- Photo by Derrik Chinn
“Then we turned our faces to Mexico with bashfulness and wonder as those dozens of Mexican cats watched us from under their secret hatbrims in the night. Beyond were music and all-night restaurants with smoke pouring out of the door. ‘Whee,’ whispered Dean very softly.”
So goes the arrival of two gringos, high on wanderlust, at Latin America’s front door in Jack Kerouac’s 1957 beat classic On the Road. And so goes the recommended mindset for stepping into any summertime adventure south of the border, an experience that rarely fails to feel simultaneously vintage and timeless, not to mention understatedly accessible for San Diegans who live mere miles up the road.
That includes the obvious: Hotel Caesars, birthplace of the Caesar salad and ever-growing international foodie mecca; greyhound races at Agua Caliente casino; or beers at any of the city center’s classic dives—Nelson, Dandy del Sur or La Estrella.
But wanderlust always prefer the road less traveled.
El Vergel. Waterslides that should probably require helmets. Ribs on the grill. Forty-four-ounce beers rimmed with chile and chamoy. A Tarzan rope. Welcome to El Vergel, Baja California’s largest waterpark. A chlorine-soaked wonderland hidden at the end of a dirt road adjacent to the Tijuana River, it first opened in 1963 and still ranks as one of the city’s overlooked classics. Carts selling churros, tacos and corn on the cob line the pavement. Wandering tambora bands make an echoing mess of clarinets and brass. And then there are the slides: some 15 faded plastic monstrosities with chipped paint jobs that look as though they were purchased secondhand after having been retired from parks somewhere north of the border. “Ride at your own risk” is the unspoken law, but the tradeoff is the added freedom to do so in ways never conceivable in the U.S., namely headfirst either on your back or stomach.
Feria Tijuana. For about a month every August, the Tijuana Fair turns Parque Morelos into a flashing neon buffet of postmodern folklore. But amplified in typical Tijuana style, it’s louder, brighter, bigger, faster and, above all else, beautifully, precariously, almost arousingly bizarre. Game row yields the chance to win new cell phones, giant plush cigarettes and ceramic Precious Moments Our Lady of Guadalupe banks. The gimmicky sideshows prove just how carnie the carnies can go: 10-peso peeks at alligator ladies, two-headed goats, furry chickens and the world’s smallest girl. Forget about washing down Krispy Kreme chicken sandwiches with a fried Coke. Star menu items include huaraches (a giant sope of sorts, the true Mexican pizza), corn on the cob on a stick, churros, Tostilocos, fried tamales and, of course, jumbo beers. This all comes as a mere tease to the acres of seasoned rides: turbo tilt-a-whirls and collapsible roller-coasters with names like “Kamikaze” and “Wild Mouse” that force the leery gringo to let go of any concerns regarding the secondhand use of car seatbelt buckles.
El Salto waterfalls. Running fresh water is a rarity in the Baja California wild, which makes it the star attraction at this nature reserve at the western edge of the Guadalupe Valley wine route. A few miles off the free road between Rosarito and Ensenada some 50 miles south of Tijuana, the only reason it’s a nature reserve is because, technically, it’s somebody’s backyard. But for 20 pesos per person ($1.70 or so), it’s all yours until 7 p.m. A 15-minute hike alongside a lush riverbed leads to a waterfall, just on the other side of a now-defunct river-crossing pulley system. That waterfall leads to a much showier waterfall, which runs off the side of a massive slab of black lava rock into a glassy abyss hundreds of feet below. Surrounding boulders and grassy ledges make for plenty of scaling and climbing, and plenty of picnic tables surround the parking lot, so pack the cooler. If that weren’t enough for a day’s escape, there’s even a playground: six monster-truck tires shoved in the ground.
La Fonda and the flying go-cart. La Fonda might possibly be the closest to “Hotel California” you’re going to get without actually trekking all the way to the actual Hotel California in Todos Santos, Baja Sur. The rustic, beachfront hotel-spa at kilometer 59 off the Tijuana-Ensenada toll road has been luring Southern Californians and Northern Baja Californians alike for decades, and it doesn’t take a Travel Channel exposé to understand why. Rooms are equipped with wood-burning stoves and floor-to-ceiling windows that face the Pacific. Rates run around $85 per night ($100 should you choose to splurge on a bungalow). The hotel’s famous Sunday brunch buffet—an all-you-can-eat gorge fest of tamales, barbacoa, lengua, carnitas, mole, huevos rancheros, chorizo and potatoes, paella, pancakes, margaritas and Bloody Marys—goes for $14.95. It’s during that very brunch, wrapped in your complimentary serape, swaying to a live guitar serenade of “Hey Jude” or “Stairway to Heaven,” enjoying your third margarita while contemplating a fourth, when you see it zoom by a few hundred feet above the waves. What looks like a mutant Jurassic mosquito is actually a two-seat go-cart that’s been rigged with a hang-glider. Flights along the coast, operated by a couple of aviation aficionados who live next door, run around $40 and last 15 minutes or so.