Baja California, Mexico

Ports of Call: Ensenada, Mexico

So, you’re on a cruise to Mexico! That’s exciting! You can’t wait to get to Cabo San Lucas or Mazatlan and relax on the beach. But before you get to that point, your first stop is Ensenada. What on earth are you going to do there? Maybe you haven’t even heard of this place. Ensenada might not be the most picturesque city in Mexico, but it’s definitely got some fun places to check out during your day excursion.

Ensenada is one of the biggest ports in Mexico. Cruise ships are dwarfed by the huge container ships docked nearby. It’s also one of the oldest cities in Baja, being ‘discovered’ by Juan Cabrillo, the same person who landed north of border, in San Diego. The malecon (downtown) is teeming with activity – tons of restaurants and stores selling everything you could ever want – not want – to fill your stomach and suitcase.

Since it’s a little more than an hour over the border from San Diego, it’s also a great day trip. There’s a shuttle that runs between Ensenada and the Tijuana airport making it easy to get there and not have to deal with the culture shock that is Mexican driving. It also makes a great stopover for a wine weekend in the Guadalupe Valley, just a quick thirty minutes or so east. So whatever brings you to town, I hope these tips give you an idea of what to do and plan your trip accordingly!

ensenada1
photo courtesy of turimexico

Fish Market / Mercado de Mariscos

Right as you enter Ensenada coming south, you’ll find the Mercado de Mariscos or fish market. Small and unassuming from the street is actually a bustling market with several stalls selling freshly caught fish and shellfish both whole and filleted. All the fish are displayed beautifully in rows upon rows of ice beds. Each shrimp for sale as been sorted by size. There are containers of abalone, octopus, and just about every other sea creature you’d like to eat. And probably a few you’ve probably never heard of. As you pass each stall you’ll hear someone hawking their wares, you might even get a sample of smoked tuna. This is where people who live in Ensenada, and restaurants who operate nearby get their fish from. Mexico is famous for its fresh seafood and when browsing the fish market you’ll get a first hand look of what goes into the fishing business.

Lunch Time

Right next to the fish market, not coincidentally, is a row of restaurants serving classic Mexican dishes. It’s the perfect spot to grab a bite to eat. I think there are four of them, and to be honest I don’t know if there’s any difference or even if they are owned by different people but I chose the one we went to because the guy standing outside trying to entice people to come to the restaurant was cute. Don’t judge me.

These little stalls are so traditionally Mexican – with thick plastic table cloths covering picnic tables, giant glass goblets filled with all kinds of salsas, sprigs of cilantro and fresh crema. We ordered a couple fish and shrimp tacos and a seafood cocktail, which is basically ceviche served in a fancy glass. For the cocktail you can choose from three different sizes. The tacos come plain so you can doctor them up however you’d like. In addition to all the salsas they bring chopped cabbage, limes, avocado salsa and pico de gallo. At $125 pesos – less than a dollar each – you can get full on tacos for not a lot of cash.

Hussang’s – Oldest Bar in Ensenada

When merely being in the same city as a certain bar elicits tales of wild drunken nights from your parents, you know that you HAVE to go. Established in 1892 Hussong’s is the oldest bar in Baja California (according to wikipedia) and reputedly the place where the Margarita was created in 1941 by bartender Don Carlos Orozco when he made the limey tequila mixture for Margarita Henkel, the daughter of the German Ambassador to Mexico. So basically it’s way better than the overly commercialized Papa’s & Beer down the street. The place was packed when we visited on a Sunday afternoon, the Mariachi were setting up and all kinds of people were getting their drink on. Even if you don’t drink this is a cool place to check out.

Shopping in Ensenada

The terms ‘shopping’ and ‘Mexico’ have always been synonymous to me. Growing up when we would stay at our timeshare in Cabo San Lucas, there were always people selling stuff on the beach and at restaurants. Everything from hats (which the sellers would wear piled high on their heads) to jewelry and even crazy things like 3D reliefs of the last supper. In Ensenada, there are tons of little shops along Avenida Adolfo López or stalls down by the Fish Market selling all kinds of kick knacks, traditional Mexican blankets or dresses, touristy t-shirts, shells, bags…just about anything you could want. It’s fun to browse, even if you don’t end up buying anything.

A couple of things about shopping in Mexico: While the prices for items has steadily risen since I was a kid, they are still very cheap compared to buying stuff in the United States. Feel free, however, to haggle for a lower price if you feel like the price is too high. Just remember that the people who are selling these things are getting paid based on what they sell – and not a lot – so don’t completely low ball them. Because of this the people selling will also aggressively try to sell you an item you show interest in. So if you’re just looking, be ready to be bombarded with offers, and if you’re not interested tell them so firmly, yet politely. An easy, no gracias, will work.

A day in Ensenada is a great start to your Mexican Riviera cruise or a fun day or weekend trip from Southern California. Tons of shopping, lots of local eateries and watering holes, or at the very least, there’s a Starbucks and Cinepolis movie theater.

What’s your favorite place to visit, south of the border? Let me know in the comments!

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