Unusual Road Trips for L.A.'s Most Intrepid Travelers
The farther we drove through Death Valley, the higher the temps and the more desolate the landscape.
A road trip should be an adventure, right? The whole point is to seek out the unexpected. So don't fault us for eschewing picturesque mountain resorts and postcard-worthy cliffside cabanas — and steering you instead toward a nondescript industrial park or the continent's undisputed low point. Never mind soothingly minimalist spas and thrillingly composed theme parks; we'd rather you end up at the end of a lonely, unmarked gravel road or on an island that has neither a bar or, well, electricity.
Let us assure you that what you'll lack in comfort you'll more than gain in intrigue. That industrial park happens to be home to the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, whose 21 tasting rooms offer none of Napa's snooty pretension but plenty of small-batch syrah and top-rated pinot noir. You might reach your lowest-ever point in Death Valley — but we bet you'll be simultaneously elated by its craterous landscape and striated rock tunnels. If you brave it to the end of that unnamed road (there are no addresses in Valle de Guadalupe) you'll be rewarded with freshly slaughtered borrego cooked three ways. And should you miss electricity while sequestered on the Channel Islands, just look up; there are more twinkling lights in that sky than in 100,000 downtown L.A.s.
The point is to get away. So if your idea of escape is convening not with like-minded humans but with a 4,845-year-old tree — or if you're cool with ditching L.A.'s hip boutiques and trendy clubs to peruse Tijuana's flea markets and dive bars — then let's get going already. We'll even let you ride shotgun.
The bristlecone pines were newborns when the Neolithic period ended and the Bronze Age began.
Pack your cooler and tent (or just take your credit card) for a starkly beautiful journey along the edge of the Mojave Desert, past rows of silenced jetliners parked like abandoned pickups at Mojave's Boneyard, through picturesque Owens Valley and the tiny cowboy towns of Lone Pine, Independence and Big Pine, up the switchbacks of punishing Highway 168, and finally to the 9,000-foot-and-higher elevations of the White Mountains in Inyo National Forest.
There, you come upon an almost impossible natural wonder, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, made up of trees that are among Earth's oldest living organisms.
Some are nearing 5,000 years of age. Older than the pyramids at Giza, the bristlecones were newborns when the Neolithic period ended and the Bronze Age began.
Arrayed along easy, groomed trails at Schulman Grove, these survivors of time — with their ghostly pale, weather-blasted trunks and twisty branches sprouting deep green needles — suggest a gathering of modest understudies to the Ents.
Stand quietly among them (you can gently touch them, in fact) and you'll feel a profound sense of awe. The oldest of these sentries are 4,845-year-old Methuselah, named after the oldest human in the Bible, and a very senior (and nameless) 5,062-year-old. Each stands without formal recognition, a decision by the U.S. Forest Service to protect Earth's most elder citizens from dotty mystics and flat-landers.
The Bristlecone Pine Forest Visitors Center, burned down by an arsonist hiker in 2008, is back, with terrific displays — guides will point out where on tree rings historic events occurred, from antiquity to when Columbus discovered the New World. It also features a lecture on how to use a tool to drill core-dating samples from fallen pines (anyone who attends can try the tool, including kids).
Wear sturdy shoes and be ready for wind, sun and cold — and take binoculars for a rare view of the southern Sierra Nevadas. The one-mile loop is best if you're worried about low oxygen levels, and it has lots of interpretive signs. The 4.5-mile Methuselah Trail takes you past the secret locale of Methuselah himself.
To make your trip an utter renunciation of all that is urban, stay at Grandview Campground, five miles south of Schulman Grove. For the ridiculous price of $5 you can set up your RV or tent at one of 23 campsites in a pinyon juniper woodland, outfitted with picnic tables carved from heartwood made from long-since-felled trees. Make gin and tonics around your campfire, and toss into your drink some mashed juniper berries off the tree.
The only serious campground rule is that you keep your lights low after dark, because the Milky Way pulses with brilliance. Mess with that wondrous night sky and you'll hear from other campers — who are often amateur or professional astronomers. —Jill Stewart
Getting there: The drive should take about five hours. Be sure to check all your fluids and brakes before you begin the 12.9-mile climb at Highway 168. From there, turn left on White Mountain Road for the final 10.4-mile, paved, twisty road that takes you to the visitor center parking lot.
What to do: Visit the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and Visitor Center, $3 per person or a maximum of $6 per car. Children are free. Other than that, hike, marvel at the trees and gaze at the stars.
Where to eat: Copper Top BBQ in Big Pine was named the best U.S. restaurant by Yelp. Order at the counter and watch ribs, pulled pork and chicken cook over the oak fire. Jeff's Country Kitchen, featuring leatherette booths, serves gigantic breakfasts.
Where to stay:
If you don't camp (no reservations are taken at Grandview Campground; it's first come, first served), Big Pine Motel is a 1940s classic with Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs. The proprietor knows every fishing hole and hike. But it books up fast. Your backup in these sparse parts is the quiet Best Western, 15 miles north in charming Bishop. Both are around $110 per night if you're lucky.
- Wild card: For a hard-core workout amid grandeur, hike to 200-foot-thick Palisade Glacier, a stunning Ice Age remnant.
The view of Valle de Guadalupe from Hotel Encuentro
Photo by Samanta Helou
The dust on the windshield of my old Honda Civic was thick as construction paper and the car's suspension was tested by every inch of bumpy, unpaved road. Over the next hill was La Cocina de Doña Esthela, a house in the middle of Mexico's burgeoning wine country, which dishes out the best lamb birria breakfast you'll ever eat.
"It's down there to the left, I think," I told my skeptical friends, only half believing myself.
After the dry earth gave way to gravel — and after enduring a 45-minute wait — we found ourselves sitting in La Doña's lace-curtained home kitchen. We sipped on café de olla, ate freshly slaughtered borrego cooked three ways and laughed at the collective hesitancy that had almost stopped us at the edge of the smooth asphalt a few miles back.
Like many things in the Valle de Guadalupe, your experience at La Doña has to be earned. There are no addresses here, few comprehensive travel guides and fewer paved streets. But if you figure out how to navigate the tangle of roadside signs and take time to indulge your spontaneity, Baja's Ruta del Vino will reward you with experimental wines, modern farm-to-table cuisine and unparalleled views of its picturesque landscape.
Start along the main highway, Ruta 3, which begins on the coast just north of Ensenada. Drive 30 minutes inland and the Ruta del Vino begins. Stay on this two-lane road and you'll come across the Valle's more accessible spots: wineries such as Vinícola Retorno and Hacienda Guadalupe (which is also a restaurant and hotel); El Mogor, a vineyard that's home to chef Drew Deckman's outdoor eatery; the Museo del Vino, where you can learn the history of vines in this arid land (hint: Russians); and L.A. Cetto, the largest winemaker in Mexico and almost a Disneyland for grapes, offering group tours and tastings that end at a well-stocked gift shop.
Turn off Ruta 3 anywhere along that 15-mile stretch, however, and a rustic magic takes hold. Here, after a few minutes rattling down unnamed roads, you'll find hideaways such as La Doña's, top-rated restaurants from Baja-Med chef superstars like Javier Plascencia and Diego Hernandez, and the majority of the region's vineyards, many planted in the last two decades.
Follow a straight dirt road all the way up the northern foothills to get to Las Nubes, a 7-year-old property with vines of tempranillo, nebbiolo and grenache so young that owner Victor Segura doesn't use them yet. Instead, he — like many of the Valle's best vintners — sources his grapes from older properties, including the 150-year-old Santo Tomás Winery and several leftover ejidos, which you can see from Las Nubes' tasting room, high above the valley floor.
"Soon, we'll find out what we're good at and start producing exclusively for our terroir," Segura says. "Until then, the grapes will have to tell me what they like." —Sarah Bennett
Getting there: It's a 3½- to four-hour drive, plus about an hour on the way back for traffic at the border crossing.
What to do: Museo del Vino is a slightly cheesy but worthwhile museum with exhibits on the history of the Valle and winemaking. Km. 81.3 Highway 3, $4, museodelvinobc.com. Godfather of Valle winemaking Hugo D'Acosta runs Estación de Oficios el Porvenir, a winemaking school, cafe and bar. Av. Emiliano Zapata, Manzana 9 s/n, free to enter/tour, $3 beers, estacionporvenir.org.
Where to eat: At Corazón de Tierra, Diego Hernandez (who is opening +52 in L.A. soon) sources vegetables from the garden outside his renowned restaurant. $60 for tasting menu, not including wine pairing, no address, corazondetierra.com. Troika Food Truck offers small bites and local craft beer from its spot in front of the Vena Cava tasting room. No address, no website. Javier Plascencia's Finca Altozano features an open-air kitchen and dining area plus giant wine barrels atop which you can drink the house vino. Dishes $5 to $20, no address, fincaaltozano.com. Once called "the French Laundry of Mexico," Laja serves up thoughtful farm-to-table tasting menus by chef Jair Téllez. $100 including wine pairing, Km. 83 Highway 3 Tecate-Ensenada, lajamexico.com. La Cocina de Doña Esthela serves the Valle's best breakfast. Dishes range from $5 to $15, no website or address.
Where to stay: La Villa del Valle is the B&B at the Vena Cava vineyard. $225 per night, no address, lavilladelvalle.com. Hotel Encuentro has minimal amenities, but each room is an architecturally stunning "eco-pod" nestled in the hills with views of the Valle. $400 per night, Carretera Tecate-Ensenada Km. 75, Valle de Guadalupe, 22750 Ensenada, antiresorts.com. Hotel Coral has ocean views in every room and a killer breakfast buffet close to Ruta 3 entrance. Carretera Tijuana-Ensenada Km. 103 #3421, Zona Playitas, 22860 Ensenada, $125 per night, hotelcoral.com/default-en.html.
- Wild card: Drive through Ensenada on your way in or out and stop for a ceviche tostada from legendary street cart La Guerrense and a stiff margarita at Hussong's, Baja's oldest bar. If you have time, enjoy a proper dinner of fresh seafood at Benito Molina's La Manzanilla.
Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park
Although Yosemite and Joshua Tree get more attention, Channel Islands National Park is one of the best in California. Encompassing five small but notably different destinations — Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara islands — the park boasts dramatic ocean views, pristine beaches and intimate camping.
It also offers a compelling history lesson told through the stories and artifacts left behind by the islands' previous residents, including farming families and the Chumash Indians.
Anacapa and Santa Cruz, the closest two islands to the shore, welcome tourists year-round, but the other three islands have shorter visiting seasons, so book early.
It's possible to do a day trip, but trekking to the Channel Islands for anything less than an overnight stay would be doing yourself a disservice. Camping overnight requires solid hiking and packing skills: Your stay is pack-in, pack-out, meaning you must bring everything you need with you and leave nothing behind. And if you don't pack smartly, the island's sneaky raven population will make you regret your mistakes. Flocks of the giant black birds live on the island, and they use their beaks to break into campers' backpacks and burgle food, shiny objects and underwear.
Each of the islands varies in flora and fauna, but they're all covered in critters cute and clawed. When ravens aren't trying to steal from you, the islands' tiny foxes will attempt to close in on your snack supply. (I once had to carefully convince a fox to get out of my tent.) You're likely to catch your first glimpse of the Channel Islands' animal population before you even reach dry land; the ferry out to the islands regularly stops for dolphin, whale and sea lion sightings.
After a day dedicated to the islands' many beautiful hikes, which lead visitors across fields of flowery vegetation, along sea cliffs and through rocky beaches, you'll need sleep and a full stomach to prepare for the next day, so be generous with your food supply, and don't pack anything that requires refrigeration or complicated preparation. (Fair warning: Avoid hardboiled eggs.)
If you have a few days to spend on the islands, travel between them on one of the daytime ferries — or better yet, rent a kayak and paddle through the coves scattered across the islands' shorelines.
Once the final outbound ferry departs the islands in the evening, carrying the day-trippers with it, you're left for the night with your fellow campers, a few island guides and the islands' animal residents. On Santa Cruz Island, eucalyptus trees shade the camping areas and scent them with a minty breeze. There's spotty cellphone reception — if you can get any at all — and no overhead lights, meaning you have no choice but to look up and count the stars. —Kelsey Whipple
Getting there: It's a 65-mile drive from downtown L.A. to Ventura Harbor, followed by a one- to two-hour ride on the Island Packers Ferry to Santa Cruz and Anacapa ($59 to $79 round-trip) or a three-hour ferry ride to Santa Rosa or Santa Barbara ($82 to $114 round-trip).
What to do: It's tiny, but the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center (right next to the Island Packers Ferry hub in Ventura Harbor) is worth a stop before you depart. Otherwise, explore the islands and commune with incomparable nature.
Where to stay: Scorpion campground on Santa Cruz Island, $15 per night, tent required. recreation.gov.
- Wild card: A trip to the Channel Islands makes an epic date. On my first visit, a happy couple waved me down to photograph them as they celebrated their engagement at Santa Cruz Island's picturesque Potato Harbor — one year after their first date to the same island.
On Your Way to the Channel Islands ... Take a Detour to the Jolly Oyster
Oysters are all the rage in trendy restaurants these days, but nothing beats the satisfaction of sucking down a fresh, briny bivalve that you just shucked yourself. Especially when that bivalve only cost you a buck.
At the Jolly Oyster on Ventura's San Buenaventura State Beach (911 San Pedro St., Ventura, thejollyoyster.com), two food trucks flank a humble cluster of picnic tables and charcoal grills, at which visitors are invited to set up shop and start shucking. One truck sells an assortment of prepared seafoods, including steamed clams and oyster tacos. But skip that and head for the "Shuck Shack," where you and your friends can load up on 40 oysters for just $40 (or $1.25 each), plus Manila clams for as little as $5 per pound. They also sell a few sauces and shucking knives, which they'll gladly teach you to use if you're a newbie.
The oysters here, all farm-raised in Baja, come in three varieties: sweet, delicate Kumamotos, which are best eaten raw, with a spritz of lemon juice; big, meaty Pacifics, which are delicious when grilled and even better served raw with a dollop of horseradish; and a new hybrid called the Jolly, which combines the best briny and sweet elements of both.
The Jolly Oyster is BYOB, making it one of the few places in California where you can openly drink on a state beach — or at least near it, as the Shuck Shack is set back a few hundred feet from the sand. So bring a bottle of something white and dry (Albariño is a good bet, or maybe a Spanish cava, if you're feeling bubbly), as well as some crusty bread, lemons, sauces and side dishes, and make an afternoon of it. (Pro tip: Call ahead to reserve a picnic table, especially on holiday weekends, when the place fills up fast.) —Andy Hermann
OK, so maybe calling the nondescript industrial park behind the Lompoc Home Depot a "ghetto" is a bit of a stretch. But it's not a stretch to say that the Lompoc Wine Ghetto is home base for some of California's most exciting winemakers.
About 60 miles north of Santa Barbara and once known mainly as the home of Vandenberg Air Force Base and a federal prison, Lompoc is more remote and far less quaint than its touristy neighbors, Buellton and Solvang. But it's that off-the-beaten-path quality — and cheaper rents — that first lured winemakers to the Sobhani Industrial Center in the late 1990s. Initially the facility was used strictly for production and storage, but by the early 2000s a few tasting rooms began to appear. Today there are 21 of them, all within walking (or stumbling) distance of one another.
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You'll get none of Napa's snooty pretension here, nor will you find the opulent, tourist-fleecing gift shops of Santa Barbara County's large-production wineries. Most of the tasting rooms at the Ghetto are small and bare-bones, putting the focus squarely on what's in your glass.
The main source of grapes in the Ghetto is the nearby Santa Rita Hills, one of the best regions in the country (and likely the world) for pinot noir. Nearly every winery here pours a great one, in a variety of styles, from light-bodied and bracingly acidic to rich and earthy. Fiddlehead and Longoria are justly among the most celebrated, but don't skip Arcadian, Flying Goat and one of the Ghetto's up-and-comers, Pali Wine Company, whose 2012 Huntington pinot noir cracked Wine Spectator's Top 100 list last year, beating out better-known regional giants such as Sanford and Sea Smoke.
There are surprises to be found throughout the Ghetto as well. Stolpman is a veteran winery best known for its inky syrah, but its take on roussanne, a white grape from the Rhône Valley, is lush and complex enough to convert the most die-hard reds-only drinker. At Palmina, acclaimed winemaker Steve Clifton (of Brewer-Clifton, one of Lompoc's first wineries) and his wife, Chrystal, experiment with Italian varietals, producing delightful spins on dolcetto, nebbiolo, malvasia bianca and other grapes rarely seen in this region. And at Flying Goat, Norm Yost turns some of his winery's pinot and chardonnay into "Goat Bubbles," sparkling wines that dance on the tongue with bright, yeasty flavors.
One of the most entertaining stops in the Ghetto is Taste of Sta. Rita Hills, a tasting room featuring a rotating selection of juice from local winemakers that don't normally pour for the public. Depending on the day you stop in, this could mean anything from a small-batch syrah made in someone's garage to a hard-to-find, limited release from a big-name producer such as Clos Pepe or Ken Brown.
Be warned: A trip to the Ghetto can be intoxicating in more ways than one. Nearby food options are limited, so order a sandwich to go from Sissy's Uptown Café in downtown Lompoc (see sidebar), or plan to take a 10-minute walk to Foster's Freeze when you can sip no further. Also, while most tasting rooms are open to the public Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., many are closed or appointment-only on weekdays — so schedule your visit accordingly. —Andy Hermann
Getting there: Count on a 2½-hour drive from downtown L.A.
What to do: Tasting fees at most wineries are $10 to $15, which is waived with the purchase of a bottle. lompoctrail.com.
Where to eat (and/or continue drinking): Sissy's Uptown Café is a cozy lunch spot near the Ghetto with salads, quiche and hot and cold sandwiches. sissysuptowncafe.com. Terravant is a hidden gem in the back of an industrial park, with a "Wine Wall" that dispenses tasting-size portions of 52 different wines, plus small plates, burgers and pizzas. avantwines.com. The Hitching Post II — as seen in Sideways — serves steak, steak and more steak. hitchingpost2.com.
Where to stay: Travelodge Lompoc has basic accommodations stumbling distance from the Ghetto for $70 to $150 per night. travelodge.com. Days Inn Windmill Buellton, aka the "Sideways hotel," charges $70 to $150 per night. daysinnbuellton.com. Both vary by season and night of the week.
- Wild card: La Purisma Mission State Historic Park, about a five-minute drive from the Ghetto, is a 2,000-acre park that's home to the most extensively restored mission in California, as well as more than 25 miles of hiking trails. And no, you're not seeing things after too much wine — the mission really is painted salmon pink. lapurisimamission.org.
While You're in Lompoc ... Take a Side Trip to Denmark (by Way of Solvang)
Throughout my first visit to Solvang, I couldn't shake the feeling that the city had somehow been transplanted from Epcot. But while both places operate with tourists in mind, the California city is much older than the Florida theme park. Danish-American educators established Solvang ("sunny field" in Danish) as a Danish-inspired settlement in 1911, and while not every detail of that country's heritage rings authentic today, the result is a fun and quirky destination. Bonus: The stunning drive through the Santa Ynez Valley on the way in is a windows-down, playlist-on experience.
Solvang's most popular attractions introduce visitors to Danish history in different ways, starting with the stomach. The entire heart of Solvang is walkable, meaning you're never more than a block from a dish of aebleskiver, warm, doughy doughnut holes with piping hot strawberry jam inside and a layer of powdered sugar on top. Dozens of local restaurants offer a smorgasbord option for lunch and dinner, which lets you sample as much Danish fare (heavy on meatballs and sausages) as you can before re-buttoning your pants and setting off to shop for clogs, handmade lace and other Danish arts and crafts.
Solvang's most popular attractions include the cross-beamed buildings and working windmills that dot its city center, a small but earnest Hans Christian Andersen Museum inside local bookstore the Book Loft, a handful of statues inspired by the famous Danish author (including a sizable bust of Andersen himself and a Little Mermaid fountain similar to the original statue in Copenhagen) and a few historic Danish churches.
History buffs can further their education at the Elverhoj Art and History Museum, dedicated to Danish heritage, and the Wilding Museum, which centers on nature photography, as well as the nearby Old Mission Santa Inés. —Kelsey Whipple
Death Valley National Park
They say that the journey is the destination, but let's face it: Usually that's bullshit. Death Valley is the exception. It's impossible to stay in one place for too long; you'll fry.
The very name suggests dangerous extremes: the world's hottest recorded temperature (134 degrees, on July 10, 1913), the hemisphere's lowest point (282 feet below sea level), America's biggest national park outside of Alaska (nearly 5,300 square miles, larger than Connecticut). A spooky beauty permeates its craterous landscapes, looming peaks and striated rock tunnels, punctuated by some incongruous architecture.
My friend Michael and I took our time on a rambling, 6.5-hour route from L.A., through places with vaguely foreboding names — Boron, Randsburg, China Lake Naval Weapons Station, Trona. The farther we drove, the higher the temps and the more desolate the landscape.
Finally, a downhill sweep deposited us back at sea level, in Stovepipe Wells. The park's original settlement is now a tourist village: Old West–style motel, general store, the all-important saloon and the even more important gas station and national park pass vending machine.
A few miles northeast, we walked among the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, feeling like R2-D2 and C-3PO trudging across the desert landscape of Tatooine (parts of that scene, among others, were filmed here). From there, it was 20-plus miles to Furnace Creek — another foreboding name — our home for the evening. Nothing was cheap here during our visit, in the April wildflower season, so we felt fortunate to snag a room for about $240 at the Ranch at Furnace Creek, basically a well-kept motel compound with tennis courts and a pool. There's also an RV park and campground for tighter-budgeted travelers.
After the long trip, our important business was prickly pear margaritas on the hacienda-style deck of the Ranch's upscale sister property, Inn at Furnace Creek (circa 1927), a mile or so away. The warm glow we felt was more than the sum of tequila, sugar and a sunset designed by some western Monet, sprawling across the saltpans and behind the Panamint Mountains.
I spent the night dreaming of reds, ochres and all colors of sand, and in the morning we paid a visit to the moonscape surface of Badwater, the continent's lowest point. The salt on my cargo shorts from sitting down for my Badwater selfie is now permanently imprinted.
On the 9-mile Artists Drive, a twisty-turny, Mr. Toad–style loop, we were wowed by the ever-changing patchwork of mineral deposits on mountain façades. From there we headed 60 miles northwest to our final stop: Scotty's Castle, the 1930s Spanish-style villa of eccentric tale-teller and legendary charmer Walter E. Scott. The home, with its red tile roof, pipe organ and sheepskin drapes, is as flashy as he was.
It was an appropriate ending, a sendoff back to the place where modern tale-tellers spin their stories into new castles of their own. —Andrew Bender
Getting there: It's at least a four-hour drive from downtown L.A.
What to do: It's all about nature: Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, Badwater salt flats, 600-foot-deep Ubehebe Crater, dozens of hiking trails lined with rocks that look painted, and the Racetrack, where boulders slide downslope on their own (it's accessible only by high-clearance vehicle with heavy-duty tires).
What to eat and drink: Most hotels have restaurants and bars covering all-American basics (plus a great beer selection at Panamint Springs Resort, panamintsprings.com). In season, put on your resort wear (there's a dress code) for three clubby squares (plus Sunday brunch) at the Dining Room at the Inn at Furnace Creek (details below).
Where to stay: At Furnace Creek Resort, the upscale Inn at Furnace Creek closes from mid-May to mid-October, but the motel-style Ranch at Furnace Creek is open year-round; summer rates run $129 to $199, and campgrounds start at $18 per night. furnacecreekresort.com. Beat the heat (it's up to 15 degrees cooler) for about two-thirds the price at rustic Panamint Springs Resort (elevation about 1,950 feet), a 55-mile drive from Furnace Creek.
Wild card: On your way home, detour out the park's east side to Death Valley Junction and witness the faded glory of the 1920s Amargosa Opera House (amargosa-opera-house.com), with its deliciously creaky Spanish-Colonial motel, or take a soak at Tecopa Hot Springs (tecopahotsprings.org).
Tijuana's Verde y Crema
Photo by Sarah Bennett
Tijuana's bad reputation is the best thing that ever happened to it. A decade ago, vacationers shunned the border town (population 1.3 million), writing it off as a wasteland for bravado-seeking frat boys and pharmaceutical junkies. Then the lousy tourists left, too, scared away by the vague idea that Mexico was too violent.
Good riddance. In their absence, Tijuana rebuilt itself for the locals, who revamped the bars on the infamous Avenida Revolución into places where they'd want to hang out. Today's Zona Central pub crawl is a blast. Instead of threading through hissing drug hawkers, you can bounce from Dandy del Sur, a perfect, dimly lit dive bar, to tasting house La Mezcalera, whose 18-flavor mezcal sampler includes chicken and hazelnut, to Mous Tache, a tiny punk-rock venue with themed shots such as the Hercules Poirot (vodka/lemon/triple sec) or Burt Reynolds (Jack Daniels/almond liquor). Each bar is just minutes apart on foot — with taco carts in between.
But you don't have to be drunk to enjoy Tijuana. It's a city where retro kitsch co-exists with youth culture. You could spend a Saturday afternoon at the greyhound track or a cosplay convention, where teenagers lip-sync to choreographed J-pop. At night, the tiny Cinemático Café screens double and triple bills of art-house and revival flicks, say the original Mad Max movies or three by the Wachowskis, and occasionally the filmmakers themselves will call in and do a Q&A on Skype.
Of course, you'll want to see if you can track down a lucha libre bout. And it's worth checking out a Toros de Tijuana baseball game or the local basketball team, the Zonkeys. For the daring, a few times each summer the Bullring by the Sea — a stunning stadium with a view of the Pacific — hosts a proper bullfight. The spectacle is tough to watch, and the salesmen hawking beef jerky don't help. But the corrida's complicated emotions stick to your soul. Go once to understand why Ernest Hemingway called bullfighting both a tragedy and one of the only real sports. (There's no need to go twice.)
On Sunday mornings, take a cab up the hill to the sprawling Colonia Francisco Villa flea market, or tianguis, which is so huge you could wander for an hour and see only a fraction of the shoes, toys, clothes and art lining every foot of the winding, tarp-covered maze. The shopping is hit-or-miss. The real reason to visit is the market's phenomenal street food, where a buck or two will buy you a bite of outstanding chorizo gorditas, fried fish tacos or tart lime-and-chile shaved ice.
A cheap lunch will balance a decadent dinner at Misión 19, where the six-course tasting menu includes bites of scallop parfait with avocado and chicharrón, and the umami punch of mushroom risotto with huitlacoche and epazote. (At 700 pesos — roughly $50 — it's an affordable splurge.) Other musts: the elaborate octopus and marlin tacos at Tacos Kokopelli, a truck that recently upgraded into a proper restaurant, and Caesar's, a 90-year-old institution on Avenida Revolución, where the Caesar salad was invented, and where it's still prepared with great ceremony at your table. While the clubby, checkered-floor interior bar is tempting, grab a patio seat and bask in Tijuana's bustling new energy. —Amy Nicholson
Getting there: It's about a three-hour drive from downtown L.A., although heavy traffic at the border crossing (especially returning to the United States) can add to that.
What to do: Wander the infamous — and reformed — Avenida Revolución. Get lost in the Colonia Francisco Villa flea market, which sells everything you didn't think you needed; it overtakes the hilltop Francisco Villa neighborhood every Sunday, and your taxi driver will know where to go.
What to eat and drink: At La Mezcalera, sample more than a dozen mezcals in a hip, dark saloon. Calle Sexta, Flores Magón 8267, Zona Centro. Chef Javier Plascencia's tasting menu at Misión 19 is worth the entire trip. Calle Misión de San Javier 10643, 2nd floor; mission19.com.
Where to stay: Hotel Ticuán. A calm spot just off Avenida Revolución. Calle 8va 8190, Zona Centro. A double is 1,350 pesos (1,000 pesos Sunday to Thursday), which at current exchange rates is about $86. hotelticuan.mx.
Wild card: Taxis are cheap — most drivers will quote you $5 for a short trip — so to keep things stress-free, simply park your car in a protected lot on the U.S. side of the border and walk across.
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