Friends Visit Ensenada for the Weekend: What to do?!
Finally, friends and family are coming to Baja California. True, there’s still that pesky cross-back into the United States at the end of an idyllic weekend, but at least other worries seem to have evaporated as quickly as a margarita on a hot day. In our excitement to welcome pals who have chosen to visit Ensenada for the weekend, we painstakingly put together a plan of attack, and attack we did! Check it out.
Friday afternoon and evening: They arrived at San Diego international airport at around noon. We decided to give them a full loop tour of our northwestern part of Baja – entering the state through Tecate (‘gateway to Mexico’s Wine Country’), which offers a more scenic drive, and returning them to the U.S. on Monday, through Tijuana.
We drove east on Interstate 8 and eventually cut down to state route 94 that travels through Dulzura and some beautiful hill scenery, crossing the border into Tecate (a very fast process). Tecate, founded in 1892, is one of the pueblos magicos (magical towns) of Mexico thanks to its history, culture and charm, much of which is found on the main zocalo. This is a great spot to sit at a sidewalk café, beer in hand (guess which one), watching ice-cream vendors, shoe-shine people and domino players, before scouting out the town.
Continuing on Highway 3, Tecate-Ensenada, we headed south on the snaky but scenic road that brought us to the famous wine region, Valle de Guadalupe, where 90% of the nation’s wines are produced. It took us about 75 minutes to make this part of the trek.
Coming from this direction, Encuentro Guadalupe (and its hotel Endemico) is one of the first stops, on the right hand side of the road. With a panoramic vista of the valley, this is an ideal stopping spot for a copa de vino.
A bit further on at kilometer 85.5 is Mogor Badan winery and Deckman’s El Mogor. There are many really good choices these days for eating in the Ensenada area, but we knew that Deckman’s, with its al fresco kitchen and dining, is unique and consistently good. It impressed our friends hugely and set the tone for a weekend to remember.
We headed home on Highway 3 west to Highway 1 towards Tijuana. Our goal was to stun our buddies with the dramatic rocky Ensenada coastline at sunset. It worked. They were also curious about the strange rings floating far below in the Pacific Ocean which are actually holding pens for tuna that are caught further out and brought to protected coves until they are harvested. But that was explained later as we sat on our back porch in the oceanfront community of Bajamar, listening to the distant sound of sea lions barking, and sipping a local wine.
Saturday morning: First, an early morning walk around Bajamar’s 27-hole golf course. One never knows what one will see in the a.m., with everything from bobcats to mountain lions to skunks traversing the open fairways. The stroll to the ocean bluffs allowed us to show off the recent archeological dig that has uncovered remnants of a prehistoric fishing camp. There have been several such digs on the huge peninsula that comprises Bajamar, one of which unearthed skeletal remains of indigenous people and an ancient whale skeleton.
Over-extending my plans, as usual, I had promised my friend Jo Ann Knox Martino that we would come out for a quick late morning trip to her brand new winery, Vintago, located against the hills of the Valle de Guadalupe near Baron Balche winery. We got there just as she unloaded a number of cases of her newest vintage, a Chardonnay. We didn’t get to taste that one, but a glass of Zinfandel-Nebbiolo was good consolation – and everyone forgave me for cramming so much into so little time!
Saturday afternoon: No trip to Ensenada is complete without a jaunt into town to walk along Lopez Mateos. This is the main shopping district and the diversity of goodies to be acquired in the little shops and tiendas lining the street is amazing: silver, purses, cotton clothing, Day of the Dead mementos, Talavera-style ceramic-ware, leather jackets and belts, and much more. Favorite stores include Bazaar Casa Ramirez, Los Castillos, Mario’s, Mexican Arts and Fausto Polanco. Of course, there are always detours…and Hussong’s Cantina is a must-do.
Speaking of must-do’s – we needed lunch. Our favorite on-the-dock spot in Ensenada is Muelle Tres restaurant. To me, going to this little eatery is like being in Marseilles, France. It is unpretentious, bright and clean. The view out over the harbor is like an ever-changing diorama of little kids and grandparents, burly fishermen with bass and lingcod thrown over their shoulders, squawking seagulls, and colorful fishing boats. Over mussels and French fries, and giant bowls of house ceviche, we plotted our next move.
Saturday evening: Heading north back up the coast, at kilometer 58 we stopped at La Mision Hotel. On many Friday and Saturday nights, this is the place to hear some of the best music in all of Baja. The draw is not the hotel but Miguel de Hoyos, whose legendary classical guitar renditions of everything from rock to flamenco routinely bring patrons to their feet. After a few margaritas there, we drove the 10 minutes back south to our house; our friends were firmly ensnared in Baja’s web of magic and anticipating another day of their adventure.
Sunday morning: A favorite past-time is ‘the art walk’. We call it this, but it is really a leisurely amble up the coast towards Rosarito, pausing at galleries and curio stores on the way. Sometimes, we stop at Puerto Nuevo for early lunch – after all, it is the famous lobster village. But this day, we just went on to Popotla, a neighborhood and also a boulevard that runs from Calafia all the way up to Rosarito.
An interior designer’s dream, Popotla Boulevard is lined with shops and even small factories creating everything to bring beauty to a home. There are several granite/travertine/marble outlets where slabs of materials and gorgeous bathroom and kitchen pieces are on display. Fine art galleries abound, including Galeria Klein and the Polo Valencia gallery. (Next door to Polo’s is the workshop of a man who makes spectacular mirrors and crucifixes). Iron work can be seen everywhere – even some sculptures that rise high into the air – and pieces can be commissioned. There are numerous woodworking shops, including that of David Martinez and the famous Casa de Carretera. And of course, ceramics. A favorite outlet for plates, glassware, candles and other items is Alex Curios.
At the Rosarito Beach Hotel, there are a number of small stores selling mementos and art, including the Baja Gallery run by Benito Aguilar. It is an eclectic collection, including everything from pieces by Robert Pace Kidd, an artist with a Western flair, to fantastical works by Esau Andrade.
Sunday afternoon and evening: Tooling back south on Popotla Blvd. with goodies in hand, we opted for a stop at Ollie’s Pizza, kilometer 40.5. Ollie is actually a Belgian waterdog who greets customers upon their arrival. His owner, Richard Cargill, is the bloke who has cleverly created gourmet wood-fired pizzas and tasty little caprese and radish salads that attract a steady clientele even in off months. So does the “chocolate pizza,” so save room!
We made it to Splash! just in time to see the sun dip below the horizon (no ‘green flash’ that night, but we have seen it there before) and have an end-of-the-day Cadillac margarita (the only way to go). Splash! has become the expats ‘go-to’ spot, with evening music and unbeatable views—sort of the iconic Baja taco restaurant, where everyone knows your name.
Packed with food and drink, we chilled out at home and planned our morning escape.
Monday morning: Yes, crossing back into the US can be a challenge for those who visit Ensenada or anywhere in Baja Norte. For those of us with SENTRI cards (approved by the Department of Homeland Security), it’s usually quick and easy. Travelers who have a radio frequency identification or RFID- enabled travel document can use the Ready Lane to expedite the inspection process while crossing the border. But, there is also the old-fashioned way. Sitting in line, passport in hand, and waiting. We usually recommend that our friends plan on crossing the border at around 9:30-10 a.m., but there are no guarantees. Any time of the day or night can be problematic.
We decided to go with tradition, waiting in the main line, and doing a little in-car shopping from the vendors who hawk their goods to people waiting in ‘la linea’ — everything from coffee drinks, to piñatas, Virgins of Guadalupe and even bobble-heads. True, it was a 90 minute wait…but then we just spent more than 48 hours having a blast.
That’s what we did when friends visited Ensenada for the weekend…boring, huh?
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