Our Journey South of the Border | 36 Hours in Baja California, Mexico

Just do it!!

November 8, 2012

Not only do we glorify all the beautiful culture and good times offered in and around our city and county of San Diego, we also enjoy exploring all of the surrounding areas, including our neighbor to the south, Baja California, Mexico.  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 more renowned spots.  Getting there was easy, and the cruise down coastal route 1 is eerily akin to a drive north  – a bizarro Big Sur, if you will, but trade the greens for desert and Anchor Steams for Sols.  All in all it was a relaxing and delicious escapade into Mexico, and though the return to U.S. took more than 2 hours in line (because we didn't adequately inform ourselves), we highly recommend foregoing the stigmas, slanders and stereotypes and seeing Mexico for yourself.

Back in the day - Journey 2008!
Many a moon before starting SanDiegoVille, hell, before we ever even visited San Diego, we drove the whole coastal route of Mexico, east and west alike.  No seriously, our drive consisted of the following (in very abridged summary): we launched from Hoboken, NJ in our Ford 500 sedan, bounced our way down the U.S. of A to the border town of Brownsville, TX, then down the coast, stopping from town to village to city until staying in Cancun for a bit; then, we thoroughly explored Belize inside and out (including Ness' first and only SCUBA experience - The Great Blue Hole - but that’s a story for a different time), and through Tikal, all up and around Guatemala and all the way up the western coast of Mexico, including stops in Puerto Escondido, Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco (naming those because of the likelihood that you'll recognize them) until we finally crossed back into the United States at the Tijuana/San Ysidro Border Crossing. That was a real fast fly through of The Journey of 2008, so if you’d like to hear more information, email us.  Point being - when people who have never been to real Mexico try to tell us about how scary and dangerous Mexico is, we scoff snidely in their direction.  We're pretty bad ass.

Getting into Mexico is a breeze.  Rip down I-5 or I-805 south to the border crossing, and get some car insurance 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 (no one checked our passports or anything), and 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 some of the nicest roads with some of the most breathtaking views, lies the sleepy beach town of Rosarito.

Rosarito Beach Hotel
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 gorgeously maintained with well 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 partial kitchen and a ginormous ocean front balcony.  The hotel has 5 pools, including the 19th floor rooftop infinity pool as well as a beach side pool with its own water slide, plus randomly scattered hot tubs. The RBH also offers a full range of spa amenities, fishing, ATVs and horses on the beach, a beachside basketball court, bars, restaurants, and shopping, but what we came down for was simple relaxation and nourishment, and by that we mean good food and cheap beer in a gorgeous, 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 coast was breathtaking, a wide open desert-y country side, riddled with modern mini mansions (and not so mini mansions) and huge ocean front condo complexes, 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 greeted with restaurant workers approaching the car, offering their deals, whistling at us as we drove by.  We parked and walked, and were bombarded 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 wide open 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 (from San Diego!) who whole heartedly recommended carne asada and margaritas from El Nido, a beautiful ‘meat-house’ within walking distance of our hotel.

More than enough at El Nido!
El Nido restaurant is enchanting, covered in tree branches, pottery, brick, flowers and fountains, providing for a warm and 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 and filling meal in a gorgeous atmosphere, but a bit overpriced for our neighbor to the south. Regardless, 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 and 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 we ventured back out to the streets for a couple late night burritos and tacos, and then retired on 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 beautifully presented fruit-covered, homemade waffle, along with some delicious coffee.  At $6 a pop, ($13 in 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 is MUCH more of a ‘city’ than sleepy Rosarito, and seems to offer ample shopping and dining options.

We found the Avenida Primera, lined with boutiques and European style eateries, but we knew what we were here for: tostadas from the famous, 50 year old Mariscos la Guerrerense. Anthony Bourdain has said that the food offered is worth a drive from LA and Newsweek proclaimed it to be 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.  We 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 topped with 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 into 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.

We started making our way back north for dinner, knowing we’d be facing the ungodly border crossing lines later that evening, and we opted to stop in at Tapanco, a younger sister restaurant to El Nido, and another meat house boasting deer, rabbit, lamb and quail on the menu (meat is pretty inescapable in Mexico, FYI).  Its interior beauty surpassed that of its older sister, and once again we were able to snuggle up against a fireplace under a canopy of candlelit branches, while listening to the flowing fountain.  We decided we should be a bit adventurous and ordered a delicious little garlic quail, and the Mexican Plate which consisted 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.  Everything was good, but 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 began the trek home and drove back up through Tijuana to the border crossing, which is 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, with over zealous salespeople weaving in and out of the 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, the are 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.

For more information on Baja California, visit the website at discoverbajacalifornia.com and stay tuned to SanDiegoVille for our next journey to Mexico and beyond!  Next stop - San Felipe!!