By Kelly Westhoff
I was jonesing for a getaway. And not just any kind of getaway. A foreign one.
The problem was my husband and I didn’t have a lot of extra cash to be kicking around. Plus, we were short on vacation time and the days we did have free we’d already booked to San Diego to visit family over the Christmas and New Year’s break.
Just a week before we got on that holiday plane bound for Southern California, I came up with a getaway plan designed to soothe my wanderlust: Ensenada, Mexico.
From San Diego, we would already be just a hop, skip and a jump from the Mexican border. While Tijuana certainly would have provided a fast and cheap foreign encounter, I’d been there years before and wasn’t that curious to return.
However, Ensenada lies just another hour and a half down the Pacific coast from Tijuana. In other words, it was far enough into Mexico to give us a favorable exchange rate and give me my foreign fix, but it was close enough to the border to ensure we could get in and out.
When I read that Greyhound ran busses from downtown San Diego to Tijuana’s central terminal, and that from there we could hop a Mexican ABC bus to Ensenada, I talked my husband into a little, two-day adventure.
Our San Diego family balked when we explained the plan. Cross the border? To Mexico? On a bus?
Surely they thought we were crazy. Truth be told, I wondered if maybe I was, too. I’d never ridden a Greyhound before. What made me think my first experience should take me out of the country?
I kept my mouth shut, though, and brushed off all their concerns. If I showed fear, my husband might second guess the idea, and I really didn’t want that to happen.
We did talk a few family members into dropping us off at the Greyhound station in San Diego. From there, our journey got underway — much to my relief — with amazing ease.
I’d checked the schedule online and knew that busses departed just about every hour for Tijuana. While I could have pre-purchased tickets through Greyhound’s web site, I didn’t. Instead, we showed up, got in line and got tickets for the next bus out.
It was about an hour ride from San Diego to our parking spot at Tijuana’s central bus terminal. Before we pulled to a stop, the bus twisted through Tijuana, giving up plenty of people and traffic watching.
When we did step off the bus, we had to pass through Mexican customs. The uniformed officers weren’t nearly as concerned with our passports, reason for travel or final destination as they were about the apples stashed in my bag. No fruits could pass into the country, one explained, helping himself to all three.
I protested, but only slightly, just enough to make a joke. “They’re juicy,” I told him. “I hope you like them.”
A wide smile broke out across his face. Had I read his mind or was he simply surprised I spoke Spanish? Probably both, I thought.
Inside Tijuana’s central bus terminal, we went to the counter for the ABC bus company and bought tickets to Ensenada. It was a 30-minute wait until the next bus left, which was enough time to find the bathroom and buy a bottle of water for the road.
The trip was smooth. Once we got beyond Tijuana’s city limits and skirted the beach town of Rosarita, it was a straight shot down the coast to Ensenada. The paved highway ran along high ridges and cliffs, offering breathtaking views of the expansive Pacific Ocean. In less than two hours, we reached our destination.
Wine Country in Land of Tequila
Ensenada looks to all directions for its livelihood.
To the west, the waterfront is busy. Fishing boats and trade ships come and go from its industrial docks. Don’t expect to go for an ocean dip in town. The water here is working water. However, a wide seaside boardwalk, the malecón, is a fine place for pedestrians to stroll and take in all the bustling action.
Moving away from the ocean and beyond city limits, the land turns agricultural. Grapes are grown here, which surprised me to learn. I hadn’t ever thought of Mexico as a wine-loving land. Cerveza? Sure. Tequila? You bet. Margaritas? Keep ‘em coming! But wine? Yes. Half a dozen Mexican wineries call Ensenada home and bodega visits are a top tourist activity here.
Those tourists often arrive from the north. Americans sail by in their yachts, spill forth from their cruise ships and drive through town in their RVs. Many of these travelers, if they aren’t seeking Ensenada’s wine, are seeking the scenery south of town. The beach, the trailer park and an ocean “blowhole” are all located there, well outside city limits.
In Town On Foot
Because we’d arrived by bus and were trying to keep our expenses to a minimum, we didn’t even think about renting a car. This meant our little Ensenada holiday had to be conducted entirely in town and on foot. Luckily, this wasn’t a problem.
Downtown Ensenada is condensed and arranged on a square grid, town traffic isn’t heavy, raised sidewalks are the norm and in addition to the seaside malecón, a second pedestrian-friendly drag stretches for blocks through town, populated with stores, restaurants and hotels.
We got to town about midday and took a room for one night at the Hotel Cortéz on Calle López Mateos, which I’d scouted online before we arrived. The hotel was just a few blocks from the port and steps from the pedestrian-friendly drag.
We set out almost immediately for Bodegas de Santo Tomás, the only winery in town that was offering public tours, and joined the afternoon group. It is Mexico’s oldest winery, having sold its first barrel of wine in 1888.
Our walk through the bodega lasted about an hour and was conducted in Spanish with rough English translations thrown in every now and again.
No matter. We were just two in a mixed crowd of 20 and the walk-through alone was interesting enough. We passed through modern facilities with massive steel tanks, and an assembly line staffed by quick-handed men corking and labeling bottles. Then we descended stairs into a chilly underground labyrinth where dust-covered bottles aged in dark rooms.
We also passed though a low hallway where hundreds of green bottles had been stuck through a series of holes bored into wooden boards. Workers were making their way through the collection turning the bottles just so. Champagne, we were told, was aging in there.
The tour ended, of course, with a chance to sip from a few bottles and nibble a cracker or two. We didn’t linger, though. We were just staying one night and wanted to check out the rest of town.
City Tour of Ensenada
We looped through Ensenada on foot, stopping briefly to admire the façade and cool interior of the Catedral Nuesta Señora de Guadalupe.
Next, we strolled though the Riviera del Pacífico, a former casino-hotel turned cultural center. Rumors claim Al Capone helped finance the building’s early days. Whether that’s true or not, the complex is a pretty place to pass some time. The whitewashed tower overlooks kept gardens. Inside, long, empty hallways lead to spacious rooms.
One bored staffer came out from behind his post and gave us an impromptu tour. He walked us to one particularly large room, explaining it used to house card tables. He added credence to the Al Capone tale by pointing out high interior windows from which he claimed mobsters used to watch over the poker proceedings below. Now the space, he said, is rented out for weddings and parties.
The sea front was just across the street, so we dodged a few cars and found ourselves on the pedestrian-only malecón. A woman was selling freshly-fried churros from a cart and we couldn’t pass them by. They were still warm as she handed them over.
We’d just finished licking the sugar from our fingers when we arrived at the Plaza Cívica, which was a good thing as I need free hands to dig out my camera and take pictures of the three massive, golden heads perched upon squatty cement pedestals that were guarding the square. The heads depict three of Mexico’s great heroes: Benito Juárez, Miguel Hidalgo and Venustiano Carranza.
Dinner and a movie
My husband loves a good lobster and because Ensenada is a fishing town, we were on the hunt for a good seafood dinner. We took to the street just outside our hotel, a pedestrian-minded thoroughfare with wide sidewalks and store windows.
The lobster tanks bubbling outside Maríscos Bahia Ensenada lured us through the door and to a table. We were the only tourists in the joint and we put our faith in this local cue. We weren’t disappointed. The lobster was fresh and sweet.
After settling our tab, we strolled further to Hussong’s Cantina, the one bar in town that all visitors are supposed to hit.
Another rumor hit our ears – this time boasting Hussong’s as the home of the original margarita. Was it? It was hard to be sure. The joint was so crowded, we felt as if we’d time warped back to a college keg party. We downed our margarita and left the rollicking cantina behind.
We’d long given up consulting a map. Ensenada’s streets weren’t hard to understand and its people were easy enough to approach. Even though it was dark outside, well-positioned street lamps lit up the night and we felt safe wandering the few blocks back toward the seafront.
Yet we were distracted by a shinny mall and movie theater. Lines had formed outside the ticket booth and we decided to check out the listings, curious more than anything else, about what movies were playing in Ensenada.
Some we recognized and some we didn’t. One we didn’t know starred Susan Sarandon. The title was Christmas-themed, in keeping with the season, but neither of us could recall ever having seen a preview for it at home.
Our curiosity piqued instead of satisfied, we dug out the required pesos and passed into the modern Cineplex for an English-language show. It was a comforting end to a day that had offered us a soft, foreign adventure.
A Snip and a Fix
The next morning we got up and breakfasted in the city before checking out of our hotel and getting back on the bus. After filling up on pancakes, eggs and coffee, we walked by a barber shop just opening for business. My husband suddenly declared himself in need of a haircut and settled himself in the barber’s chair.
In the end, we both got exactly what we wanted in Ensenada. He got a cheap, smart-looking haircut and I got tiny fix to tide my wanderlust till the next big trip.
Bus Trip Details to Make it a Little Easier Tijuana to Ensenada
If you take the Greyhound from San Diego, it will bring you all the way to Tijuana’s central bus terminal. From there, the Mexican bus company, ABC, runs air-conditioned busses with reclining seats and movies to Ensenada every half hour. The first bus leaves at 6 am; the last bus departs at midnight. Tickets cost about $13 US.
ABC also runs cheaper busses between Tijuana and Ensenada. These busses leave from a bus station in Tijuana’s Plaza Viva, which is just over the border near the U.S. Customs Office. A one-way ticket is about $8 US.
Ensenada to Tijuana
ABC is also your ticket back to Tijuana. ABC busses depart from two different terminals in town, which makes finding the right one confusing.
When we arrived from Tijuana, our bus let us out at Ensenada’s central terminal. However, when we went back there to go home, we were told to seek out a smaller station.
My advice is to check the return schedule upon your arrival before you even step foot outside the terminal. That way, you can eliminate confusion on the way home.
But even if you do go to the wrong terminal in Ensenada, chances are there will be another ABC bus coming along soon that can take you back to Tijuana.
The cheaper ride (about $8 US) runs every hour on the hour while the more expensive ride (about $13 US) runs five times a day.
Kelly Westhoff is a traveler, teacher and writer from Minneapolis. See more of her work at kellywesthoff.com.
Kelly Westhoff was a regular contributor to GoNOMAD and a member of our blogger’s team. Before the importance of the bedtime routine and children invaded her life, Kelly was a traveler — the kind who would throw all her stuff in a backpack, hit the road, and write about her adventures. She lives in Minnesota.