Baja California cuisine is a combination of Mexican, Mediterranean and Asian flavors. // © 2016 Baja California Tourism
Feature image (above): Visitors to the region have the option to stay at hacienda-style accommodations at Adobe Guadalupe Vineyards & Inn. // © 2016 Adobe Guadalupe Vineyards & Inn
Baja California is a Mexico tourism destination that has weathered a donkey-load of bad press and is only now recovering. Instead of trying to recreate past glories, the region is reinventing itself, with outstanding cuisine and a truly beautiful wine valley leading the charge. Perhaps Baja California’s major appeal is that it’s an affordable foreign drive destination within easy reach from Southern California.
Baja California is the northern half of the Baja Peninsula, bordered on one side by the Pacific Ocean and on the other side by the Sea of Cortez. The region comprises the main tourism destinations of Tijuana, Ensenada and Valle de Guadalupe. Second-tier destinations include Rosarito Beach, Tecate, Mexicali, Puerto Penasco and San Felipe.
Recent developments have made it easier to cross the border from the U.S. San Ysidro Land Port of Entry at the Tijuana/San Ysidro border crossing is in the midst of adding 38 inspection booths, which will lessen wait times. The Cross Border Xpress is a completed project that connects an airport terminal in San Diego to Tijuana International Airport via a pedestrian access bridge. The Cross Border Xpress makes it a lot easier for U.S. travelers to access flights out of Tijuana.
Even with these improvements, driving back and forth across the border has its hurdles. If clients are driving down, impress upon them the utmost importance of securing Mexican auto insurance. This can be obtained in minutes at offices on the U.S. side of the border, or can be even more easily obtained online.
Driving into Mexico is a piece of cake, with virtually no wait time at the border. Coming back into the U.S. at the Tijuana/San Ysidro crossing, however, can be challenging. Even with the extra lanes, it can take several hours to make the crossing at peak travel times, such as rush hours and Sunday afternoons. If clients have flexibility in their schedules, suggest they time their crossing into the U.S. on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday morning between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. In my experience as an expatriate living in Baja California, choosing the right time can result in a wait of 45 minutes or less.
Baja California’s Showpiece, Valle de Guadalupe
Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe is probably the major reason why visitors from the U.S. should plan a visit. Mexico is famous for investing in new tourism regions instead of propping up old ones, and Valle de Guadalupe is a good example. Promoted as Mexico’s answer to Napa Valley, Valle de Guadalupe is less than a two-hour drive from the U.S. border. There are 100-plus wineries, many with sophisticated tasting rooms. There are lots of dining options, including La Esperanza BajaMed Cocina — one of celebrity chef Miguel Angel Guerrero’s restaurants — at the winery L.A. Cetto.
The region has a range of rooms, from elegant hacienda-style accommodations at Adobe Guadalupe Vineyards & Inn to funky overnights in restored retro Airstream trailers at Glamping Ruta d Arte y Vino. A visit to Valle de Guadalupe can dial down anyone’s stress, and several days could be enjoyed in the region. If clients are intrigued but hesitant about driving down themselves, there are a variety of tour operators offering excursions to the region, such as Baja Winery Tours, which departs from San Diego on one-day tours that feature lunch and tastings at three wineries.
Sampling Baja Med cuisine, which combines Mexican, Mediterranean and Asian cooking, is another prime reason for making the trip to Baja California. Experiencing the cuisine is easier than many travelers might think, since the best restaurants are right across the border in Tijuana. Standout chefs include La Esperanza’s Guerrero, who is credited with coining the term “Baja Mediterranean,” and Javier Plascencia, whose Mision 19 restaurant is one of the most elegant dining venues in the city. A great way to sample Baja Med cuisine is to join one of the organized groups of foodies coming across the border; one such company is Wild Foodie Adventures, which regularly schedules excursions departing from San Ysidro into Tijuana.
Is Baja California for everyone? Certainly not. World-class tourism has yet to find a toehold in the region, and travelers from the U.S. may find themselves scratching their heads at times, wondering if Baja California suppliers and operators have the first clue about tourism. However, the region is a good choice for savvy, experienced travelers — especially those on a budget and those who haven’t forgotten to pack a sense of humor and a spirit of adventure.