he rugged beauty of “The Gold Coast,” the 70-mile stretch of coastline that leads to Ensenada, is reminiscent of Big Sur. (Photo courtesy Baja Breeze Magazine)

he rugged beauty of “The Gold Coast,” the 70-mile stretch of coastline that leads to Ensenada, is reminiscent of Big Sur. (Photo courtesy Baja Breeze Magazine)

There’s more to Mexico than swine flu and drug cartels. But you wouldn’t know it by watching cable news.

It’s true that President Felipe Calderon’s efforts to crack down on the Mexican drug cartels have unleashed inter-gang killings. It’s a face of Mexico that we may find grim and frightening even though it poses little, if any, risk to law-abiding Americans.

But Mexico has another face, another story that runs counter to the conventional wisdom: Baja norte is coming of age.

Behind the scenes, a new Tijuana has been hatching into a vibrant, multi-layered city, arguably more cosmopolitan than some U.S. cities. And in spite of its problems, it is experiencing something of a cultural renaissance. Tijuana’s creative community, named among the top eight in the world by Newsweek, includes a new generation of bold, contemporary artists, writers, graphic designers and multi-media artists, film makers, and advertising agencies. The Tijuana Cultural Center, an architectural triumph in itself, is now an important venue for the arts.

In Rosarito Beach, a growing community of artists and galleries is working to beautify the city. And in Ensenada, the Baja California Culture and Art Institute (CEARTE) is the new crowning glory of the city.

Once billed as “Mexico’s best kept secret,” the port city of Ensenada has come of age and now attracts a more sophisticated set that enjoys a thriving arts-and-culture scene, a variety of shopping and fine dining options, and culinary festivals that celebrate local pleasures such as lobster, tequila, wine, and seafood. Ensenada’s burgeoning wine country, Guadalupe Valley, is known as “The new Napa Valley” and features more than 200 wineries which, together, comprise 90 percent of Mexico’s wine industry.

Tijuana is arguably the business engine of Northwest Mexico. The catalyst has been the maquiladora industry which, in spite of a recent downturn, is credited with raising the quality of life for thousands of Tijuanans. It’s an industrial city with a young face, a skilled and bilingual workforce, a growing middle class, and new pockets of wealth. High-end brands have emerged to meet the needs of this new professional class, including luxury car dealerships such as Hummer, BMW, and Cadillac, state-of-the-art fitness centers, Starbucks, and a “restaurant row” that offers some of the finest culinary pleasures on either side of the border.

Recently, I stayed at a hotel overlooking Paseo de los Héroes Avenue in Zona Río, the city’s financial district and cultural center, which also includes its share of snazzy skyscrapers, hotels and first-rate hospitals. In my room I heard a teaser for a San Diego news station. Don’t go to Tijuana, it shouted, like the omniscient voice-over of a Hollywood disaster trailer. There they go again, I thought to myself — the fear narrative that broadcast media, in particular, return to time and again, like their trusted closer.

I left the hotel to take a stroll along the Road of Heroes, which was abuzz with lights and energy, but no gunshots to speak of, no signs of panic, fear, or unrest. Talk about surreal. Here I was in Tijuana possessed by another fear entirely, trying to navigate a crosswalk during rush hour. And I’m happy to report that the motorists zipping by did stop for me, if reluctantly.

Sensationalized, fear-inducing media coverage has its costs.

Rosarito Beach, a city dependent on tourism for 70 percent of its revenues, has come to a near standstill. Businesses and livelihoods are vanishing. Even Ensenada, which has largely escaped cartel violence, is eerily quiet.

Ensuring the public is well informed and safe is one of our government’s greatest responsibilities. However, the rampant hysteria that has been unleashed simply does not fit the facts on the ground.

Law-abiding tourists are not targets of the drug cartels. Nor, according to Mexico’s tourism minister, have there been any shootouts among cartels in tourist districts. Indeed, driving northern Baja’s Gold Coast, the 70-mile stretch of coastline that leads to Ensenada, one is hard pressed to find any visible signs whatsoever of nefarious activity. For some, that might be slicing things too thin; where the violence occurs does not matter – its very existence is enough, thank you very much. Fair enough. But the same can be said of many U.S. cities, including New Orleans, which owns the title of most violent U.S. city.

In fact, northern Baja has never been safer or more visitor-friendly for Americans. In Rosarito, Hugo Torres, the city’s mayor, has increased police officers’ salaries and created a special Tourist Police Force and ombudsman’s office to assist visitors. Up and down the coast, new developments have been completed, such as the new Rosarito Beach Hotel & Resort, roads have been repaved, new traffic signs installed, golf courses refurbished, and all the conveniences of home are now available for the less adventurous traveler, including Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Costco, Burger King, Subway, and Applebee’s, not to mention modern, multi-plex theaters (with movies in English with Spanish subtitles).

Not everyone is staying home. Communities of American and Canadian expatriates, tens of thousands who live up and down the coast, are not going anywhere. Many are in a state of disbelief, trying to reconcile their daily, uneventful lives in Baja with the fear-drenched newscasts on TV. It wasn’t that long ago that San Diego’s business leaders were billing the San Diego/northern Baja area as one interdependent, metropolitan region; there was even talk of a bi-national airport.

A few shining lights refuse to turn their backs on Baja. One is the San Diego-based Autism Tree Project Foundation. Recently, they spent a week in Tijuana conducting speech and language screenings for more than 400 preschoolers. Many San Diegans continue to support Tijuana orphanages. We can and should do more.

Residents and businesses in northern Baja realize we’re dealing with issues for which there is no easy solution. If nothing else, they are patient. They know that, with time, Baja will again capture and captivate our hearts. She has that way of seducing us back with a frosty margarita, a cool ocean breeze, and the warmth of her smile.

As Lyle Lovett observed in his song “The Road to Ensenada,” Because the road to Ensenada/Is plenty wide and fast/And this time through Tijuana/Well it won’t be my last/It won’t be my last.

Adam Behar is publisher of Baja Breeze magazine.

See more Baja real estate and Mexico real estate.