Ensenada was our first real stop and city in Mexico. It was nothing and everything we expected, nothing we feared and everything we needed to start getting comfortable in this new country.
But I’m jumping ahead, first, we had to get there.
It was a monsoon when we arrived in Mexico. A monsoon. Of course, we chose to head to Baja right in the middle of El Niño.
We crossed the Tecate border in the morning, as planned but not as early in the morning as planned (why would we do anything differently now than we have always done?). We finished at the border around noon and the plan was to head down Route 3 into wine country for a tasting or two and then on to Ensenada, safely before 4pm – because Rule 1) – don’t drive at night in Mexico. What we had not learned yet was Rule 2) don’t plan to be anywhere in Mexico or on this trip at any certain time…or any certain day. It wont happen, you wont make it. Things will change, the road will get bad, there will be washouts, there will be things to stop and do, get, see. Your GPS will lead you to the edge of a cliff. There will be other overlanders stuck in the mud to help. There will be a herd of goats in the road. There will be fish tacos.
In Tecate, we pulled out our trusty Garmin Montana 650 that we had purchased two weeks earlier along with all of the necessary maps and extras. Did we bother to test out this piece of reliable equipment prior to the leaving the states? Of course not. We used google maps on our phone in the states. And GPS is old technology and we are good with technology. Garmin is a well known company and the Montana received excellent reviews. We should be all set. NOOOOPE!!
If I hear the pleasant, computerized female voice chant “Recalculating” one more time, I will throw it out the window. Okay fine, no time for this right now. We have to get out of the “scary border town” of Tecate – just get on the highway!! Hey, give us a break, we were fresh in the country and still petrified. It had only been an hour.
After a few charades and my very broken Spanish (which has already greatly improved! Nothing like a little immersion to get your español right), we got directions to Route 3. On our way to Wine Country!
NOOOPE! Because of El Niño, the Route was washed out and there were signs for a detour that we drove around for an hour trying to find before finally giving up and Taking Route 1. Taking Route 1 meant we not only missed out on our planned trip through Wine Country but also that we went laterally west instead of South, added an hour to our trip and had to pass directly by the Tijuana border crossing that we had intentionally avoided. Things were going beautifully.
The first thing we noticed on our drive between Tecate and Ensenada was the garbage. Literally, it is everywhere. In the poorer, rural towns, its an actual epidemic but even in cities and “bigger” towns in Baja, we haven’t seen much improvement. There doesn’t appear to be a real waste management system or service in Baja and literally, the trash is just thrown wherever.
Route 1 is an incredibly well-maintained road and basically a straight shot to Ensenada. It was an easy drive that sought to calm our frayed nerves. The weather made the skies darker earlier than we were comfortable with but not so dark that we couldn’t see the most incredible and wild coastline up to that point in my life (which is saying a lot). It was so…untamed. Wild, 8-foot waves crashing violently against rocks and spraying onto roadside houses and our car as we drove by. Despite ourselves, we were caught up in the epicness of it.
The nice thing about pulling into a city like Ensenada on your first day in Mexico is that the first thing you run into is an area literally called “Centro Turistico” (aka – Tourist Center) and the first thing you see are the massive cruise ships.
Now, believe me when I tell you this – we are TRAVELERS and loathe the thought of TOURISTS and everything associated with the tourism industry but it was our first day and it was Mexico and I needed comforting - I found the cruise ships comforting. The soccer moms and dads aboard the Carnival "imagination" wouldn't voluntarily come anywhere truly dangerous.
Ensenada reminds me a bit of Nashville. There is this definite Tourist Center with droves of people coming there for a safe and low-key taste of “Mexico” that really has very little to do with Mexico or the realities of its citizens (much like Broadway is to Nashville) and then there is the rest of the city – vibrant, real, gritty and pretty awesome.
We didn’t “quite” break the first rule on our first day but we cut it clooooose. Too close. We weren’t prepared to start camping yet, we weren’t even prepared yet for Mexico – not emotionally and not in reality. But we had gotten to a point where we just had to make ourselves GO regardless, so at this moment, we needed a hotel and we needed it fast because the sun was going down and the light quickly disappearing.
Don’t get the impression that the rest of Mexico has been quite as simple as Ensenada was in terms of finding things…Ensenada is close to the border, only about 2 hours, it operates in terms of ease for Tourists – so we did what we had always done and turned to yelp, tripadvisor and hotels.com - these types of sites have provided very little in the way of help or information for us since Ensenada but for that night, we got a hotel. We stayed at the Posada El Rey Sol. By American hotel standards it was 2 star all the way. By Ensenada Standards, it was 4 star and for us, for that night and a couple more, it was heaven. Semi-secure parking, 2 welcoming bottles of water in the room, a clean bed and a taco stand downstairs and 60$ a night – which is hilarious because, now, only 3 weeks later, we wouldn’t dream of spending that much on a hotel room.
We had a lot to accomplish during our time in Ensenada - we needed to get the alarm system on the car tweaked, we needed to grocery shop and fill the water and gas cans, we needed to get an ultrasound for Gracie (a wonderful experience that I will talk more about in a different post), we needed to reorganize and sort thru our gear and we needed to get ready to start camping – both mentally and in reality.
We tried one more time to find wine country and do some tasting since it was only 30 minutes from Ensenada. We did find the area but when we finally settled on a winery to visit, we came across an elderly Mexican man whose truck was stuck in the mud, Gustavo. Knowing that some day we would need good road karma, we attached a tow strap to his bumper and pulled him out easily. His only comments were thank you’s and a thumbs up with the exclamation, “mucho power!.”
Ensenada had everything we needed to accomplish our to-do list. A Costco, three walmarts, an EXCELLENT installer for our viper alarm system, one of the best veterinarian experiences and a lowkey city vibe.