Posted by: patriciamar | June 27, 2016

Ensenada, Mexico: Where to Go and Where to Drink Beer

Ensenada is a gem. It’s sort of a Spanglish gem.  I’m not sure if you knew, or if many people know. 
No, that can’t be true.  There’s a smattering of wooden houses and Swiss-like houses that clearly demonstrates that at least a few foreigners discovered Ensenada and then decided to settle down there long ago.  One of the first spots for cheap retirement?  A mere two hours from the border by bus, Ensenada is a great place to get a little Mexico without a flight (West coasters, at least) and without too many border issues, particularly if you’re going for less than a week.

The main part of Ensenada surrounds the harbor, where a couple hundred cruise ships stop every year.  I thought there would be more of an onslaught of tourists streaming from the ship, and there was a bit of an influx every once in a while, but overall, far fewer day tourists raged the city than I thought.

The downtown is centered around Calle Primera and the Boulevard.  You can also walk along the Embarcadero (the boardwalk) and just check out the harbor.  For leaving downtown (in the inland direction), Calle Ruiz and Gastelum are good options with plenty of possibilities for food.

Calle diez (10) is another interesting street.  A lovely day might include starting at Cafe au lait for coffee (Gastelum), where there is an amazing roof deck for sipping coffee and eating some crazy kind of crepe cake, and good wifi.  Actually, in general, the wifi in Ensenada is amazing (6/2016).  Almost every cafe, bar and restaurant has wifi and many have the password posted.  Back to Cafe au lait–  After your coffee and a nice long sit and read, you could head just up Gastelum to El Pinche Frances, a great outdoor vivero (nursery) where they serve delicious crepes and fries from a permanent truck in a garden.  Alternatively you could walk over to the nearby food collective (Area 86).  There’s not a ton of Mexican food there, but seafood pasta, beer and things like Sushipotle (?? 🙂 ??)

A quick introduction to the bus system.  There are many local buses, there is no real schedule, and there is a very detailed price schedule that, from what we could tell, is essentially ignored.  To go pretty much anywhere, we paid 10 pesos ($.80, change can be given– I even saw a Mexican uni student get change for a 500 peso bill.  Wow!   I would not recommend).

The main areas of Ensenada are, starting from the south – The Bufadora, a point where water sprays up really high on the rocks.  People eat this up–lap it up–with their photos and videos.  I’m not exactly sure of the appeal.  It isn’t really my style of tourist attraction.  Playa Hermosa then downtown, passing by the Hotel Riviera (more info further on down), downtown, then el cerro de …I can’t remember right now (A cerro is a big hill).  On the coastal side of this hill there are a couple of nice hotels, but not too much that we found, to be honest; on the inland side of the hill is La Moderna (a large, slightly older, city neighborhood).  Buses were consistently 10 pesos from downtown to La Moderna, or from La Moderna to Sauzal

(Taxis varied, from 30-80 pesos), though 40-50 pesos is reasonable for a tourist, depending on the time of day.

After the Moderna neighborhood is the area around the university (Universidad Autonoma) and Sauzal, a different town.  In Sauzal, the coastal Highway (Hwy 1) hits Carreterra 3 (Hwy 3), important because it leads you to Valle de Guadalupe and La Ruta de Vino (the wine trail).

To sum up: The layout of the region from north to south:

  • Sauzal
  • The university
  • La Moderna
  • The cerro
  • downtown
  • the hotel Riveria
  • Playa Hermosa
  • and the Bufadora further down

Now let’s chat about Valle de Guadalupe, a beautiful wine area just inland and a little north from Ensenada.  Many take tours there, rent cars, drive their own cars, Uber (si, se puede), or a taxi.  We took a micro, a mini bus that can get you there in about an hour for 25 pesos (US$1.50).

Once on the micro, there are several options, heading from downtown out towards the Valle.  First is San Antonio.  This town is not quite as far out (maybe a half hour bus ride), but is surrounded by wineries/vineyards and chock full of restaurants.  We didn’t stop there because we didn’t have time, but I would recommend it, especially if you’re interested in a somewhat quicker trip out of town or a cheaper taxi/uber ride.

The bus continues on to Guadalupe (you’ll hit the river and cross it).  You could get off immediately and find your way down the Calle Principal, or stay on the bus as it meanders through town, eventually coming back to the Calle Principal.  There are several tasting rooms/colectivos (wine collectives) on this street, as well well as some beautiful looking winery tasing rooms on the way out of town.  Some are free (Sol), some charge.  If you are interested in the full winery experience, you should continue through the town, either on the bus or on foot.

Monte Xanic was amazing, reasonably priced (consider Napa/Sonoma), and had very good wine.  The whites in particular were very nice. The soil is interesting, and you could truly see the minerals in the white wines. You can taste for a fee and buy bottles for drinking there, or to go.  The tasting room staff is very knowledgeable, and bilingual. If you are interested in practicing Spanish with wine vocabulary, it was a great place to do so.  As for the drinking environment, the view of the vineyards and their private pond, complete with rowboats, was fantastic.  I could have stayed there all day.

If walking or driving, there is a closed gate at the entrance to the vineyard. Simply check in with the security guard and give your name–no reservations required. It’s a long-ish but beautiful walk up to the pond and tasting room on the hill overlooking the valle. I would highly recommend for those interested in a little build up.

By the way, trips to Valle de Guadalupe should really be done Friday, Saturday or Sunday. We went Thursday and some places were open, but less than half for sure. Check on hours before you go if you plan to go mid-week.

If, at the town of Guadalupe, you choose not to get off the bus, it will continue on to Porvenir, another town with wineries, restaurants, and tasting rooms. It would be fun to try to hit all three of these towns (San Antonio, Guadalupe, & Porvenir-also called Guadalupe on Google Maps), but time did not allow.

monte xanic views.jpg

The views from the tasting room at Monte Xanic, Ensenada, Mexico

If you’re interested in wine and an all-out weekend experience, you could do all three, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and probably have one hell of a time.

Campestres (open-air dining experience, locally grown food) also spot the area and look very delicious, although were on the more expensive end of our taste.

 

El Ex-hotel Riviera
What a sad name for such an amazing place.  This hotel had its hey-day around the 30s and is beautiful, in good condition, and frequently used for quinceañeras, weddings and parties.  There is a little museo (museum) that is cheap (25 pesos) and interesting.  It provides a basic introduction to the geographical region, the indigenous peoples of the area, and some of development history (missionaries, explorers).  For me, the maps were really interesting.  After finishing your half-hour or hour in the museum, definitely head over to the main entrance.

Wait!  Did you see both of the peep holes that look down into the room that used to be a casino?  Very cool.  It’d be a bent-back but intriguing job.

At the main entrance, facing the hotel, on your right will be the plaza/garden, where beer fests and such are held.  Fun!  Before heading to the ornate wood bar where they serve wine, margaritas, and beer with your peanuts, take a walk around the inside of the building.  We were alone and spent 20 minutes wandering through the various salons, including the main hall for dances and the ex-casino. See you if you can spot the peepholes from within.

At the bar, margaritas are big, good, and very inexpensive (45 pesos).  I love this sort of old wooden bar with an expert barman willing to chat the afternoon away.  If you prefer, he will leave you to your devices–staring around at the old posters of Cuba, Marilyn Monroe and the good ‘ole days of Baja.

A note for those interested–when you leave the Hotel Riviera, you will be looking towards the bay, straining to see it because of a huge monstrosity of an interactive Museum (el caracol – the snail).  This is apparently not finished, nor might it ever be.  Certain locals feel strongly about how this “new idea” has destroyed the view of and from the lovable Hotel Riviera.

It’s probably time for a beer, and there is plenty of it in Ensenada.  Mexican national cerveza is inexpensive, fresh and great for warm days and with tacos and seafood tostadas.

fish taco

Fish tacos.  Yumzers.

The ceviche in Ensenada is different from that I had in other parts of  Mexico.  Here it is blended to a sort of  slush.  In other parts of Mexico, it was small chunks of fish, tomato, onion, peppers, etc.  (I have since gleaned that the latter is Sinaloa style ceviche).  Both are delicious.  Both can be de pescado (fish- normal style), camaron (shrimp), pulpo (octopus), mixto (all).  There may also be other possibilities.  The opportunities to eat delicious, fresh seafood in Ensenada are endless.   Other things to try include almeja (clam), erizo (sea urchin), cocteles de camaron, (shrimp cocktails–not the American kind), and OSTIONES! (Oysters! the love of my life).

To digress, one of our very loveliest evenings was at La Manzanilla, a really nice and very well-known restaurant run by a mustachioed chef and wife duo.  It’s a little tricky to find because it’s on a street heading down toward the docks that has just one entrance before you are stopped by port security.  There is a beautiful wooden bar with a giant blue octopus painted in the center.  The pink-tinted chandeliers create the perfect ambiance for a dozen or so oysters, a bottle of white wine (Sauv Blanc- a pretty nice wine list, not that I can really tell- with prices between $20 and más), and a later tiradito (yummalicious thinly sliced raw fish with soy sauce and chile and seasonings of all delicious sorts.) oysters

The menu looked amazing, but we are very committed to just an abundance of raw oysters with lime and mignonette.

Back to the beer.  There are many national options, however, due to the proximity of the town of Tecate, both Tecate and Tecate Light are quite popular and found almost everywhere.  Modelo is shockingly absent in many places.  I’d recommend XX (dos equis), Indio, or Tecate.

Now, on to the microbrews.

Yaaaay, Ensenada had so many good brews!  The best was clearly Wendtland, a microbrewery that is located on the Boulevard, open ’til midnight, closed Monday and Tuesday, and worth basically a stop every night.  The bar staff is great and they clearly know beer and life 🙂  They have a nice, albeit small, variety of other Mexican microbrews and a few U.S./Euro beers.  I suggest ignoring all of these and drinking Wendtland stuff.  They have 7 or 8 taps and a couple of collaborations, all worth trying.  Prices are good.  Food is good (tiradito, wings).  Really, you’re missing something awesome if you like beer and don’t stop here.

Fyi, the brewery is over in Sauzal.  Apparently it is possible to get a beer there, but after quite an adventure getting there and some time spent wandering down the side of the dusty highway and then meandering through some very fishy (smelling) warehouses, it was closed, and didn’t really seem like a location to frequent.  I’d stick to the downtown location.

However, on your way back downtown from Sauzal (bus or taxi, a little far for walking), there are a couple more great spots.  A new beer collective (Baja Brews) is on the ocean on the way back towards the Centro.  There are currently 7 breweries and four more in the works.  I’ll try to remember them all and list them, but for now, I can recall El chivo gruñon (The Grumpy Goat), and Old Mission Brewery.

baja brews.jpg

Outdoor seating at Baja Brews, Ensenada, B.C.

There is also a stall for Le Pinche Frances, which serves papas (potatoes with herbs), calamari, croquette, crepes, etc.  A burger stall was under construction while we were there.

While enjoying one of many brews or a bite, you can sit inside the hall, or you can head outside for an ocean view facing the south side of the bay and a soundtrack of really thundering waves.  This place was great and a revolutionary idea for small breweries that want a central location but less overhead.

Next, easily within walking distance, is Agua Mala.  This is going to seem repetitive, but I have to do it.  Good brews, good bites, amazing ocean view.  Friendly, knowledgeable staff (for those who need it, they also had notably excellent English language skills at Agua Mala).

(There is one more craft beer bar, 4 20s, but we weren’t able to go.  Locals say it’s nice, with good beers.  There is a nice outside area.  It’s closer to Sauzal and on the interior side of the highway.)

 

Well, I may have reached the end of my personal description of what to do in Ensenada for a week. Oh, dear.  I haven’t said a word about Hussong’s!  Perhaps another day.

There are so many things to do in Ensenada- places to see, fish to eat, wine country to explore, deep sea fishing trips to take, harbor tours to embark on, ocean geysers to be splashed by, hikes to take, races to watch, Spanish to study…

Buuuut, after a long quarter of work and grading,  I admit we mostly just slept in and ate, fish tacos, so much pulpo, so many ostoniones, ceviche, tacos de asada,  tamales, cocteles de camaron, you get the picture.  Then we would head out walking around the centro, looking either for our next bite, or for a microbrew from one of Ensenada’s various microbreweries.  Sigh.  It was a lovely week in the breeze, in fact.

 

Comments and questions welcome! Have fun in Ensenada!

 

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