Draped along Baja California’s warm Pacific shores, a mere sixty miles south of the U.S. border, is the bustling seaport of Ensenada. Long a favorite of vacationing Americans, they followed in the sandy footsteps of other discoverers and adventurers who traversed this 800-mile long peninsula that parts the waters of the Pacific Ocean from the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California.
All this began in 1535 when Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortez first visited the Baja Peninsula, lured there by legends of beautiful women who lazed away their days fishing for pearls. What Cortez discovered instead was a barren landscape inhabited by primitive Indians such as the Cochimies, Guaycuras, Peridues, Paipai and Kumiai. Today's explorers, however, find everything in Baja from fast-paced cities teeming with travelers to remote outposts as desolate as the outback. And, yes, the beautiful women are really there, as promised, wearing pearls and Gucci and Prada and Polo.
Ensenada’s natural harbor was named San Mateo, after Saint Matthew, by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. But it was Sebastian Vizcaino, sailing under the Spanish flag, who renamed it Bahia de Todos Santos, a tribute to all saints. Ensenada served as a safe haven for early seagoing vessels including galleons heavily laden with the spoils of conquest. Whaling ships also anchored in the bay while en route to the Hawaiian Islands. Devout missionaries followed to cultivate crops and Christianity. Then gold was discovered in nearby Real de Castillo opening the floodgates to rancheros and miners, making Ensenada a fledgling pioneer settlement.
Today, local people welcome you to join in their stroll along the malecon boardwalk beside one of Mexico's prettiest bays that’s ringed by white-sand beaches. They’ll recommend a visit to the Riviera del Pacifico Cultural Center. It’s said that Al Capone’s money allegedly financed this venture that was managed by the famous boxer Jack Dempsey in the 1930s. It’s on Boulevard Costero and was frequented by a long list of luminaries during the heyday including, according to sources, Dolores del Rio, Myrna Loy, Lana Turner, Ali Khan and Johnny Weissmuller.
Ensenada is famous for its seafood. Meandering down the sleepy streets, you can indulge in an earthen bowl of cebiche (seh-bee-chay)… raw fish that has been marinated in limejuice, tomatoes, chilies, and spices. Shrimps, scallops, octopus or crabmeat can be substituted for the traditional mackerel. Another local taste treat that tempts everyone is a "bean cone." It resembles an ice cream cone but is, instead, a crisp tortilla filled with a scoop of refried beans, shredded jack cheese, green and red salsas, then sprinkled with some freshly chopped coriander leaves. If it’s a proper fish dinner you want, remember the nearby waters are home to some of the most beautiful giant white sea bass, swordfish, albacore, and yellowtail. And don’t forget the famous fish taco!
Margaritas are a hometown favorite but there are also some famous local wineries producing wine from vines that have clung to the sunny slopes surrounding Ensenada for years. Casa Pedro Domecq Winery, one of the area’s most famous, offers a variety of prize-winning vintages. With a toast to this charming city, it's time to dig into some of that local cuisine.
Whether you're a veteran shopper or one who souvenir hunts more casually, you'll be tempted by Ensenada's handicrafts. Items are still lovingly crafted and decorated by hand, many in small family-run workshops where the skill is passed from one generation to the next.
Local specialties include hand-painted pottery and ceramics by resident artists. Mexican silver is always a good buy and is usually quite lovely. Whether made into jewelry such as bracelets, earrings, and rings, or household items like candlesticks, vases, and bowls, the prices are often quite reasonable. Leather goods, including huarache sandals, are also a great buy though the quality can vary substantially. Embroidered cotton blouses are colorful souvenirs and typical of the region. Other bargains include coffee-flavored Kahlua, a Mexican liqueur. No matter what it is that catches your eye, you simply must have a memento from your time ashore in Baja California's port city of Ensenada.