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WEEKEND ESCAPE

Opening a Door to the Other Tecate

There's more to the Mexican town than high-priced Rancho La Puerta.

January 20, 2002|VALERIE ALVORD

TECATE, Mexico — One of my friends, the most seasoned of Mexico travelers, has never vacationed in Tecate. That's not to say she doesn't know its reputation. When I said my husband and I were planning a getaway there, she nodded approvingly.

"To the spa, of course," she said, meaning Rancho La Puerta, where a week of fitness classes, vegetarian cuisine and metaphysical pampering starts at more than $4,000 for two.

"No," I said. "Not the spa."

She seemed confused. "Why else," she asked, "would anyone go to Tecate?"

It's a reasonable question. Many vacationers head for the coastal resorts with the glitzy reputations. But I wanted to spend a weekend in a place off the beaten track and closer to home. I wanted to eat authentic food, dance to salsa music and absorb a little Mexican history and color, perhaps in the form of ancient rock paintings or a traditional procession wending through dusty streets to a timeworn church.

I found many of these things during a pleasant weekend last month in Tecate--and enjoyed it all without spending much money, thanks to one of Rancho La Puerta's less expensive neighbors, the Rancho Tecate Resort & Country Club.

Tecate straddles the U.S.-Mexico border about an hour's drive southeast of San Diego. Incorporated in 1892, Tecate is among the oldest cities along the California border but certainly different in ambience from Tijuana and Mexicali, with their crowds of day-trippers in search of cheap drinks and bargain trinkets.

This city is cleaner, smaller and easier to negotiate. It's built on industry and agriculture, with an identity not defined by the border. After Rancho La Puerta, the town's second claim to fame is beer. The Tecate brewery's red-and-white billboard and towering stainless-steel vats can be seen from almost anywhere in the city, dominating the landscape like a castle.

The area is a magnet for maquiladoras, or foreign-owned factories, which flourish at an industrial park just outside town and employ what appears to be a thriving middle class.

That's not to say the city isn't gritty. As in many Mexican towns, sidewalks are cracked, and the curbs are crude. Some of the streets are dirty, and others are simply dirt. But the people are well dressed, friendly and seemingly happy to see visitors.

I'd been to Tecate before, charmed by its low-key atmosphere and surprised by the quality of food at the Rancho Tecate Resort, where I had stopped for lunch once before. This time I wanted to give the accommodations a try.

My husband, Jim, and I drove California 94 east from San Diego one Friday afternoon, arrived at the border (a California town also called Tecate) about 2 and easily found a place to buy Mexican car insurance. It's a crime to drive in Mexico without it. For about $32 we got three days of full coverage.

We crossed the border and followed directions the insurance office gave us: Turn left at the first light, then right on Mexico 3, marked the road to Ensenada. Getting around Tecate is a lot like a Bing Crosby-Bob Hope movie. Anything can be found in one of three places: on the road to Ensenada, the road to Mexicali or the road to Tijuana, all clearly marked.

For our weekend, we oriented ourselves around two places: tree-shaded Hidalgo Square, in the center of downtown Tecate, and the Rancho Tecate Resort, about five miles south on the road to Ensenada. Our first stop was the Office of Tourism, in a storefront on Hidalgo Square, where a friendly woman plotted our weekend activities on a map.

Because it was on the way to our resort, our next stop was Centro Artisanal, a strip of shops where local artisans make and sell their wares: handcrafted ceramics, wrought-iron furnishings and delicate blown glass.

We had no difficulty finding the sprawling resort, which is off the road to Ensenada and down a palm-lined lane. The lobby in the hacienda-style main building was dark and elegant, with wood-beam ceilings and bright, polished tile floors. We checked in, then walked past the gleaming gold-painted columns and down a few walnut-stained stairs to the handsome bar. Beyond lay a large restaurant, its tables draped in white linen.

Rancho Tecate was built on the site of a turn-of-the century winery. A two-story-tall, 30-foot-wide oak barrel from the original building was left in place and converted into a stairwell in the hacienda.

Our room ($99 a night) was clean and nicely appointed--not as posh as a luxury resort hotel but above average for a Mexican town like Tecate and just as comfortable as any mid-scale hotel in the U.S. Given the reasonable prices and the nice bar and restaurant, I could see why the resort is well frequented by maquiladora executives and local dignitaries. Some weekends, I was told when making reservations, the 45 rooms (12 in the main hacienda) are completely booked for corporate events.

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