A couple of weeks ago, we took a short weekend cruise to Baja California from Long Beach. There was only one port of call: Ensenada.
It was a total last minute purchase. We wanted some family bonding time before the school year started, and when my husband turned to me one night and said, “I wish we were back on a cruise ship,” I replied, “We can be.”
An hour later, we’d booked a three-night trip to Ensenada on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas.
Before this, the only thing I knew about Ensenada was that I could drive there in two hours. It’s so close to where we live (in San Diego) that I wasn’t even sure I wanted to get off the ship when it docked there. Instead of disembarking in Ensenada, I figured I’d stay onboard to lay by the pool, take advantage of the shorter lines for the water slides, and enjoy some port-day discounts.
But when we arrived that morning, my husband suggested we take a walk around the town.
“Do you know what to do in Ensenada?” I asked.
“We’ll figure it out,” he said.
So here are some things we did with absolutely zero prior research or preparation.
- Navigating the Ensenada Cruise Port
- A Walk Through Downtown Ensenada
- The Best Shop in Downtown Ensenada: Cleopatro Dog’s Store
- A Snack and a Stroll on the Ensenada Boardwalk
- Visiting the Ensenada History Museum (Or Trying To)
- Cruise Excursions in Ensenada Mexico
- Is Ensenada Worth Visiting?
- What Do You Do in Ensenada Mexico?
Navigating the Ensenada Cruise Port
Downtown Ensenada isn’t very far from the cruise port. However, I found it to be a bit trickier to navigate than some other cruise ports I’ve been to. There’s not a lot of clear signage, so we wound up meandering into the boarding area for the Carnival cruise ship that was docked beside us.
Once we whipped out Google Maps on our phones, though, we quickly found the exit gate. And from there, it was a pretty straight shot to downtown.
Here’s a little Ensenada cruise port map so you can get an idea of how close it is to the action:
There were a bunch of buses waiting at the port to drop people off downtown, but we avoided them because we wanted to explore (or rather, get lost) on our own. Plus, after all that soft-serve we ate on the pool deck, we decided we needed some exercise.
A Walk Through Downtown Ensenada
The easiest way to navigate Ensenada is to orient yourself to the giant flag of Mexico that’s fluttering over the city. And I mean giant. I have never seen a flag this big.
I later learned that it’s one of several banderas monumentales that are located in various spots around Mexico. They’re meant to inspire a sense of patriotism. It worked; I felt inspired and I’m not even a Mexican citizen.
So after you leave the cruise port, keep walking toward the flag. Turn right on Alvarado, and you’ll quickly arrive in the heart of downtown Ensenada.
I’ll be honest: it’s a bit of a tourist trap. Endless storefronts sell the same exact souvenirs. T-shirts and magnets and tchotchkes abound. If you’ve spent your whole life searching for a coffee mug printed with Spanish obscenities, no doubt you’ll find it here.
Then there were the pharmacies.
It’s no secret that you can get prescription drugs easily in Mexico, and Ensenada is cashing in on the “pharma-tourist” phenomenon. There was at least one pharmacy on every street, some of which appealed to children with statues of smiling superheroes.
This particular statue sparked a lengthy discussion with my nine-year-old son about erectile dysfunction. Always a fun topic of conversation when you’re on a cruise vacation. Family bonding time, you know?
There were a bunch of restaurants downtown, many of which looked excellent, but I was too busy hustling us past the aggressive pill pushers to stop and read any menus. I wish I had, though. Next time we go to Ensenada (and there will be a next time), I’m headed to La Guerrerense, a taco stand that came highly recommended by Anthony Bourdain.
The Best Shop in Downtown Ensenada: Cleopatro Dog’s Store
So I know I’m not selling downtown Ensenada as family-friendly, but there were some highlights. Like Cleopatro Dog’s Store.
As you might guess, they sell stuff for dogs. Mostly, adorable outfits. Including serapes, which are the ultimate in adorable.
Now, I’m a dog-lover, so I definitely love me some cute doggy outfits. But this particular store was amazing because they used their proceeds to help rescue dogs. That’s what the sign in the window says, and the lovely woman behind the counter who helped us with our purchase explained it, too. (In Spanish. My husband translated.)
And I have a special affection for rescue dogs from Ensenada, since one of my pups was found on the street there. So of course I had to support this business, and bought my little chihuahua mixes some serapes.
Don’t they look cute?
A Snack and a Stroll on the Ensenada Boardwalk
After snagging our serapes, we headed back in the direction of the Mexican flag, toward the malecón. (Malecón means boardwalk in Spanish.) On our way there, we passed by the Mercado de Mariscos, which is Baja California’s largest fish market.
Apparently, you can buy fresh fish here and they’ll cook it up for you at one of the nearby restaurants.
We didn’t do that, though. Instead, we walked down to the waterfront for a couple of cold Micheladas. I’m not entirely sure what was in this one, but most Micheladas are some combination of beer, Clamato, lime juice, and hot sauce.
That flaky stuff on the rim is tajin, a spicy Mexican seasoning flavored of chili and lime.
We also snacked on some sweet gorditas de nata that we bought at Serranos Panaderia, a bakery on the boardwalk. You could get your choice of filling; I got cream cheese, my husband got dulce de leche. Both were equally delicious.
As we strolled along, people-watching and enjoying the energy of the malecón, we kept walking in the direction of the giant flag. Eventually, we reached a park at the base of it, aptly named El Parque de la Bandera (translation: Flag Park).
There were some fountains here that children were splashing in. We also happened upon the Expo Nativa, a festival celebrating the native cultures of Baja California. Indigenous artisans were selling their wares, so I bought a gorgeous handmade necklace from Skoalap Cucapah.
Visiting the Ensenada History Museum (Or Trying To)
My one regret is we never visited the Ensenada History Museum. Though it wasn’t for lack of trying.
It’s supposedly located in the Centro Social Civico y Cultural, which is right by the entrance to the cruise port. We ventured inside the open gates and walked around the grounds for a bit, taking in the sights.
Then we happened upon the entrance to the Ensenada History Museum. But we could never find the actual museum. Instead, we wandered around inside the cultural center like clueless tourists for about twenty minutes before giving up and heading back to the ship.
Maybe that Michelada was a little too strong. The inside was pretty, at least.
Cruise Excursions in Ensenada Mexico
After a couple of hours of exploring the city, we were ready to get back on board, lay by the pool, and order a Goombay Smash. But if you’re looking for more interesting stuff to do in Ensenada, there are some options for cool family-friendly cruise excursions that we’re considering the next time we go to Baja (and there absolutely will be a next time).
- La Bufadora. This is an underwater cave on the beach that regularly sucks in sea water and shoots it back up, sort of like a geyser. If you stand too close to the edge, you apparently get soaked. It seems like the kind of thing I should see once, just to say I saw it.
- Rosarito Beach. I know a lot of people who are always driving down to Rosarito from San Diego for the long weekend. I’m never going to do that, but I hear the beach is beautiful, and I’d like to know what all the fuss is about. Also: fresh lobster.
- Valle de Guadelupe. Wine country in Baja is supposed to be fantastic, and they offer guided tours and wine tastings here. Yeah, I know it’s not family-friendly, but perhaps my husband and I will do this after my son is off to college. A mom can dream!
Is Ensenada Worth Visiting?
Yes, Ensenada is absolutely worth visiting. But it’s also worth doing a little research beforehand so you can make the most of your time there.
For my next trip to Ensenada, I plan to:
- Figure out how to get into this museum. The photos I’ve seen online look really cool, and I’d love to learn a little more about the history of the city.
- Eat some fish tacos. I regret not stopping at that Bourdain-approved taco stand.
- Stay away from the farmacias. Since I came home, Super Viagra has been haunting my dreams.
What Do You Do in Ensenada Mexico?
Have you been on a cruise with a port of call in Ensenada? If so, how did you spend your time in Baja?