Unexpected Baja, for the Curious Kind...
Intrepid wanderers have flocked to Baja for centuries and who can blame them? Dirt roads that meander off to stellar oceanside fish shacks; seaside palapas for less than $10; simple folks found living off-grid existences with multi-million dollar views; and unspoiled Steinbeckian adventures around most corners are just a couple of the reasons why. I discover something miraculous each and very trip I take – no matter if it’s just a north, south or mid-peninsula jaunt - and I always get a fresh blast of Baja energy from the folks (and restaurants) I manage to happen across in my adventures.
The common thread that weaves me up and down Highway 1 usually has to do with my tummy but sometimes it can be a unique film shoot, a wondrous whale watching excursion, or simply, nothing more than a fierce margarita jones. If you get in your wheels and head south right now, here are some things you might happen across. And, if you trail blaze far enough, you will probably trump these! Trust me, its all out there if you roam far enough.
1. Food by Fire
Set deep in the country, Finca Altozano is worth the somewhat bumpy trek it takes to get there – even if it’s just for a convivial dinnerand then a scram back home to the USA. It’s simply put one of the best meals you will ever have in your life. Part wine tasting room, part outdoor dining room, it’s all a piece of something called char-grilled perfection. They’ve expanded since last season – and all for the better. Menus are now offered in English, they’ve created a long wine bottle flanked path to the pigpen and organic garden, and there is now a tiny indoor bar. It’s just a brilliant take on fine dining in a rural environment – vibrant flavors mixed with earthy wines with a hit of rock and roll on the stereo. The open kitchen has a fire roaring at all times, and the scent of juicy steak and crisped octopus wafting through the sleepy valley is enough to drive one mad. Dogs are allowed off leash (big bonus for me and Minka) and the price is always right (2 bottles of wine and half the menu for 3 people about $125). Though is might seem silly, please do order the pasta. It’s a frighteningly delicious veggie option on the meat heavy menu, and just so good, we had to order another one. I’ve never felt more content with my crazy eating excursions than after a meal here.
LESSON LEARNED: Fire is God’s gift to the taste buds.
2. Mexican Taco Logistics
I’m a TV producer and recently, we we’re filming some tribal activity down in Santa Caterina. Tribes, you say? I know! Who knew there were still old-school tribes living down in Baja? They might not be wearing the traditional garb (bark skirts and raccoon skin loin cloths), but they are most definitely keeping the traditions alive. Raul Sandoval still carves bow and arrows from native trees, he still knows how to source desert foods from cactus (prickly pear) and he most definitely still knows how to track down desert animals with spears and throwing sticks (rodents and rabbits). Every day after filming him and our hosts doing their tribal thing, we would head back to our hotel in a neighboring village, Valle de la Trinidad, and hunt down some tacos. Now, street food in Baja is always a winner in my book – especially when they have all the accoutrements to go along with the meal. The first time we ordered tacos to go, I asked Horacio (our fixer from Ensenada who works for the Baja conservation organization Terra Peninsular) if they would be able to pack us up a few of the condiments and he just giggled and said, “Of course…it’s Mexican taco logistics!” I gazed on as they charred up batches of carne, whipped up more salsa on the fly, and rapid fire slung together bags full of cukes, crema, cilantro, limes, onions and beans. What a joy to witness one smiling vendor and his posse make tacos fast food style in the middle of the cold desert on a dirt road to nowhere. The crew devoured every single bite of food each night with wild abandon…along with some of that delicious Russian wine from Valle de Guadalupe, Bibayoff. I know! Who knew there were Russians in wine valley in Baja?
LESSON LEARNED: Never doubt the ingenuity of the Mexican folk.
3. A Legend in his Land Rover
Once upon a time, I was out and about doing a bit of whale watching in a lagoon near San Ignacio (PS - the migration season will be starting up again soon) and I saw, from a distance, a slew of identical trucks on the edge of the water…that all happened to have a tent on the roof. I couldn’t wait to get back to shore and assess the home away from homes. Turns out the owner of one truck was a nice gentleman named Bob and we exchanged emails and such…after he gave me a tour of his truck with a bed on top. Well, when I say Bob, I mean THE Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars(Google it, you will be stunned at the musicians that rave about his next-level guitars). We’ve stayed pals since then and turns out, he and his buddies have been traversing the back roads of Baja for years - all with identical Land Rovers that have been
tricked out with mega tires, extra fuel tanks, tidy pre-fab kitchens in the trunks and sleeping quarters on top. This is so they can off-road down sandy dunes, catching fish as they go and cooking feasts on a nightly basis (and if one breaks down, they all have the same parts and they are easier to fix). In the aftermath of that meeting, Bob invited me down to his HQ near San Diego and whipped me up a pan full of chicken paella off the back of his truck. What sealed the deal of one of the best meals ever was the cooler full of ice-old Dos Equis with lime squirts that went along with each bite. Who knew a friendship could be started all because we both own Land Rovers. I need one of them beds on top and my truck pimped out with a custom made kitchen in the trunk. Amazing what people can dream up.
LESSON LEARNED: Always ask for a tour.
4. A Kick-Ass Margarita
I usually hit up La Fonda for a lobster and some margs when I’m cruising down the highway, but this past trip, I decided to try something different. I simply wanted a FOR REAL margarita without having to tell the bartender to skip the sweet and sour and boy, did I find it. There’s a joint just north of La Fonda called The Lighthouse- same insane view but a world away from the rustic vibe of La Fonda. It’s more of a sports and karaoke bar (not my thing at all), but the margs are some of the best I’ve had in Baja. Sinfully frozen to perfection, the gal behind the bar needed no instruction on how to whip up a proper marg. I was also interested to hear from the owner that they have not only a traditional Mexican menu, they also turn out vegetarian takes on the classics. A whole separate section of the menu highlights veggie options (try the Chiles en Nogado) and if you are on the make for a new life in Mexico, the place is for sale. Now, if you made this seaside haven more like Finca Altazano (keep the margs, of course), you’d have a stone cold goldmine on your hands.
LESSON LEARNED: Stray from the norm and you just might find something better.
Finca Altozano: Turn on the dirt road at Kilometer 83 on Route 3 in the Guadalupe Valley (at the sign for Laja). Continue on this road until you see the archway for the restaurant about a mile down on the right.
The Lighthouse: KM 58, south of Rosarito