By Dennis Moore
December 7, 2008 (Tecate) — Between the desert and the sea beats the heart of Baja California: Tecate, Mexico (not to be confused with the American city by the same name just across the border). Located in the northern central part of the state, Tecate is the ideal starting destination to every other city or point of interest in the region including Mexicali, Ensenada, La Rumorosa, Tijuana, Rosarito Beach and San Diego, California.
La Rumorosa, a solid rock mountain range between Tecate and Mexicali, affords breathtaking scenery to the desert below. During wintertime, the snow-covered mountains of La Rumorosa bring a winter wonderland atmosphere to the area, the Mexican counterpart to Vail or Aspen, Colorado.
Tecate is referred to as the more "relaxed" city in Baja California, as opposed to Tijuana and Rosarito Beach. With an approximate population of 100,000, Tecate straddles the border of east San Diego, California and Baja, Mexico, nestled at the base of East County's mountains, just 55 minutes from downtown San Diego on old Highway 94.
One wonders how Tecate escapes the violence and corruption that the media has recently associated with Tijuana and Rosarito Beach. Perhaps it may be due to Tecate's small town image. Tecate is famous for its brewery, but also gives a glimpse of life in a non-tourist Mexican village. Tijuana and Rosarito Beach, on the other hand, seem to thrive and rely on tourism, which brings with it many of the social ills that can contribute to violence and corruption.
Tecate, about 30 miles east of Tijuana, is a small town--a place where you can still sense tranquility, friendliness from its people, and hospitality. But being a small community certainly does not limit the options for visitors, rather, it enhances those options. Vinos Tanama, for one, is the first winery at the start of the northern entrance to the Wine Country route. Tanama, appropriately, means "Place of fertile ground, where water runs and oaks grow." This off-the-beaten track winery offers wine tasting and tours of its cellar: my kind of place!
Tecate takes great pride in its numerous parks, as well it should. Hildalgo Park in the center of town serves as a hub for shoppers, school children and anyone interested in a friendly game of dominoes. The tantalizing aroma of yeast from the nearby brewery wafts through the air, making you alternately hungry for homemade bread or thirsty for an ice cold beer. No visit to Tecate would be complete without a stop at the brewery for that free sample.
Set in the rugged and rural Tecate highlands down Highway 3, the Rosita Resort Inn Hotel towers above the road less than four miles from Tecate's downtown. I can envision myself there with my laptop computer, finishing up the book that I have been working on for years. The tranquility of this location would suit me, as well as other tourists just wanting to get away.
That is the contrast between Tecate and Tijuana. Visitors are discovering Tecate as a relatively safe and charming alternative to Tijuana and other areas that have seen violence in recent weeks. Having lived in Tijuana for two years, making the comparison between Tecate and other parts of Baja California comes easy. Sure, there were times when I would cross the border late at night in Tijuana, and walk across the bridge towards Revolution Avenue to catch a bus or cab, and I would be somewhat concerned about my safety. I had heard the horror stories about the muggings and kidnappings associated with Tijuana and Rosarito Beach, as well as the numerous murders recently, but I tended to look at it as; "it comes with the territory." The five shooting deaths at the Club Utopia in Tijuana most recently give me cause for concern, as I recall the numerous times that I would ride by the bar en route to the San Ysidro border crossing.
Tijuana and Rosarito Beach bring an allure and/or intrigue that tourists tend to gravitate towards. Tecate, by contrast, offers a type of tourist attraction best described as a slower pace of life, having the charm of an authentic Mexican village rather than the hustle and bustle of a tourist destination. Besides the Tecate Brewery, the large beer factory offering tours in the city's center, Tecate also boasts a famous spa, the Rancho la Puerta, where you can enjoy a day of relaxation. Rancho La Puerta, founded in 1940 and recognized as the first Destination SPA as well as the starter of the fitness revolution, is one of the best in its genre. Or, you can head east to the resort campgrounds of Hacienda Santa Veronica or Rancho los Chabacanos.
Having written an article recently in the Baja Times Newspaper in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, titled, "Accentuate the Positive", I found myself struggling to find and say something positive about Tijuana and Rosarito Beach. I have no such problem or concern with Tecate.
Perhaps most intriguing to me about Tecate is its reputation as a haven for writers and artists. Being a writer myself, I can think of no more tranquil environment to stimulate my artistic senses than Tecate.
The San Diego Railroad Museum has special events over the course of each year which include special trips from the U.S. side of the border (Campo) to Tecate, usually in combination with wine tasting or a tour of the Tecate brewery. It is interesting to note that Tecate Beer is a sponsor of the 40th Annual Tecate SCORE Baja 500 race in Baja California, with over 300 entries from 24 states and seven countries, held from May 29th thru June 1st.
Caliente, an off track betting (OTB) establishment, is favored by a lot of Americans who cross the border into Tecate just for the opportunity to place their wagers.
Tecate is not perfect, nor totally free of crime in modern-day Baja California. But, the point is that no visitors have been harmed and the total level of violence has been minimal compared to other areas. In this day and age no city is immune to violence or crime, as the recent Mumbai terror attacks reveal. My hometown of Chicago has even been plagued by crime and acts of violence recently. Just last year, while sitting on my deck with another American friend and neighbor in Tijuana, we entered into a discussion with each other about a Tecate policeman who had been murdered in his home after he had supposedly taken pictures of a tunnel being dug under the border from the Mexican side to the American side. After the shooting of this high-ranking police officer, a resident of the community stated; "It's very peaceful here, these kinds of things don't happen here. They do in Tijuana--but not here,"according to the San Diego Union-Tribune Newspaper. Speculation was rampant at the time about the motivation, but it seems to be an anomaly, as nothing similar in the area has occurred and it does not seem to have affected the level of tourism.
Sinaloa state (Culiacan, Mexico), just south of Tecate and Tijuana, is also in the grip of Mexico's drug violence. Just recently thirteen bullet-riddled bodies were found along a dirt road in Sinaloa state, home to the drug cartel of the same name. We, Americans, have a tendency to glorify or be vicariously attracted to the allure of the violence in Mexico and our own American cities, as evidenced in the Tom Cruise movie, "Collateral", in which Tom Cruise, playing the role of a hit-man for the drug cartel in Sinaloa state (Culiacan), questions a jazz musician about his time in Culiacan, before shooting him to death. Yes, there is a perception problem in Mexico of violence and crime, and the recent much-publicized beheadings associated with the drug cartel have not helped. Fortunately, none of that seems to be associated with Tecate! An acquaintance of mine that has spent extensive time in Tecate recently communicated to me that Mexico seems to be spiraling towards anarchy, and indicated that he may stay away for awhile until things get better.
Obviously, Tecate and the rest of Baja California will have work to accomplish in restoring the confidence that tourists and visitors once had in the area, but I have no doubt that it will come in time. The mayors of Baja California, recently got together to give their state-of-the-city address, or informe, speaking on the progress that their respective cities have made in regard to protecting public safety.
If it is true that; "a picture is worth a thousand words", check out the pictures of Tecate presented. One thing that you will not see in Tecate is federal police patrolling the city, as in my former neighborhood in Tijuana, due to crime or concerns of safety. Indeed, Tecate is one of the safest neighborhoods in all of Baja California. For my part, I prefer to â"accentuate the positive"-- that risk is minimal while rewards are substantial. There are so many positive things about Baja Norte, even the Tijuana to Ensenada corridor. From Tecate to the Guadalupe Valley, there are so many things to accentuate--not just the drinking and night life, but the people and their history.
Tecate, this small town Mexican village with tree-lined central park and gazebo, is not a typical border town--and it is well worth the visit. It now seems that Tecate is emerging as the choice for many tourists seeking a tranquil and safe destination.
Dennis Moore is a member of the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild, and a writer/contributor to the Baja Times Newspaper in Rosarito Beach, Mexico. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.