On our first of what will be many journalistic journeys south of the border, we explored the towns of Rosarito, Puerto Nuevo and Ensenada to check out some of the upper Baja’s more renowned spots.
Cruising down coastal Route 1 is eerily akin to a drive north – a bizarro Big Sur, if you will. Just trade the greens for desert and Anchor Steams for Sols. In all, it was a delicious, relaxing escapade, and while the return to U.S. took more than two hours in line (because we didn't adequately inform ourselves), I highly recommend you forgo stigmas, slanders and stereotypes and see Mexico for yourself.
Many a moon before ever visiting San Diego, we drove the whole coastal route of Mexico, east and west alike. Seriously. If you’d like to hear more about our "Journey of 2008," email us. Point being: when people who have never been to “real” Mexico try to tell us about how scary and dangerous it is, we scoff snidely in their direction. We're pretty bad-ass.
Getting There: Easy
The drive from San Diego into Mexico is a breeze. Just make sure to get car insurance either at the drive-thru at the last exit before the border or online (~$20/day for full coverage). For us, crossing into Mexico was easier than taking the Holland Tunnel to Manhattan (and no one checked our passports or anything there). Once you're through, follow signs for Ensenada/Rosarito–Mexico 1 toll road.
Just 15-20 minutes from the U.S./Tijuana border crossing – on roads with some of the most breathtaking views – lies the sleepy beach town of Rosarito.
We went full-on-tourist and booked our one-night stay at the Rosarito Beach Hotel ($80 for a room/$125 for a condo). This hotel is well maintained, with manicured gardens throughout – and very safe. We even heard rumors that the “cartel” knows to stay away from people donning the Rosarito Beach Hotel wristband, which you are required to wear throughout the duration of your stay. Our room was spacious, immaculate and finely decorated, complete with a ginormous oceanfront balcony.
The hotel has five pools, including the 19th-floor rooftop infinity pool as well as a beach side pool with its own waterslide, plus randomly scattered hot tubs. The RBH also offers a full range of spa amenities, fishing, ATVs and horses on the beach, but what we came down for was simple relaxation and nourishment – and by that we mean good food and cheap beer in a culture-drenched setting on the beach.
After checking in and taking a brief stroll on the beach, we hopped back in the car and headed south ten minutes to the quaint fishing village of Puerto Nuevo, the self-declared “Lobster Capital of Baja.”
The cruise down the wide-open desert-y coast was breathtaking, and marked by the hugest statue of Jesus facing the sea open-armed. Ahhhh, Mexico! Puerto Nuevo snuck up on us quickly and down into the tiny town we went.
You may recognize the name, Puerto Nuevo, as Mexican lobster restaurants are internationally known for their Puerto Nuevo-style lobster (as a matter of fact, we happened to enjoy a PN-style lobster locally on Monday!). We were immediately bombarded with restaurant workers approaching the car, offering their deals, whistling at us as we drove by. We parked and walked, and were greeted with even greater salesmanship intensity. When every restaurant offers the same exact menu, choosing can be difficult.
We walked along the waterfront because I wanted my lobsters with a view, and after trekking the entirety of the village in under 10 minutes we chose the picturesque Angel del Mar, with a huge open-air terrace and 180-degree views of the ocean. We indulged in four tender lobsters with butter, rice, beans, tortillas and two margaritas for ~$30.
Though it wasn’t the dirt-cheap Mexico that we had come to know and love, we were in a prime tourist area, and we were elated that we came.
After returning to explore the Rosarito Beach Hotel, we grabbed beers from the ultra-mellow bar, walked the quarter-mile-long wooden pier amongst the fisherman, checked out the various pool areas and roof deck, and then headed out for our next meal.
We had met a couple at Angel del Mar who wholeheartedly recommended carne asada and margaritas from El Nido, a beautiful “meat house” within walking distance of our hotel.
With wood, pottery, brick, flowers and fountains, El Nido offers a warm, inviting atmosphere. We cuddled up next to one of the fireplaces and sipped what we found to be our favorite (seemingly endless) margaritas while watching the Halloweeners pass by. We split the carne asada ($18), which came with soup, salad, baked potato, roasted peppers – and, of course, chips and salsa. A decent, filling meal in a gorgeous atmosphere, but a bit overpriced for our neighbor to the south. We’ll be back for the margaritas and salsa.
We continued our adventure in search of some nightlife, but alas, we came on a Wednesday, and even though it was Halloween and Papas & Beer had a decked-out haunted hallway, we were the only ones out to enjoy it. Literally. We chilled with the bartender (find Lou if you’re there!) and talked about the prospect of relocating south of the border until eventually venturing back out to the streets for a couple late-night burritos and tacos and then retiring to our moonlit balcony.
The next morning we went to Los Arcos, literally right next to the RBH, on recommendation from a friend who had recently visited. We thoroughly enjoyed the machacas con huevos, stewed beef with eggs, beans and the best fried potatoes ever, as well as the homemade, beautifully presented fruit-covered waffle along with some delicious coffee. At $6 a pop ($13 total), this place is a must-stop for breakfast.
After digesting in one of RBH's hot tubs, we checked out and drove down to Ensenada, the third-largest city in Baja.
What we experienced of Ensenada was kind of strange. The city is by definition a port city as well as a cruise ship destination (there were no ships in port, and therefore very, very few tourists). It’s fairly industrial, and there are no true beaches, which really turned me off – but it's MUCH more of a true “city” than sleepy Rosarito, and seems to offer ample shopping and dining options.
We located the Avenida Primera, lined with boutiques and European-style eateries, but we were here for something else: tostadas from the famous 50-year-old Mariscos la Guerrerense.
Anthony Bourdain has said that the food offered here is worth a drive from L.A., and Newsweek proclaimed it one of the best in the world. There is no sign. We only knew we were looking for a street cart with a green-and-red awning on a corner….and a line. Found it!
Locals and tourists alike lined up for tostadas with various types of ceviche and toppings. The founder, Ms. Sabina, sat reading the paper while her many workers swarmed around her, making up fresh tostadas faster than you could order. We sampled the La Guerrerense, sea urchin topped with pismo clam and sliced avocado, as well as the bacalao, which is a dried and salted cod. Each was a refreshingly fresh and light indulgence, and at $1.25 each, a steal.
While in Ensenada we stopped at the oldest and best-known bar in all of Mexico, Hussong’s Cantina, established in 1892. Had I known that Hussong’s invented the margarita in 1941, I’d have had one of those, but we enjoyed a couple of icy Bohemians for $1.25 each while attempting to hear each other over the piercing bellows of the mariachi.
Leaving: More Difficult
We started making our way back north for dinner, knowing we’d be facing the ungodly border crossing lines later that evening, and opted to stop in at Tapanco, a younger sister restaurant to El Nido. Another meat house boasting deer, rabbit, lamb and quail on the menu (meat's pretty inescapable in Mexico, FYI), its atmosphere surpassed that of its older sister. Listening to the flowing fountain, we snuggled up against a fireplace, once again, under the canopy of candlelit branches.
We decided we should be a bit adventurous and ordered a delicious little garlic quail and the Mexican Plate, consisting of a venison burrito, carne asada taco, chile relleno and, of course, rice and beans. The chile relleno was the stand-out for me: spicy and cheesey deliciousness.
I was totally meat-ed out at this point, and was actually looking forward to a huge homemade arugula salad to return to balance…that, or more lobster.
We regretfully drove back up through Tijuana to the border crossing – an experience in and of itself. Throughout the two-hour wait, we cruised miles of makeshift shops selling everything from churros to pharmaceuticals to hammocks and decorative figurines. Overzealous salespeople wove in and out of the lines of cars.
GET THE CHURROS (from Churros El Pulga!). Not only are they the best I’ve ever had, hot and crispy, made car-door-side, but they really do alleviate the anxiety and frustration of sitting in that line. Next time we will most definitely seek a Fast Pass (as we found out after the fact, they're offered complimentary with a stay at RBH), but, in review, the wait was worth it.
Thank you, Mexico, for reminding me of the good life – but mostly for the lobsters. Stay tuned for our next journey to Mexico and beyond! Next stop: San Felipe!!