Ship Ahoy! Taking a Cruise to Ensenada
If you are thinking of taking a cruise to Ensenada, Baja California, there are a few things you should know. For instance, it is the only cruise ship port in all of Mexico that increased its number of cruise ship/passenger arrivals in 2012. In 2013, it is anticipated that there will be more than 181,000 visitors arriving in the ‘friendly’ port city of Ensenada, primarily via the Carnival, Princess, Holland America, and Celebrity lines.
There are lots of reasons for the uptick in ‘Cruiser Tourism’ to Ensenada, but keys to the popularity of this particular itinerary are cost and accessibility.
Two-night cruises to Ensenada from Los Angeles start on Carnival from just $199 per person and four-night trips from just $229. At those prices, it would be almost crazy not to take this trip to this city that is also the gateway to Mexico’s wine country and home to some of the nation’s top restaurants (two of which, Laja and Corazon de Tierra, were recently named in the list of Top 50 Restaurants in Latin America). And whether you choose to use your day in Ensenada to take a day-trip or just peruse the shopping district that’s minutes away from the port, it will be easy to fill your hours with safe, fun, and affordable activities. So where to begin?
After disembarking, you’ll pass through the cruise-ship terminal area that hosts a smattering of vendors and information kiosks. It’s fun to look around (albeit a little touristy, but then that is what you are, right?) and, if you are heading out on a day journey rather than visiting the downtown area, you might even want to do some buying in this marketplace.
If you decide that you want to head out on your own to explore Ensenada – also called the ‘Cinderella of the Pacific’ – it’s a no-brainer. Shuttles are available to take you into town (about $2), just a few minutes away. You can also easily walk, giving you a chance to see the famous Rivera Cultural Center that at one time was a casino but now is more of a venue for weddings and special events and even has its own museum. You will also pass CEARTE, the state’s small but sophisticated museum of modern art that features art expositions, occasional entertainment, and a bookstore. On the ocean-side of Costero Blvd., try to make a stop at the Galeria Pérez Meillón that features hand-selected arts and crafts, including Mata Ortiz pottery and native Indian art from northwestern Mexico.
A little further down the street is Starbuck’s (although for this writer’s money, there are some great independent cafes on Lopez Mateos Blvd., just a street away) and the movie theater, Cinepolis, that shows many English language movies.
Ducking in behind Starbucks and adjacent to the cinema, you will discover one of Baja California’s treasures: the Mercado Negro (Black Market). It is actually a fish market – and a photographer’s dream venue – composed of individual vendor shelves displaying everything from swordfish and halibut to shiny squid and octopus to mountains of fresh shrimp ranging from small to jumbo. Surrounding the market are numerous small restaurants, most with long dining tables, that serve giant cocktail glasses full of ceviche, fried fish plates and other seafood delights. On the far side of the Mercado Negro, stroll along the oceanfront boardwalk.
Returning to Costero Blvd., continue eastward a block. This will bring you to the shopping district on Lopez Mateos Blvd. Although the entire long street has abundant shops of all sorts, from souvenirs to leather and clothing, Lopez Mateos has two very distinct personalities…the northern end and the southern end.
Most visitors start at the southern end, nearest the cruise ship terminal, which is calm and quiet. A gambol into Fausto Polanco is always worthwhile even if the store’s amazing and large handcrafted hacienda-style furniture is not particularly suited to taking back to your ship’s stateroom. A visit to this two-story shop is like traveling back into old Mexico. Its walls are hung with colorful religious icons, massive carved tables and armoirs, and evocative Mexican paintings and figurines. Heading to the north, you will pass wine and coffee bars, and the El Rey Sol restaurant that features fine French dining, not to mention luscious French pastries and coffee drinks.
Along the way, you might take note of a special food truck — La Guerrerense. Usually, there is a long line of people waiting to be served. Why, you ask? Only because the food — things from the ocean — is amazing, so much so that it has actually been named one of the best restaurants (not just food trucks) in the world! In this stretch, and for several blocks, you’ll discover myriad jewelry stores including the renowned purveyors of .925 silver (always look for the mark), Mario’s and Los Castillos. Purses, jackets and leather goods are great buys in Ensenada, and worth the money even if they are knock-offs.
At the north end of Lopez Mateos, things get hoppin’ for those in search of parties, music, tacos and beer. The famous Hussong’s Cantina is always a treat and a great place to get your shoes shined by the now-famous Shoe Shine Man. Papas & Beer provides a watering hole and an official store, and the corner bar Mango Mango can offer gigantic group margaritas, which often result in street and sidewalk dancing. There are some great taco stands on the east side of Ruiz (where Hussong’s is), and on the west side of Ruiz is Ultramarino, a great place for oysters tempura and other small plates.
Touring the Ensenada area
Typically, the cruise to Ensenada involves only a single day or an overnight stop, and many cruisers decide to make the most of their time by taking tours of the Ensenada region. According to Oscar Kawanishi, director of Proturismo in Ensenada, there are three really popular tours that offer diverse experiences: the La Bufadora tour, the City Tour, or the Wine Country Tour. You may choose to take organized tours or you also have the option or hiring taxis or shuttles to do any of the following.
La Bufadora: About an hour south of Ensenada is one of the world’s only true ‘blowholes’, La Bufadora. It is at the tip of a rocky point and causes oohs and aahs when waves comes scooting between jagged rocks and blow up in foamy pillars high into the air. But for the record, the real fun at this touristy destination is the little village – in fact, going through the one-street village is a mind-boggling mélange of noise and colors, as street hawkers try to lure you with merchandise from all over Mexico. It is good to be prepared and to take it all in good fun; believe it or not, you will actually find some really neat stuff at some good prices. You will also pass restaurants offering the freshest seafood and fare, and you would be remiss not to try the amazing grilled chocolate clams (sort of like clams casino) that are sold from street carts.
The City Tour: This is the more official and comprehensive version of the walking tour you can take by yourself. But the advantage here is that you get some history and information about what you are seeing. You will hear the history of Ensenada and some of the colorful anecdotes that surround places like the Riviera de Ensenada, that was so glamorous in the 1930s. The tour includes a stop at the lovely Santo Tomas Winery founded in 1888, and it also takes visitors to the shopping district.
The Wine Country Tour: Remember, there are established tours that can take you to the wine country, or you can consider hiring a taxi or shuttle. The trip to the Valle de Guadalupe – Mexico’s wine country, where 98% of the nation’s wines are produced – is a short one, and you will have ample time to visit several of the more than 100 wineries/cavas that are now in operation. Most wineries are open without an appointment, and many offer cheese plates and breads. You will discover that Mexico is creating acclaimed varietals (predominantly red) like Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Merlot, Zinfandel and others. There are huge operations with giant tasting rooms, such as LA Cetto, and there is also an abundance of boutique wineries like Vinisterra, Mogor Badan, Villa Montefiori, Torres Alegre, Alximia, Vintango, Tres Mujeres, Emeve, JC Bravo, Adobe Guadalupe, Vena Cava and others that welcome your visit.
Other Ensenada Activities
Are you a special interest person? Never fear, there are plenty more activities in which you can engage!
*Harbor Tours, Whale Watching and Sport fishing: Just a walk away from the cruise ship terminal is the pier area, and the Mercado Negro. Throughout the day, harbor tours depart from the pier, offering visitors a chance to see the beautiful bay of Ensenada, Isla Todos Santos (Todos Santos Island), the Estero Beach estuary, and more oceanfront sights. Sport fishing operations, including Sergio’s Sport Fishing, are based in the pier area, as well. Each year, usually starting in November and running well into March, whale watching trips begin, taking visitors out for a few hours to try and see the migrating California gray whales.
*Golf: Ensenada features two golf courses, each with its own distinct personality. Bajamar Golf Resort and Hotel is about 30 minutes north of the cruise ship terminal, and offers 27 holes of spectacularly landscaped golf. A number of holes are right on the Pacific Ocean, many with dramatic views and vistas. Baja Country Club is about 30 minutes south of town, with 18 holes of golf in a lovely canyon-like setting. Both courses are challenging: Bajamar tempts players to hit over barrancas and water features, while Baja Country Club’s long fairways offer plenty of fun for the big hitters.
*Kayaking and panga boat rides: There are several opportunities for kayakers, most available south of town at the Estero Beach estuary area or near La Bufadora. Los Arbolitos cove offers one of the most famous hotspots for kayakers, nestled into the rugged coastal cliffs. You’ll feel isolated from the world, experiencing just the sounds of barking seals, crashing waves, and soaring seabirds. For those not into the kayak experience, panga boat rides can also be had at a variety of locations. With experienced drivers/guides, the panga boats can take you into the mussel beds or the estuaries for fishing or sightseeing.
Cruise ships are a great and relaxing way to visit Ensenada…and then at the end of a tiring day, you get to kick back on board, enjoy an umbrella drink of some sort, and share the day’s adventures with your maties. For Mexico newbies, this kind of journey offers an easy and reassuring introduction to the joys of traveling in Baja. A great destination and a great price…so porque no? Why not? In Baja, the end of summer just means it’s time to cruise into more fun!
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