We took a long weekend to explore the north part of Baja California. The main reasons we went there was to eat fish tacos in Ensenada and taste Mexican wine in Valle de Guadalupe.
We flew to Tijuana airport on a Thursday evening, rented a car and drove to Ensenada where we stayed for two nights (one day really). On Friday we explored Ensenada and around and on Saturday we went to Valle de Guadalupe for wine tasting. On Sunday we did some more wine tasting and drove back to the airport along the Scenic Road and stopping at Puerto Nuevo.
Is a town some 1.5h drive south from Tijuana. It is mostly famous for the Baja-style tacos with fried fish or shrimp. There are lots of cruise ships docking there, although I’m not sure why really. There is nothing special in town and it’s not very pretty either.
The Primera Avenida is the main streets with most of the restaurants, bars and shops. When the cruise ships arrive the passengers flood the Primera and start drinking margaritas at 10am. It is clear that the tourist industry caters to US tourists buying cheap alcohol and other Mexican products.
We spent the day in and around Ensenada. We went to see a bit of the scenic road and some viewpoints over the city. There’s one on the Chapultepec hill along Avenida Miguel Alemán and another one in the Bellavista neighbourhood, which we discovered by chance. We tried to have coffee at Cuatro Cuatros, but it was raining and so all was very muddy and not accessible.
In the afternoon we drove to La Bufadora (the blowhole), which is on the big peninsula at the south end of Ensenada bay. It’s about an hour drive and it’s worth to go there just before sunset. The bufadora is a sort of a little rocky bay/cavern. When the waves hit inside it sprays a jet of water in the air and makes lots of noise. Quite an interesting phenomena to see.
We also wanted to go whale watching, but it was raining we we couldn’t. Boats leave every day at noon from the malecon/pier in Ensenada. The trip takes about 4h and costs 400-500 pesos. On the main pier, there is also the mercado negro fish market, which is interesting to walk through and see the variety of fish they sell there.
Restaurants and hotel in Ensenada
Ensenada is famous for it’s fish and shrimp tacos. Tacos Castillo is one of the most famous street stall, which is on the corner of Castillo street and Quinta Avenida. There are only two dishes, taco with fried fish (17 pesos) or taco with fried shrimp (25 pesos). They already come with cabbage and pico de gallo and you can put several toppings on top. I like to add lemon, red or green salsa, guacamole and chipotle mayo. My favourite was the fish one, but both are super fresh and delicious. I had many Baja-style tacos before, but these were by far the best. A must in Ensenada!
Sabrina, an iconic Ensenada cook, started off with a street stall selling ceviches, tostadas and other seafood. The street cart is still there on the corner of the Primera and Alvarado street, but recently they also opened a restaurant just opposite at the same corner.
The restaurant is really simple and I really loved the decor. You order at the bar, they prepare and hand the food to you, and then you pay at the end of the bar. There are two wine barrels with lots of salsas and other condiments for you to spice up your food.
All of the food was delicious and super fresh. We had a large selection of tostadas and tacos. My favourites were the pate de pescado con callo de hacha tostada and the guerrerense ceviche tostada. We also tried the fish and shrimp tacos, they were good, but the ones from Castillo were better. A must in Ensenada!
Cocedora de Langosta
We went to this small restaurant next to the mercado negro for dinner based on a local recommendation. They have a good seafood selection, including ceviches that are priced by the kg. We tried 250g of traditional fish ceviche for starters and for mains we had an octopus with garlic (I love octopus), and chipotle shrimp (in a creamy sauce). All very delicious and very fresh (well the market is just next door). Recommended dinner option.
Tacos El Norteño
In Ensenada they don’t seem to have a large variety of tacos as other parts of Mexico. Apart from the fish ones, all tacos here are usually with carne asada (grilled meat). This hole-in-the-wall taco place is on the corner of Sexta Avenida and Álvaro Obregón street, just off Parque Revolución. As expected the only thing they sell are the tacos with asada, which come with a spicy salsa and guacamole, and you can add other toppings from the counter. The tacos were not bad, but I thought they lacked some flavour. However, the grilled chiles they had on the counter were delicious and spicy.
Punta Morro hotel and restaurant
Punta Morro is a hotel/resort along the main road just before coming into Ensenada and is located right on the beach. The hotel restaurant has spectacular views of the beach and sea with tables along the windows. We only had coffees there and enjoyed the view, but it I think it would be a good option for a diner.
Hotel Posada El Rey Sol, Ensenada
Apparently one of the first hotels in Ensenada. It is perfectly located on the Primera, just a block away from La Guerrerense and three blocks from Tacos Catillo. It is a typical US-style motel with a internal courtyard serving as parking lot and rooms all around. The rooms are very old and needing renovation. However, I think it was a decent option for two nights in Ensenada and also good value for money.
Scenic road: Tijuana to Ensenada
The main toll road between Tijuana and Ensenada runs along the coast. There’s also a toll-free (libre) road in the interior, but I would definitely recommend taking the coastal scenic road. From Tijuana, it first goes by some spectacular beaches and through several beach towns. One of them is Rosarito, a small beach town that became famous for the film studios where they filmed many Hollywood blockbusters, including the Titanic. Another one is Puerto Nuevo, a tiny fishing village, which became famous for its lobsters. A good stop for lunch on the way.
The second half of the road is carved into the slopes of coastal hills/cliffs, offering spectacular views over bays, rocky shores and islands in the ocean. There are a couple of viewpoints to stop on the way and if you’re lucky you can even spot some whales from there (allegedly).
Restaurant Villa Ortega’s, Puerto Nuevo
One of the best located restaurants in Puerto Nuevo at the end of the village that overlooks the ocean. It is very simple, nothing nice or fancy. They have a simple menu with the main dishes centred around lobsters. We had a seafood platter, which included half a lobster, a fish and some shrimp, and a medium lobster dish that served 3 lobster halves. All of the dishes were huge and accompanied by a tortilla soup, frijoles (beans), rice and a huge wheat flour tortilla. It is typical to take a piece of the tortilla and top it with beans, rice, clarified butter and a piece of the lobster. Interesting, but a rather strange combination, I preferred the lobster on its own. The lobsters were good, but not the best ones I had, and the fish and shrimp were very dry though. All in all, mixed feelings about the experience.
This border town suffers a lot from the proximity of the border. To start with, there is a huge and very ugly fence all along the border. Well actually there are two of them, an old one that’s quite shabby and full of graffiti, and a new one that is very tall and full of barbed wire on top. The airport is just next to the border, so you can’t miss the wall. When you’re landing/taking-off you can also see it from the air, especially at night as the area in between the fences is brightly lit.
The location of the airport is handy for people wanting to (legally!!!) cross the border, as there is a bridge directly from the airport terminal.
The centre of Tijuana is quite ugly and sad. There are full of abandoned houses and some even burned down ones right on the main street. There’s definitely nothing so see, so we just drove through on the way to the airport.
Valle de Guadalupe
Valle de Guadalupe is a beautiful valley some 20 min inland (north-east) from Ensenada along the road to Tecate. It has a Mediterranean like climate which is very favourable for wine growing, similar to the better known wine regions in California. The wine growing was introduced here already during the Spanish colonial times; however, most of the wineries in Valle de Guadalupe are relatively new – between 10 and 20 years old. Wine tasting tours became very trendy recently, mostly thanks to the nice new wineries and the lower prices compared to the US.
Most of the wines in the region are red, of the merlot, grenache, cabaret sauvignon grapes. There are also a few whites as well, the sauvignon blanc and chardonnay sorts mainly, but in general reds are far better. The wine tasting at most of the wineries is very well organised. They offer the tasting for between 120 to 300 pesos, which includes 4-6 different wines depending on the package you chose.
The biggest challenge of doing the wine tasting in Valle is that most of the roads are unpaved dirt roads, which makes it quite difficult to move around. The roads are full of holes and since it had rained the day before we went they were also full of water and dirt. At times we thought we’d get stuck on the way.
We had a day and a half to visit several wineries. Most of the wineries open between 10/11am and 5pm. We managed to do three tastings on the first day with a cheese tasting for a light lunch and an early dinner at 5pm. On the second day we visited 3 more wineries, but did only one tasting. I think it was a good plan and I was very happy to have stayed in Valle for one night as well.
You can either do wine tasting only or a wine tour (needs to be pre-booked but is included in the tasting price). We went for the tour and took one white wine package and a red wine package (300 pesos for both) each including 4 glasses of wine. The tour was nicely weaved into the tasting. They served us a glass and then we went out for a history explanation, returned to the bar for another glass and went to the wine processing area, after the third glass we were taken to the cellar and then went back to the bar for our last glass of wine. I really like Monte Xanic wines. Their reds are very good, but compared to other Mexican winemakers, they are particularly good for whites. Both the chenin colombard and chardonnay were delicious. In addition, the estate provides an excellent view over the whole valley.
This winery is far from the main road, but the building is very nice and the tour very personal. They have 3 packages to chose from (130, 200 and 300 pesos). First they explain a bit about the history and then you go down to the cellar. There you have a very private tasting where the employee talks only to you and explains all about the wine and you can ask as many questions as you like. It was very personal and definitely the nicest tasting of them all. This was also the only tasting where they didn’t use the pouring measures, so we were quite tipsy at the end. On the other hand, their wines were nothing memorable. The nicest ones were the tempranillo-cabernet and the mezcla de tintos, both were very light and easy to pair with food.
This winery is a very new and they paid a lot of attention to details. It is worth a visit on its own, even if you don’t plan to do the tasting. They have three packages to chose from (around 180 pesos each) and the tour takes you to see a video about the winery first. After that they take you to the cellar and at the end to the tasting room just next to the cellar. It is very nicely done, but it feels like a production line. The employee was trying her best, but the groups are very big and there are several groups at the same time in the tasting room. At out table it was about 20 of us and each had a different package so she didn’t even manage to explain much about the wine and since it was so loud you couldn’t even hear much. The wines at Cielo are decent, but still need a couple of years to reach good quality. My favourite were were the Eclipse and Pegasus, both red mixes, however the white we tried (Capricornius) was nothing special.
This winery is at the beginning of the Valle if you’re coming from Ensenada and it was recommended by some friends. The winery doesn’t look very interesting and the wine tasting room looks a bit dull. The lady doing the wine tasting didn’t really care much about our experience either. However, at the end we were very happy we went because we really enjoyed their wines. All their reds are mostly made on the basis of merlot grapes and all were very nice, even the rose was actually quite nice (and I’m not a big fan of rosé wines). If you go there, behind the winery there’s a cute little garden. Worth a walk.
We heard about this winery as they are trying to be very innovative in their production methods, using the force of gravity etc. So we were curious to visit. But the estate is still under construction and it looks a bit strange. The design of the tasting room has a lot of potential and once it will be finished I think it will be worth a visit. Hence, we just had a quick walk though and headed on.
Definitely the quirkiest winery in Valle de Guadalupe. The wine cellar and tasting room is made of several boats turned upside down serving as roofs. The boats have holes filled with glass (I guess wine bottles) providing natural light to the tasting room. I quite liked this winery, however, it is quite complicated to get there. It is located along a very long dirt road that connects both of the main paved roads through Valle. They do tasting at at full hours only (for 200 pesos) hence we didn’t do tasting here, but I think it would be worth it.
On the property there is also the Troika food truck where you can have lunch. It was closed when we were there, but looks lovely so next time I would be very happy to try it out. There’s also the Corazón de Tierra restaurant on the same property. It is ranked among the 50 best restaurants list in Latin America; however, when I was checking it out it had very bad reviews on TripAdvisor so we didn’t decide to go there.
El Sol de Medianoche market
A small (indoors) market place in the main village of Guadalupe a little bit before coming to Monte Xanic winery (if coming from the Tecate direction). At the entrance hey give you a little plate with various cheeses and a glass of wine. You go to a table and an employee explains about the cheeses and the wine. They also give you bread to try their chile pastes and marmalades/jams. The jams are delicious (especially the guava and the pineapple/coconut). The cheeses were also good and all locally produced, but the wine is not very good though. Cheese is their main business and they are trying to get into the wine business, but they’ll need to improve on the quality first. The nice thing is that the tasting is free and before you leave you can buy some of the products. So we bought some cheese for the evening. It was an excellent option for a light lunch.
Restaurant: Deckman’s at El Mogor
An outdoor restaurant at the property of the El Mogor winery managed by a famous chef. They have an open kitchen / grill, which apparently became very popular in Valle. Tables are set around the open kitchen under the trees and under a shed. The atmosphere is very nice, but since it was winter it was also quite cold. We were sitting just next to the main chef’s grill and all the smoke was going out way. At times it was a bit annoying and all our clothes smelled smoke. I really think they should get a fan over the grill to channel the smoke up in the air rather than in your face. It’s a small investment for a nicer experience for the guests.
One of us had a tasting menu that included 5 dishes: oysters, tongue tiradito, partridge, sirloin and a dessert, and the other a salad for started and a chicken for main. The food was delicious and perfectly prepared. We would have loved to stay longer, but due to the cold and smoke we wanted to leave quickly.
Encuentro Guadalupe hotel
This is one of the most famous hotels in Valle de Guadalupe. It is very innovative, their rooms are like small houses spread on the hillside. The reception and restaurant is in this bigger building in the middle of a vineyard. We didn’t stay there, but we went for a coffee and to see the nice views from there.
Quinta Estrella hotel
A beautiful family-run b&b in a private house in the middle of nothing. It is not easy to get to, but it’s well worth trying. They only have a handful of rooms that are nicely furnished and provide a very personal feeling. There’s a big living room with books and sofas where we relaxed in the evening with some wine and cheese. Since the house is in the middle of nothing the sky was full of stars – very romantic.
The couple running it are also very nice and helpful. They received us, showed us around and asked us what we wanted for breakfast. In the morning they prepared a nice breakfast with coffee, Mexican style eggs and an apple pie that was delicious. I highly recommend this b&b for a night in Valle.
A perfect long weekend off the beaten track in Mexico. I really enjoyed the leisurely wine tasting experience and, as anywhere in Mexico, the delicious Baja California food.