I heard the word “Tecate.” My buddy wasn’t speaking of the next beer, but rather a border town located only 45 minutes away from downtown San Diego. Follow the 94-east freeway signs until it becomes a one-lane road winding through a picturesque mountain range full of vistas, and there you are. Really? How did I not hear about this place earlier?
I have a soft spot for Mexico. Combine that with an opportunity to venture easily to a new spot down south, and it rendered me undeniably elated. Seriously. What would it be like? Why had I not even known to visit before? My mind was swirling with ideas – and again, elation.
Originally a ranching community, Tecate began its brewery life in 1943. A Senor Alberto Aldrete took over an old brick building, previously used to produce vegetable oil, in order to make his beer (that became the brand name you can already guess). This jolted the town into becoming the small and somewhat industrial city it is today. But Tecate still evokes the Mexico of a bygone era – so much so that Tecate is commonly referred to as “The Heart of Baja.”
OK, so we visit a brewery, but what else? Continue on towards Ensenada from Tecate, via a route called La Ruta del Vino, and one can taste a plethora of wines all the way to Ensenada. OK, but we only had a few hours, so this wasn’t an option.
We park our car 50 yards from the Mexican border… not in a parking lot, but on the side of the road in a dirt patch. As we’re the only individuals passing through the metal gates entering Tecate, my friend admits, “This doesn’t feel like a border town.” Tecate is definitely no T.J.
While Tecate is a border town in location, it’s many kilometers away in feel. After walking four blocks straight from the border crossing, the town’s Plaza Hidalgo boasts its presence. This well-kept square is clearly the center of action. It’s as if you had jumped into the heart of the nation – into one of its small pueblas whose locals rejoice in taking not one, but five walks around the plaza’s exteriors each night. Time has stopped here; no one is trying to sell you something. People are simply hanging out at their plaza.
But my friend and I are here for a day, and we need to figure out the town. After we visit the Tecate Brewery, open until 2 p.m. most days, not open on Sundays and nothing too special, we press on to find more.
“Donde estan los tacos mejores?” we ask with hunger. Every single one of the ten locals asked says, “Los Amigos!” Well, OK, off we go. And it is here, on the corner of Libertad and Presidente Pascual Ortiz Rubio, that we find one of Tecate’s charms. Check out the video.
Stomachs full of tasty tacos, we now begin a search for liquid. The oldest bar in town, Bar Diana, is situated along the plaza (of course). This “world-famous” bar is small and comforting – perfect for one Tecate Light.
We then find another watering hole via locals’ advice. It’s 3 p.m. and Rogavio’s Bar and Restaurant, a few blocks away at Avenida Juarez #321, has just opened for the day. Upon hearing that we are visitors to Tecate, the owner, Victor, promptly goes to his kitchen and returns with a taster plate of ceviche. “Pruebalo – este es nuestra comida mejor (Try this, it’s our best dish).”
The couple hours spent meandering through the streets, eating tacos, and talking with Victor (while promising him that we’d return) have turned into four. It’s time to go, and we find ourselves back at the plaza enjoying our last beverage. A man in a cowboy hat and shiny boots circles the plaza numerous times in a matter of 30 minutes while we listen to a man playing his guitar on a nearby bench. He’s not asking for money, he just wants to play. Well, that and he is obviously a bit inebriated. But this is Tecate. Hanging out, relishing the relaxed vibe, and sipping on a beverage.
Tecate, you don’t have a coastline. You don’t have two-for-one specials or other marketing ploys to pull in the tourists. But you have the mellow times. Please keep them, as we will be back. We’ll keep good on our promise, Victor.