Travel

This Magic Town on the Cali Border Is the Perfect Escape to Mexico

Free beer, stunning vistas, and healing resorts await in this Pueblo Magico.

Tecate
Tecate
Tecate

It’s not often that a “Pueblo Magico” (or Magical Town) is also a border town. The bucolic, small city of Tecate butts up against California, just 45 miles from San Diego, making it Mexico’s closest town to the US to have the special “magical” designation. With narrow tree-lined streets, famous beer, and gorgeous scenery, it’s easy to see why Tecate draws tourists across desert roads.

Nestled in the valley below Mount Kuchumaa (also known as Tecate Peak), Tecate was first home to the Kumeyaay who lived in this area long before the border existed. Now, Kumeyaay villages are scattered throughout the Baja region, but you can see their ancient homes at Museo Comunitario Kumiai. Here you’ll also find the story of Tecate’s old railroad system and a botanical garden that highlights indigenous flora.

In recent years, Tecate has seen a burgeoning craft-coffee and restaurant scene. You can also take advantage of free handouts of the city’s eponymous beer. And this year in particular, a decadent, five-day celebration of Dia de los Muertos will more than make up for last year’s cancelation. Here’s just a snapshot of everything you can do during your visit to Tecate.

Tecate Pueblo Mágico
Tecate Pueblo Mágico
Tecate Pueblo Mágico

The best way to get to Tecate? Take a road trip

Whether you drive through Southern California or fly into San Diego or Tijuana, having a car is necessary, as Tecate is about an hour drive from both airports, with no direct public transport available.

Luckily, the drive not only takes you past some epic eroded rock formations, it also manages to elude tourists who flock to crowded Baja beaches. Plus, Tecate’s less-busy border allows drivers to skip the infamously long wait times at the San Ysidro land crossing-just make sure to take note of its limited hours: 6 am to 2 pm on weekdays and 8 am to 4 pm on weekends.

Whether you opt for a rental or drive your own car, you’ll need to purchase Mexican car insurance-Baja Bound is one easy, online provider. National Guard officers tend to fine drivers (especially those who look like tourists) without the coverage, as well as for rolling stops, so make sure you obey the rules of the road.

Rancho La Puerta
Rancho La Puerta
Rancho La Puerta

Paint yourself a skull face at the annual Dia de los Muertos celebrations

While Tecate’s warm climate is ideal year-round, one of the best times to visit is during Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrations in the fall. The Mexican holiday honors loved ones who have passed on by creating ofrendas, or altars, filled with their favorite photos and foods, including pan de muerto, a type of sweet bread that’s often dusted with sugar or sesame seeds and an egg-wash. La Catrina is the holiday’s symbolic skeletal creature, often outfitted in feathered hats, tiered dresses, and sugar skull makeup.

After taking a pause last year due to COVID, this year’s Day of the Dead festivities will last for five days, from October 29 to November 2, headquartered at Miguel Hidalgo Park. Festivities include private themed dinners, a bread competition, an art contest, live plays, and performances. On Monday, don’t miss the Catrina Costumes Runway Contest. The celebration culminates on Tuesday, with a lighting of candles for the dearly departed, and free pan de muerto and hot chocolate.

Unsplash/Jakob Ownes
Unsplash/Jakob Ownes
Unsplash/Jakob Ownes

Drink Tecate beer like a local-for free, everyday

Tecate‘s signature pale lager was created in 1943, but stayed local for many years. The Mexican beer went international in 2017, but drinking Tecate beer in Tecate offers a distinct experience.

“Most of Mexico’s quality beer is exported,” explains Alberto Cortez, a Tecate native and Special Events Manager at Santuario Diegueño hotel. “Tecate is the only place where you can drink Tecate beer that’s made with local water that comes directly from underground springs.”

Another only-in-Tecate advantage? The local brewery offers one free can a day to everyone. Simply visit the brewery to receive your token, then enjoy in the Tecate Beer Garden or opt in to a brewery tour.

El Mejor Pan de Tecate
El Mejor Pan de Tecate
El Mejor Pan de Tecate

Get your fill of bakery bread and local coffee

Besides beer, light and sweet homemade breads are what Tecate is known for. El Mejor Pan de Tecate, which literally translates to The Best Bread of Tecate, is the most popular option in town. The panaderia first gained notoriety for their pan dulce (sweet bread) when the city was little more than a break along longer bus routes. Riders would insist on stopping so often that the bakery decided to remain open 24/7 to accommodate late night travelers.

Whether you come to El Mejor Pan for big-hit variety or Cielo de Ti for a more gourmet experience, it’s common to pair the breads, pastries, and cakes with coffee. And while regions like Guerrero and Chiapas are upheld as Mexico’s top coffee bean producers, Tecate is quickly emerging as a capital for artisanal coffee shops and roasters.

Helmed by local Ignacio Aguayo, who began roasting coffee beans as a hobby while studying architecture, Acento Coffee Roasters features a floor-to-ceiling window where guests and passersby can witness the coffee roasting process-though the wafting smell of freshly ground beans is usually enough to draw them inside.

Restaurante Amores
Restaurante Amores
Restaurante Amores

Indulge in fine dining and street food eats

Owned by husband and wife Marcelo Hisaki and Reyna Venegas, Amores Restaurante offers a prix-fixe, multi-course experience. The menu changes daily depending on local produce and pulls from Hisaki’s Mexican-Japanese heritage.

Many of Tecate’s more casual, long-standing food and drink options are also in high demand, and Cortes is quick to name La Guerita as the best taco spot in town-especially for carne asada. Cortes also hails Taqueria Los Amigos as “The best burrito place in Tecate,” and a solid option for tacos if the line at La Guerita proves too long.

Rancho La Puerta
Rancho La Puerta
Rancho La Puerta

Where to stay in Tecate

While you’re welcome to find an Airbnb in the area, Tecate offers well-established lodging options centered around restoration and healing. Opened in 1940, Rancho La Puerta is a family-owned, luxurious resort just 15 minutes outside of the city that has long attracted celebs like Oprah Winfrey, Kate Winslet, and Jane Fonda. The healing haven has 4,000 acres of relaxing ranch scenery and an organic farm. In addition to the health and beauty spas, guests can unplug with yoga, guided meditations, workshops, and nature hikes.

If you prefer to be closer to Tecate proper, Santuario Diegueño-named after Spanish settlers’ term for the Kumeyaay people-is a small boutique hotel that sits on a hill overlooking the surrounding valley. The hotel has a gorgeous pool that will transport you to the coast, a museum-worthy collection of regional Mexican art, and two on-site restaurants: ASAO for fine dining, and the more casual YIIMA, which translates to ‘party’ in the Kumeyaay language.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Danielle Dorsey is the Los Angeles editor at Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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