I am Jesse from WI, and this is my two pesos of advice as an expat massage therapist living and working here for 8 years, listening to cruisers chat about tours and cruising myself (Carnival Imagination 4 day Dec 2018!!).
You could make an inexpensive day of just wandering around for a few hours. The Malecon is nice for a walk, the 3 heads park, then a quiet coffee, or taco and beer on first street, and meander through Riviera, CE Arte museums. For tours, Jump below; I recommend a half day tour and a massage before getting back on board.
La Primera (First Street): Just a block from the Harbor, this 5 block stretch is an area of Ensenada where the shops and vendors have been built up over the years for day tourism from the ships. At night it is a different scene. It’s a bit fun, a bit of a free for all of stuff for sale and guys offering tacos and beer and other items you might want to sell. Plenty of pharmacies, taverns, shopping, coffee shops. It’s a safe, nice stroll close to the ship, and entertaining. Skipworthy if you are more annoyed than entertained by curiosities for sale, cheep beers, and crowds. And after squeaky clean Catalina, you may notice we don’t sweep the streets, destroy old buildings as quickly.
Casa Ramirez: They have high quality stuff from all over Mexico - a huge country with diverse culture. Visit and check out the stuff, ask questions of the knowledgeable staff. Street items are fun, usually much lower quality.
Best Coffee and Salads: Hogaza Hogaza: German style bakery with fresh squeezed orange juice, keifer, amazing salads, and great coffee. Run by a Canadian scientist, Rodger.
Tequila Room for tasting is cornerstone of first street. Angel speaks perfect English and gives great education on the amazing tequila culture of Mexico. Tastings are free and a bottle of high quality sipping tequila is good souvenir you can pack away as a memory.
Cultural Highlights: At the end of First Street, and across the street from the cruise port, you will find La Riviera, a cultural center and best gardens and architecture, supposedly built by Al Capone as a casino originally? The bar inside invented the margarita?? Across the street you will see CEARTE, our free modern art museum. The State Tourist office is in front of CEARTE.
Is Ensenada Safe?
Yes. Ensenada is as safe as LA. Don’t leave your stuff out for anyone to steal. Don’t get drunk and act inappropriately. I have never personally experienced crimes against my body or random violence. I have never been harassed by Ensenada police without an infraction (like running multiple stop signs). Yes, Mexico is has a drug violence problem, 1000 miles away from here. Mexico is a big place. If someone told you there was a riot in LA, would you cancel your weekend trip to Denver?
For cruise passengers, there is no place that within walking distance that is unsafe. Keep in mind Blancarte street does house gentlemen’s clubs and working ladies. Guys on the street may offer to sell you drugs. Overall, Ensenada is dustier and dirtier than Catalina, but safe.
Prescription Medicine: Pharmacy’s here sell lots of stuff at cheaper prices. I have never heard of a problem of quality. What you are sold in pharmacy is the actual product labeled. Taking medication back Rule: . . . Not everything is available without restriction. Many medicines are controlled and the pharmacies are regulated, so no shady practices. You can bargain of course and prices.
For more adventure (or relaxation massage) consider an excursion/tour:
Best Ensenada Tours and Excursions:
These tours linked here will give you personal service than larger tour providers I have seen (cruise websites) and get you back on the boat on time. Walking off the ship you can book most tours with about 20 to 35% discount and that may have to deal with cross culture communication and negotiations that add stress to your vacation. You will probably get personal service rather than a bus.
ATV: Where can you ride ATV’s on street and ocean anymore? Not in CA for sure. I grew up with three wheelers and I am fan of Emiliano at ATV Ensenada because you get a guide and tour to Wine Valley. Just renting an ATV and letting people run free is a bit too much freedom. And some tear up my town -Don’t do that!
Zip line: Las Canadas is fun outdoor park. Zip lines are the best I have done here in Ensenada, and safer than Guatemala. Let’s face it, soo many rules in US that the adrenaline as been taken out of some adventure. These bridges and zips are killer fun. My friend Arturo gives a good tour and transportation there. I can refer you to him.
Ensenada Massage: Private pick up/drop off, great facilities, pricing at $99 a couple compared to about $250 a couple on the ship spa. Fit a massage in before or after your other tours. Yes, I own the place and ensure quality and amazing service. Our #1 TripAdvisor Rating speaks for itself. Now I am experimenting with craft beer/ wine upgrade with the VIP ship pick up. . . any takers?
Wine Valley: It’s awesome, and awesomer than Napa and Sonoma because I can still pay rent after visiting. Sweet views, delicious food, and wine to lighten your mood….. Can you do it in an excursion day? Heck yeah, schedule a morning pick up private tour, lunch, guide. Ava Carolina Perez aka Passionate Sommelier Valley Girl Wine Tours is the custom provider if you want personalized tour from a wine pro and avoids the big tour bus experience.
Scuba/snorkel/kayak: I have scubaed here and had great experiences in kelp forests. Keep in mind waters are pretty cold, and visibility is limited since we get good waves from pacific. Diego at Baja Blue Diver seems to have best operation in town. If your cruise passes through catalina, consider diving/scuba there wih Ron Moore, a legend in dive community. Kayaking with Diego is my preferred way to see the La Bufadora and the amazing cove there. You could see it from the bus window, but I like to get dirty.
Horseback Riding: Our guests have had great experiences with Chrystal’s Desert Trails ocean view rides on the beach. Some of the other horse care and cleanliness practices on other tours may be different from US standards, (this is partly why I recommend Chrystal). For rides in Valle de Guadalupe, $45 a person, I can connect you with Rosabella.
We actually offer a massage and horse ride package too so you can easily get them both in and logistics are easy between horse ride and our massage studio.
La Bufadora is a blow hole on the end of the geographic bay that protects Ensenada city. Cool scenery on the way out there and the waves spouting up is fun by the ocean. To get from parking to blowhole, you will pass through an exciting barrage of souvenir vendors selling entertaining junk in a mexican carnival like style. I like to call it the gauntlet. If you can can get through without a free sample of pina colada or candied nuts, or weird coffee mug or shirt, you win!
Transportation: Uber or private driver and tour guide, taxis are bad here.
Dune Buggy: My friend Dusty from Carnival Facebook group says it’s overrated. The vehicles have a limitation on the throttle so you can’t really let loss and go fast. Having said that, the outskirts of Ensenada are beautiful and very different from downtown and La Primera.
Adult Beverages: Since Alcohol is a bit pricey on the ship and you won’t be driving, you may want to consider some drinks while on shore. Craft Beer: Lucky Irish 4 is hot new addition to Ensenada Craft Beer Scene. Tons of craft beers on the killer Ocean Patio. 1pm opens Cantina: A tavern rooted in Mexican heritage, Hussong’s stands alone as interesting experience. Other places on first street just aren’t as interesting. Tuesday and Thursday 2 for 1 beer. Often Mariachi’s. Amigos is good choice for rowdy beers on the street. Interesting Dive Bar: La Cueva de Pirata. Just a block from cruise port, and totally for locals and late night musicians. So local that I am the only one to leave a google review. . . . . If you want to drink on the street in the sun with US music and a rowdy scene, try Amigos on First Street, near Papa’s and Beer.
Wine without leaving Centro: Santo Tomas Bodega wines for tasting, lunch place, and collection of cool shops nearby with best coffee, vegan bakery, mezcal shop and upstairs joint Alta Baja with cool city views. On 6th and Miramar it’s a walk from first street. Think of it as boutique upper class shops. Not old school mexican, and not dusty middle class shops either.
Cigar: Legit cubans at Habanos with semi cool cigar lounge, Are they legitimate cubans? I think so for these that are sold in the store - not the guys occasionally up and down the street. Daniel at Habanos across from Villa Marina parking entrance runs his own shop and is my source for an occasional smoke.
Surf Lessons: Why not? Yes, I learned to surf here. Winter waves are plenty for beginners. Water is clean enough. Beach Playa Hermosa works well for beginners with an easy beach break. Guides are fun and equipment (boards and wet suits for cold winter water) new and reasonably priced. For higher level surfers custom tour on Request. Elsa at Playa Hermosa Surf and Sup has best operations and Carnival outsources to her. So she is moonlighting direct to clients (Carnival takes a HUGE cut). Ask her about Surf and Massage Package.
Skydive: Safe and fun, skydiving is amazing. Fabricio at Skydive Baja is the man in Ensenada. Yes, they can do pickup and dive during your cruise stop.
da Toni - the best italian seafood spot in ensenada. Super authentic, high end of local pricing, and cute.
Planta Baja - great views/good dinner/right next to Baja Brews out in Sauzal.
Boules - great dinner spot. Off the ocean next to nice city park.
Parque Revolucion: It’s a city park for the residents, huge magnolia trees, music on Sundays, guys playing chess, kids on playground, sandwiches for sale.
Ecological park and Buddhist statue with views of city. Keki is Fifteen blocks from first street and a block for office. I am considering planning out a self guided walking tour to this and parque revolucion as part of hidden cultural side of Ensenada. Great maintained gardens and city views.
The first five cruisers to leave a comment here, I will buy a taco and beer!! Give me a virtual hug by leaving a comment;)
Map of Ensenada Save on your phone if you like to orient yourself:)