by Wendy Lemlin
As I passed back into the U.S. from Tecate , Baja California, the Customs and Immigration officer asked why I had been in Mexico. When I answered that I was checking out the interesting places around the town, he looked at me incredulously and asked, “Really? What is there to do in Tecate?”
As Mexican border towns go, Tecate may be Baja’s best kept secret.
What many don’t know is that this quiet town, just 45 scenic minutes from downtown San Diego, is home to a fabulous upscale restaurant and hotel, a world-famous fitness spa and cooking school, a serenely rustic country retreat, and a fascinating Kumiai Museum and Cultural Center— as well as some pretty impressive mountain scenery.
Those who deride Mexican border towns as noisy, dangerous, slum-scarred, or any of the other negative perceptions falsely sensationalized by the media in recent years, will be as pleasantly surprised by what they won’t find in Tecate, as by what they will. No “tourist ghetto” with wild dance clubs spewing loud music onto the streets. No persistent touts cajoling you into shops full of tacky kitsch, luring you into farmacias pushing fake Viagra, or funneling you into restaurants with cheap, watered-down margaritas. It is NOT party-central. Tecate IS, however, a tidy, quiet, safe town of comfortable, modest homes and families who live and work there– a slice of “real” Mexico with warm and welcoming residents. In fact, in 2012, it was named a “Pueblo Magico” (Magical Town) by Mexico’s Secretary of Tourism, one of only 3 towns in Baja to be given this designation (Loreto and Todos Santos in Baja Sur being the other 2) and the 83rd in all of Mexico.
On a recent afternoon at the genteely grand Asao Restaurante, sun light glinted on the goblets of excellent vintages from Baja wineries that have been putting the nearby Guadalupe Valley on wine enthusiasts’ maps. Adobe Guadalupe, Liceaga, Baron Balch’e, Torres Alegre, Monte Xanic, Emeve and others were well represented on the wine list. The late lunch was an indulgence of Contemporary Mexican cuisine, combining local ingredients and classic Mexican flavors with international influences and avant garde techniques. On my plate, slices of house-cured tuna carpaccio, festively garnished with a confetti mix of diced jicama, pineapple and red onion, were topped with an avocado sorbet that delighted my mouth with its smooth iciness. Other plates on the elegant table held comparable culinary treasures: succulent fruit and nut-crusted jumbo shrimp with hibiscus flower molé, rich duck confit in sweet-sour tamarind sauce, and juicy-rare chunks of chile crusted rib-eye paired with a silky smooth coffee cream sauce. The superb food and the excellence of service rivaled that of any of Southern California’s four-star eateries—- but at a three star price.
Located at the east end of Tecate, Asao is part of the beautifully designed Santuario Diegueno complex, which includes a conference and events center, a smaller bistro, and a new luxury boutique hotel, whose generously sized guestrooms combine a Zen-like peacefulness with impeccable upscale amenities. Sitting high on a hill, commanding a scenic view south and with its back to the road leading to the north-bound border crossing, Santuario Diegoueno epitomizes the hopes of this picturesque area to become a tranquil getaway destination for wine, food, and nature lovers.
With its mountain backdrop, Tecate is a great town for strolling around and walking off the calories consumed at Asao. Visitors can while away some time in the market stalls in Parque Hidalgo, the center of town life, or make their way over to the Tecate Community Museum, an interactive testament to the lives of indigenous Kumiai people for thousands of years before the coming of Europeans and other non-natives
Perhaps the most well-known destination in Tecate is Rancho La Puerta, the award winning luxury health resort and spa founded in 1940 by Deborah Szekely and her late husband Edmund.
With its unparalleled fitness program, spa amenities, lush gardens, organic farm, and La Cocina Que Canta —the spa’s cooking school, where some of the most famous chefs in the US and Mexico teach classes on healthy gourmet cuisine — “The Ranch” has become the gold standard of exclusive destination spas. Most guests opt for the one-week program, but for San Diegoarea locals, the monthly “Saturdays at the Ranch” program is an ideal introduction to this slice of heaven on earth. The full-day experience includes round-trip transportation from San Diego, fitness classes, free time for exploring or relaxing by several pools, hiking, massage, gourmet lunch, and a hands-on culinary experience at La Cocina Que Canta, where you harvest produce from the organic gardens, enjoy a cooking demo, and—best of all—get to savor the results of the class.
About 15 minutes east of Tecate, on the free road to Mexicali, is a gated dirt road that winds past an organic apricot orchard whose flowers flutter like white puffs of cotton candy in the spring air. This is the entrance to Rancho Los Chabacanos (apricots), a hacienda-style center of peaceful respite nestled into a hill-ringed valley. Take a yoga class, walk the stone labyrinth, cleanse your soul in the sweat lodge, unwind with a massage or herbal mud bath. Make it a weekend getaway or stay for a six day anti-stress program. Accommodations are in colorful casitas full of rustic charm, and healthy meals can be included in your stay.
Continue east about another 20 minutes on the Rte 2 Toll Road (towards Mexicali), and the scenery of the boulder strewn mountains and valleys of La Rumerosa will blow you away. Be sure to stop at El Vallecito Archaeological Site, and walk among the prehistoric rock paintings that have been meticulously conserved on the caves and rock walls of the area.
When it is time to return to the U.S., forget hours-long waits at the border á la Tijuana or Otay. On weekdays the wait to drive back across is usually only about 15-30 minutes, and mere minutes to walk through. On busy weekends the wait will be much longer (sometimes up to 2 hours) as there are only two gates, but still way shorter than at other ports of entry.
That is, until the word gets out, so please, let’s just keep Tecate our little secret!
If You Go
Getting to Tecate from San Diego is half the fun, as you head out scenic highway CA 94, past 4000 foot high mountains and rugged canyons. (I don’t recommend driving this winding, dark road at night, however). About 18 miles past Jamul take CA 188 to Tecate. Once you reach the border crossing, either drive through, or park your car on the U.S. side and walk. The Border is closed from 11pm-5am. Asao, Rancho La Puerta and Rancho Los Chabacanos all provide transportation from the border with advance reservations. (Rancho La Puerta will also transport you to and from San Diego on Saturdays.) Note: You need a passport or SENTRI card to return to the U.S.!
Asao Restaurante & Hotel214 Esteban Cantu, Tecate, Baja California Ph: 011 52 (665) 654 4777 firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.santuariodiegueno.com/english/ Lunch and Dinner hours vary with seasons, check website. Entrees: approximately $14-$28 Hotel: $130-$230 per night Rancho La Puerta Ph: 800- 443-7565 email@example.com rancholapuerta.com $3000 pp and up per week. “Saturday at the Ranch” $300 Rancho Los Chabacanos Carretera Mexicali – Tecate Km. 118, Tecate Ph: 619-565-1304 (MX 011 52-665 655 16 24 firstname.lastname@example.org
rancholoschabacanos.com/en/home.php $87-$287 per night for casitas for 2-8 persons
TecateCommunityMuseum Calle Tlaloc no.400, Colonia Cuauhtemoc, Tecate
Ph: (Mexico—Spanish only)011 52665 521 39 70 email@example.com
carem.org Open Wed.-Sun 9 am-5 pm Students $1, Adults $2
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