Three Towns Worth Road-Tripping in Baja California, Mexico
January 23, 2019
Mexico. One of the most touristed destinations for American travelers. Also one of the most controvercial destinations.
The constant turmoil happening at the border. Gang violence sending murder rates soaring. Over-tourism creating cliched and cheap tourist attractions that cater to the spring break crowd.
In recent months this has left many Americans steering clear of their southern border.
Which is an awful mistake.
Mexico is home to some of the most stunning coastlines, delicious food, breathtaking sunsets, and cozy airbnb’s. Stucco and tile paired with the brightly painted walls of homes and shops dot the coastal side of the Baja California peninsula. These small towns between Tijuana and Ensenada are well worth the road trip across the border.
Which I might add was completely hassle free.
Crossing the Border
Relations between the US and Mexico are strained to say the least. Yet arriving at the border nothing seemed out of the ordinary. No obscene walls, no crowds of people waiting to get through security, they didn’t even as for a passport as we drove on through.
With a quick wave past security we were all good to hit the open road.
This is the city that scares most people away from a Mexican roadtrip. Border cities have a bad habit of attracting the worst kind of people. Smugglers, sex traffikers, drug cartels, and gangsters frequent land borders all over the world and likely this border is no different. But driving into the town you are confronted with poverty and homelessness instead of violence.
With mass amounts of impoverished unskilled workers Tijuana streets are filled with people selling whatever they can find. Slums dot the hillside and people make do with the little that they have. The humanitarian crisis became very evident rapidly but not in the way American politics would have you think.
We didn’t stay in TJ long. We had a more scenic, coastal roadtrip in mind.
Recently the Tijuana-Ensenada scenic hwy was completed and if you’re okay with a few tolls along the way it’s a much preferred route.
Drive time from TJ Ensenada is only an hour and a half, but you should stop at every single beach along the way.
Most beaches had similar tourist driven amenities. Coconuts for hydration, Micheladas served in red solo cups-apparently the socially acceptable way Mexicans drink in public, and horses staged and ready for rides along the shore.
We sampled some Mexican candy from the first cart I saw and found that most unidentifiable things tasted like Tajin. Plums soaked in it, tamarind sprinkled with it, candy rolled in it.
Tacos, more tacos, and horchata.
The main street is tourist central. Shops selling leather shoes, jewelery, mexican blankets, and tequila (loads of tequila) sent us quickly searching for the taco trucks. A few fish tacos and carne asada tacos later we jumped into the first tequila tasting offered to us.
Fun Fact: I found that the tequila and other agave spirits they were serving up had an ABV of 28%-35% alcohol content. The same brands sold in America have an ABV of around 40%. I was unable to find anyone online or in person who can tell me why . For whatever reason, it appears when selling within the country of Mexico the companies dilute thier product slightly more.
On the advice of a local (really solid advice) we visited La Comadre taquiera for the best tacos in town. Cheaper and better than any of the places on the main strip we stuffed our faces with Pollo de Mole tacos.
The beaches of Ensenada were our next stop. Scenic, quiet, and filled with pelicans. Pure relaxation.
With only two days on the peninsula we figured that Ensenada would be the furthest south we could comfortably reach. So we headed back up the scenic highway to the north.
2. Puerto Neuvo
Lobster Village. What makes this small town more famous for lobster than any of the others? Not particularly sure. But one thing is for sure, even if you aren’t a big lobster fan (me) the 18USD dinner of three lobster tails, tortilla soup, rice, beans, handmade tortillas, and a margarita is well worth the trip.
In addition to the food, there were some amazing street artists, spectacular sunset views from all the restaurants, and plenty of crickets for eating. Check out my full guide on Puerto Neuvo.
Travel Tip: Unlike us, I recommend locating your Airbnb in the daylight before your exhausted and wandering around in the dark. After many calls and wrong turns we finally found our home.
Find an Airbnb away from the city center. There are some amazing homes hidden away in the hills. Our Airbnb was a white stucco mansion filled to the brim with intricate tile design and jungle plants. When we first arrived the power had been turned off and we relaxed on the balcony enjoying the nighttime lights of the city below.
After the picture perfect relaxing day enjoying the scenic coastal side of Mexico it’s easy to completely disregard the reputation Mexico has gotten over the past few years. The soft repetitive semi-automatic gunfire echoing from Tijuana below was a quick reminder that this country isn’t all lobster dinners and sandy shores. The razor wire wrapped around the homes courtyard walls and chairs propped against the balcony doors were further reminders that even in beach paradise it’s best to keep on guard than be caught off it.
Small coastal town turned party town as it grew in popularity with spring breakers. The rows and rows of beach clubs boasting two-for-one drink specials and music straight from 2001 had me reminecent of my spring break years. I recommend grabbing some margaritas to go and walking farrrr down the beach. Away from the bumping bass and the crowds of people getting their hair corn-rowed on the sand.
The peak of our time in Rosarito was spent exploring Mercado del Mar and marveling at the seemingly endless varieties of tequila and Mezcal. Eating at a restaurant that puts you smack dab in the center of the jungle (and fills you with some authentic Mexican food). And finally, a fish market that we stumbled upon while trying to find the best Tamale.
Spoiler: We did find the tasty tamales, but the fish market was wayyy cooler.
You can also spend time with some of the locals. Local camels that is. Some farmers in the area have started tending camels in response to the growing numbers of tourists. We turned down camel rides but we did get up close and personal to some of the 7 foot tall cuties.
We waited until sunset to start the trek back to the states. Which was probably a mistake. But we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity for one more Mexico sunset.
We hit traffic at the border and had to wait for an hour and forty-five minutes in traffic. While you wait in the border crossing line TJ locals and migrants wander between the cars selling blankets, churros (I got some, so worth it), ice cream, window washes, and various lighted objects.
Without the border wait the drive time would have been 7 hours over the course of two days. A perfect weekend road trip from Los Angeles or an extension to the popular Highway 101 coastal route.