Ah, Mexico. Baja California to be exact. I was born and raised not more than an hour away and have many good memories of time spent there. But let’s be honest, I have plenty of not-so-good memories, too – cough Tijuana cough. We didn’t go many times, but I have the fondest memories of hopping in the car with Mom and Dad and heading down south for nothing more than tacos for lunch. The flavorful, smoky way the meat tasted grilled on freshly-cut wood, I’ll never forget. Sitting and laughing with my parents, a country away from our cares, I can’t forget either.
But Baja now is not the Baja of then. Mexico has been plagued by violence, corruption, murder, drugs and human trafficking. It’s been sad to witness and even sadder that neither my friends nor my family nor even I travel south any longer for fear of what could happen. I don’t know what came over me, though. Maybe it was my brand-new passport that had just arrived, maybe it was our thinking that “Hey, if Anthony Bourdain can do it, so can we!” or maybe it was naivete, but we woke up one recent Saturday morning and for the first time in nearly 10 years, we went.
We took the toll road – at about $6 each way, I say it’s a must – and I quickly remembered the Baja I used to know as we curved around enormous mountain hillsides cradling the crashing Pacific Ocean below. Baja is beautiful. The beaches resemble those of their northern counterparts, sure, but I’ve always been able to see something different, something special. The water just looks darker, more peaceful, less interrupted. We kept looking around at the few cars that passed us. A couple of California plates, but not many. It’s clear that tourism continues to struggle.
We went in search of La Guerrerense, the seafood stand Bourdain claimed to be the best food truck in the world. Whoa. We worship at the altar of Bourdain, so where he goes, we follow. We drove through Ensenada, got out, looked around, and then headed to a gas station and asked for directions in broken Spanish.
“La Guerrerense? No se…”
Then, a gas pumper perked up.
“Conozco La Guerrerense! Esta a dos cuadras de aqui – a la derecha.”
So two blocks and to the right we went and there it was. You can’t miss the swarm of people crowding it. We made our way through the herd (locals only) and ordered: one fish, one shrimp, one fish pate and one cod with black olives. Just like in the episode, there must have been two dozen squirt bottles and jars of various salsas and other flavorful additions. I picked a mango concoction and drenched my first tostada, promptly setting my stomach on fire. Whew, sorry guys, obviously new here. Nowhere to sit, we joined the crowd in scarfing while standing. The seafood was fresh – I saw a large, wet net that looked like it had just been hauled in as we were paying – and the flavors were incredible. Mr. Bourdain did not steer us wrong.
After we finished, we walked around, getting stopped just about every step of the way by this street vendor and that one. We made our way to the ocean, took in the view of the dock lined with fishing boats, and poked around an outdoor seafood market, also featured in Bourdain’s episode. The seafood was so fresh it was barely dead, some not even yet. We bought a touristy trinket and asked the little boy to write “Chris y Laura Ensenada 2012” on it. Gringos. We were still hungry, so we decided to make our way back north and stop in Puerto Nuevo on the way.
Oh, Puerto Nuevo. What San Diegan doesn’t know and love Puerto’s cheap lobster and margaritas? We walked down the dirt hill toward the restaurants with ocean views – the memories of eating and drinking with my sister flooded my mind – and picked the one that seemed to have the best deal and an even better view. We ate, we drank, we relaxed and we enjoyed. It was just us on the rooftop for most of our meal, so my boyfriend indulged me in a cancion, which was really quite beautiful.
We showed our gringo side again with this cheesy picture we had to have.
By then it was about 6 and a long, painful border wait lay ahead, so we bid farewell to Mexico and promised we’d be back. We began driving out, but not without being pulled over first (no ticket!), and some three hours later, we were back on American soil. It was a special day replete with quiet beauty, phenomenal food, and a renewed sense of adventure. We knew what could have happened to us, but what good is life without living? And, for the record, we didn’t do anything stupid and remained alert throughout the trip. Good strategy for any vacation, I suppose. I’ll be back, Baja.