Mexican culture permeates Los Angeles. Part of the Republic of Mexico from 1821 to 1848, L.A. is now home to more than 1.2 million Mexican Americans. By night, a brilliant 158-mile ribbon of lights connects L.A., literally and symbolically, to the Mexican border crossing at Tijuana.
For Angelenos, a visit to our southern neighbor is both an exotic adventure and an exploration of our hometown’s heritage.
Baja California is the Mexican state abutting California — the northern region of the Baja peninsula, which separates the Pacific Ocean from the Gulf of California.
Many visitors from L.A. enter Mexico at Baja’s largest city, Tijuana. Founded in 1889 and just 17 miles south of San Diego, TJ has been shaped by both Mexico and the United States.
Pasaje Gómez is a fascinating subterranean selection of art galleries, boutiques, craft booths and cafes located off Avenida Revolución (between 3rd and 4th streets, below Hotel Lafayette). Opened in 2011, this imaginatively conceived alley symbolizes Tijuana’s expanding cultural community and includes north-of-the-border collaborations such as La Tentación, a gallery run by San Diego photographer Josue Castro.
The boom in “Baja Med” cuisine (a fusion of Mexican flavors with Asian and Mediterranean influences) was on glorious display when Tijuana celebrity chefs Javier Plascencia and Guillermo Campos packed John Sedlar’s Playa restaurant in downtown L.A. for guest-chef stints last fall. The Zona Rio gastronomic district boasts some of Tijuana’s hottest restaurants, including El Taller and Mision 19. For more casual fare, try the newly opened Foodgarden indoor/outdoor gourmet food court.
Artists have long flocked to the serene stretch of Baja coast known as Rosarito Beach, a 30-minute scenic drive south of Tijuana. The city’s Art Route, between Rosarito and Cantamar, features everything from locally made mosaics and wood sculptures to fine art and photography.
Known as the “Mexican Hollywood” in the 1920s, Rosarito was later a favorite retreat of stars like Marilyn Monroe. The city’s Tinseltown connection revived with the opening of Baja Studios, home to the world’s largest water tanks for filming, used for the 1996 epic “Titanic.”
On the other side of the Baja peninsula, the Sea of Cortez fishing town of San Felipe offers beaches and water temperatures reminiscent of Southern California, only without the urban development. A seven-hour drive from L.A. (including the recently much-improved Highway 5), it is the entrance to one of the world’s most important ecological sanctuaries and, arguably, the original home of the fish taco. San Felipe’s vibrant Carnival is held right before Lent each year.
At Mexico’s eastern extreme, a 4½-hour flight from L.A. to the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, Cancún offers a combination of white-sand beaches, crystal-clear water and world-class accommodations that have made it the most popular international destination for American tourists.
Its proximity to ancient Mayan sites like Chichen Itza and the city of Coba (with its still-climbable Nohoch Mul pyramid) bring a sense of mystery to a Cancún vacation. The Sacred Mayan Journey festival gives visitors a chance to witness an ancient canoe pilgrimage to Cozumel Island to worship Mayan fertility goddess Ixchel.
Nestled in east-central Mexico at the foot of the dramatic Popocatépetl volcano, Puebla is a city crammed with history and culture. Founded in 1531, this affluent state capital — recognized as one of Mexico’s safest big cities — is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in large part because of thousands of fine examples of colonial architecture, including the twin-towered 17th century cathedral, the old archbishop’s palace and charming tile-clad houses.
Puebla is the place to be for Cinco de Mayo, when the forts from which Mexican forces defeated the French in 1862 form the centerpiece of a colorful month-long celebration. And don’t leave without sampling real-deal mole poblano, the rich and complex chili and chocolate sauce synonymous with the region’s world-renowned cuisine.
–Paul Rogers, Brand Publishing Writer