Easy Going in Ensenada

| Wednesday, 05 Mar. 2003

Bienvenidos a Ensenada, Mexico's laid-back Baja California port. Set on the Bahía de Todos Santos (Bay of All Saints), it's a standard stop for ships making three- and four-day Mexico cruises from Los Angeles.

This is an easy port to explore. It's about a 20-minute walk from the dock to town, and shuttles are available for $3 roundtrip. Most shops and restaurants are along the same street, Avenida López Mateos. It's a town for rambling, stopping in a cantina, enjoying some fresh seafood.

Since there's not a lot to do in Ensenada itself--unless you want to spend the day downing margaritas and beers and then shopping for stuff that might look really great after a few drinks--I'd recommend adding an excursion.

One of Ensenada's most popular attractions is La Bufadora, a natural "blowhole" south of town. If tidal conditions cooperate, the water can splash up to 75 feet in the air.

Busy corner of AvenidaLópez Mateos andAvenida Ruiz
You can go to La Bufadora on your own or on a shore excursion. Our shuttle's guide, Hector, began his pitch for these trips during the shuttle ride to town. The "regular" price is $18, but Hector just happened to have $5 discount coupons, bringing the price down to $13. Although La Bufadora is only 22 miles down the coast, the trip would take two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half hours. Just how much time can you spend watching a blowhole--especially if it has chosen not to perform that day? That's not the point. Hector extolled the wonders of shopping at La Bufadora's complex of 130 retail outlets, saying that the prices were lower than in town, that we wouldn't be bothered by aggressive street vendors. Hmmm...He forgot to mention that venerable institution of kickbacks from the shops to the guides who bring in customers. We passed.

In town, we found another La Bufadora excursion for $18, and they too just happened to have a $5 discount coupon.

There are no taxis at the dock, but from town, taxis will take five people to La Bufadora on a one-hour jaunt for $40.

The best beaches are five miles south of Ensenada, in the small town of Chapultapec. The long strand of sand at the Estero Beach Resort is public. Horseback riding, surf fishing and jet skiing are available here.

Carnival's excursions at Ensenada include horseback riding ($47), golf at a seaside course ($125), and wine tasting and winery tours in the countryside ($31), as well as a couple of general sightseeing tours.

Riviera del Pacifico
Don't miss the Riviera del Pacifico, a one-time glamour spot converted into the social, civic and cultural Center of Ensenada. It's a vast white complex, straight across the harbor from the dock, a short detour on the walk to town. Built in the 1920s, this was a glamorous casino, hotel, restaurant and bar visited by Hollywood stars and wealthy Americans and Mexicans. It was especially popular during Prohibition, but when that ended and Mexico outlawed gambling, the complex lost its cachet. To wander slowly around, through the two-level ballroom with its wrought-iron chandeliers, into the now-empty lobby with its gorgeous grillwork on the doors, painted ceilings, tile floor and huge chandeliers, and out to the peaceful gardens, is to be a world away from Ensenada's tourist district. There are vintage photos of Ensenada and the Riviera del Pacifico, beautiful hand-painted tiles in the patio, and a quiet, dark wood paneled bar, the Andaluz. If you take the shuttle to town, you'll miss Riviera del Pacifico unless you are on a shore excursion that stops here.

Ensenada's shops are concentrated on Avenida López Mateos. You'll see blankets, leather goods, onyx chess sets, hammocks, tequila, glassware, and the usual array of T-shirts. Contrary to the assertions of Hector, our shuttle narrator, the street vendors were not at all aggressive. Most were passive, and the few that approached us were very polite. Several stores sell Cuban cigars. Passengers from our cruise flocked to the "farmacias" (drugstores) to stock up on Cipro, Viagra and Ibuprofen 800, all available without prescription.

The "silver" that the street vendors offer is not the real thing. If you're shopping for silver, look for two stamps: 9.25 and either "Mexican," "Mex," or "Taxco."

In most shops, the operative word is "bargain." Quibbling over the price is often expected.

For a cheap check on your e-mail, pop into the Internet cafe at 582 Avenida López Mateos. It charges $1 for a half-hour access.

The biggest shops were those selling logo clothing and souvenirs from Ensenada's most prominent bars, Hussong's and Papas & Beer. Forget bargaining in these stores.

Bars and restaurants are concentrated at the corner of Avenida López Mateos and Avenida Ruiz. Established in 1892, Hussong's Cantina, at 113 Avenida Ruiz, claims to be the oldest cantina in the Californias. It's an Ensenada landmark. There's sawdust on the floor, old photos and paintings on the wall. It usually jumps, but not the afternoon we were there. Business was so slow that the waiter and bartender were playing cards. The mariachis and the violinist sat around without playing--no dollars, no music. (Obviously the customers, not the bar, pay their wages.) Forget the dollar tips--the musicians won't lift a guitar for less than $7 a song.

It was a different story across the street. The building housing the second-story Papas & Beer bar was almost shaking from the pulsating music and customers dancing on the terrace (and a few dancing on the tables).

For a quick, inexpensive lunch, several spots in the fish market on the waterfront's Boulevard Costero serve fish tacos and freshly grilled fish. Casamar, at 987 Blvd. Lázaro Cárdenas, is known for its excellent seafood. El Charro, near the corner of Avenidas Ruiz and López Mateos, is a long-standing favorite with locals and tourists alike. A plate of three tacos with beans and rice is $3.95, and half a rotisserie chicken is $6.50.

Travel tips: U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere. Absolutely do not drink the water. There's no guarantee that the ice cubes are safe, so you might want to consider a beer instead of a margarita. Car rentals on the dock begin at $45, but you also need Mexican auto insurance, so this option might be more hassle than convenience.

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