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Tecate: Northern Baja's Pueblo Magico.

TECATE, BAJA CALIFORNIA - 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 the East County backcountry, which makes the trip worth it in and of itself).

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico The gazebo in Tecate's Parque Hidalgo.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Tecate in Northern Baja is the latest town to receive the Mexican government’s “Pueblo Magico” designation.

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 many archeological remnants 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.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

The Kumiai Indians occupied the Tecate area about 1500 years ago.

The Kumiai believed that the towering peak of Cuchuma by Tecate was ruled by spirits. The mountain overlooks the town on its western edge and is Tecate’s most dominant geographic feature. It is definitely an enduring image as you drive on the road leading toward it…which also happens to be the border wait. An image of Cuchuma is also used iconically on the label of Tecate beer (more on that particular brand of beer in a bit).

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Mount Cuchuma in 1951 and during our border wait. No wall in 1951.

For more information on Tecate’s rich prehistoric and modern history, you can visit the relatively new (built in 2010) Tecate Community Museum. El 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.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

The Tecate Community Museum.

In addition to it’s collection of 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. This fantastic overview of the area is tucked away in a quiet corner of Tecate, not too far from the modern brewery.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

A post Spanish invasion Kumiai dwelling at the Tecate Community Museum.

The Tecate Community Museum.

Kumiai handcrafts at the Tecate Community Museum.

The Tecate Community Museum.

Inside a typical 1900-era Tecate home.

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 only major beer label in Baja California). 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.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

The Tecate Brewery looms large in Tecate’s skyline and it’s history.

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.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

An old Tecate ad at the Community Museum.

The Tecate Community Museum.

Part of the Tecate Community Museum’s Tecate Beer history exhibit.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

A cold Tecate on a hot day, with chips and salsa.

It’s said that the Tecate beer made in Tecate is a slightly higher alcohol content than what we get in the states, and made from local spring water. On a HOT 90 degree day, El Gringo enjoyed a few and boy, were they good!

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. Your gringo and his madré took a seat on the patio outside of 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!).

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Lolo’s Restaurant, Parque Hidalgo, Tecate.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

The gazebo in Tecate’s Parque Hidalgo.

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 gratuity for a tune or two anywhere in Mexico. Always worth it!

On weekends, there are also a number of vendors on the square selling Mexican arts and crafts, clothing and other artisanal items worth perusing and purchasing.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Roving musicians entertain diners in Parque Hidalgo.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Local artisans weave bracelets in Parque Hidalgo.

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.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Rancho Tecate, Tecate, Baja California, Mexico.

There are also a number of pools (Albercas) and hot spring-fed pools (both developed and built from natural rock) available for visitors to enjoy a soak in the surroundings of 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 excellent 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).

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Clay pots, sculpture, birdbaths and other items are affordable and beautiful!

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 a delicious 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.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Less than 50 miles north of Tecate lies Baja’s fabulous wine country.

Quaint Country Town is a Foodie’s Delight

There are many excellent family-style restaurants to be had in Tecate, where you can have 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.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Welcome to Asao. One of Baja Norte’s premier restaurants.

Asao is a foodie’s delight and sources local produce, cheeses, meats, seafood, wines and other ingredients to blend a menu as delicious and fresh as it is creative. I arrived early to check it out and make reservations, and was given a tour by the general manager, who emphasized the fantastic collection of Mexican art displayed throughout the restaurant.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

The view of Tecate from Asao’s dining patio. Fantastic.

Mom and I ate on the patio later in the evening. The view of the town from our table was fantastic, as was our appetizer of locally-sourced cheeses, cured meats, olives, and oyster pate, my ribeye in dried chiles crust with coffee sauce, and mom’s shrimp with hibiscus and mole. 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.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Local wine, artisanal cheeses, cured meats, oyster pate and olives at Asao.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Shrimp with Hibiscus and Mole, locally sourced from Ensenada. Asao, Tecate.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Asao’s classy, open dining room.

Psst…Tecate has the Easiest Border Wait. Saying Adios to the Pueblo Magico.

If you’re driving across the border, the Tecate wait is 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 border. Your gringo has enjoyed much shorter border waits of one hour and even one car here in the past.

Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Even the border wait is entertaining in Tecate.

Mom and I enjoyed some CCR on the stereo (as well as nieves and the talents of several local musicians just outside our car window), with the air conditioning ON. As we waited out the border line, we reflected on our visit to Mexico’s newest Pueblo Magico and promised to return!

Your Gringo in Mexico,
Scott

10 Comments on Tecate: Northern Baja's Pueblo Magico.

  1. I love the story. I’ve never put much attention in Tecate (and I live in Tijuana). I think a roadtrip is comming soon. Felicidades, muy buen trabajo!

    • Hola Valeria and thank you for your comment! My attitude toward Tecate was similar before this trip. Beer. Mountain. Famous Spa. Town Plaza. But when I began to dig deeper, there was so much more. Coming from Tijuana, I imagine time spent in little old Tecate and the outlying Ranchos would provide a good break from the city. Gracias! Scott.

  2. Hola Scott:
    This is a great piece on Tecate. Some day we hope you will visit our non-profit organization – Corredor Historico CAREM, A. C. We manage the Tecate Community Museum which you visited and we work to promote the history and culture of the entire State of Baja California. Thank you for your interest in Mexico. Zella

    • Hola Zella!

      Thank you for your comments! I would welcome the opportunity to visit your organization…I really enjoyed the museum. Perhaps a visit would lend itself to a story about Baja’s rich history and culture. I will let you know the next time I come to Tecate.

      Gracias!
      Scott

  3. Lily Kellenberger // July 12, 2013 at 10:12 pm // Reply

    Hi Scott
    It is so refreshing to have someone talk about the many good things that Baja California, specially Tecate has to offer. Felicidades for letting people know the real truth about this Magical place which happens to be my adoptive home.
    Lily K?

    • Hi Lily,

      Thank you for for your comments and checking out my blog. I hadn’t spent much time in Tecate in the past, and it was great to discover that the area has so much to offer. And, as with everywhere I travel in Baja, the people were friendly, helpful and sometimes amused when I stopped to ask directions. I hope to adopt Baja as my home someday as well 🙂

      Thanks,
      Scott

  4. Thanks for your wealth of insights and information on Tecate.
    Do you happen to know about any gringos choosing to make their homes in off the beaten path parts of Tecate/Ruta de Vino areas of Baja Norte?
    We also hope to adopt the wine area of Baja as home someday : )
    Currently in the learning mode…so thanks again for opening the door to Tecate.

    • Hey there Caliyat!

      Thanks for your comment on the Tecate post!

      I don’t know if there is an expat community in Tecate of any consequence. Ensenada, Rosarito Beach and the playas seem to be the gringo focal point. But I’m no expert here, so you may want to look around at other sources to find out for sure.

      As far as expats in Valle de Guadalupe, my colleague at Baja.com (Carla White) has mentioned to me that she’d like to move there (from where she is now in Ensenada), but real estate prices have climbed. It might be worth your time to look Carla up at Baja.com and see if she has any information.

      Hope this helps…Gracias Caliyat!

  5. Hi, Scott! Met you in passing via Fernando G. in SD at Enoteca & Cucina, San Diego and then again at the BC Culinary Fest 2013. I’d forgotten about your website. But when I got curious about the border crossing at Tecate, as well as the restaurant offerings I became reacquainted with A Gringo in Mexico. What a great site! Thank you. Count me as follower 1,133. Patti

    • Hi Patti, thanks for your comment!

      I remember you were working with Fernando, I believe at the time. Hope you are doing well and I’m glad you enjoy the blog! Border crossings at Tecate can be amazingly swift…at the right days and times. We cross there often, so let me know if you have any questions!

      Scott (El Gringo)

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