At the height of Mexico’s cartel violence in the mid-2000s, Baja became a no-go zone to American tourists, who refused to cross the California border. In recent years, however, the region has settled down and undergone a transformation with the opening of craft breweries, trendy restaurants and galleries in Tijuana. Just an hour and a half south, Baja’s beautiful Valle de Guadalupe wine country has become a hotbed of culinary and oenological bounties. The Valle’s Ruta del Vino showcases Mexican modernist architectural marvels and boutique hotels tucked among vineyards frequented by telenovela starlets and San Diego pensioners.
But with its newfound popularity, Baja also has lost many of its traditional haunts, which have been replaced by gastronomically adventurous experiments. If you’re searching for the real gem of classic Baja, though, look no further than Popotla, a rough-and-tumble fishing village just a 20-minute drive south of spring-breaker hot spot Rosarito.
The small but bustling town is perched like a barnacle alongside Baja Studios, a 51-acre oceanside movie lot where the mega-blockbuster Titanic was shot in 1996. While the studio is well past its heyday, Popotla rages on — literally in its shadow. Avoid the town’s shoddy, thatched-roof restaurants and head down to the surf, where the real anarchic action is. Food here is best served under an open sky — and straight from the sea.
Although the area is Anthony Bourdain–approved, there’s no buttoned-up elegance here. If fanciness is what you seek — if you’re a little fresa, as it’s said in Mexico — then stay in Alta California. Here in Popotla, it’s all about rustic flavors and a rugged feel.
Try any one of dozens of stalls, each serving up its own spin on al fresco feasts. Shirtless cooks lord over oil-drum grills that cast a smoky veil as fresh lobster, shrimp or octopus roasts upon the flames. Order from a laminated menu, and a woman will come by with a whole snapper or rockfish for inspection. Give a thumbs-up and out comes the machete to fillet it. Onto the mesquite fire it goes. The fresh dish is prepared Zarandeado-style, slathered with garlic and ancho chile powder, rendering it as red as the tomatoes that garnish it. At foldout tables draped with torn awnings, sit elbow to elbow with wizened abuelas and their grandkids, or alongside surfer bros with sunglass tans as they sip Modelos and scarf fish bits with their bare hands.
Pay no attention to the cars parked on the beach, the tide rushing under their tires. Never mind the funky bathroom sitch. And ignore the lack of luxe comforts; they have no place here on the edge of the world. Instead, enjoy the procession of spectacles that surrounds you. Listen to the sounds of kids laughing at a clown who has wandered up, conjuring roses from squeaking balloons. Witness a pair of seals flopping onshore, begging for a spare mackerel, and a little attention, from strolling diners walking off a ceviche-and-frijoles lunch.
If you’re lucky, a baby hippo–sized pig may make a cameo, politely squeezing between the red plastic chairs as her pink fuzzy skin brushes against your leg, then snuffing her snout in the warm sand, searching for scraps. The friendly creature is anything but tomorrow’s carnitas; she’s Filomena, the swine queen of Popotla, whose free-roaming antics are welcomed by all with an almost royal reverence.
Amid the clamor of honking car horns, cracking beer cans and youngsters playing in puddles, there is something peaceful about it all, something almost ancient, that triumvirate of experiences uniting sun-drenched beaches around the world: fish, fire and friends. What more do you need?
Getting there: Cross the border and drive toward Playas de Tijuana, where you can perhaps grab a seaside michelada, then follow the coastline 1D federal highway for about 40 minutes. You’ll pay a few tolls along the way, but the view of the Pacific is unbeatable. Before you go, remember to pack your passport and pick up Mexican car insurance on the American side, before crossing. Expect a long line on the border on the way back. But the memory of ceviche on the beach is well worth the wait.
What to do: Spend the afternoon sampling traditionally prepared seafood, watching dolphins jump from the water and taking in other aquatic scenes you’ve seen only in tramp stamps and Lisa Frank trapper-keepers. When you’ve had your fill of beer and sunshine, visit the row of furniture shops, featuring insanely inexpensive, handmade works by local artisans.
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Where to eat: The offerings are nearly endless. Focus on certain dishes and experiences that are indigenous to the area, such as using a smooth river rock to crack open crab legs (those primordial foodies of the caveman era were onto something).
Where to stay: Skip the nearby resorts and Airbnb a Rosarito beach house. There’s also the funky surf hotel La Fonda, which is an unpredictable but often fun option, with a gargantuan buffet that would make even aspiring gluttons blush. If you want a que romantico weekend, stay at Cuatrocuatros near Ensenada, at the entrance to Baja wine country. Here, visitors sleep in sleek tent cabins positioned among the vines and can ride mountain bikes between the hulking hulls of landlocked fishing boats positioned throughout the expansive campus.
Wild card: Visit the nearby Baja Studios to pay homage to Leo and Kate at the compound’s Titanic museum. Re-enact key scenes and, if the spirit compels you, perform an impromptu Celine Dion song or two.