Escape to Ensenada: Baja California’s Grown-up Destination for Cheap Eats and Outdoor Fun

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Most Californians' first encounter with Mexico comes in college, courtesy of the alcohol-drenched border towns of Baja California—whether it's tequila shots in Tijuana or partying at Papas & Beer in Rosarito. But continue south to Ensenada, and northern Baja's coast-hugging town surprises with inspired (but supremely affordable) eats, a growing craft beer scene, and outdoor adventure that extends beyond bacchanalian excess on the beach.

Plus, it serves as an excellent launching pad for explorations of nearby Valle de Guadalupe's burgeoning wine country. Follow this guide for what to do in Ensenada—in between all of the eating and drinking, of course—plus where to stay in Baja's seaside city.


Where to Stay in Ensenada

Hotel Coral & Marina's rooms all offer views of the ocean.

(Courtesy of Hotel Coral & Marino)

Overlooking the water and marina a few miles north of Ensenada's downtown, the brightly hued (and appropriately named) Hotel Coral & Marina (starting at $140/night) offers primo views with added bonuses such as buffet breakfast, a well-maintained swimming pool, and comfy bedding in suite-style rooms. If you'd rather avoid the hassle of driving, Hotel Coral also offers shuttle service to and from San Diego, as well as into the Valle de Guadalupe on a tour. If you're feeling adventurous, the nearby marina has stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, and hydrobikes available for rent for a small fee. But the biggest perk? The hotel offers a fast pass for crossing the border back into the U.S., often cutting return times in half.

Views also abound at Punta Morro Resort (starting at $160/night) a more intimate property eight minutes from downtown Ensenada. There, room balconies often open out onto views of the ocean, and the on-site restaurant is the perfect place to enjoy the sound of crashing waves and a sunset over the water while sipping a red from the neighboring wine region.

Family-friendly Estero Beach Hotel & Resort (starting at $120/night) has been enticing travelers and their littles ones since the 1950s with its waterside location, duo of bars, and room-adjacent pool area complete with fire pits and a hot tub. Although 15 minutes south of downtown Ensenada on the Bay of Ensenada, the hotel boasts plenty of on-site diversions to keep you busy, ranging from for-rent Jet Skis, paddle boards, and kayaks to beach horseback riding to poolside massages.

Where to Eat and Drink in Ensenada

Eat

Muelle 3 opened back in 2009, and since then has been slinging seafood in a relaxed environment mere steps from the Mercado Negro and the Ensenada pier. Opt for an uber-fresh ceviche paired with a white from the Valle, or set your taste buds tingling with a chile de arbol–tinged octopus. The service is unrushed, so plan to spend some time lingering over the dishes—especially if you've sprung for an abalone dish on the rare occasions it appears on the menu.

Perhaps Ensenada's most well-known place for a low-key bite, unassuming but locally beloved La Guerrerense got the Anthony Bourdain bump when the celeb chef visited the family-run stand during an episode of No Reservations in 2012 (and later, Andrew Zimmern for Bizarre Foods). But the street cart, located just blocks off the ocean, has been churning out shellfish, ceviche, and its famous sea urchin and ceviche tostadas for more than four decades, helmed by Sabina Bandera and her family. Make sure to top your seafood with a hearty helping of the homemade salsas—most crafted with organic ingredients from Bandera's garden—and savor in the sun for the full experience.

Hidden on an industrial side street, chefs Solange Muris and Benito Molina's Manzanilla firmly cemented Ensenada as a dining destination when it opened in 2000, with globally-inspired dishes driven by fresh and seasonal ingredients sourced from chef Molina's garden, Mercado Negro, or the surrounding region. Grab a seat at the long wooden bar—which features an octopus to further the focus on the ocean—or choose to be seated in the dining room underneath chandeliers for a memorable three-course tasting menu.

Adventurous types can satiate their cravings with cabeza, lengua, and cachete tacos at Taquería El Trailero, which you'll be able to spot from the long-haul trucks parked outside, just north of Ensenada on the toll road. But we won't hold it against you if you go for a more straightforward order of an al pastor taco carved right in front of you from the meat station, or fried-to-order shrimp tacos from the fish section. Place your order with the individual cooks, grab your tacos, and pay before grabbing a seat or inhaling your meal at one of the standing counters.

In a town known for readily available fresh seafood, it's impressive to see locals and tourists alike still willing to line up for the raw oysters, shrimp cocktail, and ceviche from Mariscos El Guero, a nondescript food cart just outside the main port promenade. Make it through the chaotic ordering process, and you can rub elbows with other noshing patrons as you sit on the sidewalk or stand and scarf nearby.

Ensenada bakery Hogaza Hogaza never fails to lure in passerby with the scent of freshly baked bread, but it's the picture-perfect pastries that makes it a must-hit. Pair a flaky croissant with a cup of coffee to kick off your day, grab a sourdough loaf dotted with briny olives for a picnic, or cap off your evening with a slice of Hogaza's multi-layered mint cake or a fresh fruit mini tart.

Don't let the swarms of cruise ship passengers scare you off of Birrieria la Guadalajara, known for its namesake birrias (slow-cooked meat stews kicked up with spices), house-made tortillas, and giant spiked horchatas. Local tour guides point visiting cruisers there for good reason: In a town known for seafood, this restaurant does carnivores proud, with well-rendered beef, goat, and lamb still allowed to shine in the birria, but equally as delicious in tacos, burritos, and "quesatacos" for the indecisive.


Drink

You can't head to Ensenada without tracking down a margarita, and Cantina Hussong's is the place to head to try one from the source, since the drink was purportedly invented there in the 1940s. Kick back with a beverage—or two, if it's two-for-one Saturdays—and enjoy a serenade from the roving mariachi band while you toss peanut shells on the floor.

Cervecería Wendlandt was one of the first craft breweries to put Ensenada's beer scene on the map, and Ben Matz—who logged time at Stone Brewing and Pizza Port—helms the brewing operations, churning out award-winning beers. Head to the tasting room attached to Wendlandt's industrial brewery for a pint of the Perro del Mar IPA, or swing by the downtown taproom, where you can also find a menu of salads, tostadas, pizzas, and more.

Started by a marine biologist, Cervecería Aguamala translates literally to "bad water," but a more apt meaning is "jellyfish," which is a frequent figure on this ocean-adjacent brewery's beers and merchandise. But the sea inspiration doesn't end there: You can sip the Mantis Belgian ale, Mantarraya stout, or Mako pale ale in a tasting flight at Agua Mala's second-story shipping container tasting room, which looks out over the water.

Where to Play in Ensenada

December through April, you may spot migrating gray whales in Ensenada.

(Barbara Rubio Fotografia/Sergio's Sport Fishing Center)

If you're seeking al fresco adventure, a roughly 40-minute drive outside of Ensenada brings you to La Bufadora, a marine geyser that erupts up to 100 feet into the sky and coats the surrounding rocks—and any onlookers—in salty spray. If you drive, you'll find $3 parking at a nearby lot, and Baja's ubiquitous souvenir shops and food stands line the short walk down to the cliffside viewing area, where you'll get your best photos at sunset and high surf days.

While legend has it La Bufadora represents a trapped migrating whale that's since turned to stone, you might have the opportunity to see the real deal on a whale-watching cruise around Ensenada. Between December and April, make sure you have your sea legs ready and get out on the water with Sergio's Whale Watching to experience the annual gray whale migration. The sea giants congregate in the Todos os Santos Bay to mate and give birth, making Ensenada an ideal place for an up-close look. Even if the whales are shy, sea lions, dolphins, and various seabirds make for a fauna-filled excursion. Sergio's also offers deep-sea fishing charters (with bottom fishing in the winter and more surface action in summer), plus gear like fishing rods and reels, hooks, sinkers, and baits.

Unless haggling in Spanish over cheaply made tchotchkes is your thing, skip the souvenir shops lining Ensenada's main promenade and head downtown to the Centro Estetal de las Artes for a proper introduction to Mexican art. Identifiable by the towering abstract sculpture flanking the building, CEART shows a diverse range of works from Mexican artists and also serves as a venue for visiting art exhibitions, as well as modern dance performances and classes.

If you'd rather have someone else do the hard work of fishing, head over to Mercado Negro. Around for almost 70 years, this expansive open-air fish market is known by a few different names, but you can always recognize it by the freshness of the day's catches. Simply take in the spectacle that is the rows upon rows of octopus, shrimp, fish, and tuna; or buy a fillet to have fired up by one of the restaurants that dot the interior.

Away from the ocean, adventure awaits at Las Cañadas Campamento, which offers 20 acres of campgrounds, canopy tours, and zipline courses. In addition to traversing five ziplines (some that stretch for more than a quarter of a mile) and five hanging bridges, visitors can also hit the ground on an off-road ATV, set out on a mountain bike, go horseback riding, and shake it all out on the three-level dance floor

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