Just like the leaves died and fell from the trees in other areas besides California, this fall brought the death of some friendships, the switch of a job and some major shifts in paradigms of thought. But it’s all good! I’m smiling, and though things aren’t the same as when I took my last Baja trip two months ago, the place and the experience still sits in my heart fondly.
If you’ve never been to the wine country of Baja California, it will probably surprise you. You probably wouldn’t have images of rolling hills scattered with boulders and vineyards. Hundreds of acres of vineyards, gourmet farm-to-table cuisine, sophisticated wines and very friendly passionate people ready to tell you about their wines.
A diverse array of varietals grow here, with reds and blends the most popular. You’ll find a lot of Tempranillos, Malbecs, Cabernets and Merlots, and on the white end, Chardonnays and Chenin Blanc. Oh and pretension and overpriced tastings? They don’t have that here.
It’s genuinely one of my happy places.
People who’ve never been always ask, “Is it safe?”
My response? “A cow that gets out of its fence and ends up in the road is probably the biggest risk you could face in Valle de Guadalupe.”
But really, it’s a very rural area with basically two main roads. Your own recklessness while driving (if going that route) is the biggest x-factor of your safety. I’ve personally visited more than a dozen times and probably the worst thing that ever happened was I got too drunk (note that a friend was driving). Adding to that, the more than a hundred trips I’ve planned for journalists have gone without incident.
Thus, here are my recommendations on how to approach traveling to Valle de Guadalupe for the first time, or really anytime!
Are you flying in?
- There are no direct flights from the U.S. to Baja California (except San Diego and LA to San Felipe, but that’s nowhere close). Thus, the best option is to fly into San Diego. From there, you can either rent a car (Alamo allows you to take cars to Mexico), use your hotel’s transportation, use a service, or hire a shuttle.
Do you want to drive yourself, have transportation from home and throughout the trip, or just have transportation while doing wine tours?
- I drive myself and friends, and have no issue, but I also have a 4WD Subaru Forrester. The road is now set up so that you can bypass having to go through the city of Tijuana traffic and jump right onto the scenic highway. It’s a beautiful drive, with some curves, but nothing too scary. Driving through the wine country can be a little off-road like, so 4WD is recommended (though my little civic could tackle most of the hills to get to the wineries). If driving yourself, I highly recommend trying to get a fast pass to expedite border crossing (more on that later). Don’t forget to get Mexican car insurance if you take your car down. I use BajaBound (approx. $15+/day), but some insurance providers can just extend your existing coverage for a few days. If you’re driving in, check out this printable map, and Fast Past directions.
- Hotels like Hotel Coral and Marina and Rosarito Beach Hotel will offer transportation from your door (in Southern California), or from the border or San Diego airport.
Lodging options are very limited in quantity and availability in Valle de Guadalupe, but Ensenada is just a quick drive away. All lodging options are pretty quaint and quiet, so if you want to experience the night life, or be loud, definitely opt for Ensenada. If you want a quiet and romantic experience, any of the lodging options on the map are worth a visit.
Do you want a more immersive experience?
- Consider booking a tour with “roving supper club” Club Tengo Hambre, but plan ahead as the group wine country excursions sell out quickly. They do private tours, and occasionally tour providers like Let’s Go Clandestino and Turista Libre will have Valle excursions. A company called Baja Winery Tours runs full-day excursions right out of San Diego.
The huge benefit of staying at a hotel is the fast pass. This magical little piece of paper allows you to bypass the border wait (for the most part) via the medical lane and can save you 2-5 or maybe more hours! But you have to do it just right. Download and print these instructions/directions, and remember, don’t take the San Diego lane! Once you’re in the regular border line, there’s no turning back. You can also strategically time your exit via the app Best Times to Wait at the Border.
- Three wineries per day is usually the perfect amount for me, both in not getting too drunk and not being too ambitious based on the hours they’re open. Most wineries close at 4 p.m., so getting a start between 10 a.m. and noon is best (none open before 10 that I know of), plus you can split up your day with a nice meal.
- Sometimes I think it’s a given, but sometimes people surprise me… Don’t drink the water or flush your toilet paper (that’s what those receptacles are for by the toilet). #Mexico
- Unless you have international data, turn off your cellular data or put your phone into airplane mode. If data is off and you get a text or a call, it’s usually a marginal fee (10 cents/text, $1/call). If you travel here a lot, consider T-Mobile so you can have your navigation, music and everything else in Mexico at no extra cost!
- Most businesses take dollars, but really don’t like larger bills. I usually don’t go to an exchange place, as I’ll just take my change in pesos and use that other places where they don’t prefer dollars. I’m probably not getting the best deal using this method, though (you can exchange in the cities, or even at your bank in the U.S. before you arrive).
The map, app, and interactive website LaRutaVCC does a good job on updates and keeping up with new places. The official tourism sector map is a good resource, as is this e-book app by Mexico Desconocido (both are a few years outdated though).
Baja Bound and the Valle de Guadalupe blog are more great information sources, and for the latest buzz and unique findings, Life & Food Blog and Street Gourmet LA always have the scoop (curators of the aforementioned Club Tengo Hambre).
Because many official and unofficial resources can barely keep up with the pace of growth and new vineyards, and aren’t quite curated down to places that are receptive to walk-ins, I’ve created a printable map of the vineyards, restaurants and places to stay that I’ve either experienced myself, visited, or heard credible feedback on their quality. If any businesses are missing, it’s probably because I just haven’t heard any feedback about it (which may mean it’s just so new and trendy, haha) it typically requires an appointment, which is not quite so conducive to a beginner experience, or just because I didn’t want to make it overwhelming. There are probably about 100 wineries in this region, many of which aren’t open to the public, but I’m sure they’d be receptive to the occasional visitor and there’s so much potential for spontaneity around here. Additionally, I simply can’t keep up with all the new lodging and eatery options, so if you’ve experienced one you’ve liked, please share details in the comments!
Download the printable map and start planning your Valle trip today!
Scenes from The Valle
Hacienda La Lomita's tasting room
Lamb tostada at TrasLomita
Vena Cava Tasting Room
Hotel Boutique Valle de Guadalupe
Malva Restaurante view
Sprawling vineyards of Baja California
Disco treehouse at Casa Encinares
Hacienda La Lomita's tasting roomHacienda La Lomita's tasting room
Lamb tostada at TrasLomitaLamb tostada at TrasLomita
Vena Cava Tasting RoomTasting room at Vena Cava, which is carved out of the side of the hill and made with recycled boat parts
Vena CavaExterior of Vena Cava
Hotel Boutique Valle de GuadalupeHotel Boutique Valle de Guadalupe, the biggest hotel in the Valle with 12 rooms - but that will soon change!
Malva Restaurante viewThe view from Malva Restaurante
Sprawling vineyards of Baja CaliforniaSprawling vineyards of Baja California
Casa EncinaresThe grounds of Casa Encinares ... "The House of Oaks"
Disco treehouse at Casa EncinaresDisco treehouse at Casa Encinares
Baja WineBaja California, producer of 90 percent of Mexico's wine, and it's oh-so-good