This article is from the August-September 2004 The Mexico
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Vintage Crossing – Tecate
story & photography by Dan Millington
Dan Millington is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been covering Mexico (and loving it) for the past eight years. Publications he has worked for include: AAA Mexico TravelBook, Fodor’s Yucatán Gold Guide, Moon’s Baja Handbook, Departures Magazine, Orange County Magazine – and he is a Travel Consultant for South Coast Magazine. He wrote articles for the December 2001 / January 2002 and June 2002 issues of Mexico File.
Tianguis Tecate III decided to do things a little differently this year.
At Campo, 45-minutes east of San Diego, my wife and I boarded 1930’s vintage railway cars for the one-hour trip across the border to Tecate. Traveling at lightening speeds of up to ten miles an hour we passed along deep canyons, grazing cattle and through four tunnels loaded with bats when my wife commented, “I feel like any minute Butch and Sundance are going to show up.”
Kids and trains are the same the world over. As we approached Tecate, children emerged from their ramshackle housing, with endearing smiles and waved frantically at us while mothers were holding their infants lifting their arms. It had been quite some time since this antiquated train had passed by, several years in fact.
The Secretary of Tourism for the state of Baja and various mayors from surrounding cities had worked together with Pacific Southwest Railway Museum to revive this unique way to enter Mexico from the States. Consequently, all participants of Tianguis Tecate were invited. While on the train I asked Jim Lundquist, president of the railway, if this was indeed going to be a permanent attraction? He said he would know later that evening. If it were going to be so, regular schedules would begin sometime during July or August. Ah, the politics of Mexico.
Big business exists in the town of Tecate, well one big business – beer. The train stopped in front of the newly restored Tecate train station next to the Tecate Brewery where we disembarked for a few cold-ones and a tour of the facility.
This year, as opposed to last, the mayor of Tecate, Juan Rodriguez, decided to hold the event in the town’s zócalo – smart move. It meant that the entire town of Tecate was involved. The heartbeat of any Mexican city, town or village is its zócalo or main square. Life revolves around it.
We exited the brewery through the back and walked a few blocks to the zócolo. Being the seasoned traveler to Mexico that my wife now is, as we approached the zócalo she offhandedly said, “Are ya ready for some noise?”
One of the more delightful aspects of Mexican culture is strolling down any village dirt road, cobblestone street or paved thoroughfare – led by distant sounds of festivities. Once turning a particular corner it can unexpectedly stun the senses with what was a moment ago as opposed to what it is now.
We turned that corner and found ourselves immersed in a medley of sounds, music pulsating through our bodies and an aromatic bombardment of culinary flavors permeating the air. The zócalo was alive and buzzing with this year’s 3rd Annual Tianguis.
Surrounding the gazebo in the middle of the square were various booths promoting different areas of northern Baja – Tijuana, the Grand Hotel and its golf course; Ensenada, promoting its new Gas Lamp look; Rosarito, promoting its events; and Puerto Nuevo, obviously touting the sumptuous lobster the area is known for. (The crustaceans here seemed to be getting smaller every year.) Oddly enough, La Concha, a resort in La Paz, had its own booth as well. And, of course Tecate, known for its beer and hopefully for its new-old train ride.
Set along the streets that surround the square, gourmet chefs from restaurants in various cities within the state had set up Mexican barbecue and were preparing signature meals from their respective restaurants. And, in a few instances, wine tasting from the likes of Monte Xanic from the nearby Guadalupe Valley. (Authors note: A superb selection of wines from Xanic.)
Since we were in Tecate, we decided to sample some local cuisine – Bistecitos en Salsa Negra, soft beef tacos in a mouth-watering black chipolte sauce; Peña de Loza, soft pork tacos in salsa verde. And Tinga, chicken fajitas in a sauce that sent the palette soaring. When in Tecate, a must dining experience is the restaurant La Peña de Loza just off the zócalo.
The town of Tecate warrants a visit for several practical and cultural reasons. The first is its easy border crossing from the United States. Unlike Tijuana, 35 minutes east of San Diego, the Otay Mesa crossing into Tecate is a breeze. Coming back invariably will not take the sometimes two to three hours as it does in Tijuana. Secondly, unlike many Mexican border towns, Tecate is authentic Mexico. Yes, they want the tourist dollar. However, they are not changing their culture to get it. By foot, one can experience the town in about an hour. The real pleasure of visiting Tecate is having a meal in and around the zócalo or sitting at a café sipping an apéritif along a side street around the square and watching events unfold that represent the culture, pace and happiness of the Mexican people.
Once back in San Diego, my wife and I boarded Amtrak’s Surfliner for the one-hour and twenty-minute train ride back to San Juan Capistrano. At one point we reached a speed of 80 miles per hour with scenery whizzing by as if in a blur, I leaned over and whispered in my wife’s ear, “I feel at any moment I’m going to look out my window and see Spider Man.”
Information on the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum and whether or not the train is running can found on this web site: www.prsm.org.
To get to Campo: From San Diego take the 8 east to the Buckman Springs turnoff. Follow signs to Campo – about 12 miles along this road.
To find La Peña de Losa restaurant in Tecate: Ask anyone in the zócalo, “Donde esta restauranté La Peña de Losa, por favor?” They’ll know and probably take you right to it.