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The beauty of Baja

Call it a case of unmistaken identity.

Driving along this two-lane highway past a blinding expanse of blue water hugged by dusty brown hills feels vaguely familiar. Though this roadway winds along the coast north of Ensenada through the Chapultepec Hills, it's got Big Sur written all over it.

The rocky coasts of central California and Baja California Norte _ separated by a mere 550 miles and an international border _ aren't identical, but they're definitely cut from the same tectonic cloth. And were it not for a pact in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War that established Baja as part of Mexico, the two might now share a common government.

Baja Norte has two scenic roads _ Highway 1D (the free road) and Highway 1 (the toll road). The two run roughly parallel as far as Ensenada, where they merge to become Mexico Highway 1, which continues another 1,000 miles to the southernmost tip of the Baja peninsula.

It's only about 80 miles from the U.S.-Mexican border to the Bay of Todos Santos, the body of water that defines the port city of Ensenada. But the time it takes for this coastal drive depends less on distance and more on how many side trips you take, how many times you stop to photograph dramatic cliff-side villages, how many taco stands you sample and whether you brake for sunsets. Three days would be a minimum, and midweek is always better than weekends, for traffic and room availability.

From Los Angeles to the border via I-5, all roads lead to Tijuana, the still-somewhat tacky border town that has grown into Mexico's fourth largest city. (After crossing the border into Tijuana, don't forget to stop and buy Mexican auto insurance, at about $12 to $14 per day).

A favored lunch stop is Caesar's Palace, a restaurant with a hint of faded elegance. This spacious establishment, near the corner of Avenida Revolucion (the main shopping drag) and Calle 4a, has its own claim to fame: the birthplace of the Caesar salad.

A white-haired waiter in a three-piece suit named Tony tells the story of that fateful day in the early 1920s when chef Caesar Cardini ran out of food. In those days, Tony explains, most of the food for the restaurant was brought in daily from the United States and could not be replenished at a moment's notice. Stumped for something to serve his waiting guests, Cardini threw together everything he had left in the kitchen and a salad was born. A salad alone now costs $4.40, while entrees (which all come with a Caesar salad) run $9 to $12.

Tijuana's one-way roads, jammed with traffic, have well-marked signs leading to the southbound highways. The dense urban crush gives way on Highway 1D, a route that hugs the coast through Playas de Tijuana and Bullring-by-the-Sea.

Staring at this seaside stretch booming with new stucco homes topped with satellite dishes, it's hard to believe that early attempts to settle this area by Spanish explorers in the 1530s failed. It would take more than a century for Jesuit priests to successfully set up a string of Catholic missions, primarily in the south and central part of the peninsula.

But during the 1920s and '30s, Hollywood stars such as Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner and Victor Mature once languished at the Rosarito Beach Hotel, a sprawling place that still boasts one of the best beaches in the resort town of Rosarito. From here, Highway 1D turns inland and the drive continues along the slower, more scenic Highway 1.

Between Rosarito and Ensenada, little clusters of seafood restaurants and stores make up villages as small as dots on the map: Puerto Nuevo is also known as Lobster Village for the numerous restaurants that line its cobblestone streets, and a tiny pull-off called Cantamar is little more than huge sand dunes _ a perfect spot to laze around and catch a stunning sunset.

La Fonda, a village pitched on the side of a cliff about 20 miles south of Rosarito, is a good spot for an overnight stay or romantic seaside dinner. Walking along the hard sandy beach, a network of elaborate walkways, covered with plants and greenery, wind up the cliff to the handful of buildings that constitute La Fonda.

The Hotel La Fonda sports a restaurant with an indoor area and an outside dining patio that affords heavenly ocean views from atop the cliff.

Just north of Ensenada is a well-marked turnoff at El Mirador, which reveals expansive views of seaside cliffs and churning emerald waters. But this is not your typical vista point. An elaborate pink stucco restaurant-gift shop complex was built a year ago on this isolated hilltop, and draws visitors who are more intent on taking in the view than the food:

In the El Mirador Restaurant-Bar, lobster burritos cost $9.85 and margaritas are a mere $1.50. Instead, ocean lovers linger on the intense pink stairs and arches, staring at kelp beds dancing in the clear blue below. There are a few blemishes _ a dead car cemetery near the shoreline below _ but the scene, overall, is breathtaking.

From El Mirador, the highway's hairpin turns showcase more views of the Bay of Todos Santos until the road smooths out at Ensenada, a working port town that caters to tourists.

Near here are signs for Highway 3 that leads north about 20 miles to Guadalupe, a tiny village known for its vineyards, olive trees and Russian roots.

Returning to Highway 1, it's easy to bypass the traffic and tourist crowds in Ensenada and head to Estero Beach Resort, an inexpensive complex whose beach faces a still-water estuary.

Heading south to Maneadero, a stretch of roadway with many bumps, westward Route 23 leads out to Punta Banda, a village on a gorgeous little peninsula at the southernmost tip of Ensenada's bay. The drive is beautiful along undeveloped acres of coastline where goats scurry along the road, cows graze in seaside fields and brightly colored stands advertise olives, carrots and other homemade pickled foods in huge glass jars.

A brisk tourist trade bustles along the narrow road into Punta Banda _ stands with T-shirts, tacky statues, colorful blankets, mangoes, fresh coconuts, churros (dough-and-sugar confections) and mariscos (seafood). Open-air taco stands with stools offer up tempting smells with a view of rocky cliffs and sea.

IF YOU GO

The Mexican Secretary of Tourism's office offers the following tips for those driving to the Baja Peninsula:

Visitors should carry a driver's license and proof of citizenship (official copy of a birth certificate, passport or resident alien card).

If you drive your own vehicle, you will need to bring the car's registration (no photocopies). If the vehicle is financed, a notarized letter from the bank or finance company allowing the car to be driven in Mexico is needed.

U.S. auto insurance is not valid in Mexico. You need to purchase Mexican car insurance before or at the border. It costs about $12 to $14 for each 24-hour period.

If you don't want to worry about having your car stolen or burglarized in a foreign country, you can always rent a car from Los Angeles or San Diego.

For more information on driving in Mexico, contact the Mexican Government Tourism Office, Surface Tourism Division in Houston at (713) 880-8772.

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