Breaking Down Baja: Where To Eat, Stay and Play South of the Border

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Jan 2021.

Baja California is a state in Mexico located south of the California border. With the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico on either side, Baja has dramatic landscapes that span across mountains, sandy beaches, deserts and valleys. The Baja peninsula is one of the longest in the world, stretching over 700 miles from north to south.

While the peninsula has much to discover, the two main regions worth traveling to are Baja California (north Baja) and Baja California Sur (south Baja).

Road Trip Through North Baja 

The best way to start your exploration of north Baja is by flying into San Diego International airport. From here, you can either rent a car (less than a 30-minute drive), or take a taxi to San Ysidro to cross the pedestrian bridge. Alternately, you can fly into the large city of Tijuana and start your road trip here. Make sure to check your car rental insurance policy as some companies do not provide coverage in Mexico.

Continue your drive along the Pacific Coast on Highway 1, stopping at the towns of Rosarito Beach and Puerto Nuevo for fresh lobsters, margaritas and tamarind candies.

Beach in Ensenada
Pictured: Beach in Ensenada | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Make your way to Ensenada, a charming port town with expansive beaches, surfing spots, boutique restaurants and shopping.

If you have a car, you can drive further south to see rocky cliffs and one of the world’s largest blowholes, La Bufadora.

Ensenada is also known as the gateway to Mexico’s wine country and hosts a series of concerts, tastings and events during Fiestas de la Vendimia(Wine Harvest Festival).

Mexico’s Wine Valley 

Valle de Guadalupe is often compared to California’s Napa Valley. Here you can find over 120 wineries, trendy Baja Med cuisine, and an assortment of eco-friendly hotels located along Ruta del Vino (wine route). The community was first founded by Dominican missions in 1834, and now over 80% of Mexico’s wine is produced in the valley.

Valle de Guadalupe
Pictured: Valle de Guadalupe | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

The region’s Mediterranean-like climate is ideal for growing red grape varieties such as nebbiolo, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, grenache and syrah. Since the winemakers are not regulated, they have room to innovate and create new blends using the season’s fresh harvest, rather than importing grapes.

While most of the vineyards and wine producers in the valley are boutique, there are also a few large commercial brands. Unique designs, open-air tasting rooms and local art displays make a few wineries worth the visit. Check out Vena Cava’s nautical themed wine bar and food truck, olive and lemon groves at Casa Magoni, a cool cave cellar at Encuentro, and nature-themed art installations at Bruma. Wine tasting rooms tend to get crowded on the weekends as visitors from the U.S. and Mexico get away for the weekend.

Encuentro Guadalupe winery
Pictured: Encuentro Guadalupe winery | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

In the valley, stay at Encuentro Guadalupe, a 24-room boutique hotel and winery with individual cabins on a wildlife reserve that appear to blend into the vast dry mountainous landscape. Each of the eco lofts has large windows and private terraces, so you can privately enjoy a sea breeze over neighboring vineyards, scenic sunset and star-studded night skies. Though the food and wine at Encuentro are notable, some of the best restaurants and wineries are located only minutes away.

Wellness in Tecate

On the border of San Diego and Tecate lies Rancho La Puerta, a destination spa resort that has been inspiring wellness for 80 years. Here you can stay in a Spanish-style casita surrounded by 4,000 acres of beautifully manicured gardens and the sacred Kuuchamaa Mountain.

Rancho La Puerta
Pictured: Rancho La Puerta | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

All-inclusive rates give you access to over 50 fitness classes each day, healthy and delicious farm-to-table meals, as well as presentations by wellness coaches. You can also experience some natural spa treatments and holistic therapies unique to The Rancho La Puerta. Plan to stay for at least a week if you want to avail the full experience.

Sun and Beach in South Baja 

Southern Baja is a popular destination known for its year-round warm weather warm, turquoise blue waters and white sand beaches. Los Cabos International Airport is well connected to cities across the U.S. Once you arrive, you can head to either of the two main cities located only a few minutes away—Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo.

Cabo San Lucas

Cabo San Lucas is a haven for those who like to swim, kayak, fish, snorkel, sail or just relax at the beach. Most resorts and timeshares are located in the southern tip of Baja California Sur near Cabo San Lucas.

The Thompson Hotel in Cabo San Lucas
Pictured: The Thompson Hotel in Cabo San Lucas | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

The luxurious The Cape – A Thompson Hotel overlooks the Sea of Cortez and granite formations called El Arco. Local architects and artists partnered to design the hotel that blends in with the surroundings and maintains a vibrant 1960s Baja-meets-Southern California vibe. Start your day with a swim in the infinity pool, walk along the secluded beach and dine at Manta, an Asian-Peruvian-Mexican fusion restaurant.

The marina at Cabo San Lucas is dotted with bars, restaurants and shopping. This is also a meeting point for most tours, including snorkel and sightseeing sails. A must is to cruise along Land’s End with a local operator, Pez Gato. They offer smaller group excursions so you can have a safe and leisure experience watching the colorful marine life in the shallow waters at Santa Maria Bay.

San Jose del Cabo

The neighboring city of San Jose del Cabo is more historic. Colorful buildings located along cobblestone streets offer the authenticity of an old Spanish town. Here you are less likely to be bothered by peddlers as local families stroll through the main square across the Parroquia San José (a mission church).

Main square at San Jose Del Cabo
Pictured: Main square at San Jose Del Cabo at night | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

There are lots of art galleries, boutique shops, bars and cafés within walking distance. But the main reason to come to San Jose del Cabo is for the food. Unlike San Lucas, there are more Mexican mom and pop restaurants here specializing in tacos, seafood, margaritas and churros.

To discover some of the best architectural and culinary secrets of the area, take a guided walking food tour with Juan More Taco, a locally-owned and operated tour company.

Baja California is one of the safest places in Mexico. No matter which part you choose to explore first, you will find that the people are friendly and welcoming, taking pride in their land and culture.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Exploring the Charm and Culture of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Aug 2019.

Here’s how you can skip the beaches to experience the real charm of the Yucatán Peninsula.

With sunny weather, historic ruins and beautiful beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, the state of Yucatán in Eastern Mexico is popular among international tourists. The most commonly known beach towns here are Cancún, Playa del Carmel and Cozumel. However, if you are not looking for all-inclusive beach destinations and an energetic party atmosphere, there is rich Mexican culture and cuisine to be discovered in the Yucatán Peninsula.

Charming Magic Towns

Cobblestone streets, colorful buildings and colonial-era cathedrals make Valladolid one of the Pueblos Mágicos (or “magic towns”) of Mexico. These are a series of cities that preserve the history and culture, making them “magical” in some ways. While the gridlike downtown offers a variety of handicraft shops, art galleries and restaurants, Valladolid is also a good base for visiting Mayan ruins and cenotes in the Yucatán.

Most buildings are painted yellow in Izamal, a small city that was a site of pilgrimage for the Maya dedicated to the creator god “Itzamna” and sun god “Kinich Ahau.” Here you can see a colonial Franciscan monastery from the 1500s, Maya ruins and cultural museum. Sundays are especially great to visit as the Parque Zamna is filled with live music, shops and vendors selling local food.

Ancient Mayan Ruins

Yucatán has a higher concentration of Mayan descendants than other parts of Mexico, and you can see many ruins of pyramids and temples here. The most famous one is Chichén Itzá, the largest pyramid and a stone temple site. If you want to get away from the crowd of visitors, go to Uxmal, one of the most important cities in the Mayan world with well-preserved rounded-edge pyramids.

Ruins of Tulum in Mexican on the Yucatan Peninsula
Pictured: Ruins of Tulum | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

The ruins of the ancient Mayan holy city of Tulum stand on rugged cliffs overlooking the sea. Ek’Balam, translating to “the black jaguar,” is less known but still an impressive archaeological site, bustling from 660 BC to 1600 AD. You can see the city walls and ruins of about 45 structures surrounded by a dense forest here.

Cultural Capital 

Mérida is the capital of Yucatán and one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the country. It is home to educated, higher-income Mexicans and ex-pats who live in renovated Spanish bungalows, as well as newly constructed modern flats. As you make your way down from the main avenue, Paseo de Montejo, you can see featured art commissions, leading into a row of boutiques, theaters and museums. There are free cultural events every weekend from music and dance to art exhibits and Mexican festivals.

The Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Mérida is one of the best museums that preserve Maya culture, with more than 1100 artifacts. There is also a free light and sound show in the evening.

A Cenote in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula
Pictured: A cenote (natural pool) in the Yucatan | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal
Refreshing Cenotes 

Swim and snorkel in one of more than 5,000 natural pools called cenotes, located all around the Yucatán. Cenotes are sinkholes resulting from collapsing limestone bedrocks and were often used by the ancient Maya for sacrificial rituals. Today, they are tourist attractions, offering a refuge from the heat and a chance to be one with nature. Cenote Xkeken and Cenote Samula are two of the most well-known cenotes around Valladolid, because of their blue water and striking cave formations.

Luxurious Haciendas

Another great way to enjoy the authentic charm of the Yucatán is by staying at Hacienda Sotuta de Peon.  This 19th-century working plantation and estate was converted into a villa-hotel and restaurant that retains an old-world charm. Stroll around the henequen plants, take a dip in the cenote, or soak in the scenery from your ceramic tiled deck. The beautiful setting of the hacienda makes it an ideal place for weddings and retreats.

Lunchtimes are busier at the haciendas as day-trippers stop by for tours and gourmet meals served in the garden.

Yucatecan Cuisine

Another reason to visit Yucatán is for its food! The cuisine of the Yucatán is somewhat different from what you would find in the rest of Mexico. Mayan, Caribbean, Spanish, North African, and Middle Eastern cultures are reflected in the spicy and well-rounded dishes, such as sopa de lima, pauchos, salbutes, poc chuc and cochinita pibil (the national dish).

Salbutes from the Yucatan Peninsula
Pictured: Salbutes | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

All of the destinations in the Yucatán are within a couple of hours drive from each other. There are many local hotels and haciendas around the state where you stay as a base for day trips to experience a few different locations. The Yucatán is also the safest state in Mexico and is easy to travel on your own, though some knowledge of Spanish will come in handy.

Visit Travel Yucatán at https://travelyucatan.com to “Find Your Inner Peace” and start planning your next Mexican getaway.

~ Written for & published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Planning Your First Trip to Mexico? Your Guide to Mexico City and its Surroundings

For Cuisine Noir. July 2019.

From white sand beaches and Pacific blue waters in the west and ancient Mayan ruins in the east to traditional cuisine and tequila distilleries in the south, Mexico has a variety of landscapes and experiences to offer. However, it can be hard to decide where to begin and how to navigate this Spanish-speaking neighbor, and you will likely have to plan a few trips to see it all.

Mexico City, the capital of Mexico, is the largest metropolis in the country and often overlooked by tourists. Originally built by the Aztecs in 1325 A.D., it is the oldest capital in the Americas and one of the best places to learn about the country’s history, culture and food, while still having a big-city feel. There is a range of accommodations and more than 100 museums, art galleries, award-winning restaurants and performing art venues to choose from.

Most major airlines fly directly to Mexico City’s Juarez International airport, which receives thousands of business travelers each day. There’s no visa needed to enter Mexico (for visits up to 6 months) but you need to carry your passport.

Due to its high altitude, Mexico City enjoys pleasant summers and mild winters. Note that Mexico City sits about 7,382 feet above sea level, so you may want to drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol as you get acclimatized. Remember to bring a sweater even in the summer months.

Mexican City Skyline
Pictured: Mexican City Skyline | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal
Stay in Fashionable Neighborhoods

It’s best to stay in one of the centrally located areas accessible by walking or taxi, to avoid traffic during peak hours.

La Condesa, with its largest city square, Zocalo, is lively from dawn to dusk. The streets are crowded with old-fashioned organ players, street vendors selling tacos and elotes (Mexican grilled corn) and businessmen and women chatting in bars after work. Local Mexicans also gather at Zocalo to eat dinner, listen to live music and dance the night away.

The Colonia Roma neighborhood was built by wealthy Mexicans who traveled to Europe in the 1800s. Here you will find French-inspired buildings, European cafes, bistros and gelato shops. Even if you are not staying in Roma, make sure to go for a visit or take a guided walking tour.

Savor One of the Biggest Art Scenes in the World

Art lovers can easily spend a week visiting more than150 museums dedicated to pre-Columbian, colonial and contemporary arts. The Anthropology and History Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Modern Art Museum, the San Ildefonso Museum and the Templo Mayor Museum, are some of the most popular ones. A must stop is at Frida Kahlo’s private home, Casa Azul, where you can see some of her paintings and personal belongings.

Enjoy Live Music and Dance

Watch a colorful Mexican folklore ballet at the Tiffany-designed stained glass Palacio De Bellas Artes, or head to Plaza Garibaldi, known for its mariachi musicians. It is hard to find a restaurant or bar that doesn’t have live music in Mexico City.

Take a Day Trip Outside the City

There are many historic and natural sites within driving distance of Mexico City that make for perfect day trips.

Canals of Xochimilco in Mexico City
Pictured: Canals of Xochimilco | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Escape to the colorful towns of Puebla and Cholula, known for their beautiful Baroque-style old churches, busy craft markets and traditional restaurants.

You will find many Mexican families renting party boats, or trajineras, meandering through the canals of Xochimilco with food and music on board. This “Venice of Mexico,” a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, is about an hour’s drive from Mexico City. You can access it via taxi (about $20 round trip) if you want to avoid booking through a tour company.

Continue to Charming Colonial Towns

While there’s plenty to do in Mexico City, it is also a gateway to smaller towns in Mexico, where you can extend your stay.

Take a flight (1 hour) or road trip (6 hours) from Mexico City to Guadalajara, where you can hop on the Jose Cuervo Express, also known as the “tequila train.” This two-hour journey takes you through picturesque agave fields to the “Magic Town” of Tequila, also the birthplace of the spirit, where you can visit distilleries and enjoy tequila-based cocktails. Stay at luxurious hotel Solar de Las Animas, overlooking the main square for rooftop views of the town. You can watch traditional music and dance every evening as you smell the aroma of roasting agave molasses.

Jose Cuervo Express Train in Mexico City
Pictured: Jose Cuervo Express Train | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Puerto Vallarta is a popular resort destination on the Pacific west coast. It is known for its white sand beaches, artsy neighborhoods, water sports and nightlife. From Guadalajara, take a flight (50 mins) or drive five hours to Puerto Vallarta, once named as The Friendliest City in the World.” It is a popular destination with domestic as well as international tourists.

Whether you choose to go to Mexico City for a week or a weekend, you will find that the city and the surrounding areas offer a wide variety of attractions for all interests.

~ Written for & published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved. 

Why Mexico City Is the Cultural Destination You Should Visit Next

For CheapOAir Miles Away. September 2018

When you think of traveling to Mexico, you are likely charmed by the white sandy beaches of Cabo San Lucas, ancient Mayan ruins in the Yucatan, or the active night life in Riviera Maya. But, the capital of our neighbor south of the border has a unique, vibrant culture that often goes undiscovered by leisure travelers. Continue reading on CheapOAir Miles Away

Why Mexico City Could be the Next Paris

huffpost-travel-logo

August 11, 2015

North Americans need not spend hundreds of dollars to cross the Atlantic Ocean for a European getaway. With its historic architecture, booming gastronomy, and cutting edge cultural scene, Mexico City now offers the same charm as any big city in Europe.

Mexico City is a destination greatly undermined by its public perception. There is no more visible crime here than in other metropolises around the world. Pollution is minimal, and traffic a lot better than what you would find in São Paulo or Mumbai. If you take proper precautions, you will hardly feel the change in elevation. Most people working in the hospitality industry are fluent in English. The weather is temperate year round – it’s nice and cool even through the summer. Moreover, there is a lot to do beyond drinking tequila, listening to mariachi bands, and attending business meetings! Recently, the Mexico Tourism Board has done a great job in highlighting the city’s museums, artists, chefs, and boutiques – some of which are already on par with those in Paris.

There are enough museums to keep you busy for a month

Mexico City has more museums than any other city in the world (150+ at last count). Not only can you find huge collections of pre-Columbian, colonial and contemporary art, there are artifacts displaying Mexico’s rich cultural, social, political and economic heritage. The most famous national museums are the Anthropology and History Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Modern Art Museum, the San Ildefonso Museum, and the Templo Mayor museum.

There are also quirky and interesting themed museums around the city, such as
The Cartoon Museum, Shoe Museum, Pen Museum, Chile and Tequila Museum, Mexican Olympic Museum, and the wonderfully Interactive Economics Museum.

Remember that museums are closed on Mondays.

Its home to Frida and Diego’s world famous art

A visit to Mexico City would be incomplete without admiring paintings of this famous artistic couple. The largest private collection of works by Diego Rivera is housed at Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino. Casa Azul (Blue House) is Frido Kahlo’s private home, now museum and a shrine, where she was born in 1907 and died 47 years later.

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The city seems to attract artists from all over Latin America who want to learn and practice independent art expressions. At Galería At Despacho 29, you can see young artists at work as they display their paintings, sculptures, graphics and more, in this thriving artist colony. Galeria Omr in Colonia Roma is a must see with its international fame. Even walking around the city, you will come across many chic art galleries and stores representing all genres.

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Neighborhoods in Mexico City look like Europe

In the Colonia Roma neighborhood, you will see homes and building constructed in French, Italian and Spanish style architecture. Most of these were built in the 1800’s, when Mexican aristocrats traveled to Europe and modeled their surroundings based on what they saw there. Strolling through Colonia Roma’s Plaza Río de Janeiro Street, you will find bistros, cafes, gelaterias, bookstores, art galleries, as well as cantinas and dance clubs. Note that most art galleries are closed on Sundays.

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La Condesa is also a charming area that caters to the young and hip. Besides admiring the unique building styles and colors, you can also explore the nightlife here.

Zocalo (main plaza) bustles with organ players, street vendors, excited tourists, wandering bicyclists and downtown office crowds, with a backdrop of the Cathedral, National Palace, Federal District buildings, Templo Mayor site, and the omnipresent Mexican flag. At 57 thousand square meters, this is one of the largest city squares in the world. Explore side streets to see more architectural gems, such as the post office and the Opera Cantina. On weekends, the streets in Zocalo come alive with balloons, clowns, cotton candy, live music, and dancing.

Mexico City is the cultural capital of Latin America

Watch Mexican folklore ballet and temporary art exhibitions at the colossal white marble opera house with a Tiffany stained-glass curtain, known as Palacio De Bellas Artes. This beautiful building was designed by the famous Italian Adamo Boari, and inaugurated in 1934. Inside, you can see paintings by several celebrated Mexican artists, including Rufino Tamayo, Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros.

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View current artistic trends across seven exhibition rooms at the Centro Cultural De Espana, along with a museum, conference center, and jazz bar designed specially for art and culture lovers.

To explore more of the mariachi music scene, spend the evening at Plaza Garibaldi, where you can even rent a personal band by the hour. Dressed in embroidered “charro” outfits and large wide brim sombrero hats, these musicians play guitars, trumpets and violins, sing, dance and entertain crowds.

Mexico City also has gondolas

Take a short drive to the southern outskirts of the city for an authentic Mexican fiesta on the boat experience. Xochimilco, a World Heritage Site is best known for its 110 miles of canals where tourists and locals come to ride on colorful gondola-like boats called “trajineras.” You can see families’ picnicking, dancing, and singing on the boats, as mariachi bands and food vendors ride along.

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Here you can eat well without breaking the bank

From street food and hole-in-the-wall regional establishments, to upscale restaurants, Mexico City offers something for all distinguished taste buds. The best way to get oriented to the local cuisine is through Gastronomic Tour Sabores de México (Mexico Flavors Gastronomic Tour). A guided walking tour will take you through some of the best places to sample tacos, tamales, tequilas, beer and coffee.

Visit the largest family run taco franchise in Mexico, El Fogoncito, where you can trace the evolution of tacos from the Middle East to Mexico City.

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Even high-end cuisine can be quite affordable in Mexico City. A dinner at Pujol, rated in the top 50 restaurants in the world, will set you back only $50 per person (excluding drinks). Also noted among the world’s best, five-diamond restaurant Astrid and Gaston, was one of the first to put upscale Peruvian cuisine on the map. Now they have locations in Lima, Bogota, Santiago, Madrid, and Mexico City’s Polanco Area.

Try the chocolaty mole from Pueblo region, cooked with different chilies (even a pink mole for Valentines Day) at Dulce Patria. Martha Ortiz, known as one of the best chefs in Mexico City emphasizes her menus on contemporary Mexican cuisine, drawing inspiration from the opera and the visual arts; her insatiable reading habit; Mexican women whose lives have influenced Ortiz, among them Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Frida Kahlo, and the many home cooks of the Mexican state of Michoacán who she calls “the queens of cooking.”

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The city is dotted with parks and plazas for strolling

At Alameda Park in downtown Mexico City, you can envision viceroys and counts dressed in their formal attire, taking a stroll through the French designed fountains, while admiring sculptures based on Greco-Roman mythology. There is even a monument dedicated to Beethoven in commemoration of the centenary of his 9th Symphony. While no street vendors are allowed in the park, you will see couples of all ages sharing romantic moments, kissing and holding hands, not just here, but in most parks across the city.

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Joggers, walkers and tourists can be spotted at Bosque de Chapultepec, the city’s largest park, which also houses a castle, a lake, an amusement park, the Mexican president’s official residence, and five world-renowned museums. This is Mexico City’s equivalent of the Central Park of New York.

A must see neighborhood is Coyoacán. This charming and quiet residential area was home to many famous Mexicans including Miguel de la Madrid, president of Mexico from 1982 to 1988; artists Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and José Clemente Orozco; Gabriel Figueroa, cinematographer for Luis Buñuel and John Huston; film star Dolores del Río; film director El Indio Fernández; and writers Carlos Monsiváis, Jorge Ibargüengoitia, and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz. It’s also the neighborhood where the exiled Leon Trotsky met his violent death.

It’s a shopper’s paradise

From high-end boutiques selling limited edition Christian Louboutin and traditional Mexican apparel designs, fine art galleries, modern furniture stores, to dozens of weekend markets selling Mexican artesanías (handicrafts) such as colorful hand-painted crockery to innovative blown glass made by regional artisans in poor communities, there are all kinds of products available to shoppers.

While state of the art shopping malls are scattered all through the city, Centro Santa Fe, in the western part of the city, is the largest shopping center in Latin America and boasts nearly 300 shops, with department stores, boutiques, restaurants, play areas for children, and 10 movie theaters.

Mexico City is so close!

Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world, yet largely undiscovered by vacation travelers. Delta Airlines and Aero Mexico serve nonstop connections from most major cities in US to Mexico City. Depending on where you fly from, you could be in Mexico City in 1-4 hours and discover that you can enjoy a European style getaway so close to home.