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PEOPLE & VOICES - Dispatch from Ensenada, Mexico: The band plays on

By Christopher Reynolds Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

7:15 a.m. CDT, July 26, 2011
The drug trade and drug wars continue in northern Baja California and the rest of Mexico, as this week’s series in the Los Angeles Times abundantly shows. And the U.S. State Department is still warning travelers about the risks of visiting Mexico. But the rest of life continues too, as I found during on my trip across the border this past weekend.

-- 9:20 a.m. Saturday, July 23: I join a group of friends on a chartered bus trip from San Diego. The destination: Ensenada, 95 miles south of San Diego and about 75 miles south of Tijuana. We pass through the border at San Ysidro with minimum delay and make one snack and bathroom stop.

Entering Ensenada, we find the music throbbing as usual at Papas & Beer and Mango Mango, two loud bars that stand across from each other at the busy corner of Primera and Ruiz, drawing a clientele of thrill-seeking, hard-drinking young Americans.

Along Lopez Mateos, the nearby main drag, the sun is shining and merchants are relieved to see us. Some of them say business has fallen 30% or more in the last year here as cruise ships have cut back port calls, car traffic has slowed and tour buses have stopped coming.

Except the bus I rode in on, of course.

There are 27 of us aboard, some in their late teens, some in their 70s, most in between, on a mission to honor a fallen friend by listening to a few dozen of his favorite mariachi songs at Hussong’s Cantina.

Probably you’ve heard of Hussong’s. It goes back to the 1890s, has sawdust on the floor and has long been beloved by many old hands in Baja.

The crowds these days may not match the glory days of decades past, but the musicians remain. And bartender Martin Fria tells me that business is actually up in the last year, in large part because the saloon has been cultivating more Mexican customers. About 80% of customers now are Mexican, he says.

In the space of about three hours, I see two wedding parties, fancy outfits and all, come sweeping in for a few rounds between their ceremonies and later festivities. A little after 4:30, we pile back into the bus, having heard many favorites: "Guadalajara." "Viva Mexico." "Paloma Negra."

Besides our bar tab and musician bill -- about a dollar per player per song -- we had lunches in a handful of restaurants nearby (good mole at El Charro on Lopez Mateos), spent a bit on arts and crafts, and paused a minute to marvel at the young woman drinking from a funnel and hose on the Mango Mango patio.

Then we're rolling, cheering as a pod of whales spouts offshore, then cheering again as our driver, Ramiro, artfully dodges a car ahead of us when it suffers a blowout and veers across our lane.

-- About 6:30 p.m.: The day-trip’s crowning event comes right at the San Ysidro border crossing. Partially, it's because of thin Saturday evening traffic, which we’ve been hoping for. Partially, it's because we're in the bus lane. And who knows what other variables enter the equation? But the result is no wait. No delay at all. No time for any vendor to attempt to sell us anything.

We roll right up to the line, hop off the bus as directed to pass through U.S. Immigration, then hop back on the bus. Besides the usual three toll booths along the toll road, we passed one checkpoint with armed officers -- par for the course in recent years.

In 13 years of driving, says Ramiro, he’s only once before had it this easy. In about 30 years of visits, I’ve never seen a border crossing so smooth, nor have any of the other travelers.

Somebody should write a song about it.

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