After two hours, the rhythm of my foot releasing the brake to inch forward has become automatic. We roll past a line of children waving bags of candy and old women carrying pottery, but the US Border crossing remains a blurry mirage up the road. The children parade up and down the aisles of idle cars, shouting, “Tamarindo! Chamoy! En Venta!” They throw toys high into the air that spin and float while their mothers follow behind pushing carts of churros. The smell of hot dust and cinnamon seep into the driver side window and I glance into the cup holder to see how many pesos are left.
Our tires lurch in time with the cars ahead and we can hear the sound of men whistling and signaling to the children from the shade of pop-up tiendas. They garnish signs for last-minute souvenirs, each with a lower price than the one before, proving that, here in Mexico, there’s always a better deal down the road.
The border comes into the focus and we hand our passports to the agent. He looks into our sunburned eyes, glowing with exhaustion and relief, and asks, “What were you two doing in Mexico?”
* * *
Here in San Diego, the finer things are abundant. Five-star resorts, famous restaurants, and the endless summer weather draw thousands of international travelers each year. They sit at the patios of the finest restaurants, eating lobster with splurging smiles and reminisce about morning spa treatments.
San Diego’s tourists and locals alike often overlook the fact that the city’s downtown sits only 20 miles north of the US/Mexico border, where Tijuana and the rest of Baja California awaits. Exotically different and immensely cheaper, my girlfriend Ava and I wondered: Is it possible to experience the lavish lifestyle of a wealthy traveler by driving into Mexico with only a few hundred dollars? We dug up our passports, packed a weekend bag, and headed south to find out.
Neither of us had ever been to Mexico before. Of course, we’d heard enough horror stories to know safety wasn’t guaranteed. We had friends that traveled past the border on weekends for tacos and uncrowded surf breaks, it was only a few years ago that the local news would drag kidnapping statistics across the screen each day, reporting how the cartels were decorating traffic lights with severed heads.
More recently, Baja California has and continues to experience lower crime rates and overall gentrification due to a growing culinary scene and improved public transportation systems. Whether or not the people we asked about our trip thought it was wise or not, their advice was all the same, “Be careful down there.”
With driving directions in hand, we watched miles become kilometers and pavement turn to gravel. Steel skyscrapers faded away in our rearview mirror. Red adobes made of mud stood scattered on the sides of the highway ahead.
We booked a hotel room at Puerto Nuevo Baja Hotel & Villas, in Puerto Nuevo, a small village 25 miles south of Tijuana. For around $100 per night, our little casita tripled the size of my apartment back home and was complete with a full kitchen, living room, and a spiral staircase that led to ocean views and king size bed.
Unfortunately for Ava, our room wasn’t the only thing oversized and she was greeted by spiders the size of empanadas. “I’m not going to scream,” she warned before letting out a shriek that shook the walls. I moved quickly. She closed her eyes until the sound my sandal slamming down on the spider and tile floor rang out and signaled the end of our first Mexican standoff.
To kick off our luxurious weekend, Ava booked us a couples massage at a spa in Ensenada. 90 miles South of Tijuana, the coastal city of Ensenada is known as The Cinderella of the Pacific.
We drove into town early in the morning and the streets were vacant. Only shop owners sweeping their storefronts and dusting tables and chairs for the day’s incoming tourists could be seen.
We found our spa sandwiched between a small bakery and hookah lounge, both still closed. “Bienvenidos,” the receptionist smiled. The massage therapists didn’t need to speak any English to know what we needed. Their fingers, deep in our muscles, smoothed out any American worries we had smuggled over.
We paid roughly $60 for a 90-minute couples massage and waltzed out of the spa. The sun was high now, drenching rows of cafés and tiendas with pale light. We found shade at a margarita stand and drank while cruise ship tourists raided the cobblestone sidewalks, kicking up dust and haggling over knock-off designer bags.