San Diego, California to Ensenada, Baja California


From San Diego to Ensenada, Mexico is a stretch of Baja California coastline that packs a lot of punch. I am always surprised when I talk to someone from Southern California and learn they’ve never crossed into Mexico. Getting to Ensenada from San Diego is a breeze, once you know the basics. You could do your own coastal tour as a day trip, or pick a destination and dig in a little deeper. Whether you stay in a hotel, or book an AirBnb, there are plenty of options.

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Mariachi band in Puerto Nuevo.
Mariachi band meet-up in Puerto Nuevo, Baja California.

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If you want to travel into Baja California from San Diego, there are several ways to go about it. A lot of people end up in Ensenada by taking a cruise. That’s not my scene, personally, but if you’re a fan of cruises, that option may interest you. Another option is to walk in at San Ysidro border crossing and catch a bus to Ensenada, or points in between, such as Rosarito. There are companies that will provide Mexico tours from San Diego, some of which are specialty tours. For instance, wine tasting tours to Valle de Guadalupe have become popular.

Baja cactus and flowers.
Cactus and blooms provide a little beauty in Baja.

Decide How You’ll Get There

The handful of times I have entered Mexico from San Diego have all been by private transportation. Two of those times, I have rented a car and driven myself. I like the independence and flexibility that comes with having my own car. It can be especially convenient when traveling as a family. That being said, I am seriously considering switching things up next time. Walking across the border and taking a bus to Ensenada would be cheap enough to give up some convenience. Plus, once on location, Uber is available to get around. I think it’s definitely worth trying to compare with my past experience.

If you happen to be heading to the other end of the Baja Peninsula, flying may be your best bet, but you can rent a car in Cabo once on the ground to give you independence for exploring.

Punta Banda cactus.
A large, tree-like cactus in Punta Banda, Baja California.

Since the only way I’ve gone into Mexico is by car, most of what I share here will be based on that fact. However, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find your way to the same locations without much trouble. You can take a bus from the Greyhound Station San Diego to the central bus station in Tijuana. The ABC bus will carry you to further destinations. If you want more details, the folks over at Go Nomad give a decent run down on taking a bus from San Diego to Ensenada. Check it out HERE.

Know Before You Go

  • Take Your Passport – You Need It to Get Back in the U.S.
  • If You Drive, You Must Have Mexico Car Insurance. This Is True In Your Own Vehicle or In A Rental
  • If You Rent A Car, Confirm That They Allow It to Go to Mexico

Crossing the Border at San Ysidro

It’s Time to Go

Entering Mexico from San Diego, you’ll go through the San Ysidro port of entry. Farther to the east is the Otay Mesa border crossing. I’ve never used Otay Mesa and, honestly, don’t know why I would. I’ve read from other travelers that coming back into the U.S., wait times at Otay Mesa can be much shorter. Depending on where you’re going, maybe it would make sense. I’m just throwing that out there. Again, I’ve only used the San Ysidro crossing and it’s never been more than I was willing to deal with. That includes coming back into San Diego, which takes considerably longer than going into Mexico.

Approaching the Mexican border checkpoint.
Approaching the Mexican border checkpoint.

Putting things into perspective, the San Ysidro port is the busiest land border crossing in the world. Yes, the world. More people cross between California and Baja California than at any other place, along any international border. There is a pedestrian bridge where you can cross into Mexico on foot, or you can cross by car. Crossing Mexico by car is really not that hard, but the first time may seem a little chaotic.

Approaching the Mexican border, cars are funneled into lanes.
Approaching the Mexican border, cars are funneled into lanes.

There’s a method to the madness, though. Just take it slow and pay close attention. Heading south on Interstate 5 out of San Diego, you can’t miss the border crossing. That’s where the highway ends on the United States side of the border. There are plenty of signs warning you that you are approaching the border. There will be a sign announcing your last chance exit before the border. As you get closer, you will be funneled into lanes that are separated by concrete dividers. You will pass by cameras and other detection devices as you approach the border. None of that requires you to do anything. Simply pay attention and get going forward.

The final hurdle into Mexico.
The final hurdle into Mexico.

Bienvenidos – Welcome to Mexico

At this point, you should be feeling a little excitement, as it becomes increasingly clear that you are really going somewhere. This isn’t just another exit off the interstate. You’ll be greeted by a giant Mexican flag and signs welcoming you to Mexico. Right before the actual border checkpoint, those sequestered lanes open up into what may look like a wide-open parking lot at first glance.

This is where it may seem a little crazy for a minute, but keep your cool. Be mindful of other cars. Looking ahead, you’ll see the cars are actually filing into new lanes. Overhead, you’ll see signs indicating what directions those lanes will take you. The left side is for downtown Tijuana, the middle section takes you toward the Tijuana airport. On the right, you’ll see the sign for the beaches of Tijuana – Playas de Tijuana – and Rosarito. Unless you really want look around the city of Tijuana, you want to go to the right side. As often as not, I have crossed through the middle lanes, because I wasn’t able to jockey far enough over in time.

Once you pass through the customs area, you will another chance to move over to the right. Keep in mind, though, that you will need to negotiate that lane change very quickly after customs. The exit to head south toward Rosarito and Ensenada veers off to the right soon after you clear the border.

Getting Through the Checkpoint

Let’s back up for a minute. When you are approaching the actual border, the cars will form back into lanes. This is where you’ll see the signs I just mentioned. Those lanes will take you through the customs check. Crossing into Mexico, they use a red light/green light system. Pay attention to this. If the light is green, you simply drive on through without stopping. No problem. That’s it. You’re on your way to Ensenada, or wherever. If the light is red, though, you have to pull over. Pulling over means you pull up a few yards and park in one of the open slots that you will see in front of you. One of the Mexican border agents will approach you here. They may ask to see your driver’s license, or passport. They may ask you about the purpose of your visit, or where you’re staying. They may even look inside your vehicle. In other words, it’s the sort of thing one should expect at an international border. Who gets the red light and has to pull over seems fairly random.

If you get a red light, pull over for inspection.
If you get a red light, pull over for inspection.

Only about one out of three times crossing into Tijuana have I had to pull over. On that occasion, I was not the driver. I wasn’t asked for any form of ID and, best I recall, the agent only spoke to the driver. There was no looking inside the vehicle, or any such thing. Just follow the border agent’s instructions and you should be fine. Like our border agents, they’re looking for problems. If you’re not a problem…well, there should be no problem. Planning to cross during low volume time periods, I don’t think it has ever taken me more than 30 minutes.

The Toll Road vs. the Coastal Road

The Toll Road Option

Coming out of the border checkpoint, you’ll merge to the right, onto an overpass that will loop you around in the direction toward the coastal highways. Highway 1 is the old coast road and Highway 1D is the newer toll road. If you want to make a beeline for Ensenada, or other points south, it may be best to take the toll road. If it is your first time driving in Mexico, you may be more comfortable taking the toll road. If you want a more leisurely tour of the coast, soaking up more of the local vibe, Highway 1 may suit you fine.

From San Diego to Ensenada, this is the kind of view you will get to enjoy.
From San Diego to Ensenada, this is the kind of view you will get to enjoy.

Another factor you may want to consider is that all toll roads in Mexico are serviced by the Green Angels. The Green Angels are bilingual government employees that patrol the toll roads in green trucks. They are, essentially, a form of roadside assistance operated by the Mexican Tourism Ministry. If you have an emergency on the road in Baja California, this is the 24-hour toll free number to call for the Green Angels: 01-800-987-8224. Also, you should save your toll receipts during your trip, to show that you have been in transit on the toll road. This is in case you’ve made a pit stop along the way and have an accident, or other problems.

Be Prepared With Cash

Between the border and Ensenada are three toll stations: Playa de Tijuana, Rosarito and Ensenada. Have some cash handy in small denominations. Toll booths accept either U.S. dollars, or Mexican pesos. Prices, as well as exchange rates, are subject to change. Last time I passed through, the total was roughly $6 USD for all three tolls. Of course, you are subject to the tolls going either direction, so double that figure for a roundtrip. It probably bears mentioning at this point, that the toll roads are patrolled by the police and they enforce the speed limit. Rather than have a discussion about the “what ifs” of infractions of the law in Mexico, I will only say one thing about this. Follow the speed limit.

The Coast Road Option

If you do take the older coastal road, you will pass through towns of various sizes. You will have great views of the ocean and can easily pull off if you pass something that strikes your fancy. I have never taken Highway 1 all the way into Ensenada from Tijuana, but have traveled the majority of it. Going northward on Highway 1 there may be a military checkpoint. There was the last time I went that way, located somewhere between Puerto Nuevo and Rosarito Beach. I don’t recall exactly where it was, but it didn’t not look very temporary. So, it may, or may not, still be there. Passing through the checkpoint was not a big deal, but if it concerns you, you may want to use the toll road.

Funky little shops along Highway 1 between Tijuana and Ensenada.
Funky little shops along Highway 1 between Tijuana and Ensenada.

Whether you choose the Highway 1D toll road, or the older Highway 1, you will be able to enjoy nice views of the coast. Most of the time, the two highways are running parallel to each other. Along some stretches, they are right beside each other. Between Tijuana and Ensenada there are various points of interest along the way and they are easily accessed from either highway. In the next few sections, I’ll talk a little about some of the areas along the route. These may make good stopovers along your way. You could even catch some on your way down and others on your way back. Some of them could even be suitable for overnight stays, depending on what kind of itinerary you want to plan.

Baja Malibu

Now You’re Getting Somewhere

Baja Malibu is a short drive from the border at San Ysidro.
Baja Malibu is a short drive from the border at San Ysidro.

After crossing the border, depending on which route you take, you’ll pass the Playas de Tijuana. I don’t have much to say about that, because I’ve never checked it out. One of the next areas you come to is Baja Malibu. You’re technically still in Tijuana, but by the time you hit Baja Malibu, things have opened up quite a bit. You’ll probably feel like you’ve left Tijuana. Baja Malibu is popular with surfers. I don’t surf, but I assume it’s the first real surfing destination south of the border. If I wanted a day trip beach break across the border, this would be my go-to place. In Baja Malibu and the surrounding area are a number of residential enclaves. These tend to be gated neighborhoods and condos. There’s an RV park in the vicinity, as well.

There are a few shops and restaurants in Baja Malibu.
There are a few shops and restaurants in Baja Malibu.

Baja Malibu is on the ocean side of the highway. There is a surf shop, a convenience market and a couple of small restaurants. Even though the neighborhood of Baja Malibu proper is gated, pedestrians can pass through to the beach with no hassles. If you would like to stay overnight in the area, or even make it your home base for your whole trip, quite a few of these houses are listed on AirBnB. If you want quick access back to the border, it’s conveniently located for that. It’s easy to hit Rosarito Beach from here, too. A day trip, or two, to Ensenada is easy to manage from Baja Malibu. Keep in mind that if you went to Ensenada, or the Valle de Guadalupe, you are at least an hour from Baja Malibu. If you plan to have drinks, or sample wine, keep this in mind and plan accordingly.

Baja Malibu is a cozy little gated neighborhood.
Baja Malibu is a cozy little gated neighborhood.

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Popular Beach Enclave

Around Baja Malibu, you will notice signs for real estate for sale. A lot of expats live in the area and a lot of Mexican nationals have beach homes here.  Being a laid-back beach town so close to the border gives it a certain appeal. If you are really interested in buying a house in Baja, it’s not a bad option, in my opinion. I’ve looked at prices and, compared to the U.S., ocean view property here is a good deal. If you settle for being opposite side of the highway from the ocean, it’s an even better deal. The views can be spectacular.

Surfer catching a wave on a foggy morning in Baja Malibu.
Surfer catching a wave on a foggy morning in Baja Malibu.

From this area, you are looking out at the Los Coronado Islands. Seeing the spectacular sunsets make it tempting to stay right there. Pushing farther south, the price of Baja real estate starts to drop. You will undoubtedly see signs for real estate developments and condos from Tijuna to Ensenada. It’s a popular place for retirees and digital nomads who want access to the U.S. without hopping on a plane.

Playa Blanca is adjacent to Baja Malibu.
Playa Blanca is another subdivision adjacent to Baja Malibu.

Rosarito Beach

Welcome to Rosarito Beach.
Welcome to Rosarito Beach.

A Little About Rosarito

Going south a little further, you will find yourself in Rosarito, or Rosarito Beach. This is the first sizeable beach town you come to in Baja California. It is popular with locals and Americans both. Its popularity as a vacation destination has apparently dipped since its heyday, but you there are still plenty of visitors to Rosarito Beach. Here you will find hotels and, if you prefer, AirBnB accommodations. The Rosarito Beach Hotel is probably the largest. It is tall enough that it serves as an easy landmark for navigating the area. All that being said, I have never stayed in Rosarito. I have visited there more than once, though. If you look around online, you may see questions about crime and safety in Rosarito. Maybe that’s more of a concern than it used to be; I don’t know. I have always felt completely safe there. I always practice common sense precautions when traveling, but it helps to keep things in perspective. Crime and safety are more of a concern in my hometown than they used to be. The best endorsement I can give any place is to say that I am comfortable taking my family there.

Weekends draw a crowd at Rosarito Beach.
Weekends draw a crowd at Rosarito Beach.

What’s Happening On the Beach

The beach scene in Rosarito is different than any I’ve encountered elsewhere and I’ve been to beaches in lots of countries. On the weekends, during warm weather, it is crowded and festive. Tables with umbrellas cover much of the beach and you will see families taking up most of the space. There is plenty of eating, drinking and merry-making to be seen, or enjoyed. Mariachi bands work the crowd for tips, stopping to serenade people at their tables. There are a few spots on the beach to grab a beer. Vendors sell coconuts, fruits and snacks. Horse and pony rides are available on the beach. You are likely to see people riding their own horses on the beach, also. If I had to describe Rosarito Beach in one word, it would have to be “busy”.

Coconut vendor on Rosarito Beach.
Coconut vendor on Rosarito Beach. Once you drink the coconut water, they split them open and apply chili powder and lime juice.

What’s Happening Off the Beach

A block off the beach is the main commercial drag. Here you will find a large craft market that sells all manner of souvenirs and trinkets. After a while, you realize most stalls are selling the same things. If you keep your eyes open, though, you can find some more interesting items. Along the main street are other stores and restaurants.

The main commercial street of Rosarito Beach.
The main commercial street of Rosarito Beach.

There are some good tacquerias, a nice coffee shop and if you want to pick up some local wine, or spirits, the pharmacy is actually worthy a visit. The selection and prices on alcohol are worth a pharmacy visit. It is not the only taco shop on the street, but I’m a fan of Tacos El Paisano. One of my very favorite restaurants in Baja is Mariscos Tito’s. It is also in Rosarito, but not at the beach. Whether staying in Rosarito, or passing through, I highly recommend it if you want to get your fish taco fix.

Tacos El Paisano, Rosarito Beach.
Tacos El Paisano, Rosarito Beach serves up my favorite tacos on Rosarito Beach’s main strip.

Be sure to check out my post about my favorite fish taco joint – Mariscos Tito’s – located in Rosarito.

Working their magic at Tacos El Paisano.
Working their magic at Tacos El Paisano.

Puerto Nuevo Lobster

The lobsters are plentiful in Puerto Nuevo.
The lobsters are plentiful in Puerto Nuevo.

Proceeding down the coast toward Ensenada, you will pass the small fishing town of Puerto Nuevo. I say pass, but I actually recommend that you stop. Unless you hate lobster, that is. Lobster that is relatively inexpensive, by American standards. Puerto Nuevo is a good spot for dining on seafood, but they are famous for their lobster. Despite the small size of Puerto Nuevo, I would guess there are more than a dozen restaurants there. The challenge is in choosing one. I haven’t even scratched the surface of what Puerto Nuevo has to offer.

Restaurant Chela in Puerto Nuevo.
Restaurant Chela in Puerto Nuevo serves up lobster and other seafood treats at reasonable prices.

My experience with Restaurant Chela is worth a recommendation. You can check their hours and get a feel for the place on their Facebook page. It is not as close to the ocean as some others, but my family and I enjoy the rooftop dining there. The prices were good, the portions were large and everything tastes delicious. To be fair, if you check online reviews, there are other places that have higher rankings. There may be places with lower prices, too. My point being, it’s hard to go wrong in Puerto Nuevo. Whether you do a little research on beforehand, or show up and go with your gut instinct, you probably won’t be disappointed. A lot of people plan their lunch break in Puerto Nuevo when they travel from San Diego to Ensenada. I’m one of them.

View from the roof of Restaurant Chela in Puerto Nuevo.
View from the roof of Restaurant Chela in Puerto Nuevo.

Valle de Guadalupe

Mexico’s Answer to Napa Valley

Wineries galore in Valle de Guadalupe.
There are wineries galore in the Valle de Guadalupe.

Mexico’s wine country, the Valle de Guadalupe, is Baja California’s answer to Napa Valley. It’s quite an answer, at that. Once hailed as an up-and-coming hidden gem, I’m not sure that is really true anymore. Although their wines may not be as readily available outside of Mexico, the winery strewn valley is hardly a secret anymore. Known as the Ruta del Vino, Highway 3 splits off to the northwest where Highway 1 ends. When you reach this juncture, you are just short of hitting Ensenada. Heading into the valley takes you away from Ensenada, but even from the heart of the Valle de Guadalupe, you are only about 30 minutes away from the city.

Santo Tomas winery in the Valle de Guadalupe.
Santo Tomas winery in the Valle de Guadalupe.

The wineries here are spread out, for the most part. If you are driving yourself around, keep this in mind. You may want to plan out your day, so that you are hitting three, or four. There are a number of tours available that you can take from Ensenada. If you are staying in a hotel in Ensenada, they can almost certainly help you with tour arrangements. Doing so may enable you to hit more wineries, or at least eliminate any designated driver worries. Multiple days in the area means more wine tastings.

El Cielo winery in the Valle de Guadalupe.
El Cielo winery in the Valle de Guadalupe is a sprawling estate with vineyards, shops and restaurant.

Like wineries most everywhere, the ones in Valle de Guadalupe have tasting rooms. You can sample their wares and buy bottles of your favorites. Many of the wineries also have shops that sell various other products. Aside from growing grapes for wine, there are a number of olive orchards in the area. Locally produced olives and olive oil are sold at some wineries, as well as other artisanal food goods.

Views across the Valle de Guadalupe.
Views across the Valle de Guadalupe.

Specialized Tours Are A Thing

The region has become popular enough that wine tours come directly from San Diego. So, if you want to forego other adventures in Baja, you can always travel down just for the wine. I don’t consider myself a wine expert, but I do drink wine and have been visited a my share of wineries. I would consider the Valle de Guadalupe to be one of the more unique wine regions in the world. There would be no shame in making a border crossing simply to sample what they have to offer. For my tastes, though, I prefer to tie it in to a longer stay.

Bibayoff winery in the Valle de Guadalupe.
Bibayoff winery in the Valle de Guadalupe.

Did You Say Russian? Sí .

One of the interesting things about the Valle de Guadalupe is the area’s Russian heritage. That may seem unexpected, but in the early 20th Century, a sizable community of Russian immigrants established themselves in the valley. A handful of businesses are still run by descendants of these immigrant. A shift in fortunes drove most of the Russians to the United States, but some stayed. Since that time, they have intermarried into the broader Mexican population, but Russian surnames and remnants of their heritage are still present. If you visit the Santo Tomas winery, you can see the nearby Russian cemetery. The Bibayoff winery is owned and operated by Russian descendants. They maintain a small museum onsite dedicated to their unique heritage. There is another Russian museum located on the premises of the Restaurante Familia Samarin. This eatery is a bit off of Highway 3, in the town of Guadalupe. If you have no interest in the museum, I would still recommend a visit. The restaurant is a real treat and they also have a retail shop with local gourmet food products.

Stained glass at Bibayoff Winery pays homage to their Russian heritage.
Stained glass at Bibayoff Winery pays homage to their Russian heritage.

You can learn more about Restaurante Familia Samarin by checking out my review HERE.

Restaurante Familia Samarin serves Russian-Mexican cuisine in the town of Guadalupe.
Restaurante Familia Samarin serves Russian-Mexican cuisine in the town of Guadalupe.

Staying in the Valley Is An Option

There are a variety of boutique hotel options in the Valle de Guadalupe. A search of AirBnb will turn up multiple options, as well. I think a few days staying right in the valley makes for a great couple getaway. Idle away the days with wine tastings and explore the diverse and distinguished restaurant scene. If you opt to stay in Ensenada, know that you are still in easy reach of wine country.

Stay on the Bay at Quintas Papagayo

Bayfront Bungalows

Another beautiful Baja sunset.
Another beautiful Baja sunset.

Quintas Papagayo is right on the Bahia de Todos Santos (All Saints Bay). Just as you are coming into Ensenada, you will see this gated complex on your right. If you are looking for easy-access, reasonably priced accommodations with an ocean view, I would suggest at least giving Quintas Papagayo a look.

Quintas Papagayo chalets.
The Quintas Papagayo chalets are mere feet from the water.

This place was originally built back in what I would call the classic car era. It is not a motel, but has that retro Route 66 vibe to it. The older sections are little beach bungalows, although they call them chalets. There are new, more contemporary units there, as well. I have not stayed in the newer ones myself. I like the look and feel of the old units. There is something quaint and nostalgic about them. Another important feature is that many of older bungalows are closest the water.

View of Ensenada cruise port.
Zoomed in view of Ensenada cruise port from Quintas Papagayo. It is actually a good distance away.

The Quintas Papagayo complex is on the water, but unfortunately, it is not beachfront. This bayfront real estate has rocks lining the shore. That’s fine with me. I can always drive to a sand beach. There is also a swimming pool on site. The views of cruise ships coming and going and the marina next door at the Hotel Coral y Marina appeal to my tastes. The water front units have nothing more than a paved path and some rocks separating them from the water. Sitting outside, you can hear the sea lions out in the bay. In the mornings, sitting on the rocks with my coffee listening to the sea lions, as the sun burns off the haze puts me all the way into my chill zone.

Outdoor area of a chalet at Quintas Papagayo.
Outdoor area of a chalet at Quintas Papagayo.

Location, Location

If you have your own car, Quintas Papagayo is easy striking distance to the Valle de Guadalupe, or into central Ensenada. There is a restaurant on site and a couple of eating options within walking distance. You’re also just a few blocks distance from a supermarket. The units have kitchens, so you can prepare some of your meals at “home”. The older chalets have lots of traditional tile work and finished wood interiors that say Mexico in a way that many newer places do not. There are even fire places for the colder months.

Hotel Coral y Marina sunset in Ensenada.
Hotel Coral y Marina sunset in Ensenada, as seen from Quintas Papagayo.

To book a unit at Quintas Papagayo, you can either do so directly through their own website, or elsewhere. Most of the units are privately owned, so some are listed on AirBnb and other booking sites. I have used AirBnB in the past, but would have no problem booking through Quintas Papagayo’s proprietary site. In fact, regardless of who you book through, you check in at their front office, just as you would at a hotel, or similar accommodation.

Paved path along the bay at Quintas Papagayo.
A paved path along the bay at Quintas Papagayo connects to Hotel Coral y Marina next door.

What To Expect

Free parking is available for all units. The stand-alone chalets have their own covered parking parking spots. A typical chalet with have two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and combination living room / dining room.  A small hallway leads from the common area to the other rooms. In at least some of the chalets, the kitchen has windows that open out to a covered outdoor dining area. Tile countertops on the inside and outside, let you dine casually in proximity to the cooking. An outdoor picnic table and grill round out the cooking and dining options in some units.

Bienvenidos Quintas Papagayo.
Bienvenidos Quintas Papagayo.

Most of the people we encountered that were guests at Quintas Papagayo were from elsewhere in Mexico. The others were from the United States. My family and I were the only people that seemed to be from far away. The other Americans were from California, making a short Baja California getaway. Actually, the majority of people we’ve interacted with in Baja California were either from one of the bordering U.S. states, or were from Mexico. I’m sure there are plenty of people who, like us, visit from farther away, but it didn’t seem to be the norm. Everyone, Americans and Mexicans alike, seem surprised to hear we come all the way from Tennessee to visit Baja California Norte.

Kitchen view in a Quintas Papagayo chalet.
Kitchen view in a Quintas Papagayo chalet.

Care For A Hotel Instead?

Obviously, there are other Ensenada hotels to choose from. As I mentioned, the Hotel Coral y Marina is nextdoor to Quintas Papagayo and is possibly the nicest traditional hotel in Ensenada. I haven’t stayed there, but have priced their rooms online and consider them to be quite reasonable. If I wanted something more upscale, that would probably be my choice. Aside from the comforts and amenities they provide, you benefit from essentially the same great location as Quintas Papagayo. The hotel arranges shuttles and tours. That is something to keep in mind, particularly if you want to explore the Valle de Guadalupe.

La Bufadora Excursion

One of Baja’s Biggest Attractions

There are plenty of ways to occupy yourself in Ensenada. Markets, restaurants and souvenir shops abound. Some of these I may cover in the future, but for this post I’ll focus on a popular excursion that will take you south of Ensenada. If you come in on a cruise ship, this will undoubtedly be one of the excursions on offer. If you are staying in a hotel, they should be able to hook you up with a tour. If, like me, you do your own driving, it’s an easy drive that gives you a bit more feel for the region.

Photo op Ensenada sign.
Photo op Ensenada sign at La Bufadora.

Although La Bufadora is commonly billed as being in Ensenada, that’s not completely true. It is in the Ensenada area. If you took my recommendation and stayed at either Quintas Papagayo, or Hotel Coral y Marina, it’s roughly an hour away. If you happen to be staying in the Valle de Guadalupe, you can add another half an hour that. From central Ensenada, depending on location, it may be more like 30-45 minutes.

La Bufadora doing its thing.
La Bufadora doing its thing.

So, What Exactly Is It?

So, what is La Bufadora? La Bufadora is a marine geyser, or blow hole. It’s one of the largest in North America. The ocean water pushes into holes in the rock face of the cliffs, resulting in high plumes of water shooting into the air. It’s kind of cool to watch, especially if you’ve never seen a marine geyser. Just as much fun as seeing this natural wonder is visiting the colorful and lively market that lines both sides of the road leading to the geyser. Seeing the blow hole for the first time was okay, but if I went back, it’d be to wander through the marketplace.

The market trail leading to La Bufadora.
The market trail leading to La Bufadora.

Once you park, or disembark your tour bus, you walk down the last stretch of road to La Bufadora. Lining both sides are vendors and shops hawking all kinds of wares. There are clothes, souvenirs, food, shady looking pharmacies and who knows what else. The vendors will call to you and try to lure you in, but they’re not as aggressive as tourist traps in some other countries.

The food and souvenirs are both plentiful at La Bufadora.
The food and souvenirs are both plentiful at La Bufadora.

The quality of goods ranges from cheap and tacky to handmade and unique. Overall, it is a colorful, lively, fun experience. If you don’t like crowds, or souvenir markets aren’t your scene, you will still have to endure it to get to the blow hole. On the other hand, if you are open to soaking up the full experience, grab a bag of churros and take your time strolling through what could be called “the gauntlet”.

Heading Back to the Border

All Good Things Come To An End

Alright. I think I’ve given you enough to get you started planning your Baja California adventure. Once it’s time to head back to the border, you simply follow the instructions in reverse. Maybe you’ll want to switch things up a little. If you took the toll road down, maybe you can take Highway 1 back. Whichever stops you missed on the first leg can be checked off as you go from Ensenada to San Diego. If you’re lucky, you’ve learned of some must-see sites during your trip that I know nothing about. New discoveries always add to the sense of adventure, even on a well-planned itinerary.

Crossing back into San Diego, vendors have a captive audience.
Crossing back into San Diego, vendors have a captive audience.

The only thing left to discuss, then, is what happens when you get back to the U.S. – Mexico border. Crossing back into the United States at San Ysidro is more of an ordeal that crossing into Mexico was at the beginning of your trip. Once you get close enough, you will see that the cars are approaching the border in (mostly) orderly lanes. Depending on the wait times, you may find yourself at a near standstill miles away from actual port of entry. Border wait times are probably the single biggest factor you need to mindful of when returning north. They can vary wildly by time and day. The beginning and end of weekends are high traffic and best avoided if you are flexible with your travel dates.

Border churros are the best churros.
Border churros are the best churros.

Looking For the Bright Side

Fortunately, there are a couple of things that can ease the burden of your return crossing. First, there is a website that will tell you the current and average wait times. If you start watching these stats in advance of your trip, you may be able to better gauge your target crossing time. You can also check on the day of and adjust your departure, if you can. If you have a flight to catch, or some other hard deadline to meet, I recommend hitting the border as early as possible to play it safe.

It's stop and go all the way into San Diego from Tijuana.
It’s stop and go all the way into San Diego from Tijuana.

The second thing the border crossing has going for it is that it has a sort of marketplace atmosphere to it. There are vendors plying their way up and down the lanes of traffic selling all sorts of things. I always get churros at the border. I don’t know exactly what makes them taste better, or if it’s my imagination. Either way, I love churros at the border. Other snacks and drinks are available, also.

Passing the Time

The trinkets tend to be on the cheap and chintzy side, but sometimes you might see some cool item that makes for a good last-minute impulse purchase. If what you want doesn’t pass by your vehicle, sometimes you yell across to get someone’s attention. As you get closer, there are actual stores on the side of the road. Vendors will run back and forth for you to grab something you want to buy. If the lines are moving slow enough, passengers could have time to get out, walk to the stores, then come back.

My wait times at the border have ranged from as low as an hour-ish to 3 ½ hours. Even with distractions and churros, I was getting pretty tired of the stop and go traffic. Needless to say, you should make sure you use the restroom before crossing the border. For the driver, especially, a bathroom emergency is difficult to deal with in gridlock traffic. Take it easy on the beverages.

Negotiating Customs and Immigration

The final leg back into San Diego from Baja California.
The final leg back into San Diego from Baja California.

Once you’re on the final approach to the San Ysidro border checkpoint, the vendors and panhandlers can’t go any further. You are now in American controlled territory. Border patrol agents, some with dogs, will be walking among the vehicles. Just stay in your lane and have your passports ready. You may not have needed to show I.D. going into Mexico, but everyone must show a valid I.D. coming into the States.

Border agent at San Ysidro.
Border agents at San Ysidro walk through traffic, checking out vehicles.

When you finally make it to the customs and immigration officer, you will be pulled up to what looks like a toll booth. The officer will examine your passports and ask some questions. They may, or may not, want to see inside your vehicle. I have been fortunate enough to never have my vehicle searched. Every time across, though, there have been cars around me being physically checked. If you’re not transporting any prohibited items, being checked won’t be a problem. It does add time to your crossing, so hopefully you’ll be spared the extra check.

Adios, Until Next Time

As long as it takes to get back into California, once you’re in, off you go. When the border agent gives you the okay to proceed, you’re merging onto I-5 within a couple of minutes and zooming back towards San Diego. For all the similarities in the looks and geography between California and Baja California, I am always struck by the differences when I leave Mexico. For me, the feeling is always more pronounced even than when I arrive in Tijuana.

Baja California courtyard door.
The sights and sounds of Baja California are sure to stick with you long after your trip.

To cap off the trip and celebrate a successful return, I like to hit In-N-Out Burger. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a hamburger in Mexico and, honestly, I don’t know why I would. Although I do like an In-N-Out Burger, part of me suspects I’m just trying to fill the void that will remain empty until my next trip from San Diego to Ensenada.

From San Diego to Ensenada
From San Diego to Ensenada. Pin it!

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