A road trip across Mexico will take you to vastly distinct landscapes: From the arid shrubbery expanses of the north, to the sweltering tropic heat of the central coast, to the cool breeze on the plateaus of south-central Mexico, and finally to the lively white beaches of the Mayan Riviera. Mexico stretches roughly 3200 kilometres from north to south and encapsulates on that stretch, a staggering wealth of diversity.
This epic journey, however, had its starting point in a different country all together, in Los Angeles, California. Much has been made of the so-called Mexican re-conquest of that valuable, yet economically conflicted piece of real estate known as California. What is certain, however, is that reminders of Mexico’s close presence are to be apparent for all who seek it. At the hotel, among the waiters and the receptionists, and in the petrol stations along the road south, you can be assured, se habla espanol.
Los Angeles was a positive surprise. For all the extreme imagery the place is given, downtown LA makes up for a pleasant stroll. From the air, the endless swathes of rectilinear residential plots, which have been carved through by freeways meeting in complex multi-storey joints, are an impressive and distressing sight. Downtown, however, is small and compact and relatively car-free on a weekend.
Older mid-rise buildings in classical ornament stand amid modern high rises and give feint glimpses of the traditional American east coast city. These older styles are often curiously Iberian in inspiration, giving a nod perhaps to the adjoining Latin lands to the south.
The most striking new addition to downtown, however, is Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall. Crowning a hill, the construction looks more like a piece of sculpture, which only as an afterthought has been converted into a building. The structure is also hard to distinguish from that other famous creation of Gehry’s, the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao. Nonetheless, the concert hall is enough of a visual pleaser to attract the curious minded tourist, an effect that has been cleverly exploited through the sale of audio-phone tours. The building even creates an outside platform vista, which has been shaded by the planting of trees and cooled by colourful fountains, obscuring further the essential function as concert house, as opposed to an artful public plaza.
The view is decidedly tranquil, though a jazz band nearby is getting ready to fire up in another public space of downtown. There is little to suggest, however, that this piece of downtown was once infamous as a dangerous and neglected part of the United States.
The highways that run out of the city leads past shrubbery hills and golden beaches before it reaches the border with Mexico. The route also reveals a few whimsical traits of the United States, be it embodied in the German-styled spa town known as Carlsbad, or the glitzingly Las Vegas-like spires of the Mormon Church found along the way.
The border, however, causes a dramatic shift in this quiet string of non-urban Californian life, as San Diego uneasily melds with the fast growing border town of Tijuana.