When I was growing up, my babysitter would sometimes take my brother and me to Tijuana for the afternoon without telling my parents beforehand (this was before passports were required). Since we lived 30 minutes from the border in San Diego, they didn’t think much of it — my mom especially. This is someone who, at age 15, was enlisted by my grandma to haul bottles of tequila back for her older sister’s wedding: They parked on the San Diego side, walked across the border, stocked up on cheap booze, and carried several shopping bags of it back along the beach, like it was any old summer stroll.
So familiar were we with Baja that my family vacationed there more frequently than anywhere else. Then, all of a sudden, we stopped. And, so did a host of others. Drug-related violence erupted in late 2006 when newly elected Mexican president Felipe Calderon started cracking down on cartels. With frightening headline after headline, Baja's reputation seemed irreparably marred. People were afraid to venture south of the border, and tourism was at a near standstill.
But, now, nine years later, Northern Baja has turned over a new leaf. The dust has settled, and it's revealed an even shinier Baja than before. Two areas in particular — Valle de Guadalupe and Tijuana — are not merely attracting tourists again; they're drawing in a group that's notoriously hard to please: discerning foodies. A cooler-by-the-minute burgeoning wine region and a buzzy restaurant scene spearheaded by prominent chefs have cemented Northern Baja as not just a worthy travel destination, but the food and wine hot spot of the moment. Oh, and it's all conveniently less than a four-hour road trip from L.A.
Ahead, I've rounded up a mix of old favorites and new spots I can't wait to try. Click through for 23 reasons to let the college kids go to Cabo for spring break while you sip wine amid unspoiled scenery in Valle de Guadalupe and nosh on cutting-edge cuisine in Tijuana. See you on the other side of la frontera…