Dos amigos go off-road through Mexican wine country
By Kyle Hall / Photos by Nick Tooman
Whether for a night on Calle Sexta in TJ, tequila shots at Papas & Beer in Rosarito or wet T-shirt contests in Cabo, Baja has been seen as a drinking destination for decades.
Over the past few years, however, a region for more cultured imbibing has been rising to prominence — Valle de Guadalupe, home to more than 50 well-respected boutique wineries. Located 70 miles south of the border, this burgeoning mecca is the perfect destination, but seeing as how the journey
is supposedly more important, planning the best way to get there is vital.
Fortunately, a company called Too Much fun Promotions recently put together a one-of-a-kind, 110-mile off-road journey into Valle de Guadalupe, which promises to be way cooler than taking a party bus.
In the spirit of never recommending anything we wouldn’t try ourselves, a brave photographer friend, Nicholas Tooman, and I set off to experience the dangers of the dusty road firsthand. What follows is a Tecate-fueled account of our 60-hour tour through three Baja California cities that give three very different impressions of the new Mexico, none of which involve binge-drinking spring breakers.
The new border crossing has the feel of a dystopian prison block, but just a short walk from the retail mayhem on the other side, Tijuana has the feel of a bustling LA sprawl. The road out of town is riddled with charming eccentricities like gas stations cut into the sides of mountains, while houses cling to the newly formed cliffs above. What would be outrageous north of the border are novel curiosities here. Once-common checkpoints manned by assault rifle-wielding, plain-clothed soldiers have been replaced by reduced-speed zones manned by construction workers in orange jumpsuits working to expand the road. In fact, the only guns we see over the entire three-day trip are in the hands of guards straddling the border. When we return to TJ Friday, we stopped in to check out one of Baja’s newest brewpups, Baja Craft Beer (BCB). After hydrating with two pints of their red ale, I could easily have been convinced I was back in the states, and not just because the brew was strong. The bar — from the unfinished/industrial interior to the well-dressed clientele — would have fit right into any major American metropolis. It was cemented: this is not the Tijuana of my youth.
Even though we take the scenic route, we arrive at the Rosarito Beach hotel within an hour of crossing the border. We spend the next few hours exploring the relatively vacant tourist destination during its mid-week lull (see impresiones), before meeting up with our guide, Armando Carrasco.
A former race promoter, and owner of the aptly named Too Much fun Promotions, Carrasco, through decades of cultivated relationships, has gained access to a 55-mile route to wine country unlike any other. Meandering over privately held land, the dirt roads are accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicle, and only with permission.
We meet Carrasco in the lobby of the hotel before heading to dinner at La Estancia Steak house. As we discuss our impending journey over margaritas and some unreal queso dip, he fills us in on his 33 years in the promotions game and his future plans.
“The plan is to re-invent Too Much Fun, re-invent tourism in Baja and give people a reason to come,” Carrasco says. Within 24 hours, we’ll know whether or not he’s succeeded. (Spoiler Alert: he nailed it!)
After parting ways with Carrasco, Tooman and I hit the town to connect with locals through the universal languages of billiards and bourbon. After several games in a local dive bar, we crash, but only after going on a fruitless 3:30 a.m. taco search.
We drag our equipment downstairs to meet Carrasco and his mechanic, Victor Valenzuela, and get a look at our transportation. At first glance, the silver UTV (utility type vehicle) isn’t impressive, more like something a golf course groundskeeper would drive than anything adrenaline-inducing. It’s going to be a long day if we have to golf-cart our way to the valley.
At least there are beer coolers under the seats.
About 30 seconds after gassing the engine, the wind in our faces peels away the alcohol haze. Now, we’re flying across rough terrain at speeds upwards of 40 miles an hour, and not going fast enough is the least of our concerns.
We’re hung over, exhausted and barely a mile down the road, but we’re giggling like toddlers as we jostle about while following Carrasco and Valenzuela in the lead vehicle.
A couple hours of giddiness and at least 30 proclamations of “This is too much fun!” later, we pull off the road at the intersection of several trails, in front of a ramshackle outpost surrounded by fields of blue and yellow wildflowers and a collection of untethered animals.
Welcome to Pancho’s, a dirt-floored bar-of-sorts that has no electricity or running water, but, through some sort of divine intervention, does have coolers stocked with ice and cold beer. The outpost is home to Jose Lopez (who makes a mean quesadilla), a cat named Fascile, a skittish wiener dog named Hocho and a gang of fearless chickens who jump in our UTV when we’re not standing next to it.
When we arrive Wednesday afternoon, the city is a ghost town.The Rosarito Beach Hotel’s LasVegas-worthy new tower is all but vacant, and beachside party spots like Papas & Beer are completely void of revelers. There’s not so much a pall over the town as a feeling of anticipation. They’re waiting for something. when we return Friday afternoon, the area is much more recognizable as the tourist hub it is, but instead of the gringo-heavy crowds of my youth, the streets are now fifilled with vacationing mexicans. The regional locals seem to have taken back the affordable beach town, bringing their families and a relaxed vibe akin to cardiff, only with better mexican food.
Rumor has it that this little gathering post serves more Tecate than any account in the region, despite the lack of a formal liquor license. We spend an hour trying to extend their sales record while Valenzuela replaces a lost bolt on our muffler.
As Valenzuela wraps up the muffler, Carrasco informs us we’re a bit behind schedule, but we can’t resist his offer to stop at a neighboring ranch, La Nopalera, for some burritos.
When we pull up, we’re the only ones around. The proprietor, Maria Elena chavez, emerges and starts churning out spicy, shredded-beef burritos with potatoes. It’s hard to tell if it’s the beer, the novelty of the situation or a combo of the two, but the burritos are quite possibly the best I’ve ever tasted.
We’re barely at La Nopalera long enough to notice details like Maria Elena’s circa-1970 TV with a wire running through the back wall to a car battery — clues to just how far off the grid we are.
The next leg of the journey seems to be the most inhabited, in that we pass at least two ranches and see a real-life caballero on horseback, leading a random band of mutts off to do cowboy things. We wend our way through several properties, pausing every half-hour to pass through gates, some of which Carrasco pulls out keys for.
Each fence we lock behind us gives an increasing sense of the rarity of what we’re seeing, things that would be impossible for gringos to glimpse any other way.
The coastal sage scrub scenery peppered with oak groves isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing in the world, especially for a Southern California native, but it is continuously changing. One minute we’re in rocky high desert, the next we’re surrounded on all sides by fields of wildflowers and the next we’re…
After taking a blind right at exactly the right speed, we hit a rut at exactly the wrong angle and, in an instant, my passenger is somehow sitting on my chest. In a ballsy maneuver, especially considering who was driving (yours truly), the faithful photographer had unbuckled his seatbelt to get a better angle on a rather intense section of trail when — oops.
We check for missing limbs before Tooman’s able to undo my seat belt, allowing us to crawl out and right the vehicle. Our paralyzing initial panic at the thought of hiking 35 miles out of wherever the hell we are proves unfounded, as the Rhino lives up to its armor-bearing namesake — the engine and slightly muddied exterior never skip a beat.
Valle de Guadalupe
Everything seems to be done on a grander scale here. While the topographical similarities to Temecula’s wine country are hard to ignore, the wineries we visited seemed more like the elaborate lairs of James Bond villains than any place you should be allowed to freely walk around while tasting from $100 bottles of wine. The food is, much like everywhere else we’ve been, insane. But instead of the stripped down authentic stuff, artfully constructed Baja Med holds reign. While we had a hard time discerning the exact ingredients of our octopus ceviche and beef-tongue carpaccio, each course in our seemingly endless meal was elevated to the level of art. As for the wine itself, the region produces something in every price range, and while I claim no specific expertise, it went down easy and seemed to help achieve the desired results.
When we catch up to Carrasco 100 yards down the path, he hasn’t had time to begin wondering where we’ve been — he didn’t see us flip the UTV. As it turns out, we rolled over a stone’s throw from our next stop, a dude ranch where the stoic chuy Loperena waits to chuckle at us while saddling a horse.
The adobe-walled ranch looks like a movie set, complete with an empty pool and a makeshift mechanical bull strung from a set of trees. With our near- brush with serious bruising, we aren’t too keen on poking around the place, and instead content ourselves with beers and war stories of the not-so-harrowing ordeal.
It’s about 15 minutes before we hit the road again for the final leg to Valle de Guadalupe. After descending from the hills, we’re back on a paved road and headed towards lunch at famed chef Javier Plascencia’s new Finca Altozano, where we’re regaled with countless courses of food and wine that, it turns out, we should have vetted more thoroughly (it was about $100 a bottle).
Having stuffed ourselves, we head off to Baron Balché winery where we meet owner Juan Rios for a tour of his underground production facilities and a quick taste of what’s good.
When Rios purchased the property in ’97, it already had 50-year-old vines that have since been bent to the will of his winemaker, a Ph.D. from the University of Oenology in Bordeaux, France. What does all that fancy-talk mean? It means these guys are high on the long list of up-and-comers in a region that’s home to more than 50 labels (compare to Temecula’s roughly 35).
Departing the surreal estate of Baron Balché, we head toward our final destination, Rancho Maria Teresa. We arrive at the gated resort at dusk, just in time to soak in the peaceful property, which seems like it was transplanted straight from Palm Springs.
Too beat and bloated for anything but a dirt-covered nap, we part ways with plans to reconvene for breakfast. The next morning, we head to the property’s restaurant for a powwow with the owner, Joaquin Santana, who stresses the safety and lack of crime in the area. We can’t tell exactly what he’s saying, but just look at him. How could you not trust this guy?
With breakfast in our bellies the next morning, we take a driving tour of the property where, aside from the oranges used for the jugo de naranja (OJ) we just enjoyed, they also grow olives for extra virgin olive oil and grapes for Santana’s two wine labels: Viñedos de Santana and Misión de Guadalupe.
With two pools, walking trails through the vineyard and a gourmet coffee shop called D’ Volada, the serene property isn’t easy to leave, but we’re lured away for an early taste of the picturesque Monte Xanic.
Probably named for its anxiety-reducing views of a manmade lake amid the vines, the 36-year-old winery has a tasting room that’s perched on the side of a hill overlooking the valley. It’s the perfect spot to reflect on a destination that fully lives up to the hype.
And the best part? The journey is only half over.