This article is from the June 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
by Robert B. Simmonds, Ph.D.
Bob Simmonds is the publisher of The Mexico File and the brother of David Simmonds, the editor. He is a psychologist in private practice in San Diego and the editor of Emotional Wellness Matters, another newsletter produced by Simmonds Publications.
You can shoot down the freeway from La Jolla to the border in twenty minutes, unless there’s a line at the Mexican auto insurance place at the second exit from the end. And then it’s sure to be more than twenty minutes until you go through the busiest border crossing in the world at San Ysidro. You know you’ve made a big commitment when you’re waved through to Mexico because coming back you’re going to have to wait in a line – maybe half an hour, maybe two hours, maybe longer. It depends on the day – and what it’s like the day you come back. Crossing into Mexico is no problem at all, on the other hand. Before you know it, you’re being swooped along on a curving and primitive freeway in rushing and confused traffic. Just repeat the mantra, “stay to the left, stay to the left.” And if you’re lucky and have stayed to the left, you’ll have no choice but to exit onto the Rosarito/Ensenada cuota. Whew. Look to your left and see third-world squalor built up the sides of Tijuana’s hills and look to your right and see the gleaming skyscrapers of San Diego on the bay some seventeen miles in the distance. And reflect for a moment. That’s how long you’ll have before you have to stop to pay the first $2.95US toll, at the first of three toll booths on the 75-mile drive down to Ensenada. But it’s well worth it (the libre is very slow, to say the least, and it’s not very safe – but you can get some great clay pottery just south of Rosarito Beach if you take the libre…just don’t expect it to last over three years before it starts crumbling.)The scenery on the cuota down to Ensenada has been called some of the best in the world. And if the skies are blue, you’ll agree. Of course, you have to get past the miles and miles of resorts, condos and houses built on the beach and owned mostly by gringos, those who want an affordable taste of beachfront luxury for the weekends and retirement. Stop at the viewpoint called El Mirador about two-thirds of the way down. A few years ago this was just a dirt parking lot off of the main road, but now it’s built up with restaurants, gift shops, picnic tables, bathrooms and viewing patios…and some of the brightest colors you’ve ever seen on the walls of buildings. The view from this lookout point overlooking the ocean and the hills down the coast will send you to spiritual realms. When the whales are migrating in the winter you might be able to catch their spouts out in the ocean. The rest of the drive down to Ensenada is like Big Sur without trees – but with plenty of cactus, geraniums planted in the median, boulders, and views several hundred feet down to the ocean. This is a world-class drive. And then you hit the old, classic speed bumps just before you enter Ensenada proper. These speed bumps, which have been there forever, were kinder to my old Jeep than they were to my new Beetle, which is built very low to the ground (although to have an Andrea Bocelli CD playing eases the experience tremendously – but one wonders whether an Italian tenor sets the proper mood for a weekend in Ensenada). You are now on the harborside Boulevard Costero, which is one of the two main drags that travelers frequent. Make a left-hand turn anywhere along the boulevard, go a block, and you’ll be at Avenida Lopez Mateos, the other main road and the center of commerce for turistas.
The Gentrification of Ensenada
Back in the old days, when I first started going down to Ensenada (we are talking two or three decades now…and we won’t mention my very first trip as a kid which is now four decades!), there was little difference in the tone of Ensenada compared to Tijuana’s Avenida Revolución. You know – the hawkers, the sombreros, the kids selling Chiclets, the ability to bargain, the dust, the excitement, the noise. But now the two cities are a world apart. Ensenada is now gentrified, or in the process anyway. I first started noticing the difference about ten years ago when many shopkeepers refused to bargain and seemed offended that I would even think of such a tactic.
This was my first trip to Ensenada in a couple of years and I was surprised by the upgrade. Avenida Lopez Mateos has now been narrowed drastically and the sidewalks widened. Trees have been planted on the sidewalks and most of the restaurants have seating out front. There are fewer cars on the street, which creates a quieter and more refined feel. The shops, some of which are elegant, carry Lladros from Spain (the prices aren’t much lower than in the States, but you don’t pay duty in Baja), perfumes from France, clothes from anywhere in the world. Many shops sell authentic Indian crafts…pottery, baskets, leather, paintings, etc., and we’re not talking the cheap stuff. These are handcrafted goods created by artisans. And there is Taxco silver and Talavera pottery. Prices in Ensenada tend to be high, but the selections are amazing. (If you want real bargains, they are available in Ensenada – but you have to walk a couple of blocks inland out of the tourist area.)
A Tale of Two Cities
And why have the two cities, Ensenada and Tijuana, drifted so far apart in their ambience? Blame it on the Love Boats. Everyday, in the morning, the cruise ships from major West Coast cities dump off their load of passengers to spend the day in Ensenada. And busloads of Japanese tourists come in daily as well from north of the border. These people come loaded with dough and they’re ready to spend it. So Ensenada grows wealthier, the shops are upgraded, and Tijuana, which relies on one-day border crossers and teenagers looking for alcohol, limps along (although this, admittedly, is slowly changing also with the recent rise of industry in Tijuana). Besides, Ensenada has four universities, not bad for a city of about 200,000 (of which about 30,000 are gringos), not to mention a deepwater harbor which berths a large fishing industry. With its Mediterranean climate and underground supplies of water, the farmlands around Ensenada grow olives and grapes and there are several good wineries located near Ensenada. There is a plantation about 30 miles northeast of Ensenada near Guadalupe with over 120,000 olive trees. The Oliveres Mexicanos plantation is the world’s single largest producer of olives.
The Blare of the Disco
Our first night in Ensenada colored the rest of the trip, and not in a very good way. There’s no better trip-killer than a sleepless first night. Cheryl and I checked into Villa Fontana, which is actually a Days Inn, and were initially quite excited about it. It’s on the main tourist street, and we wanted a balcony room overlooking the street. What better way to enjoy the sights and sounds of Ensenada? Maybe it was the cockroaches crawling all over the counter in the bathroom or the fact that the toilet paper slipped off the spool which gave us the first hints of trouble. But our mood was good and forgiving initially. What we didn’t know was that Friday night is cruise night on Avenida Lopez Mateos. From 9:00 until midnight there was a steady stream of cars, some with full-sized speakers blaring from open car trunks, inching along a few feet below our balcony. The occupants of these cars were drinking and looking for fun – much like a Happy Days scene in fifties and sixties America. All right, not so bad, and we were expecting to enjoy the local color. But then around midnight the disco right across the street, Sam’s Bar, started blaring disco music in English from speakers which seemed aimed right at our room. Boom boom bah boom. The windows rattled with every boom and our peaceful hotel room was transformed into a teenaged dance hall. This went on until 3:30 in the morning. Boom boom boom. We shoulda spent the night in Hussong’s!
(To be fair to the management of Villa Fontana, when I complained the next morning about the disco music, I was told that I could have gone down to the front desk and requested a quieter room in the back. But I wasn’t inclined to dress and pack up again at that time of the night and I kept hoping the music would end soon. Besides, they should have told us this when we first checked in)
Everyone has their favorite Hussong’s story. This ramshackle bar, established by a German immigrant, Johan Hussong, in 1892, has barely changed in over a hundred years, except now they have electricity. The local legends say that it’s been a favorite partyhole for the likes of Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. Other legends say that Ensenada is a city “built around a bar,” and this bar is Hussong’s. The walls are loaded with heads of animals and photographs of partying groups from over the years. Hussong’s Cantina is the embodiment of the classical expatriate hangout. Mariachi bands go from table to table looking for takers, and they do well. In Hussong’s you sit, you drink, you talk, and you come close to finding the meaning of life, at least for the night. I’m not a drinker, but in Hussong’s I drink without compunction. It’s a time and place apart from the ordinary. They say that their margaritas are the best in Ensenada, but I always drink Brandy Fundadors when I’m in Hussong’s. After about four of them I become John Steinbeck. If you plan to do Hussong’s for the night, get there in the late afternoon if you want a table. Before long you’ll find yourself talking to a variety of different sorts of people, all of them interesting, and moving all over the bar to do so. Unless they come to you – and they will.
As for favorite Hussong’s stories…. My friend Mark told me about the time he was in there and a Mexican fugitive came running through the bar out to the back parking lot with police shooting at him – through the bar! Something of a cross between the Keystone Cops and Rambo. And I think my favorite Hussong’s story, and this was several years ago, involves a blonde woman named Evelyn from El Centro, California, who I ended up talking to at the bar for eight hours straight. We talked about life on a deep level the entire time and I don’t think I’ve ever felt closer to anyone in my life. And at the end of it she left with her boyfriend who had been there, somewhere, the whole night. I meant to write to her but never did.
But now the times are different. Although Hussong’s itself has not changed at all, the shops surrounding it all seem to be outlets for Hussong’s t-shirts, mugs, and other souvenir items. The sleepy bar enters the era of the next millennium. But if you spend an evening in Hussong’s, you too will want a Hussong’s t-shirt – something tangible to remind you later of the magic.
“It Takes the Sting Out of Being Occupied”
You wouldn’t expect this at all, but Ensenada claims one of the best French restaurants in the Western hemisphere. El Rey Sol (#1000 Avenida Lopez Mateos) was founded on May 23, 1947, by Virginia Geffron de Bitterlin (or Do a Pepita). She was born in Santa Rosalía on the Sea of Cortez and studied for sixteen years at the Cordón Bleu School of Cooking in France. What started as a small restaurant with ten seats now seats 240 in subdued luxury, and much of the food is grown or raised on the family farm in Santo Tomás near Ensenada. Do a Pepita died in 1989, and the restaurant is now run by her son, Jean-Loup Bitterlin.
If you go, and you should, chat a bit with the maitre d’, Daniel Angeles Martinez. He set us up with a perfect corner table which had a good view of the entire restaurant and the piano player who did the standard mid-century numbers like “La Vie en Rose” and “As Time Goes By.” Two excellent choices on the menu are the Coquilles St. Jacques (so good these scallops are to die for…but then Ensenada is a seaport town) and the Chicken with Prunes and Port Wine Sauce. And get the plate of appetizers with potatoes in a mustard-egg sauce, marinated tuna, stuffed prunes and stuffed celery. Their bread is out-of-this-world good. Granted, the white zinfandel was just a bit too sweet and the flan was just average, but you’ll enjoy the experience of formal dining in a large and elegant dining room with impeccable service. Although El Rey Sol is classified as “expensive,” we got out of there, the two of us, for $42.90US total. And don’t forget to go back the next morning for breakfast where you’ll be wow’ed by the pastries.
The first cuttings of grape vines were brought to Mexico from Spain in the early sixteenth century by Hernán Cortés. The first winery in Mexico was founded in the state of Coahuila by Jesuit missionaries in 1597, and the grapes eventually migrated north to the valleys of Baja California, the most favorable wine-producing regions in Mexico. (And eventually, of course, the vines traveled even further up to the present wine-producing regions of northern California.) The first winery in Baja was started in 1791 by Padre José Lorieto about thirty miles south of Ensenada, and this was the Misión Santo Tomás de Aquino. The wines were used for the church. When the mission was secularized in 1888, an Italian immigrant founded Bodegas (Warehouses) de Santo Tomás, and operations were moved to Ensenada in 1939 by its subsequent owner, Abelardo Lujan Rodriguez, after he had served a term as Mexico’s president. Today Mexico’s wines from the region around Ensenada are achieving competitive recognition in comparison with European, Californian, South African, Australian and Chilean wines.
From Avenida Lopez Mateos turn inland on Avenida Macheros for about three or four blocks and you’ll come to Bodegas de Santo Tomás. Tours of the warehouses are $2.00US for the regular tour and $5.00 for the premium tour, which includes a free wine glass. The fields produce 14 different kinds of grapes in the Guadalupe Valley and the winery produces 18 different wines. They now export all over the world and because of the duty find it cheaper to export their wines to Europe than the U.S. The wines of Santo Tomás are available in the U.S. now only in New York and Chicago. Marco, our winery tourguide, took us underground to the cellars where we saw racks of champagne bottles which are turned by hand three times a day for one and one-half years. After the tour, help yourself to all the wine you can drink, along with bread and cheese. Ensenada has five other wineries, but none as established as Santo Tomás, and tours can be arranged by calling them beforehand.
Jack Dempsey’s Gambling Casino
In 1929 the Playa Ensenada Hotel and Casino was opened by Jack Dempsey and his financial backers (one of whom, or so legend has it, was Al Capone). The entertainment for the opening night gala was Bing Crosby backed by the Xavier Cugat Orchestra. One of the singers was a Baja native, Margarita Carmen Cansino – who later changed her name to Rita Hayworth. The casino/hotel thrived for a few years until Prohibition was repealed in the U.S. in 1933, and that drastically reduced the appeal of a trip across the border down Mexico way for a drinking and gambling weekend – not to mention the depression economy. The establishment closed shortly thereafter and fell into disrepair. In 1977 the city took over the operation of this building and restored it. Now it’s the Social, Civic and Cultural Center of Ensenada (or the Cultural Center for short). The building is hired out for public events and conventions, as well as weddings and private parties.
It would be well worth your time to spend a couple of hours at the Cultural Center, which is located on Avenida Costero at the corner of Avenida Riviera. For $1.00US you can take a tour of the Natural History Museum located at the north end of the building where you can see a small (six-room), but very impressive, display of artifacts of Amerindian cultures which date back to the San Diegito Culture of 10,500 to 8,500 years ago. Many examples of primitive rock art from the Baja peninsula have also been recreated in this museum. The second floor of this museum is devoted to displays of the routes of the European explorers and the life of the Catholic missionaries. On the ground floor, adjacent to the museum, is a library which is open from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Most impressive of all, however, is a walk through the restored mission-style building and its grounds. A hand-painted sign in the main hallway lists several of the visitors to the old hotel/casino in the 1930’s – Dolores Del Rio, Marian Davies, William Randolph Hearst, Merle Oberon, Lupe Velez, Johnny Weismuller, Myrna Loy, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Lana Turner, Ali Khan, Gene Tierney. The gardens are beautiful with numerous fountains and rose gardens. This is a place of tranquility.
The Fish Market
Ensenada is a major fishing and fish-processing center, the largest seaport on the Baja Peninsula. And you can take advantage of it by visiting the fish market. If you’re camping or have cooking facilities, this is the place to load up on fresh fish. Vendors hawk shelves of their specialties, which is probably the largest display of fish you’ll ever see. I noticed that large shrimp sold for $11.00US per kilo. And if you just want to buy a fish dinner or snack, the market itself is surrounded by stalls where you can sit, relax and enjoy good food. If you have never tried a fish taco, this is the place in Mexico to do it – and then you’ll want two or three more. (My brother’s friend, Ralph Rubio, got the idea of selling fish tacos in the U.S. from Baja…and this resulted in Rubio’s Restaurants, Inc., which has been extremely successful in San Diego, recently went public and is expanding now to other states.) Personally, I prefer the oyster cocktails (cocteles de ostione), which seem, for me, to set the right mood for a few days in Mexico. You can also try the cocteles de almejas (clams), camarón (shrimp), or abulón (abalone). The oyster cocktails are served in a large plastic glass with one of those white plastic spoons, and the large size (with a dozen oysters included) sells for about $4.00 or $5.00US. The recipe for these cocktails is simple…dump in the fish, the juice from the shellfish, chopped onions, chopped tomatoes, plenty of chopped cilantro, a dash of pepper sauce, and a squirt of lime juice…and they are oh so good. I head straight for the oyster cocktail stands first thing when I arrive in Ensenada.
These days you have to search for the fish market, unlike in the old days when it was clearly visible to the right just as you entered Ensenada on Boulevard Costero. A few years ago they built a huge Plaza Marina in front of the fish market (or Mercado de Mariscos), a three story modern edifice with spaces for shops. And that is precisely what it remains – but there’s hardly an open shop in the building. An exception is Sanborn’s Café, which is located on the ground floor and serves moderately priced dinners. To get to the fish market, just walk behind the Plaza Marina.
A nice afternoon sidetrip from Ensenada is a 16-mile drive south of the city along Mexico 1 and BCN 23 (the turnoff from Mexico 1 is just north of the village of Maneadero, where you turn right onto BCN 23). On the drive down along Mexico 1 you will see several stands along the road selling tamales and jars of olives. You’ll be happy if you stop, as will the vendors. The tamales are authentic and come in several varieties – beef, chicken, corn and pineapple. And at most of these stands you’ll also see jars and jars of green olives which are grown nearby…and they are a very good bargain, freshly cured and tasty. On the way down, you might also want to stop in at the Estero Beach Resort Hotel located on Bahia de Todos Santos. This old resort has been recently refurbished and has full RV sites. RV’ers have full use of the resort’s tennis courts, clubhouse and boat ramp. It is interesting to see miles of farmland, fed by underground reservoirs, in this otherwise dry part of the Baja Peninsula.
At the southern end of Bahia de Todos Santos is a rocky peninsula called Punta Banda. It is largely unpopulated except for a few campgrounds and the Baja Beach and Tennis Club. There are many trails just off the road which are excellent for hiking and spectacular views. And at the end of the road you will find La Bufadora (or the Blowhole). It’s like a natural carburetor. Waves come rushing into a cavern, churn around and then a spout of water comes spewing out from a hole in the top of the cavern. The fun part of this is to get close (immersing yourself in the crowd around you) and then, when a really good wave comes along and a 30-foot spew comes rushing out, everyone will scream and laugh and run for safety and then console themselves in their shared danger. It’s better than the Shamu show at Sea World. Now that La Bufadora has been upgraded with restrooms, electricity and a parking lot (pay about a buck a car), the stands lining the road are turning into regular restaurants.
On your drive back north from Ensenada to the border, you should stop at La Fonda, especially if you’re driving back on a Sunday before 3:00 p.m. so that you can try their brunch. Take La Mision/Alisitos exit from the toll road and you will drive south a short distance to La Fonda Hotel. This is an old hotel, popular in the 1930’s and 1940’s, with spectacular grounds and ocean views from the cliff. It is an old hangout for Lana Turner, Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth and other movie stars. Brunch (and dinners) are served on an outdoor patio overlooking the best beaches between Tijuana and Ensenada with palapa umbrellas over each table. For $10.95US a person you will get a full brunch served cafeteria style. You might want to try the huevos rancheros and the quail, which is perfect preparation for the impending wait to cross the border. And to come home, and back to reality, again.
A Little Luxury in EnsenadaEnsenada now has full marina and resort facilities at the Hotel Coral and Marina. A couple of years ago we took advantage of a weekend package they were offering ($220 for the weekday package and $280 for the weekend package, which includes two nights in a junior deluxe suite, one dinner per person and a one-half hour massage or facial per person). This facility offers international-class accommodations, a marina and a European-style spa. There are heated indoor and outdoor pools with poolside bars, jacuzzis, steamrooms, saunas, and complete massage packages available. The hotel also has a nightclub with dancing, a fine restaurant, lobby bars, lighted tennis courts, and a dive shop. The Hotel Coral represents what we might imagine the future of Ensenada to be, and it’s a fine start. To make reservations, call 800-6-3100 in Mexico and 800-862-9020 from the U.S., and when you get to Ensenada, take the “Ensenada Centro” exit off of the toll road and head toward the high rise.
Where to Stay in EnsenadaEnsenada’s hotel prices are fairly expensive, especially in comparison to similar room in mainland Mexico – and, for the most part, there is nothing special about any of them. Nonetheless, here are some we can recommend.