Valle de Guadalupe in North Central Baja is known for three things: the burgeoning wine scene, the incredibly good food, and the spectacularly bad roads. I recently decided to brave the latter in order to enjoy both of the former.
I’d been reading quite a bit about the wine country of Baja California, Mexico. On a whim I fired off an email to Discover Baja I heard back almost immediately. They’re very anxious to let people know about the charms of Baja and I was thrilled with their enthusiasm for my project. With very little pressing they put together an itinerary for my trip that seemed exciting, but perhaps a bit ambitious. After all, this is Mexico and I expect a little mañana from my excursion. Still, the help they provided convinced me it was time to make the 4 hour road trip south of the border to check out Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s wine country– at my own pace.
Once committed, I began looking at the map. I decided that the most direct route from Los Angeles doesn’t cross the border at Tijuana. Instead, I chose to travel from inland San Diego county through Tecate, along Mexican Highway 3. It’s known as the Ruta del Vino and it’s the main road in Valle de Guadalupe. It’s a new modern highway and a straight shot through the wine country. The views along the way were captivating. It turned out to be an exhilarating drive– arching along the graceful curves, dipping and rising just above and below the fog. The famous fog that makes Baja’s ferociously arid climate work so well for growing grapes. While we were enjoying the drive I wondered just where these supposedly bad roads were. For that matter where were the tourists? We had the wide smooth pavement all to ourselves.
As with all good things, we soon discovered that not every thoroughfare in Valle de Guadalupe is as easy to navigate as Highway 3. In planning our trip I learned that addresses are given in kilometer-markers. Meaning a certain restaurant or winery (or hotel) is located at the first road south (or north) of kilometer marker 78 (or some such). If you’re lucky enough to find that marker, or see the rustic bit of signage tacked up on a palm tree or a bale of hay, then you earn the right to depart the asphalt and bump down a barren road– leaving a cloud of dust behind as you as you make your way to someplace magical.
The first bumpy road we found ourselves on lead to breakfast. We left Los Angeles at 4am. I know what Mexican border crossings can be like. I wanted to be safely in Mexico long before rush hour. I needn’t have worried, the crossing at Tecate was little more than a speed bump and a wave towards a handsome Mexican soldier. We were in the Valle de Guadalupe a bit before 8 am.
As I said, I’d been researching this trip. So I have to thank Evan Kleiman and her KCRW Good Food cohorts. Their advice led us to breakfast at Doña Esthela. The restaurant is considerably south of the main section of town. As we drove I began to fear we’d never find it. But eventually we came upon the turn. This would be the first of the “spectacularly bad” roads we came to love and associate with the charming way of life in Valle de Guadalupe.
The first thing you should know is that eating at Doña Esthela is like eating at Doña Esthela’s house. Because it is her house. There are vegetable gardens sprinkled here and there– and there are chickens everywhere. There’s also a simple addition where guests dine. All the rest is Doña Esthela and her house. She’s built an earthen beehive oven (or two) to make cooking for crowds easier, but you never lose sight of the fact that you’re eating at Doña Esthela’s house. The menu is quite diverse. Doña Esthela herself tried to steer us to BBQ, but I’m just tourista enough to be craving huevos rancheros. My partner Ken chose the “bricklayer’s” breakfast– a chile, egg, and meat combo. We both drank the milky sweet coffee known as café de olla. All of this was served with handmade corn and flour tortillas– that just kept coming.
By 9:00 AM we were stuffed. However it was too early to check in to our hotel Encuentro Guadalupe, so we decided to check out Ensenada. It’s just 20 minutes south and a destination that ranked high on my to-do list. That’s because I’d seen Anthony Bourdain go crazy for the tostadas from Mariscos “La Guerrerense”. So, stuffed or not, we bumped back over the dusty trail to Highway 3 and headed south. The smell of the ocean and the remnants of the fog led the way.
Once arrived at the Guerrerense cart we ordered a couple of tostadas. I have to warn you though, don’t expect a big bowl of a toasted tortilla filled with re-fried beans and all the rest of those catch-all ingredients you may be used to. Ensenada is all about the sea. Instead, you’ll find an unusual (if not intimidating) selection of underwater creatures (finned and finless) adorning these tostadas. We started with an uni and a pulpo (sea urchin and octopus) and soon moved on to sea snail and scallop. The tostadas come to you plain, but you can ask them to adorn them “con todo” which includes avocado and a spicy red salsa and/or you can choose from a wide array of mixed condiments. The most intriguing of which is a salsa made with dried chiles and peanuts. Yes. Peanuts.
On our way back to the Valle de Guadalupe we stopped at a taco stand along Highway 3. I couldn’t pass it by without having one of the traditional Baja-style fried dogfish tacos. They’re spicier than I’m used to here in Los Angles thanks the wonderful handmade salsa. No trip to Baja is complete without one of these tacos. I don’t care how full you are– seek one out.
We finally arrive at our hotel. A full 2 hours before “official” check in. But it’s mid-week and it doesn’t matter. Encuentro Guadalupe is a service first kind of place.
Staying at Encuentro is an experience you’ll hear referred to as “camping”. This is a bit of a laugh however– the place exudes luxury. There’s a good chance you’ve heard about this hotel. It’s gotten a lot of press. Design awards too. Maybe you’ve seen photos of the pitched-roofed rooms slung amid the boulders of the 200+ acre property. It’s the kind of design-conscious, eco-centric operation that defines the super luxury of a certain kind of au currant eco-tourism.
Each of the 20 pods (as they are known) can only be reached by dusty pathway (no cars allowed). The hills are steep and the climb is a workout on its own. Sure there’s a staff vehicle if you really need a lift. We however got into the spirit of the place and walked everywhere. It’s worth the effort too. Your destination rewards you with the hands down best views of the valley. The pods, though small, are pure luxury. Private beyond belief, each one sits upon the rocky terrain in a way that makes you honestly feel one with the mountain. There’s a pool and a restaurant. You can tour the wine making facilities, and there are trails to explore all over the property.
As beautiful as Valle de Guadalupe is, it’s first and foremost a working wine region. Of course we went wine tasting. The valley’s wide variety of wines don’t fit into neat categories. Some of the best are red blends that find a way to take advantage of the somewhat saline water table in Valle de Guadalupe. Baja wines can be earthy and complex, with a brininess that gives them an almost smoky quality. I’ll have more about the wine as well as the farm-to-table lifestyle embraced by many of the restaurants we enjoyed in the days ahead on my blog Sippity Sup.
As we were leaving the valley we stopped in at La Escuelita, a wine incubator and school owned by local wine legend Hugo D’Acosta. We sat at the bar of his architecturally significant café (the whole place is made from re-purposed materials like mattress springs, wine bottles and the ribs from old barrels) and watched him make excellent coffee for locals and tourists alike. But we were here for the wine cocktail we’d heard about. D’Acosta takes great advantage of the fruity/smoky dichotomy of very young (vino joven) Mexican Petite Sirah and serves it in a simple and refreshing wine and soda cocktail– made even more complex with the addition of cloves.
More on my trip to Valle de Guadalupe: GREG