Port Guide: Ensenada

Although some deride Ensenada as a "nothing to see" port, knowledgeable cruise passengers can find plenty to occupy their time in this Mexican destination.

Mexican Flag
Just 70 miles south of the border in Baja California, Ensenada enjoys a temperate, Mediterranean-style climate. Most cruise tourists arrive on the three- and four-night sailings offered by Royal Caribbean's Monarch of the Seas and Carnival's Ecstasy and soon-to-arrive Paradise. Other cruisers may visit Ensenada for the required Jones Act stop when traveling to or from Hawaii.

Your ship will dock at the recently constructed Ensenada port terminal, which has two berths. Each pier boasts its own market village, where visitors can buy Mexican trinkets, liquor and other items. Even if you plan on staying by the ship's pool all day, do make the effort to stop at the market village to browse through the offerings there.

Passengers who want to travel into town will normally board shuttle vans. Expect to pay $2 for the five-minute ride (a good value, and a way to keep your feet fresh for walking about). During the ride, the guide will tout the first of the sights you may wish to see – La Bufadora.

La Bufadora

Located about 20 miles outside Ensenada, La Bufadora or the "Blow Hole" is a natural water spout that rises from the Pacific Ocean as it hits the rugged coastline. Several small restaurants are also found in this area, as well as a three-block flea market. This is a great stop if you are looking for something to do for about two to three hours. The shuttle van – after dropping other passengers in town – will take you out to La Bufadora for $13 per person. A much better value than the ship-sponsored excursions, the van shuttles are only surpassed in value by taking a cab, but only if you are a party of four or more. Be advised that the restrooms at La Bufadora charge 50 cents for the use of the facilities.

Shuttle Van
If you choose to explore downtown Ensenada, the shuttle van will drop you on a side street about one block from the main avenue, Lopez Mateos. Take the easy walk to this primary shopping and restaurant area, and you will find a bevy of stores and eateries. The City of Ensenada in recent years made a concerted effort to improve the appearance of its primary shopping area, with red-stamped concrete sidewalks, benches for weary travelers, trees and trash cans. Many restaurants along the thoroughfare have covered outdoor dining areas where one can nosh and drink watching the passers-by – a fun activity when your feet can't take another step.

Expect to see the occasional child offering you trinkets and candy for sale. A simple "no gracias" and a smile will usually allow you to pass. The City of Ensenada is encouraging tourists not to support pre-teen labor, with signs posted in many stores advising visitors that by purchasing items they are encouraging child exploitation.

Lopez Mateos
The legitimate shops that line Lopez Mateos offer shoppers many temptations, including leather clothing, purses, stained glass, onyx figurines and more. Many cruisers visit the local pharmacies to take advantage of low-priced antibiotics and other drugs. Be advised that customs does require a valid prescription for any medicines purchased south of the border. Those who wish to stock their liquor cabinets back home will find exceptional prices on Mexican brandy and Kahlua (usually about $7.95 a bottle). Cigarettes also run about $13 to $15 a carton, but Marlboros are about the only brand you will find. (In nearly all cases, most prices will be displayed in U.S. dollars; if they are listed in pesos, divide by 10 to get the price in American currency.)

A favorite stop for dog lovers in Ensenada is Cleopatro on the northern end of Lopez Mateos, on the west side. This small store sells custom outfits to dress your pooch to the nines. Funds from the sales benefit a program to rescue street dogs in Mexico, neuter them, and offer them up for adoption. In fact, the pooch from which the store derives its name was one of these lucky canines.

El Rey Del Sol
When your own dogs cannot take another minute of walking, you may want to suck up some local color at one of Ensenada's restaurants or cantinas. For five-star dining, nothing can beat El Rey Del Sol on the southern end of Lopez Mateos. The restaurant's subdued, elegant atmosphere is only surpassed by the fabulous service. For a less formal atmosphere, El Cid restaurant at El Cid Hotel is a popular stopping point for tourists. No matter how adventurous you are, don't buy food from the many street vendors, who do not have the benefit of refrigeration and the like. Leave these to the locals.

For liquid refreshment, many visitors make a beeline to Hussongs Cantina, at 113 Ruiz Avenue off Lopez Mateos. This venerable watering hole – with its hay on the floor – has been attracting imbibers since the 1800s. A newer cantina, but no less raucous, is the well-known Papas and Beer at 102 Ruiz. Enjoy your stops here, but remember you must get back to the ship on time.

Domecq Winery
If you'd rather to take a cruiseline-sponsored excursion, you'll find a wonderful bargain in the Wine Country Tour, offered by both Carnival and Royal Caribbean. For about $30, you will enjoy a five and a half-hour tour of two wineries in Ensenada's picturesque Valle de Guadalupe. A scenic ride outside of town brings you to the hillsides that produce the bulk of Mexican vintages. Visitors stop at the Domecq and L.A. Cetto wineries, touring the facilities and sampling the wines. A bottle of wine is included in the price of the tour.

A recent addition to the ship-sponsored excursions is a tour of the Fox Studios located south of town. A little pricier, this tour allows cruisers to see remnants of sets used in the Oscar-winning film "Titanic," and to learn about technical aspects of film-making.

Riviera del Pacifico
Finally, a city-and-shopping tour will take you downtown and to the Riviera del Pacific. Built in the 1930s as a luxury casino, the building has been transformed into the social and civic center of Mexico, housing its historical museum. The flower-filled gardens and bubbling fountains are also sights to see here.

However you choose to spend your port time in Ensenada, you will come away with a new appreciation of all this coastal city offers. Bienvenidos

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