In Ensenada, Cheap Mexican Charms Await
For as long as I can remember, Ensenada has had a whiff of south-of-the-border excess and spring-break stigma. Less than two hours from San Diego, down the Baja California peninsula, it’s one of the easiest and safest places to experience Mexico on a budget — which makes it easy to think of this small coastal city and cruise line layover as a sort of Mexico for Beginners. But dismissing northwest Baja is a mistake. Beyond the souvenir shops selling sombreros, knockoff artesanía (handicrafts) and tacky T-shirts, there’s a college town, a port town and a budding culinary capital that invite exploration. While Ensenada and the surrounding area can require a bit of patience, its pleasures are worth the time it takes to find them — and all the more so because they can be had so affordably.
I’ve had an affection for Ensenada since childhood, when it was a daylong car ride from my Northern California hometown and my introduction to international travel. In those days, I’ll admit, its beaches looked cleaner and the Pacific Ocean felt warmer. My brother and I would sip virgin piña coladas and spend hours scouring the beach for sand dollars. In college, it remained exotic in my mind — a place Tim, my then-boyfriend (now-husband), and I could go on winter break and feel like adventurous runaways. These days, Ensenada is simply the closest we can get to the Mexico we love without a plane ticket.