The 2010 Renaissance: Tijuana/Baja California

Published 26 March 10 12:21 PM

By Dr. Elinor Garely, eTN | Mar 21, 2010

 “Why go there? You’ll find no one but drug lords and other bad guys.” This is so yesterday! The Tijuana of today is a center for gourmet dining, luxurious hotels, world-class artists and musicians, award-winning wines, excellent medical services, centers for scientific research, creative and value–priced home-furnishings (i.e., wrought iron, wood works, glass, pottery, marble, and tiles) plus rugged mountains for climbing and fabulous water for kayaking and surfing.

Getting and Going

Fly into the San Diego, CA, airport on Jet Blue, and Tijuana is an easy drive across the border. International visitors need a passport to purchase a visa (US$20 – cash) and bags may be searched. Depending on the time of the day and day of the week, there may be a long wait to cross from one country to the other; however, this is but a small inconvenience for getting to see the 2010 version of Tijuana.

Colorful History: Early 20th Century

Because of its close proximity to the USA, Hollywood starlets and gangsters regularly traipsed across the border to Tijuana for the chance to win big prize money at the first professional race track. In the 1920s, when Americans were not permitted to drink on their own turf (thanks to Prohibition), they drove across the border to Mexico for legalized drinking and more gambling. In mid-century (1928) the Agua Caliente Touristic Complex opened and with a hotel, spa, dog track, private airport, golf course, and casino – attracting the very rich, infamous, and wannabes. The property operated successfully for eight years until – sadly - it was closed (1935) by then President Lazaro Cardenas in an effort to erase these dens of hedonism and lawlessness.

Today: Maquiladoras and Country Clubs

Tijuana is the 6th largest city in Mexico and with a population of over 1.5 million, it is one of the fastest-growing cities in Mexico. Over 300,000 people (daily) cross the border between the USA and Mexico. The economy has been enhanced by maquiladoras (factories started by international businesses thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement/NAFTA), and it is the prevalence of international manufacturing means that has sparked the development of attractive branded hotels (Camino Real and Marriott), as well as a country club with a golf course (Tijuana Country Club and Baja Golf Course), and gourmet dining opportunities for foodies.

The Alta cocina (haute cuisine) Baja Mediterranean movement started at La Querencia in Tijuana. This cuisine is beyond gourmet and chef, jet-setter, hunter, and all-around charmer - Miguel Angel Guerrero Yagues owns and operates a restaurant that can only be appreciated by a food connoisseur.

Don’t look for room ambiance (except for heads of dead animals that are considered by hunters to be “trophies”) – the focus of this spot is on the mouth, eyes, and tummies of the diners (many are major league power brokers). Yagues treats palates as blank canvases to be seduced, mixing and mingling flavors and colors that can be surprising, delicate, over-whelming, and always inspired. Chef Miguel is so unpretentious that he delights in sitting with new diners, as well as old friends, who instantly become one of his groupies. If anyone needs a reason to spend a few days in Tijuana – La Querencia goes to the top of the list. (Heads up ladies, Yagues is married!)

Entijuanarte09. Frointera Creativa

In-between lunch and dinner with Miguel – there is ample time to visit the world-class artists and musicians that are part of the Tijuana underground. At this time you will not find an “artist colony” or even an artistic neighborhood. Sadly, neither the government nor the private sectors recognize the importance of the artists and musicians in the region’s economic renaissance. However, savvy visitors can contact Ceclia Ochoo Vazquez and Jeanette Sanchez (Entijuanarte09) to arrange private meetings with the artists and acquire a few world-class paintings, sculptures, and photographs from Julio Rodriguez Ramos. Ramos documents Mexico’s geography, cities, and social and cultural heritage, and founded Entijuanarte, the most important arts festival in this northwest region of Mexico.

The Tijuana Cultural Center – CECUT (Zona Rio district) is referred at La Bola (the Ball) because of its unique architectural design and requires a brief visit. Unfortunately, this interesting space is underutilized; however, visitors can stroll through the history of northern Baja, as well as view works from contemporary artists. Do note that the descriptive information is in Spanish, so arrange to have a docent lead the way if you are not bilingual.

Next Stop: Rosarito

Twenty miles from Tijuana (and 45 minutes from San Diego) is the beach community of Rosarito that is known for its marble, wrought iron, furniture, and glass designers. Do not look for the glitz and glamour of a Caribbean island or the allure of Puerto Vallarta; Rosarito is understated and still reflects its farming/hunting community heritage.

Although it remains a hidden gem to east coast travelers, Californians rush to Rosarito for its beaches, dining opportunities, night life, and its newest trendy hotel - the 17-story Pacifico Tower (part of the Rosarito Beach Hotel). Started in 1925 as a hunting lodge, over the years, bed-warmers have included Mexican presidents, as well as Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, Gregory Peck, and Marilyn Monroe.

The “Honey Do list" must include dining at the Puerto Nuevo lobster village where fresh lobster is deep fried in butter and served with Mexican rice and beans along with flour tortillas. This meal cries out for Margaritas, carafes of excellent Mexican wines, or a Tecate Mexican beer.

Rosarito’s artists and artisans are talented and eager to please, so shopping takes on a new meaning. Forget the sleekness of shopping malls and the over-the-top pricing in tourist resorts; this artful community is still about creativity, value, and turning the client’s dream into a reality. My favorite stop is Marmol Natural where the marble selection is almost endless. Whether designing a glass waterfall for the hallway (Jorge Luna), or a new wrought-iron door for the summer house, this is a pleasant no–hassle, old-world artistic community. Nothing is mass produced and to even think “department store” may be considered sinful (and definitely rude).


Ninety minutes from San Diego the “Cinderella of the Pacific” attracts visitors to fish, water, jet skiing, golf and tennis resorts, sailing, and horseback riding. Visitors dine like gourmets (or gourmands) and plan visits to nearby wine estates.

There are many options for accommodations, but a personal recommendation is the Hotel Coral and Marina. Luxurious and modern, the suites overlook the pools (indoor and outdoor), the sea, and the dock where large, expensive yachts bob up and down in the gentle surf. For dining, there is no need to venture beyond the hotel elevator, as Antare’s chef (Mexican and American selections ) personally defines guests’ wishes and offers selections that meet (and exceed) the most demanding palates. Make sure to pack your Ralph Laurens and AX apparel (the guests are very Euro trashy and look fabulous).

Ensenada’s reputation as a haven for foodies is well-preserved at El Rey Sol, which was been family-owned and operated since 1947. Following on the heels of his mother, Virginia Geoffrey, Jean-Loup Bitterlin maintains the family tradition. Known as Mexico’s oldest French dining spot, the restaurant has won many awards, but the proof is on the palate, and celebrities noted for heading here include John Wayne, Anthony Quinn, and many Presidents of Mexico.

Getting Sick

Ensenada has become a center for medical tourism and – as luck would have it - I took this opportunity to actually visit a local physician, have tests analyzed at the laboratory, and get a prescription filled at the pharmacies. If one can pick a place to get sick, Ensenada has to be at the top of the list. Within minutes of a telephone call from the Hotel Coral, I had an appointment with Dr. Armondo Lievana Durazo at his nearby office. Not only is Dr. Armondo an excellent physician, he is drop–dead gorgeous and a prime candidate for CBS’ "The Doctors."

Al Capone in Mexico?

Before leaving Ensenada, it is an absolute necessity to stop and visit the Social, Civic and Cultural Center that occupies the space once used as a casino and hotel. Some sources believe that the Riviera del Pacifico was built with Al Capone’s money; what is certain is that it was a Mecca for Hollywood celebrities and other wealthy Americans, plus infamous Mexicans during the US Prohibition era. Listen carefully and you can hear the songs of Bing Crosby, inhale the perfume of Rita Hayworth, and spy on the carousing of the notorious Ali Kahn. It is not hard to imagine the extravagant life-style that took place under its Moorish–style roof and the erotic dalliances that occurred in the gardens.


History suggests that the Margarita was introduced at the Pacifico by Danny Herrera its noted bartender who was in love with Marjorie King, an American actress who hated her Tequila straight-up. Strangely, Tequila was the only thing she was able to drink. With the thought of seducing Ms. King, Herrera brought together all the flavors favored by the actress and named the drink in her honor. Other stories suggest that the drink originated in Tijuana as homage to Rita Hayworth whose real name was Margarita Cansino.

The Mexican Wine Trail

While there may be a wish to never leave Ensenada, the wine trail beckons, and the opportunity to savor fine Mexican wines is very seductive, so let us move along to meet a group of dynamic, creative, and dedicated wine makers who have moved to Mexico from London, LA, Brazil, and other international locales to place their passion into the Mexican soil and produce world-class wines. Although wines from Mexico have been available for centuries, in the 1990s, they became competitive in the world-market.

The Valle de Guadalupe is a center for 20 wineries. Do not look for well-paved roads and lots of signs directing visitors to the glories of the region. Wine lovers discover the wineries on a “need to know” basis - permitting visitors to enjoy a very special joy of discovery – and finding - the “WOW.” The most direct 70-mile route, (2-hour drive) from the US border is via paved Highway 1. The Wine Route (Ruta del vino) is also known as Tecate Highway 3. The landscape is primarily scrub brush and boulders surrounded by mountains - interesting but not the reason for the trek - we are here for the wines!


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