A Tale Of Two Californias, Pt. 1; Baja California, Mexico
We had a big year planned with a ton of traveling, the bulk of it for Anna’s work, but many of the trips over the coming months have been scrapped due to Singapore, and the world in general for that matter, being overly cautious of the Novel coronavirus. During March and April there have been ophthalmology conferences either cancelled or postponed in China, Taiwan, and Korea, and also a wedding we were supposed to attend in Thailand in April has been scrubbed due to many people being unable to make it because of travel restrictions. There was also some doubts about us being able to attend the 43rd Annual Macula Society Meeting in San Diego, California, but Anna had booked her leave early and it was a good thing, too; not only would she be making a presentation at the meeting, but she had also been inducted into the Macula Society late last year and there would be a welcome dinner at the meeting for all new members.
We had a few days to kill between our arrival in Los Angeles and the meeting so the initial plan was to hire a car and drive up to San Francisco for a few days. It was a cool idea, but I was a bit hesitant as well, because it is a journey that takes between six and eight hours from LA depending on traffic and I wasn’t all that keen on Anna driving that far while jet-lagged. She had also been to San Francisco several times before, however, San Diego is only 24 km (15 miles) from the border of Mexico, a place neither of us had been. We did a little homework and decided instead that we would spend three nights in Ensenada, a city in the Mexican state of Baja California, before attending the meeting in San Diego.
Friday, February 14, 2020
We had celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary at an awesome Kazakh restaurant the previous night and now Valentine’s Day was going to be spent on a hellish 15-hour flight from Singapore to Los Angeles, California. The flight didn’t suck because of the time, length, or our seats, it was an 8:00pm flight and we were in Business Class. What made it so bad was that there was a woman in the seat next to me who had an extremely young child with her that she insisted on taunting and playing with for almost the entire duration of the flight. When this baby wasn’t screaming and laughing with its mother, it was crying loudly, particularly as it got more and more tired, sounds that even my noise-canceling headphones couldn’t block out. Add to this how hot it was on the plane and it wasn’t a particularly pleasant flight. After several hours of the woman shrugging off the death-stares I was giving her and her child, a flight attendant could see how pissed off Anna and myself were getting so she moved us to a vacant set of seats at the back of the section. The noise was reduced a little and did eventually cease for a bit when the baby collapsed from sheer exhaustion, but it was still difficult to get comfortable because of the heat, resulting in me getting only about three hours of really restless sleep.
Because of the time difference, we arrived, were off the plane again, through immigration at LAX reasonably hassle-free, and at the Renaissance Los Angeles Airport Hotel at around 8:00pm the same day, the exact time we had departed. Once up in our room we showered, got changed, and then went down to have some dinner before hitting up the hotel bar in an effort to try and stay awake longer and fend off the jet-lag. After we had settled into the bar we got talking to a guy from South Carolina who was also called Tim. Tim was celebrating his birthday alone while he was away for work and was also stressed about planning his upcoming wedding. On the other side of us was another woman from around the same part of the country so she joined in the conversation, explaining the finer points of low country boil to us among other topics. After they left, Anna and I played some pool before heading back up to the room to get some sleep. We had a big day ahead of us.
Saturday, February 15, 2020
Our alarm went off at 10:00am, but things weren’t normal when we woke up. I was butt-naked in bed, my pyjama-shorts in a soaking wet pile on the floor, and despite not having drunk all that much at the bar, neither of us had a particularly clear memory of the latter parts of the previous night, particularly after Tim had left. I remember buying him a glass of whiskey for his birthday, but it gets quite foggy after that. In fact, the only reason I remember playing pool is because Anna told me she could kind of recall playing, triggering a brief recollection of the two of us laughing loudly as we struggled to even hit the balls. I know I hadn’t had a seizure in my sleep, Anna generally has a decent memory, and we both felt completely fine so it was all very strange. Had somebody put something in our drinks? Nothing of ours was missing, Anna checked with the credit card company and she had paid the bill at the end of the night, but we weren’t carrying any cash so perhaps if someone had slipped us a roofie, they didn’t bother taking anything when they realised we didn’t have any money and nothing sexual had happened to us. Neither of us could recall getting back to the room, but the bathroom floor was extremely wet so we had definitely showered before going to bed, the one thing Anna insists on, regardless of the situation. If I had got up in the middle of the night and sat on the toilet, that could explain the wet pyjamas.
We could’ve spent the whole morning trying to piece together Friday night and figure out what had happened between bouts of dumbfounded laughter, but we had to be downstairs at 11:00am, because we had a driver picking us up to drive us to San Diego. We ended up chatting with our Mexican-American driver about things to do and see in Mexico, what to expect at the border, that kind of thing, as well as reconstruct the events of the night before, but after about an hour both Anna and I were sound asleep.
The drive to the Mexican border is supposed to take a bit over two hours from Los Angeles, but apparently we were delayed by almost an hour due to a car crash in the horrendous LA traffic, but we didn’t mind, it just meant extra sleep for us. We weren’t going to drive across the border, because that is supposed to take an extremely long time and the searches can be a bit of trouble so we were going to get dropped off and walk across the border to Tijuana with our luggage, as that is supposed to be a quite fast option. One of the first things I noticed when we arrived was that there was a Taco Bell on the U.S. side. Who the hell in their right mind would go to Taco Bell for notoriously diarrhoea-inducing Mexican-inspired American food, when you could just grab your passport and take a short walk for some legit tacos? The process of getting across to buy those tacos is really simple too and that’s not just because a portion of Donald Trump’s impenetrable wall blew over in the wind recently. We put our bags through an x-ray, had our passports stamped, and we walked across into Mexico.
Obviously I couldn’t take any photos inside the immigration area, but here’s where we went through to Tijuana:
The next step was to take a 20-minute taxi ride to General Abelardo L. Rodriguez International Airport to pick up our rental car for the next few days and then we just had to drive for about an hour and a half along the beautiful Baja California coastline, avoiding some enormous potholes along the way, and we’d be in Ensenada:
Ensenada is a coastal city in Mexico, the third-largest in Baja California. Lying 125 kilometres (78 mi) south of San Diego on the Baja California Peninsula, it is locally referred to as La Cenicienta del Pacífico, “The Cinderella of the Pacific”.
One of the first settlements founded in the Californias, Ensenada has emerged as a cruise ship destination, aerospace center, and a jumping-off point for Valle de Guadalupe, a local wine region. It is said that the first Vitis vinifera made it to the region’s San Ignacio Mission in 1703, when Jesuit Padre Juan de Ugarte planted the first vineyards there.
Situated on the coastline of Bahía de Todos Santos—an inlet of the Pacific Ocean on the peninsula’s Gold Coast—the Port of Ensenada is an important commercial, fishing, and tourist port. The city is home to a navy base, army base, and Ensenada Airport, a military airfield.
Besides being mentioned in the Ween song Bananas and Blow, why did we choose Ensenada? Well, if you read the above information, it says that there are plenty of wineries which Anna would love, but when we were reading up about the place we discovered there were also a lot of microbreweries for me. Add to this the fact that the city is known for its local seafood, particularly fish tacos and ceviche, as well as having some decent cheesemakers, and it ticks a lot of boxes for us.
We eventually arrived in Ensenada, navigated our way through endless junctions that inexplicably have ‘Stop’ signs on all four corners which make it difficult to figure out who has right of way, but before too long we were at our home for the next three nights, the Posada el Ray Sol.
The scenery on the drive was beautiful, as was our hotel, so we were definitely off to a great start:
Because we had slept on the drive from Los Angeles to San Diego, we were feeling refreshed so it was time to hit the town. The sun sets at about 5:30pm here so it was already dark when we arrived and it wasn’t particularly warm during our entire visit, usually no more than 20°C (68°F) during the day and below 10°C (50°F) at night.
It was time for dinner and Anna was on top of it, finding an enormous restaurant, Mariscos Bahia de Ensenada, where just the seafood dishes took up five pages of the menu! We were hungry and we wanted our first proper meal in Mexico to be an epic one, but definitely over-ordered because everything looked so good. Among the dishes we had were seafood tortillas, a mixed seafood soup, the daily special ceviche, ranch style sea snails, and some breaded oysters. It was fantastic, but we struggled to finish it all and if we continued to eat like this every night, we would both undo several years of weight loss.
Once done we took our bloated selves back onto the street to find a place to settle in for the night. One thing we noticed immediately as we strolled around was that there was a hell of a lot of pharmacies around, some streets consisting of almost 50% pharmacies and it turns out that the whole Baja California region is a hotspot for medical tourism due to the high cost of medication and procedures in the US. Just take a look at what some health insurers from Utah are doing:
A health insurer in Utah is seeking to reduce prescription drug costs by flying state employees to Mexico, where they can collect medications at a fraction of the US cost.
The year-old programme involves about 10 state employees. The cost savings are so large that the insurance program can pay for each patient’s flight, give them a $500-per-trip bonus and still save tens of thousands of dollars.
One participant, Ann Lovell, a 62-year-old teacher, said she had saved as much as $2,400 by travelling from Salt Lake City to San Diego and then crossing the border, in order to refill a prescription for arthritis medication.
Now it all makes sense. Anyway, we made our way down Ave. Adolfo Lopez Mateos, the main entertainment street in Ensenada, stopping off for a few beers at a small bar, but to fend off the jet-lag we wanted something more happening, which led us to El Pato, where we’d spend the rest of the night, Anna drinking mojitos and me on the local beers. There was a really good band playing, sports were showing on huge TVs around the room, and we got to entertain ourselves by watching two women pushing 70 years old just dancing and downing tequila shots. Seriously, it’s completely normal for women my mother’s age to go out on the town and buy a bottle of tequila here!
Once we were done for the night we started to walk home, but accidentally went the wrong way and found ourselves in a seedier part of town. This was pretty evident when as we were walking past a hotel advertising rooms for 240 pesos (US$12.40) per night we saw police handcuffing a man against a wall while a scantily clad woman who all signs pointed toward being a prostitute went and planted herself on the street corner on this chilly night. Anna was a bit worried and decided to call an Uber, but I also needed to pee quite badly so I walked past the hooker and went around the corner to relieve myself in a nearby bush and when I returned our car was there. It turns out that we really weren’t that far from our hotel, the Uber only took about two minutes and cost us the equivalent of US$0.50. It would’ve been cooler if we had known about the local app, GrinGo. Yes, that is it’s real name
Looking back at the scenes on the street, dinner, and our first night out in Mexico:
Sunday, February 16, 2020
There were plenty of cool cafes near where we were staying so we grabbed a latte each and once we had finished those we were going to get some tostadas for lunch at La Guerrerense. Pretty much every food guide in the area tells you that this is the first place you should go; Forbes magazine hinted that La Guerrerense might have the best food in Ensenada and Anthony Bourdain described it after visiting the stall for the Baja episode of No Reservations like this:
“La Guerrerense, a humble street cart, is as simple as it gets; the most mind-blowing fresh, sophisticated, and colourful tostadas imaginable. Absolutely phenomenal.”
That’s good enough for me, but initially I couldn’t understand why we were going to a place that was supposed to be so good for lunch, not dinner. Anna is terrible at describing things so she neglected to mention that La Guerrerense is just a small family-owned food stall on a quiet street where it has stood since 1960 that opens at 10:00am and closes at 5:00pm or whenever they run out of seafood, whichever happens first.
When we arrived there was a decent sized crowd around the stall, some waiting to order and others waiting for their food. Anna loves sea urchin and that is their most famous tostada so naturally we got one of those, as well as a mixed ceviche with avocado and the “Campechana,” which consisted of tuna ceviche with prawns, octopus, sea snail, scallops, mussels, and clams. We waited for our tostadas to arrive and there is no way to explain how good these things were! We thought we had eaten incredibly well the previous night, but that had nothing on La Guerrerense. They may look simple, but these things are incredible and some people consider them expensive, but I’m more than happy to pay 110 pesos (around US$5.70) each for these:
We finished our tostadas and the stall operates on an honesty system so we paid and then decided to explore some new parts of the city. Anna had read about a large flea market that was away from the tourist district of Ensenada, but one piece of advice we had received from our driver that took us to San Diego was not to venture too far away from the main tourist areas. The market was going to be a reasonably long walk, but it was a nice day and we figured if things got a bit sketchy, we’d just head back to the main area.
Our journey inland began by crossing a bridge that obviously separated the commercial and more upper-class areas of the city from the grittier part where most of the population can afford to live. First, we passed what appeared to be an old convent that was now a cheap hotel, then we ventured into Fausto Polanco Hacienda, what was once a hotel established in 1948, now a boutique furniture store with some interesting art displayed around the place, the original facade of the building still pretty much intact and each individual hotel room set up as its own display. We weren’t supposed to be taking photos, but I managed to snap a couple of sneaky ones to show how beautiful the building was inside.
Soon we were back on the street, still trekking toward the flea market. We walked past a motorcycle gang gathered together on the sidewalk, surrounded by their Harley Davidson’s and not long after we had past, one of them got on his bike and flew by the only two tourists around as loudly as possible for his own amusement, almost causing Anna to shit her pants. We soon approached a church that was having a jumble sale out the front which consisted predominantly of dirty old track pants and sweaters, as well as some headless dolls. We were still a 20-minute walk from the flea market we wanted to see, but based on the church sale we probably wouldn’t find much and what was there would more than likely have actual fleas so we decided to head back into town, passing a place that was rebuilding classic cars and guarded by a dog that looked like it wanted to kill you:
We returned to the Ventana al Mar (“Window to the Sea”), the boardwalk area we had walked around when we first arrived, this time to see it and the gigantic Mexican flag there during the day. We wandered around, looking at all of the stalls that were set up, mainly selling jewellery, food, and tourist souvenirs while live mariachi bands played. As we walked along the water we saw seals playing in the bay and before long we were at Mercado Negro, a fish market with rows of small stalls and restaurants selling dishes made from fresh goods purchased at the market. It was too early for dinner so we went back to the main streets, snapping a photo of me with a statue of Viagraman in the process. One convenient thing when walking around here is that pedestrians have the right of way when crossing the road, all the cars just stop and wave you across, no matter when or where you decide you want to be on the other side of the street.
As I mentioned earlier, one of Ensenada’s most famous dishes are fish tacos so when we began to get a bit peckish we went back to Mercado Negro to get some. The stall that was the busiest had just stopped serving so we went to the one next door and even if it was the second option, it was still an excellent choice. We got some tacos and a seafood stew, then went back into town to find a place to hang out for the night. As we were looking at different bars it occurred to me that the NBA All-Star game was being played so we found a small bar with some more great local beers that I hadn’t tried. We arrived at half-time and this year the game had been reformatted in honour of Kobe Bryant and the new changes made it really competitive compared to the snore-fest that it has been in recent memory, but there was one problem for us; the bar only had a few people in it, two smoking and watching from outside and a really fat guy at the end of the bar who silently let off these incredibly bar-filling farts periodically. It was like he was cropdusting, these things were an assault on the senses and they were beginning to make Anna feel sick. At first she would discretely put her scarf over her nose, but before long it got to the point that she wanted to send a message in the hope that he’d stop, so she started commenting loudly and coughing, but to no avail. When the game was over we knew we had to find a new place to go and it was Sunday night so we thought we’d go to a place that we had wanted to try the previous night, but had been far too busy: Hussong’s, the oldest bar in Ensenada, established in 1892, and the alleged birthplace of the margarita. When we first entered it was still extremely crowded with a band playing inside, but the guy on the door said there was another bar out the back in a courtyard with heat-lamps that only had a few people in it so that’s where we went. Naturally, Anna wanted a margarita and I wanted a beer so I went over to the bar, meanwhile a local guy was working up the courage to try to chat to her, eventually approaching Anna as I returned with our drinks. He turned around and only came up to my chest and I guess he assumed that the gringo had just cut his lunch, but was too big to bother with so he spent a large portion of the night staring at me and grinding the complimentary peanuts into the ground with his feet before we eventually were able to pull up a seat inside. A hilarious ending to a great day:
Monday, February 17, 2020
The region in which we were staying is famous for its wineries so Anna wanted to make the most of our last full day in town by doing a winery tour that afternoon. We decided to take advantage of the free hotel breakfast so we ordered some dishes, one of which resembled nachos floating in an oily sauce, however, I can’t remember what they were called. I recall mentioning to Anna that they were really unhealthy and she replied, “What, these chinchilla things?” She wasn’t parodying Super Troopers and I might not have know what they were either, but I knew for a fact that we weren’t feasting on small, South American rodents.
After our traditional, greasy breakfast we were off on a tour of the Guadalupe Valley wine region:
The Valle de Guadalupe (Guadalupe Valley) is an area of Ensenada Municipality, Baja California, Mexico that is an increasingly popular tourist destination for wine and Baja Med cuisine. It is located 20 kilometres (12 mi) north of the City of Ensenada and 113 kilometres (70 mi) southeast of the border crossing from San Diego to Tijuana. It includes communities such as Ejido El Porvenir, Francisco Zarco and San Antonio De las Minas, and had 2,664 inhabitants (2010 census).
Since the 1990s the association of winemakers of Baja California holds the Grape Harvest Fiestas in the Valley of Guadalupe and the town of Ensenada every year in August. The celebration includes wine tasting sessions, concerts and soirées, and samplings of regional cuisine and Mexican wines.
Wine tasting is available year-round, and several of the wineries have built up-market restaurant/tasting establishments aimed specifically at tourists from the United States. A winery tour is usually included on cruise ships that stop at Ensenada.
There are over 100 wineries in the Valle de Guadalupe.
Our private tour was through a company called Ensenada Sky Tours, with a private guide picking us up at 11:00am. Our private tour would include:
- Exclusive private tour just for your group of up to 4 people (This is truly the best way to experience the Best of Baja!)
- An extraordinary & personalized all-day & worry-free experience in the largest wine country in Mexico
- Wine Museum visit
- Well-equipped vehicle with a personal driver
- History of the beginnings of wine making in the region, the process, and a tasting of unique wines & food at an an unforgettable scenery!
- Bilingual tour guide & wine connoisseur
- Lunch stop at one of the gourmet cuisine choices
- Water & light snacks for the road
- Photo stops
Our guide, Alejandro, was really cool and the first stop was a place that made cheese and cured their own salami. The cheese was unbelievably good, but obviously it would be difficult to bring any back to Singapore without it liquifying so we settled for some salami and then it was time to hit the road again. Over the course of the afternoon we would tour four different wineries and get to sample from each, as well as having a bite to eat, particularly oysters and more ceviche. The countryside was stunning, the tours of the wineries and wine-related museums were interesting enough, but just like when we were in the Alsace region of France recently, there was more information than I could possibly take in, but that’s probably also because I’m not really into wine. I did love the food and the cheese though, and Anna definitely embraced the wine, because she bought four bottles to bring back to Singapore and was also quite hammered by the time we returned to the hotel at 5:00pm so she required a two-hour powernap before dinner.
When she awoke we went back into town to celebrate a great couple of days in Mexico. Being a Monday night there wasn’t a whole lot of options, but we ended up at Papas&Beer, a place that is a bit of an institution. On this particular night they had karaoke, but it was all a little pedestrian, one person even stooping to singing Tequila, a song that only has one word in the lyrics! I love doing karaoke after a few drinks, but it was still early in the night, however, Anna kept nagging me to get up and do my thing. Everyone else was really only singing songs in Spanish so I made a deal that I would only sing Paloma Blanca by Georgie Dann, mainly due to how terrible it is. The video is even worse, I’ve probably used it in another post before, but I just love it. How did he actually get that pantsuit on?:
Unfortunately they didn’t have my song so I didn’t get up and make a fool of myself singing anything else while dead sober. Instead, we just kicked back and enjoyed our last night in town, comfortable in the knowledge that coming to Ensenada was a good choice.
Looking back on a boozy Monday:
Oh, and if you’re wondering how that karaoke rendition of Tequila went, here it is:
Tuesday, February 18, 2020
Today was the day that we had to drive back to Tijuana and cross the border back into the US, but we still had business to take care of on the way back. One of our Mexican friends in Singapore, Enrique Caballero, suggested that we stop off in Puerto Neuvo, a small town with a population of 135 people in the Rosarito Beach municipality. The reason for this was that the best way to cap off a weekend eating nothing but fresh seafood would be to pay a visit to a village famously referred to as the “Lobster Village” of Baja California. The village mainly only consists of restaurants, all of which serve lobster, so we pulled up a seat in a place called Sandra’s for lunch. Our last meal in Mexico consisted of a final serve of fish tacos, seafood soup, and two lobsters, the best possible way to finish this leg of our North American adventure.
We were back in the car after lunch and our time in Mexico had gone a little too smoothly, but that wasn’t going to be the case for long. We had paid for lunch by credit card, but when we were leaving Ensenada we still had 100 pesos (US$5.13) left and we hadn’t really bought any souvenirs so Anna got a small sombrero for Kermit, our dog back in Singapore. In what could’ve resulted in yet another instalment in the seemingly never-ending ‘T’ Factor series, we completely forgot that there would be several toll booths along the freeway and had blown our remaining local currency on a novelty hat for our dog! I searched in between the seat cushions as Anna drove, but fortunately when we arrived at the booths they accepted US currency, of which we had enough.
When we arrived in Tijuana and dropped off our rental car it was time to cross the border again on foot, as the waiting times when trying to drive back into the US can be insane! Unlike going the opposite direction, we had a tough time going back into the US for several reasons, all of which came down to the general incompetence and stupidity of the border security officer serving us. When we first arrived in LAX four days previously we had used the electronic immigration lanes and we still had valid ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) passes so everything we had done to enter the country was completely valid and legal. Anna went first and the woman working our immigration line was instantly suspicious, thinking that she was trying to enter with me illegally. She asked to see Anna’s ESTA pass so Anna showed her a .pdf file of it that she had saved on her phone. This wasn’t deemed sufficient and the woman replied sarcastically, “You need to print your ESTA out, but you would’ve known that.” Anna wanted to remind her that the letter ‘E’ in ESTA stands for ‘Electronic’, but instead said she hadn’t needed to in the past. This made the woman more suspicious of Anna’s intentions, claiming that it still needed to be printed out, a requirement we had never faced on any other occasion entering the US. She then kept asking why there was no passport stamp from when we had first entered the country so Anna told her we went through the electronic immigration queue. Still not good enough, the immigration woman said that she required a stamp, scrutinising every page of her passport individually to find it. Anna tried to humour her by asking back to me if I had a stamp, only to be met with, “Your stamp is not going to be in his passport!” Anna stayed calm and told her that she was aware of that, but just trying to save her some time by seeing if I had one, knowing full well that I wouldn’t. The woman mentioned that I don’t need one because I’m a citizen, assuming the blue passport in my hand was a US one. Anna pointed out that it was in fact Australian and was then taken to a waiting area to be questioned and processed. Now it was my time. I received the exact same questions as Anna about the ESTA and passport stamps and I gave the exact same replies at first, but there were a few other enquiries she had, the first being why I hadn’t spent a significant amount of time in Australia. I told her I was there in January, but I hadn’t lived in Australia in almost 13 years and showed her my Singaporean ID. She kept repeating that I needed to spend a significant amount of time in Australia before traveling to Mexico. She also got curious as to why there were so many stamps in my passport, asking me what I do for a living. I replied that I used to be a teacher, but now I work as a writer. She got even more annoyed and asked why I spend so much time traveling so I pointed to Anna and said, “My wife over there is an eye surgeon, she has to travel a lot for work so I go with her. In fact, she’s a guest here this time.” This confused her so I got sent over to wait in the dock next to Anna, us both chuckling and shaking our heads, but before too long, a different immigration staff member came over, smiled, and tore up some forms that the woman had handed him, apologising for the confusion as he did. We were now back in the US and were told several times by a number of people afterward that American immigration don’t tend to put their best and brightest staff on the US-Mexican border
Here’s our lunch in Puerto Nievo, some scenes along the way back, and approaching the border again from the other side:
Nirvana had a song called Mexican Seafood and I always thought it was an analogy for not feeling all that great, because when I was growing up I thought Mexicans really only ate beef and chicken, not seafood, and I had heard it wasn’t that clean there. I couldn’t have been more wrong, if for nothing else, go to Baja California in Mexico just for the amazing seafood! I know I would do it again in heartbeat, even if it is a little difficult to leave.
Stay tuned for the second part of this post where we spend time at a resort outside of San Diego attending dinners, having drinks, getting awards, and driving around in a rental car that perpetually smelled of weed before returning to LA and flying back to Singapore. Also, if you’re skeptical as to whether it was worth risking being stranded in Mexico in order to buy a canine sombrero, decide for yourself:
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