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California Cruisin’

Baja California, Mexico

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Don’t tell Arnie, but Mexico has occupied half of California. Before you start worrying that the US has been invaded by one of its closest neighbors, that statement needs a little qualification. ‘California’ isn’t, of course, simply the state of which the estimable Mr. Schwarzenegger is governor. It refers to a whole territory that includes the southern Californian peninsula. This peninsula, which is nearly 800 miles long, is joined to the rest of its country by a short strip of land at the top of the Gulf of Mexico, the waters of which effectively divides Baja Mexico from the other Mexican states.

It used to be a single Mexican state – Baja (‘Lower’) California. These days its divided into Baja California and Baja California Sur. So what happened to Alta (‘High’) California? Well, that Mexican territory used to encompass all of the modern US state of California, as well as large parts of Arizona, Nevada and even Utah – until the US annexed it in the early nineteenth century.

Baja: Cortez AfternoonAs you sail south, the likelihood is that your first non-US port of call with be Tijuana, the capital of Baja California. This lively city is most Americans’ first (and sometimes only) experience of Mexico. For years, Mexico’s relatively lax drinking laws have attracted thousands of older teens from the western US who are drawn to the city by the prospect of cheap alcohol that they can legally drink under the age of 21. While the city authorities don’t discourage this, exactly – it has, after all, helped make the place rich – they have in recent years clamped down on the worst excesses of student behavior. Tijuana is now much more geared towards attracting a greater number of mature, prosperous tourists. As more and more cruise lines have begun to run itineraries down the coast of Baja California, wooing the cruise industry has been a major part of this campaign.

So although you might think from what you’ve heard that Tijuana is dedicated to hedonism and excess, you’d only be partially right. Although it remains the most visited border town in the world it most certainly isn’t the mess of drinking dens and fleshpots that you might imagine.

Baja: BeachThe street that best reflects both the old and the new faces of Tijuana tourism is Avenida Revolución. This avenue has for years been the destination of choice for day tripping Americans who simply want to stock up on booze and cheap prescription drugs before heading back over the border and home. But this is most definitely not a down-at-heel area: although some of the bars that you’ll find along here maybe leave a little to be desired in terms of class and décor, there are just as many establishments that offer a typically classy, typically refined – in fact, typically Mexican – social experience.

There’s a tendency among many in the US to write off Mexico as a poverty-stricken wasteland. Although the country, like any other, has its problems, it’s wrong to judge it by the hordes of immigrants, legal and illegal, that cross the US border every year. Mexico is in fact a diverse, cultured and highly civilized country. If you’re looking for evidence of this in Tijuana, you might like to visit CECUT, the city’s cultural center. There’s lots to see and do in the CECUT complex, which is home to regular concerts of classical, folk and jazz music as well as theater events and screenings of cult and arthouse movies in both English and Spanish. One of the most interesting features of the center is its Museum of the Californias, which includes temporary and permanent exhibitions documenting the natural, social and political history of the entire territory of California – which locals of a sentimental bent are sometimes inclined to consider rightfully Mexican in its entirety.

Baja: MorningA taste of Mexico, of course, wouldn’t be complete without a taste of Mexican cooking. There are a number of great places to eat in town, most of them offering Mexican, South American and Italian food that is cooked to perfection. If you’ve spent some time exploring CECUT, you’re not very far away from Buenos Aires, an excellent Latin American-themed eaterie that fuses traditional Mexican spicy dishes with some of the more solidly beef-based dishes of Argentina and Uruguay. If you’d like to sample pure Mexican cooking, head back along Avenida Revolución to Café La Especial. All the basics of local cuisine are done brilliantly here – you’ll leave feeling well fed, and perhaps in need of a little cooling ice cream to counteract the effect of all those chilies!

Tijuana is a great cruise stop off because it’s so very close to home, yet so foreign. You can travel thousands and thousands of miles to Hawaii or the Virgin Islands and feel that you’ve barely left the States. Take a short cruise down the coast from San Diego and you’re in another world.

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