We drove through downtown San Diego in a state of anxiety, paranoia and excitement. It’s hard not to be affected by the constant media deluge of horrors from south of the border: decapitated heads, mutilated bodies, ritual retaliation killings. Watching Season 3 of Breaking Bad before our trip didn’t help either.
As we approached the Mexican border in our inconspicuous Ford Focus, we opted for a quiet hope in humanity rather than buying into the drama of pointless sensationalism.
The crossing into Mexico was quick and easy, and after a terrifying detour through the poorly signed urban mess of Tijuana (no worse than L.A. in rush hour, it has to be said), we found our way onto the toll road.
"Scenic" is a fairly accurate description, but I was quickly distracted from the azure ocean by the truckload of soldiers armed with assault rifles that pulled out in front of us. Although they smiled at us, I was terrified. After three years of living in California, I still haven’t made my peace with police handguns – but assault rifles? I don’t think anyone should feel comfortable around that kind of artillery.
Despite my anxieties, the soldiers turned off and we quickly drove through the tolls and into Ensenada.
I had a few days to explore this small coastal city on my own, and I was surprised at how safe I felt, even as dusk started to fall. The Civic Plaza (left) and marina boardwalk are patrolled by security personnel on bikes, and although several people tried to engage me in conversation ("lo siento, no hablo Espanol" is the best response I could manage, shamefully, but no one seemed to mind), I felt remarkably unpestered considering it is a tourist resort.
The cultural center (left) is an especially lovely place to wander when the midday heat calls for shade and the fish lunches at Mariscos Bahia or Mahi-Mahi were a different world from the fish tacos of La Jolla.
What struck me most about Ensenada was its peaceful, laid-back attitude. The locals were friendly and quick to recommend a drink or tapas or place to see. When it got too hot to explore, I whiled away a few peaceful hours reading by the marina, watching the cruise ships dock and the lobos marinos chase each other through the waves. My only concern was whether I’d brought enough SPF 50.
No one hassled me to buy trinkets or hit a line of tequila slammers, I wasn’t followed through the streets by gangs of mariachi musicians. My favorite find had to be the excellent frozen margaritas at the quietly classy El Patio, and I ended up there most nights (a favored haunt of Keanu Reeves and Matthew McConaughey, allegedly. We must have just missed each other).
El Patio is a far cry from the frat fest of Papas & Beer or Mango Mango, and unless you are unfortunate enough to be staying on the shabbier end of Calle 1a, these establishments aren’t a concern.
Sadly, crossing the border back into the USA was less relaxing, especially the gauntlet of hawkers and food stalls that jumped in and out of the crowded lanes of traffic. When we did reach an agent, they barely looked at our visas – almost an anticlimax after tales of the "horrors" of border checkpoints – and soon we were back on the freeway home, driving past exits of identical Denny’s and Taco Bells and wondering what all the fuss was about. My only regret is that it was such a short trip.
So, take the media paranoia with a dose of salt and risk the 90-minute drive to this charming pocket of Baja, where even the heavily armed soldiers will smile and offer you a wave. You don’t see that in the U.S. of A.