South of the Border, Down Mexico Way . . . Ensenada!

Cynthia Dial

Having lived in the San Diego area for decades, I’ve traveled across Southern California’s Mexican border countless times. And on each occasion, it has been the same.

Though less than one hour from home, the minute I’ve entered Mexico – I know it. It’s so diverse, so exciting and so foreign that I’ve questioned why I don’t do so more often. Everything about the country – from its initial assault on the senses to its signature laid-back vibe – uplifts my spirit and renews my traveling soul.

That said, this visit was a bit different. 

Cynthia Dial

Destination: Ensenada

Granted, I have come to this coastal Pacific city before, always for a short stay and always retreading the typical tourist track – a lively stop at Papas & Beer, made-in-Mexico shopping along Lopez Mateos (aka 1stStreet) and dining at El Rey Sol (est. 1947), a gourmet legend. But, until now, I had yet to be guided by a local, allowing me to peek behind this city’s colorful curtain. So, follow me on my discovery of the latest intel on “everything” Ensenada – from long established standards to new-to-the-scene (at least to me) adventures alongside longtime local, Victor Celis.

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Cheers and Cocina

“Bienvenidos,” I was greeted with a margarita handcrafted by Bar Andaluz’s Hugo Abiles (said to be the city’s best mixologist). Adjacent to a courtyard tucked within the Riviera de Ensenada – once a casino, now a cultural center – this establishment was said to have created the cocktail world’s first of this famous tequila drink in 1948 – though the title has been disputed by Hussong’s Cantina. Today, its storied past as a Hollywood magnet during the prohibition era for gambling and alcohol was prominently displayed on a back-in-the-day mural featuring such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

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Though less than five years old, Plaza Santo Tomás, had become a popular site for visitors and locals alike. This open-air, pedestrian-only marketplace was centered around the wine room of the 135-year-old vineyard, Santo Tomás, representing one of the city’s two only tasting rooms. Here, it was possible to explore the cellar where the family displayed winery history and sample a selection of varietals (don’t miss consumers’ all-time favorite, Barbera/Merlot).   

Tip: Foodies are encouraged to make reservations well in advance for the Plaza’s newly-open La Morocha, already renowned as one of the country’s best restaurants.

There were five locations for Victor’s, a local legend in eateries, and my morning began at the original. When translated, the Spanish-only menu revealed the town’s irresistible humor. Described “two eggs, one in red sauce, one in green” was the restaurant entrée, Divorced Eggs, and a plate of Spanish Eggs was explained, “two eggs ‘bathed’ in chorizo sauce.”  

Tip: To easily negotiate menus, pamphlets, anything written in Spanish, use Google Translate.

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“I think you would lose your citizenship if you were Mexican and didn’t like tacos,” I overheard Maria, an Ensenada visitor/San Diego resident/food aficionado, declare. Located in a modest corner building in the middle of what appeared a commercial district, I was introduced to Tacos Don Zefe. Having its origins in the city’s open air fish market in the 1960s, this taco shop remained a family legacy – best known for fish tacos (the catch dependent on the season), shrimp tacos, ceviche and quesadilla. For me, its best recommendation was every table was filled – with locals.

Again in the mood for freshly-caught seafood, dinner was at Temaky Hotel Marea Vista sushi bar. Serving one of the Baja California town’s most popular food choices, this restaurant’s goal was to create unexpected sushi offerings using the locale’s traditional ingredients. 

Tip: Order a Mazatlan roll, Temaky’s noted specialty.

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I would have been remiss not to have visited Hussong’s Cantina for its celebrated margarita (rationalizing it was all research). Best described as simple, good, not too sweet, perfectly tart – hundreds of patrons seemed in agreement (300 to 400 served daily). Its festive, party-like atmosphere – complete with mariachis – set the stage for welcoming visitors and re-welcoming residents. And if lucky, one of the Hussong family (now operated by its fourth generation), might be there and regale a guest or two with a bit of family history.

Tip: Heed the saying, “If you don’t go to Hussong’s, you don’t go to Ensenada.”

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A special treat was discovery of an unexpected wedding venue, Casa de los Siete Patios, designed and built as the family home in 1969 by Jean Loup, owner of El Rey Sol. Its cliffside setting looking south along the area’s coastline bordered on breathtaking. Regarded the Hearst Castle of Ensenada due to Loup’s attention to the most lavish of details, it has played host to 20 to 30 weddings annually.

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Ensenada-style Escapades

Raised in the La Bufadora area – home to the renowned maritime geyser – Victor Leon explored this region from the water since first learning to swim. Today, as owner of Shawii Outdoors, he specialized in sharing his boyhood stomping grounds aboard kayaks. “Even though fishermen can do a lot in their small boats, they can’t go where we can in our small kayaks.”

Tips: Avoid disappointment by making reservations.

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I was introduced to five-year-old PaiPai – described a zoo, not conservation center – by owner Edgar Perez, whose t-shirt read, “Love to preserve.” An ecotourism park and home to an assortment of animals – from monkeys and lemurs to jaguars and tigers – hands-on experiences included entering the cage of the world’s smallest monkey, the tamarind, to feed it grapes. I learned that Gustavo, the resident goose, had a habit of escaping and getting into the crocodile enclosure and an unexpected thrill was the opportunity to zipline over assorted animal enclosures.

Called a camping resort, Las Cañadas billed itself “the only place that offers you fun on land, water and air.” And indeed it did – a wave pool, zip lining, an ATV off-road adventure and more. My choice: ATV. After getting fitted for a helmet and given basic driving instructions, I hopped onto the seat of the four-wheel vehicle and took off behind a guide. Let’s just say that after driving through endless waterways and seeing signage, “Precaución” at the top of each hillside before descending, the experience was adrenaline inducing.

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Su Casa es Mi Casa

My home base, ideally removed from the city’s bustling core, was Hotel Coral & Marina. One of Ensenada’s largest properties, its setting next to the city’s first private marina gave it a nautical feel and served as a continual reminder of this destination’s proximity to the Pacific. 

Tip: Go to the resort’s Saturday or Sunday’s brunch; sit on the outdoor patio. And make time for your private patio to absorb the environ’s fresh-air atmosphere.

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Main Street Malecón

My finale was along the Malecón, a boardwalk that ran adjacent to the harbor and seemed the center of everything – complete with a majestic Mexican flag at its central plaza (La Plaza de Las Tres Cabezas), the fresh fish market (Mercado de Mariscos), harbor tours, taco stands, scattered eateries and oversized letters spelling E-N-S-E-N-A-D-A at its very end.


All too soon, it was time to return to another world, a faster world, a world less simple. Hasta luego, Ensenada.

Tip: Park just across the border at CBX; hire a driver to meet you there; then, relax.

Cynthia Dial

Cynthia Dial is an admitted travel writing addict, and shares that she pinches herself each time she steps onto the promenade deck of a cruise ship, boards a train or settles into a plane seat to go to work. She's taken a city tour of Melbourne, Australia, from the back of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, hiked the Austrian Alps and learned to surf in Waikiki -- all for a good story. A special corres...(Read More)

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