We drove from San Diego to Calexico, passing through some of southeast California’s deserts. In Calexico we had a classy meal at a Foster’s Freeze and purchased Mexican car insurance (a necessity for Americans driving over there, although we were never asked to prove that we had it). Another quirk of the law is that you have to bring the title for the car with you, which seems a bit risky. Going through the border to Mexicali was no problem, although getting out of Mexicali and on to the highway was too difficult for me, so Jen took over at that point and we coasted down the highway (which was in pretty good condition, despite what tour books suggested) to San Felipe. The drive was mostly uneventful, except for the obligatory stop and car-check by incredibly bored Mexican military dudes who are being paid by the US to look for drugs. Or at least that’s what I assumed they were doing.
Once in San Felipe we dropped our stuff off at the Posada del Sol, a little motel near the malecon (boardwalk) of San Felipe. Thursday was the first night of the annual shrimp festival, and all along the malecon there were rides for the kiddies, vendors, and bands. On the way in we were accosted by a (probably drunk) tout who tried to convince us that we should get a “free breakfast” that he was offering. Instead of telling us what it was about he started asking all sorts of personal questions like whether we were married, where we were staying, and if I had a Mastercard… creepy. Luckily we could escape into the fair. Dinner was at BajaMar and had some seafood. I don’t know why they insist on breading the fish for fish tacos — it misses the point, in my opinion. But it was a decent place, if a bit touristy. When we got out we saw the surprisingly young pop band Say More while drinking a beer from the Mexicali microbrewery Cucapá. We walked the malecon a bit more and then decided to call it a bit of an early night, since we’d have the next night to check out the fair a bit more.
Somehow I’ve turned into a morning person, so Friday morning I got up bright and early and went for a walk around the downtown of San Felipe, which was pretty much dead. A lot of the fishing boats were out, though, so at least someone was working. I had some coffee and then Jen and I had a breakfast that included chilaquiles (tortilla chips cooked/covered in red sauce). It was a bit more food than I really needed, and I decided chilaquiles are ok but not that exciting. What was exciting was the guava turnover that we got at the bakery down the street.
After breakfast we headed down the coast a bit more to Puertocitos, a tiny community that has a natural hot spring right on the ocean. We were guided across the treacherous path up to the springs by Tony (Antonio?), a transplant from Chiapas, where as he put it (in Spanish that we could understand), he could do lots of work for little money. In Puertocitos he can do less work for more money. We met a Canadian who had retired down there who showed us the ways of the hot spring, including the “mix up the hot water” method of getting a tolerable but hot spot. I think the soak was good for my hypertrophied RSI-pained shoulder.
Dinner back in San Felipe was at a much fancier place, El Nido, where we had fresh-caught shrimp cooked in garlic butter (mojo de ajo), which was absolutely delicious. With it we had a 2000 Zinfandel from the Baja winery L.A. Cetto (more on them later) that was one of the most bizarre wines I have ever tasted. It was sweet like a port but not as heavy, which was totally not what I was expecting. After dinner we headed back to the malecon, where we got our photo taken at a photo booth, bought a virgin pina colada from a school that was raising money, and picked up a luchador mask (Rey Mysterio, a crossover from lucha libre into WWE) for Dustin. Afterwards we resisted the kitchy temptations of the Rockodile did a little crowd-watching from the balcony of the Beachcomber.
In the morning we paid a visit to the shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, which had a fantastic view of the bay of San Felipe before heading out on the road across Baja to Ensenada. The drive was mostly uneventful, with some stunning views of cacti and the Parque Nacional San Pedro de Martir. Unfortunately the park was mostly inaccessible to my little Honda Civic (or so said the guidebooks), so we had to look at it from the outside. Getting into Ensenada was a little tricky, as I had a map of the downtown and a map of all of Baja, but not a map of the outskirts showing how to get to the downtown. Luckily the ocean is a pretty big landmark.
Before getting to the hotel we drove a little farther south to the Playa El Faro, where we sat on a beach that became increasingly chilly. The chill may have been exacerbated by our stomachs busily digesting the grilled chicken that we had at a family-run restaurant on the side of the road. For 70 pesos (less than 6 USD) we got half a grilled chicken, all the condiments we could want, a little coleslaw-y salad, freshly hand-made tortillas, and two Cokes (Mexican Coke has no corn syrup and is all the more tasty for it). The father/grillmaster switched the music to UB40 and turned up the volume in order to make us feel more at home. We ended up missing the big attraction near Ensenada, La Bufadora, which is a natural blowhole where the ocean surges up and sprays people. But it’s good to save things for next time.
We checked into the Casa del Sol, which was much nicer than I had anticipated — the room was huge and even had a little sitting area with chairs. It was a comfortable place to round out our vacation. We dropped our stuff off, vegged out watching soccer, and then hit the town, as it were. We headed out down the Avenida Cortez, which is the main drag for the touristy part of Ensenada. Lined with hotels, duty-free shops, places to buy tchotchkies, and pharmacies with cheap generics, it was a little less bustling than I imagined it would be during high tourist season. There was a brass band practicing outside on the malecon near these huge bronze heads. It was still a little early so we tried out the margaritas at Hussong’s Cantina, one of the oldest still-open bars in Mexico. Despite being in every guidebook and having an associated clothing store clearly geared towards tourists, the bar was entirely filled with folks speaking Spanish. There was even a roaming band playing songs that everyone seemed to know the lyrics to except for us. The only creepy thing was the cop/security guard looking in through a side window from the alley.
After Hussongs we were hungry, so we walked back across downtown on a street parallel to the main drag and then over to El Parilan, a spot that our book claimed was popular with locals. We had tamales with mole that came with some super-spicy escabeche. It was here that I discovered the most amazing beverage in the world: champurrado. A drink made from corn, chocolate, pilloncillo (an unrefined sugar that resembles jaggery), cinnamon, milk, and love, champurrado is everything you could want in a hot creamy beverage. For dessert I had flan, which I only allow myself once in a blue moon. Unfortunately, the champurrado made me very sleepy and we ended up calling it a night early.
On our last day we had some pastries and coffee and sauntered on down to the fish market. The stalls of trays heaped high with the freshly cleaned catch were a trifle aromatic but an amazing treat for the eyes. The prices were tempting ($2 a pound for swordfish) and the clams were gigantic:
As we walked to the market we were assaulted by a stream of aunties (for lack of a better word) importuning us to try their food. I arbitrarily decided to go to Tacos Mary, where Jen had a bonita fish taco and I had a tostada de pulpo (octopus), which was fresh cooked octopus, tomatoes, onions, avocado, lime, and (maybe) jicama piled high on a little tostada. It was absolutely delicious — probably the best octopus I have ever had. It may have even gotten Jen to revise her opinion of octopus.
After our fishy snack we climbed in the car and headed off to the Valle de Guadalupe, which is a short drive northeast of Ensenada. The Valle is the prime wine-growing region of Mexico. “Wine?” you say, “in Mexico?” Yes Virginia, there is viniculture south of the border, but export taxes are so high that the wine doesn’t really get sold in the US. We visited three different wineries which had three completely different styles. The first was Chateau Camou, which involved a little drive through the town of Guadalupe (or Francisco Zarco, depending on which book/map you were using). After you get out of town, you turn right onto a gravel road to the main building, which has an imposing set of wooden doors. When we showed up there were two guys working there, one who looked like he was in his 40s and spoke almost no English, and a silent guy in his early 20s. It seemed like we took them by surprised, since we were the only ones there, but their dog gave us a warm welcome. We tasted 4 different wines there, a “blanc de blanc” (non-sparkling) which was surprisingly sweet (and a steal at 80 pesos a bottle), a chardonnay that was ok, and two reds that were a bit forgettable (at least for me). We didn’t order the fancy tour, so our visit was a bit short, but overall I found it to be the least pretentious of the places we visited.
Next on the list was L.A. Cetto, Mexico’s largest wine producer. To get to the main building you have to drive through a very long path flanked on both sides by nearly endless grape vines. Being so large, it caters to American tourists as well as Mexicans, so there was no language barrier. We got to taste a wide variety of their wines, from the more pedestrian (and often unbalanced) cheaper varietals to the rather complex and expensive blends. One memorable wine was the chardonnay, was a little bit “buttery” but not nearly as heavy as some of the (grotesque) Napa/Sonoma varieties. Overall, it was a fun place to visit as long as you manage to avoid the tour groups which take up all the space for tasting. After L.A. Cetto we had a meal at a very small place in Guadalupe (the woman seemed to be running it out of a second kitchen in her house). Flautas, beans and rice — another delicious roadside meal, fresh cooked and homemade.
The final winery was Viña de Liceaga, which was incredibly pretentious and fancy. Their tasting room was (according to Jen, who knows about these things) very “Napa.” The tasting there was ok, but all of the bottles were ridiculously expensive, especially given that it was (a) Mexico and (b) they were not that great. Clearly priced for the American tourist or very rich Mexicans. I’d definitely give it a pass if I ever go again and instead plan ahead and call for an appointment at Mogor Badan, which Celeste mentioned (after my trip). We left the Valle and headed back into Ensenada, where we went to the Santo Tomás store and I picked up a bottle of Tempranillo. We swung by El Parillan and then hit the road back up to San Diego. It was a bit rainy and the highway was under construction, but we survived and made it to Tijuana, wherein we sat in line for more than an hour at the border. Jen alleviated her boredom with churros. The woman at the border basically waved us through and we arrive back in San Diego safe and sound.