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Culinary Tour of Baja, Mexico

Sabina Bandera Gonzáles at La Guerrerense, her ceviche cart.

Photo: Steve Kepple

That was our first mistake. Our second mistake was taking that left in the dark. Only now do I realize (a) how insane we were to attempt a shortcut, and (b) how lucky we were not to wind up someplace worse. Oh, and (c) how foolish it was to take a two-wheel-drive Hyundai Sonata on a road trip in Baja. Back in San Diego, our rental company had charged us an extra $25 a day in mandatory insurance just to bring the car into Mexico. At the time this struck me as suspect. Now, with our Hyundai in the riverbed, $25 a day seemed entirely fair.

We hiked back to the car the next morning, accompanied by Gregory, his handyman Juan Paredes, and four shovels. It took a half-hour to uncover the wheels. Finally we were able to push the car forward a few feet—and then it promptly sank back into the sand, unmovable. Clearly we needed a tow. But what vehicle could negotiate the riverbed? Paredes suddenly pointed at a distant plume of smoke. “Retroexcavadora!” he cried. A backhoe—likely the same one whose tracks we’d followed the night before. So off we trudged, across a mile of floodplain, to enlist the operator’s help. I offered him $50 to haul us out (in Baja there’s probably a going rate for backhoe rescues), and soon the Hyundai was bouncing and rattling down the pitted valley roads once again.

The Valle de Guadalupe’s terrain alternates between harsh (cacti and agave; acres of dust) and graceful (olive and citrus groves; grapevines receding into the hazy distance). Watching skinny horses graze in scrubby fields, I was reminded of Tuscany’s Maremma. Needless to say, the valley is far more attractive than Ensenada itself. The bulk of the region’s few visitors come for the wineries—more than 60 of them along a stretch of Highway 3 known as La Ruta del Vino. The valley’s arid microclimate, cooled by ocean breezes, is near ideal for wine cultivation, and though the product is still mostly uneven, the wineries, farm stands, and restaurants of the Valle de Guadalupe form a remarkable little foodie universe. We savored buttery diver scallops, seared bluefin tuna, and local roast lamb at Laja, the valley’s most famous restaurant. Amid the orange groves at convivial Restaurante Los Naranjos, we feasted on spicy Guadalupe quail and slow-cooked pork shank marinated in tequila, beer, red wine, garlic, orange juice, and rosemary. There was fig jam and tangy Real del Castillo cheese from the humble provisions shop Cremería Los Globos in the one-stoplight village of San Antonio de las Minas. And for breakfast there were eggs collected that morning from the coop at La Villa del Valle.

Poised on a lone hilltop with 360-degree views, La Villa del Valle occupies a handsome, two-story hacienda that was built in 2002 but looks as if it has belonged here forever. Phil Gregory and his wife, Eileen, imbue the place with thoughtful touches: bottles of mint-infused water at bedside; sprigs of lavender on your pillow. Guest rooms are basic, but the public areas are gorgeous, especially the main living room, with its cowhide ottomans, pressed-tin lamps, and burnished-oak bookcases filled with bird-watching and wine guides.

As the sun descends, cool air sails in from the mountains, carrying the scent of rosemary, mint, and citrus blossoms up the hill to the inn, where it mingles with the primal aroma of mesquite burning in the hearth. No better time to take a snifter of tequila reposado to your balcony and gaze out at those Georgia O’Keeffe hills. In the fading evening light you can trace the trajectory of the riverbed in the near distance—which, really, looks so much nicer from up here.

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