Just 38 miles southeast of downtown San Diego is Tecate, the serene little sister of Baja's major border towns. Unlike Tijuana and Mexicali, Tecate has a quiet nontouristic temperament that's welcomed by visitors looking for a taste of real Mexico.
You won't encounter any salesmen trying to hustle you into their curio shops. During our recent visit we had to ask if any stores sold Mexican souvenirs.
On a stroll around town you will find an assortment of handicrafts, including locally made pottery and hand-blown glass, and a variety of good restaurants.
An added attraction are Mexico's bargain prices, due to inflation that has made the U.S. dollar's value soar to 1,000-plus pesos. Two examples: hand-painted ceramic tiles cost 20 cents, a filet mignon steak dinner $6.
Although tourism isn't big business in Tecate, the town is overwhelmed by visitors twice each year. On May 17 hundreds of cyclists and their companions will be there for the annual Tecate/Ensenada Bicycle Ride. And every August, North American daredevils arrive for Pamplonada, the running of the bulls.
At all other times you're bound to have the peaceful place almost to yourself. Get there from Los Angeles by driving south on Interstate 5 just past downtown San Diego and exit from the right lane onto California 94 east.
A Two-Lane Road
Beyond Spring Valley the freeway ends and the route continues as a two-lane road that winds along creek beds through green fields and boulder-strewn foothills. Then turn right on California 188 that goes 1 1/2 miles to the border and Tecate.
Pass through the Mexican customs station and drive down the hill four blocks to the tree-shaded town square. It's Miguel Hidalgo Park, a central starting point for explorations on foot. Park on the street or continue on Avenida Cardenas to the lot of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.
On the south side of the square you'll see the Oficina de Turismo, usually open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Ask for a street map; they were out of copies during our visit but expected a new supply "sometime soon."
With or without the map, here's a suggested walking tour: For some sweet treats, go east from the north side of the square two blocks along Avenida Juarez to El Mejor Bakery that's open 24 hours. Serve yourself from the racks of donuts, muffins, cookies and dozens of other pastries. Coffee is available too.
Double back to Calle Cardenas and go north a block (toward the border) to the modern brown stucco building that is a museum of architecture called California Nova. Open weekends 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. On the opposite corner you can browse in a large outdoor display of pottery, much of it made of red clay at Marcos Pottery factories on the outskirts of town.
Return to the square to walk west along Avenida Juarez, a main Tecate street (Mexico Highway 2), with shops of all types and another bakery, La Moderna. Three blocks away you'll find ceramic bath and kitchen tile at Tecate Tile Supply.
In the preceding block look for La Rosita Curios with pinatas, glassware, clothing, leather goods and other souvenirs. Rosita Zapateria next door has shoes, belts and cowboy boots.
Heading back toward the square, turn south on Calle Obregon and walk three blocks to Restaurant Dragon, a popular new place for Chinese fare. The entrance is on Avenida Hidalgo, just opposite the immense Tecate brewery that makes the town's namesake beer and other brands such as Bohemia and Carta Blanca.
A few steps east on Hidalgo you'll see the 1920s home of the brewery's first owners. It's now Pueblo Viejo, a restaurant serving steak, seafood and Mexican dishes. A specialty is the Sonoran mixed grill that's kept hot on a hibachi at your table.
A block beyond and you're back to Calle Cardenas; go north to return to the square. On the way is El Molina, a tempting candy store that also sells pinatas. At the square's south edge, look west on Callejon Libertad for Passetto restaurant where the menu features pasta, pizza, seafood, steak and Mexican fare.
To see Tecate glass blowers at work, drive south on the street along the west side of the square, Calle Ortiz Rubio, the road to Ensenada (Mexico 3). Cross the railroad tracks and bridge and look left just past the park to a curved building that's the Centro Artesanal de Tecate.
Some of the salesroom/workshops are empty, but you'll find a curio store, furniture makers and a glass-blowing factory. You can watch the artisans make delicate figures and other glass items that include Christmas ornaments. Closed Sundays.
Three miles west of town on the busy road to Tijuana (Mexico 2) is the renowned fitness center that helped put Tecate on the map. It's Rancho La Puerta, founded in 1940 and the forerunner of modern North American health spas.