November 2, 2009

A un solo trip to Ensenada, Mexico: Fall getaways to beaches

Jesus Christ gigantic statue greets visitors to Mexico, on border with California
Jesus Christ gigantic statue greets visitors to Mexico, on border with California
Alisa Krutovsky

If you are looking for an excuse to shoot some tequila at noon and forget about a non-meat non-spice diet – there is a way to do it. Head to Mexico, Hola Amigos!

When first long rains come on down in the fall, there is a way to escape rainy gray weather and head to where the sun is still strong enough for the time on a beach with a frozen drink.

Mexico has been always an inexpensive option for the Americans who can’t afford to go to Caribbean or Hawaii, and there are many places to choose from – from isolated Islands, such as Isla Mujeres, or Cancun – a place that is very much beloved by American college students. But there is also - Ensenada, which is in Baja region and is about 1.5-hours drive from the borders of San Diego (Calif.) And many West Coast residents choose to go there for a weekend or longer due to its very close proximity. However, plans fly there as well.

Ensenada is not the most exciting place to be (no lying here, I don’t get commissions from a tour agent,) but it is charming and it offers all the “Mexican” you might need and – everything is inexpensive: fresh seafood, as Ensenada is the home of one of the largest sea ports in Mexico, delicious high quality rich alcoholic drinks (they are not cheap for extra fruit, extra shot and a larger size of a glass), friendly locals and patrons, restaurant diversity and a few good bars and clubs. This is all one needs for a few days to get away.

Ensenada is attractive for its very down-to-earth cultural flavor; it’s not an obvious touristy place. And the locals are always happy to upgrade you to a better room at a hotel/resort, to a better table at a restaurant and even to a better set of sauces, which did not spend too much time under the sun and, which were not besieged by local insects.

The town of Ensenada does not look as appealing as Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta, let’s just clear this out, but if you opt to drive to Ensenada from San Diego, you pass breathtaking views of Pacific ocean, a gigantic statue of Jesus Christ greeting visitors and locals, colorful colonial homes, country haciendas and adobe ranches and beach houses in hacienda-style and yellowish burnt hills.

Moreover, nothing is as nice as to catch a break from the drive by stopping at a local café, somewhere around Puerto Nuevo in Rosarito – another town close to Ensenada on a way from San Diego, and indulge in the local specialty - La langosta de Puerto Nuevo (local gigantic lobster), sautéed in butter, served with beans and rice served with the most deliciously in-house handmade - and then baked and buttered - soft tortillas. And as you sip your margarita on a terrace overlooking the ocean a brigade of amigos make the best of your meal, playing traditional ranchera and mariachi - a bit loud at time, but charming and entertaining.

Once you are at your final destination of Ensenada and you are about to leave for a walk in the city, don’t forget to fuel with a powerful breakfast of fried eggs with Huevos Rancheros, made out of onions, corn tortillas, scallion, roasted red pepper, black beans, cheese, salsa, garlic and fresh cilantro. This is a must breakfast, even if it is over 100 F / 30 C degrees outside, because nothing would tire you more than making your way through dusty roads of Mexico, crowded with old trucks and uncompromising local drivers and then walking up and down the streets in the heat searching for that perfect sombrero or a handmade wooden Chihuahua at one of the local souvenir stores.

Bargaining is also energy-consuming, and you need to bargain not only on markets, but at the stores as well – at the end of it, the store clerks eventually do give up and the price for a delicate handcrafted dress changes from $40 to $25.

Mexico is not the place to skip lunch. No matter how tired and sweaty you are, walk into a restaurant, all of which have air-conditioning, and order a house-made Guacamole dip, Carpacho mexicano (tender thin slices of marinated beef sirloin,) Empanadas de atún (puff pastry with tuna fish and eggem) for an appetizer and a typical entrée of Paella (Spanish rice with chicken bits, seafood, shrimps, fresh vegetable) or Pato con chile y naranja (chicken legs with chilli and orange sauce, fruit rice.) Don’t forget to flush it all with a Mexican beer (Pina Colada or mean Margarita is an option for the ladies…)

After a quick nap and a dip in the pool and/or in the ocean, check out the local dance clubs, which, to your surprise, might offer some very cool dance beats from very well known popular (in Ibiza and Berlin, for example) International DJs. Either way, you might find the night life in Ensenada very interesting for people watching – Mexican boys and girls do know how to party hard, and the drawback of being in any of the nightlife locations is that they do allow to smoke inside and it gets too intoxicating and stuffy.

Ensenada “Must-Dos”:

Fisherman Market (for lunch…fish tacos and geviche, a raw seafood mixture of mackerel, barracuda, tuna, black drum, tilapia or sea bass, shrimp, octopus and oysters merely mingling with minced veggies that has been “cooked” in lime and other citrus – I pity the ones who have seafood allergies, this dish is to die for!) is a must, served with local hot chili sauces – it is all about the peppers, Cayenne, Jalapeño, Habanero or Chipotles (smoked jalapeños)

Fisherman Market (for dinner…anything from the market – a daily catch of a squid, scallops, shrimp…)

Fisherman Market (for street artists handwork…engrave your name on a handmade thread bracelet)

Shopping for handmade goodies and artwork: from authentic Mexican peasant dresses to sombreros, from tequila leather cases to icons

Water sports: everything for snorkeling to jet skiing

Renting a car for a few hours and taking it for a drive south or north along Pacific Ocean

Ocean sunsets

Ensenada “Must-Brings-With-You”:

1. Friends
2. Swimsuit & sun block (Aloe for burns, which you might not be able to avoid)
3. Pocket money (cash is the most accepted and expected “currency”)
4. Camera
5. Sandals & keds (any flat active sportswear because in some areas it might be healthier and more comforting not to expose too much of your toes to road dust and dirt)

Travel to and from Mexico:

To Mexico by bus

Mexico bus reservations are easy, if you know what you’re doing, of course. They seem tricky at first if if (1) you don't speak / read Spanish, and (2) because Mexico buses may not have websites or accept reservations. Mexico first class buses are usually not full, and you're very likely to be able to get on a bus by showing up at the station; if you're hoping to get on a second class bus, show up at the station an hour or so early and you'll likely get lucky.

Greyhound offers Mexico bus service to Durango, Mexico City, Morelia and Tampico, as well as a host of smaller Mexico towns. Taking Greyhound to a border town in Texas or California and then picking up a bus to Mexico may be a good way to go, too. Check prices - it may cost more first class, but first class Mexico bus arrangements are pretty nice.

Greyhound bus tickets to Mexico - choose Mexico from the "State" pull-down menu. All about taking the bus to Mexico - includes Mexico bus company US pickups and destinations.

To Mexico by air

There are quite a few airlines that offer flights to Mexico:

Aviacsa - Aviacsa's hub is Mexico City and it's got one of the larger destination maps among the budget Mexico airlines. Aviacsa's site has an English section. Aviacsa phone number: 1-800-758-2188 or 54-82-82-80 in Mexico.

Click - Click Mexicana serves many very cool and somewhat less touristy areas, like beach resort Huatulco (south of Oaxaca city).

Interjet – Interjet offers Veracruz, Tampico and Monterrey routes among its cheap Mexico airfares.

vivaAerobus or Viva Aerobus – RyanAir's Mexico airline started offering cheap Mexico airfare in September, 2006 (RyanAir is the cheap European airline champ based in Ireland and it's teaming with Mexico's IAMSA bus company for the Ryanair Mexico airline.)

Volaris – Volaris airline is one of the cheap Mexico airlines with a Bajio Leon (San Miguel de Allende) routes, as well as a Tijuana-Cancun route. Volaris telephone number: 1-800-7VOLARIS.

Getting a passport to Mexico

To return to the US from Mexico by land, sea or air after June 1, 2009, you must now present a passport or PASS card (available to anyone) or Enhanced Driver's License (residents of some US states can get these). You can no longer use just proof of US citizenship, like an embossed birth certificate, with a government issued photo id (more on those below). Regardless of ID choice, you also need a tourist card.

Other acceptable identification includes:
• Trusted Traveler Cards (NEXUS, SENTRI, or FAST)
• State Issued Enhanced Driver's License (when available)
• Enhanced Tribal Cards (when available)
• U.S. Military Identification with Military Travel Orders
• U.S. Merchant Mariner Document when traveling in conjunction with official maritime business
• Native American Tribal Photo Identification Card
• Form I-872 American Indian Card

One of the US companies that does a great job with visa consultation and issue for any international destination is a Washington, D.C. based VisaHQ. Their friendly and attentive staff is always attentive and efficient.

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