For the Love of Food & People in Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico

Baja Travels

We took a trip down to Mexico this Saturday and spent the day drinking wine, eating delicious food and chatting in broken Spanish with the locals. There is nothing so invigorating and poignant for me than traveling. There is something about crossing a border line that heightens my senses and opens my heart. It feels like a right of passage to be an explorer, and from that space, my eyes open wider to everyday life lessons.

Here’s what I learned along the way.

People are People.

We decided to make a stop at Alximia mid-afternoon because it was hot, and they had cool architecture with hanging seats where I could drink a cold glass of Viognier. We also discovered a Pétanque court in the front entry (similar to Bocce ball but with slight variations) so decided to check out a set of balls. We walked on the court and were immediately greeted by two young men visiting the winery for the day with their family from Tijuana. We invited them to play two-on-two with us.

Our game was not extraordinary. They started out ahead, we moved ahead, they came back to a 12-12 tie right at the end, and we won by one point (you play to 13) for a narrow victory. Along the way we shared stories about our favorite wineries in the region and chatted about happenings in San Diego and Mexico.

That was all. Four people, from different countries, playing a new game together and talking about life. We found more in common than not, had a nice time, and went on our separate ways. A simple, happy moment in time with strangers that brought a smile to my heart.  

Baja Vines

Love is Love.

Between breakfast and dinner, we stopped at the newly opened La Cima del Valle to check out their casitas as possible overnight options for future trips. We ended up staying for a glass of iced coffee and chatting with one of the managers, Francisco, about the venue and life across our borders.

Our conversation started with reflections on an arbitrary line (e.g. U.S./Mexico border) that separates historical neighbors, in both food and culture, and flowed into sharing memories from each of our hometowns. We learned about his favorite seafood dishes from Mulege where he grew up and where his family still lives. Then I asked if they held weddings at the venue, and he went into a touching story about how his wife passed away 5 years ago and he fell in love again for the first time just 5 months ago after his 16-year old daughter set him up with her friend’s mother. Seeing the twinkle is his eye and the tenderness in his voice as he described his new love brought warmth to my spirit. What joy to experience true love at any age! He went on to say that when he met her “he just knew,” and we laughed about their first date having coffee at the Oxxo.

I called to him “Mucho Gusto, Hasta Luego!” when we parted ways, and he winked at me as if to say, “I see you.” I saw him too, and our souls grinned at each other.  

Baja Grapes

Good Food is Good Food.

You cannot go to the Valle without having some kind of culinary adventure. As a chef, this is the biggest draw for me to this gorgeous region overflowing the olive trees and grape vines.

We started the morning at El Mogor Mercado Organico, where we picked up local honey, olive oil, fresh cheese, sundried tomatoes and crusty bread. We also chatted with another family visiting the Valle from San Diego, originally from Mexico City. They commented that they were surprised to see white Americans like us there, noting that it is rare. I looked around and noticed for the first time that yes, we were the only non-Mexicans there. Pause for about a half second…and then we went on to talk about how we were practicing our Spanish, their efforts to find activities for their two young boys to enjoy in wine country, and camera gear (well really just the men talked about their gear). We wished them well and continued on our journey, glad to have such delicious food in hand and smiling from a kind conversation.

Mercado Organico

Next we stopped in our favorite breakfast joint La Cocina de Doña Esthela. It’s hidden off the main road up a dirt road and a favorite with the locals. The front patio was overflowing with families and pop-up shops for candies, smoked salts, turquoise jewelry, snacks and hand-made children’s toys. It was a 30-minute wait for our table, so we paid a visit to the goats, sheep, pigs and chickens hanging out on the backside of the property and chatted about how many of the clothing styles were reminiscent of those we saw while traveling in Spain.

Baja Goat

Once we were seated, the tortillas came handmade (we could see them being pressed and grilled from our table) and the service was leisurely.  We ordered our Nopales y Machaca con Huevos in Spanish and took in the buzz of families passing time together while we sipped our coffee. Our food came on large clay plates with generous sides of refried beans. Doña Esthela herself stopped by our table at one point to check on us. Everyone spoke to us in Spanish, and we communicated the best we could with our limited vocabulary. I really miss the days in college when I was fluent. Note to self: find opportunities to practice Spanish more often. The food was yummy and hearty, and we went on our way with full bellies.

Mercado Ferments

After a couple of winery stops in between, we ended our day at Finca Altozano, where we wandered through the gardens, fed a piglet a handful of grape leaves and meandered through the rows of vines before making our way to Animalón. Nestled under a 100-year old oak tree on the edge of the property, this 6-week summer pop-up dinner series by Chef Javier Plascencia included an 8-course (10 with 2 snacks) pairing menu featuring Baja’s local bounty. The ambiance, with a light breeze and sunset over the vineyards at the midpoint of the three-hour meal was nothing short of spectacular, and the dishes were artfully crafted to match.

Animalon Baja

Following dinner we sat around an outdoor fire pit sipping coffee, gazing up at the starry night sky and chatting with some locals about the growing agritourism industry. It was a wonderful meal celebrating the flavors of Baja and the joys of eating with strangers who quickly become friends for now. We went back to the basics for the evening – sharing good food with good people out in nature – and for those few hours, we were fully present to one another and to our senses.

Animalon Fire

Life Lessons

There is nothing revolutionary about these points of awareness. And yet, they sparked something in me.  It feels like a mix of hope and naivety. Hope that all human kind can come to a place of remembering these simple truths. Naivety that life could stay so simple and easy.  

Returning back to San Diego in the midst of the most deplorable acts of racism I have witnessed in my lifetime in the United States, we need more than hope. Where to start? I am aware that I live a privileged life to get to drive down to Mexico for the day, drink wine and eat delicious food, and return via the Sentri line with no wait time and no extra screening. The border crossing brought up no stress in me whatsoever. I know that this is not the reality for many people who cross this same border every day, and for many people looking to cross borders around the world.

Lines in the sand. That we have drawn. To divide us from our neighbors. To make clear our separateness. Grounded in the energy of scarcity, we hold tight to that which we believe we have claim over. Our property lines.  Our natural resources. Our money.

These are not ours. They mean nothing when we die. We do not own Mother Earth no more than we own our brothers and sisters. And yet we fight over her, we kill each other. We hold tight to the sense of stability we feel attaching our worth to objects and constructs we’ve created to satisfy our fragile egos.

For what? Where does this lead us in the end?

Into more pain, more hate, more numbing, more anger, more scarcity.

I don’t know where to begin. We have a lot of work to do. We are being called right now, in these moments, to stand up. To speak out. To go within and heal our wounds so we can rise stronger, acting from our heart spaces. To use our voices and talents and passions for good. And it’s scary, and hard, and ugly. I’m scared. Scared to look in the mirror and point a finger at myself. I don’t like seeing this side of humanity, this side of myself.

We are all responsible. We all have a hand in the horror just as much as we can have a hand in the healing. We are all one human race, connected. The Mexican and the American. The black man and the white supremacist. We all are one. Hurting and grieving and desiring to be heard, to prosper, to be filled with love and abundance.

My heart says start by breaking bread. Reach out. Strike up a conversation. Give a hug. Speak out in love and kindness. I can’t make sense of it all, but at least these are actions that I can take today, tomorrow, right now. Maybe if we can share a meal together we can someday learn to respect each other, honor each other, even love each other. We have to start somewhere.

And so I continue to ask, in these tumultuous times, how can I be of service? How can I use my energy and my passions and my talents for good for all life on this planet?

Next time, we’ll take more photos of the people. Because they are the beauty truly worth capturing.

Photos by Colin Leibold.

Valle de Guadalupe