Tecate: Northern Baja’s Pueblo Magico
On June 6, 2012, the city of Tecate, Baja California, Mexico was designated a “Pueblo Magico”, or “Magical Village” by Mexico’s Secretary of Tourism. Tecate is the 83rd city in Mexico to receive this honor, and only 1 of 3 in all of Baja, California to have been named (including Loreto and Todos Santos). Your gringo and the good folks at Baja.com wanted to know what made Tecate worthy of this national honor, so mom and I headed about 45 minutes east of San Diego on I-94 to the Tecate border to get the story (BTW, this is a beautiful drive through San Diego’s East County backcountry, which makes the trip worth it in and of itself).
Pre-History: The Kumiai and the Tecate Community Museum
About 1,500 years ago, Tecate and the surrounding mountains were occupied by the Kumiai Indians (I had an “ah-HAH!” moment when I connected them with former San Diego county prehistoric residents, the Kumeyaay). There are a number of reminders of their lives just outside of Tecate, such as El Vallectio in La Rumorosa (about 35 minutes on the 2D Toll Road from Tecate toward Mexicali). A number of rock paintings adorn the walls and caves of this site as well as others in the area.
The Kumiai believed that the towering peak of Cuchuma by Tecate was ruled by spirits. The mountain overlooks the town and is one of its most dominant geographic features. It is definitely an enduring image as you wait on the road leading toward it…which also happens to be the border wait.
For more information on Tecate’s history, you can visit the relatively new (built in 2010) Tecate Community Museum. Your gringo had the pleasure of being greeted by the director of the museum, and given a personal tour of the property and its exhibits by a friendly and informative guide.
In addition to containing tools, artwork and dioramas of Kumiai life within a kiva-style structure, the grounds also contain a Kumiai dwelling post-Spanish invasion, a typical Tecate home circa 1900, and a contemporary building that contains exhibits highlighting the history of the San Diego-Tijuana-Tecate-Arizona railway and the town’s most famous business and landmark, the Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery, makers of Tecate beer.
And speaking of beer…
Tecate: The Baja State Beer
From Loreto to San Felipe to Tijuana, Baja’s favorite beer always seems to be Tecate. The brand is represented all over the peninsula and even has it’s own chain of convenience stores. Tecate beer’s story dates back to the Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery’s founding in 1890.
During the Mexican revolution of 1910, the brewery was seized by members of the party opposed by the ownership’s support of a rival politician, but was eventually returned. The brewery experienced several changes of ownership in subsequent years, was run by Modelo for the past couple of decades, and is now owned by Heineken.
The beer brewed specifically in Tecate (vs. the Modelo brewery in Monterrey, what we get in the US) is made with local spring waters, and rumored to be much better than the version sold stateside. After a couple of cold ones on a 90 degree day, your Gringo says “SALUD” to that!
Parque Hidalgo. Peace. Shade. Music. Tacos
At the center of life in Tecate is the zocalo and town gathering spot, Parque Hidalgo. Your gringo has visited Tecate in the past JUST to have lunch on a Sunday afternoon at an outdoor table in front of several family-owned and run taquerias who offer excellent food at “…this check must be a mistake, it’s only that much?” prices, along with friendly, pleasant service. Your gringo and his madré took a seat at Lolos Restaurant and dined on tacos and chilaquiles. It was so good, the next day, we went back and had breakfast there (highly recommend the queso and chorizo omelet. YUM!).
Troubadours with guitars, accordions and upright basses roam the square, gently soliciting tables for tunes in the Northern Mexican style (or “Norteño”), typically in trios, sometimes in pairs. Gringo tip: $5 seems to be an acceptable price for a tune or two, no matter where you are in Mexico. Always worth it!
On weekends, there are a number of vendors on the square selling Mexican arts and crafts, clothing and other artisanal items.
Getting Out of Town
Besides the beer, Tecate may be best known by those north of the border for Rancho La Puerta, a nature and health retreat that has attracted many, including the rich and famous. But your gringo also discovered that there are a LOT of other ranchos on highways 2 and 3 just outside of Tecate that offer lodging, nature, spa treatments and general relaxation to visitors for a range of prices. We visited Rancho Tecate, who offer spacious grounds, rustic yet modern rooms, and a restaurant.
There are also a number of spring-fed swimming pools (albercas) and soaking pools (developed and natural) available for visitors to enjoy surrounded by Baja’s natural beauty, just outside of town.
Tecate is well-known for it’s clay pottery, crafted from the terra firma in the area. Just south of town along Highway 3 are a number of colorful roadside pottery shops offering pots, sculpture and other handmade pieces, all made of clay. Mom picked up a very nice and BIG birdbath for a mere $23 (letting me know that she saw a similar one at Home Depot in Carlsbad for $140).
Gateway to Baja’s Wine Country
Tecate is also the northern gateway to Baja’s Wine Country, Valle de Guadalupe, just 45 miles south of town. We stopped at L.A. Cetto to buy a couple of bottles, and also at Don Juan’s in Valle de las Palmas to pick up an very tasty bottle of Meritage we’d enjoyed during our meal at Asao in town the night before (more on that in the next section). An overnight stay in Tecate affords you access to the wine country and all it has to offer. Oh, and did I mention it’s a BEAUTIFUL drive.
Quaint Country Town is a Foodie’s Delight
There are many excellent family-style restaurants to be had in Tecate, where you can enjoy a fresh, delicious meal served to you for just a few pesos (Tecate, not being as touristed as the Baja coastal areas, has much lower prices as a result). However, two colleagues “in the know” insisted that we HAD to dine at Asao, Tecate’s addition to Baja Norte’s burgeoning Baja-Med cuisine scene.
Asao is a foodie’s delight and sources local produce, cheeses, meats, wines and other ingredients to blend a menu as delicious and fresh as it is creative. I arrived early to check out the property atop a hill near the border wall and make reservations for that evening. I was given a tour by the general manager, who emphasized the fantastic collection of Mexican art displayed throughout the restaurant, which included Kumiai crafts as well as art from all over the country.
Mom and I ate on the patio later in the evening. The view of the town from here is expansive and impressive, as was our appetizer of smoked meats and locally-sourced cheeses, my rib-eye in dried chiles crust with coffee sauce, and mom’s shrimp with a rich mole and hibiscus flower. For desert, we split a creme brûlée with tamarind and orange. Our meal was accompanied by a bottle of Don Juan Vineyard’s Meritage, one of many Valle de Guadalupe wines offered on Asao’s wine list.
Psst…Tecate has the Easiest Border Wait. Saying Adios to the Pueblo Magico.
If you’re driving across the border, the Tecate wait is typically much shorter than the wait at San Ysidro and Otay Mesa to get back to the USA. On the July 4th weekend (in tandem with Baja Norte’s weekend election), we waited about 2 hours to get to the main gate. Your gringo has enjoyed much shorter border waits of one hour and even one car here in the past.
Mom and I enjoyed some CCR on the stereo as well as nieves (ice cream) and the talents of several local musicians just outside our car window. As we waited out the border line, we reflected on our visit to Mexico’s newest Pueblo Magico and promised to return!
Planning a trip to Tecate? Contact a travel agent at Baja.com.
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- Asao Restaurant in Tecate: Fresh, Local Gastronomy
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- Life on the Plaza in Tecate