I remember going to San Diego with my family when I was six, and one day my dad asked if we’d like to go to Mexico or go to a Dr. Seuss exhibit at the San Diego art museum. We opted for Dr. Seuss, though I had always wondered what I had been missing. After I moved to L.A., I was rather blasé about Mexico being right around the corner, thinking it couldn't be that different from the U.S., and I figured I would get there at some point. It was a welcome surprise when, a few weeks ago my friend Ethan came to town, and he wanted to go to Mexico during the first weekend in June.
We left L.A. around 6 PM for a two and a half-hour drive to the border, where crossing into Mexico was no different than crossing into another state. We weren’t stopped, we didn’t’ slow down, nothing. You drive straight into Tijuana, which, everyone told me, was a dirty, sleazy, touristy, no-fun border town. But I was optimistic as a result of the Rough Guide’s positive outlook and various revisionist newspaper articles talking about all of Tijuana’s new art galleries and other signs of civilization.
Unfortunately, the reputation turned out to be true, and it soon became clear that Tijuana would not have been much fun for a six-year-old, or a sixty year old, or anyone. On Friday night around 9 PM, the famed Avenida Revolucion was not the hopping party street I expected. It looked more like Brooklyn’s Fulton Street mall after the apocalypse.
We spent a while getting thoroughly confused on the city streets, especially with the Paris-style, try-not-to-die traffic circles around frightening mega-sculptures that looked like they had been personally selected by Francisco Franco. We finally arrived at Cien Anos, a legendary restaurant written up in all the guidebooks. The books told us that we MUST make a reservation, but for much of the meal we were the only ones there except for a fancy wedding in the next room. The restaurant was fancy, far from a true Mexican experience, and the prices were only slightly cheaper than they would be in the U.S. But the food was fantastic. I ordered a crepe covered in a neon green sauce and filled with something called huilacoches, which turned out to be the fungus that grows on corn, a Mexican delicacy. It was really good, if a little salty. I also enjoyed the steak and the sweet duck dish that we shared for the main courses.
After more confusion on the Tijuana streets, we finally found our way out of the city and drove the twenty minutes to the beach town of Rosarito. Rosarito is apparently the spring break capital of northern Baja California (the name for the long, thin peninsula south of California), which meant, I figured, that on a Friday night in the summer, it would at least have some signs of life. Apparently not. We checked into a huge, tacky hotel rigged specifically for spring break, with its network of pools, bars, dance floors and cheap plastic dragons that lay dormant in its backyard. We walked down the town’s stretch of eight or so bars, each of which looked like a low-rent theme park, with rivers and drawbridges and volleyball courts. There were lots of people outside the bars, shouting at us, enthusiastically trying to rope us in, and even fewer people actually inside drinking. We had one drink at a Mexico karaoke bar and called it a night. The next morning we went running on the beach and I jumped into the freezing, still-deserted pool. Then we started on our way to Ensenada, about an hour down the highway.
The big tourist attraction along the way was a former movie studio that Fox had constructed for the filming of “Titanic.” Other films, such as “Master and Commander,” had filmed there, taking advantage of its huge water tanks (and cheap labor) until it was closed and turned into a mini theme park. We began by walking through a forgettable exhibit on special effects, and a "Planet of the Apes"-themed attraction which involved 100 screaming kids in a room the size of a Starbucks putting nerf balls into cannons and shooting them at each other.
But everyone comes for the guided tour of the “Titanic” exhibit, which includes actual sets and props from the film, including the dining room, the poker room, the room where Leo gets handcuffed to the pipe, and the 20-foot-or-so model of the ship that split apart. We had a fantastic English-speaking guide who filled us in on how extravagant the production was and the ways in which it cut corners just like every other movie — like how the ivory designs in the walls were created by white stickers. The boiler room that Leo and Kate run through was still in the exact spot where it was during the filming, and while in the movie it seemed to go on and on, in reality it was not much bigger than my bedroom. Our guide had been a security guard at the studio when movies were actually filmed there, told stories of meeting James Cameron, Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. He had even married his wife in one of the Titanic sets.
We went to lunch in nearby Puerto Nuevo, a small village made up about 100 souvenir shops and pharmacies serving cheap drugs, but better known for its 30 restaurants serving Puerto Nuevo-style lobster -- a Pacific lobster that looks more like an enormous shrimp, and is deep-fried in lard. We picked Restaurant Puerto Nuevo #2, which the books said was the best -- plus, we got right in, while nearby Restaurant Puerto Nuevo #1 for some reason had a line out the door. Each order gets you one and a half lobsters, which you scoop out of the shell and wrap up in a tortilla along with butter and salsa and other fixins. It topped our already fantastic meal from the night before.
That evening we arrived in Ensenada, a beach town that could charm the pants off of Rosarito and had much more activity. We checked into the Hotel Cortez, which was, admittedly, a tourist trap, but two people splitting a $70 room in a prime location wasn’t bad. We started off the night at Hussong’s, the oldest bar in Baja, which was scarily similar to the legendary McSorley’s on 7th Street in the East Village, down to the sawdust on the floor. After that it was one bar after another — a huge bar with a band playing classic rock, a huge outdoor club with a dance floor, a martini lounge, a rock club, and a hipster bar where we talked to some locals, who told us that very few Americans come to Ensenada — it's mostly Mexican tourists.
The next morning I went on a run along the water and took a swim. Then, at Ethan’s urging, we went to a barber shop to get a straight-razor shave, my first. The owner of the shop had what appeared to be the definitive Marilyn Monroe poster collection taking up most of the wall space. As soon as the guy started wiping the cream on my face, I thought of "Sweeney Todd." I've seen the show on stage and on screen, but I never quite realized how vulnerable you actually are when a barber is holding a razor to your throat. It’s a pretty unique situation. When else do we let a complete stranger hold a trigger that could kill us in an instant? To top it off, I spent the entire time staring at 100 likenesses of the most famous person ever to die young. I was relieved when it ended, but the shave, I’ll admit, felt pretty good.
Then it was time for lunch, which, in Ensenada, means fish tacos. We picked the outdoor stand Tacos El Fenix, where our meal cost $8 for two people but still managed to match the trip's other the culinary highlights. We normally think of fish tacos as tortillas filled with slices of grilled mahi mahi. But Ensenada-style fish tacos are a tortilla filled with one strip of deep-fried fish, and you add in onions, cilantro, salsa, lime, cabbage and carrots, which are sitting in bowls on the counter. We also had refreshing mango juice, and while walking down the street we stopped at a stand for the best churros I've ever had. We walked through Ensenada's famed fish market and walked by a flag pole topped by the city's 60-foot-long Mexican flag -- the scale of which caused me to become neauseated every time I looked at it over the previous 18 hours.
We left Ensenada for La Bufadora, a tourist attraction that was supposedly a half hour down the road but ended up a three-hour deal — though, to be fair, we dawdled. We got a fun slice of Mexican life at a makeshift horse track where the horses run straight in a line and a race takes all of five seconds. The drive is along perilous cliffs, and then, after you park, you have to walk down a street lined with about 50 identical shops all selling the same jewelry, candy and sombreros, all identical to the dozens of other shops we saw in Puerto Nuevo and other cities.
La Bufadora, Spanish for "whale blowhole," is a national monument meets a water park attraction. Imagine about 50 tourists standing along a wall on the top of a rocky cliff about 70 feet above the ocean. At the water level is a tiny inlet, where the rock formations are such that every ten seconds or so, water sprays into the air — sometimes onto the tourists, who then yell and scatter and try to cover their digital cameras.
On the way back we stopped to buy tamales and olives — the region’s specialty — and stopped at huge market along a dirt road where the stands were no different than those of a New York street fair. By that time it was almost 8 PM – which, we realized, would cause Ethan to cut it close on his flight to Cambodia that left LAX at 1:30 AM. The border crossing, of course, took much longer than it did coming into Mexico — an hour and a half longer. But we made what I’m sure was record time from the border to LAX, and Ethan was the last person checked in for his flight to Cambodia. On the way to the airport, when we stopped for gas, we were so hungry that we did the unthinkable -- we ordered from Taco Bell.