By Wendy Lemlin
For those of us in Southern California, a trip to northern Baja might entail heading to some coastal destination between Rosarito and Ensenada, usually to eat some tacos, drink some cold cervezas, maybe do some surfing or lounging on a beach, and then finishing off with a stop in Popotla to pick up some colorful pottery at the roadside “studios”. Or, maybe it’s a wine-tasting and gastronomic extravaganza to the now uber-popular Guadalupe Valley, where the numbers of upscale wineries, restaurants and flashy events have increased exponentially (along with prices!) in the last five years. Foodies and artists are discovering the culinary and cultural delights of Tijuana, and San Felipe is still a laid back-destination for sport fisherman, and gringo retirees. It’s all out there and readily accessible.
But, way, way off the beaten path, nestled in the Baja mountains several miles inland from
the coast near Puerto Nuevo, exists an amazing slice of Baja that few tourists even know exists. If you continue for several winding, bumpy, dusty miles on the dirt road that runs east uphill from Primo Tapia, past All the Pretty Horses of Baja Rescue, after about 30-40 minutes you will arrive at Hacienda El Capricho, the dream of Alberto Ortiz, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but in the midst of abundant natural beauty and tranquility. It may not be easy to find, but it is certainly easy to love. At this elevation, the
hills, even in the heat of mid-summer, are greener and lusher than you would ever expect, covered in native oaks, flowering buckwheat, grasses, and a variety of vegetation, watered by natural springs and underground streams.
The sound of bird calls fill the air—the acorn woodpeckers that run through their impressive vocal repertoire in the oaks, the cooing of doves, the chatter of hooded orioles, the chirping of sparrows and the melodies of robins. Sometimes you’ll hear the mooing of cattle at a nearby ranch, or the whinny of a horse. At night there’s the occasional yip of a coyote. There are noises here in the Baja outback, but they are the noises of nature, which only accentuate the tranquility, rather than disturb it.
Ortiz, a high school Spanish teacher in Chula Vista for the past 17 years, grew up in Tijuana, but moved to San Diego as a teenager and attended San Diego State University. “I feel so fortunate to be a part of two cultures”, he observes. “I have the best of both worlds”. He had been visiting the land, part of the sprawling Rancho El Gato, which has belonged for generations to a close family friend, since he was a child, and even at that young age, he says “I fell in love with it. It was the allure of nature, the birds, the animals, the peacefulness. It was as if there was a mystical force that called me to be a part of it. ”
In 1998, he bought his 4 hectares (almost 10 acres) from the family friend, and began building his dream. “It’s been a constant construction project, ever since,” Alberto laughs. “There is always something more I can add, something I can improve.”
The design of the gracious hacienda, constructed of the beautiful, locally produced bricks that incorporate bands of color that range from cream to yellow to terracotta to gray to black, was inspired by the romantic life in the pueblos of southern Mexico depicted in the movies Ortiz became enamored with as a child, and by the architecture he admired on trips he took as a teenager to San Miguel D’Allende, Michoucan, and Jalisco.
From the start, Alberto Ortiz visualized a tranquil guest house on the property. The people he spoke with about it thought the idea crazy, considering how far from the main road and how thickly overgrown the land was when he first bought it. He was determined, however, and when someone remarked, “this is your capricho”, i.e. a quirky whim, he knew he had found the name for what he hopes will one day be his retirement home.
Currently, the hacienda has four spacious, rustically elegant guest suites with private bath. Two more suites are due to be completed soon. Each room is unique, and may boast
such features as a romantic hanging bed, tree shaded creekside terrace, tiled fireplace, or even a huge, in-room jaccuzzi. Ortiz’s goal is to have 10 rooms, “but no more than that. I want it to be small enough that I can provide personalized service and enjoy my guests enjoying my home.” Hacienda El Capricho is truly “off the grid”, with electricity provided by solar panels and back-up generator and water from a well. (Drinking water is brought in jugs). There is no phone service or wifi, although there is one spot on a nearby hill where it is possible to pick up some cell phone
service from far off towers if you stand on a certain rock, just so.
There is a well appointed kitchen, where meals are cooked for the guests and served at tables on one of several outdoor patios, or more casually at the inside bar. A number of weddings and events have been held in the large courtyard, where flowering vines wrap themselves around posts and trellises, attracting hummingbirds and butterflies. For instance, in September of 2014, Hacienda El Capricho hosted an
opera and wine dinner, attended by 150 people who traveled the precarious road in the dark of night (some took advantage of transportation offered in vans by the hacienda, but many drove themselves) to dine, drink Baja wines and enjoy the performance of opera singers from Tijuana, a mariachi band, and dancing under the stars.
“One of my goals for this place,” Ortiz notes, “is for it to become a place known for supporting the arts. I plan to present performances of opera, classical music, ballet folklorica, and host special themed weekends devoted to activities like painting workshops, learning about nature through hikes and knowledge sharing, or exploring relaxation and wellness techniques.”
It was on one of these special weekends that I was introduced to Hacienda El Capricho,
when I was invited to attend a “Day of Relaxation” with a half dozen other guests. We enjoyed Reiki healing sessions to “align our chakras”, facials, massages, and as the sun set behind the mountains and a gazillion stars lit up the sky, finished the day with a guided temazcal (traditional sweat lodge) experience, led by Lorenzo Marin Cruz, a well-known spiritual healer from Tijuana. The absolute tranquility of the surroundings added immeasurably to the total relaxation from the treatments, and I found myself never wanting to leave, even if it meant giving up my phone and wifi forever.
If You Go: Rooms start at $100 per night and accommodate 2 people in one bed. There is one 2-room suite that can accommodate 4 people.