It's said that Ensenada, Mexico—one of Mexico's busiest ports—is built around a bar. Although that's not true (fishing and wineries remain its economic mainstays), Hussong's Cantina has enticed revelers to Ensenada since 1892—a date that's easy to believe once visitors see the legendary watering hole's clapboard exterior and scarred wooden floors covered in sawdust. Most tourist dollars are spent by U.S. partygoers who drive south or arrive on cruise ships out of Southern California.
Another of Ensenada's attractions is the low-key and truly Mexican flavor of its reasonably priced restaurants, shops and hotels—all only 65 mi/105 km south of the U.S.-Mexico border. These are rapidly succumbing to mass tourism and all that it entails, but for the moment they are wonderful enclaves of culture and cuisine, and in a much safer setting than most of the border towns offer.
Visitors soon find, however, that Ensenada isn't really a beach resort: The closest beach is a 15-minute drive away, and the most important occupant of the waterfront boulevard is a bustling fish market. But while Ensenada has neither the beachfront boardwalk of Puerto Vallarta nor Mazatlan's "Golden Zone" of beaches and bars, it does boast an earthy attraction and friendly people in an authentic Mexican environment.
The lack of palm-lined coves and colonial architecture doesn't keep tourists away. Visitors to Ensenada can visit a cantina or sidewalk cafe and stroll through the market and adjoining seafood eateries. Tourists browse along the main shopping district, Avenida Lopez Mateos, with its sidewalks, refurbished storefronts and ornate streetlamps. Visitors can also enjoy good wine from gold-green Guadalupe Valley outside the city.
Ensenada serves as the gateway to the fabled Baja Peninsula and is considered one of the best sportfishing ports anywhere along the Pacific.
Downtown Ensenada faces Todos Santos Bay (All Saints' Bay), which curves along the waterfront Bulevar Lazaro Cardenas (formerly Costero, and still often referred to by that name). Most of the restaurants, shops and businesses geared toward tourists are along the waterfront and Avenida Lopez Mateos (known as Calle Primera or First Street), one block inland. Ensenada's best beaches are about a 15-minute drive south of town. Islas Todos Santos, a pair of islands located two hours offshore by boat, draw ever-increasing numbers for surfing.
Good fishing may have been what enticed the nomadic Yumano Indians, the first known visitors to the region, but they never established a permanent settlement. Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (exploring in the name of Spain) stopped briefly in the area in September 1542, and called it San Mateo. Nearly 60 years later, in 1602, Sebastian Vizcaino renamed the bay Bahia de Todos Santos. He dubbed the shore Ensenada de Todos Santos, which means "cove of all saints" in Spanish. Even Junipero Serro stopped in on Ensenada, but only briefly, and no missions were founded there.
In 1806, Alferez Jose Manuel Ruiz, a commander of the border territory, bought Ensenada from Gov. Jose Joaquín Arrillaga for 2 pesos. He used the land only for ranching. In 1824, Ruiz returned to his hometown Loreto and sold the land to his son-in-law, Francisco Gastelum for 600 pesos. Gastelum and his family became the first nonnative residents of Ensenda.
Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1810 and became its own country in 1821. In 1848, the treaty of Guadalupe Hildago was signed, splitting Alta and Baja Californias. In 1854, American William Walker invaded the territory and named the Gastelum house Fort McKibbin. His occupation was short lived, however. A guerilla group, led by Antonio Melendez, took the area back for Mexico.
Then it languished for nearly 20 years with few settlers from south of Baja and other parts of Mexico, until the gold strike in 1870. This established Ensenada as a port, since people preferred to do business by sea instead of the lengthy land travel through Tijuana. Once the mines were depleted, Ensenada drifted into obscurity again until the 1920s, when film idols bucking U.S. Prohibition started driving down to indulge themselves.
In the 1930s, a paved road was built between Tijuana and Ensenada ensuring the small but steady stream of tourists from the U.S. Migration doubled from interior Mexico during World War II, when Ensenada became a military base. Another boost to the economy came when Californians started building vacation homes around Ensenada.
Nonetheless, the town still retains a strong Mexican flavor, though it is less obvious when the cruise ships call, bringing millions of tourist per year to this once-sleepy town. Even when business is booming, locals approach their work with a sense of calm, certain that everything absolutely necessary will get done eventually. Visitors soon slip into the same pace. Just relax and sing along with the mariachis, and remember that manana means just that—tomorrow (maybe), not today.
Ensenada's history as a major port is detailed in several small area museums. The city also serves as a good base for exploring Baja California's national parks. Parque Nacional Constitucion de 1857 is located 60 mi/96 km northeast of Ensenada, and Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Martir is 80 mi/129 km south of Ensenada on the Transpeninsular Highway.
Ensenada is part of a long tradition of wineries in Baja California. In fact, more than 90% of Mexico's wine is from the region. Most of Baja's wineries are located in the Valle de Guadalupe, about 40 minutes northeast of Ensenada on Highway 3 to Tecate.
Ensenada is becoming increasingly "Americanized," although it is still head and shoulders above the average border or even resort watering hole. Consequently, bars of various degrees of rowdiness or cultivation are found throughout the city. Most visitors head for those associated with the area's upscale or midpriced hotels as well as those clustered around Hussong's Cantina. This is without a doubt the most famous bar in town (possibly in all of Baja) and also the oldest—it's been there since 1892.
Ensenada otherwise is a modern town; you won't find folkloric dance shows, except those specially arranged for cruise passengers, nor is there much "old Mexico" culture or architecture to be experienced or seen (although there is an exceptional folk art store in town). For these, you'll need to rent a car and head for the old Spanish mission trail or some of the lesser-known coastal settlements farther south.
One dish you should try in Ensenada is a Baja-style fish taco—a chunk of batter-dipped, fried fish wrapped in a corn tortilla. Doctor it up with finely shredded cabbage, a generous squeeze of lime and a variety of fresh salsas. Ensenada specializes in seafood, which you'll find fresh at Mexican, French, international and Mediterranean restaurants.
A great place to try Baja-style fish tacos or seafood cocktails is from one of the stands at Mercado de Mariscos (the Seafood Market) behind the Plaza Marina on the waterfront. They're open daily late morning to early evening and feature whatever fresh catch the fishermen brought in that day.
Restaurants are casual. Jackets and ties are not required, although local residents dress up for dinner in the better establishments. Lunch is usually the largest meal of the day, eaten in a leisurely fashion between 2 and 3 pm. Dinner is lighter, and many Mexicans wait until well after 8 pm to dine. But this tourist town is absolutely prepared to feed visitors at their preferred meal times as well.
Restaurants that cater to tourists offer menus in English (with prices in U.S. dollars) and English-speaking staffs. Restaurants frequented by locals have menus with a mix of Spanish and English and prices in pesos. (Most Ensenada servers speak very good English.) Good restaurants are also found at the area's best hotels, overlooking the beach north of Ensenada proper.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than M$100; $$ = M$100-$200; $$$ = M$201-$500; $$$$ = more than M$500.
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