If you live in southern California, the fact of the matter is that you live in a geographical area once ruled by Mexico – that is, Alta California.
California as we know it today became the 31st state of the union in 1850 – and now, it’s separated from its “lower” half (Baja California) by a fence, a wall, a gate, or an invisible line of demarcation, depending on where you are. These border crossings are as symbolic, of course, as they are geographical and political.
But it turns out that for all the differences there may be today between “Americans” and “Mexicans,” there’s a staggering amount of shared history between the towns that run along that border. And you can learn a lot about the United States by visiting a Mexican border town… and vice versa.
So, if you’ve had a hankering to head “south of the border” but haven’t been sure where to start, here are five great excursions that will help you keep one foot in each side of our state’s natural, industrial, military, and cultural history.
1. The Wildlife of Chula Vista, CA
Did you know that you could make gunpowder out of algae? Well, not exactly gunpowder – but a "propellant" called cordite that was meant to similarly be a low explosive (as opposed to a bomb) but without all the smoke of traditional firearm ammunition. During the shortages of WWI in the early 20th century, that's exactly what happened at "Gunpowder Point," on a 30-acre tideland that’s now part of the San Diego Bay Sweetwater Marsh, a unit of the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex: The nitrate-rich giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) was ground up, liquefied, and then fermented to create "kelp liquor” which is used to make cordite. After a few other industrial uses and a 1929 fire, though, the land reverted back to nature. In the 1970s, the site was used as a film location for the B movie spoof "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes."
Bonus: The main use for Sweetwater Marsh now is as the location of the Living Coast Discovery Center, where pretty much the only "attacks" you'll see are at feeding time – that is, when the green sea turtles munch on romaine lettuce and broccoli. Sure, the snowy egret might pick a fight with the night heron, but otherwise, the ruddy duck takes a snooze in the shadows, the black oystercatcher sidles up to the corner of the cage, and the white-faced ibis preens itself.
2. The Sculptural Revolution of Tijuana, BC
If you haven’t been to Tijuana in 30 years, you may still think of it as being overrun by thirsty underagers crossing the border to drink and gamble. But visiting Tijuana today, you’ll see how this border town (or party town) has evolved and even been revolutionized by art and culture. There’s the CECUT cultural center with its outdoor statuary and rotating exhibitions, but there are also sculptures and monuments everywhere. Especially in Zona Rio and along the "Road of the Heroes," they rise up from nearly every traffic circle and dot the hillsides – paying tribute to Aztec warriors and Mexican Revolution heroes and even Abraham Lincoln. And in 1989, with the Centennial coming up, a man named Armando Garcia offered a giant statue of his own – of a nude woman – and for some reason, the City of Tijuana didn't want it. So, although he'd never sculpted before, he built the thing on his own private property. "Tijuana III Millenium," as he calls it -- but more commonly known as "La Mona" -- rises five stories tall, her right arm is raised in a fist of national pride, strength, and solidarity, with a pinky raised almost to pinpoint Tijuana's exact position on the map of Mexico. Originally made of concrete that was hand-sculpted over a rebar frame and then painted white, she's gone through a couple of cosmetic changes over the years.
If you’re looking for something a bit more traditional, cast your eyes towards the Los Alamos district for Tijuana’s version of a giant Jesus statue. Although it’s a smaller version of the most famous giant Christ in the world, the "Christ the Redeemer" statue in Rio de Janeiro, the resin and fiberglass monument called "Cristo Rey" ("Christ the King") stands nearly 77 feet tall atop the Catholic church of San Martin de Porres and can be seen for miles. The church itself is worth an up-close visit as well, with its beautiful mosaics and stained glass windows. And the best way to grasp the monumentality of this cruciform figure, of course, is to stand right beneath it.
3. The Rail History of Campo, CA
If you needed to get from San Diego to El Centro (or beyond), today you’d probably drive the 8 Freeway. There is another highway, however, that runs between the two – historic Highway 94 – along the winding roads and hairpin turns of what’s known as the “Mountain Empire” of southern California. But this area isn’t known as much for road trips in the car as it is for train excursions along “The Impossible Railroad,” the now-defunct Desert Line of the San Diego & Arizona Railway. The train would actually cross the border into Mexico, travel through both Tijuana and Tecate, and then cross back over into the United States to complete its route, heading into some pretty rough backcountry that required giant trestles to be built across massive canyons and chasms, like the infamous Carrizo Gorge – which is one of the reasons it was one of the most expensive railroads ever built in the U.S. (financed by sugar magnate John D. Spreckles and his crew, known as “the last of the great railroad builders”).
You can explore the history of the “San Diego Short Line” at the Campo Depot of the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association, which offers both interpretive displays and vintage train rides. In fact, the museum was actually offering scenic excursions by rail into Tecate until the tunnel that crosses the border was damaged by fire in 2009 and operations were fully discontinued in 2011. For now, to get a taste of what riding The Impossible Railroad was like, you can ride The Golden State from Campo to the Mexico border and back on select weekends. And the Desert Line may not be gone forever, either – because Baja California Railroad initiated the process of rehabilitating it in 2016 and, as of 2018, is still making progress.
4. The Cave Paintings of Tecate, BC
Even if you can no longer take the train to Tecate from California (at least for now), this border town is worth a visit – and not just to take a tour of the Tecate brewery or grab some pan dulce at one of the many famous bakeries (panaderias) in the area. But you’ll have to extend your visit beyond the city limits in order to experience the crown jewel of Baja California’s archaeological sites, the Sitio Arqueológico El Vallecito in the La Rumorosa village of the Tecate Municipality. It’s a sacred site for the Kumeyaay, whose nomadic tribes would spend time here when lower desert elevations were too hot and these higher elevations weren’t too cold. Their territory, of course, stretched way up into Alta California’s Imperial Valley, when there was nothing keeping them to one side or another of any official boundaries that would eventually comes to be.
The hunters and gatherers who spent time here left behind a number of petroglyphs in mostly red, black, and white (though also some orange and yellow). There are five caves that are open to the public and marked with signage and historical displays, though there are many more that exist beyond the official trail. For a modest entrance fee (and an inexpensive photography permit), you can roam the grounds and take all the photos you want, as long as you don’t use flash and don’t touch the walls of the caves. It’s an interesting geological site as well, with many time-weathered rock formations, split boulders, and natural cairns that will look familiar to anyone who’s spent time in the Wonderland of Rocks in Joshua Tree National Park or Garden of the Gods in the San Fernando Valley. Naturalists will also enjoy the multitude of plants that thrive here, including piñon pine, agave, buckwheat and Manzanita.
5. The Chino-Latino Culture of Mexicali, BC
Is there any name or phrase that better describes our shared border than the portmanteau of “Mexicali”? (Perhaps only that of its neighbor north of the border, Calexico.) But the Mexican border town of Mexicali isn’t just where Alta California gives way to Baja California – because this capital city is also a hotbed of Chinese culture, both past and present. In fact, just after you cross the border into Mexico, along Calle Melgar, you’ll find a Chinese pagoda. Though that may not exactly be the way you expect to be welcomed to Baja, Chinese immigration actually played a huge role in the evolution of Mexico as we know it today. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese laborers were no longer allowed to immigrate to the U.S., and they needed somewhere to go and find work. (American railroad jobs had pretty much dried up by then as well.) And they could find work in the Mexicali Valley.
So, that’s how Mexicali is home to the country’s largest Chinatown, known as La Chinesca -- though its current population of 10,000 ethnic Chinese residents has dispersed throughout the city and has dwindled from as many as 35,000 in the 1920s. But you can still hear people of Chinese descent speaking Cantonese, and you won’t have any trouble finding a Chinese restaurant to dine in – though, like many Chinese food establishments outside of Asia, they’ve adapted their menu to suit the local culture. Originally established in 1919, the Chinese Association of Mexicali (Asociación China de Mexicali) organizes gatherings like for Lunar New Year. You can, however, visit Mexicali any time of year to experience its Chinese and Chino-Latino culture, but also to try some great local brews. There’s an exploding craft beer scene in Baja California – and Mexicali alone is home to several breweries and tasting rooms like Cervecería Legion and Cerveza Fauna and brewpubs and beer gardens like Puerco Salvaje Tap Room, Cerveza Urbana, Cerveza MalGro and Mexicali BeerGarden by Porter House.
Top Image: Tijuana mural | Sandi Hemmerlein