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The birthplace of the margarita, the front line in the drug war. An alt-culture heaven of galleries, restaurants, and offbeat bohemian cool, a cruise ship hell of tourist traps and junky souvenirs. Wine-country idyll, urban sprawl. So which is it? The bad-news border region's reputation precedes it -- it was previously Mexico's most-visited destination -- and everyone's got an opinion. But Baja's most populated and dynamic area is changing faster than anyone can get a handle on it, and the truths of yesterday are now, often as not, tired clichés. All that's true about Northern Baja is that it's all true, and to figure it out, you've got to see for yourself.

First stop, Tijuana. Mexico's fifth-largest city is unique in all the world, an amazingly vivid and diverse twin to its sister city north of the border, San Diego. At least a hundred thousand people cross the border every day -- it's the world's busiest international crossing -- mixing the cultures and concerns of north and south. It's not an easy place. Human trafficking and the miseries of the frontier are ever-present in the city's shadows, and drug-war violence, although absent from anywhere you're likely to visit and decreasing overall, casts a pall. But life on the edge fertilizes immense creativity, which flowers in the city's culture of visual art, music, lively hipster nightlife, and food. Much of its inspiration comes from Tijuana's uneasy position as the gateway between north and south, and a warts-and-all nostalgia for its bad old days.

Rosarito is Tijuana's beach resort, an urban retreat formerly known as a Prohibition-era getaway for gin-swilling Hollywood stars, and most recently as the location for much of the filming of Titanic. Its glory is fading, but it's a place for a tranquil beach weekend away from the city lights. Continuing south past surf breaks, golf courses, and fish-taco stands is this region's main seaside attraction, Ensenada, a favored port of call that's slowly moving from its gringo-weekend roots toward a more sophisticated foodie future. It's home to some of Mexico's most exciting restaurants, many linked spiritually to Baja's up-and-coming wine country, the Valle de Guadalupe. Rolling hills, organic farms, and top-flight wineries have led critics to predict its future as "the next Provence," but for now it's a place for an idyllic country getaway that feeds equally the spirit and the taste buds.

North of the Valle de Guadalupe, Tecate is Northern Baja's other border town, Tijuana's opposite in so many ways. It's quiet, it's peaceful, there's not much to do -- and that's just what's so appealing about it. And should you need even more relaxation, nothing beats the flat-lining pulse of San Felipe's beaches. While munching a shrimp taco and sipping a cool Tecate beer, perhaps you'll agree that Northern Baja isn't so bad after all.

Exploring Northern Baja

If you have a car, it's easy to venture into Baja Norte from Southern California for a few days' getaway. Whether you drive your own car or a rented one, you'll need Mexican auto insurance in addition to your own; it's available at the border in San Ysidro or through the car-rental companies.

It takes relatively little time to cross the international border in Tijuana, but be prepared for a delay of an hour or more on your return to the United States through San Diego -- with increased security measures for entering the U.S., this is an especially diligent point of entry. Even the crossing at less popular Tecate can take an hour or more, and evenings and weekends make for a longer wait anywhere you cross. If you take local buses down the Baja coast (which is possible), the delays come en route rather than at the border.