Highlights of Ensenada, Baja California

| January 15, 2013 More
Norteño musicians in Ensenada

Norteño musicians in Ensenada

Things to do in the coastal town in Mexico, located about 70 miles south of San Diego and the US border.

Ensenada (Spanish for “cove” or “inlet”) is the third largest city in Baja California and an important commercial and tourism seaport on the Pacific side of Mexico. The first European to reach it by sea was Portuguese explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo in 1542, the same one who also arrived at present-day Point Loma Peninsula in San Diego, California.

Situated on the coastline of Bahía de Todos Santos (All Saints’ Bay), surrounded by small mountain ranges, and with a mild weather all year long, Ensenada is a relaxing destination for travelers with diverse interests. There is surfing and scuba diving, lots of dining and nightlife options, and the nearby Baja California Wine Country.

Here are five highlights from my trip to Ensenada. I recommend these as a starting point for exploring the area, or if you visit for a weekend.

1. Downtown and waterfront

Avenida Adolfo López Mateos – the main drag downtown Ensenada – is lined with restaurants, cafes, bars and shops. It’s a lovely place to take an afternoon walk or enjoy al fresco dining. 

Since it’s near the cruise ship dock, you will likely run into visitors who are in town for only a few hours, and many businesses in the area seem to cater to them. However, you can spot locals too – especially in some of the more hip restaurants along the avenue – and find a quiet spot if you try one of the side streets.

Another good place for a stroll and catching sunsets over the Pacific is the waterfront. Near the fish market (see #3 below), I stumbled upon a boating dock with great views of the bay.

Adolfo López Mateos - the main street in the city center

Avenida Adolfo López Mateos – the main street downtown Ensenada

Boats docked along the waterfront

2. Outside downtown

One afternoon, I headed several blocks north to Parque Revolución. The mid-sized park was filled with families – children playing, adults participating in an outdoor dancing event – and vendors selling sugar-dipped churros. The park was pretty and offered views of nearby hills, but that’s not whey I went there. The little excursion was my chance to see what everyday life looks like in Ensenada.

I walked through an outdoor market and past stores selling groceries, clothes, electronics, and even tires. The streets were less manicured than downtown and there were hundreds of people everywhere, navigating narrow sidewalks. I bought hot pancake-like treats from a food stand, ate them while trying to not run into anybody, and for a few minutes I felt not merely an observer, but part of the neighborhood’s rhythm. Everything was louder, faster, and wonderfully chaotic.

3. Food 

Even though Ensenada is not an ideal place for vegetarians like me, the city’s dining scene is worth a mention.

Given the proximity to the ocean, the local cuisine is largely based on seafood – the freshest kind you can find. There are several food stands downtown selling ceviche, tostadas, clams, shrimp cocktails, and other specialties.

Mr. Jetting Around’s picks are:

  • Mariscos La Guerrerense at the corner of Alvarado and Avenida Adolfo López Mateos, and especially their sea urchin tostadas served with home-made salsas.
  • Mercado de Mariscos (Ensenada Fish Market) at Avenida Miramar and Boulevard Costero.
Food preparation at Mariscos La Guerrerense

Food preparation at Mariscos La Guerrerense

I didn’t go hungry in Ensenada, though. Many restaurants served cheese enchiladas and entomatadas. I had very good vegetarian tacos at a corner taqueria, after I asked the owner if she could make me some. I also ate a delicious meal of steamed rice and flavored vegetables at… a seafood restaurant.

People took great care of me, even if at first they may have been surprised. Chances are that if you travel with a group of people with different dietary needs, you will find something for everybody.

Bean tacos at a corner taquería

Enjoying bean tacos at a corner taquería

4. Coffee and drinks

At La Casa Antigua Café (Calle Obregón 110), I found a retro vibe, excellent coffee, and… a barista singing and playing the guitar. This charming place off the main strip is located inside a little old house with a porch and is decorated with vintage coffee grinders and photographs. Pastries, sandwiches, and bagels are also available.

La Casa Antigua Café

La Casa Antigua Café serves coffee and snacks in a little old house

The family-owned Hussong’s Cantina (Ruiz 113) was founded in 1892 and is the oldest cantina in the Californias (i.e. California in the US and Baja California, Mexico). It’s believed to be the place where margarita was invented in 1941.

White walls covered with lots of photos, green paneling, and dark wood furniture create a classic and cozy space. Hussong’s attracts all sorts of patrons: men and women, young and old, groups of friends, couples on a date. If you go, you might catch a band playing norteño music.

On a Friday night at Hussong’s Cantina

On a Friday night at Hussong’s Cantina

5. Baja’s Wine Country

The Baja Wine Route (Ruta del Vino) includes over 50 wineries in valleys to the northeast of Ensenada. The growing region has a variety of producers – big and small, independent and commercial – and the oldest winery dates back to 1888.

My experience in the wine country was very much like visiting Sonoma, with the exception of the number of bottles I could bring back to the US duty-free. Generally it is one liter per person, which translated to one 750 ml bottle of wine. Because of that, I did more tasting that buying – and the wine was very good.

There were some whites, but mostly reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, and blends), and the places I visited served them with cheese and/or bread with olive oil. Almost everyone at the tastings spoke both Spanish and English.

Read more about my visit to three wineries in Discovering Baja California Wine Country, Mexico.

The Baja Wine Route includes over 50 wineries in three valleys: Guadalupe, Calafia and San Antonio de las Minas

Bajas Wine Route covers three valleys: Guadalupe, Calafia and San Antonio de las Minas

Wine tasting in Baja's Wine Country

Wine is served with bread, cheese and olives at Casa Vieja winery

Getting There

The route to Ensenada can be an experience in itself. The town is easily accessible from Tijuana on the US border via ABC buses – the ride is about 1 hr 45 min long and takes you along the Pacific coastline. To catch the scenic views, ask for seats on the right side of the bus when you buy your tickets.

Panoramic views of the Pacific Coast between Tijuana and Ensenada

The Pacific Coast between Tijuana and Ensenada, as seen from a bus

Have you been to Baja California or elsewhere in Mexico? What would you recommend for a visit?

Tags: , , ,

Category: CITIES


About the Author (Author Profile)

Pola Henderson is a travel writer, city explorer, expat, and event host. Traveling has been a part of her life since she was three. Pola grew up in Krakow, lived in Chicago for many years and is currently based in Paris, where she teaches Business English.

Comments (30)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. love the picture of the waterfront and the coastline! wouldn’t mind visiting the baja wine route either…

  2. avatar Francesca says:

    I think I’d like Ensenada! I’d have to go with you, though, because hubs is not a Mexico fan. I’m still blown away by the vineyards there, and I’ll travel anywhere for fresh, delicious seafood!

  3. avatar Fiona says:

    I’m a huge fan of Mexico and have always wanted to check out Baja, California – seems like a really chilled out place. Now I can see why it’s so popular :)

  4. avatar Angela says:

    You always have a way of making me think, ‘Ahh I’ve really must go there!’

  5. This is so NOT how I remember this part of the world. I think this place changed a lot for the better, no? Wow! Thanks, Pola!

  6. What a beautiful view from the bus. That is reason to go right there, but then you have wine and good food, and I am sold.

  7. Wow, this seems to live in the shadows of Tijuana – and maybe that’s a good thing for those willing to go and explore it! And on top of that, wine country!!

  8. avatar Leah Travels says:

    I always find your California posts so interesting. I’m requesting you take a return trip in 2013 for my reading pleasure.

  9. Beautiful photos! I really must explore more of Mexico, as I’ve only been limited to Riviera Maya and Cozumel – both are nice, but this looks much more my speed. I want to see the real Mexico, and this looks like it!

  10. I’d really like to spend more time in Baja. There’s so much to do and explore, don’t even get me started on the delicious food!

  11. Ensenada is one of my favorite places! The climate is great, the seafood market is beyond belief and I love the food. Loved the mini-margaritas at Hussong’s, and had wonderful fish tacos at a stand right near the sea. Go just a few blocks inland and you find the real Mexican city… I could easily live here. Thanks for the great pictures to remind me.

  12. avatar Rose Scott says:

    Ooh looks like a great place to visit!

  13. avatar Miret says:

    I’ll need to check this region out sometime soon! :-)