After two hours, the rhythm of my foot releasing the brake to inch forward has become automatic. We roll past a line of children waving bags of candy and old women that carry painted pottery, but the US Border crossing remains a blurry mirage up the road. The children parade up and down the aisles of idle cars, shouting, “Tamarindo! Chamoy! En Venta!” They throw toys high into the air that spin and float while their mothers follow behind pushing carts of churros. The smell of hot dust and cinnamon seep into the driver side window and I glance into the cup holder to see how many pesos are left.
Our tires lurch in time with the cars ahead and we can hear the sound of men whistling and signaling to the children from the shade of pop-up tiendas. They garnish signs for last-minute souvenirs, each with a lower price than the one before, proving that, here in Mexico, there’s always a better deal down the road.
The border comes into the focus and we hand our passports to the agent. He looks into our sunburned eyes, glowing with exhaustion and relief, and asks, “What were you two doing in Mexico?”
Here in San Diego, the finer things are abundant. Five-star resorts, famous restaurants, and the endless summer weather draw thousands of international travelers each year. They sit at the patios of the finest restaurants, eating lobster with splurging smiles and reminisce about morning spa treatments.
San Diego’s tourists and locals alike often overlook the fact that the city’s downtown sits only 20 miles north of the US/Mexico border, where Tijuana and the rest of Baja California awaits. Exotically different and immensely cheaper, my girlfriend Ava and I wondered: Is it possible to experience the lavish lifestyle of a wealthy traveler by driving into Mexico with only a few hundred dollars? We dug up our passports, packed a weekend bag, and headed south to find out.
Neither of us had ever been to Mexico before, but we’d heard enough horror stories to understand safety was far from guaranteed. While we had friends that causally traveled past the border on weekends for street tacos and uncrowded surf breaks, it was only a few years ago that the local news would drag kidnapping statistics across the screen each day and report how the cartels were decorating traffic lights with severed heads.
More recently, Baja California has and continues to experience lower crime rates and overall gentrification due to a growing culinary scene and improved public transportation systems. Whether or not the people we asked about our trip thought it was wise or not, their advice was all the same, “Be careful down there.”
With driving directions in hand, we watched miles become kilometers and pavement turn to gravel. Steel skyscrapers faded away in our rearview mirror and red adobes made of mud stood scattered on the sides of the highway ahead.
We booked a hotel room at Puerto Nuevo Baja Hotel & Villas, in Puerto Nuevo, a small village 25 miles south of Tijuana. For around $100 per night, our little casita tripled the size of my apartment back home and was complete with a full kitchen, living room, and a spiral staircase that led to ocean views and king size bed.
Unfortunately for Ava, our room wasn’t the only thing oversized and she was greeted by spiders the size of empanadas. “I’m not going to scream,” she warned before letting out a shriek that shook the walls. I moved quickly. She closed her eyes until the sound my sandal slamming down on the spider and tile floor rang out and signaled the end of our first Mexican standoff.
To kick off our luxurious weekend, Ava booked us a couples massage at a spa in Ensenada. 90 miles South of Tijuana, the coastal city of Ensenada is known as La Cenicienta del Pacífico (The Cinderella of the Pacific), and is a popular stop for cruise ships that drop anchor at the city’s seaport each day.
We drove into town early in the morning and the streets were vacant. Only shop owners sweeping their storefronts and dusting tables and chairs for the day’s incoming tourists could be seen.
We found our spa sandwiched between a small bakery and hookah lounge, both still closed. We entered and were greeted by the tantric sounds of harps and the smell of incense. “Bienvenidos,” the receptionist smiled.
The massage therapists didn’t need to speak any English to know what we needed. Their fingers, deep in our muscles, smoothed out any American worries we had smuggled over.
We paid roughly $60 for a 90-minute couples massage and waltzed out of the spa. The sun was high now, drenching rows of cafés and tiendas with pale light. We found shade at a margarita stand and drank while cruise ship tourists raided the cobblestone sidewalks, kicking up dust and haggling over knock-off designer bags.
We stopped at a kiosk and traded green dollars for blue and yellow pesos. After examining our new colorful currency, we bought an equally colorful blanket and headed towards the ocean at San Miguel Beach.
The sand was coarse and foreign between our toes, unpolished and unrefined. But the water was warm and there were no rocks. As we waded out, the sand became softer with each step.
A man dragged a red wagon filled with ice and beer across the beach. I could tell the wagon was heavy by the way he used his entire body to pull, yet the man would break his stride and stop for anyone that made eye contact. Ava called to him, “Dos cervezas por favor.” We swam and drank and spoke to each other in bourgeois accents, “How lovely it is to be on holiday darling.”
Back at the hotel in Puerto Nuevo, we explored the lobby and followed a sign for happy hour and live entertainment. We ordered two Pina Coladas that, after fifteen minutes, never arrived. Across the room, a round man with red cheeks wore a sombrero and stood on a makeshift stage. He plugged in a small, made-for-home-use, karaoke machine and turned on a disco ball that hovered just above the tip of his hat. We agreed that he must be the live entertainment.
He removed his sombrero and wiped a forehead covered with sweat as the opening chords of, “Something in the Way She Moves” came through the tiny speakers. Just as Ava and I lost control of our laughter from hearing George Harrison in a Spanish accent, our server carried out two large pineapples, a bottle of rum, and a machete. Our Pina Colada’s were carved up like edible arrangements and overflowed with Bacardi Gold. We danced and sang along.
The next day was hours of poolside relaxation and room service before dressing up for our first fancy dinner of the trip. The real reason we chose to stay in Puerto Nuevo is that it’s famously known as “Lobster Village.” With only about two hundred inhabitants, the village is easily missed on a map and often overlooked by those traveling towards Ensenada. We walked down the road towards the village entrance and rehearsed for our soon to be restaurant staff, “Langosta por favor.”
We walked into the village center with our nostrils stinging from the dust of the road. I had already begun to sweat through my blue button down shirt. Shop owners waved tequila and shouted promises in our direction while packs of children charged towards us with racks of vibrant bracelets, each with a different, generic American name sewn in.
We haggled over fake Ray-Ban sunglasses. “$20 each. No, come back, ok two for $30. Amigo, you’re killing me… Your girlfriend she loves them, you see? Ok, my friend, $20 and you take both.”
We walked up the stairs to a restaurant with our new sunglasses and flashed our own splurging smiles before ordering the most expensive entrées we could find: Bacon wrapped lobster tails, buttered claws, and a bucket of Negra Modelos were spread across the table. The bill totaled just $60.
The waves outside crashed into the restaurant’s foundation and sent up a sea breeze that mixed with the humid air like ice hitting tequila. I looked over the dessert menu and Ava pulled my hand to hers and began to laugh. We were international travelers, 50 miles south of home on another planet.
And as we sit here now in the hot, crowded border crossing line, inching our way back to reality, we know these passport stamps will forever signify two days of luxurious adventure. For San Diego locals and tourists, the excitement of an international vacation is only a few hours south.
For Ava and I, it may not have been as glamorous as a trip to Paris, but at least we have enough pesos left for a bag of churros on our way out.