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Thursday, 19 October 2006

Fajitas & Rita's: A Long Weekend in Baja

Written by Elizabeth Hooper
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beachFar 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.

ImageJust 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.

The Best Value Inn Posada El Rey Sol Hotel is an excellent choice; rooms’ run around $80 and the hotel is centrally located just off the main avenida. hotel The rooms are comfortable, and have free high-speed Internet access and a great little pool area. Ensenada is not a town to spend a lot of time in the hotel – prepare to head out and explore. Make time for a meal at the El Rey Sol Restaurant – upscale but not overpriced. The lime chicken dish from the “light” section was delicious, and very reasonably priced.

Legend has it that the first Margarita was mixed in Ensenada. Hussong’s Cantina was established in 1892 and the place hasn’t been updated much since then. With a long bar to slide beer down and wood shavings on the floor, the only modern touch is two large flat screen TVs playing sports and reality television at intervals. At 11 o’clock on a Friday morning, you’ll find the place quiet but just about any other time it’s packed to the gills with both locals and Americans. Try the Margarita on the rocks, with a touch of salt and experience the drink’s true origins. Then head out and explore the Margarita landscape of Ensenada – you can get them flavored, frozen, traditional Mexican style with Controy and lime, or sugary with mix from a bottle. Best of all, they are plentiful and cheap – some as inexpensive as $2.50 a glass.

The nightlife here is vibrant and varied. Every other building seems to be a bar (interspersed strategically with tourist souvenir shops). The drinks are plentiful, variable in quality, but inexpensive. A few locations, such as Papas and Beer, offer music and dancing after dark. The street culture comes alive at night as well – the number of panhandlers and peddlers doubles and they can be very aggressive.

Ensenada is probably most famous for its fish tacos. Guidebooks, locals, and anyone you meet who has ever visited Baja will confirm this. The best place to have a taco is at the local fish market, located down by the docks. Ask for directions, or just follow your nose. One side of the market is open-air stalls selling whole, fresh fish, including exotic specimens such as barracuda. I don’t recommend visiting this before stopping at one of the little cafes on the other side, however, as the sights and smells can turn your appetite. The fish for tacos is breaded and deep fried – traditional presentation is with mayo, chopped cabbage and a little hot sauce served in a flour tortilla. For those who are not pescado aficionados, try beef tacos instead – the meat is seasoned and tender. Plan to have a feast – each taco will run about a

Another must-try restaurant is hidden gem Bronco’s Steakhouse. Although it’s off the beaten track, it’s a five-minute walk from the downtown and the food and service are outstanding. The prices are also reasonable. Try the butterflied steak with avocado, cheese and red sauce and save room for dessert. The flan is rich and stands on its own as a real treat.

Spa services are also inexpensive, and located periodically along the streets. If you’re in the mood to indulge, I recommend Essence Spa. One of the most relaxing deep tissue massages I’ve ever had, for a full hour, ran just $60.00 including tip. They offered a range of other services including manicures and facials at bargain prices.

It really is possible to eat and drink your way through Ensenada. When you’re appropriately rested, fed, and pampered, set off to explore. Baja is known for its wine country and wine tours. The easiest winery to reach is the Bodegas de Santo Tomas Winery, located in downtown Ensenada. Established in the 1880s by Dominican monks, the winery has a tasting room and short tour available for ten dollars US. Although the tour is interesting, it’s very short and the highlight is the tasting where several reds and whites are featured and free flowing. Ask the guide to tell you a bit more about the winery’s history and allow you to taste the almond and vanilla liqueurs which are sweet and unique.

The most popular day trip is an hour south of Ensenada, to Baja’s famous “blowhole” La Bufadora, which shoots a geyser-like spray 60 feet into the air. La Bufadora itself has limited appeal, but the drive along the coast itself is beautiful and takes you into ruddy agricultural terrain reminiscent of Italy. When approaching the attraction, wander through a market of curio shops featuring everything from discount drugs to locally tooled leather jackets. Try the churros, decadent and deep-fried doughy confections.

A quick word of warning: some of the best beaches in the area are supposed to be located on the drive between Ensenada and La Bufadora. If you’re planning to hit the beach, use the public ones. Hotels along the way charge entry fees and the beaches are tiny, crowded, and side-by-side with the free ones (which are bigger and sandier).

Plan plenty of time to cross at the border at Tijuana. Mid-afternoon on a Sunday the wait was about 2 ½ hours. Have your passports ready, and enjoy the impromptu market for everything from giant plastic Winnie the Poohs to churros and Mexican blankets that have sprung up around the lines of waiting cars. Baja is perfect for a weekend destination for the budget traveler seeking good food and vibrant culture.


Los Pelicanos Hotel, Rosarito Beach – Tel: 011-52-661.20445

Best Value Inn El Rey Sol Hotel, Avenida Blancarte 130, Ensenada 22800 -

Tel: 011-52-646-178-1601

Hussong’s Cantina - Avenida Ruiz

Bronco’s Steakhouse - Av. Lopez Mateos 1525 ESQ. Con Guadalupe Ensenada BC -
Tel: 011-52-646-176-49-00

Bodegas De Santo Tomas Winery - Ave. Miramar #666, Ensenada. Tel: 11- 52-646-178-0836

©Elizabeth Hooper

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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