Le Furniture

San Diego and L.A. decorators constantly carry off fab pieces from Baja to resell for up to 10 times the original price. The selection south of the border is astonishing, and many one-of-a-kind items are worth hiring a U-Haul.

A hand-carved, single-bed headboard featuring two cherubs can be snagged in Rosarito for about $160. A similar piece, seen recently in San Diego's Old Town, carried a price tag of $1,600. Equipal (pigskin) furniture is a low-cost, high-quality Mexican specialty that seems to last forever, indoors or out. The variety is especially impressive in Rosarito and choices include chairs, tables, sofas, love seats and full bars. A breakfast set, with four barrel chairs and a 40-inch table, can be bargained to under $400. Hand-carved, hand-painted, all-wood armoires are a steal at around $600.

Most furniture and home-furnishing items, from entertainment centers to massiv mirror frames to carousel horses, can be custom-ordered in your choice of finishes and colors. Can't find what you want? Or can't afford it north of the border? Bring a photo or magazine ad, and local craftsmen will copy it exactly. Most places don't ship. Those that do are noted below.

Best city to shop
Head for Rosarito first for furniture and home furnishings. Much of the wrought-iron dining sets and hand-carved, hand-painted wood cabinets, chests and chairs are made locally and therefore are lower in cost. Some of the same items can be found in Tijuana, but the selection is significantly smaller, prices are a bit higher and your bargaining power is less. Skip Ensenada for furniture except for the funky, fun pieces and antiques at Art and Stuff.

Best shop in Tijuana
Bazar de Mexico: If you can only make one shopping stop in all of Baja, make it here. This 18,000-square-foot home furnishings and upscale artisan's expo brings together, under one roof, the work of many of the makers of handcrafted furniture and home-accessory dealers whose shops are scattered along the coastline. Couches, love seats, room dividers, headboards and accent pieces are all beautifully displayed and cover a wide range of styles and crafting techniques. Prices in every category throughout Bazar de Mexico are extremely fair.

Among the more than 40 open-fronted shops in this complex, you'll also find some of the area's finest silver and pewter, stained glass, Talavera pottery and more exotic native crafts. Huichol Indians from Nayarit, the most ancient tribe in Mexico, work in traditional costume, crafting the famous beadwork jaguar masks ($80 here vs. $300 stateside) and other art pieces that are sold worldwide. The stained-glass craftsmen of Arte en Vidrio ship some 3,000 Tiffany-style lamps per month to Chicago alone. A 2,900-piece lamp that goes for $1,500 in the states sells for $400 here, while a 24-inch stained-glass window panel sells for about $50. And any stained-glass lamp, window treatment or jewelry box can be custom-designed. Located on the corner of Avenida Revolucion and Seventh Street. Call 011-52-66-384737. Three hours of free parking are provided behind the jai alai palace.

ProPack, a shipping operation in the rear of Bazar de Mexico, will insure and send your purchases anywhere in the world, with a customs broker on staff to do all the paperwork. In fact, you can brings items to be shipped to ProPack from anywhere on Avenida Revolucion, or from anywhere in Baja.

Best shop in Rosarito
Apisa is an 18,000-square-foot indoor-outdoor showcase of truly unique furniture pieces and personal treasures, gathered from Guanajuato, Michoacan and Guadalajara. "Wow!" is the operative word as one winds through a maze of artsy displays of one-of-a-kind briefcases ($150 to $250 for ponyskin-and-leather
combinations) and unusual equipal ottomans shaped like long, undulating snakes. High-backed, high-style willow-and-pigskin or willow-and-pony chairs hang from the ceiling, fanned for display like playing cards at $350 each.

But the real knockout items at Apisa are the oxidized-iron furniture pieces and sculptures. Life-sized matadors and bulls (around $1,500 for a set), rearing horses and fountains all look as though they've been crafted of aged and hammered copper. This same unique patina graces the all-metal armoires, entertainment centers ($500) and even dining-room tables ($750).

Expect significantly higher prices here than at other Baja shops, but these are still far below stateside prices - if you could even find the items. Apisa also ships. Located on the east side of Rosarito's main street, midtown, just north of the traffic light at the Quinta del Mar complex. Call 011-52-661-20125. Pancho's, one of the border area's oldest and most reliable curio shops, has expanded in size and is dumping much of the little stuff in favor of high-style hacienda pieces, upscale home furnishings, antique frames, wrought-iron and interesting glass and ceramic pieces.

Pancho's still carries more pottery than you can sort through, but now the entire back of this enormous establishment is more exciting than most North County decorator shops. And Pancho's prices have always been among the fairest around. For example, 36-inch, hand-carved frames run a mere $20 to $40 here, depending on the amount of intricacy. Try finding that price stateside. Located on the east side of Rosarito's main street, near the north end of town. Call 011-52- 661-20091.

La Casa de la Carreta is a family-run, roadside furniture factory, long known for high-quality, handcrafted furniture and accessories. It recently doubled in size and is still expanding. From hand-carved angels to hand-painted chests, toy boxes and headboards, the two-story, barn-like structure will keep you busy treasure hunting for hours. Custom-made and handcrafted work here sells for far less than discount-catalog prices. Pricing for each piece is based on the amount and intricacy of the carving, painting and inside detail work done on specialized pieces. Armoires and entertainment centers run from $460 to $600; hand-carved, four-drawer chests start at $160; custom headboards run $180 to $400; 3- and 4-foot carousel horses run $160 to $300. La Casa de la Carreta ships. Located at kilometer 29.5 on the Old Road, just south of Rosarito. Call 011-52-661-20502.

Prices in Mexico will vary with fluctuations in the peso. All prices on bargainable items quoted above are after bargaining. The law of supply and demand does apply in the border area. As tourists' tastes change, inventory will vary at shops that cross-sell or feature items from different categories. Specialty or one-of-a-kind items mentioned above may not always be available.

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