What: Tecate, Baja California, Mexico, and the roads to and from this magnificent destination.
How to Get There: Take I-15 or I-5 to I-8, pick up California SR 94 and turn south on SR 188.
Best Kept Secret: Unquestionably, the exquisite dining experiences in Tecate (see above).
Avoid: Forgetting your passport (if you want to get back into the Estados Unidos), returning to the U.S. with more than one bottle of wine (the U.S. limit) and entering Mexico without insurance (we recommend Baja Bound)
More Photos: Exhaust Notes
More Info: Visit Mexico
Tecate, home to the cerveza company of the same name, is a gritty industrial town, but scratch the surface and you’ll find a grand destination and a good jumping-off point for further Baja exploration. On the U.S. side, Tecate is not much more than the U.S. Customs and Immigration station; on the Mexican side, Tecate (pop. 102,000) is a much larger and far more intriguing place. Founded in 1892, Tecate’s history reaches back 12,000 years when the region was settled by the Kumeyaay Native Americans who still inhabit the area.
Getting to Tecate is a beautiful ride in itself. California SR 94 twistiliciously winds its way through the mountains just north of the border. Roughly 25 miles east of where 94 originates near San Diego, take a right on 2-mile-long SR 188 and you’re there. There’s a sign warning you not to bring guns into Mexico (duh), and suddenly, you’re crossing the border. There are no Mexican officials or inspections as you enter; you just ride right in. You can do that going south; don’t try it going north.
You should get a Mexican visitor’s permit (FMM). The Mexican immigration office is the first building on the right. Bounce over the Botts’ dots (those annoying grapefruit-sized metal domes), find a place to park, walk across the road you just rode in on, walk back to the Mexican customs building (there’s no sign), walk through a gate, cross back again, look for the steps and enter the Mexican immigration office. Just wander around looking like you’re lost (you won’t have to act, because you will be), and somebody will ask if you need help. I get the feeling not too many people actually get a permit when they enter Mexico. But you’re supposed to.
Tecate stretches out like a fat “T” along the border. Head west on Federal Highway 2 and you’ll run into Tijuana (although why anyone would want to do that is beyond me). Turn left to head east on Fed. 2 (or 2D) for a magnificent ride through the Rumarosa Grade on your way to Mexicali and San Felipe (see MC’s Destinations, November/December 2013). Be prepared, however; Fed. 2D is a toll road.
Ride straight ahead down the long part of that letter T and dive deeper into Baja on Fed. 3, which becomes northern Baja’s Ruta del Vino. It’s a beautiful road through the northern Baja wine country, not unlike Napa Valley (although much less expensive). I don’t do any tasting when I’m riding, but I’ve purchased northern Baja wines and they are as good or better as any in the world. I particularly like L.A. Cetto’s wines and olive oil (that’s one of their vineyards in the photo at the top).
My advice is to spend at least one night in Tecate and enjoy the town’s best kept secret, which is the cuisine. Two restaurants that stand out are Amores for dinner and Malinalli Sabores Autóctonos for breakfast. Amores, nestled between the central plaza and the Tecate brewery, features local foods and wines. Malinalli Sabores Autóctonos, next to the Hotel Hacienda on Avenida Revolución (my favorite place to stay), has exquisite regional Mexican recipes. Don’t think salsa and chips; this is the real deal and the cuisine is both exceptional and inexpensive.
Tecate is dominated by the brewery in the center of town (you can see it from just about anywhere). The brewery used to offer tours and I tried to get one, but a worker told me the tours are no more. Sensing my disappointment, my new compadre said the Tecate beer garden was still open, but it was well-hidden (he was right, I couldn’t find it).
There are plenty of gas stations in northern Baja and in Tecate the stations take credit cards (that’s not always the case farther south). Until recently, Pemex stations were the only ones in Mexico. Being a state-run company, Pemex ran out of money for exploration (and then they ran out of gas), so in 2016 Mexico allowed foreign oil companies to set up shop. There are BP, Chevron and ARCO stations in Tecate.