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Baja California Is the 'Cinderella of the Pacific'

Baja California is becoming a powerful draw for tourists home to myriad cultural attractions and recreational opportunities.

It’s called the “Cinderella of the Pacific,” this city of nearly 280,000 people nestled along Mexico’s Pacific coast just 78 miles south of San Diego. Ensenada is the Baja Peninsula’s third-largest city, after Tijuana and Mexicali, and it’s the first major port south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

It’s also becoming powerful draw for tourists. Not only is the city home to myriad cultural attractions and recreational opportunities, it lies adjacent to the Valle de Guadalupe, a wine-growing region celebrated throughout Mexico and garnering increasing attention worldwide.

To reach Ensenada, you can fly into Tijuana International Airport or San Diego International Airport, and from there, rent a car, hop on a public bus, or investigate shuttle options with your hotel. (And don’t worry about finding accommodations; Ensenada has more than 3,500 rooms, from one- to five-star.)

For example, Hotel Coral & Marina guests who fly into San Diego can meet a hotel shuttle at the airport or at the San Ysidro Port of Entry (an easy trolley ride from downtown San Diego), where U.S. Interstate Highway 5 crosses into Tijuana. The shuttle will take you right to the hotel’s front door.

The border crossing is effortless from the U.S. side. A word of caution, however: This is the busiest land border crossing in the world, and lines can be long on the Mexico side as vehicles and pedestrians, including countless daily commuters, wait to cross into the United States. If you need to return to San Diego to catch a flight home, make sure to allot extra time for the wait. This writer was told that her hour-and-a-half-hour wait was “pretty good.” It can be two hours or longer.

Once you’re there, make plans to visit Baja California’s Ruta del Vino, the renowned Valle de Guadalupe wine country. If you haven’t rented a car, fear not; major hotels like the Hotel Coral offer shuttle service so you can tour the new Vine and Wine Museum, which opened in 2012 and remains the only such facility in Mexico; enjoy a meal at one of the many diverse wine-country restaurants, such as the new farm-to-table Malva Cocina de Baja California; and of course sample the various wines in the valley, which is now home to more than 50 wineries.

At the five-year-old Hacienda La Lomita winery, for example, you can taste signature Baja California wines such as the leggy, full-flavored 2011 Pagano (in its uber-cool square bottle), the bright, polished 2011 Tinto de la Hacienda and the smooth, buttery 2013 Espacio Blanco while cleansing your palate with locally made artisanal breads and marmalade and fresh Paloma cheese made by the owner’s mother.

“Winemaking is getting to be a very big business,” said Fernando Pérez Castro, 37, Hacienda La Lomita’s proprietor. “It’s about 20 percent of our economy, and it’s growing 0.5 percent annually.

“It’s an exciting time,” he continued. “There are five or six new wineries being built right now, and several new places to eat. I’ve lived on the border all my life, and I can honestly say that the 2008 economic crisis was great for this area. The spring-break and party places closed, and they’re now art galleries. There’s amazing mescal, street food, craft beers. And you’re going to meet owners, chefs, all kinds of people who are passionate about their community and about what they’re doing.”

Indeed, simply walk through downtown Ensenada, and you’ll see the positive changes afoot in the city. Yes, this is still an important cruise-ship port, particularly for Pacific Princess and Carnival, and it has its requisite shopping district for day-tripping passengers. But there’s so much more.

Visit the 1930 Hotel Riviera del Pacífico, which flourished as a destination for U.S. glitterati for a few short years — until the U.S. repeal of the Volstead Act ended Prohibition in 1933 and Mexico outlawed gambling in 1938.

“The hotel was inspired by Monaco and the French Riviera,” said Rafael González Bartrina of the Seminario de Historia de Baja California, who moved to Ensenada as a child in 1948. “It’s our pride and joy.”

Today, the genteel, confectionlike property is home to a regional history museum, a cultural center, a collection of valuable 1929 Alfredo Ramos Martínez murals, and popular legends about Al Capone and the mafia. Take a tour, and stop at the bar for a margarita, which allegedly was invented here.

Across the street, where sand dunes tumbled to the shore in Bartrina’s boyhood days, you’ll find a science museum and a new aquarium facility that is currently underway. In the meantime, you can view the art exhibits at the nearby Centro Estatal de Las Artes and pick up a coffee at Cafe Tomas, which Gabriel Shimomoto of Ensenada’s state tourism office insisted is the city’s best.

While in town, tour the city’s many other art galleries, visit the original history museum (once the Mexican army’s headquarters and a municipal jail), stroll the sweeping waterfront malecon, and watch waves roll across the Bahía de Todos Santos from the large public beach. If you’re thirsty, consider a stop at the famous 1892 cantina Hussongs, or pop into Wendlandt’s Cerveceria, an intimate pub where you can get an impressive sample board of hand-crafted beers.

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“Craft beer is the latest thing in Ensenada,” Shimomoto said. “We had more than 4,000 people come to our 5th annual Ensenada Beerfest in March, which included 40 beer makers from northern Baja, mainland Mexico and Southern California.”

When you’re ready to refuel, sample the variety of ethnic street foods — from Armenian to Argentinian — at the Callejón Colectivo Culinario and Región Gastronómico. And, since Ensenada was the birthplace of the fish taco, add that to your must-eat list while you’re in the city. The fish couldn’t be any fresher; look no farther than the sprawling, energetic seafood market at the waterfront.

If you’d like to get out of town to do some exploring, check out La Bufadora on the Punta Banda Peninsula, approximately 20 miles south of Ensenada. This marine geyser is one of North America’s largest blowholes, and it’s been known to shoot seawater more than 100 feet into the air. Take a trip to Ojos Negros in the San Rafael valley south of the city to experience the region’s artisanal cheesemaking, or travel through the Valle de Guadalupe to San Antonio Necua, an indigenous Kumeyaay community that serves as a gateway to Baja California’s Indian country. The community offers museum tours, a craft market and a restaurant.

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For the more adventurous, Ensenada is an outdoor recreation haven. You’ll find opportunities for whale-watching excursions; deep-sea fishing charters; scuba diving and snorkeling; horseback riding; and even zipline and canopy tours at Las Cañadas (which also has a popular waterpark). Surfing is a big deal here, too. Just 12 miles offshore, at an Isla Todos Santos site known as “The Killers,” wave faces can reach 60 feet.

If you’re interested in hiking, mountain biking, camping and ATV excursions, Ensenada is a good base for exploring the national parks at Sierra de Juarez and San Pedro Mártir, where the highest peaks can see snow in wintertime.

“San Pedro Mártir has the highest peak on the peninsula, Picacho del Diablo (at 10,157 feet),” Shimomoto said. “It also features the largest observatory in Mexico, the Observatorio Astronómico de San Pedro Mártir, which is the second-largest in Latin America.

“Baja California is the first state in Mexico to have a ‘sky law’ to protect the observatory,” he added. “Scientists come from all over the world.��

Ensenada also is a city of festivals. Some commemorate sporting events such as the world-renowned Baja 1000 off-road race, the Newport-Ensenada International Yacht Race and the Rosarito-Ensenada Bike Ride, while others revolve around the city’s exploding “Baja Med” culture. These include the Ensenada de Todos festival in May, Festival de las Conchas y el Vino Nuevo Ensenada in April, and the Fiestas de la Vendimia (Wine Harvest Festival) in August, which also includes a paella contest.

Outdoor concerts in Ensenada and at the various wineries throughout the Valle de Guadalupe are major events on the region’s annual calendar as well, as is Carnaval. In Ensenada, this six-day wintertime celebration draws roughly 300,000 visitors.

According to Shimomoto, Ensenada’s peak tourist season is late April to late September; July and August are the most popular months. Yet with the region’s pleasant Mediterranean climate, which keeps temperatures cooler than San Diego in summer and warmer in winter, it’s likely to appeal to visitors from northern climates year-round. He said he’d like to see more Americans will make the trip.

“Probably 80 percent of our tourism is national, with 20 percent coming from out of the country,” he said. “We’re hoping to see those international numbers increase, particularly with the ‘Baja Med’ wine and food culture. Our wine-makers are traveling all over the world for contests, and they’re winning awards. The word’s getting out.”

“American visits are like a commodity for us,” said Hacienda La Lomita’s Castro. “Each visit is a cultural exchange with the American people, and that bond between Mexicans and Americans needs to be redone. We have to fight traditional notions about Baja, and about Mexico being dangerous. Baja is warm and friendly; it’s a nice place to visit.

“If you want adventure and new experiences, come to Baja,” he insisted. “It’s something to savor. It’s a state of mind.”

This story was originally published May 19, 2014.