the more crime-ridden parts of my own city – staying on main roads, driving in daylight, having a travel companion and avoiding ostentation. Highway 3, though beautiful, is isolated, which is also a consideration. Happily, both Rancho La Puerta and Adobe Guadalupe offer car service from the border. If you decide to drive, please don’t forget to get Mexican car insurance!
Tecate and the Guadalupe Valley offer So Cal locals a great alternative for their next three-day weekend. Visitors to San Diego wanting a more laid back experience in Mexico would be well advised to travel eastward. Cost-conscious travelers will find they can indulge their champagne tastes with a beer budget. Food and wine lovers will discover a new area to indulge their passions. I’m already planning my next trip to Baja.