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Ensenada Travel Guide

Mexico Travel Guide › Ensenada
Updated: September 10, 2020

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Ensenada is one of Mexico’s most atmospheric ports, a laid-back, historic city on the western, Pacific coast, and one of our favorite places to go for superb seafood, wine, and whale-watching.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ensenada

Where is Ensenada?

Ensenada is a city in Mexico, on the northwestern, Pacific coast of the country in the state of Baja California. Ensenada is just 110 km south of the US border at Tijuana, and 135 km (84 miles) south of central San Diego in California. Ensenada is over 2825 km from Mexico City – at least 36 hours by road. The nearest major airport is at Tijuana (a 1 hour 45 minute drive from Downtown Ensenada).

How big is Ensenada?

Ensenada has a greater metro population of almost 525,000, though it’s central core is relatively compact. Downtown or “Zona Centro” is focused on the busy waterfront and harbor, where the fishing fleet and cruise ships dock, and runs inland for several blocks. Although there are no beaches in the center, a long strip of sand runs along the wide Bahía de Todos Santos (Bay of All Saints) for almost 20km, beginning with Playa Hermosa just to the south.

What is the history of Ensenada?

Ensenada was officially “founded” in 1542, but this really denotes when the area was discovered by the Spanish (Quechan- or Yuman-speaking peoples had lived here for thousands of years). It remained little more than a village until gold was discovered nearby in 1872. Ensenada was then developed as a mining port, and was designated capital of Baja California in 1882 – the modern city was planned and developed by the British-owned Mexican Land & Colonization Co in subsequent decades. Devastated by the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), Ensenada lost its capital status in 1915 and remained a backwater until tourism took off in the 1950s. The annual Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race began in 1948 (Humphrey Bogart took part in the first race), while the famous Baja 1000 motor race started in Ensenada in 1962 (the Baja 500 followed in 1969).

How do I get to Ensenada?

Ensenada does have a tiny airport, but this only serves a couple of locations in Baja California. The nearest major airport is at Tijuana, which is connected to numerous destinations within Mexico by non-stop flights, though there are at present no international flights. Most European flights to Tijuana will route through Mexico City. Buses run from Tijuana airport direct to Ensenada; taxis will also take you, but these are expensive (at least US$80), though a lot more convenient.
In practice, most US and Canadian visitors come to Ensenada by cruise ship or by car (see below), though it’s relatively straightforward to visit by bus. These shuttle back and forth between the US border at Tijuana and Ensenada bus station every hour or so and take around 1 hour 30 minutes.

Can I use Uber in Ensenada?

Uber is available and cheap in Tijuana, though not usually for airport pick-ups, where a local taxi monopoly operates – use official airport taxis or buses instead from Tijuana airport. Uber drivers in the US cannot take you across the Mexican border – you’ll have to walk across the border and order another Uber on the Mexican side, and vice versa.

Once in Ensenada (assuming you have the app and your phone has roaming in Mexico), Uber can offer convenience and cheaper rates over traditional taxis. In addition, a service dubbed “uberVALLE” offers day-long, round-trip rides to the Valle de Guadalupe wine region from Ensenada – just select “valleX” in the Uber app (the driver will wait at the various vineyards for you).

Can I drive to Ensenada?

Driving down to Ensenada from the US border is easy and straightforward – the main four-lane Highway-1D is in good condition all the way (allow 1 hour 30 minutes), though we’d advise leaving Tijuana as quickly as possible if that’s your point of entry. There are three tolls coming south from Tijuana (around US$5 total in peso) on Hwy-1D (“cuota” means toll), but you can also take the original two-lane Hwy-1, which is free (allow at least 2 hours on this road). The drive should also take around 1 hour 30 minutes from Tecate, and just over 3 hours from Mexicali.

Another plus: foreign vehicles do not need a Mexican “Temporary Importation of Vehicle Permit”, as long as they stay on the Baja peninsular.

If you are renting a vehicle, it’s much easier to do this once across the Mexican border, as taking US rental vehicles into Mexico comes with all sorts of restrictions.

Do I need a car in Ensenada?

You don’t really need a car in Ensenda. Most of what you’ll want to see and do lies within Downtown, which is easily explored on foot. Local buses, taxis, and Uber cars can whisk you to destinations outside the city relatively cheaply. If you intend to do a lot of exploring in the surrounding countryside, including the Valle de Guadalupe, having a vehicle can be more convenient. It’s also possible to arrange car rental on arrival in Ensenada; Alamo, Enterprise, and Hertz operate in the city, along with several cheap Mexican rental outfits.

How do I get around Ensenada without a vehicle?

Walking is the best way to see Ensenada, but it’s relatively easy to find taxis (or arrange an Uber) for longer trips to the beaches, or to La Bufadora.

When is the best time to go to Ensenada?

Ensenada has a mild, Mediterranean-like climate – it stays relatively dry year-round (though it’s slighter wetter in the winter than the summer) and experiences surprisingly cool weather December to March. In general, the summer months – June through September – are the best times to visit, as the weather is hot but not unbearable, and the beaches are therefore a lot more appealing. It also doesn’t rain much. However, visiting in October/November or April/May will still mean warm weather without the crowds (and cruise ship visitors). Whale-watching is also best December to April.

Where should I stay in Ensenada?

Most tourists in Ensenada stay in Centro (Downtown), where there’s a wide range of accommodation – the cheapest places lie further inland from the seafront and along Avenida López Mateos. The bigger and posher resorts tend to be located along the coast to the north and south – a pricey taxi ride from Downtown. These are recommended primarily for travelers with their own vehicles.

What are the best beaches in Ensenada?

The best beaches in Ensenada lie beyond Downtown. Our favorite is Estero Beach, a relatively tranquil spot with soft sand some 13 km south of the city. Day passes that provide access to pools, restaurants, and activities are usually available at the posh Estero Beach Hotel here (the hotel takes up much of the seafront but the public section is known as El Faro Beach). Otherwise, Playa Hermosa just south of the port is pretty good, with locals keeping the sand clean and umbrellas available to rent for a few pesos. For experienced surfers, the best spot is Playa San Miguel, 13 km north of Downtown.

Where to change money in Ensenada?

Though the Mexican peso is the official currency in Ensenada (often prefixed with a “$” sign), many hotels, restaurants, and vendors will accept US or Canadian dollars (especially when cruise ships are in town). However, change will often be given in pesos, and US/Canadian dollar prices invariably work out to be higher than peso prices because of inflated exchange rates.

Try to use ATMs to withdraw peso cash in Ensenada if you can (check with your bank before you leave to confirm you can use a debit card and how much they will charge – using credit cards can incur interest or foreign transaction fees). Credit cards are widely accepted, but you’ll need cash for buses, most taxis, and small purchases.

What are the best things to do in Ensenada?

In Ensenada itself it’s fun to visit the Riviera del Pacifico, a Spanish Revival-style casino and hotel completed in 1930 and now a cultural center. Inside there’s a small but absorbing history museum and Bar Andaluz, an atmospheric spot for a drink. Across the street, the Caracol Museo de Ciencias is a new-ish science museum that’s primarily aimed at kids. Stroll along the waterfront from here, up to the Mercado de Mariscos, the traditional fish market, which is always crammed with fresh seafood. This is a great place to sample Baja’s legendary fish tacos – said to have been invented in Ensenada. Wine lovers should check out the Bodegas de Santo Tomás, one of Baja California’s largest and oldest wineries – it’s also easy to arrange tours of the nearby Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s up-and-coming wine region. And don’t forget Hussong’s Cantina – this spit-and-sawdust bar was established way back in 1892 by German immigrant Johann Hussong and is one of several spots to claim the invention of the margarita. Whale-watching tours (from mid-December to mid-April), to view the grey whale migration, are easily arranged from the harbor – contact Sergio’s Sportfishing Center in advance.

What are the restaurants in Ensenada like?

Restaurants are pretty good, though street food is where Ensenada really excels. This is the home of the fish taco, and numerous places complete for the title of “best in Baja” beginning with venerable stall Tacos Fenix (Espinosa at Juárez). There’s also La Guerrerense, a food stall beloved of the late Anthony Bourdain that serves fresh shellfish tostadas and ceviche. Bronco’s is the place for steak, while Chef Benito Molina’s Manzanilla Restaurante is our favorite place for gourmet Mexican seafood. Cervecería Wendlandt is the best of a growing number of Baja craft breweries.

Is Ensenada expensive?

Ensendada is not really expensive. Everything is relative of course, but hotels in Ensenada – especially inland from the seafront – tend to be reasonably priced, and public transport and the city’s famous street food is very cheap – almost everything is priced in pesos, not US dollars, though services targeted specifically at cruise ship passengers always cost more.

Is Ensenada safe?

Yes. Ensenada has generally avoided the drug violence that has affected other parts of Mexico. Take the usual precautions, especially at night, and keep your valuables in room safes. Theft of personal items from beaches does happen – never leave anything of value unattended, even on seemingly empty stretches of sand.

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