Tecate: A Better Border
Tecate is just 45km (30 miles) east of Tijuana and San Diego, but it's a world away from Tijuana's urban sprawl. This provincial border town is Baja's oldest, and before the Tecate brewery opened the taps in 1943, it was a dusty agricultural supply stop and not much more. Since then, a small city has grown up around the sleepy main square, but the center of town still has an old-fashioned, dusty feel, and the taco stands and occasional mariachi band on Parque Hidalgo are as lively as it gets. That's a large part of its appeal -- and local tourism authorities are just starting to capitalize on it, with a small but growing series of food, beer, wine, and music events.
Getting There -- North of the border, you'll take California Hwy. 94 for 66km (41 miles) to Hwy. 188 south to the crossing; south of the border, Tecate lies right at the intersection of highways 2 and 3. It's a 30- to 45-minute drive from Tijuana, 2 hours from Ensenada. Many visitors from the U.S. side of the border opt to park and walk.
The old Ferrocarril Tijuana-Tecate train linking the two border towns has been reincarnated as a tourist attraction, with daylong Saturday outings including a 2-hour train ride each way in double-decker cars and a mariachi performance in Tecate. Tickets and schedules are at the train stations in Tijuana (Av. Ferrocarril 1; tel. 664/324-0360) and Tecate (Bl. Defensores de Baja California 53 next to the Cervecería Tecate; tel. 665/521-2903; www.fcbc.com.mx). Previously, another rail option was the antique rail cars that ran from San Diego. However, this route is closed indefinitely due to damage from a tunnel fire. Check sdrm.org to see if it's been repaired.
Visitor Information -- Tecate's tourism office is across from the park on Callejon Libertad (tel. 665/654-5892). The center of town life is at Parque Hidalgo, five blocks south of the border on Cárdenas; it's a pleasant square lined with restaurants and taco stands, which double as Tecate's only nightlife. South of the square, Benito Juárez is the town's main drag, leading east and west to highways 2 and 3. Up-to-date information on bars, restaurants, and activities (in Spanish) is at www.entecate.com.
Fast Facts -- A pharmacy and hospital (tel. 665/654-5803) are at Juárez and Gil, south of downtown. The Bancomer bank on Parque Hidalgo has an ATM.
Exploring Tecate -- This untouristy town's number-one attraction is the Cervecería Tecate (tel. 665/654-9478; www.cuamoc.com), brewers of the beer that's made the town famous throughout Mexico and California. Founded in 1943, it makes for an interesting tour for beer nuts and their friends; afterwards, enjoy a free beer in the beer garden. It's at Hidgalo and Obregón, the biggest building in town. Tours run Monday to Friday 9am to noon and 3 to 5pm and Saturday 10am to noon; call a day in advance to make sure there's someone to show you around, and leave jewelry and sandals at home.
For further attractions, you'll have to head out of town, to the 500-year-old cave paintings at El Vallecito (tel. 686/552-8279), near la Rumorosa 10km (6 miles) out of town along the highway to Mexcali. Although the paintings aren't as old or as vast as those in the Sierra de San Francisco or Guadalupe, they provide one clue that demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of timekeeping: A painting known as El Diablito is positioned so that every year on December 21, the winter solstice, it's illuminated by a ray of sunlight. To get to El Vallecito, take Hwy. 2 to the Vallecitos exit. Entrance is 35 pesos; there are guides and maps for a mile-long self-guided tour.
In August, the Cocinarte food festival (tel. 665/654-1381; http://cocinarte.canacotecate.org) brings a gastronomic focus to town; in September, it's beer time, with the Festival de la Cerveza (tel. 665/108-9257; http://tktbeerfest.com). The first weekend of October is Tecate's all-in-one patronage festival, a beer-drinking mariachi-playing birthday party for the town.
Where to Stay & Eat -- The swankiest digs in town are unquestionably at Rancho la Puerta, a five-star spa retreat 5km (3 miles) out of town. The beautiful stone chalet at Rancho Los Chabacanos (tel. 665/655-1624; www.rancholoschabacanos.com), 15 minutes to the east, isn't half bad either, with an organic apricot orchard and ecotouristy pursuits like kayaking and bird-watching, for $80 to $160 a night, and $285 for a two-bedroom villa. If your pockets aren't that deep, La Estancia Inn (tel. 665/521-3066; www.laestanciainn.com.mx; 3km/2 miles west of town at Benito Juárez 1450) is an upscale motel with guarded parking, a swimming pool, and 89 well-kept rooms for 706 to 807 pesos a night in low season, 848 to 951 pesos in high season.
This is not a foodie town, and most of the culinary action is at the taco stands that line the central Plaza Hidalgo. Tecate is known locally for excellent bakeries, however, including El Mejor Pan, in business since 1969 (tel. 665/654-0040; www.elmejorpandetecate.com), in the center at Juárez 331.