Over the years, Ensenada, Mexico, has become one of my favorite places to visit. It lies about 67 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border and is 89 miles south of San Diego. I’ve arrived in Ensenada via cruise ship and by bicycle on the Rosarito-Ensenada bike ride. The weather is pleasant year-round, but high winds between mid-January and mid-February could potentially disrupt your cruise itinerary or some shore excursions.
The Port of Ensenada is one of Mexico’s most visited ports of call for major cruise lines. As you would expect, there are many activities here to keep all those cruise ship guests busy. Below are 5 ½. Yep, 5 ½.
Whichever activities on this list you choose to participate in, you will be doing a fair amount of walking. Comfortable walking shoes are recommended.
The first three activities can be experienced without the need for any transportation other than your feet; they are just a few blocks from the port. The remaining ones require either an organized tour or taxi to reach. These will most likely be offered as shore excursions by whichever cruise line you sail with.
1. Centro Social, Cívico Y Cultural Riviera Del Pacifico
Your cruise ship will probably offer excursions that include a visit to Centro Social, Cívico Y Cultural Riviera del Pacifico. But it’s so close to the port that you may prefer to walk there yourself. At press time the entrance fee was $2 USD.
Centro Social, Cívico Y Cultural Riviera del Pacifico was formerly the Hotel Riviera del Pacifico. Its storied history involves Prohibition, Mexican businessmen and politicians, and Hollywood celebrities. After Prohibition ended, things went downhill for the hotel. It was restored beginning in 1978 and became Centro Social, Cívico Y Cultural Riviera del Pacifico. What survived are the beautiful tiles, murals, ballroom, chandeliers, woodwork, gardens, and casino room.
I recommend getting a guide so you can learn about the history behind the building and hear some stories that go with them. One of my favorite stories is how, during dances in the ballroom, boys and girls were able to arrange dates while still under the hawk-like watch of the chaperones. I also recommend a visit to the museum.
Fun Fact: Bar Andaluz at Riviera del Pacifico claims to have invented the margarita. See below for the other origin story.
2. Fish Taco Tasting
It is almost universally agreed that the fish taco as we know it today originated in Ensenada. What better place to create your own fish taco tour than Ensenada! The fish taco contains battered and fried fish. Angel shark (angelito) is a commonly used fish because it holds up well during frying. Dogfish and Mako shark (my favorite) are also used. Cod, pollock, halibut, and whitefish are other options. It is topped with cabbage (sometimes lettuce), pico de gallo, sour cream or citrus/mayonnaise sauce, and served on a flour or corn tortilla. Variations on toppings, salsas, and other condiments help each stand establish its own unique, um, flavor, as does the type of fish used. I found one stand on Lázaro Cárdenas right outside the port that served manta ray tacos.
If you start at the corner of Avenida Adolfo López Mateos and Castillo and work your way northwest along López Mateos, you’ll encounter any number of restaurants, cafés, and patio diners that serve fish tacos. Near Miramar, López Mateos turns into Calle Primera. You’ll find more shacks here. And it is these shacks that tend to serve the more authentic fish tacos, though the places you passed to get here do make very good ones.
My personal tour included La Guerrerense (the website is in Spanish — and their cart doesn’t sell fish tacos but their restaurant does), a restaurant called Mariscos Playa Azul, and a final stop at a small stand simply called Fish Tacos Ensenada, or Tacos de Pescado de Ensenada.
Pro Tip #1: If you’re going to do a fish taco tasting, eat a light breakfast or skip breakfast altogether. The tacos may look small, but after visiting three or four or more places, you will be quite full. I was, and I have a huge appetite.
Pro Tip #2: Consider going a few blocks further up Calle Primera to Avenida Ruíz. Turn right. Just before Calle Segunda is the famous Hussong’s Cantina. It is rumored the margarita was invented here in 1941. A (very strong) margarita from Hussong’s makes a historic and satisfying finish to your fish taco tasting tour.
Shopping on Calle Primera/Avenida López Mateos should not be missed. Small electronics, souvenirs, silver and turquoise jewelry (especially jewelry from Taxco, a city celebrated for its silver and turquoise), curios, and arts and crafts abound. Leather goods such as jackets, handbags, duffle bags, et cetera, are your best bargains.
Start out by walking northwest on López Mateos. You’ll see shops on both sides of the street. As you reach Miramar, you’ll notice more jewelry stores. Turn right on Miramar and you will encounter more clothing, electronics, and general stores.
Pro Tip: Most of the vendors know or assume you arrived in Ensenada via cruise ship. So, although most will bargain, they will start with the higher tourist prices. The best way to get the better deals is to shop around. It may be as simple as going across the street to a competitor.
4. Wine Tasting Tour
I was surprised to learn during one of my earlier visits that there were vineyards in the area. Located around 45 minutes north of Ensenada, Guadalupe Valley (Valle de Guadalupe) is a booming wine-growing region, home to over 100 wineries. The region is said to rival that of California’s Sonoma and Napa Valleys. You can book a wine tasting tour through your cruise line.
You will likely be visiting two to four wineries depending on your tour. Most wineries are located on dirt roads. Be sure to look at the gorgeous surrounding valley on your way to the wineries. Our tour stopped at two wineries in Valle de Guadalupe: La Casa de Doña Lupe and pioneering area vintner L.A. Cetto. In addition to producing wine, Casa Doña Lupe makes sherry, tequila, and brandy. L.A. Cetto has a bullring on the property. From their estate, you have a beautiful, commanding view of the valley below.
These tours will usually either return you to the ship or drop you off downtown. Taxis from downtown back to port are plentiful but if you don’t mind walking a few blocks, you could save the cab fare and spend it on a souvenir.
Pro Tip: Buy your wine while you are visiting the winery. It is more expensive elsewhere. Check with your cruise line for their policy on bringing alcohol back on board.
5. Kayak To La Bufadora (The Blowhole)
La Bufadora, or The Blowhole, is one of the world’s largest marine blowholes. Seeing it from sea level in a kayak is a unique experience. Air and water become trapped in a cave underground. When a wave approaches, pressure in the cave builds. When the wave recedes, the pressure is released, blasting water up to 100 feet in the air.
From shore, you will paddle a short distance out to the blowhole. As you near the blowhole, you’ll bob up and down as each swell passes beneath your kayak. It is pretty humbling when you realize that each swell that lifted your kayak will soon crash against the rocks, resulting in that hundred-foot-tall spray and thunderous sound the blowhole is famous for. Most guides will set you up to take photos with the blowhole erupting at a safe distance behind you. Bring a waterproof camera. Note: Kayaking tours normally operate only during the summer months.
Pro Tip: Before you begin the tour, ask the guide or driver whether the tour will be stopping at Lidia’s. They will know about Lidia’s. If yes, you will be able to enjoy the remaining ½ thing to do…
And A Half: La Bufadora Lookout
From the parking lot, head down the paved road. You’ll find vendors lining both sides of the road selling a huge variety of souvenirs. Churro vendors will offer you samples fresh out of the fryer and point you to their stalls. The ones we liked best were sold by the last vendor on the right, at the bottom of Restaurant Blanquita. One vendor had giant clams topped with cilantro and onions, tomatoes, and cheese cooking on the barbie.
Continue walking down the pathway until you reach the viewpoint overlooking the blowhole. There will be a small crowd there where many will be taking selfies. Bide your time and you can get right up to the wall to take your own photos. Don’t stand too close or you’ll get wet.
Pro Tip: If you like fish tacos, you absolutely must stop at Lidia’s Tacos Grill, or Tacos Lidia. This formerly well-kept secret has long been out. Expect a crowd, but it does move fast.
My next visit to Ensenada is already in the planning stages and will include an encore of a few of these activities.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about the Rosarito-Ensenada bike ride Stan references in his first paragraph here.