Boutique wineries by day, tequila blowouts by night. Remy Scalza finds anything-goes Tijuana has shrugged off its battle scars and made changes.
THE special tonight in La Querencia, a minimalist bistro near the banks of the Rio Tijuana, is wild quail served in bitter-sweet chocolate sauce. Around me in the dining room couples cluster at brushed stainless-steel tables, chatting in Spanish above a trance-music soundtrack and moving steadily through bottles of wine from the nearby Guadalupe Valley. The energy in the room and the optimism are a distant cry from the mood during the worst of la violencia - the drug-fuelled mayhem that had middle-class Tijuanense fleeing north of the border just two years ago.
Since those dark days, Tijuana, Mexico, which lies just across the US border from San Diego, has done an abrupt - if largely unnoticed - about-face. A new, hard-nosed chief of police has worked to rein in the drug cartels and residents have turned their energies inward, cultivating a sophisticated bar and restaurant scene and reinvigorating the arts and culture circuit. Tijuana, for all its challenges, is in the midst of a mini-renaissance.
Not that you'd necessarily notice at first glance. The tawdry Tijuana of pop-culture legend still greets most visitors, who stream in by foot or by car from California at the world's busiest border crossing on land. On a hazy morning, I make my way over the pedestrian bridge that spans Tijuana's eponymous river and am immediately plunged into a maze of taco stands, vendors hawking cheap handicrafts and bars advertising cheap margaritas.
For decades, this part of the city and its notorious main drag - Avenida Revolucion - catered to girls and guys gone wild who would slip in from the US for tequila-fuelled nights of dancing and debauchery. Vestiges of that era endure - discount 24-hour pharmacies selling bootleg Viagra; thatch-roofed strip clubs whose touts corral young men inside - but the global recession and lingering image problems have conspired to keep many revellers away and now large sections of this strip are shuttered and deserted.
The real heart of the city has migrated south to Zona Rio, a thriving riverside district safely insulated from the border. Walking along Paseo de los Heroes, the wide boulevard that slices through the zone, I get a visceral feel for the changes. Cheap taquerias and traditional outdoor markets selling pinatas and endless varieties of chilli peppers give way to new malls and a glade of gleaming high-rise towers and hotels. Tucked along leafy side streets are the one-off boutiques and progressive restaurants where upwardly mobile residents spend their money.
At one busy intersection rises the city's enormous cultural centre, an elegant, postmodern rebuttal to the low-brow Tijuana nearer the border. With rain threatening, I head inside to the Museo de las Californias, the city's history museum, for a quick reprise of Tijuana's torrid past. Though missionaries from Spain settled the area as early as 1697, it turns out they never really got around to "civilising" Tijuana. Until the early 1900s, the city remained a backwater of tin-roofed shacks huddled along dirt streets.
It took a little vice to really get things going. In 1928, in the midst of US Prohibition, entrepreneurs opened a lavish casino and racetrack called the Agua Caliente. Americans streamed in from California and beyond for booze, gambling and cheap women. The city boomed and its reputation was sealed.
Back outside, noon sun has broken through the clouds. Footpaths are busy with shoppers and schoolkids in blue and white uniforms - a kind of civic normality unthinkable just a few years ago when daylight shootouts were commonplace. Among the many subtle signs of Tijuana's revival is the adventurous new restaurant scene. A wave of edgy eateries has opened in Zona Rio, challenging conceptions of Mexican food as uninventive, predictable and tortilla-bound.
I pass through a weathered wooden door framed with ivy and into the courtyard of La Diferencia, a new restaurant whose esoteric menu draws on ancient Aztec influences. Dishes are flavourful but not for the faint of heart. I start with a plate of chapulines: deep-fried grasshoppers.
"There's a lot of protein. It's the past food but the future food, too," explains the owner, Juan Pablo Ussel. Seasoned with salt and lime and garnished with guacamole, they taste a bit like peanuts. From there, it's on to even more exotic culinary terrain.
I tuck into a plate of huitlacoche, or corn smut - kernels covered with a blackish-blue fungus. It comes served with fresh bone marrow: an earthy, pungent dish best suited for daring taste buds.
"What you see here is almost a miracle," says a Tijuana businessman sitting next to me, Gilberto Salinas. "Two years ago was a line-in-the-sand moment. We thought we were going to lose Tijuana to the bad guys."
Salinas says that unlike many of his professional colleagues who sought refuge in California during the worst years, he decided to stick things out. These days, he's busy buying and selling one of the area's most promising new commodities: wine. Vino from the nearby Baja wine country is earning international acclaim and wooing local drinkers sated on tequila and cerveza. To see some of the most promising new wineries, and a whole different side of the region, Salinas recommends I take a quick detour south to the Guadalupe Valley.
To get there, I drive for an hour along Tijuana's coastal highway, which edges cliffs that plunge hundreds of metres to the indigo waters of the Pacific, and then turn inland along Highway 3, the Ruta del Vino. After threading through an epic landscape of dry, crumbling mountains inlaid with lush vineyards, I find the turn I've been looking for. A rutted dirt road flanked with cactuses leads to Villa del Valle: a boutique winery and inn that's setting the standard for hospitality in the region.
In the golden late-afternoon sun, Villa del Valle looks like a long-forgotten Spanish mission rising from the desert, albeit one with a swimming pool, yoga studio and organic garden, source of much of the food served to guests. Semi-arid plains stretch in every direction, interrupted only by distant mountains. "There's a magical ambience to the valley. It's everywhere, not just here," says owner Eileen Gregory, who opened the inn with her husband in 2005. A modest vineyard extends in one direction, which the couple harvests to make an exceptional cabernet sauvignon, syrah and a bold Bordeaux blend.
Inside the tasting room, with its high ceilings, stucco walls hung with contemporary Baja art and classic arches, I drink and stare out at the undulating expanse of scrub brush. Gregory brings out a plate of cheeses, made locally, and a tapenade of olives harvested from the garden. Fifty wineries now dot the valley, up from just a dozen a few years ago. In fact, an entire holiday could be spent just wine tasting. I'm tempted to stay but the Tijuana nightlife calls.
But first, a quick shot of culture. On the ride back into the city, I pass right by the Rosarito artists' colony: a ramshackle hub of galleries and studio spaces alongside the dusty highway and a requisite stop for anyone hoping to make sense of Tijuana. In one room, a series of huge portraits of Don Quixote - the dreamer, the perennial optimist - hang on the wall. His eyes stare out wildly, either in rapture or horror; it's hard to tell. In another room is a giant painting of Pancho Villa, Mexico's iconic, bandolier-wearing revolutionary - only here he's shown dressed in a pair of Converse sneakers and a lucha-libre wrestling mask. The paintings are by David Silva, one of a cadre of young artists struggling to reconcile Mexico's violent past with contemporary life on the border.
Finally, it's time to return to where I started - colourful, kitschy Avenida Revolucion. I steer clear of the tourist traps and instead head for a corner of the neighbourhood recently reclaimed from the gringos: Calle Sexta, or Sixth Street, home to a dozen or so new bars, restaurants and clubs and the nexus of nightlife in the new Tijuana.
A crowd is milling outside La Catrina, a tiny dive wildly popular among the Tijuana university crowd. Inside, I squeeze my way to the bar and order the house specialty: pulque, a fermented cactus drink that traces to Aztec times. Legend has it that priests used pulque to sedate sacrifice victims. It's milky, bitter and deceptively strong. After a few sips, I see why it was so effective.
As the night wears on, masses migrate down the street to another local cantina, La Mezcalera, which serves dozens of varieties of artisanal mezcal, the strong, smoky liquor favoured by young Tijuanense over its more refined cousin, tequila. "This is the real Mexico," the bartender says in Spanish, handing me a shot glass of mezcal anejo, aged but still packing a vicious bite.
Around me, drinkers crack peanuts and shower the wood floor with the shells. A cheer goes up as a song starts on the jukebox. It's Vicente Fernandez, the mustachioed crooner of traditional Mexican ranchera ballads. Amid a flourish of trumpets and accordions, people take to the cramped dance floor. Dancers - shot of mezcal in one hand, bottle of Tecate in the other - circle round and round to the rhythm of the heavy waltz. The best part: there's not a sombrero-wearing waiter or oversized margarita glass in sight.
Three things to do
1. Hidden along a side street in the residential 20 de Noviembre neighbourhood is La Caja, a collective that showcases the work of 10 of the city's most prominent young artists. Built almost entirely from recycled materials, the gallery hosts an innovative monthly series that integrates fine dining with performance art. To guests' surprise, panels along the gallery walls slide away to reveal live poets, singing troubadours and even a commercial kitchen where chefs from Spain and Italy prepare the night's meal. Callejon de las Moras 118B; +52 664 686 6791; lacajagaleria.com.
2. Popular among professionals after work is the Cerveceria Tijuana, the city's first and only microbrewery and also a lively pub. Brewmaster Victor Gonzalez has managed to wean locals off Tecate, Corona and other industrial brews with a range of Czech-inspired lagers and ales. Boulevard Fundadores 2951; +55 664 638 8662; tjbeer.com.
3. To get a better idea of how far the city has come, head to where it all started: a racetrack and casino on the edge of town called Agua Caliente. When it opened in 1928, the lavish complex became an instant magnet for drinkers and gamblers from the US and the city blossomed. Today, a rebuilt casino still operates but the real draw is the racetrack. Horses have been replaced by greyhounds and the daily contests offer a vision of Tijuana at its kitschy best — or worst, depending on your perspective. Boulevard Agua Caliente 12027; +52 664 681 7811; grupocaliente.com.mx.
Delta Air Lines flies from Sydney to San Diego via Los Angeles, from $2500 return. (02) 9767 4333, delta.com. From the San Diego airport, several bus companies make the one-hour trip across the nearby Mexican border to Tijuana. You can also rent a car at the airport and drive across the border.
On the edge of trendy Zona Rio, the five-star Grand Hotel Tijuana is housed inside the city's most recognisable landmark, the twin towers (Las Torres). Doubles from $US85. +52 664 681 7000, www.grandhoteltj.com.
For a vision of the idyllic countryside surrounding Tijuana, consider La Villa del Valle, a boutique inn and winery about 90 minutes' drive south-east of the city in the heart of Baja wine country. Doubles from $US175. +52 646 183 9249, lavilladelvalle.com.
Among Tijuana's more progressive fusion restaurants, La Querencia serves Baja-Mediterranean cuisine, a style that blends New World fish, meats and vegetables with time-proven, Old World cooking. Entrees from $15. Avenida Escuadron 201. +52 664 972 9935, laquerenciatj.com.
For a memorable culinary experience, try the pre-Hispanic dishes on offer at La Diferencia. Examples of traditional Aztec cuisine served include chapulines, huitlacoche and gusanos de maguey (live cactus worms). Entrees from $12. Boulevard Sanchez Taboada 10521. +52 664 634 7078, ladiferencia.com.mx.
The official tourism site for Tijuana is seetijuana.com. While the security situation has vastly improved, it's always a good idea to check with the consulate in Mexico before travelling.