You did it. You and your friends crossed from San Diego over the United States-Mexico border, made your way through Tijuana traffic, and maneuvered your car up a winding highway and over a hill to a sprawling view of the Pacific Ocean. This can mean only one thing: you’re traveling to Mexico for a weekender in Baja.
Baja California Alta (the northern most state on the Baja peninsula that includes Tijuana) was Mexico’s best-kept secret for many years but is now finally getting its moment in the sun, and we here at Salt & Wind couldn’t be more on board. Prior to getting on the radar as Mexico's premiere wine country, Baja was known mostly as a haven for fish tacos, cotton candy sunsets, fried lobster, and excellent surf. Thankfully, that’s all still true, but it’s also become a culinary and design capital of sorts.
Tijuana, its largest city, is an epicenter of all things new and cutting edge in Baja. Think chic cocktail speakeasies and high-end Mexican design in furniture, clothes and fine art, just to give a few examples. California’s craft beer obsession has migrated south from San Diego and can be found in one of the dozens of breweries and tasting rooms from Tijuana to the more southern port city of Ensenada. Farm-to-table, upscale restaurants abound in both city and country, with the highest concentration being in the Valle de Guadalupe, the wine region just 20 minutes inland and over the hill from Ensenada. And, of course, there’s wine. Lots of it. Over 150 wineries, which is up from about 50 just a few years ago.
Whether you’ve been curious about Baja for a while or are just hearing about it for the first time, we’ll state the obvious: this place is magical. If we had it our way, this would be our ultimate Baja California wine country itinerary, and we want to share it with you because secrets are more fun when shared.
Exploring the coast
From Rosarito to Ensenada while never losing sight of the Pacific
Meandering down the coast road is the best introduction to Baja. Just south of Tijuana is Rosarito, a beach town that has long been a favorite for border-hopping Americans, especially the “Spring Breaker” kind. The 2008 market crash and subsequent lag in tourism eliminated much of that atmosphere, and now the town sees a more relaxed, thoughtful kind of tourism. Along its main drag, Boulevard Benito Juarez, you’ll find storefronts of all kinds of Mexican artisans, including furniture from around the country. Rosarito’s main market is right there too, with dozens of stalls selling any type of fresh food product (just don’t try to bring fruit, vegetables and cheese back across the border).
About 10 minutes out of town is the small fishing village of Popotla, situated right on the beach under the shadow of Fox Studios Baja (Fear the Walking Dead, Titanic and others were filmed here). You come to Popotla for one thing: fresh seafood, beachside. There are no paved roads and you’ll have a lot of vendors fighting for your attention, so take your time, ask questions and settle on whatever looks best. Some of our favorites are: the Pescado Zarandeado at Restaurant Atotonilco, the fish tacos with fresh flour tortillas at Mariscos La Tia, and the fried spider crab at Restaurant La Estrella.
Heading a little further south brings you to K38, one of northern Baja’s most famous surf breaks. The beach is made up of large black rocks, so it’s not good for hanging out, but if you’re hanging ten there’s no better place to land. A little further down Route 1D is the village of Puerto Nuevo, which pretty much exists solely to provide visitors with fried or grilled spiny lobster, fresh tortillas, cold beer, rice and beans. That’s it. La Casa de La Langosta is our pick — just make sure to ask for a seat with one of their stunning ocean views.
Barely 30 minutes away is another surf break at La Fonda, which also has a small outcropping of bars, restaurants and the surfer favorite Gary’s La Fonda Hotel, if you want to check in for a night or take a quick break. Continuing south, you’ll be hugging the coast the entire time, eventually cresting a mountain and cascading down the cliffs of Salsipuedes — known locally as the “Mexican Big Sur.” The government knows this and has provided several spots to pull off the highway so you can snap the perfect Instagram shot. This, too, is another famous surf spot, but one that’s a little more shark-infested, thanks to the nearby tuna farm. The views from land are stunning enough.
The final stop before turning inland is the port city of Ensenada, long famous for its seafood, carefree attitude and being the birthplace of the Margarita. For that classic Mexican cocktail, go to Hussong’s Cantina, where it was reportedly invented in 1941. Hussong’s has been in operation continuously since 1892 and is well-loved by locals and tourists alike. Often called “the best food cart in the world,” La Guerrerense now also has a sit-down restaurant, though we suggest hitting up the original stall for her world-famous tostadas laden with sea urchin, clams, fish and anything else delicious that comes out of the ocean.
To stay, consider a perch above the city with uninhibited views of the port, mountains, ocean and city: Nachita’s Place. Famed Mexican architect Alejandro D’Acosta transformed this 1940’s four-bedroom house into a boho-chic oasis (that, FYI, can only be booked through AirBnB).
Heading into Wine Country
Wine tasting and farm-to-table cuisine — Mexican style — in the Valle de Guadalupe
Just over the hills that surround Ensenada is the Valle de Guadalupe, known as Mexico’s premier wine country. We know what you’re thinking, and yes: they make wine in Mexico! In this up-and-coming winemaking region, there are no signature varietals — winemakers are still playing around with what grows best in the arid region with dry, long and hot summers, and cool nights. This also means they’ve become known for blends you won’t find anywhere else, specifically red blends. A lot of the wineries have also become known for their architecture: many are design-forward and are intended to usher in a new age of Mexican aesthetics and design. This is definitely a side of Mexico most visitors have never seen before.
Our favorite wineries include: Villa Montefiori, which is heavy on reds and Italian varietals and has sprawling south-facing views of the valley; Cava Maciel, with a newly opened tasting room well off the beaten path. Owner and winemaker Jorge Maciel’s Petite Sirah is a show-stealer; Sol y Barro has a clandestine, rock-bound and cavernous tasting room tucked next to two other popular vineyards just off of Route 3. Check out their grenache blends; Lechuza, which is a family-run operation who you can visit by appointment only. Expect a warm welcome, an impromptu cellar tour and a standout unoaked Chardonnay; the region’s long-standing, “old school” favorite, Monte Xanic. Their Sauvignon Blanc is a particular hit and their iconic tasting room offers near-unparalleled views; and a relative newcomer, Decantos Vinicola. In truth, the wine could use a little more work, but it’s still worth trying. Decantos’ true gem is the tasting room, which offers ample place to relax and is easily one of the most beautiful in the valley.
The other main reason to visit the Valle de Guadalupe? The food. More Mediterranean than classic Mexican, chefs are taking their cues from Europe and Asia and are designing a new cuisine that’s uniquely Baja. Think grilled abalone and oysters, harvested from just minutes away. Steak, lamb and other game, grilled or roasted with a drizzle of local olive oil. A bounty of fresh, in-season vegetables from the restaurant’s local garden. Fish as plentiful and fresh as anywhere else in Baja, often cooked a la plancha or tossed in citrus and served aguachile style. The region has drawn in Michelin-starred chefs and creative restaurateurs who capitalize on the near-perfect year round weather to have hybrid indoor-outdoor restaurants that celebrate the rustic atmosphere of wine country.
And, naturally, we have our favorites. Deckman’s en el Mogor is one such Michelin-starred chef, an honor chef Drew Deckman received while cooking in Germany. His open-fire restaurant is mostly outdoors and outfitted with hay bales, string lights and a sprawling view of the Mogor Badan vines. Finca Altozano is the campestre-style restaurant and general hang out space from Baja chef Javier Plascencia, who operates a south-of-the-border empire. Besides the country-style food, you can bring your favorite bottle of red (or whatever) to the top of one of their oversized wine barrels and toast the day away. Laja is one of the oldest — and most renowned — restaurants from one of Baja’s favorite sons, Jair Tellez, who also has a spate of well-loved restaurants in Mexico City and Tijuana. Expect finer dining and seasonal cuisine in preparations you had never considered.
To bed down, we love the ultra-mod Encuentro Guadalupe, whose rooms are a collection of eco pods nestled in the boulders and hills above the rest of the valley. For those seeking something more traditional but no less design-forward, consider La Villa del Valle. The former is a hacienda-style abode with excellent wine and food on-site and a must-visit for horse lovers. The latter, a Tuscan-style retreat with one of Latin America’s best restaurants (and one of our favorites), Corazon de Tierra, and an on-site winery and taco truck.
Navigating Tijuana: Baja's Urban Jungle
Tijuana: the city for street tacos and all things modern Mexican
A 90-minute drive north brings you back to Tijuana and the border crossing at San Diego. Many wrongly skip exploring Tijuana in favor of rushing back to the United States, but then they miss out one of the most up-and-coming cities in Mexico. Exploring Tijuana’s finer points can be done in a day and will include--unsurprisingly--excellent food, world-class drinks and some of the best shopping on either side of the border.
To eat, unmissable options are: Verde y Crema, which is Jair Tellez’s Tijuana farm-to-table temple. Oryx Capital, which boasts a killer suckling pig as well as octopus mac & cheese, also features a speakeasy called Nortico, serving Tijuana’s best craft cocktails. La Corriente Cevicheria Nais is the spot for raw fish tostadas, aguachiles and ceviches--just don’t leave without getting their red snapper tostada.
For something more quick and casual, a stop at Telefonica Gastropark is an absolute must. This food truck wonderland has a little something for everyone — from ramen to tacos. And, about those tacos! Tijuana has some of the best street food in all of Mexico, which is saying something. For the freshest tacos in the most lively setting, you’ll want to go to Tacos el Franc, which is open from the afternoon through the night. We recommend not skipping the adobada, but if you’re feeling more adventurous, definitely get the lengua, too.
To drink, craft beer lovers will be in heaven. The recently revamped Plaza Fiesta is home to a bevy of tasting rooms from breweries all around Baja. The sleekest is Insurgente, whose Lupulosa IPA is a favorite both in California and Baja California. Border Psycho, just down the plaza, has creative, rotating brews and an — errrmm — female-friendly tap system, as the handles are sex toys. There are many others to choose from, all centered around the plaza, making for an impossibly fun atmosphere.
Up until recently, staying over in Tijuana meant staying at a hotel you’d probably also have to share with medical tourists. If sharing space with random Americans walking around with I.V. drips isn’t your thing (and we don’t blame you), thankfully there’s about to be a new game in town. OneBunk Tijuana is opening in Spring 2017 on Tijuana’s famed Avenida Revolucion and will have the distinction of being the city’s very first boutique hotel. Guests can expect smartly-designed rooms, an in-house barber shop and a pop up store from our amigas at Object MX.
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Photo Credit: Opening photo, Salsipuede, and Encuentro Guadalupe photos by Carley Rudd; photo of One Bunk courtesy of One Bunk; all others by Salt & Wind