Baja is California’s Most Affordable Wine Country

You may have heard of Napa Valley Wine Train or the upscale Sonoma Valley in California. But what if I told you that you can get a similar wine country and fine dining experience at a fraction of the price just south of the border?

“Valle De Guadalupe” is an affordable upcoming wine valley of Mexico, located in the state of Baja California. It is hardly a 2-hour drive from San Diego, California, so you don’t need to pay for an international flight. The region’s 1000 foot elevation and Mediterranean microclimate create ideal conditions for growing red wine grapes, particularly varietals that don’t fare well in Alta California. There are fine dining restaurants with sophisticated ambiance and farm to table cuisine, at a fraction of what you’d pay in the US. Here you won’t find the large crowds, overpriced inns or expensive tasting fees either.

Rent a car or book a tour with one of the local guides, who can take you on a drive through the scenic Highway 1. Once you get away from the busy cities of Rosarito and Ensenada, you will find rolling hills, dry mountains and vineyards, as far as your eyes can see.

Ensenada south of California
Ensenada is an affordable beach destination just south of California.

The Wine Route

La Ruta del Vino or The Wine Route, is the collection of wineries and restaurants in the Valle de Guadalupe that draw visitors mainly from Mexico and US. There are over 120 wineries in Valle de Guadalupe, ranging in size from small micro wineries to large commercial wineries. Baja California produces nearly 90% of Mexico’s wine, most of which is consumed at high-end restaurants within the country. Because the production is relatively small, very few Mexican wines make it to retail stores abroad.

wine region in Baja California
List of wineries in Baja that are open with COVID-19 safety measures.

Wine Varieties

Though relatively young and small, Mexico’s wine country is quite advanced. Many of the wineries are organic and biodynamic, grown sustainably and with a minimum of chemicals. They also have casual and quirky tasting rooms.

Because there is no strict regulation on Mexican wine makers, they have the creative freedom to mix grape varieties. As a result, you can taste unique blends that are unheard of in other parts of the world. What’s more interesting is that you won’t even find the same blends year after year. Depending on climate and availability, the winemakers will create a completely new wine each time.

wine museum Baja California
Museo De La Vid Y El Vino is a small museum on the Wine Route.

If you want to learn more about the history of wine making in Mexico, there’s a small wine museum/ event venue called Museo De La Vid Y El Vino. Plan to spend an hour going through the displays and make sure take a look out in the back. There is a small cafe with outdoor seating overlooking the vineyards, where you can get local cheeses, wine and coffee.

Tasting Rooms

The largest winery in Guadalupe is Cetto, single-handedly making more than half of all Mexican wine, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc. But there are countless other small, family-owned wineries producing great Nebbiolo, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc too. Here are some of the wineries I really liked…

Casa Magoni

The Magoni family came to Mexico from Italy and helped set up the wine region, before opening their own public vineyard in 2013. Today, the second generation Enologist – Camillo Magoni, grows Barbera, Nebbiolo and Pignola grape varieties, as well as 70 others. You can sit outside under a canopy of shaded trees, walk through rows of olive and lemon trees, and feel transported to a farm in Tuscany.

A flight of 3 tastings at Casa Magoni start at $8 and they also sell some of the best aged balsamic vinegars for as much as $100!

affordable wine tasting Baja California
The tasting room in Vena Cava under an inverted ship.

Vena Cava

It is not easy to find Vena Cava. You will first need to go through dirt roads and remote farms to get to this funky boutique winery run by a former English sailor – Phil Gregory. Nicknamed “one of the hippest wineries in Mexico,” Vena Cava is all about the experience. An upside down boat makes the roof of the wooded tasting room, while picnic tables, live music and a food truck next to a pond set the scene for a hippy wine experience. Plan to spend a few hours here, drinking and tasting the local fare.

Bruma wine country
The art installation at Bruma’s wine cellar.

Bruma

If you are by now blown away by the artsy quality in Mexico’s wineries, Bruma will take your senses to another level. The vinocola is located inside a large gated estate that houses their vineyards, an award-winning restaurant, and one of the best boutique hotels in Baja. Walk through an art installation and literally go underground to the base of a tree to enter this super sleek cellar. The wines, made by a female Mexican winemaker, Lourdes “Lulu” Martinez Ojeda, are also phenomenal! Bruma produces just 3,000 cases of wine each year, but you’ll find their bottles at The French Laundry and Wynn Las Vegas. 

Tip: You need to pay the entry fee and tour the cellar with an appointed guide, even if you don’t want to drink.

affordable wine country Baja California
The gardens at Finca La Carrodilla are worth a visit.

Finca La Carrodilla

I also stopped by Finca La Carrodilla, Guadalupe Valley’s first organic winery, specializing in estate grown single-varietal wines. There is a beautiful garden, chapel, farm shop and terrace restaurant on the property. But plan to go early, as they stop serving at 4pm.

A Place To Stay: Rancho Encuentro

When I am on a wine tour, there are two things I look for when deciding where to stay. First, is the proximity to wineries so I don’t have to drink and drive. Second, is the view. I want to feel like I am in the wine country and see rolling hills filled with grape wines from my window.

lodging Baja wine country
Modern lodging in the wine valley.

Rancho Encuentero in Guadalupe is a unique Eco Resort that blends in with the landscape of the valley. There are 22 standalone lofts, plus a spacious eco-villa compound so you can easily socially distance. In fact, you walk through dirt paths, wildlife and natural bushes to get to your room!

The rooms are rustic, in a European contemporary cabin sort of way. They boast floor-to-ceiling windows so you can watch the beautiful sunrise from your comfortable king size bed. With sustainably-minded industrial design, the construction incorporates lots of granite and recycled wood while eliminating plastic.

Baja California wine country
Enjoy breakfast with a view at Rancho Encuentro.

The best part at Rancho Encuentro Guadalupe is the infinity pool and outdoor jacuzzi that overlooks the wine country. Enjoy your breakfast and meals poolside and under the sky.

Lastly, celebrity frequented Rancho Encuentero had the best wine that I tasted in Guadalupe! Their deep reds were bold, dry and spicy, and the local sommelier was highly knowledgeable. The rock and cave carved cellar are also worth checking out.

Tip: Some wineries are only open on weekends, so make sure to check their schedule and make reservations.

affordable wine and food
Fresh local ingredients make Baja California cuisine healthy and delicious.

Baja Cuisine

One of the biggest attractions in Baja is the local, sustainable and organic food prepared by celebrity chefs. Like California, there is a big push toward sourcing the best quality ingredients and creating modern California-Mexican fusion dishes.

Most restaurants in Mexico’s wine country are designed in a contemporary fashion, centered around nature and outdoors. So, you will likely dine under a big tree, overlooking a valley, or while resting your feet in the sand. Accompanied by ambient lighting, good music, and great wine, of course!

One of the best meals I ate on this trip was under a 200-year-old oak tree at Animalón. The tapas style menu by Chef Javier Plascencia, had some of the best prepared kanpachi (amberjack) tostadas, shrimp fritters and fiery aguachile. Note a-la-carte menu is only offered on casual Wednesdays.

affordable dining Baja California
Fauna is no 1 rated restaurant in Baja!

My favorite meal in the wine country was at Fauna, a vibrant restaurant at Bruma that has rightfully won many accolades for its food and design. Chef David Castro Hussong is also the author of The Baja California Cookbook, which has stories of his growing up in the region. I tried tetela (Mexican hummus empanada), charred cauliflower, tender whole filet of bass, and warm fresh churros. A vegan tasting menu is also available.

Tip: Dress in layers and carry a blanket as it tends to get chilly at night in the valley. Not all restaurants have outdoor heaters.

shopping Baja California
Do your souvenir shopping on the way to La Bufadora.

Other Than Wine

Located an hour away from the wine country, is the beachside port town of Ensenada. It is a cute place with a walkable promenade filled with cafes, tequila tasting rooms, restaurants and souvenir shops. No trip to Ensenada is complete without a meal at La Guerretense, the world famous street seafood stand selling octopus, shrimp and fish tostadas. There is a sit down restaurant called Restaurant Sabina across the stand where you can get the same food with service.

There is reminisce of old Spanish architecture at some hotels and galleries, as well as gardens and cultural sites.

gardens Baja California
Entry to Tara Gardens is free.

An unusual site is the giant statute of Buddhist princess Tara at the Tara Gardens, where you can also get a nice view of the city. Walk around the Riviera de Ensenada cultural center, and drive further south to see La Bufadora, one of the largest blow holes in the world. This part of Baja also has beautiful beaches, private homes and a few resorts.

Where To Stay, Eat and Play in Los Cabos

Here’s your Los Cabos travel guide.

I took my first international trip in September 2020 since the COVID-19 lockdown. It was to Mexico – one of only few countries that is currently allowing US citizens to travel for tourism. I had never been to Los Cabos before and was curious to learn about where to stay, eat and play sustainably at this popular beach destination. I had heard Los Cabos was a “party place,” but I was surprised to discover authentic food, local art and Mexican culture there. In fact, I felt this was the right time to travel to Los Cabos as it wasn’t crowded at all. Also, the locals and tourists were practicing social distancing, hand sanitizing and face covering guidelines.

Traveling to Mexico

Flying into Mexico was pretty straightforward. I took a direct flight from Atlanta to Los Cabos (meaning the capes). The passengers needed to fill out a health declaration and pass through temperature screening stations at Cabo airport.

There are two main cities in Cabo – Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. I landed in San Jose del Cabo and rented a car from the airport. Road conditions were excellent and driving was a breeze. Driving is also a more affordable option to move around the area.

stay at The Cape Thompson hotel
View from my room at The Cape Thompson Hotel.

Stay at The Cape Thompson Hotel

I stayed in Cabo San Lucas, located at the southern tip of Baja California Sur in the Mexican peninsula. About 40 minutes south of the airport, this is where most resorts and tourist areas are.

This was my first time at a Thompson Hotel, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how they worked in partnership with local architects and artists to create an inclusive property. Celebrated architects Javier Sánchez and Benedikt Fahlbusch, alongside distinguished Mexican interior designer Marisabel Gómez Vázquez, designed a vibrant 1960s Baja-meets-Southern California vibe. Around the hotel you can find custom furniture handmade in Mexico, an original sculpture of a life-size gray whale constructed by a local artist from salvaged driftwood, and original ceramic pieces from Guadalajara artist Jose Noé Suro.

play at beach in Mexico
Secluded beach and rock formations at The Cape Thompson Hotel.

Overlooking the Sea of Cortez and El Arco (famous granite formations jutting out from the sea), the neutral architecture of the luxurious boutique hotel blend with the surrounding desert and sea.

All the modern and spacious rooms at The Cape come with unobstructed views of the sea. Picture yourself drinking an exclusively produced Realeza Mexicana (made with 100% blue agave tequila), searching for whales from the binoculars provided, while relaxing on the hanging daybed in your balcony!

play at infinity pool
Start each day with a relaxing swim in the infinity pool at The Cape.

Work From a Villa

As many of us seek a change of scenery, yet are still in need of the comforts of home, The Cape offers multi-night stay packages in luxury villas with private plunge pools overlooking the sea. Here you can have high-speed wi-fi, daily breakfast, dedicated personal concierge (for grocery shopping, excursion planning, and more), and private cooking classes. After putting in a day’s work, head outside for a walk on Monuments Beach, take a dip in the infinity pool, or surf the waves. Head to the rooftop lounge to see the view of the city and sea, get a massage at the beautiful spa, work out at the fitness center, or simply read a book lounging on a private outdoor cabana. Now that makes remote working something to look forward to!

eat Tacos
Los Cabos has some of the best tacos you would have ever tasted!

Eating in Cabo

If you love Mexican food, you are in for a real retreat in Los Cabos. From mom-and-pop taco establishments, to fine dining restaurants, there is a wide selection of food at all price ranges. Best to avoid the touristy areas and go explore some of the lesser known eateries. Here are some of my favorites…

best Mexican food in Cabos
Colorful, fresh and budget friendly lunch at Taqueria Rossy.

Taqueria Rossy

This no frills local restaurant has some of the best authentic (not Tex Mex) food. It is located in a strip mall, next to the road, and nowhere near tourists. Stop here on your way to or from the airport for delicious and cheap tacos and seafood. We had 7 tacos with all the fixings, large Mexican style shrimp cocktail (served as a cold soup in a goblet) and 3 juices, all for $10!

El Merkado Food Hall

The food hall is a modern establishment with several local vendors selling smoothies, ice cream, pizza, tacos, wine and more. You walk up to each counter for self service and there are tables and chairs for dining in. I went to El Merkado for brunch and had some of the best breakfast burritos and croissant sandwiches.

Mission at San Jose del Cabo
Make sure to check out the historic charming town of San Jose Del Cabo.

Juan More Taco Tour

One of the best way to explore the local food scene is with a food tour. Juan More Taco is a Mexico-based tour company that employs locals to show around their hometown cuisine. Since the guides live and work in the area, they not only know of all the best places to eat, they are friends with the owners too.

Juan More offers morning and evening taco tours in both San Jose Del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas. I took the San Jose del Cabo walking food tour because I wanted to learn more about this historic city that is often overlooked by tourists.

San Jose del Cabo
Walk and eat your way around San Jose del Cabo with Juan More Taco.

We started at the main town square – a place that comes to life after dark with families hanging out and eating street food. We looked inside Parroquia San José (mission church), walked passed the colorful Gallery district, and went to a typical Mexican candy store to taste tamarind and mango candies. 

Because Cabo is surrounded by water, fresh seafood is a staple and many people catch their own fish. Be prepared to have marlin, shrimp, fish tacos, as well as zucchini, chicharrón (fried pork skin), and many other kinds of tacos on this tour. Every region in Mexico has their own distinct local flavor of taco, and here it was the Baja Fish Taco – my personal favorite. It is made with fried battered fish, chopped fresh onions, tomatoes, cabbage, and sprinkled with lime and mayo. After five very filling tastes of margaritas, tacos and churros, I had to ask them to stop feeding us!

sunset at The Cape Cabo
Spectacular sunset views at Manta restaurant.

Manta at The Cape

Manta restaurant at The Cape by Thompson Hotel is a great place to celebrate a special occasion or simply pamper yourself. Led by award-winning Chef Enrique Olvera, the menu fuses Asia, Peru and Mexico to create unique and flavorful dishes that you won’t find anywhere else in The Baja. Best to book a table outside so you can see a magnificent orange sunset while sipping on a margarita!

Where to Play in Los Cabos

Most people come to Los Cabos for the warm, turquoise blue, tropical waters and white sand beaches. You have to spend at least some time swimming, kayaking, fishing, snorkeling, sailing or just chilling at the beach. After you are done with the sun and sand, head to one of the art galleries or shops in the evening to purchase local and handmade crafts. The glass factory is also a pretty place to look around and shop at.

travel to Cabos san lucas marina
The marina in Cabos San Lucas is less crowded during the day.

Walk along the Cabos San Lucas marina for some beautiful views, nightlife, shopping and entertainment. There are high-end shopping malls, as well as countless shops selling glassware, silver jewelry, hats, ceramics, spices, tequila and more. Shopping in San Jose del Cabo is much better, mostly because the goods are of better quality and the shopkeepers don’t hustle. Also, stop by at one of the liquor stores for free tequila or mezcal tasting.

Lands End Cabo
The arch of Cabo San Lucas at the extreme southern end of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula.

Pez Gato Snorkel Cruise

I took a four hour cruise aboard a spacious catamaran boat that limited capacity to 15 people. Departing from the marina, we went past the famous Arch and Lands End areas, cruising along the Sea of Cortez. It was a bright, clear, warm day and perfect for snorkeling in the shallow waters at Santa Maria Bay. I watched hundreds of colorful fishes swim past me!

On board, the entire staff of Pez Gato wore masks and offered unlimited drinks and sanitized snorkel gear. They served a lunch of packed sandwiches, chips and candy. We listened to Spanish hits, kept our distance from other guests on board, and watched the splendid coastline. Started in 1985, the Pez Gato I is Cabo’s very first sailing tour.

snorkeling in Cabo
You can’t tell but that’s me snorkeling at Maria Bey with Pez Gato.

Travel for Good

“Travel is the leading economic driver for Los Cabos, meaning guests’ tourism dollars benefit the local community in truly impactful ways,” says The Cape Managing Director Eduardo Segura Vehovec. In partnership with the Los Cabos chapter of SKAL (an alliance of travel industry employees committed to promoting responsible tourism, international goodwill, and global friendship), The Cape donates 10% of all e-Gift card purchases to support members of the local travel industry impacted by the health crisis. Funds provide healthy grocery kits for recipients, that helps reduce their financial burden during these challenging times.

Driving Into Mexico, by Accident!

The beautiful city of San Diego, California is located only a few miles north of the Mexico border. In fact, I was driving on Interstate 5 and noticed highway signs that read “Mexico exit is coming up.” My plan was to drive to the end of the US border, park my car at San Ysidro and walk over to Mexico. It is much faster and convenient to go this way especially if you are doing a day trip. There is a pedestrian bridge that one can take into Tijuana, the first town, an important financial and industrial center of Mexico, and the largest city on the Baja California Peninsula. After arrival, buses and taxis are available that take you into the center of town which is bustling with shops and restaurants.

Unfortunately, the exit on I-5 that I was suppose to take had no sign stating that “this is where you need to get off to park your car if you are going to Mexico” so, I accidently drove into the border. If you’ve ever driven to Mexico or you’re planning on visiting, click here to learn about driving in Mexico. I could’ve done with that guide whilst I was stuck there!!

I thought there must be a place to park at the border crossing, or at least I can turn around somewhere. But no, an unmanned check post said “Welcome to Mexico!” and there I was. Nobody checked for identification or stamped my passport but I’m sure there were cameras all around.

crossing US border into Mexico

The moment I crossed international borders, my GPS went out of service and cell phone switched to roaming. I didn’t bother to print any maps of Tijuana beforehand since I wasn’t planning to arrive there by car. I had not notified my car rental company that I was going to take it to Mexico. Neither did I have a phone number to call in case of an emergency.

Here I was in Tijuana, supposedly one of the most dangerous places in North America. People later warned me that its famous for kidnappings, gangs and drugs.

There were well maintained highways and people seemed to be following some laws. Exit names were nicely labelled, although very confusing and inconsistent. I wasn’t sure where I was suppose to go even though I wanted to see the city. So I just kept on driving wherever the roads took me, which in this case was to Rosarito, Baja California, Mexico.

Rosarito, located only 30 minutes south of Tijuana, seemed like a quiet beach town with lots of newly developed homes. There were margarita and taco shacks dotted all along the ocean which was waiting to alive once the sun went down. A few tacky souvenir shops sold shot-glasses, sombreros and t-shirts. It didn’t take very long to drive through the stretch of the main street, which was also heavily guarded by Mexican police.

Rosarito beach Baja California

I stopped at a gas station to pick up a map, only to realize I didn’t have any Mexican Pesos. The lady at the cash register accepted my US Dollars but returned the change back in Pesos. There was no prior understanding of the prevailing currency exchange rate as I got the “take it or leave it” look from her.

Thankfully, I was able to find my way back into the city (mostly through trial and error) and see the main attractions of Tijuana. By this time, I gained enough confidence to park my car and step out. I visited Tijuana Cultural Center, Avenida Revolucion, Amigos del Artes, churches, food markets, shops and plazas. Downtown area was overwhelming with lots of cars, pedestrians, street hawkers and everyone trying to sell me something. It didn’t feel unsafe, although someone who is not use to traveling in third world countries may perceive otherwise. In any case, Tijuana was not the sort of place I would like to spend more than a couple of hours at.

Amigos del Artes Tijuana

After paying the parking attendant with the rest of the Pesos I had, I made my way back north towards USA. The 6-lans drive-through immigration was perhaps the most chaotic border patrol I have ever seen. Separate lines for US citizens, permanent residents and visitors were non existent. There were no signs for wait times, documentation or anything whatsoever. The lanes kept shrinking, so we had to merge every few minutes. Then there were street hawkers who set up shop in the middle of the highway, making it a marketplace. It was easy to do so since we were virtually in a “parking lot” situation for many hours.

Mexico immigration crossing

The Mexican vendors walked around selling everything from souvenirs, furnishings, cold drinks, fast food to puppies and medicines. There were men wearing t-shirts identifying themselves as “pharmacy” who sold antibiotics without prescriptions, ladies taking orders for fresh tacos and burritos, handicapped citizens begging for money, young men washing cars without permission hoping for tips, and kids running around collecting anything American tourists would give them. It was a grave sight while I waited 2.5 hours in line to cross the border.

puppies sold at Mexico immigration crossing

 

medication sold at Mexico immigration crossing

Once I reached the immigration counter, the office asked me what I went to Mexico for, and I explained the whole situation of “driving there by accident.” He didn’t seem amused, as if this happens all the time. Truly, next time I will be careful not to blink while driving, or end up in Tijuana. The officer looked at my passport, inspected my car, asked a few questions and allowed me to re-enter California.