I make it a point to travel (and eat) in California and beyond, but for years there was one West Coast destination that I had been dying to visit: Baja California, Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe. This rural agricultural valley is just a few minutes inland from Ensenada, an hour south of San Diego. All this time, I’ve been hearing about the exciting food and wine variety in the region–Anthony Bourdain and Rick Bayless are celebrity fans, and it seems each week I stumble upon a new article about the region (my Mexico Pinterest board is heavy on Baja food articles). So when Kevin found a cheap flight to San Diego a few months ago, we decided to try something new and head south of the border.
We arrived at our Ensenada hotel early Friday evening, with enough time to grab dinner and get to bed for an early start the next day.
Being in Mexico and without our mobile data plan and Google Maps, I was a little worried about getting lost on the drive to the valley. Luckily the area is very well-marked. The roads are recently paved, with lots of signs with arrows pointing to the “Ruta Vinacola” (Wine Route). It only took about 15 minutes to get to the area from Ensenada.
As we turned off of the main road following signs to our first winery, the experience got a bit more rustic…
Our first stop was Hacienda la Lomita, a vintner in the little village of San Antonio de las Minas. Like most winemakers in the valley, they mostly make red wines due to the hot, dry climate of the valley, though they had one white wine they made from grapes sourced from closer to the coast. Hacienda La Lomita is best known for a duo of opposing wines they call Sacro and Pagano (“sacred” and “pagan”)–Sacro is a fruity cabernet-merlot blend, and Pagano (my favorite) is a fiery grenache.
The winery had a luxe and modern tasting room with a gorgeous view over the vineyards and farmhouses across the valley. I loved capturing this shot of the winemaker’s father looking out over the landscape.
Our server offered us a tour of the property. When we told him we were from Northern California, he said he had family in Fresno, “but they never come to visit–they are scared to cross the border.” I told him that many Americans are reluctant to come to Northern Mexico because of the things they hear on the news about the border region, but he agreed this is overblown. “It’s very safe here,” and (as a local who has lived his whole life in this tiny village) “kind of boring.” We heard this all weekend from locals. The Valle de Guadalupe and city of Ensenada are quite far from the places where drug violence is common, it very rarely spreads into the areas frequented by U.S. tourists.
Our next stop was Vinos Tres Valles. We had tried Maat, one of their wines, the night before at dinner and decided to seek out the winery. We were curious about the name, and we learned that Tres Valles (“Three Valleys”) is named after the three distinct valleys where they source their grapes: the Valle de Guadalupe, San Antonio de las Minas, and San Vicente de Ferrer.
Further, each of the wines are named using words from the language (Kiliwa) of the indigenous people who first settled northern Baja. Kojaá (means “wine”), Maat (means “terroir”), Kuwal (means “red”) and Jalá (is the name of the Kiliwa ethnic group). After tasting them all, Maat (the grenache we had tried at dinner) was still our favorite.
The highlight of the day was lunch at MALVA, Cocina de Baja California. There are not a lot of indigenous food traditions in the Valle de Guadalupe since many of the residents have moved from other parts of Mexico, bringing their local traditions with them. The typical cuisine of the Valley is called “BajaMed”, as an ode to a blending of Baja local seafood and ranch grown foods with Mediterranean-inspired recipes.
Ensenada-born Chef Roberto Alcocer was trained in both Mexico City and Paris, and is very active in encouraging the thriving food scene of the Valle de Guadalupe.
Before our visit, I had read that the restaurant featured locally-sourced ingredients from the Valle de Guadalupe, but it turned out that most of the produce, cheeses, and wines were actually made on-site. Each plate was beautiful, simple, fresh, and delicious.
The vegetarian main course they prepared for me was particularly stunning–a semi-aged sheep cheese grilled over a plate of quinoa and fresh vegetables. Grilling added a bit of sweetness to the lightly salty cheese and I’m dreaming about going back for seconds.
This open air restaurant had a stunning view over the valley and while the food was chic, the atmosphere felt casual.
We met the charming and talented young winemaker, Veronica Santiago, who stopped by to introduce her wines (and her grapes!)
After lunch (still dreaming about the cheese), we decided to visit two local food shops, Los Globos Cremaria and Sol de Medianoche.
Both shops feature a vast selection of cheeses alongside local food products like mole sauces, fruit jams, guava paste, baked goods, and local wines. The selection was incredibly rustic, with hand lettered signs and food labels. I felt like I was in someone’s home kitchen. We brought home a hard sheep cheese, olive oil and some mole from Los Globos and a jar of tomato/goat cheese salsa from Sol de Medianoche. Both cheeses and jarred food products are allowed back in the United States.
While you can easily do a day trip to the Valle de Guadalupe, I recommend staying the weekend to see and do more (we spent our Sunday in the City of Ensenada–more on that to come).
We stayed at the Hotel Coral and Marina, which is just north of Ensenada on the Ensenada-Tijuana highway. It was the perfect location–about a 5 minute drive south into downtown Ensenada, and a 15 minute drive north-east into the Valle de Guadalupe.
Hotel Coral and Marina is a stylish resort located on Baja California’s only private marina. The resort has three pools, an excellent BajaMed restaurant with Baja’s longest local wine list, and a spa featuring “vinotherapy” (grape extract body treatments). But my favorite thing about the hotel was coming home to this view at sunset…
At the end of our trip, we talked to a woman from San Diego who had never visited Baja, and she expressed a bit of surprise at “how nice Mexico is.” It seems a pretty common sentiment amongst American travelers. While we knew what to expect, even we were surprised at how easy a weekend trip to Ensenada could be.
Thanks to Discover Baja California for helping me plan our visit and arranging our stay. All photos and opinions are my own.