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Arriving in Jamaica

Most tourists flying to Jamaica arrive at the Donald Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay. The stretch of Jamaica’s north coast from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios encompasses a large percentage of the country’s primary tourist zone. Besides those visitors arriving by plane, there are literally boatloads of tourists arriving every week to Jamaica’s north coast. Cruise ship terminals are located in Montego Bay, Falmouth and Ocho Rios.

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Flight into Montego Bay
A Southwest Airlines flight on its final approach into Montego Bay.

The Distance from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios

The distance from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios is just over 60 miles. That means the country’s busiest tourism airport and 3 cruise ship ports are situated in a relatively compact area. Of course, the crystal clear waters and pristine beaches are one of the island’s biggest draws. Not surprisingly then, a rather narrow strip of coast from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios is where most of the tourism industry is focused. Despite this heavy concentration, there is so much more to Jamaica than what lies along the north coast. That being said, this particular guide will focus on that specific area of Jamaica.

Along the Highway from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios.
Along the Highway from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios.

Driving in Jamaica

When I travel to Jamaica, I do so independently and rent a car. Not everyone will be comfortable doing that, especially on their first visit. In Jamaica, they drive on the left side of the road. In most of the country, the roads are not as well-built, or well-maintained, as in most of North America, or Europe. Given this combination of factors, the fast and, sometimes aggressive, local driving style is more than most tourists want to deal with. I get it.

One of the Easiest Areas to Drive

If you think you do want to drive in Jamaica, though, there’s really no better part of the island to get your feet wet. The stretch of highway from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios is relatively straight. It is also in good condition, especially compared to some rural areas. There is a lot to see and do without having your own vehicle. However, having a car and some independence opens up even more possibilities. I’m always hesitant to recommend driving to first time visitors. Once you’ve got a trip under your belt, though, give it some consideration.

Rental Car Options

There are a number of car rental companies available at the Montego Bay airport. Personally, I use Island Car Rental. Their prices have always been reasonable and I’ve never had any issues with them. Also, I prefer to support the local economy by supporting local companies.

Jamaica's quintessential refreshment.
Jamaica’s quintessential refreshment.

Resort Shuttles

If you are not renting a car, you’ll need to decide how to get around. Where you stay and how you plan to spend your time will help dictate your decision. If you are staying in an all-inclusive resort, or even other hotels, you will most likely have a shuttle to take you to your destination. Resorts are dotted all along the way from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios. How long it takes will, obviously, depend on how far from the airport you are staying. Being on an all-inclusive may also mean you don’t get out and see much else. That would be a shame, in my opinion. Even if you’re staying at an all-inclusive, try to get out and experience the local culture.

The Knutsford Express

If you are staying in Ocho Rios, your property may have a shuttle. If not, there is another good option. The Knutsford Express offers a nice, comfortable a bus ride from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios. As a bonus, they have a terminal right at the Donald Sangster Airport in Montego Bay. Besides Ocho Rios, they offer routes to a number of other cities and towns around the island. The terminal in Ocho Rios is at the popular Island Village Shopping Center. From there, it may still be a bit of distance to your final destination. The staff should be able to help you negotiate a taxi the rest of the way, if you simply ask for assistance.

Conveniently Located Terminal

When I’m in Ocho Rios, I tend to stay at either Turtle Beach Towers, or Fisherman’s Point, both of which are across the street from Island Village. Once you disembark from the Knutsford Express, you can easily walk to either of these places. If you choose to branch out to other parts of the island during your stay, the convenience of the Knutsford Express could be worth your while for that, as well. Their buses are large, comfortable, air-conditioned, coach-style buses. Since I rent my own car, I do not have personal experience with the Knutsford Express. I have only heard good things about them and their customer service, though. I have also seen their buses and would feel completely comfortable and safe in booking with them.

Traditional Jamaican fishing boat.
Traditional Jamaican fishing boats can be seen all along the coast.

Montego Bay

Montego Bay gets its fair share of tourists. It is Jamaica’s second city, behind the capital of Kingston. It has also long been known as a tourist destination. In more recent years, Montego Bay has also developed a more negative reputation than it once held and, unfortunately, it’s not completely undeserved. There are plenty of all-inclusive resorts in Montego Bay. They tend to be on the side of town going towards Ocho Rios. This is the side of town most visitors see if they venture outside the resorts. There is also Montego Bay’s famed “hip strip”, along Gloucester Avenue. Here you’ll find plenty of souvenir shops, restaurants and other businesses meant to allure tourists.

Wading sea bird on a Jamaican beach.
Turquoise waters and a wading sea bird – part of Jamaica’s endless natural beauty.

I’ll be honest here. Montego Bay has never been my favorite part of Jamaica. I grew up on the other side of the island and never spent much time in Mo Bay (as it is colloquially known). When we went to the north coast, we usually went to the Ocho Rios area. Even now, that’s where I normally go for some sea and sun. None of that’s to dismiss Montego Bay, but it is a grittier place than it used to be. Still, if you stick to the tourist areas, there’s no reason to avoid Montego Bay.

Use Common Sense and Enjoy Yourself

Yes, you may see some of that city’s problems in the news, but thousands of visitors happily vacation there every year. The same advice should apply as in any city, including wherever you’re from. Avoid high crime areas and you’re unlikely to be a crime victim. If you don’t know which areas to avoid and which are okay, ask a local. Jamaicans are friendly people and the vast majority are happy to steer you in the right direction.

Rose Hall

Coming out of Montego Bay, heading east toward Ocho Rios, one of the popular historic sites you will pass is the Rose Hall Great House. This is the site of an old plantation, infamous for its former owner, Annie Palmer. Annie Palmer is called the “White Witch of Rose Hall” in popular legend and is believed to have murdered multiple husbands. A popular novel was written about her, which provides some historical backdrop, albeit it fictional and sensationalized. You can tour the great house and grounds. If you are not traveling independently, your resort can likely set you up with a tour and for cruise passengers, you can check the available excursions. Rose Hall is a common destination for day visitors and longer term vacationers alike.

Rose Hall Area Accommodations

Among the resorts in the vicinity of Rose Hall are Half Moon, Seacastles, Jewel Grande Montego Bay Resort, Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall, Hilton Rose Hall Resort and Iberostar Selection Rose Hall Suites. There are numerous shops and restaurants in the area, as well, for anyone wishing to venture outside their resort. This area really provides no cause for concern, in my opinion, if you wanted to wander around a bit. Of course, if you have any questions, or qualms, just ask the staff at your hotel for suggestions.

Falmouth

As you continue eastward, the highway meanders along the coast, providing frequent panoramas of the turquoise Caribbean Sea. You’ll pass through little towns along the way and will certainly notice a number of other hotels and resorts scattered along the coast. In one of the areas where the highway veers away from the sea, you will pass by Falmouth. Falmouth itself is on the waterfront, so if you want to visit, you’ll have to take a small detour off the highway. In recent years, this old seaside town has been revitalized. The impetus for this was the decision to make Falmouth another cruise ship port.

If you arrive in Jamaica onboard a cruise ship at Falmouth, there will no doubt be an array of excursions available to you. Some of the attractions are in close proximity to Falmouth, but many will involve venturing further afield. The Martha Brae River is close to Falmouth and bamboo raft tours are available there. The town of Falmouth itself is somewhat historic and worth a look, although it is not a big place. There are, not surpisingly, beaches nearby for those who don’t want to head off for more adventurous activities.

Discovery Bay

Columbus Park

Moving on, it won’t be long until you come to Discovery Bay. This town, and the bay its named after, takes its name from Christopher Columbus’ arrival here in the 15th Century. In fact, there is a small park here called Columbus Park. There are few historical artifacts to see here, as well as a nice view of the bay. Although there’s not a whole lot to the park, I consider Discovery Bay to be a decent pit stop location. There are usually vendors at Columbus Park selling crafts, as well as fruits and produce. Personally, I’ve found it to be a pretty convenient and reliable place to stock up on fresh fruit when I arrive on the island.

Columbus Park, Discovery Bay, Jamaica.
Columbus Park, Discovery Bay, Jamaica.

Things to Look For in Discovery Bay

Puerto Seco Beach is located in Discovery Bay and has undergone some rejuvenation in the past few years. There are, also, a few restaurants and an easy access gas station right on the main road. The Texaco Station in Discovery Bay has a patty shop next door, if you want to grab some cheap eats on the go. If you aren’t familiar with Jamaican patties, you definitely need to have some while you’re there. They are the quintessential Jamaican fast food. The name “patty” may conjure images of something like a hamburger patty, but Jamaican patties are actually more akin to empenadas. Right behind the Texaco is another fruit stand you may want to check out. I haven’t had great luck finding what I’ve wanted at that stand, but to be fair, availability varies everywhere. That’s sort of the nature of buying fresh fruits and produce, regardless of what country you’re in.

The Ultimate Jerk Center

When I fly into Montego Bay, I intentionally book my flights so that I arrive sometime around midday. By the time I get my luggage, clear customs and pick up my rental car, I usually end up in Discovery Bay in the early afternoon – ready for some lunch. It has become the tradition for my family to have lunch in Discovery Bay on our arrival day. Our spot is The Ultimate Jerk Center. Discovery Bay is not a very big town, so once you pass the “downtown”, be on the lookout. The Texaco I mentioned will be on your right, if you’re heading toward Ocho Rios. That junction is, essentially, the main commercial center of Discovery Bay that is on the highway.

The Ultimate Jerk Center
The Ultimate Jerk Center in Discovery Bay, Jamaica is a solid choice for authentic jerk.

The Ultimate Jerk Center will be on the left, once you clear that commercial neighborhood. The restaurant occupies a fairly large area. It has a bar and plenty of outdoor seating. There will be a walk-up window where you place your order. Then you wait at the counter until your order number is called. If none of this seems obvious to you when you arrive, ask one of the employees how to go about ordering. For a more detailed review of The Ultimate Jerk Center, I actually wrote a whole blog post about it. If you love real Jamaican jerk, I’ve even written a how-to guide that will teach you how to make it at home.

Green Grotto Cave

Entrance to Green Grotto Cave in Jamaica
Green Grotto Cave, in Discovery Bay, is right beside the highway as you go from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios.

Right across the street from The Ultimate Jerk Center is the Green Grotto Cave. This cave system is unique, in that it largely above ground, rather than being subterranean. There is a small underground lake inside the cave, too. For years, part of the cave tour involved a little boat ride on the underground lake. Unfortunately, that has been discontinued (unless they’ve started it back very recently), but they still take you down to see it. Aside from the bats that one would expect in a cave, lots of cave swallows have their nests near the entrance. If you’re waiting for the next tour to begin, the swallows flitting back and forth provide a little lowkey entertainment.

Inside Green Grotto Cave in Discovery Bay, Jamaica.
Green Grotto Cave, located between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, is one of Jamaica’s most popular natural attractions.

Runaway Bay

Flavour’s Beach

The next town you’ll come to is Runaway Bay. Probably the most popular hotel there is the Franklyn D Resort and Spa. There’s a golf course nearby, also. The reason I go to Runaway Bay, though, is to the beach. The main beach at Runaway Bay is Cardiff Hall Beach, but it is better known locally as Flavour’s Beach. The latter name is taken from Flavour’s Beach Bar and Restaurant. There is a traffic light right at the entrance, plus you’ll see signs for Flavour’s. Free public parking is available right beside the bar/restaurant.

Cardiff Hall Beach, popularly known as Flavour's Beach.
Cardiff Hall Beach, popularly known as Flavour’s Beach, is located in Runaway Bay.

Flavour’s Beach is my family’s go-to beach. Even though we may be staying in Ocho Rios, we make the drive to Runaway Bay. It’s only about a 30-minute drive, each way, from Ochie (the local slang Ocho Rios). The beach here is nice and, especially on a weekday, it’s rarely crowded. Although there may be a few tourists, this is more of a local’s beach. All of that combined makes it worth the drive for me.

Flavour’s Restaurant and Bar

As for the restaurant, I have eaten there, but I don’t go for the food. The service was slow, even by Jamaican standards, and the food was rather average. It was a little pricey, too. Honestly, I try to time our beach excursions so that we’re not stuck there for lunch. If you’re not able to time it that way, it’s not that the food is bad. I just wouldn’t go there specifically for the purpose of eating. The bar, on the other hand, is convenient if you’re working up a sweat in the sun. At the bar, the prices are geared more towards locals, which is a plus. One of the vendors by the beach is usually selling jelly coconuts, too, if you want something more naturally refreshing.

Flavour's Beach Bar and Restaurant in Runaway Bay, Jamaica.
Flavour’s Beach Bar and Restaurant in Runaway Bay.

Rental Villas

It bears mentioning that only a few hundred yards down the beach from Flavour’s are some private rental properties that are right on the beach. I’ve never stayed in any of them, but I have looked them up online. The prices may be a bit too rich for budget travelers, but they are nice places. I have seriously considered booking one, or more, of them for a group trip someday. There are many other houses and villas between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. Check AirBnB to see what’s available. New to AirBnB? You can get a $30 credit if you sign up with my invitation code.

Private Villa in Runaway Bay
A private villa for rent near Flavour’s Beach in Runaway Bay, Jamaica.

Sign up for AirBnb with my invitation code and receive a $30 credit.

Priory & St. Ann’s Bay

Before you get to Ocho Rios, you pass through a couple of small towns in short succession. The communities of Priory and St. Ann’s Bay have a number of villas and hotels clustered around them. Most are off the main highway. As a word of caution, if you are driving, take care through this stretch. The road narrows here, with shops and houses on either side. There isn’t much of a shoulder, but there will be vehicles parked there anyway. Look for traffic coming in and out of the main road and, most importantly, watch for pedestrians. None of this is a big deal, but it’s worth being aware. Most of the highway from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios is more open and less congested. The closer you get to Ocho Rios, you will see things getting a little more crowded.

Roadside in St. Ann's Bay
Along the road in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica

Chukka Cove

Just before you drive through Priory and St. Ann’s Bay, you pass a place called Llandovery. There’s a good chance you won’t even be aware of it, except you will see Chukka Cove on your left. Keep this in mind for later, if you’ve haven’t planned ahead. Chukka Caribbean Adventures is a popular source for tourist activities. If you stay right in Ocho Rios, you will probably notice their large catamaran. They have a variety of activities available, but the only one I have partaken of is horseback riding. My last visit to Jamaica, my daughter and I went horseback riding at Chukka Cove and we had a good time.

Chukka Cove, Jamaica
Chukka Cove offers horseback riding and other adventures near Ocho Rios.

If you choose Chukka for their horseback tour, they will come to pick you up wherever you are staying. They provide shuttle service to all the area hotels and resorts, but they will also pick you up at least some of the condo complexes. Even though I have my own car, we still took the complimentary shuttle. In fact, I don’t know that I could have found the place on my own, if they’d allowed it. Where they do the horse-riding tours is separate from the main Chukka Cove location you see from the highway.

Chukka Adventures offers catamaran cruises out of Ocho Rios.
Besides horseback riding, Chukka Adventures offers other excursion, such as catamaran cruises out of Ocho Rios.

As for the time spent riding horses, we had a good time. The staff is excellent. My daughter had never ridden a horse and they made sure she was comfortable and looked after. After a nice trail ride through what was once a sugar plantation, you get to ride in the sea. The views along the way, especially when you arrive at the water, are pretty awesome.

North Coast Scenery in Jamaica.
A scene along Jamaica’s north coast, near Ocho Rios.

Arriving in Ocho Rios

From the airport in Montego Bay to Ocho Rios is about an hour and forty-five minutes, if you don’t stop anywhere along the way. In other words, it’s taken longer to write this blog post than to drive to Ochie from Mo Bay. When your trip is over, you simply retrace your steps from Ocho Rios to Montego Bay. Let’s not worry about that yet, though. This virtual trip is just getting started. You are now arriving in Ocho Rios.

The Ocho Rios cruise port seen from Fisherman's Point.
The Ocho Rios cruise port seen from Fisherman’s Point condos.

Looking for accommodations in Ocho Rios? Read our review of Turtle Beach Towers.

As you come into town, you’ll start to see signs for some major tourist attractions. Namely, you’ll pass the entrances to Dunn’s River Falls and Mystic Mountain Rainforest, in that order. Both will be on your right, with the sea to your left. Lastly, on the sea side of the road, you’ll pass Dolphin Cove. After that, you are entering almost immediately into Ocho Rios. If you happen to choose Turtle Beach Towers, or Fisherman’s Point, you’re going to make a left pretty quickly.

Turtle Beach Towers seen from Island Village Shopping Center.
Looking toward Turtle Beach Towers from Island Village Shopping Center.

If you’re staying at one of the other Ocho Rios hotels, or resorts, in town, you have just a bit further to go. From here on out, I’ll focus on what to do in Ocho Rios. I certainly haven’t done everything there is to do, or eaten at every restaurant. However, this guide offers some insight and reviews that should get you give you plenty to occupy your time. Trust me, there are plenty of things to do in Ocho Rios and the surrounding area.

Ocho Rios Bay Beach (aka Turtle Beach)

Mahogany Beach in Ocho Rios
Ocho Rios Bay Beach, sometimes called Turtle Beach, is centrally located in Ocho Rios.

The main beach in Ocho Rios is hard to miss and many of the town’s hotels and condos are located on, or near, the beach. I have some nostalgia for this beach, because I’ve been going there since I was a young boy. It’s actually where I learned to swim. If you’re staying in Ocho Rios, it is hard to beat it for convenience. Truth be told, though, there are other, less crowded, less touristy beaches that I prefer.

If you have some means of transportation, I would recommend exploring different beaches. If not, there’s nothing wrong with this beach. Besides swimming and soaking up sun rays, you can go a on a glass bottom boat ride to the reef, or engage various other paid activities. You should note that some stretches of the beach have lounge chairs and other amenities which may only be for the patrons of certain hotels.

Konoko Falls

The Dunns River Hype

If you’ve ever seen a TV commercial for Jamaica, you have almost certainly seen footage of the famous Dunn’s River Falls, located on the outskirts of Ocho Rios. From tourism brochures to posters and more, these impressive cascades are one of the most recognizable icons of the island, long known as the land of wood and water.

What you might not know, though, is that Jamaica is practically teeming with spring fed rivers, often set in beautiful, lush rain forests and, quite often, featuring picturesque waterfalls. It is true that Dunn’s River is one of the largest and most impressive of the numerous waterfalls on the island. It is also easily accessible from some of the country’s main tourist hubs. However, it is also more likely to be packed with tourists. When I was a kid, it was not so crowded and people were free to climb the falls freely, without joining one of those human daisy chains of hand holding tourists being guided to the top. Forgive me if it sounds judgmental, but neither my nostalgia for simpler days, nor my dignity, will allow me to climb the falls in such a manner.

View of Ocho Rios from Konoko Falls.
Looking down at Ocho Rios from Konoko Fall provides a great, panoramic view.

Waterfall Alternatives

This article isn’t really about Dunn’s River, though. It’s about the fact that there are alternatives and some are quite nearby. One such place is Konoko Falls and Park. Perched in the mountains overlooking the town of Ocho Rios, the Konoko Falls are smaller than their more famous counterpart, but you can enjoy their beauty in a less crowded and more unobstructed manner. Yes, they provide guides, but you’re given more freedom of movement and the entire experience seems a tad less orchestrated. Aside from the cool waters of the tumbling falls, you are surrounded by a lush, well-appointed botanical garden.

Part of Konoko Falls in Ocho Rios.
A Konoko Falls has a number of refreshing wading pools for those not up to the challenge of a full climb.

Things to Do

Certainly, the falls and the botanical garden are the main attractions, one serving to highlight the other, but there are a few other items of interest on the grounds. A small, simple museum provides visitors with an overview of both the Taino Indian heritage of the area, as well as a look at the history of slavery on the island. Although the museum is, essentially, a one room display area, it does well at providing a summary of its subject manner. For those unfamiliar with the history of Jamaica, it is worth the extra few minutes to pop into the museum.

Towering palm trees in the botanical gardens at Konoko Falls.
Towering palm trees in the botanical gardens at Konoko Falls.

Retail and Restaurant Amenities

A gift shop is located in the Spanish courtyard area of the park and there are also a couple of restaurant options. Although I’ve not eaten there, there are bars located at both on-site eateries, so I did enjoy a refreshing beverage at the Arawak Jerk Pit. Although I can’t speak from personal experience about the quality of the food, I would say by the looks of the actual jerk pit, they take their cooking seriously. I found myself pondering how hard it would be to build a pit like that in my backyard.

Getting There

Prices will vary, depending on what you choose to do at Konoko Falls, but they accept cash (US or Jamaican), travelers checks and major credit cards. Personally, I would recommend setting aside a half day, give or take, to enjoy the waterfalls and grounds. If you are staying in Ocho Rios, it’s only a ten-minute drive, or less, from the downtown area. Inquire with your hotel about the best transportation options to get there. If you have your own car, basically you get on the A3 and turn right onto Shaw Park Road, just past Ocho Rios High School. Simply follow the signs the rest of the short distance up the mountainside.

Dolphin Cove

When I think of Dolphin Cove in Ocho Rios, Jamaica the first word that comes to mind is expensive. There, I said it. It costs a lot of money. Period. Maybe you can afford to spend a lot of money, maybe you can’t. Maybe you really can’t afford it, but you spend it anyway. Everyone’s interests and financial situations are different, but whether or not you think Dolphin Cove is a good value, relatively speaking, understand that your day there will most likely cost more than a day at Disney World. From my own experience, I can tell you that for what I paid for my family of three to visit Dolphin Cove, I could have brought another person to Jamaica with us.

Dolphin Cove in Ocho Rios
Retail shops at Dolphin Cove, Ocho Rios.

Weighing Your Options

So, am I telling you not to go? Nope. Not at all. I’m just being up front with you. On our trip, my family decided to do one, big, expensive touristy thing and Dolphin Cove was our choice. The cost has given me pause when it comes to recommending the place, but the reality is – we had a blast! We swam with dolphins! Dolphin Cove is generally cited as the #1 tourist attraction in Jamaica and, in fact, we were far from being alone when we visited. Clearly, people love the place and it continues to be a fond memory for my family.

The grounds of Dolphin Cove are gorgeous. Much of the ascetic beauty is simply the natural environment of the tropical vegetation, coupled with the clear, turquoise waters of the Caribbean. The developers of Dolphin Cove did a good job of blending their attraction into its surroundings, so the natural and man-made complement each other quite well, for the most part.

Dolphins, the stars of the show.
The real stars of the show at Dolphin Cove are, of course, the dolphins.

Getting Friendly with Dolphins

Of course, the highlight of this destination is the dolphins and if you do nothing other than pay for general admission to the park, you will definitely see some dolphins. Given the fact that you can walk pretty close to the dolphin areas and that the water is so clear, you’re going to see them. It’s a given. However, I can’t imagine that too many people that visit Dolphin Cove don’t want to get in the water and have a personal experience with these lovable marine mammals. Why wouldn’t you? Afraid of water, or can’t swim? Okay, so maybe some people just want to look, but we wanted some personal time with a dolphin and you probably would, too. Different “experiences” come with a different price tag. You can wade in and touch a dolphin, you can swim with a dolphin (which is what we did), or you can get the two dolphin experience. Your comfort level in the water, as well as your pocketbook, will probably steer your decision on which to choose.

Get Package and Pricing Information for Dolphin Cove, Ocho Rios, or any Dolphin Discovery attractions worldwide.

Shark Encounters

There is also an opportunity to have a “shark encounter”. This involves a separate, fairly hefty fee, but if you have a thing for sharks, maybe you’ll want to spend the extra money. If so, you will wade into the waters where you can touch, feed and give a hug to a nurse shark. Nurse sharks are known for being pretty docile and, although they can get up to 14 feet in length, the ones at Dolphin Cove are not that large. It’s a pretty mild shark encounter, not like descending underwater in a cage, while a great white circles you hungrily. From the boardwalk, you can easily see the show, listen to the employees tell you all about the sharks and watch as other people pet the big fish. It’s free to watch.

Lovebird at Dolphin Cove
You can also encounter lovebirds, parrots and more at Dolphin Cove, Ocho Rios.

Other On-Site Activities

Most of the other activities on site are included with your admission. There are shops, craft vendors, a restaurant and if you want a photo package of your dolphin experience, make sure to factor those into your budget. For no additional charge, though, you can walk along the lovely Jungle Trail, where you’ll encounter parrots, love birds and rabbits (yeah, I don’t get the connection either, but my daughter loves rabbits, so it was all good). You can take an excursion on a glass bottomed kayak, or let a guide zoom you down the coast a bit in a mini-boat.

Pet a Stingray

Another experience you can have with an aquatic critter is actually included in the regular admission price and, for me, I thought it was more interesting than the sharks. You can get into the water with and give a belly rub to a stingray. Don’t worry, though. Their barbs are removed, so they’re not going to impale you, or anything quite so vacation ending as that.

Dolphin Cove Beach
Dolphin Cove has its own small, private beach.

Swimming with dolphins is an unforgettable time and Dolphin Cove does a great job of providing a safe, fun filled environment to do just that and so much more. Although I can only vouch for the Ocho Rios location, there are three other facilities on the island: Dolphin Cove Montego Bay, Half Moon Dolphin Lagoon and Moon Palace Jamaica Grande. The activities and associated costs will surely vary from place to place, but I can only assume the same high standards will apply at each location.

Island Village Shopping Center

One of the more popular and, frankly more contemporary, shopping areas in Ocho Rios is at Island Village. There are a few restaurants to choose from at Island Village. There is also a coffee shop and quite a few retail stores. I’ve never seen a movie there, but Island Village also has a movie theater.

Tuff Gong retail store at Island Village Shopping Center.
Island Village Shopping Center has a variety of retail stores, such as Tuff Gong, which celebrates the legacy of Bob Marley.

Rasta Taco

As the name suggests, this little eatery combines typical taco shop fare with Jamaican cuisine. The Mexican-ish aspects of the Rasta Taco shop are reminiscent of the American West Coast. In fact, one of Rasta Taco’s two locations is in Laguna Beach, California. The menu isn’t very complicated. Each of their offerings comes in vegetarian, or chicken. You can get the Rast Bowl, a Rasta Burrito, or Rast Taco. Well, let me correct myself. The one exception to the vegetarian/chicken choice is their fish tacos. If these sound like typical West Coast dishes, they are. The difference is the Jamaican twist in ingredients and seasonings. The fish is done Jamaican escovitch-style. The chicken is jerk chicken. You get the idea. The couple of times I’ve eaten at Rasta Taco, I’ve been satisfied with my order. Another thing it has going for it is that there’s really no other place in the area doing something similar.

Rasta Taco is a fusion of West Coast Mexican and Jamaican cuisines.
The casual dining at Rasta Taco is a fusion of West Coast Mexican and Jamaican cuisines.

Island Coffees Café

Upstairs in Island Village is Island Coffees Café. They also have two locations in Kingston, if you happen to go that way. The coffee at Island Coffees Café is sourced from the world famous Blue Mountains of Jamaica. You can get all the usual coffee house options, including a cup of fresh pour over coffee. Light menu items, particularly breakfast fare, is also available. Being a coffee shop, their opening hours are a bit earlier than most places. This makes it a good spot for grabbing a brew and a bite before heading to the airport on departure day.

Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee
Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee is regarded as some of the best in the world.

Boardwalk Bistro

Near the beachside of Island Village (yes, there’s a beach – more on that later), is the Boardwalk Bistro. This restaurant is actually owned by the same company that owns Island Coffees Café. Boardwalk Bistro offers buffet-style meals, as well as offerings off a menu. Their food covers a range of both Jamaican dishes, as well as items more familiar to foreign guests. I have had a variety of things here, from burgers to curry goat with rice and peas. Neither myself, nor my family, has ever been disappointed with our food choices at Boardwalk Bistro. I won’t go so far as to say it’s a budget diner, but being in the middle of a tourist town, it’s easier on the wallet than a lot of places.

Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville

Margaritaville, the now-famous restaurant chain of musical entrepreneur Jimmy Buffet, is probably familiar to anyone who dreams of chasing the permanent vacation. They have become ubiquitous enough, that I don’t really feel like I need to go into much detail about the place. Plus, these kind of American visions of “paradise” aren’t my primary focus. But…it is, arguably, the anchor establishment of the Island Village Shopping Center.

Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville in Ocho Rios.
Margaritaville, located in the Island Village Shopping Center.

Location, Location, Location

Margaritaville’s small beach offers a nice alternative to the main beach in Ocho Rios. It is also very conveniently located to the cruise ship port, Fisherman’s Point and Turtle Beach Towers. So, it may be one of the easiest places to grab a bite and a beverage, depending on your location. It’s overpriced, which shouldn’t be too surprising. If you have finicky eaters, though, it does offer a predictable menu for American palates.

Beach at Margaritaville, Jamaica
Margaritaville in Ocho Rios has its own beach.

WiFi – It’s the Only Thing You’ll Get for Free

Perhaps the handiest reason to keep them on your radar is the free WiFi. I have gone there more than once for that reason alone. If you are in Ocho Rios without cell phone data and your accommodation doesn’t have free WiFi, you can count on Margaritaville. This is normally not a problem for me, but on one trip, I found myself technologically challenged. Their WiFi allowed me to check in for my departing flight, which was much appreciated.

Taj Mahal Shopping Center

The Taj Mahal Shopping Center is another popular collection of souvenir shops, restaurants and boutiques. It is actually close to Island Village Shopping Center, so you could double up on both at one time for a full-on shopping spree. Unlike Island Village, the Taj Mahal Shopping Center has been around since I was a boy. For reasons unknown to me, the building in the center is shaped like a miniature Taj Mahal, thus the name.

Taj Mahal Shopping Center
Taj Mahal is a popular shopping center in Ocho Rios.

Currency Exchange

I’m not really a shop-til-you-drop kind of guy, but they do have a variety of stores worth checking out. One of the main reasons that I go to the Taj Mahal Shopping Center, though, is that they have a cambio for exchanging currency. If you are staying on that side of Ocho Rios, in my opinion, it’s the most convenient place to change your money.

Breakfast Recommendation

There are a couple of bars and restaurants, as well. The one I usually go to is the Cafe Express, which is located upstairs. They serve a decent breakfast. My family likes to get waffles with fruit, while I prefer a traditional Jamaican breakfast of ackee and saltfish with callaloo. You can get all of that at Cafe Express, so it works well for us. The prices aren’t overly inflated for tourists, either. It’s nothing fancy, mind you – just some reliable comfort food at a reasonable price.

Traditional Jamaican breakfast of ackee and saltfish with callaloo and festivals.
Traditional Jamaican breakfast of ackee and saltfish with callaloo and festivals.

Evita’s Italian Restaurant

How to Find It

Evita’s is up the hill from Ocho Rios, one the same side of town as the cruise ship port and Island Village. If you have a vehicle, the road leading to Evita’s can be found behind the Taj Mahal Shopping Center. You could take a cab, if you don’t have your own car. From the area of Island Village and Taj Mahal, it is really not a very far walk, either. Maybe 10-15 minutes, but keep in mind that much of it is uphill.

Evita's Italian Restaurant, Ocho Rios.
Evita’s Italian Restaurant is perched on a hillside overlooking Ocho Rios.

Ambiance and Setting

Evita’s offers delicious Italian with an excellent view of Ocho Rios from above. In the evenings, you can enjoy a nice breeze on their open terrace, with the city lights glistening below. Although Evita’s isn’t necessarily a “fancy” restaurant, it is well appointed with a professional wait staff. Showing up in your swimwear for dinner probably won’t get you barred from entry, but you will be under-dressed.

Outdoor seating at Evita's Italian Restaurant in Ocho Rios.
Outdoor seating at Evita’s Italian Restaurant in Ocho Rios gives you a view of city and sea.

My Personal Pick

I have tried a few things on the Evita’s menu over time, but one of my personal picks is their One Love Penne. It is penne pasta in an alfredo sauce with steamed callaloo and jerk seasoning. It has just the right amount of spice to it. I will admit, I have tried unsuccessfully to duplicate it at home. That just gives me a reason to keep going back to Evita’s.

Tracks and Records

Not only from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios, but beyond to Kingston and even London. That’s where you’ll find locations of Usain Bolt’s chain of sports bars: Tracks and Records. As I write this, I am aware that the Ocho Rios location of Tracks and Records is moving from its original location. It was not too far out of the way, but hopefully it will be a little more conveniently located.

Usain Bolt's Tracks and Records sports bar.
Usain Bolt’s Tracks and Records sports bar has locations in Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, Kingston and London.

Come for the Food, Stay for the A/C

All that aside, this establishment is still worth a mention. The interior features plenty of imagery of the sprinting legend. Although it is a sports bar, also offering up music, I have to say that the food is really quite good. In particular, I was impressed with the traditional Jamaican offerings on the menu. The curry goat was actually some of the best I’ve had in Ocho Rios. Everyone else in my party on my last visit seemed equally pleased with their choices.

If there’s one thing I hope they duplicate in their new location, it is the air conditioning. After a week on the go, in the heat, Tracks and Records had some of the best A/C in the city, which was well received by my crew.

Calabash Ital Restaurant

If you are vegan, vegetarian, trying to eat healthy, or simply curious about the Rastafarian influence on Jamaican cuisine, you may want to try Calabash Ital Restaurant. Ital cooking is the common Rastafarian approach to food. It may be easiest to simply say it is vegan, but with some differences. Most notably, ital cooking does not use salt.

Calabash ital restaurant.
Calabash ital restaurant. is located at 9, DaCosta Dr, Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

Calabash Ital Restaurant is not located in central Ocho Rios, but is a fairly short walk from the town center. The food is served in plentiful portions and is priced for everyday people, not for gouging tourists. In fact, you may see some tourists eating at Calabash, but it’s not an authentic establishment. Unless you are already familiar with Jamaican produce and dishes, you may need to ask questions, but that’s no problem. They offer friendly service, as well as high quality home-cooking.

But Wait, There’s More…

If you made it this far, thanks for sticking with it. In reality, there is so much more to see, do, taste and enjoy than what I have covered here. This guide only scratches the surface of all that awaits you on Jamaica’s north coast, from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios. I hope this, at least, gives you a foundation from which to enjoy your own exploration of Jamaica.

View of Ocho Rios from surrounding hills.
View of Ocho Rios from surrounding hills.

Have you been from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios, or points in between? Let us know your recommendations, and experiences in the comments.

From Montego Bay to Ocho Rios
From Montego Bay to Ocho Rios. Pin it!

San Diego, California to Ensenada, Baja California

Overview

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!

Do You Use Google Flights?

Do you know about Googling for flight bargains? A lot of people use this handy travel tool by Google, but I find that a lot of people still do not know about it. Living near a major tourist destination, I have the opportunity to talk to a lot of travelers. Sometimes they come in waves from particular locations. One week, there are a ton of people from Boston. The next week, it seems like every other person on the street is from Toronto. Sometimes that may be due to coincidence, I’m sure, but more often it seems to be a result of cheap airfares. When there’s a bargain, the people will follow it.

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Although many of these people I bump into belong to the travel savvy crowd, just as many of them apparently benefited from some blind luck in finding a cheap fare. In many cases, they already had their destination in mind and waited for a low fare to become available. Quite of few of them just got lucky when they booked a flight. A surprising number of travelers, it seems, really don’t have a system for finding good flight deals.

Googling Flights: A Method to the Madness of Finding Cheap Tickets

My personal system has changed over the years, as changes occur in resources and technology. Sometimes, admittedly, it’s been a bit convoluted. Nevertheless, I usually have some functional frame work that gets the job done. These days, I find it is easier than ever. If I have the time and inclination for a trip, my go-to resource is Google Flights. I continue to be surprised at the number of people who don’t know about Googling for flight bargains. So, here’s a quick crash course on how to use Google to find cheap flight deals.

There are different ways you can use Google Flights to search out airfares. I will walk you through the basics and offer a few helpful tips. By the end, you should be able to find cheap flights on your own. Once you finish reading, play around with Google Flights and see the different ways it lets you find flight deals. Let’s start off by going to the Google Flights landing page.

Googline for flights
Get started on Google Flights homepage.

Googling for Flight Bargains – Let’s Get To It

In the screen shot above, you’ll see that I entered Nashville. That’s my home airport, but you should put in whatever city you want. Most often I use my closest airport. Sometimes I want to know the price of tickets leaving from somewhere else. Either way, the functions are the same. For now, enter your departing airport, but leave the destination blank. If you want to check flights for specific dates, go ahead and enter those. You can put ballpark dates, if you’d like.

Go to the “explore destinations” option. I have circled it in my screenshot. This will bring up a screen that should look similar to the one below. You will see a Google maps interface, marked with numerous red dots and city names. Zoom in, or out, and you will see cities all over the world displayed. On the left-hand side, you’ll see cheap flights recommended by Google. If you are flexible on destinations, you may find something there that interests you. Otherwise, you can play around with the map and see what kind of flight deals are available.

Google Flights map view.
Google displays lowest available airfares on their map interface.

Drilling Down Into Your Flight Choices

The prices listed on the map are the lowest fares for that destination. The default is to show round trip flights, but you can change this. Look at the upper left, above the departure city you entered. The drop-down menus let you change to one way, if you prefer. From the main Google Flights page, you can also select multi city, if you wish. The number of passengers and class of service can also be modified from the drop-downs. Whatever criteria you have selected, the prices shown will be the lowest available. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are flights that you will like. To find out what airlines fly a particular route and the actual itineraries available, simply click on the city and price that interests you.

Google Flights itinerary options
Google will select a handful of flights that it deems “the best”, based on your search criteria.

In my example, I have chosen to fly from Nashville to Chicago Midway airport. You will see a section called “best departing flights”. This will typically represent the itineraries with what Google determines to be the best combination of flight times and prices. Most of the time, I agree with their picks, but sometimes I may not. There are times I may want to connect through a specific city. Other times, I may want a long layover, because I plan to leave the airport in my connecting city. As you can see in my example, you have the option to make more criteria selections. These drop-down menus are just below the city locations and dates. Number of bags, number of stops, connecting airports and more can be selected.

Google’s Pick vs. Your Picks

Scrolling down, you will see a list of “other departing flights”. Sometimes I find flights I prefer in this section. Also, you see right above this a blurb telling you how prices compare to the average. For my chosen itinerary, it says that prices are currently low. In fact, it says they are $82 cheaper than usual. Not bad. What you will also notice in my example, are flights listed for Southwest airlines. The times are listed, but it says “Price unavailable”. Southwest uses a proprietary booking system, which does not share prices with other booking systems. You can find prices for all the usual suspects, such as United Airlines, American Airlines, etc. If you want to know the prices for Southwest, though, you have to check directly with them.

More search results from Google Flights.
Google’s “other departing flights” may actually list more suitable flights than their “best” picks.

Using this method, I can find the cheapest place to fly for any given time period. If I want to take a trip during a specific week, but am open to exploring destinations, I use this method. If I do have a specific destination in mind, though, this is a quick and easy way to see if other regional airports may have better fares. Sometimes it’s worth it to fly into a different city and rent a car, driving the last leg of the journey. I can simply look at the map, or I can check the “Nearby airports” link above the “Best departing flights” list. If I have some flexibility with dates, the “Price graph” and “Date grid” will show me if different dates might lower my fare.

Now That You Know, It’s Time to Go.

If you are pretty set on a destination, but flexible on dates, simply change the date parameters to zero in on the best, budget friendly time frames. Actually, once you click on a city, it will take you to the specific flight options, but it will also make recommendations to achieve a lower fare. For instance, if it will lower the fare to leave a day earlier and return a day later, Google Flights will tell me that.

Now that you’ve learned Googling for flight bargains, get some tips on finding the best travel accommodations.

This is my primary means of finding cheap flight deals. It works for anywhere in the world. I have successfully used this tool to plan solo travel and family vacations. I have made itinerary changes that were easy on the budget, based on information from Google Flights. Have you saved big on Google Flights? Have you made travel plans based on Googling for flight bargains? Leave a comment and let us know about it.

Google Flights searches globally.
Google flights will search airfares worldwide. You can compare flights from different departure cities, as well as for different destinations.
Googling for Flight Bargains
Googling for Flight Bargains. Pin it!

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The history of the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California is an interesting one, including the early 20th Century settlement of a Russian community, which was granted a substantial amount land in the fertile valley. Although the Mexican government had granted the land to the Russians, later land distribution policies forced the bulk of the Russian community to relocate to the United States. However, a remnant of that community lingered on in the valley and it is estimated that a couple hundred of their descendants still live in the area. These Russian descendants have effectively integrated into the local population over the generations, through both intermarriage and assimilation, there are still visible elements of Guadalupe’s Russian heritage to be found. One such reminder is the Restaurante Familia Samarin.

Restaurante Familia Samarin
The Samarin Family has been in the Valle de Guadalupe since 1905.

Russian-Mexican Flavor

This family-run restaurant is located not far off of Highway 3 in Guadalupe. Highway 3 runs the length of the valley and connects Ensenada to Tecate in the north. The Restaurante Familia Samarin restaurant is owned and operated by descendants of the early Russian immigrants to the area. The restaurant itself features a rustic chic decor .Their food is a creative mix of inherited Russian recipes, intermingled with Mediterranean dishes. As if this unique fusion of cuisines was already enough to intrigue the taste buds, it is all served up with a Mexican twist. The Russian-Mexican flavor that permeates this Valle de Guadalupe eatery is bound to please any adventurous palate.

Like everywhere in the Valle de Guadalupe, of course, there is wine to be had. There are also a variety of site-made artisanal breads and cheeses, as well as an array of sauces, tapanades and other delicacies. You can either enjoy them there, or buy some to take with you. Adjacent to the restaurant, there is a gourmet boutique, offering savory treats made there, or by local vendors. This sort of diversified business model seems prevalent in the Guadalupe Valley.

Russian-Mexican Cuisine in Baja California
An intriguing blend of Russian and Mediterranean cuisines with a Mexican twist.

Brush Up On Your Restaurant Spanish

The staff may, or may not, speak English, so if you’re not conversant in Spanish, be aware and be prepared. Having said that, my own Spanish is limited, at best, and the language barrier wasn’t much of a hurdle. A few basic Spanish phrases will serve you well in Mexico and, accompanied with a translator on your phone to conjure up the name of things, it’s really not that difficult to get by. I’ll help you out, though, and let you know that conejo is Spanish for rabbit and, if you order it at Restaurante Familia Samarin, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I certainly wasn’t. Of the dishes our party tried, the only complaint would be with the chicken alfredo pasta. Although the dish was a substantial portion and, overall, well seasoned, the sauce was more watery than it should have been, which did detract from the enjoyment. Everything else we ordered was spot on, however, so maybe we just caught them on off day for alfredo sauce.

Baja’s Russian Heritage

Adjacent to the restaurant is a small Russian heritage museum, operated by the Samarin family. We took a pass on looking inside, for multiple reasons. Earlier in the day, we’d visited the Bibayoff winery, where we’d seen a number of items and artifacts related to the valley’s Russian heritage. Plus, some of us were getting a little tired and there were still other stops to make. Lastly, according to their sign, the admission to the museum is $25.00 per person.

Given that we had already decided to press on with our day, I did not clarify with the staff if that was $25 USD or if the price was in pesos. I hope it was in pesos, which seems a little cheap, but if that price was in dollars, I’d be inclined to call it exorbitant. Honestly, as a bit of an armchair anthropologist, I find the story of the Russian-Mexicans to be quite interesting and read a fair amount about their history. If I have time on my next visit, I wouldn’t mind taking a peek inside their little museum so, hopefully, that price is not in US dollars, or I’ll have to take another pass.

Museo Ruso
Russian heritage museum at the Restaurante Familia Samarin.

Worth a Re-visit

Restaurante Familia Samarin is definitely on my list of places to eat if, and when, I return to the Valle de Guadalupe. I have seen and heard good things about their pizza, which they bake in their wood-fired, adobe oven, so maybe I’ll try that. Since the Familia Samarin restaurant is considered by some to be one of the best restaurants in Valle de Guadalupe, I suspect it they do most things well.

On my next visit, I will also need to do a better job at stocking up on their retail products, such as their tapenades. I’ve already kicked myself for not coming home with more of such things in the first place. I’m sure they would be a hit with friends and family, as well as a conversation piece. Just one more reason to go back, though, I suppose…to do a little shopping. And eating. It’s well worth the time for both.

Russian - Mexican Hertiage
The Samarin family’s blend of Russian – Mexican heritage is apparent throughout the restaurant.

You can find the Restaurante Familia Samarin online, but will need to translate the page if you don’t know Spanish.

old baja truck
The grounds of the Samarin Family Restaurant share the same rustic feel as the eatery’s interior.

Looking for a place to stop over for lunch on your drive down from the border? Check out Mariscos Tito’s in Rosarito.

Check out our Guide to Baja California: From San Diego to Ensenada

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Decide What Kind of Accommodations Suit Your Needs

When it comes to finding the best travel accommodations, I’m of the opinion that one size does not fit all. These days, many socially conscious travelers expound the merits of slow tourism, eco-tourism and other variations of a low impact travel philosophy. At the same time, you have more traditional tourists who want and expect things such as all-inclusive resorts and attractions that fit a more mainstream, American consumer model. Between these end posts are a plethora of tourism styles and, often, people hold to their favorite version of traveling as a matter of principle. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide what the best travel accommodations are for you.

Sunset from Tybee Island North Beach
The Tybee Island condo we booked through AirBnB came equipped with gorgeous sunset views from our balcony.

Personally, I’m not committed to any single way of traveling and, by extension, to any specific type of accommodation. In general, I am interested in absorbing as much local culture as possible and I don’t usually gravitate toward the most touristy of tourist traps. So, my typical travel plans may not be quite as mainstream as the average American. I consider myself more of a traveler than a tourist, more of a student of the world than a consumer of it. On the other hand, sometimes I just want to have fun for the sake of having fun. If that means going on a cruise, or staying at an all-inclusive resort, then so be it. Different moods and different goals call for different approaches. What defines the best travel accommodations for you may vary from trip to trip, as well.

Have You Tried Couchsurfing?

Staying at someone’s house in a new and distant location is arguably the best way to get to the heart of local life and culture, not to mention save some cash. I’ve done it and it has made for some of my most memorable adventures. The down side is that you may not actually know someone who lives where you want to go. Making friends in far away places can be easier said than done, that may not seem like the ideal way of finding the best travel accommodations. Fortunately, there are ways to make this work. In the age of the internet and, more particularly, social networking, there are now innovative ways to reinvent the idea of staying with a friend. 

Couchsurfing has become popular in some circles, especially with young, independent travelers. If you choose to take the plunge into the world of couchsurfing, make sure you are taking all the necessary safety precautions. Saving money is never a good enough excuse to place yourself at risk. Couchsurfing.com provides some practical tips for your safety and is also home to a large network of couchsurfers and hosts.

Full disclosure: I have not used this network, nor do I get a kickback for suggesting them to you. I am simply aware that they are a popular resource and have also read positive reviews from travelers who have used them. Basically couchsurfing is a equivalent of crashing on someone’s couch. These days, though, that someone may be a person you’ve never met before, but connected with via the internet. Needless to say, this requires an adverturious spirit and may not be for everyone.

Are Homestays Your Best Bet?

A step up from couchsurfing is a homestay. It may sound like semantics, but to me, the homestay difference is that it seems more formal and may not skew quite as much toward the younger crowd. With a homestay, you are more likely to go through an agency, also. Homestays are more likely to be with a family. Of course, there is some overlap between these two distinctions. In either case, you are staying in someone’s home. As a result will, hopefully, you will enjoy some insight into your destination that would not be possible by staying at a hotel.

Again, staying in someone’s home means being conscious of safety precautions, but going through an agency can help alleviate such concerns. Not surprisingly, there is at least one network geared toward this type of accommodation, called – you guessed it – Homestay.com. If you think homestays are the best travel accommodation for you, or you are curious to find out, shopping around is still a good idea. If you do a Google search for homestays in your specific destination, you may find local resources to help you out. For example, Green Olive Tours has some options for facilitating homestays in Israel and Palestine.

The Best Travel Accommodations May Be a House or Apartment

Renting a house, or apartment, is another option that also inserts you a bit more into the local culture. I like this option when I know I’m going to be in one spot for a week, or so. It allows you to having a little more of a homey feeling than a hotel. Often, in a residential area you get a better peek into the lives of the locals. Simple things like shopping for groceries, or visiting the corner cafe, may not seem earth shattering. Yet, it’s just these sorts of small, mundane tasks that provide a glimpse of everyday life in a new locale. The two powerhouses of the home rental world are VRBO and Airbnb. These days, finding the best travel accommodations usually means at least seeing what is available on these two sites. I’ve used them both with great success.

My advice is to search both websites before you book your travel. For some locations, I’ve found the house that suited my needs on VRBO. For other locations, Airbnb had the property I liked the most. Comparative shopping is usually wise, just as with other aspects of travel planning. If you’ve never used AirBnB, signing up through my link will get a discount on your first booking. It also scores me a credit toward my next booking, too. To get set up with AirBnB and get $40 off your booking, just click HERE.

Sometimes Hotels Really Are the Best Travel Accommodations

Whatever the merits of staying with a local, or staying on your own, sometimes you just want, or need, a hotel. One consideration when renting a house, or condo, is how well you can negotiate the area you’re in. In places where you don’t know the language, or aren’t as comfortable on your own, hotels provide a good buffer. The staff can help you out a lot. Not only is someone on staff likely to speak English, they can help with recommendations. Hotels provide a fairly consistent, predictable product. In cities, in particular, hotels may place you in better proximity to public transportation.

Hotel Universal Quebec City
For our family trip to Quebec City, we enjoyed an interior balcony view of the atrium and pool.

As much as I like the house, or apartment, option, sometimes a hotel really is the best fit. For short trips, or longer trips where I’ll be moving from place to place, I’m usually looking for a hotel. What type of hotel I’m interested in is usually determined by budget and the purpose of my travel. There are tons of ways to find good deals on hotels. Expedia and Booking.com are good places to start. If you already have a favorite hotel chain, you can always shop properties directly from their website. However, keep in mind that some of the large booking sites may have negotiated discounted rates. I know I keep saying it, but checking multiple sources can save you money.

Going the All-Inclusive Resort Route

If I’m overnighting on a road trip, a cheap and basic hotel suits me. Traveling with my family, spending our evenings in, I’ll want something a little nicer with more amenities. For a romantic couple’s getaway, a cozy bed and breakfast may be just the ticket. Although it’s not often, sometimes I may even want the hotel to be a destination in and of itself. This type of accommodation is not my favorite, but a lot of people love the convenience and amenities.

Finding the best travel accommodations is about what you need, or enjoy. If the best accommodations for your travel destination is a resort, searching for an all-inclusive property has its advantages. Especially throughout the Caribbean, all-inclusive resorts have become a popular option. Whether you’re a couple looking to be spoiled, or a family looking for some activity filled excitement. There are numerous options, but the industry powerhouse is probably Sandals Resorts. Like I said, all-inclusives aren’t my thing, personally, but I know many people who love them. I have family members who primarily stay in all-inclusive properties and they swear by Sandals Resorts.

Weigh Your Options and Shop Around

One size may not fit all, but there is a size for everyone and for every occasion. It’s true, finding the best travel accommodations requires a little leg work. It more than pays off, though, when you are spending your vacation in just the right spot. Don’t be afraid to shop around within a variety of property types. You may unexpectedly save money by doing so. For instance, renting a house is very often cheaper than a hotel. Better yet, you may experience a side of life in your target destination that you would have otherwise missed. Time, place and purpose all play a factor in what options are best. That may very well be different from one trip to the next, even to the same destination.

Choosing Travel Accommodations
Choosing Travel Accommodations. Pin it!