Alas, they mostly found chalk. The true gold of the region lies in its rich soil, abundant water and Mediterranean climate. This area, often called Valle de Guadelupe, is actually six valleys. Together they form one of the few places in the world capable of growing premium wine grapes.
The history of wine making in this region goes back to the Spanish Jesuits who founded Mision de Santo Tomas in the late 1700s. They brought and planted Mission grape vines and produced the first wines in the Californias. After Mexico stripped the Catholic church of its land holdings in the 1800s, the land was eventually sold. The new owners established the Bodegas de Santo Tomas, still in operation today.
In the centuries since then other wine makers joined them, but it is only in the past twenty years or so that these wines have come to the attention of the international community. Even today, many of them can only be purchased in Baja California. However, this situation is rapidly being rectified as more and more Baja wines, led by Monte Xanic and Chateau Camou, continue to win prestigious awards.
To get to San Antonio de las Minas from the main Baja Interstate (Rt. 1) take Rt. 3 from El Sauzal (just north of Ensenada) toward Tecate. You’ll immediately notice the landscape turning greener, with olive groves dotting the valley to your right.
Our first stop is Gusta Probart (km. 97, open 10am-7pm, except Tuesday). This absolutely delightful art gallery/café is the creation of multi-talented artists Javier and Gabriela Devora. Javier is a painter, sculptor and wood carver. Gabriela is a basket weaver who lived and worked for a year with the Kumai/Necua people who are indigenous to this region. She learned their traditional methods of weaving; in exchange she taught them how to market their baskets, which are now a primary economic resource for the tribe. The president of Baja California officially recognized Gabriela’s work and her baskets sell for as much as $1500.
Gusta Probart features local artisan food products, fine arts and crafts, wine tasting, rustic furniture, and books for sale. The building itself was built by the couple from recycled materials and offers a picturesque view of the valley. Tables, couches and a fireplace complete the homey atmosphere. In addition to being talented artists, Javier and Gabriella are warm people who make visitors feel at home in their uniquely crafted establishment.
Attached to the gallery is a well-appointed tourist information center built and run entirely by the Devoras and other local business owners, without the benefit of any government funds. This is an all-volunteer service provided for you by the community.
Another of my favorite activities in this area is hiking along the San Antonio River, which flows with water during Baja’s rainy season (fall-spring) – a rare treat in Baja’s mostly desert climate. Those in the mood for a picnic can pick up excellent cheeses, meats, olive oil and other local products, and choose from a wide selection of wine at Los Globos Tienda de Quesos (on Rt. 3, just before the only stoplight in San Antonio de Las Minas).
Los Globos features about a dozen artisanal cheeses including requeson, queso fresco, panela and Oaxacan made in-house, and other fresh and aged cheeses, including several from the Real Castillo region, along with other delicious options like aged queso with black pepper, chipotle, black olives or basil. Free tastings available. The adjacent restaurant features Oaxacan-style food. Around the corner from there (take a right at the stoplight) is a panaderia where you can buy fresh-baked bread to complete your picnic lunch.
Continuing east (away from the main road) into the town, cross the river and turn left at the third stop sign. You will cross the riverbed again, and at the top of that hill there’s an area with grills, and a path to the river on your left for that relaxing picnic lunch. As we say in Mexico – probecho!
Right across the street from the picnic area is La Hacienda, a combination vivero (plant nursery) and restaurant that features a wide variety of fresh seafood and traditional Mexican dishes (open until 6pm, brunch buffet on Sundays).
This popular establishment with a large fountain in the center and tables tucked in secluded spots creates a peaceful atmosphere for strolling or dining. The ancient oak trees alone are worth seeing – a rare oasis in the typically arid Baja landscape. Also on-site is the friendly Don Victor selling his artisanal fruit liquors in about twenty yummy flavors including jamica, orange, pineapple, lemongrass, tamarind and guava. He will be happy to give you samples of any you’d like to try.
Next week I’ll tell you about another of my favorite places in San Antonio de Las Minas. An old ranch called La Casa Vieja, that dates back to the 1800s.