The border between California and Mexico is a unique place. After living in Korea, and next to the most heavily militarized border in the world (the DMZ), just being able to walk or drive into another country without showing any papers, is just strange. And that’s what we did to get into Mexico. On December 28th, my Mom, Dad and I hopped in the car and made the hour’s drive to Mexico, a place I hadn’t had the chance to visit since 2009, and the place my family and I spent so many vacations.
Nowadays with the presence (now declining presence) of the cartels, was it going to seem dangerous and sketchy? Or were things back to normal? Would there be many tourists around? Would it be just like it used to?
Before we actually crossed we did have to make one stop, and that was for car insurance. We picked one of the many businesses that line the highway in the mile stretch before the end of the freeway, and in less than 10 minutes were finished. For under $30 a day, we had some instant car insurance that would protect us from any unforeseen accidents.
After that quick errand, we got back on the highway and drove straight in. Even without a stop, we were winding through the newly remodeled border entry. The huge Mexican flag flew above us as we entered the immigration area. No one seemed to be around. “This is all new,” my Dad said. “Seems like people should be stopping us. Oh well, let’s just drive through before anyone decides too”.
Carefully following the signs, we followed the route to “Rosarito/Beach Cities” and avoided driving through much of Tijuana at all. About 15 seconds of chaos was all we had to endure until we were on the highway which travels west along the border fence to the coast. From this road, both sides of the border are visible. One side was crowded and run-down, while the other side,wide open and spacious. Many people lingered along the fence, and I wondered exactly why. Surely, they aren’t going to be that obvious as they cross? In the distance I could see San Diego harbor and the shiny skyscrapers which line the bay. On-wards from this part of highway, the driving was a breeze. The roads were smooth, the traffic was almost non-existent, and the cyan blue ocean sparkled in the sun.
As we drove for lunch in Puerto Nuevo, we passed condos, small beach side towns and numerous abandoned looking apartment buildings. Years ago, many people invested in the area building huge ocean view complexes that later went bankrupt when Americans no longer wanted to venture across the border. A short 45 minute drive lands you in the small beach side community of Puerto Nuevo — a place jammed packed of lobster restaurants and souvenir shops. When I was younger, we would always visit the same restaurant, Hacienda Ortega’s, and even today my Dad insisted the same. “This place is about quadruple the price it use to be 20 years ago, but it is always good.” Today wasn’t a day for change, so we stepped inside.
We also sat in the same area as we used to, even though they had remodeled and had some ocean view seating available elsewhere. One o’ clock on a Friday and the place was pretty empty. As my Dad chatted with the waiter, he found out they had over 100 people come in yesterday. “Must of been a tour bus” my Dad speculated, all which confirmed my previous assumption— not many Americans were coming down anymore, and hadn’t for a while.
For about $20 each we stuffed ourselves full of fresh delicious grilled lobsters (1 and a half lobsters each) and unlimited beans, rice and gargantuan-sized tortillas. As I sipped my Corona, the sun beat against my back. I took off my sweater in disbelief if was December, and just a week ago I was walking around in 3 sets of layers, gloves and a scarf. I ate as much as I could, wanting the meal to last as long as possible. Luckily for me, I was the only one who would eat the head of the lobsters so I got extra. I scraped out the insides discarded by my parents and made tasty lobster burritos. YUM.
After lunch, we wobbled out of the restaurant full and ready for a nap. First we had to make it to Ensenada, about another 45 minutes from Puerto Nuevo. The scenic road hugged the coastline as we passed more small towns and a few resorts. At one point we climbed upwards, leaving the coastline where we wound along narrow roads. Soon enough we were high above sea level, reaching a point with views of the sparkling ocean and arid mountainous landscape for miles on end.
Right before reaching the city of Ensenada, we arrived at our hotel, Hotel Coral & Marina. Far superior to my normal standards of accommodation (usually just the word “hotel” makes a place too expensive for me), this was the perfect place for our Mexican mini-vacation. Interestingly enough, we were mostly spoken to in Spanish at the resort. I found this to be quite a surprise given the fact all my memories of being in Baja included being assumed American, thus spoken to in English off the bat. Obviously, most of the tourists were now coming from other parts of Mexico rather than from California. After a drink at the hotel bar, my family and I made our way to town. We wandered the main drag, browsing souvenirs and a place to get a small bite to eat. The locals all tried to entice us in, some with witty remarks, others just hoping to make one last sale before closing the doors. Though early evening, we found it to be pretty empty, even though it was the city center. It was too late for the cruise ship tourists to still be around, and too early for most Mexicans. I didn’t mind, a bite to eat and a margarita was all we really had in our sights anyways. After some tacos, beans and tortillas we left for one more stroll down the street. The bars were just starting to turn up their music, but even at 8pm it was far too early for the party goers. It was dark, but nothing was threatening. In fact the most dangerous thing we encountered, and maybe even the most dangerous thing all day, were the deep potholes which randomly dotted the sidewalks.
The next day, my jet-lag woke me up early to enjoy the sunrise from our hotel balcony. After an enormous and amazing breakfast buffet at our hotel, it was sadly time to make our way to the border. With a long line of traffic awaiting us in Tijuana, we had to get an early start. I wasn’t ready to leave though. There was so much more I wanted to do and eat around the area. The weather was perfect, the people were nice, and the food was good. Why would I want to leave?
Talking to my Dad on the drive back he told me how sometime soon I should make another, even longer, trip into Mexico. He has ridden his motorcycle down Baja multiple times, and told me how he can’t wait to do it again. Once past Ensenada, he said, beach camping would be the way to go, just as we did it as a family all those years ago. Maybe this summer I’ll be able to come back to Mexico, and bring Simon, driving and stopping along most of the Mexican peninsula.
I was happy this was a possibility. I was happy Mexico didn’t seem like such a scary place anymore. As we drove back towards Tijuana, and waited in the long line to cross back into the United States I thought about the future of this region. I hope people soon see what I did — that there is no reason not to visit the coastal area of Baja anymore. While Tijuana may still pose risks for the inexperienced or naive American traveler, Baja is different.
Safe, pleasant, easy…and delicious.
Next Up: Tips for visiting Northern Baja California in 2013.