I’d heard about the wonders of a Baja, California road trip for years, but only recently followed the tales and miles south of the border.
I lived in Arizona for years and went on many road trips through Nogales and on to Hermosillo and Guaymas, as well as numerous trips throughout the South-western USA, other areas of Mexico and Latin America, but not this one. My version of the trip turned out to be exactly what Baja jaunts are cracked up to be, and I heartily recommend you sit down with a map, a computer, a good Mexican beer and a friend to plan and do the same.
The Baja region, although called “Baja, California,” is actually the northernmost of Mexico’s 31 states and is home to countless expats from almost every country in the world. Many San Diego, CA residents also have second homes there, for vacation use and to rent when they are back in their permanent home.
Many retirees from the United States live in Baja too, due to the lower cost of living, the friendly local people and warm climate. I met many Europeans, Asians, Canadians and other world travellers and residents, as well as Middle Eastern folks on my sojourn. Of course, the state is also home to plenty of Mexicans, including quite a large population of Spanish-Native American mixed race people (“Mestizos”), so it embraces a wide range of cultures.
Hit the Road Jack
Cabo San Lucos, at the southern tip of Baja California Sur (“south”) is a draw for many visitors, including spring-break kids and tourists from La Paz and Mazatlan, but it’s a long haul from the US, and can get crowded. To travel the roads in this region, it’s also smart (but not mandatory) to take a 4-wheel drive car. Side roads can be a challenge and mountain routes can be steep and might even come with landslide detritus.
Taking all this into account, we opted for a trip through “El Norte” (the north), on well-maintained roads. We’d heard that the section of the “Scenic Route” or Toll Road along the Pacific coast was still closed, after a December 2013 landslide, so we crossed the border at Tecate, further east and southwest of Potrero, CA. We almost missed the turnoff on snake-like Highway 94, then were surprised to find the border crossing gate open and the guards dozing. We paid the small tourist card fee and were on our way.
Beer and History
We didn’t get far before refreshment beckoned in the town named after Mexico’s most famous beer (or is it the other way round?). Before inducing in the brew, we first paid a visit to Tecate’s interesting Museo Comunitario Kumiai. There, for only a $2.50 entrance fee, we learned something of the history and handiwork of the Kumeyaay Indians’ and several other indigenous people, and the fascinating past of the railroads circuiting the region.
After all the history and culture, which also came with regular references to the famous beer, we decided to walk the short distance to the Tecate Brewery. It is best to reserve a tour ahead of time, as we did (call 011-52-6659490) and you will be joined by a very informative guide. Ours explained the entire production process, but be warned, if you taste the hops pellets they offer you, you’ll likely dislike the rough taste.
Having quaffed many a Tecate with my friends up north, we found the beer immensely better at the source, of course, fresh and invigorating. Regrettably, we had only had a few tasting sips because we had to get back on the road.
Fuel for the Journey
Another stop at Taqueria Los Amigos came next, as my friends had recommended it. Five blocks from the brewery, this place offers a nice assortment of tacos. There, we enjoyed the added treat of some heat-busting horchata, the sweet, cinnamon and vanilla laced “agua fresca” found throughout Latin America.
Refreshed, we head south and west towards Ensenada, along Highway 3, also known as “The Free Road.” Our stops were regular to let people and animals cross the road. On a remote two-lane highway, it’s essential to keep heads up and eyes peeled at all times and to combat the heat of open windows on a hot drive, I took along a spray bottle to “surprise spray” the driver whenever he looked dozy.
Follow the Grape
Although the beer was tasty, we were eager to reach wine country, which unfolds after the slightly less green and scenic first half of the trip. It’s the section from Palm Valley to the coast, and it won’t disappoint.
Driving through the Guadalupe Valley (“Valle de Guadalupe”) is beautiful, with foliage ranging from scrub brush and cactus to much lusher vegetation. Both this region and the “Valle do Ojos Negros” produce many citrus and wine fruits, so a winery tour is definitely an option you should explore.
In fact, Baja California’s wineries produce almost 95% of Mexico’s table wines and if you time your visit along “el ruta del vino” during August and September, you can enjoy annual harvest festivals known as Fiestas de la Venimia when hotels in the region host daily tours and tastings, but it’s best to make reservations, especially for larger groups.
We stopped closer to the Ensenada end of the region, at Francisco Zarco, a town established by Russian immigrants of the Molokan sect in the early 1900s. Interestingly, their main product was milk and though our stop was to explore more potent beverages, we also found some other wonders.
Good Taste and Fine Hospitality
Adobe Quadalupe Vineyards and Inn is a lovely foray that we enjoyed en toto. The welcome we received from our hosts, who had followed their Russian forebears, was rich in Mexican warmth and old world hospitality. Sixty acres of vineyards boast Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and many other grapes, lending a lush fragrance to a walk through the area.
I was stunned by the tastings in the wine tasting tower. They included remarkable wines such as the sublimely produced Mezcal Lucifer and a unique olive oil. Like everyone visiting these lovely locations, we stocked up on wonderfully packaged salsas, wines, mezcals and more. The Inn, designed by Persian Nassir Haghighat, also has an Iranian flare that blends with the Mexican landscape.
Next came a horseback riding tour through the vineyards, followed by a sensuous massage on a private patio. Dinner beckoned and it was not a low-level menu or prices here, but four-course meals and wines make a special experience out of every meal.
The next day we exulted in a sumptuous breakfast of fruitas we’d bought at a roadside stand, complemented by sweet Mexican bakery treats from a roadside bakery before taking time to visit the Guadalupe Valley Community Museum (Museo Comunitario del Valle de Guadalupe). It has a fascinating display of Russian pioneer artefacts and local Indian crafts, all nicely displayed in an interesting Russian home from 1905.
Feeling the need to work off some of the drinks and food from the previous day, we then spent a hot afternoon at the Rancho Maria Teresa recreational site. Mountain bike paths allow for some wild fun, but be careful not to stray off of paths too far and be sure to make noise to scare off any rattlesnakes. Definitely don’t move or reach into any holes or under any rocks. Gila monsters are not friendly when disturbed, and scorpions hide out in such places, as well.
Continuing on to Ensenada, we were glad to reach the sea. The beaches north and south of the city offer horseback riding in the surf, and if you haven’t done this, you simply must. Feeling a heavy steed become a featherweight beneath you as you half ride and half surf is an amazing sensation. Then if you really want to surf, you can do that too, as well as go sea kayaking, windsurfing or even sport fishing. We took a tour boat to watch whales offshore, best done from December through to March, when the grey whales migrate to the area.
The nearby mountain ranges, Sierra de San Pedro and the Sierra de Juarez, are great for trekking, mountain biking, bird watching and para-gliding. The climate is like that of San Diego – around 55 degrees For so, with on-off rains from November through to February, while June through to September brings dry heat, but only up to the mid-70s.
When in Ensenada, be sure to visit the central fish market area to sample “las mariscos superbas” – the superb seafood – like tuna, red snapper, scallops and pacific lobster. My most enchanting meal of the trip was the simplest, as is often the case. A snapper speared on a stick and grilled over a small fire on the beach. I suppose pounding surf, a couple of Tecates and freshly made tortillas helped the sensation.
For more local flavours, Hussong’s Cantina has been a very popular watering hole since 1892 for margaritas that will bring out the “maxi Mexi” in you. Another must-see is the Hotel Playa and Casino, now converted into a stunning and very informative museum and cultural centre. There you’ll get a taste of the even wilder times the area enjoyed during United States’ prohibition, which brought a non-stop stream of party seekers to the area’s grand casino in its earlier life.
Take your time, enjoy the city’s many cantinas, famous fish tacos from street vendors, and if you want to jump up the scale, there are countless high-end restaurants serving top-notch international and Mexican fare. Be sure to top any or all of this by visiting a local cathedral for a bake sale. That, mi amigos, is where you’re likely to get a taste of local “flan”, the rich, sweet Mexican custard that makes any Baja road trip complete.
Despite being an easy drive over the border, Baja, California definitely has a different feel to its stateside neighbour and it’s important to remember this is a remote part of a developing country with a few challenges to consider. Here are some tips to make the trip a little smoother.
- Learn a little Spanish before you go, even a few basics will help a lot should you need to ask the locals for help.
- Whether you rent a car or not, it is best to purchase international medical insurance. Buy Mexican auto insurance if driving, it is well worth it, cheap, and can prevent fines being added to your costs if you’re in an accident.
- As you cross the border into Mexico, you’ll have to produce your car and travel papers, including insurance, registration and title, so plan ahead. You’ll also need your passport to re-enter the US on your return north.
- “Lleno por favour” means, “Fill it up, please” in Spanish…and, it is a good phrase to know. Stop and get gas whenever possible, to avoid the chance of running out in the middle of nowhere.
- There are many checkpoints along the highway, manned by the Mexican Army. Stopping is mandatory, slow movement and smiling is wise. The soldiers are only after illegal drugs or guns, so if you carry neither you will avoid serious consequences. The soldiers are usually very professional in nature. They can, of course, search your RV or car and ask where you’re bound. Just be calm and answer their questions.
- Driving during the daytime is best. Night travel is riskier and increases the odds of drunk drivers on the road. Even during the day, be wary of passing trucks approaching you in your lane, and always be prepared to make quick precautionary moves.