“You are going where?”
This was the response I got when I told various friends and family that my boyfriend Thomas and I were going to take a one-day adventure from San Diego to Tijuana, Mexico. I admit that with the Mexican drug war at full bloom and lots of news stories about headless corpses turning up in various places I had some trepidation about crossing the border – even if it was just a short drive from downtown San Diego.
But we were going on a Monday morning in May. Besides, the main purpose of our trip was to pay a visit to the “little fishing village” of Popotla, located right next door to Fox Studios where “Titanic” was filmed. How bad could it be?
I put “fishing village” in quotes because when Thomas first e-mailed me to say “Are you up for an adventure?” and then some words about a Mexican fishing village with lots of fish, I immediately imagined a quaint, sleepy little town perched on a hill with rickety docks where colorful fishing boats bobbed nearby in a sparkly sea. And for some reason I also imagined cobblestone streets that I would wander in a sundress and smile at somewhat bashful shop merchants selling embroidered linens and so forth.
Let’s just say right here that I don’t have a lot of experience with Mexico.
Thomas, on the other hand, speaks Spanish and has traveled extensively in Central and South America. Despite the fact that he lives so close to the Mexican border he had never been to Tijuana, probably much in the same way that I’ve never actually walked the full extent of the Freedom Trail in downtown Boston. It’s just too close to qualify as an actual adventure – until you have out of town guests.
So off we went. (I didn’t wear a sundress, however. I was covered head to toe in “adventure wear,” my passport was tucked beneath my clothes, and I had written at least two e-mails to my mom to say, “yes of course I’ll let you know when we ‘make it back.’ “)
After a 20 minute drive, we parked the car, got out, and walked across the border.
Once on the streets of Tijuana, we were immediately greeted with offers for free margaritas (no, thanks). On nearly every street corner stood shopkeepers dressed in spotless pharmaceutical whites looking somewhat like dentists from day-time soaps (all set, thanks). Dentistry had a predominant presence in Tijuana and all along the road out to Popotla. We spotted at least three costumed “mascots,” large, puffy, and smiling Muppet-like dentists who danced continually in the bright heat of the day.
But mostly Tijuana’s streets were deserted of tourist throngs.
While it was nice not to push through crowds, other than the locals going about their daily business, we attracted a lot of attention. “Hey, senorita! Come in and see what I have!” (Not today, thanks.)
This got tiring. Really fast. And after I posed for a photo in front of the restaurant where Cesar salad was invented, we were ready for a snack. Thomas spotted a food cart that appeared like an oasis of calm and order on the busy street. Its bright canopy and trim green-and-white gingham tablecloth held rows of inviting, fresh fruit in plastic cups. In the back, were elegant “straws” of fresh, raw coconut. Thomas focused in on those right away and bought us a cup to share.
The straws were expertly carved, sweet and crunchy with a hint of citrus and heat. We asked the vendors how they seasoned the coconut. The answer was three simple ingredients: lime juice, chili pepper, and salt. A perfect snack for our amble through Tijuana.
Having seen all the exhausted painted “zebra” donkeys waiting for tourists photos, wilted corn husks at their feet, and after briefly stopping by the town’s architectural pride (a modest and tired cathedral) we caught a taxi out to Popotla. We already knew that Fox Studios is no longer open to the public, so we headed down a narrow road to the “fishing village” next door.
Here it is.
All those buildings you see surrounding the beach are restaurants, and as soon as Thomas and I came within shouting distance we were flanked by restauranteurs waving vinyl menus filled with pictures of seafood. “Come inside and eat! See our beautiful views!” (Just ate, no thanks.)
We politely pushed our way down to the beach. Cars and trucks were parked right on the sand, beyond them were rows of fishermen’s tables selling freshly harvested seafood.
Every now and then, a fish vendor would wander down to the water’s edge and fling a bucket of fish guts across the wet sand. On cue, circling gulls swopped down to feast.
The boys boogie boarding just beyond in the surf didn’t seem to mind, or notice. The entrails were gone before the next wave even reached the shore.
There were other vendors, too, like this candy man pushing a giant wheelbarrow of Swedish fish, nuts, jellybeans, and other assorted treats.
Mostly it was just an ordinary day at the beach, with families exploring the nearby rocky out-cropping.
We didn’t stay too long, because there really isn’t a lot to do at the beach when one is fully decked in adventure wear with no boogie board, and quite frankly, not that enticed to swim near car and fish gut run-off, so we braced ourselves to return to the vinyl “gauntlet,” as Thomas described the eager restaurant hosts. We planned to just push by again to the road, having already eaten lunch on the way and plans for a nice dinner back in San Diego. Thomas declared we weren’t going to stop three times before we began our ascent off the beach, “Nope. We ate at Sports Tacos in Rosarito. No more eats.”
But curiousity was getting the better of me. Surely, I thought, they must have good guacamole in this place, this was Mexico, right? Plus we could sit down and look out at the sea in the direction away from the fish market.
Somewhat reluctantly, Thomas followed me up to a windy rooftop. We had the deck and the view to ourselves!
We ordered guacamole which came with hot, salty tortilla chips and frosty drinks sin alcohol, and then a delightful surprise. The waitress delivered crab legs on a wooden board with a rock and melted butter and lime juice for dipping. She explained in Spanish that these were “on the house” and that the rock was for the purpose of cracking open the legs to draw out the tender meat. Delicious!
Suddenly my unfulfilled fantasies of a cobblestone meander were replaced with something much more satisfying and real: A refreshing breeze, a cloudless sky over a vast sea, no one to bother us, and a culinary first. What more could one ask for on a one-day adventure?
Finally on our way up to the road to catch a taxi back to Tijuana, we met a chihuahua in a polka dot bikini. I forgot to ask her name even though she graciously posed for a photo.
Our Mexican moment felt complete.
Back home in New England, when the temperature began to climb above 90 degrees F., I thought it would be a good time to recreate that Tijuana coconut treat.
I found a whole coconut at the grocery store but was quickly stumped on how to open the thing. Some instructions on its orange net casing said to use “an ice pick” to open the seam.
An ice pick? I even tried to watch a Gourmet Food magazine video demonstrating how to open a coconut, but that was no help either.
After a go with my Ryobi drill, I gave up on that coconut.
Then I stopped by Whole Foods, because sometimes they sell raw coconut alongside their prepared fruit. There was none on the shelf that day but a very helpful Produce Guy said “we have a hammer,” and took a whole coconut “out back.”
He returned in about 15 minutes with fresh coconut pieces. They certainly weren’t the elegantly carved straws that we enjoyed in Tijuana, but just as sweet and crunchy.
The brown bit you see there isn’t the hard outer shell, it is a dark, soft protective inner skin, which is also edible.
The next time you want a sweet (and nutrient rich) snack on a hot day, try this Tijuana treat. I used cayenne pepper and kosher salt because I like the crunch. I also added the zest of the lime for added color and flavor.
1 coconut, cut into strips or pieces (whatever you can manage)
Juice plus zest of one lime
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 pinches kosher salt
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and serve in a small glass, or refrigerate and serve chilled.