The beaches of the northern peninsula are like a dream: fine sand, water that’s refreshing but not too cold, excellent sunshine and, for the surfer, some of the west coast’s top waves. Part of that dream can evaporate, however, when you venture into the beach towns themselves.
More than a few of the stops along Highway 1 have been run down by years of American spring-breakers looking for a good time, and then leaving that good time’s remnants behind. Ensenada is an exception: a charming fisherman’s enclave, something-larger-than-a-village with a village’s sleepy feel, complete with beachside trinket stores and fish taco stands (the town’s beaches, conversely, are nothing special at all). Along this part of the peninsula, towns are close together, and the essentials (gas, food, lodging) are never far.
EXPLORE BAJA CALIFORNIA BEACH TOWNS
ENSENADA, PUERTO NUEVO, ROSARITO,
In 1542 Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo first discovered the seaport that Sebastián Vizcaíno named Ensenada-Bahía de Todos Santos (All Saints' Bay) in 1602. Since then the town has drawn a steady stream of explorers and developers. After playing home to ranchers and gold miners, the harbor gradually grew into a major port for shipping agricultural goods, and today Baja's third-largest city (population 369,000) is one of Mexico's largest sea and fishing ports.
There are no beaches in Ensenada proper, but sandy stretches north and south of town are satisfactory for swimming, sunning, surfing, and camping. Estero Beach is long and clean, with mild waves; the Estero Beach Resort takes up much of the oceanfront, but the beach is public. Although not safe for swimming, the beaches at several of the restaurants along Highway 1 are a nice place to enjoy a cocktail with a view. Surfers populate the strands off Highway 1 north and south of Ensenada, particularly San Miguel, Tres Marías, and Salsipuedes, while scuba divers prefer Punta Banda, by La Bufadora. Lifeguards are rare, so be cautious. The tourist office in Ensenada has a map that shows safe diving and surfing beaches.
Both the waterfront and the main downtown street are pleasant places to stroll. If you're driving, be sure to take the Centro exit from the highway, since it bypasses the commercial port area.
POINTS OF INTEREST
RIVIERA DEL PACÍFICO
Officially called the Centro Social, Cívico y Cultural de Ensenada, the Riviera is a rambling, white, hacienda-style mansion built in the 1920s. An enormous gambling palace, hotel, restaurant, and bar, the glamorous Riviera was frequented by wealthy U.S. citizens and Mexicans, particularly during Prohibition. You can tour some of the elegant ballrooms and halls, which occasionally host art shows and civic events. Many of the rooms are locked; check at the main office to see if someone is available to show you around.
LAS BODEGAS DE SANTO TOMÁS
One of Baja's oldest wine producers gives tours and tastings at its downtown winery and bottling plant. Santo Tomás's best wines are the Alisio Chardonnay, the Cabernet, and the Tempranillo; avoid the overpriced Unico. The winery also operates the enormous wine shop, a brick building across the avenue. The Santo Tomás Vineyards can be found on the eastern side of Highway 1 about 50 km (31 miles) south of Ensenada, fairly near the ruins of the Misión Santo Tomás de Aquino, which was founded by Dominican priests in 1791: only a few pieces of adobe remain of the old church.
MERCADO DE MARISCOS
At the northernmost point of Boulevard Costero, the main street along the waterfront, is an indoor-outdoor fish market where row after row of counters display piles of shrimp, tuna, dorado, and other fish caught off Baja's coasts. Outside, stands sell grilled or smoked fish, seafood cocktails, and fish tacos. You can pick up a few souvenirs, eat well for very little money, and take some great photographs. Fish taco stands line the dirt path to the fish market; around lunchtime, cooks will stand outside to vie for your attention (and your pesos). If your stomach is delicate, try the fish tacos at the cleaner, quieter Plaza de Mariscos in the shadow of the giant beige Plaza de Marina that blocks the view of the traditional fish market from the street.
LA CAVA DE MARCELO
For many a visit to Baja Norte must include an afternoon drive to the cheese caves of Marcelo, in Ojos Negros 45 minutes outside of Ensenada. With Swiss-Italian roots, Owner Marcelo Castro Chacon is now the fourth generation to carry on the queso tradition since it first began in 1911. A visit to the farm includes a tour of the milking facilities and a tasting of seven cheeses and their signature Ramonetti red wine. Milder selections seasoned with basil, black pepper, and rosemary are more popular with locals than their sharper cheeses, aged up to 2.5 years, loved by foreigners. As Mexico’s only cheese cave (and the first in Latin America), this beloved factory produces 450 pounds of cheese per day. Milking takes place at 5 pm daily and the small on-site shop sells the remarkable marmalade and wine that accompany your cheese tasting. Those with time and an appetite can dine under the shade of a peppertree for a lunch menu integrating Marcelo’s cheeses and organic fruits and vegetables from his farm. The cactus salad and portobello mushrooms with melted cheese make the ideal starters to the regional trout served with roasted garlic. The fig mousse alone is worth a visit.
GETTING HERE AND AROUND
If you're flying into Tijuana, from Aeropuerto Alberado Rodriguez (TIJ) you can find buses that also serve Rosarito and Ensenada. Or you can hop on a bus at Tijuana Camionera de la Línea station, just inside the border, with service to Rosarito and Ensenada along with city buses to downtown. To head south from Tijuana by car, follow the signs for Ensenada Cuota, the toll road (i.e., Carretera Transpeninsular or Highway 1) along the coast. Tollbooths accept U.S. and Mexican currency; there are three tolls of about $2.50 each between Tijuana and Ensenada. Restrooms are available near toll stations. Ensenada is an hour south of Tijuana on this road. The alternative free road—Carretera 1D or Ensenada Libre—is curvy and not as well maintained. (Entry to it is on a side street in a congested area of downtown Tijuana.)
Highway 1 continues south of Ensenada to Guerrero Negro, at the border between Baja California and Baja Sur, and on to Baja's southernmost resorts; there are no tolls past Ensenada. Highway 1 is fairly well maintained and signposted.
Although there are several rental car companies in Tijuana, Alamo is one of the few that includes insurance and tax in the quoted rate, rather than tacking on hidden fees at arrival. Rates start at $60 per day. In 2013, the Mexican government passed a law stating that drivers must carry mandatory Third Party Liability, an expense that is not covered by U.S. insurance policies or by credit card companies.
If driving your own vehicle across the San Ysidro border, ask your hotel if they offer a Fast Pass, which helps eliminate the long border wait on the return. Otherwise expect to wait two to three hours on an average weekend.
Taxis are a reliable means of getting around Ensenada, and you can flag them down on the street.
Visitor and Tour Info
Tourist Information and Assistance Hotline (078.)
Ensenada Tourist Information Office (Blvd Sertuche 152, Valle Dorado, Ensenada, Baja California Norte, 22890. 800/025–3991 toll-free in Mexico; 800/310–9687. www.enjoyensenada.com.)
Southern Californians regularly cross the border to indulge in the classic Puerto Nuevo meal: lobster fried in hot oil and served with refried beans, rice, homemade tortillas, salsa, and lime. At least 20 restaurants are packed into this village; nearly all offer the same menu, but the quality varies drastically; some establishments cook up live lobsters, while others swap in frozen critters. In most places prices are based on size; a medium lobster with all the fixings will cost you about $15.
Though the fried version is the Puerto Nuevo classic, some restaurants also offer steamed or grilled lobsters—why not try one of each and pass ’em around? Each October, to mark the start of the season (which ends in March), the town holds a wine-and-lobster festival.
The town itself is tired and dated, with waiters standing curbside begging tourists in passing cars to stop in for the day’s catch. Still, it’s the best spot along the coast to try fresh lobster at an unbeatable price. For lodging, you’re better off renting a beach house in the neighboring community of Las Gaviotas or heading to a hotel north in Rosarito or south in Ensenada. Most accommodations in the town of Puerto Nuevo are in desperate need of a face-lift.
Artisans' markets and stands throughout the village sell serapes and T-shirts; the shops closest to the cliffs have the best selection.
GETTING HERE AND AROUND
Puerto Nuevo sits just beside Highway 1. When you pull off the highway and enter the town, find a parking spot (free unless otherwise marked) and hop out. There’s no other transport to speak of (or needed) in this five-block hamlet.
Southern Californians use Rosarito (population 150,000) as a weekend getaway, and during school vacations, especially spring break, the crowd becomes one big raucous party. Off-season, the place becomes a ghost town, which is arguably even less appealing than the frat scene. The beach, which stretches from the power plant at the north end of town about 8 km (5 miles) south, is long with beautiful sand and sunsets, but it's less romantic for the amateur explosives that boom every few minutes.
If you do wind up here for a night, head out to the wooden pier ($1 entrance fee) that stretches over the ocean in front of the Rosarito Beach Hotel, or hire a horse at the north or south end of Boulevard Benito Juárez for $30 per hour. ATVs are also available at the base of the pier for $25 per hour.
POINTS OF INTEREST
As Rosarito’s only wine production facility, this winery brings grapes from neighboring valleys to create remarkable blends unlike anything on the market, such as their 2011 Merlot. All of the wines by owner Julio Benito Martin are organic, and are best appreciated with the winemaker himself, who has passion behind every pour. Be sure to try the Rosado de Grenache, a creamy buttery blend unique to his line. The tasting room is ideal for those who want to enjoy local wines near the border, without driving the distance to Valle de Guadalupe. To create your own blend, inquire about Julio’s wine academy.