I am simply charmed by the desert and by how people and nature alike adapt to it. I love that feeling that the desert wind and heat gives. It’s always like a warm, sometimes hot, embrace. There is nothing that compares to it. After I took some trips to the Arabian, Negev and Mojave desert a few years back, it was about time to explore another desert: The Sonoran Desert.
One of my stops in the Sonoran Desert was Mexicali, which is the capital city of Baja California and part of the Calexico-Mexicali metropolitan area.
Baja California is home to some truly extreme temperatures, and Mexicali is at the centre of it all. During summer it can get pretty hot, which means that people are mostly spending their time indoors, where they’re sheltered from the heat waves, which can get up to 40 and even 50 degrees Celsius in some of the hottest days.
But with all this heat, what made people settle there in the first place?
Well, believe it or not, due to thick river sediment deposits, the area was great for farming even if the climate was harsh. In the 1900s, permissions were given to cut a canal to link to the Colorado River. Thousands of Chinese labourers were brought in for the digging.
More than half of the farmers who decided to settle here were Chinese, Japanese and East Indians and they were producing mostly cotton, wheat and vegetables. The Mexicali Valley (was Imperial Valley) is still one of the largest and most fertile valleys in Mexico.
Today, Mexicali is not only a great place for growing crops, but is also a very sprawling industrial and manufacturing city, with big factories and an aerospace cluster.
For me, it was kind of a trip to visit Mexicali, interact with the locals and see full-blooded Chinese people speaking 100% fluent Spanish, with a perfect accent. Don’t ask me why
Still wondering what to do in Mexicali?
Here are my top tips on what to do in Mexicali:
1. I’m going to start with one of my favourite topics: Food
Remember when I’ve said that many people from China settled in Mexicali? They have done that both when the canal was created but also during the Gold Rush. They’ve brought with them their customs but also their fantastic cuisine.
Mexicali has the largest Chinese-Mexican population in Mexico and a huge Chinese Food scene and it’s particularly unique because it’s actually a blend of Chinese and Mexican food, something unlike anything I’ve tried before. It’s simply delicious.
There are many restaurants and street food carts to pick from and some of them are El Rincon de Panchito, Asadero Acatlan de Juarez, Cerveza Cucapa (artisan beer), Blanca Nieves, Los Arcos and if you happen to see an elderly man with a small cart selling cakes and ice-tea in the civic centre, you need to try both – absolutely delicious and refreshing.
2. Visit ‘Casa de la Cultura de Mexicali’
Casa de la Cultura is a historical building and an excellent place to learn more about Mexicali, with art exhibitions, expos, courses and different events that you can take part in. You can also book a city tour here, which brings us to our next point on what to do in Mexicali.
3. Take a tour of the city centre, the basements and the old gambling tunnels.
This is such an interesting experience. ‘La Chinesca’ is a network of basement tunnels which Chinese immigrants had created an ‘underground Chinatown’. There are, still around 40 basements and while some of them are now private property, some of them can still be explored.
What was their purpose and how they contributed to Mexicali’s growth?
Well, when prohibition began in the US, because of its proximity to the border, Mexicali and ‘La Chinesca’ became the center point for not only bootlegging but casinos and brothels as well. Stories are picturing the basements and tunnels as full of people and activities on a daily basis, even if what you will see when taking the tour will be just faint reminders of what they once were.
4. Go out partying
I might not always go out clubbing and partying when I travel but when I do, I make sure that it’s worth my while. Mexicali has an amazing party scene. To be honest, it was better than I’ve imagined.
If you’re looking to have a great night out, on Latino and R’n’B tunes, you should go to the Nacozari neighbourhood, on Calzada Francisco Montejano. You will there find a street full of clubs and pubs which you can visit to your liking. One of my favourites was ‘Shots Factory’ with a huge variety of shots. Next to Shots Factory you will also find Rush, Boston and Praga, great places for a night out.
5. Take a photo with the Mexicali letters
Ok, this is a must. Almost every city in Mexico has its name, written in big, colourful letters, just waiting for the tourists to take great photos with it. Mexicali also has one and I had to do it. I gotta collect them all. So when you visit Mexicali, you need to get a photo with them in the background.
6. Visit Museo Sol del Nino
The Museo Sol del Nino is marked as an attraction for kids. But I would say it’s for the kid in each of us. The place offers a wide range of fun activities and it’s filled with curiosities and interesting things to do. It’s great for spending a few hours there and if you visit with kids, they will love it.
7. Play some slots
How can you say no to a bit of gambling in what used to be the city of gambling in that area? You have plenty of casinos to choose from and to spend your pesos. Here are just some of them – Caliente, Aenia, Golen Lion, Club Casino and more.
8. Give something back. Visit Parque del Mariachi/ Plaza Santa Cecilia
I always recommend giving something back, when travelling. There are many tourists who leave a place worse than they’ve found it. Don’t do that. Regardless of your destination, you can do something good for the community or the environment. Don’t think that it will not matter. Sometimes it matters more than you think.
If you visit Mexicali and you want to do some good, I have a tip for you. Go to the Parque del Mariachi/ Plaza Santa Cecilia. There are tens of migrants from different countries but also homeless people from Mexico, that live in that park, who hoped at one point to cross the border to the United States or got expelled from the US and had to remain here as they had no money to return to their countries or hometowns.
They mostly need money or food and I always choose not to give out money, as some people might end up spending them on drugs or alcohol. So food it is. If you want to help the community even more, you can buy some tacos, gorditas or tamales from street food vendors and offer them to the homeless. If you are considering doing this when visiting Mexicali, please be aware that there are many people in the park, even if it might not seem like it when you first take a look.
When I visited, I only had about 20 tamales and 10 gorditas and I ran out of them pretty quick. It felt horrible, as there were almost 60 people that wanted one, and I only managed to give them to half of the people there. So if you plan on going, make sure that you are well stocked.
Are you planning on visiting Mexicali?
What would you like to do once you get there?
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