ONCE UPON A TIME IN TIJUANA
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Some will celebrate that. I'm not one of those people. South of Tijuana proper is the rest of Baja California, the spindly peninsula that's nearly as long as actual California. You only need to drive an hour and change down the coast to reach the Valle de Guadalupe, one the world's hottest emerging wine regions and food destinations, and an unappreciated jewel.
The winery's premium bottling, the Gran Ricardo a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and petit verdot , is as excellent as the view. The other fantastic local white is the non-oaked chardonnay from Lechuza Vineyard at the east of San Antonio de las Minas at the Valle's southwestern end. I'm not the only one who likes it: Chef Thomas Keller recently put it on the wine list at his flagship restaurant, The French Laundry , in Napa Valley. No tricks, no wood, no deception, it is a pure expression of the earth and the grape. To taste that you have to buy the top-level premium tasting, but it's well worth it.
The Nebbiolo is a deeply concentrated wine with pronounced fruity flavors, especially red berries, and an earthiness and terroir that suggests this is exactly the wine that should be grown just where it is. As great as the Valle's wine has become, its food scene may be better. Rated higher still is the nearby Corazon de Tierra. Chef Diego Hernandez's food is contemporary, but deeply grounded in Mexican soul, Old World technique, and -- crucially -- the gardens surrounding almost engulfing the dining room.
Tijuana is less than a half-hour drive south of San Diego down Interstate 5 or , less in good traffic. There are two primary reasons not to drive there: Tijuana traffic and the border wait on the way back.
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They both suck. Tijuana traffic is heavy and Tijuana drivers do have a tendency to view lanes as mere suggestions. But once you get outside of Tijuana it's pretty much smooth sailing. The border wait on a Sunday afternoon can be brutal. Check that: The border wait on a Sunday afternoon is brutal. Don't get pulled over by the cops. Driving is not the only way to get south of the border. Or drive to the border and park near the crossing.
From there, walk across and grab a taxi easy, cheap or an Uber. Another option is a tour. They range from the near-luxurious to the rudimentary. One of the more established and conventional tour operators is Club Tengo Hambre , run by a group of food bloggers who pioneered coverage of the burgeoning Baja food scene. Options for getting to the Valle de Guadalupe are more limited. Driving is a very good option. It would be a truly great option if you weren't pretty much going there to drink wine. No matter how good the wine is, it still tends to impair you if you drink enough of it.
Hiring an Uber driver for part of the day works. But tours are probably the best way to do the Valle for the first time. Tijuana native and journalist Julio Cesar Marruffo also runs some excellent Baja tours. On my last trip south of the border with Paco neither of us had a passport. That, however, wasn't dumb: We didn't need one. That was then. Now you need your passport.
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If you try to get back on your driver's license, birth certificate, or pretty smile, the best you can legitimately hope for is a long, dull wait in Secondary Inspection. If you have any intention of using your smartphone in Mexico, be sure that you call your carrier before you go, turn on your international data roaming, and be positive you can afford to do so.
If you're a T-Mobile customer, you're in luck at least in Mexico. Mexico is immune to your American auto insurance policy. If you're driving, grab Mexican insurance as you near the border. It's cheap and definitely worth it. Or plan ahead and get it online. One thing you may expect you have to do is change your dollars to pesos. You don't.
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Oh, you could if you insist: You could try to play the retail foreign currency arbitrage game, but why? The game's rigged: You'll lose. You'll do far better calling your US bank and asking which Mexican banks it has deals with and then using those ATMs without additional fees. That way you get an exchange rate instead of a wholesale rate. The best rule of thumb when traveling abroad is: Don't be stupid. That's definitely Rule No. If you follow that rule -- if you avoid going to places that feel too sketchy, if you don't go to the Zona Norte alone at night, if you don't go to the places you definitely wouldn't think of going north of the border -- you are likely to be just fine.
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There was, no question, a time when that wasn't so. A massive drug war gripped Northern Baja. A lot of the American press presented it as a war between evil drug lords and good the police. A better, if simplistic, picture is that it was a war between the Tijuana and Sinaloa cartels for control of the drug trade, with the police running interference whether intentionally or otherwise for one side, the other, or both. When the Sinaloa cartel won, things became less dangerous.
There are still drug-related killings and crime in Tijuana just as there are in most major -- and some not-so-major -- American cities. For the most part the activity now is mostly in neighborhood-level skirmishes with nearly all of it limited to highly non-tourist areas of the city. That said, there is absolutely no doubt that you can still be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Always see Rule No. By Michael A.
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Customs and immigration was a piece of cake. In Tijuana I discovered that a bus was leaving for Guadalajara only 15 minutes after I arrived. Why not I though? I got a ticket and found my seat which would be my seat for the next 32 hours. The first 20 hours were pretty okay. The bus was fine although 20 hours is a long time in a bus. But then something happened with the air conditioner and it felt like a horse was breathing me directly into my face. It slowly got warmer and warmer as we traveled through the desert. I managed to fall a sleep for a while but abruptly woke up due to a foul smell!
It must have been the septic tank overflowing and the horse-breath air conditioning working together??! But that was not all? The bus had another trick up its sleeve; perhaps the shock absorber gave up because now everything was shaking like a skeleton with Parkinson's!! The last 12 hours of that bus ride were 12 very long hours. I'm not getting younger on these busses I was soooooo tired and felt a little sick when I arrived to Guadalajara so I gave myself a time out and booked 2 nights in a hostel where I locked myself in for a while.
I didn't really venture out until the second day and found Guadalajara to be a wonderful place just as I remembered Mexico to be. A place full of life, good food, architecture and friendly people. What more do you need in life? I really enjoyed walking around observing and traveling. In the afternoon the great heaven above broke and water started pouring, lightning and thunder blitzed and crackled and I enjoyed it to the full. The silver lining?
From Guadalajara I got on another bus which got me to Mexico City. I checked in to a hostel and went out to meet with Majo and Javier. Who are they I hear you asking? Well, I hardly knew myself actually. But I briefly met them when I was going through Andorra and they helped me take a picture of me by holding my phone.
That pretty much sums up our prior relationship but they have been following the project ever since and are now both working in Mexico City. That was more than enough reason for us to meet for dinner so we did exactly that. How cool is that?! How do human relations begin?
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We had a good time and who knows - maybe Majo and Javier will be working in Tokyo when I get that far. Majo and Javier : Oh no?? It isn't my brains that are driving this project!! I realized that I had lost my GPS transmitter which is "documenting" the route through the countries I have visited so far. I knew exactly where I forgot it. I left it on the bus coming to Mexico City. Javier tried calling the bus terminal several times but with no luck. Bus station - one of many : The next morning the receptionist at the hostel also tried calling with no luck.
It's not easily replaced so that would be a disaster and I would need to stay behind in Mexico and wait until I could get a new one as I must document this journey.