The destinations in this itinerary have taken a huge tourism hit from Mexico's drug war, even though the violence remains removed from tourist areas. But things are looking up: Ensenada and Tijuana are the vanguard of a culinary revolution that's made Northern Baja the new foodie mecca of Mexico. Hipster clubs and edgy galleries are opening in Tijuana, a new tower has opened in the storied Rosarito Beach Hotel, and events like the wine festival in Ensenada continue to draw enthusiastic crowds. One silver lining to the cloud over the border are discounted hotel prices; another is that beaches, once packed, are now peaceful and clean.
This is a driving itinerary, by far the easiest way to get around Northern Baja. Make sure you're properly insured, and avoid driving after dark — roads here are fine in daylight but tricky at night. The early part of this journey takes in a few kitschy sites — consider it a sampling of the singular Mexican vision of magical realism — then goes on to some lovely places that will give you an appreciation of the natural beauty and range of experiences available here.
Day 1: Arrive in Tijuana
Tourism here has tanked, thanks to Tijuana's bad-to-worse reputation. But that's engendered a damn-the-torpedos revival in arts and dining that's made Tijuana more interesting than ever. Skip sleazy, so-last-century Avenida Revolución in favor of the upscale Zona Río, for Tijuana's best cultural attractions. Start at the Centro Cultural Tijuana for an art exhibit, dance show, historical reenactment or IMAX film, then swing down to La Querencia for a new-wave Baja Med lunch. Stop in at Cava de Vinos L.A. Cetto (L.A. Cetto Winery) for a taste of Baja's wines; alternatively, taste Tijuana's own beer at the Cerveza Tijuana brewery. Make an evening of cocktails and dinner at Mision 19, or fuel up on awe-inspiring tacos at Tacos Salceados, then head out for some cool-kid clubbing at Calle 6.
Day 2: Rosarito Beach
Just 20 minutes (29km/18 miles) south of Tijuana, this old-fashioned Mexican beach resort is a complete change of scene. Stop for a break at the Rosarito Beach Hotel, which attracted scores of celebrities and other notables during the later days of Prohibition. Then continue on a few miles south of Rosarito proper to Fox Studios' Xploration, a cinema-themed museum and entertainment center. When you're finished, head back to Rosarito Beach for the evening, where enjoying a sunset cerveza at Papas & Beer on the beach is de rigueur.
Days 3 & 4: Exploring Ensenada
Spend the afternoon exploring this classic town to have the next day free for fishing, kayaking, surfing, or a visit to either of the two national parks, the Parque Nacional Constitución de 1857 or the Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Mártir. For an unforgettable meal in Ensenada, dine at Manzanilla — most say it's one of the best restaurants in Mexico. For a more casual good time, you have your choice of Hussong's Cantina or Papas & Beer, both institutions of the party crowd.
Day 5: Valle de Guadalupe (Mexico's Wine Country)
One day makes for a quick survey of Mexico's wine country. Start with a visit to the Museo Comunitario del Valle de Guadalupe and the Museo Histórico Comunitario, just across the street, for a quick history lesson. Make time for a very special lunch at Laja, with a lovely drive through the valley thrown in. Then it's tasting time: Take your pick of the boutique Monte Xanic, Chateau Camou, and Mogor Badan, or neighboring L.A. Cetto and Domecq. Turn in at one of many lovely country hotels, like La Villa del Valle.
Day 6: Tecate & La Rumorosa
Drive up Route 3 through the desert to Tecate, perhaps Mexico's most pleasant border town. Spend the day touring the Tecate brewery, with lunch and a free tasting in its pleasant beer garden. If you're not thirsty, drive 58km (36 miles) to El Vallecito for a look at its ancient cave paintings. If you've come from the U.S., you'll save time crossing back here; to return to Tijuana, take Route 2 for 35km (22 miles) west.