Monday, September 20, 2010

Attempting to Celebrate Mexican Independence in Old Town San Diego

September 16th marked the 200th anniversary of Mexico's independence from Spain,and I thought there'd be no better place to celebrate it in the US than San Diego's Old Town. The State Historic Park echoes with the sound of mariachis from noon to midnight (and often later). Its shops celebrate Day of the Dead year round (see photo above). And most importantly, the area preserves important historic structures from San Diego's founding days, when it was a wholly Mexican town.

Turns out I was wrong.

Apart from some Mexican flag bunting wanly blowing over the entrances to a few doorways, this was a day like any other in Old Town. Celebrations had occurred earlier in the week, it seems, but on the anniversary itself there was nada.

I found this surprising for what is the most popular historic state park in all of California. And frankly, I was a bit surprised it holds that title. Though the historic structures are well-preserved and contain some gems, it seems like the state authorities have leased out the concessions to, well, anyone who can pay for them. Why the heck is there an olive oil tasting concession off a central plaza? Or a "Gepetto's Toy Store", with toys all made in China, across from it? Since these types of concessions make up about half of what there is to see and do here, viewing stores you might find in your local mall is, well, more than a bit dispiriting.

The bottom line: this is where you head when you've exhausted San Diego's more interesting attractions or have a yen for freshly made tortillas and margaritas.

But who am I to dis the place? I've posted some photos below. Make up your own mind. And if you violently disagree with my assesment, I'd love to hear from you.
A small display in a more authentic feeling gift shop commemorates San Diego's founding as a Catholic mission.

Mariachis entertain at one of the restaurants in the historic park.
In the building that once was the home of the San Diego Union Tribune stands an old fashioned printing machine, of the type Guttenburg invented. The current offices of the Union Tribune newspaper are not far from the historic park.

I highly recommend the food at the Mexican Cafe. Handmade tortillas, which are made by women standing in the window of the shop, are the key to its success. At lunchtime, you can buy a package of these wonderfully fresh tortillas to take away with you. The crowds are too big at dinner, however, for them to sell them to passers by. You'll find the cafe down the street from the park itself.

At La Casa de Estudillo, a historic adobe mansion in the historic park, you can see what a tortilla oven would have looked like back in the day.
The Cosmopolitan Hotel, once an important stage coach stop, has been restored to the way it looked in the 1870's.
A costumed docent leads visitors around the interior of the historically accurate Cosmopolitan Hotel. Alas, they went more modern (and blander) in the hotel's courtyard restaurant.
If you're like many visitors to Old Town, you may want to invest $2 in this in-restaurant breathalizer machine before you head to your car. You may find that you need to spend the night at the Cosmopolitan Hotel (see above) which today accepts guests once again, as it did over a century ago.

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