Ensenada is a medium-sized city with a half-million residents located 90-minute south of the US border along the Pacific Ocean. It is one of the richest cities in Mexico and is popular with both wealthy Mexicans looking for a more temperate beach vacation as well as cruise ships from the US. My friend Abdiel was renting an AirBNB there for a week and invited me to come visit.
Abdiel is one of my best friends from high school. He also is one of the best travelers that I know. In 2012, we drove the entire length of Route 66 from Chicago to LA together. Since then, he has gone on to commandeer many impressive road trips. He even taught a class on the art of road tripping at Tufts. Abdiel is of Mexican descent and speaks fluent Spanish. To go to Mexico with the king of road trips was a no brainer. I accepted the invite.
Friday July 16, 2021: Ensenada
The drive from my house in Los Angeles to the Mexican border took about 3 hours. From there, I parked my car and then walked across the border. I chose to do this for a couple reasons. First, the line to drive back to the US is crazy. Second, you need Mexican auto insurance to drive in Mexico, which I didn´t have. Third, there is a serious risk of having something happen to the car and I would be in trouble in a country where I don´t know the legal system. Luckily, the public transportation options are very easy.
Once across the border, I walked about 7 minutes to reach a bus terminal which has a direct shuttle to Ensenada. The buses cost 210 pesos (a bit over $10 USD) and leave every 30 minutes. The bus itself is far nicer than anything found in the US. The seats are plush and lean way back. Additionally, every seat has a TV screen with movies and music selections just like in a long-haul flight.
The ride took a scenic 90 minutes. Unlike in the US, which is completely developed, the Mexican coastline here is mostly undeveloped and natural. This was a pleasant surprise and had me wondering what Alta California could have been like had they not built for the car.
The bus dropped me off right in the center of Ensenada. There, Abdiel picked me up in his car, we parked and then walked around.
Ensenada has a beautiful and clean town center. It contains the typical gift shops containing that unique blend of paintings of the Virgin of Guadelupe and Oakland Raider ponchos, but also bars. Midway through the main strip, we reached the city´s most famous food truck: La Guerrerense. Ensenada is known for seafood and La Guerrerense has the best seafood in town. The signature dish is called the campechana, it is a tostada topped with tuna ceviche, octopus, sea snail, scallops, mussels, and clams. It was AMAZING.
Next, we walked around the harbor, which is lined with the largest flagpole ever, restaurants, and people who want to take you on scenic harbor cruises. Of note were the 7 empty cruise ships parked in the harbor due to COVID.
Ensenada is a very important cruise ship port. It is the closest deep-water harbor to California and is therefore the closest port that can help cruise companies satisfy the requirements of the Jones Act. The Passenger Vessel Services Act requires foreign flagged vessels to include at least one foreign port when on itineraries that start and end in the United States. Therefore, if the cruise company wants to have a short cruise leaving from Los Angeles /anywhere in California, they need to also stop in a Mexican port….and the only one nearby is Ensenada. Of course, the cruise companies could also flag their boats as American (instead of the usual offenders Marshall Islands and Liberia) and avoid these logistical hurdles, but that would mean they would have to comply with US labor laws (which includes provisions such as overtime and minimum wage). Thus, Ensenada is not only a fun stop on a cruise itinerary but also serves as a way for cruise companies to save on labor costs or exploit their labor force, depending on your point of view.
Having seen the main part of Ensenada, we still had plenty of daylight. Abdiel recommended that we visit a spot called La Bufadora. While La Bufadora was just a few kilometers away on the map, the drive would take 90 minutes. This was partially due to rush hour traffic leaving Ensenada and the windy mountain road once we got out of town. After crossing the Peninsula de Punta Banda on the south side of the Bahia de Todos Santos, we reached a string of parking lots. After parking, we walked through a long stretch of at least 100 shops until we reached La Bufadora.
What is La Bufadora, you might ask? Well, it is the world´s second largest blowhole (and only one located in the Americas)! The ocean water travels into a sea cave, trapping air and creating pressure. When the water recedes, the pressure is released by pushing the water into the air. The water can spout up to 30 meters (100 feet) high! The blowhole operates every 15 seconds and is very impressive!
On the way back to Ensenada we stopped to watch the sunset from a lookout over the untouched coast.
Back in town, we got fish tacos at a local brewery called Cerveceria Transpeninsular. Ensenada is considered one of the two cradles of the fish taco (the other being San Felipe on the eastern side of the Baja Peninsula). Ensenada is also known as a craft beer center too. Apparently, craft beer isn’t typically a thing in Mexico, but the strong influence of San Diego´s craft beer scene has seeped south of the border. The tacos were spectacular, but admittedly the beer was okay by San Diego standards.
One interesting observation that I noticed is that there are clearly lots of American tourists (based on the license plates and accents of the people speaking Spanish). However, 100% of the American tourists that I saw were Hispanic. Certainly, this is an easy and desirable destination for Hispanics, but I wonder why people of other races are not here. Is Ensenada that big of a secret or does Baja scare away the gringos of San Diego. Or is it a COVID thing?
We spent the night in Abidel´s AirBNB, a small apartment in a private home in a very secure gated community.
Saturday July 17, 2021: Valle de Guadelupe
Mexico´s most famous wine region, the Valle de Guadelupe is located just 30 minutes north of Ensenada. Actually, Baja California (which has three valleys all near Ensenada), produces 90% of all wine “hecho en Mexico”.
The Valle de Guadelupe is being promoted by the Mexican government as the Ruta del Vino and wine tourism is encouraged. Approximately fifty wineries are all scattered around the 30-kilometer-long valley. A network of (mostly) paved roads connects the wineries. Almost every winery has armed security guards outside, so the place felt extraordinarily safe.
Abdiel and I visited two wineries. The first winery, Lechuza is located at the start of the western entrance to the valley. The winery actually has an American winemaker- a white lady with a cowboy hat who was poached from Napa. The winery made just 4 wines because the winery subscribed to the quality over quantity approach. The tasting flight included tastings of all 4 for a steep $20 USD or 400 Mexican pesos. The wines were extremely dry (a good thing). One of the wines is used as part of the wine pairing in the French Laundry in Napa Valley, Alta California´s most famous and acclaimed restaurant.
Before heading to the second winery, we stopped to sober up at the Wine Museum. This large center has an exhibit on the history of winemaking in Mexico. The exhibit was informative and in English, but the rest of the center seemed empty and underutilized. I wouldn´t recommend visiting the museum unless you need a break from drinking and eating.
Then we visited a second winery called Viñedos de la Reina. This chic winery is set at the back of a small canyon. The setting was one of the most beautiful.
Here, we ordered a flight of 3 wines. The winery also had a nice restaurant with what looked to be Michelin-star quality food. The sommelier mentioned that half the clients drive from California while the other half flies from Mexico City.
It was now about 14:30 and we were hungry. We found a restaurant that had awesome reviews on Google. However, once we drove there, we learned that the restaurant was full and we should have gotten a reservation. So, we found an even better restaurant 10 minutes away called La Cocina de Doña Esthela and hoped for the best. This was clearly the spot, the restaurant sprawled across multiple buildings and they had plenty of space for us.
I ordered a traditional beef stew, which was delicious. This is the true Mexican food that the rest of the world doesn’t know about.
It was now time to drive back to the US. Abdiel gave me a lift in his car. The ride took about 90 minutes. He then drove across the border while I walked.
Ensenada is fantastic! It is chill, the food is great, the weather is great and there are many nearby attractions. The blowhole is a fun half-day trip and the wine region is a great half-full day trip. I cannot recommend this area enough, especially for Californians looking to see something different.
Driving a car is safe here but do look at the border waits. While you do not need a car for Ensenada, but it is a handy way to reach La Bufadora and Valle de Guadelupe. Ubers/taxis can also take you to these places.