Ensenada is thought of as a "border town," but part of its appeal is its multilayered vitality, born out of city life that's much more than tourism. The bustling port consumes the entire waterfront -- beach access is north or south of town -- and the Pacific fishing trade and agriculture in the fertile valleys surrounding the city dominate the economy. Make time for a visit to the indoor-outdoor fish market at the northernmost corner of the harbor where each day, from early morning to midday, merchants and housewives gather to assess the day's catch -- tuna, marlin, snapper, plus many other varieties of fish and piles of shrimp from the morning's haul.
Together with Tijuana, Ensenada is the center of a culinary revolution in which this northern corner of Baja is outstripping its rivals in Mexico City. Some of the country's best restaurants are part of the Baja Med movement, which marries Mediterranean cooking precepts with Baja's bounty; many of them are here in Ensenada, along the waterfront and on the streets surrounding Avenida López Mateos. Ensenada is already a destination trip for So Cal foodies, and it's only getting better. While you'll get great fish tacos and plenty of tourist food here, this is the place to pony up for the good restaurants.
Avenida López Mateos, or Avenida Primera, is the hub of tourist activity in the city, with shopping and lots of English-speaking businesses. Touring town, your first stop should be the Bodegas de Santo Tomás Winery, Av. Miramar 666 at Calle 7 (tel. 646/178-3333; www.santo-tomas.com), open 7 days a week. The tour is free, and if you wish to follow it up with a tasting, available 10am to 4pm, 160 pesos gets you a sampling of six wines (or pay 80 pesos for three whites, 100 for three reds). The little modern machinery installed here freed up a cavernous space now used for monthly jazz concerts. Across the street stands La Esquina de Bodegas (the Corner Wine Cellar), former aging rooms for Santo Tomás: The industrial-style building now functions as a gallery showcasing local art, with a skylit bookstore on the second level and a small cafe (punctuated by giant copper distillation vats) in the rear.
Ensenada's primary cultural center is the Centro Cívico, Social, y Cultural, Bulevar Lázaro Cárdenas at Avenida Club Rotario. The impressive Mediterranean building was formerly Riviera del Pacífico, a glamorous 1930s bayfront casino and resort frequented by Hollywood's elite. Tiles in the lobby commemorate "Visitantes Distinguidos 1930-1940," including Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst, Lana Turner, Myrna Loy, and Jack Dempsey. Elegant hallways and ballrooms evoke bygone elegance, and every wall and alcove glows with original murals depicting Mexico's colorful history. Lush formal gardens span the front of the building, and a small art gallery is on one side.
Drive 45 minutes south along the rural Punta Banda peninsula to one of Ensenada's natural attractions: La Bufadora ★★, a sea spout in the rocks. With each incoming wave, water is forced upward through the rock, creating a 21m-high (70-ft.) blowhole whose loud grunt gave the phenomenon its name (la bufadora means "buffalo snort"). Local fishermen have a more lyrical explanation. According to legend, a mother gray whale and her calf were just rounding Punta Banda, when the curious baby was trapped in a sea cave. The groan that the blowhole makes is the stranded calf still crying for his mother, and the tremendous spray is his spout.
From downtown Ensenada, take Avenida Reforma south (Carretera Transpeninsular) to Hwy. 23 west. It's a long, meandering drive through a semi-swamplike area untouched by development; look for grazing animals, bait shops, and fishermen's shacks along the way. La Bufadora is at the end of the road, behind the souvenir stands and fish taco shacks.
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