Nestled on the Pacific Coast just 80 miles south of San Diego, the magnificent seaport town of Ensenada is one of Baja, California’s gems. Even the drive along the picturesque coastal road between the two cities is spectacular as each bend yields more and more awe-inspiring views of the azure Pacific waters.
The destination, once an obscure playground getaway for Hollywood’s rich and famous, has not only emerged as a popular Mexican Riviera cruise destination, but it’s become an ideal escape for visitors looking for the laid-back slower pace of Baja coastal towns.
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Ensenada’s warm Mediterranean climate and mild sea breezes allow for almost picture-perfect year-round weather. Sandy shores welcome beachgoers and its waves are a siren call to surf lovers. Add in opportunities for world-class boating, fishing, sailing, water sports and diverse recreational opportunities, and Ensenada is truly an outdoor-lovers nirvana.
Ensenada has more than earned its sunny reputation. It’s the home of the famous Baja fish taco and the standard-bearer for a new generation of Mexican culinary culture. It’s also home to some of the finest restaurants in the country without the high price tags attached. Lastly, this coastal gem is the gateway to the Ruta Del Vino, leading to the award-winning wineries of Valle de Guadalupe. No wonder more than four million visitors flock annually to this spectacular destination the Mexicans fondly call the “Cinderella of the Pacific.” She’s a city worthy of the title.
Exploring the Town
This classic port of call, situated on a rocky bay flanked by sheltering mountains, has an unmistakable authenticity. For all its fun and glamour, Ensenada remains at its heart a fishing town. Merchants and housewives gather at the fish markets along the waterfront to select daily catches of marlin, snapper, tuna, shrimp and other ocean bounties.
A walk along the Malecon, the city’s energetic waterfront boardwalk, is a must. The Malecon begins at the fish market and takes you to a nearby park. Some of the most stunning Baja sunsets can be seen from this location and guaranteed, you’ll never see a Mexican flag the size of the one that can be viewed here for miles away.
Because Ensenada is blessed with the abundance of seafood from its coastal waters, fresh agriculture from its farmlands and creative food-loving chefs, dining here is an amazing gastronomic experience.
Street foods are some of the most tantalizing you’ll find anywhere. Their tacos are renowned to be the best in the world. Baja culinary treasures begin almost immediately upon crossing the border. On our coastal journey to Ensenada, we happened upon one unforgettable food truck on a stop in Nueva Tijuana. It’s no wonder the lines are so long at Mariscos D-tocho. Their seafood tacos are unbelievable, especially the shrimp and octopus stuffed to the gills. One is a meal in itself.
Renowned as Queen of Mexican Street Food, Sabina Bandera operates the award-winning food cart, La Guerrerense, which she established in Ensenada in the 1960s. Long lines for her outstanding seafood tacos, ceviche and sea urchin tostadas attest to Bandera’s culinary wizardry. Late chef Anthony Bourdain was one of her biggest fans, calling La Guerrerense “the best street food on the planet.”
At 11 p.m., you’ll still find lines waiting at Taquería El Trailero. The walk-up and order casual eatery serves a myriad of seafood and meat tacos. The unbelievably tasty and tender Carne Asada is ridiculously priced at only $1.50 a taco.
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Award-Winning Valle Wines
A mere stone’s throw away from the vibrant energy of Ensenada, Valle de Guadalupe is Mexico’s premier wine region. Mexican artisan and boutique wineries are scattered throughout this picturesque valley surrounded by boulder-stacked mountains. Some of the top wineries to visit here are Adobe Guadalupe, La Lomita, Paoloni, Bruma and Vena Cava. For those preferring a tour, Baja Wine + Food specializes in custom wine and food tours throughout the region.
One of the most exciting things happening in the wine region these days is La Escuelita, the wine school and co-op founded by Mexican architectural genius, Alejandro D’Acosta. His historic property, once an olive oil factory, was built in the 1940s. Today, the original architecture has been expanded to include eclectic, reclaimed recycled products of all types. Olive oil is still produced on site. The olive oil, along with a host of Valle wines, can be sampled in La Escuelita’s cavernous underground wine cellar.
Food and Wine Festivals
One of Ensenada’s biggest regional draws is its magnificent cultural wine and food festivals held almost monthly throughout the year. We had the pleasure of attending Muestra Del Vino (Wine Showcase) held at the impressive and historic Centro Cultural Riviera, once a thriving casino, in the heart of Ensenada.
This belle of the ball is one of the best food and wine festivals we’ve ever attended. The magical event held under the twinkling lights and starlit skies of Baja showcases the best of Valle de Guadalupe’s wines. Chefs from the region presented their prized creative and delectable Mexican delights. These ranged from the freshest of Pacific ceviche and seafood items to homemade wine truffles. Winemakers poured sparkling wine chilled with dry ice, creating a spectacle of champagne streaming through white smoke.
Festival guests were entertained by jazz bands and violin and piano performances. In the main hall of the historic Casino building, a full orchestra dressed to the nines played classic swing and big-band melodies to the delight of couples on the dance floor. In an adjacent casino hall, stirring music from a string orchestra provided the perfect accompaniment to creative black and white videos shown on massive surrounding screens.
One of the best things about travel is finding special places that still surprise a traveler. I’m happy to say that Ensenada happens to be just one of those places.