The Mexican city of Ensenada, 80 miles south of San Diego, is the California cruiser’s gateway to Latin America and, counterintuitively, to Canada, Florida, and the Bahamas as well. That’s because Ensenada is a pick-up and drop-off point for major yacht-shipping services. The shippers haul and block recreational vessels on decks of their freighters in Ensenada and launch them in Ft. Lauderdale or Vancouver, or other international ports.
Why would an Alaska-bound California cruiser ship a boat to Canada rather than just drive it? Anyone who has transited the West Coast northbound will tell you that it can be a fairly unpleasant experience, slogging into the Pacific Ocean swell with widely spaced harbors of refuge along the way. The real trawler cruising region doesn’t begin until one reaches Puget Sound, and then the going is spectacular.
Of course, Ensenada is also a drop point for East Coast vessels coming west, thus avoiding 4,500nm of wear and tear on a vessel shipped from Ft. Lauderdale. Once a boat has arrived, local boatyards can perform service and fiberglass work at very reasonable prices (as many southern California boaters will attest), and it is common for component manufacturers to dispatch technicians from San Diego to fulfill warranty work for U.S. boats in Ensenada.
Yacht transport, of course, is a relatively new phenomenon. Ensenada has long been familiar to gringo boaters, either as a port of entry for a Baja cruise, or a long-weekend destination from southern California. For the power boater, it’s a five-er: a weekend getaway of food and drink, a place to fill the fuel tanks inexpensively, and, as you will read, a place to stock up on wine, fresh fish, and non-prescription prescription drugs.
On a recent visit, diesel prices were under $3 per gallon in Ensenada’s central waterfront, compared to $3.54 in Newport Beach, California. The reason fuel is cheaper in Ensenada, and Mexico in general, is that Mexico is an oil-producing nation like Saudi Arabia or Venezuela. Mexico’s government keeps consumer prices artificially low thanks to about $30 billion in subsidies.
Latin American countries place more faith in the common sense of their people and their pharmacists than we do. Consequently, many of the major prescription drugs are sold over-the-counter in Mexico, and sometimes at lower prices. With the rise of sex drugs, the tourist pharmacies have been a growth industry here, with signage that includes a jaunty, triangular blue pill dressed like a super hero, but all sorts of antibiotics and other drugs useful to southbound cruisers can also be had.
If you want to stock that freezer with fresh fish, Ensenada is very much the place. The city’s waterfront fish mercado harkens back to the days when every coastal community in our own country had a warehouse with stacks of freshly sliced tuna steaks, piles of shrimp, mountains of clams and oysters, and all the exotic fruits of the sea. The market is surrounded by family-operated outdoor cafes and raw bars serving fresh seafood lunches, including fish tacos, and ice cold beer.
Ensenada takes dubious credit for having invented the fish taco in the 1950s. (Dubious because it seems as likely that Mexico’s native peoples created this delicacy a millennium or two earlier.) At some point in the intervening decades, the fish taco concept crossed the border to enter the culinary mainstream of California and even reaching places on the East Coast. However, one would be challenged to find any outside Ensenada with ingredients so recently alive.
Speaking of fresh, the entire Baja region has spent the past two decades reinventing its cuisine into something called Baja Med. The rise of Baja Med has tracked the growth of wineries just outside Ensenada in the Guadalupe Valley, an industry that has flourished—there are 55 wineries and counting—thanks to the region’s Mediterranean climate.
Baja Med is what foodies call “ingredient-driven,” which plays to Ensenada’s strengths as the center of commerce in a region of farms, cattle ranches, and fishing. The simplest way to describe Baja Med: A fusion of Mexican, Mediterranean, and Asian cooking. Baja Med restaurants include Manzanillo on the waterfront across from the Gran Peninsula shipyard, and Laja in the Guadalupe Valley itself.
As many a southern California sailor and Hollywood types down through the decades can attest, Hussong’s Cantina is a unique attraction—a real treasure among saloons. Hussong’s was founded 120 years ago—one of the few buildings, in what was then a new municipality, looking for customers. It found quite a few during America’s Prohibition and thrived. Hussong’s claims to have poured the first margarita in 1941, thus making Ensenada the prototype for Jimmy Buffett’s song “Margaritaville.”
The same ancient building still draws a crowd of expats, cruisers, and a growing educated class of young Mexicans who come to party and listen to the fine Mariachi and Norteno music.
Why shoreside amenities matter in the context of yacht transport is simple: As anyone that has shipped a boat will attest, schedules are not set in stone or any other medium that cannot be easily changed. Better to be stuck waiting in a place where you can enjoy yourself or from which you can quickly escape back to the States.
NOTE ABOUT SECURITY
Mexico’s war with its drug cartels is a national tragedy, but the Baja Peninsula in general and Ensenada in particular have been largely unscathed. The evidence for this is the steady stream of cruise ships bringing tourists from California and, increasingly, China to enjoy the local food and shopping. All the marinas are secure, and, if you come by car, the road to Ensenada skirts the teeming city of Tijuana on the U.S. border.