BAJA CALIFORNIA, MEXICO — “Clink!” A crowd of elegant wine glasses come together, accompanied by laughter and the joyous camaraderie friends enjoying time together. Within the glasses are some fine varietals, especially reds and red blends. Massive glass picture windows enclose the room giving way to vistas of rolling vineyards.
Before we entered the tasting room, our group enjoyed a similarly laughter filled sesh outside the private tour van we contracted to escort us to some of the region’s best wine and food purveyors. Joints and pipes were passed in the parking lot, no doubt enhancing the sensuous experience of the world class wines awaiting us. Not that they needed any help!
Before the day was over we would taste some wines that have been racking up medals in international competitions, a variety of artisan produced cheeses and gourmet foods, and survey the local culinary landscape that offers fare from casual to haute farm-to-table cuisine.
It might sound like a scene from California’s Napa Valley or even Santa Barbara wine region, but it’s not. All of this took place in Baja California, Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe, one of many surprises awaiting myself and a group of like minded friends who decided to take a road trip south for our Thanksgiving holiday.
420 Friendly Beachfront Living in Baja California, Mexico
Our friend, writer Sharon Letts (check out her Facebook page Beneficial Baja), had already been living in the nearby beach town of Punta Banda, just south of Ensenada, for over a year. It was high time we paid her a visit and the Thanksgiving holiday provided a perfect opportunity.
Since Punta Banda is less than a 2 1/2 hour drive from the US/Mexico border in San Ysidro (San Diego), a group of friends soon signed on to join my friend, business partner, and brother of another mother Mitch and I on the trip. The easy drive along the beautiful Baja coastline allowed the group to trickle in as their holiday schedules allowed.
When we arrived, we found our friend Sharon happily living the expat dream in a home just steps from the sand. Sharon’s panoramic front window displayed a black screen on the moonless night we arrived but when we met for coffee and pan dulce in the morning a spectacular ocean vista stretched before us. The rent for similar digs in Punta Banda? Between $500 – $1000 a month depending on location, size and amenities!
Our lodgings during the stay were a short walk down the beach at the La Jolla Beach Camp. RVers and campers could choose from a wide array of prime beachfront spots in the off season, although expect it to be crowded in summer. Nature’s white noise machine — the omnipresent sound of gentle ocean waves — lulled us into relaxing slumber each night. The cost for such camping luxury as of this writing in 2016? Nine dollars a night; $17.00 in high season (well it’s always high season around me).
Many in our group stayed at the property’s motel rooms across the street but still in easy walking distance of the sand and gentle surf. Hot water seemed to be a bit of an issue in the motel (although the campground had some decent hot showers) and the tile floors in the rooms kept everything briskly chilled. In the heat of the summer this would be a plus, but in November, carrying a space heater helped a lot. The accommodations were clean but a bit on the rustic side. The kitchenette with stove and refrigerator was a terrific amenity…if you were prepared as there was ZERO pots, pans, utensils or dishes. But at around $40.00 for a room this close to the beach, it’s hard to complain, and when it’s so inexpensive to eat out, who needs to cook?
Everywhere we went Mary Jane was well accepted. Much of the local expat community are clearly big fans. Those looking to procure would have no problem no matter your age (sometimes being older can make it more difficult but vendors seemed cognizant of the many American senior stoners). While touring the local tourist attraction La Bufadora, the road to the natural wonder was lined with vendors hawking everything from blankets and ponchos to Margaritas and churros. One local Farmacia was particularly aggressive, assuring us we could obtain Viagra, Vicodin and more inside. We laughed and told the guy we only used mota. His quick reply, “No problem, let me go get it from the back!”
As we didn’t buy weed in Mexico I can’t speak to price or quality, but procurement in this part of the country would prove no problemo!
Hot, Hot Hot! – Natural Hot Springs on the Shore
The area surrounding Punta Banda, especially the nearby mountains, have many hot springs (explorations for another time and article(s). But a little known insider secret about the beach directly in front of the La Jolla Beach Camp is that the hot springs run down from the higher elevations right under the sand. You would never know this looking at or even walking on the beach, but just below the surface is SIGNIFICANT heat!
Those who want a workout should bring a shovel. Dig out a small pool in the sand and be you’ll be rewarded for your efforts with a natural hot tub on the shoreline! The water coming up is HOT but the air and tide coming in from the ocean makes it cool enough to comfortably lounge in. But fair warning, if you dig your fingers or toes more than a couple of inches in, you’ll be yelling YOW and pulling them out in a hurry!
Things To Do, See, and Eat in Baja Near Punta Banda
Our time in Baja went far too quickly but we squeezed a lot in. We spent one full day on a chartered van tour to Valle de Guadalupe where we sampled world class wines and artisan cheese and food products. Our amiable driver Mario made the trip a pleasure and took all the stress away from needing a designated driver as we indulged in wine between cannabis smoke seshes.
We enjoyed an upscale Mexican style Sunday brunch in Ensenada at the Estero Beach Hotel and Resort – still only about $15.00 a person. Most days, however, we started the day at Patty’s, a small local coffee shop outside the La Jolla Beach Camp’s gates where the local retired expats hold court every morning. The food is fresh, home made, delicious, and cheap! Three of us ate breakfast, including tip, for about $8.00! Patty’s bacon was some of the best ever and had all of us craving it morning after morning!
Local vendors and roadside stands selling delicious tacos, tamales, fresh juices, and more abound. None of these will set you back more than a few bucks and the food is fresh and good.
We spent another day shopping and exploring La Bufadora while enjoying the famous “Mannyritos” at Los Gordos. Bartender Manny is a local institution thanks to his rendition of the famous drink — giant ultra strong Margaritas, freshly made with real limes the way they’re supposed to be – no mixes here!
Los Gordos features a dog friendly outdoor patio overlooking the pounding surf below. It’s a perfect place to sip your cocktail, enjoy the view, and discreetly pass a joint or pipe. Or not so discreetly, our party was not the only ones partaking and everyone seemed happy to share.
Just a walk out the door and down the path from Los Gordos, la Bufadora, or the “blowhole,” is so named because the action of the surf between the rock formations causes a giant geyser-like eruption reminiscent of a giant whale’s blowhole. Tons of tourists, including excursions from the huge cruise ships docked in Ensenada’s harbor make this a stop on their Baja journeys. As this is tourist town, the prices are a bit higher but still inexpensive by American standards. When I last visited about 15 years ago there was little there save a fish taco stand, but now shops, stands, and restaurants line the walking path to La Bufadora, one of Baja’s most beloved natural attractions.
The Ride Back and Border Crossing
All too soon it was time to return to the reality of life back home. On the advice of a local expat friend, we made a pit stop in Rosarito for lunch at Tacos El Yaqui, a small joint open only limited hours with an even more limited menu consisting of incredible Rosarito style grilled beef tacos that come loaded with beans, avocado, salsa, and optional cheese. I would show you photos but we chowed the excellent tacos down before I could shoot it. Next trip!
Soon after we arrived at the San Ysidro border crossing, notorious for its long lines. We went after Monday morning rush hour traffic and the process took about 1 1/2 hours, but be prepared to wait 3 or 4 hours during busy periods if you visit Baja.
No matter, the wait at the border is highly entertaining as an entire economy thrives among the people waiting in line in their cars to cross the border into the US, and the vendors who serve them. Besides the usual array of Mexican blankets, sombreros and other tchotchkes, all manner of food vendors are either preparing fresh food like juices, churros, or tacos, right on the street; or circulating the crowd with menus from nearby restaurants. You place your order, pay the guy, and he brings the food to your car as your move up in line. Think of it as room service for your car! The vendors are honest and friends say they have never gotten burned by one not returning with the promised food.
We were no sooner home than everyone on the trip started planning a return visit. It was that fun, that affordable, and there is sooooo much else to see and experience in Baja California, Mexico.
We stayed at the campground and in the motel at the La Jolla Beach Camp.
Discover more about the Estero Beach Hotel and Resort here.
Learn more about La Bufadora here.
Valle de Guadalupe Wine Country Practicalities
I bought some amazing blue cheese and other great fine gourmet food products at Sol de Media Noche Farmer’s Market. (Check out the recipe I created with the cheese, Filet Mignon with Chive Marijuana Butter and Blue Cheese.)
Photos this article by Mitch Mandell and Cheri Sicard.