Pros: An enjoyable one day visit.
Cons: One day is enough!
Both Royal Caribbean and Carnival have three and four night cruises that depart out of Los Angeles along with a few other cruise lines with longer itineraries, that call on Ensenada, Mexico on a regular basis.
Ensenada is about a hundred miles south of the US border and the third largest city in Baja California. In 1602, Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino named it Ensenada de Todos los Santos (inlet of all the saints). I first visited Ensenada back in the mid 70's, while on a university sponsored marine biology field trip down the Baja coast and the Sea of Cortez. It was nothing more than a few bars along a dusty road. Twenty plus years later, it had developed into a major cruise ship port; today tourism is big business. The town is now a large city, with streets lined with shops catering to cruise passengers.
Carnival's Ecstasy as well as Royal Caribbean's Monarch of Seas visit Ensenada twice a week. They usually allow a whole day at port, arriving early in the morning and pulling up anchor in the evening. Both three and four night itineraries call on Ensenada, giving passengers plenty of time to go shopping and to see a few of the sites around the city.
If you are looking to book one of these cruises, I recommend you shop around. Prices are highest in the spring and summer months, but great deals can be had in the fall and winter if you are willing to put up with cooler weather. Both cruise lines basically offer the same type of cruise experience, however, Royal Caribbean's Monarch of the Seas throws in San Diego (in lieu of a day at sea) on their four night itinerary. Shore excursions offered on both ships are identical, using the same people in port. As a rule, shore excursions in Mexico (even by cruise line standards) are reasonably priced - thanks to the stronger dollar and weak peso - so you won't save a lot of money by making arrangements independent of the cruise line. As you are IN port much of the day, making your own arrangements to do your own thing is pretty safe; you should have plenty of time to make it back to the ship if you begin your adventure in the morning. Yes, the ship will wait for your return if you book a ship's shore excursion. But unless you plan to go well out of the Ensenada area, I can't imagine having issues returning to the ship on time.
Royal Caribbean has a very convenient online shore excursion website where you can reserve and pay for your shore excursions in advance of your sail date. Carnival does not yet have this in place, but will soon. Either way, you will probably save only about 10%-20% by making arrangements to go it alone - but that can be substantial for a family of four or a group.
Lots of people come to Ensenada to go shopping; you'll find rows of purse shops, souvenir type flea markets, stores that sell glass and wrought iron and tee shirt places. You can easily walk into town from the port or take a van for a couple of bucks to the shopping area (5 minutes from the port). The tours that the cruise line offers include a visit to La Buffadora (a blow hole) with a flea market and a nearby winery. There's a city bus tour and a tour to the Baja Fox Studios where they filmed parts of the Titanic. Most buses will make a shopping stop on the way back to the port or give you a chance to return to the ship immediately afterwards. Tours are excellent for those passengers who don't want to spend all their time in port wandering through stores. I have always found Ensenada very safe, but it's important to use common sense when venturing out on your own. In Ensenada, nearly everyone you encounter there will speak English.
The exchange rate is around 11 pesos to $1. I have never became ill from drinking a Margarita or consuming some chips and salsa, but I have only been to larger restaurants in Ensenada, like Papas & Beer. I wouldn't recommend eating anything from a street vendor or drinking from a water fountain. With that said, you should do what works best for you. When I am on a cruise, I prefer to eat my meals on the ship. But most people I know who eat in Ensenada never become ill. One thing I do on ALL my visits to Mexico is consume one Pepto Bismol tablet a day or two before my visit and continue to take one a day for two additional days. My Dr. told me that the bismuth in the Pepto Bismol treats your gut and can prevent you from coming down with a "tummy ache." This could be fiction, but I swear by it.
Here is a brief summary if things to do while i n Ensenada and a price list of shore excursions to follow. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment.
Ensenada isn't the most exciting port in Mexico. The vast majority of passengers opt for a day of shopping over a structured tour. There are vans at the dock that will take you into to town for a couple of dollars and drop you off on the main drag. However, if you can walk a few blocks, it makes no sense to take a shuttle, as the main drag is only a 10 minute walk away!
Once in town, the main drag is about a half mile long, lined with shops. You name it, you can probably find it here, including high end jewelry stores, souvenir shops and places to buy liquor and tee shirts. There is a shopping area at the port, with several kiosks set up in a warehouse structure that pretty much sell the same things you'll find in town, but for a few bucks more. As I am not into fake designer handbags or silver jewelry, I tend NOT to spend much of my time while in Ensenada shopping. But there are some bargains to be had if you know a little about what it is you are shopping for. In other words, if you are in the market for diamonds or a high-end gold watch, for example, it's important to know what it is selling for back home. Just because you bought it in Mexico doesn't mean you got a good deal.
Both cruise lines will make a point of telling you about "Recommended Stores" which are NOT always going to be your best bet. First off, prices are frequently higher at those recommended stores, and the guarantee they give you isn't all it's cracked up to be, in my opinion. I would wait to purchase that genuine tanzanite and diamond bracelet or Movado watch at a shop in the Caribbean and NOT anywhere in Mexico. I base this on personal experience, and can tell you that even after returning an item to the shop in Ensenada (a "recommended store) it took nearly an act of God to replace a broken clasp on a bracelet.
Restaurants & Bars
Besides shopping, probably the second most popular thing to do here is drink, drink, eat and drink! There are a number of very good restaurants, all of which sell Margaritas and beer as well as chips and guacamole and excellent authentic Mexican cuisine. Prices on decent food are NOT as inexpensive as you might think, however, if you can appreciate good guacamole, you'll find it here.
"Papas and Beer" seems to be the "happening place" in Ensenada, where you can get killer Margaritas, some guacamole, chips and salsa. They also have "shooters" and will gladly shake you and toss you about if you like. Be forewarned, the "shooters" are not free. Guys dressed up as banditos carry taquila and juice in gun holsters, and proceed to pour the mixtures in your mouth. They hoot and howl and blow whistles, make a scene and put it on your tab, hoping you will be too intoxicated to care. We came away having a great time, but a big bill was waiting for us at the exit! Other bars in town, too numerous to list, do the same things. The prices are reasonable, about $2 for a Corona, $3 for a regular Margarita and $5 for chips and guacamole.
La Buffadora Tour
There are a few versions of this tour offered. All will transport you in either busses or vans to a blowhole just outside of town. You will drive through downtown Ensenada and by beautiful coastal views and if you are lucky, the blowhole will blow for you. As you walk down the road to La Buffadora, you'll see numerous tee shirt and souvenir stalls. Depending on the time of year you come to Ensenada, prices here can be less or about the same as in town. You can do this shore excursion on your own or through the ship. If you go it on your own, simply visit a tour kiosk in town (where the ship's shuttle busses let you out). You'll probably pay under $20pp through the cruise line; you will pay around $15 on your own.
I have never seen this tour offered in town, however, you can make arrangements to visit the wineries on your own by taking a cab. The cost to do so will be a little more than what you will pay if you book this shore excursion through the cruise line. But your time at the wineries will be limited by the tour group, so it might be worth it to you to pay a little more and have more freedom. Typically,on a tour, you will be transported in busses or vans and taken in-land to a pair of small wineries, where you will have an opportunity to taste and purchase wine. The wineries are smaller than what you would see in Napa Valley, but beautifully landscaped. Even if you are not into tasting wine, this tour of the countryside is very interesting. The wines were okay, and we did end up purchasing an over priced bootle for around $10. This tour is under $40pp.
There are NO shore excursions or tours to any beaches, but you can take a cab or shuttle from town for about $13pp round trip to Estero Beach, a 30 minute cab ride away. There is a nice beach resort and restaurant right there, and in the summer, you can expect great weather. You'll find a place where you can rent wave runners, play beach volleyball and buy $1 cerveza (beer). I'm sure the hotel restaurant is probably fine for lunch, but I personally would NOT buy any food on the beach. You should be able to pack some munchies off the ship to tide you over, as well as some bottled water. People on these ships are of no help when it come to beach recommendations in Ensenada. Late spring through early fall are great for visiting the beaches in Ensenada. The Pacific is still chilly, but you'll get lots of sunshine, so remember the sunscreen.
There isn't much to Ensenada, so this tour is mainly a way to take you to a hotel where a group of local dancers and mucisians perform. It's a detour through town; you see nearly as much from the shopping van that takes you into town for a couple of dollars or by walking on your own. But there's something to be said for folk dancing, and most people who go, enjoy themselves very much. People with mobility issues should consider this.
Ensenada on the surface may seem very American, but remember, you are in Mexico. You will no doubt encounter poverty here and there, kids begging on the streets as you get off the ship and peddlers wanting to sell you everything from your name on a grain of rice to drugs. Use common sense and you will be fine. I urge you to not buy anything from young children who are selling gum and other items on the street. By giving a "lttle something" to these kids only encourages this practice. The government is encouraging the parents to send their kids to school, and tries hard to discourage such practice, but it's an uphill battle. You will read numerous reviews from people who disliked their visit to Ensenada, mainly because they did not understand the culture or feel comfortable in their surroundings. Read what others have to say with an open mind. I have always enjoyed my visits to Ensenada, and hopefully you will too.
The following are the shore excursions available on both ships. Please note prices can (and often do) fluctuate:
La Bufadora & Mexican Folkloric Fiesta
Approximate Duration: 5 Hours
Adult: 27.00 (USD) | Child: 18.00 (USD)
Ensenada City & Mexican Fiesta
Approximate Duration: 4 Hours
Adult: 27.00 (USD) | Child: 18.00 (USD)
La Bufadora Tour
Approximate Duration: 3 Hours
Adult: 17.00 (USD) | Child: 11.00 (USD)
Domecq & Cetto Wine Country Tour
Approximate Duration: 4 Hours
Adult: 27.00 (USD) | Child: 16.00 (USD)
Mexican Folkloric Fiesta & Shopping Tour
Approximate Duration: 3 Hours 30 Minutes
Adult: 19.00 (USD) | Child: 15.00 (USD)
Bajamar Oceanfront Golf Course
Approximate Duration: 5 Hours
Adult: 110.00 (USD) | Child: 110.00 (USD)
Fox Studios Foxploration
Approximate Duration: 5 Hours 30 Minutes
Adult: 29.00 (USD) | Child: 24.00 (USD)