Far from the polished resorts, white sand beaches, and all night partying of Cancun and Playa del Carmen lies another side of Mexico. Beachfront, colorful, and with a devotion to tequila that rivals any Spring Break destination, the northern Baja peninsula offers the budget traveler a perfect weekend getaway.
As an East Coaster looking for a fresh take on a long weekend, I hooked up with California-based friends for a Mexican road trip. After making the flight to San Diego’s Lindbergh Field International Airport, we rented a car and headed south. After sorting out Mexican car insurance (yes, you need it, and can buy it either at the rental car agency or at the “last stop this side of the border” insurance agents), we made an important stop for a couple of gallons of safe-to-drink water and crossed the border. Compared to our return, heading into Mexico was a breeze.
Just south of the Border lies Rosarito Beach, a small, beachfront community that gained some notoriety in the last ten years as the filming location for the movie Titanic. Otherwise, Rosarito’s one main street could be any other Mexican border town, filled with colorful shops and farmacias. Opt for the Los Pelicanos Hotel over the better-known Rosarito Beach Hotel, and you won’t be disappointed. Rooms average about $75 per night during the high season; they are spacious with a “real Mexico” feel, including traditional tile floors and iron wrought and Beachwood decorative touches. Although we didn’t have a clock, phone or air conditioning, we had an excellent view of the beach and a king-sized bed. The hotel has a great restaurant with a dining room and a patio eating area; try the enchiladas and refried beans and enjoy views of the sunset over the beach from a safe distance. Signs warn not to wander the sands at night and should be obeyed. A little observation yields decisive data that the beach is used for unsavory business after dark. However, the beach is well worth exploring during daylight hours.
After an evening in Rosarito, head out early and begin the drive further south to Ensenada. Ensenada is the major town in northern Baja, popular as a stop for cruise ships on their way to Cabo San Lucas. The town sits on a bay, and is surrounded by mountains. It’s easy to reach Ensenada by car from San Diego – just follow the 1D toll road or the parallel public road. Make the drive during the day – other drivers are fast and erratic.