See also: *Anthony Bourdain's Baja Episode of No Reservations Will Make You Want to Cross the Border Immediately. *OC Weekly's column Tijuana Sí!. In our column First Person, L.A. writers tackle the good, the bad and the funny about life as they know it.
Anthony Bourdain made it look so great. "Baja's like Tuscany!" he'd proclaimed to the media. And right in L.A.'s backyard. I'd never been, nor had my best friend, so we booked hotel rooms for ourselves and our boyfriends in Mexico's nearby wine country. We exchanged dozens of emails and Gchats in the weeks that followed, twittering back and forth about the fun we'd have and the feasts we'd devour.
Until one week before we were scheduled to leave. That's when her boyfriend balked.
"He just refuses to go," she told me, tears welling up in her eyes. Some friends had gotten in his ear about the danger that awaited us across the border -- narco-violence, kidnappings, beheadings, certain doom. He insisted the two back out.
"But we'll be fine," I protested. How could they doubt Bourdain? Or Andrew Zimmern or Chicago chef Rick Bayless, all of whom had made recent visits to Baja with TV cameras in tow, lauding the incredible food and gorgeous scenery?
It was to no avail. They were out, leaving Sam and me just a twosome in our Mexican adventure. Still, we packed up my hatchback. "We'll be fine," I said. "... Right?"
I considered myself pretty well-traveled: I've been to Europe, Asia, South America and beyond. I've stayed in plenty of hostels. I've lived out of a backpack. Surely Mexico, a country I could drive to and whose food I already adored, would be a simple undertaking.
But as we crossed into Tecate, everything changed, foolish as that sounds. I felt like Dorothy realizing she wasn't in Kansas anymore.
I'd been reading and writing a lot about Baja, and it seemed like home to such a bounty: Baja Med cuisine, incredible craft beers, a monthlong wine festival, the only cheese cellar in Latin America open to tours. Inevitably, under each write-up lay a comments section laced with warnings: Crossing the border is dangerous! People die! Beware!
Mostly I'd ignored them. Fearmongers, I thought. They probably don't even own passports. They're just falling prey to media hype. Americans love to be scared. What do they know?
I'd been smug up to that point, and quickly realized I had no real right. What did I know? I didn't speak Spanish, I had no pesos, I couldn't read the signs, I wasn't sure if we were on the right road and Google Maps wasn't working on my iPhone. "Holy shit, we're really in Mexico," I said.
After navigating Tecate, we headed south on the 3 highway, a winding road through scenic mountains, and I relaxed, much like someone with a fear of flying slowly realizing the plane isn't crashing. We entered the town of Francisco Zarco, and the streets got lively again. We shared the road with dozens of Mexican cowboys. I could smell the street tacos. Signs for vino and queso started popping up. We stopped and tried some, fuddling in Spanglish. Excitement fluttered in my stomach. "We're really in Mexico," I said, this time feeling abuzz. I remembered why we came.
At our hotel, Adobe Guadalupe, we met our host. I didn't realize we'd have a host, but he knew our names. He poured us each a drink and gave us a tour of the mansion, which was magnificent, and told us we had free rein. Would we like to do a wine tasting? Of course! We should retire to our room until he called us.
Room keys? "We have none. No one locks their doors here."
At the tasting, he told us he's seen few Americans in recent years, and we replied we're generally still advised not to visit. Disappointed, he said, "It's as if I were to say, 'I'll go to no more movies' after what happened at one of your theaters." Touché.
For dinner that night, we ventured to a taco stand, where we ordered cinco asada tacos. The server asked a question in Spanish. We just shrugged, and he smirked, and shrugged, too. Cinco tacos showed up with fresh guacamole, salt and limes. We ordered tres más.
We stopped for gas on the way back, which we'd read online was "difficult." It's sold in liters and prices are marked in pesos -- it's "confusing," apparently. I gave the attendant a thumbs-up, indicating to fill it. We gave him pesos and drove off. Not difficult at all.
Up next: Coming home
The next evening, after excursions to Ensenada and Ojos Negros, we checked into Villa del Valle, barely making our reservation at Corazon de Tierra, the hotel's restaurant, where we enjoyed a seven-course dinner. After the meal, one of the hotel staff was waiting with a torch to guide us back through the garden. We had a bottle of wine sent to the room and sat on the balcony, overlooking the peaceful, moonlit Mexican countryside. Fear was far from my mind.
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But perhaps that's because we were behind a guarded gate. I became painfully aware in that moment that I was enjoying elite privilege -- one I can't typically afford on my home soil. An experience like this in Napa would cost thousands of dollars. Does that make me an ugly American, then, that I indulged in Baja? The line between traveler and tourist can get blurry sometimes, as can that between healthy fear and irrational fear.
Waiting in line to cross back into the States, Sam and I chattered about what we'd do next time we came. Still, the moment we got over the border, I felt a tinge of relief, just as I do every time my plane finally touches down.
The fact is, travelers can have an incredibly rich experience in Baja, but there is risk. Just as there's risk, on some level, every time you get behind the wheel, or get on a plane or, apparently, go to a movie. But how much do you miss if you never venture outside the gate?
See also: *Anthony Bourdain's Baja Episode of No Reservations Will Make You Want to Cross the Border. *OC Weekly's column Tijuana Sí!. Follow me on Twitter at @myso_callife, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.