Ensenada isn’t the kind of place you dream of going. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a ton of fun.
I wasn’t expecting a whole lot when I signed on for a cruise with a stop in Ensenada, Mexico. I’ve been across the border from San Diego into Baja a handful of times, and I figured Ensenada would be pretty similar. But I was intrigued and hoped for the best.
Often, I research the ports before setting sail, but I didn’t have a lot of free time leading up to this cruise. I’ve sailed often enough to know that if there’s something worth seeing, you’ll find out about it. I always make a point of attending the shore excursions presentation the cruise staff put on the first day your arrive on board. They tell you all the top activities in each port so you can decide the best ways to spend your days.
Following the Ensenda excursions overview, I still wasn’t convince I’d be able to kill a full day in that city. Boy was I wrong. Here’s how to spend a perfect day in the port of Ensenada.
On this particular cruise, I was traveling with Carnival. Since we were able to dock right in port rather than tender into town, as soon as the captain gave the A-OK, we could walk right off the boat. And so we did. But it felt like we were the only people who were disembarking the ship at that early hour.
When we saw rows of buses waiting on the dock, we realized most cruisers were taking an excursion in Ensenada. Not us. We decided to make our own fun. We just weren’t sure exactly what that would be, and judging by our walk along the pier, we didn’t have very high expectations.
It’s not that it’s bad per se…it’s just not great. When you reach the end of the dock, you make a left and walk a path along the waterfront called Turistico. It was early, so there were next to no people outside or shops open. But random sailors did shout offers at us. I think they wanted to give us a ride on their boats. At least, I’m telling myself that’s what they were offering. You get the picture.
It’s about a 15-minute walk to town from the port. I felt safe, but at the same time, it was obvious we were tourists and had no idea where we were going. Tired of feeling like we had a giant bull’s-eye in the middle of our foreheads, we made a right when we reached what appeared to be the end of Turistico toward what we hoped was the city.
We found ourselves in an alley. People were setting up outdoor shopping stalls and street-side eateries alongside a small fish market. It was unusual and intriguing all at the same time. Still we kept walking, until we hit Federal Highway. We made a right, walked a block or two to the corner of Macheros, and stumbled upon a central area with a tourist information kiosk. And this is where things began to take a turn for the better.
Next time, I would turn a block or two earlier along Turistico, but no matter which street you take, you’ll likely end up at this same tourist center on the corner of Macheros. It’s also where you’ll find the public restroom, which requires a small fee per use. Due to the early hour—about 9 a.m.—there wasn’t anyone working at the kiosk yet. But we found a map on a billboard outside and started planning our course of action.
It was looking bleak at first. But then a man wearing a tour guide badge approached us. He showed us a few different options before pitching us on a tour to La Bufadora. Located about 20 miles from Ensenada in a town called Punta Banda, it’s one of the largest marine geysers in the world. We were familiar with this local attraction. We’d heard all about it at the shore excursion presentation and had written it off as a rip off. But now that we had nothing else to do for the day, we decided to give it a go.
Pro tip: The ship charges nearly $40 for the La Bufadora excursion. The man at the kiosk offered it to us for $20, and I managed to barter down to $15. It was the exact same tour. Payment is in the form of cash only, so be prepared.
We were quickly shepherded onto a small bus, where a man inside was playing live mariachi music on a guitar. After a few minutes, he was replaced by Heberto, who was our guide for the morning. Within 10 minutes of paying our fare, the bus was full, and we were on our way.
As we rolled through the busy Ensenada streets, Heberto pointed out local landmarks, including the Plaza Civica and statues of Mexican heroes. For the next 40 minutes, we wound our way along the Riviera Del Pacifico. Our bus rattled and shook as the winding, narrow roadway rose ever higher, and the cliff’s edge seemed to draw continually nearer to the bus’ wheels. If you’re afraid of heights like I am, it’s a bit daunting, but I simply reminded myself the drivers do this every day. They know these roads well. Besides, it’s a beautiful view.
Finally, Punta Banda was upon us. Heberto walked us through the small community, which is mainly made up of a street market, restaurant, and gas station. Countless people attempted to peddle their wares, shouting flattering comments at the women as we walked by. Heberto pointed out “trusted” merchants, including a silver shop where you can pick up an “authentic” piece of jewelry to commemorate your visit. Some merchants even offered us free samples of churros, sweet breads, roasted nuts, and other local delicacies.
Just before you enter the viewpoint for La Bufodora, there is a restaurant called Habana Banana. Here, you can sample a traditional Mexican margarita free of charge and use the washrooms. They also have free wi-fi. If you’re like me and didn’t spring for Internet minutes on the ship, this is your chance to check in back home and post a few pics on Instagram.
When we finally reached La Bufadora, I was pleasantly surprised. We knew water was going to shoot into the air and didn’t expect anything too fascinating. What we didn’t know was that the surrounding scenery was a sight to behold. At first, we stood back from the spray, being careful not to get wet. But within minutes of hearing others laughing and giggling, we couldn’t help but step into the action.
As we took pictures and videos from every possible angle, salt water rained down upon us. We joined in the laughter and enjoyed the view. In that moment, we knew the $15 we paid for the tour was worth every cent. Wiping water from our cameras, we made our way back to Habana Banana for a quick pit stop and our free drinks.
With 20 minutes to spare, we ventured back through the bustling flea market toward our bus. By now, many other tour groups had arrived, and the street was alive with activity. We stopped in a handful of shops but left empty-handed. I simply didn’t need anymore trinkets and especially not a sombrero. After about an hour and a half in Punta Banda, we were back on the road.
By the time we returned to town, it was just after noon, and we thought our day was done. We couldn’t fathom how we would kill any more time in Ensenada. And then we discovered Primera, or First Street. Leaving the tourist center, you’ll walk straight down Macheros, across the main road, Federal Highway, and up one block. It takes about two minutes, and you can’t miss it. Whether you turn left or right, you’ll be in the heart of the action. We turned left, for the record.
By now, we were getting hungry. And we wanted fresh guacamole, of course. We were leery of eating just anyplace, so we were excited when we recognized someone from our cruise at a sidewalk café (if you can call it that) called Tequila’s Restaurant Bar & Grill on one of the side streets, Miramar. When she confirmed the guac was good, we settled in for a snack.
It’s important to note that service in Ensenada can’t be compared to US standards. A seemingly random man walked over from the street corner to wait on us. We’re still not 100 percent sure he worked there, but we rolled with it. We ordered the fresh salsa and guac with chips and two cans of pop, so we were a bit surprised when he returned with two tequila shots. We politely turned them down, and he proceeded to drink one of them. I made a mental note to check the bill to be sure we weren’t charged for it, but I later learned any self-respecting eatery in the area provides a free tequila shot to every paying guest.
Our salsa arrived immediately, but the guacamole was another story. We waited, and waited, and waited. And it seemed our “server” had disappeared. I joked that perhaps he had gone to buy avocados, which wasn’t so funny when we saw him run back into the bar out of breath and carrying a grocery bag. Miraculously, our guac appeared two minutes later. I guess anything goes in Ensenada!
I’m not the biggest guac fan, but this was the best I’ve ever had. It was tangy and flavorful, and it hit the spot. We enjoyed every last morsel, relaxing in the hot sun for about a half hour and enjoying the sights and sounds of Ensenada. When we were ready to leave, our server was nowhere to be found, so we headed inside to pay our bill. Odd, since I had seen him downing a beer just a few minutes earlier.
Pro tip: Be sure to check that your bill doesn’t include any extras. I inquired about the tequila shot, and the bartender assured me it wasn’t on the bill, which was written in Spanish, so I couldn’t be sure. We later Googled a mystery item, Tecate, to learn it was the beer we’d seen our server drinking. So, I guess the bartender wasn’t lying when she said there wasn’t any tequila on our bill. I never asked about beer. What’s a girl to do? C’est la vie, I suppose.
By now, it was well into the afternoon. We wandered along First Street, which mainly consists of bars and souvenir shops selling the usual trinkets. If you want shot glasses, maracas, or embroidered shirts, you’ll find no shortage of them here. And the shopkeepers are more than happy to guide you inside their stores to barter for their wares. While they will urge you to do business with them, they won’t likely heckle you or chase you down for the sale. If you’re not interested in what they have to offer, a simple shake of the head or a polite “no thank you” will suffice.
There were a handful of unique shops, but for the most part, once you’ve looked in one or two stores, you’ve seen about all there is to see. If there’s something you can’t live without, you’ll likely find it again at the shop next door for half the price. Decide what you want to pay, and then find a shop that will agree to your price.
We walked to the end of the street before crossing over to the other side, heading back in the direction we started from. Rather than making our way straight back toward the tourist center when we hit Macheros, we kept walking along First Street to what seemed like the end of the world. It was here that we found quieter, more upscale boutiques. I even stumbled across a designer pet store, where I purchased a Mexican jacket to go with a tiny sombrero we had found earlier for my five-pound Pomeranian. Don’t judge.
Pro Tip: If you want to avoid the flea-market-style shops, turn right instead of left from Macheros when you first get to First Street from the tourist center. You head straight toward the higher-end stores and restaurants.
After poking around a few shops, we once again crossed to other side of the street to make our way toward our starting point. About a block before Macheros, we made a left onto Alvadaro and found ourselves at a super cute chocolaterie called Maya Cacao. I highly recommend stopping in to buy some vanilla.
Mexico is known for its vanilla, and I always buy some when I’m there. We’d seen plenty of cheap souvenir vanilla along our walk and had thought about buying a bottle. But it wasn’t until we spoke with the staff at Maya Cacao that we were convinced we’d found the real deal. While they sell very expensive bottles of vanilla, they were eager to recommend the brand they use in their own baking, which cost half as much. And they even let us smell it first. Divine, I tell you.
From there, we walked to the end of Alvadaro, turned right onto Federal Highway, and walked back to the tourist center. There was a flea market where we first crossed, and we checked out one or two shops in the area that hadn’t been open yet when we were there prior to our La Bufadora trek hours earlier.
By now, it was after 4 p.m. and time to make our way back to the ship. The pier was bustling with both tourists and locals, basking in the mid-day sun. It was much less sketchy than it had seemed on our walk into town that morning.
All in all, we had an excellent time in Ensenada, despite what we would have believed at first sight. Have you been to Ensenada? Head over to the Wanderlust Wayfarer Facebook group to share your ideas for fun things to do in this Mexican cruise port.