Baja Cal­i­for­nia, The Land of Con­trasts

A JOUR­NEY TO MEX­ICO’S BAJA PENIN­SULA IS NEVER WHAT YOU EX­PECT, BUT JUST WHAT YOU NEED.

World Travel Magazine - - Contents - BY AU­DREY HILLS

From the bor­der town of Ti­juana to Cabo, it’s a wild con­coc­tion of no rules, street food, wine, surf­ing, re­sorts, quaint fish­ing vil­lages and the salty Sea of Cortez.

Des­o­late, dry, harsh, and un­for­giv­ing are all ways to de­scribe the nearly 1,250-kilo­me­tre long fin­ger of land that hangs off the west coast of Cal­i­for­nia. Mex­ico’s Baja Cal­i­for­nia is in­deed rough and rugged, yet ris­ing out of this abra­sive land­scape are things of ridicu­lous beauty and un­ex­pected so­phis­ti­ca­tion.

The in­hos­pitable desert sits in jux­ta­po­si­tion to life thriv­ing de­spite the odds: sparkling turquoise bays full of ma­rine life, tow­er­ing bril­liant green cacti, and hid­den oases of palm trees. Deep dark storm clouds pour buck­ets of rain over oth­er­wise bar­ren ter­rain and bril­liant yel­low wild­flow­ers pop up across the desert. In small towns, friendly lo­cals lift the veil of poverty to share the songs of the mari­achis and a taste of te­quila. An op­pres­sive and im­pass­able bor­der cre­ates an at­mos­phere for a culi­nary revo­lu­tion.

Trav­el­ling in Baja is 100% about the jour­ney rather than the des­ti­na­tion. Through­out a trip to Mex­ico’s north­ern and west­ern­most state, you come to ex­pect the un­ex­pected. Un­fore­seen bounty hides in what ap­pears to be the scarcest of cir­cum­stances. From the bor­der town of Ti­juana to “Cabo,” or the land’s end, Baja’s magic is wait­ing for the dis­cern­ing trav­eller to come and find it.

TI­JUANA: DE­SPITE THE WALL, LIFE FLOUR­ISHES

Whether you walk or drive across, For most vis­i­tors, a jour­ney to the North­ern half of Baja Cal­i­for­nia be­gins at one of the busiest and most for­ti­fied bor­ders in the world. The wall be­tween Amer­ica and Mex­ico looms larger than life de­spite cov­er­ing an ex­panse of land not much wider than a fút­bol field. On the Mex­i­can side, you in­stantly know you’re in an­other coun­try by the sight of colour­ful hand-painted signs, the smell of street tacos, and the voices of men in cow­boy hats of­fer­ing un­so­licited taxis.

You’re of­fi­cially in Ti­juana, or “TJ” for short, a place that has had a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing a full-strength, no-holds­barred adult Dis­ney­land ever since fill­ing a need dur­ing pro­hi­bi­tion. To­day, Ti­juana’s main drag, Avenida Revolu­ción, is much safer and G-rated than in the past. Yet, the “no rules” at­ti­tude that has at­tracted so many Amer­i­cans over the years lives on amongst Baja chefs and restau­ra­teurs.

Take Javier Plas­cen­cia, for ex­am­ple. His up­scale flag­ship restau­rant, Mi­sion 19, ar­rived in TJ at a time when no one was do­ing fine din­ing in the city. He took the rule book and threw it out the win­dow by oc­cu­py­ing a mod­ern of­fice build­ing in a part of the city away from the main tourist haunts. With avant-garde art and in-your-face yet so­phis­ti­cated dishes like beef tongue with blood-sausage vinai­grette and sea urchin soup with poblano chill­ies, Mis­sion 19 feels more New York than Ti­juana.

For most, Ti­juana is where you come for taco stands and hole-in-the-wall joints fea­tur­ing Mex­i­can dishes like bir­ria (spicy goat stew), car­ni­tas, and Baja fish tacos. Th­ese days, it’s not only Baja food you’ll find on the street. TJ has be­come a melt­ing pot of all the peo­ple who get stuck there in their quest for the Amer­i­can dream. Rules may stop them from cross­ing the bor­der, but Ti­juana es­chews con­ven­tion. That’s why you’re headed to Tele­fon­ica for lunch. Places like Tele­fon­ica, a gas­tro-park, and Plaza Fi­esta, a craft beer gar­den, are so pop­u­lar be­cause they don’t fol­low

the rules. A Mex-in­spired ra­men truck sad­dles up next to a taco stand sell­ing cau­li­flower mole. Any­thing goes and it all tastes amaz­ing.

THE VALLE DE GUADALUPE: SO­PHIS­TI­CA­TION, MEX­ICO STYLE

From Ti­juana, head out west and make your way down the coast. You can make out tiny surfers in the ocean as you pass a gi­ant statue of Je­sus Christ with wel­com­ing, out­stretched arms. He seems to say, ‘Bien­venidos a Baja,’ (wel­come to Baja) to all who drive by.

Even­tu­ally you turn in­land to­wards the Valle de Guadalupe, the very val­ley where Span­ish fri­ars made the first Mex­i­can wine in the 18th cen­tury. In or­der to do Baja Ruta de Vino (wine route) prop­erly, you should check into your ho­tel early and hire a driver for the day.

Af­ter you’ve set­tled into your eco-loft at En­cuen­tro Guadalupe, gather the troops and head off for a day of wine tast­ing in the Valle. As far as the eye can see, the dusty ter­rain is punc­tu­ated by vine­yards, dirt roads, and sim­ple sig­nage in­di­cat­ing that some­where off in the dis­tance there’s wine and food. Al­though you’re a half an hour from ocean, your driver tells you to look for boats. The best kind of boats; boats filled with wine.

The wine­mak­ing and tast­ing fa­cil­i­ties at Vena Cava are con­structed en­tirely from re­pur­posed fish­ing boats and re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als. In­side the cool and cav­ernous up­turned fish­ing boats, you taste the re­gion’s finest wines start­ing with a crisp and slightly salty Sau­vi­gnon Blanc and mov­ing through Vena Cava’s col­lec­tion un­til you taste a show-stop­ping, full-bod­ied Tem­pranillo.

Be­fore the warmth of the Tem­pranillo sets in, it’s time to get mov­ing to your next stop: Finca La Car­rodilla. Once again, you bump down a long unas­sum­ing dirt road to an ar­chi­tec­turally breath­tak­ing win­ery hid­den in the desert. On the rooftop ter­race at Finca La Car­rodilla, sweep­ing views of the moun­tains and vine­yards com­mand your at­ten­tion. But you must save some fo­cus for the wines and lo­cally made cheese.

Finca La Car­rodilla is one of the only winer­ies in the Valle that uses sus­tain­able and eco­log­i­cal agri­cul­ture prac­tices. Luck­ily René, the win­ery’s chief en­ter­tainer, is your server. While he ex­plains that the Syrah is 100% or­ganic, you en­joy the cheese made at Finca la Car­rodilla from the milk of the grass-fed cows who live on the prop­erty.

Af­ter a short tour of the pro­duc­tion area where the grapes are de-stemmed, crushed into gi­ant stain­less steel tanks, and fer­mented with­out the use of elec­tric­ity or ma­chin­ery, you’re ready for the next course: a sun­set din­ner at Tras Lomita.

Tras Lomita is an ethe­real out­door kitchen and din­ing area sur­rounded by vine­yards. To reach the restau­rant, you must trod the earth be­tween the trel­lised grapevines that once pro­duced the wine served at the restau­rant. At your ta­ble, you revel in the ca­su­ally el­e­gant am­bi­ence. It’s easy to un­der­stand why this is a place where both Mex­i­cans and for­eign­ers linger over dishes like lamb taquitos with mole sauce, BBQ oc­to­pus, and raw prawns cooked in black sauce called agua chile for hours. The wine does noth­ing but cause you to stay longer. Briny, earthy wines pair im­pec­ca­bly with the seafood that has made Baja so fa­mous.

It’s been a long day when you re­tire to En­cuen­tro Guadalupe. You are grate­ful for a com­fort­able bed and sweep­ing views of the stars in the sky.

THE SEA OF CORTEZ: WHERE THE DESERT MEETS THE SPARKLING SEA

On­ward. Af­ter you’ve re­cu­per­ated from all the wine, it’s time to fly from Ti­juana to La Paz. De­spite the hus­tle and bus­tle of the U.S. bor­der, Baja is still one of the most sparsely pop­u­lated states in Mex­ico and nowhere more so than on the coast of the Sea of Cortez. North of La Paz lies count­less kilo­me­tres of empty coast­line only oc­ca­sion­ally in­ter­rupted by tiny fish­ing towns, a cou­ple of grin­gos, or a re­sort. The lack of ac­tion is made up for in the wa­ter.

Dubbed, “the aquar­ium of the world” by Jacques Cousteau, the bio­di­ver­sity of the Sea Cortez is un­par­al­leled. Its waters are home to no less than 30 dif­fer­ent species of dol­phins and whales, the great­est va­ri­ety of th­ese species found any­where on planet earth. Re­gard­less of which form of aquatic trans­port you chose – pad­dle­board, kayak, Na­tional Geo­graphic cruise, fish­ing boat or pri­vate yacht – you will sud­denly be sur­rounded by sea life. But the real rea­son you’re here is to see the “gen­tle giants” of the Sea Cortez. Dur­ing the win­ter, you can join Cabo Ex­pe­di­tions for a swim along­side the whale sharks who can grow over 12 me­ters long and weigh over 21,000 ki­los.

Af­ter your close en­counter with the life aquatic, it’s time to head south to­wards Cabo San Lu­cas. It’s worth tak­ing the scenic route to Cabo to ex­plore the coast­line that me­an­ders along from La Paz to San Jose. The salty Sea of Cortez al­ter­nates shades of aqua­ma­rine, emer­ald green and deep dark navy. Quaint fish­ing vil­lages seem sleepy dur­ing the hot mid­day sun. At one beach you stop for a swim and meet a friendly fish­er­man sell­ing clams that are eaten out of the shell while they are still alive. Each pic­turesque beach you pass has the whitest sand and most glit­ter­ing blue-green wa­ter you’ve ever seen un­til you ar­rive in San José.

CABO: THE LAND’S END

If wet t-shirt con­tests, bois­ter­ous Amer­i­cans tak­ing te­quila shots, and an end­less Spring Break at­mos­phere aren’t your thing, you could write off the whole of Cabo as a glossy, glitzy night­mare. Yet, in true Baja style, those will­ing to ex­plore are bound to find hid­den gems way worth get­ting your rental car dusty. Be­yond the dance clubs, chain res­tau­rants, and mega re­sorts of Cabo San Lu­cas are two lesser-known towns that will eas­ily win your heart. So don’t get caught at a time­share pre­sen­ta­tion, there’s too much magic at the end of the fin­ger to waste any time.

SAN JOSÉ DEL CABO: THE CLASSY SIB­LING

Au­then­tic­ity, so­phis­ti­ca­tion, and charm are just three of the traits San José del Cabo holds over its twin sib­ling, Cabo San Lu­cas. Start by cruis­ing the cob­ble­stone streets full of ar­ti­san bou­tiques, colour­ful gal­leries, and de­lec­ta­ble res­tau­rants. On Thurs­day evenings from Novem­ber to June, it’s an of­fi­cial pas­time to check out the San José Art Walk.

When com­pared to the Mtv-style party-hard scene you’d find on the beaches in Cabo San Lu­cas, San José’s beaches may seem like ghost towns. Re­treat to the Cabo Surf Ho­tel, just out of town, where you can learn to surf or stand up pad­dle

in the gen­tle waves at the surf spot “Old Man’s” with the Mike Doyle Surf School. More ex­pe­ri­enced surfers or non-surfers look­ing for even qui­eter beaches should take a day trip to Ship­wrecks, a des­o­late but beau­ti­ful beach about 40 min­utes to the east of San José.

Once suf­fi­ciently hun­gry from surf­ing or beach-comb­ing, head to Flora Farms, a farm-to-ta­ble restau­rant set amongst a ver­dant sanc­tu­ary of palms, trop­i­cal fruit trees, and lush farm­land hid­den in the out­skirts of town. When you ar­rive, take a self-guided tour of the ex­quis­ite grounds, or­der a car­rot mar­garita and get ready to chow down on one of the best meals of your life. Be­ing in Baja, the catch of the day is al­ways out­stand­ing but be sure to am­ple some of the goods from the ranch - raised-on­site pork shoul­der, chichar­rón and char­cu­terie boards.

TO­DOS SAN­TOS: MAGIC TOWN

On the other side of the Baja Penin­sula, the Pa­cific Ocean crashes on the beaches near the bo­hemian ham­lets of To­dos San­tos, Cer­ri­tos and Pescadero. The three tiny towns are prized by artists, surfers, farm­ers, lo­cals and ex­pats as places to es­cape from the hus­tle and bus­tle of Cabo. Th­ese days a paved toll road makes the jour­ney from San José over the Sierra de La La­guna foothills a breeze but don’t tell the masses.

Ev­ery­one agrees there is a cer­tain magic about To­dos San­tos in­clud­ing the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment. In 2006, it des­ig­nated the town as a “Pue­blo Mágico,” a ti­tle given to a se­lect few Mex­i­can towns be­cause of their cul­tural, nat­u­ral and/or his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. You’ll feel the town’s spell as you stroll the cob­ble­stone streets look­ing for hand­made cu­riosi­ties in the tiny shops or ad­mir­ing the re­fur­bished ha­cien­das.

Stay at Ho­tel San Cristóbal, lo­cated about 15 min­utes south of To­dos San­tos, which has cap­tured that magic and bun­dled it up into an un­de­ni­ably cool lux­ury ho­tel. Af­ter you check in, don your cus­tom ki­mono and head to the turquoise tiled pool for a mescal mar­garita. En­joy your­self and be sure to spend some time star gaz­ing be­fore you go to bed, early. The day starts at dawn in Baja be­cause of the heat and you’ll want to make the most of your time in this en­chant­ing place.

Get­ting caught up in the al­most mys­ti­cal magic of Baja hap­pens quickly. The con­trast of this ridicu­lously rough, hot, hard place with the penin­sula’s nat­u­ral beauty and re­source­ful peo­ple will cause your ex­pec­ta­tions to be ex­ceeded at ev­ery turn. Soon you’ll find your­self ex­plor­ing fur­ther and wor­ry­ing less know­ing that Baja al­ways de­liv­ers.

PLACES TO STAY

Pendry San Diego, pendry­ho­tels.com/san-diego/ 550 J St, San Diego, CA 92101, USA. (Just 25 min­utes from the bor­der, the Pendry is a great place to stay the night be­fore you be­gin your trip to Mex­ico.) En­cuen­tro Guadalupe, grupoen­cuen­tro.com.mx/ Km. 75, Car­retera Te­cate- Ense­nada, Valle de Guadalupe, 22750 Ense­nada, B.C., Mex­ico Ho­tel San Cristóbal, san­cristo­bal­baja.com/ Car­retera Fed­eral 19, To­dos San­tos, B.C.S., Mex­ico Cabo Surf Ho­tel,

ca­bo­surf.com/ Carr. Transpenin­su­lar Km 28, Tourist Cor­ri­dor, 23400 San José del Cabo, B.C.S., Mex­ico

Some­thing about the desert-brown back­ground re­ally makes the col­ors in Baja pop, a pho­tog­ra­pher’s de­light at the Ho­tel San Cristóbal

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