As you cross the border into Tijuana, the road quickly evolves from well-paved into a bumpy nightmare. In between playas de Tijuana and central there are houses piled up on each other on the cliffs, reminiscent of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. The idea that just two hours away from here we were enjoying Portola Coffee Lab in a chic market seems like a distance memory.
We’re headed to La Casa del Mole Poblano in the center of the city, on the corner of a round-about with a military general riding a horse at the focal point. We enter the restaurant after navigating the minuscule, dilapidated parking lot. The atmosphere here is perfect. Everything that you’d expect from a traditional mole joint, and more. Indigenous decorations complement the live music. Once we sit down and order, we realize our dusty Spanish will be put to good use during our weekend in Baja.
We order huevos rancheros con mole served with handmade tortillas, chilaquiles con mole poblano, and un tamale de pollo rojo. Accompanied by a freshly squeezed orange juice for my girlfriend and a Bohemia for myself. We enjoy a leisurely lunch that is as delicious as the rest of the weekend would be.
We leave the restaurant full and satisfied for the rest of our drive down the shores of Baja. After making through the eradicated streets and infrastructure of Tijuana, we turn onto the highway one, which stretches all the way to the tip of Cabo San Lucas. Along the coastline, there are luxury homes surrounded by palm trees that are spread out in patches or line up in rows. On the other side of the highway, however, more slums cascade down the cliffs, watched over by more than one towering sculpture of Jesus with his arms extended, giving residents the attractive and relaxing landscape.
The ocean is surprisingly clean, blue, and beautiful. The temperature is lovely though it’s December, a cool 72 degrees. Locals ride horses on the beach. Despite its idyllic setting, cars speed up and slow down irregularly, exits and transfers are sharp, sudden, and dangerous, and militia in camouflage trucks survey the coastline with machine guns.
The highway takes our car high above the ocean and gives us a tremendous view while the Sun shines brightly overhead. Above in the hills, children walk home from school with their large backpacks weighing them down. Cows graze freely over the rolling green hills. I look down below towards the ocean, which is encompassed by thick white clouds that we are driving above on the rugged winding roads. A white, middle-aged biker rides passed without a helmet, freedom blowing through his thin white hair.
The topography is elusive, climbing and descending in no foreseeable pattern, untouched by the lack of adequate infrastructure. It is a lot like the landscape of my home, southern California, and I’m taken by the idea to be able to see what the scenery had looked like before it was killed by houses and shopping malls. A thin rainbow circles the zenith around the radiating Sun. I feel a sense of total, unique bliss.
You can spot Ensenada from about 15 miles away. As you roll into town, the first thing you see is the giant, looming Mexican flag watching over the city, wavering in the coastal breeze. Locals traverse the road leading to the boardwalk, convincing tourists to take a carriage ride or to eat at their seafood restaurant. One man stands up on the carriage, riding in confidence.
On the water, there are Carnival cruise ships. In the middle of the ocean outlook, there are three very large gold busts of three Mexican leaders. To the left is Benito Juarez, President from 1861 to 1871, who fought against the occupation from the Archduke Maximilian and was executed by Austrian forces. In the middle is Miguel Hidalgo who was deemed the father of the Mexican Independence movement. And finally, on the right is bearded and spectacled Venustiano Carranza, who was another key leader of the Revolution. The gargantuan flag flies with pride above them, despite Mexico’s deep troubles and infamous corruption.
On our way to Hotel Cortez, we spot the famous food stand La Guerrerense, which is known for its ceviche tostadas. After a quick reset at our hotel, which ends up having a central location and great service despite the salty smell emitting from poor plumbing, we are in the arms of delicious, delicious seafood.
Raw scallops, shrimp, oysters, and other tasty sea creatures are put on top of tostada with salsa and avocado. The spread of salsas is impressive, and I quickly gravitate to the tamarind variation. It is completely fresh, both in its ingredients and for my palate. The trusting employees refuse to take my money until we have finished our food, an friendly bonus to the perfect five minutes of street food heaven.
Walking down the street a man with his apparent wife looks at my girlfriend who is of mixed Asian and Polish descent. “China?” he asks. Then, turning to me. “America?” She replies with “Japan” as a simplification and he asks if we’re married. He is well-natured, asking questions with a smile on his face. I am happy to see,even though the climate in the United States is so racially charged, it is still possible to talk about heritage candidly without anger, despite his utter lack of tact.
Hell-bent on relaxing since it’s my birthday, we take a break, read, and nap. If you’re at Hotel Cortez, you can sit poolside and enjoy a cocktail while nodding off in the ocean breeze.
Not too much later, we hit the streets again to find some dinner. Pursuing the local spots near our hotel, one restaurant catches our eyes. El Restaurante de Ensenada boasts a sign that says its food and his 100% local and displays a selection of local craft beers on the front patio table. This is the one.
Despite the employees broken English and our even more broken Spanish, we all manage to communicate well. We order pesto capellini with clams and tuna steak, wild mushrooms in a reduction of red wine from Valle de Guadalupe, and a bowl of corn chowder. The food is extremely vibrant and impeccably prepared. Served with fresh bread with a variety of dipping sauces, we order a pilsner and an IPA from local brewing company Aguamala, followed by two mojitos. The service is attentive and friendly. We couldn’t ask for better.
We leave the restaurant satisfied, and Ensenada has come alive on this Friday night. People are in streets ordering churros, setting off fireworks, embracing one another, and enjoying their night. We decide on another drink to send us off into our evening. We walk down the main drag of downtown and see a cantina that is chattering with activity. The doorman says “welcome guyz, welcome” instead of trying to convince us to come in. We take to that and decide it’s a perfect place for a marvelously huge margarita and a few shots of mescal. Later I would learn that Ensenada is the birthplace of the margarita, so my primal instinct for drunkenness paid off with touristic discovery. The interior of the cantina dubbed El Corralito has dollar bills stapled on the walls with messages. One of which reads “FUCK TRUMP” while another says “Make America Mexico Again” which I find humorous and only half correct.
“What’s up with the dollar bills?” I ask the bartender.
“Memories, my friend,” he replies. He continues to treat us like amigos as we sway in our seats, slur our words, and order one too many shots of mescal. We stumble into the night with reverie to find a churro stand, which is cosmically located on the strip of bars and restaurants. Churros con chocolate, handmade by a single woman in between serving customers, are some of the best I’ve had. All is well when we get to our room and sleep well for another day full of food and drink in Ensenada.
We wake up in the morning without hangovers and are incredibly excited about it. We go to Kaffa Coffee nearby and are served by a man with a stoic disposition and a long grey ponytail. Out front is a man reading a small paperback, drinking a coffee, and smoking cigarettes that rest on the table. He resembles a poet, an introspectively deep Mexican man that embodies the heart of the country.
For breakfast we order huevos con chorizo y papas and huevos rancheros con chilaquiles. We finish our meal in one of the perfect café patio enclaves that are completely closed off the walls and a door, providing a refuge to watch the city go by. Then we sit on the curb outside, waiting for the driver from Baja Wine Sun to take us on a tour of Valle de Guadalupe. Hector drives us, and only us, out into the valley. He turns out to be a fantastic driver, recommending a famous valley restaurant we would have never known about otherwise.
But, first we’re off to Tres Valles, an intimate micro-winery that produces a fine product. We are given the tasting by a young man name Alejandro while a small party is happening below the tasting room. The owner introduces himself to us with a warm welcome. While Alejandro gives us a tasting of a crystal clear white wine and four complex reds, we learn that the boy sitting in the room’s only chair is the owner’s bored son. He reminds me of restless self. Together the four of us talk about wine, we talk about life, the American-Mexican political relationship, and the corrupt politics of each country.
We are impressed by how aware they are despite saying their internet connection is shoddy. The world is truly globalizing. The pair are extremely kind to us, making us feel welcome while providing stimulating and meaningful conversation. It was the perfect intimate experience to start off our day of wine tasting. We buy two high quality bottles for $24 US dollars.
Next, we’re headed to El Cielo, which means heaven, boasts an open vineyard and a beautiful dark wine cellar. We are taught about the fermentation process and the different oak barrels used for aging. Were surprised to learn that blends of wine are mixed together after being fermented and aged. After tasting three impeccable wines, we’re gifted an engraved glass. Then, we’re off again to Las Nubes for our final tasting.
The tour is properly planned, with a view of the valley and five perfect wines to conclude. We are giving the tastings at our own pace and are served by a knowledgeable staff. With light heads and cheery hearts, it’s time for a lunch in the valley.
Finca Altozano, from chef Javier Plascencia, is a mostly outdoor restaurant in the middle of the gorgeous, radiant valley, and sports an oyster bar, plenty of fresh seafood, and a few other classics. We start with a spaghetti in spicy cream sauce and fresh bread, followed by beef cheek tacos served with guacamole. Finally, we have a whole trout served with garlic mashed potatoes, which is the star of the show. It is a feast for a drunken king and queen.
Then, we drive out of the valley and back into Ensenada, nodding off with the languid intoxication of excessive food and wine. We take a much needed break at our hotel before eating yet again at a taco stand, where we get fish and shrimp tacos, and a bowl of menudo. It is everything you want to end a relaxing weekend in Baja.