U.S. Border to Ensenada
May 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009
For those crossing into Baja, Mexico from the U.S. border, there are three main points of entry: Tijuana, Tecate, and Mexicali, each with their own respective sets of pros and cons and preferred destinations. Make sure that you have your Mexican auto insurance, and it is technically required to obtain a tourist card if you will be traveling south of Ensenada or staying for over 72 hours, though I’ve never gotten one and it’s never been a problem.
The most direct route for anyone coming from San Diego is to go through Tijuana, either at the San Ysidro crossing or at Otay Mesa. Be advised that the San Ysidro crossing is one of the most heavily trafficked border crossings in the world, and wait times of 2-3 hours can be commonplace, particularly on weekends.
Once across the border and through San Ysidro, for those wanting to bypass Tijuana it is imperative to follow the signs for the “Ruta Turistica” that leads along the coast. Miss the immediate right hand turn offs–which is very easy to do–and you are in for a long haul of driving through downtown Tijuana and up and over the mountainside before eventually meeting up with the main highway once again. Once past Tijuana–which is a fantastic city but due to the high level of crime and violence I tend to avoid–it is only 12 miles to the gringo resort complexes of Rosarito Beach and the bright blue Pacific.
Rosarito Beach is a love it or hate it destination. First time visitors to Baja will most likely get a rush from the shock of being in a new culture, and the ready availability of things you may not find back home, ie bungy jumping on the beach. The 18 year old drinking age is a massive Rosarito draw as well. The actual beach at Rosarito is a scene unto itself with a carnival like atmosphere that eventually loses its luster. Fun for a day or two, but too crowded, and too touristy. At night, many bars around town compete for the business of all the gringos running through town, and two of the best spots to scope out some nightlife are Papas and Beer and Iggy’s, both located directly downtown. For those looking to camp near Rosarito and save the cost of a hotel, the safest spot is probably Popotla, which is a few miles down the road, away from the crowds, has a protected campground, and is still within a reasonable distance for a night on the town.
Continuing on past Popotla the highway hugs the cliffside and offers some of the most dramatic ocean vistas in all of Baja. There are a number of legendary places along this corridor to camp and surf, with some of my favorites being La Fonda and Salsipuedes. Beware that the road down into Salsipuedes is incredibly steep and can get muddy, so if you don’t have a strong vehicle take a moment to assess the road conditions before heading down the cliffside. Most campgrounds around here operate for around $5/person, with the assumption that you will also buy firewood from them and perhaps even dinner. While some may not consider paying for camping to be real camping, with all of the theft that goes on this area, trust me, it’s worth the $5.
Also incredibly popular spots for weekenders and surfing are K-38 and Baja Malibu, but expect crowds and to be treated like you’re in a suburb of San Diego. Remember that this stretch of road is a toll road, so it is important to have small change, either in dollars or pesos, to get you through the tolls that lead down towards Ensenada.
While it is easy to breeze through this stretch of road if you are head further south on the peninsula, even being less than 50 miles into Mexico there are still a number of places that are worth a stop and a visit. For those looking for fresh seafood, a stop in Puerto Nuevo is absolutely mandatory for a lunch of massive lobster tail and fresh shellfish plucked straight from the sea. It’s only 68 miles between Tijuana and Ensenada, and while there are plenty of different cliffside venues to kick back, relax, and enjoy the vistas of the Pacific Ocean, there is only so much exploring that you can do in Baja’s most heavily visited corridor.
Once you make the final turn away from the sea and make the right turn into downtown Ensenada you will realize that this is the throbbing epicenter of Northern Baja. Merchants swarm the crowded streets, tourists spill aimlessly out of cruise ships, traffic can come to a grinding halt, and it all takes place under one of the largest Mexican flags you’ve ever seen. While Ensenada has a potent charm about it that, like Rosarito, is fun for awhile, the fast-pace of city life eventually wears off and the open desert roads begin to call. Obviously anyone needing to fuel up, get any supplies, or take care of any immigration paperwork can do so in town, as this is essentially the last “real city” from here until La Paz, nearly 1000 miles down the peninsula. If it’s something major you think you might need (beer, fuel, ice, groceries, etc. are not major), go ahead and pick it up in Ensenada. While Ensenada has a vibrant downtown, decent markets, and a definite energy about it, there is way more to the Baja peninsula than exploring around downtown Ensenada.
Those looking for a piece of the fabled Ensenada nightlife can go and check out Papas and Beer, as well as a number of smaller advertised clubs around town, but be warned that nighttime crime can run rampant in this city, and it’s always best to be cautious and aware of your surroundings.
Crossing from Tecate
Another option for heading down into the Baja peninsula is to cross at the Tecate juncture, which is further inland from San Diego but is my preferred route for heading into Baja. If you are headed somewhere north of Ensenada, go ahead and cross through Tijuana, but if you are trying to make good time south of Ensenada and beyond and can’t be bothered with the toll roads and traffic go ahead and take the the Tecate crossing.
The crossing itself is straightforward, is open from 6am-midnight, there are minimal lines, and it only takes about 5 minutes to get through town. Those passing through during normal business hours should consider making a stop at the Tecate brewery, the original home of the beer that is so ubiquitous and popular on this long stretch of road.
Once through Tecate it isn’t long until you are on the long stretch of road that leads through the Guadelupe Valley. A verdant valley that is famous for its wine vineyards and relaxed pace of life, the Guadelupe Valley is a little visited inland treasure that provides at the very least a relaxed, scenic drive. Those heading south on Highway 3 will reconnect with the main Hghway 1 just before reaching bustling Ensenada.