The cruise ships are back, the real estate market is booming and business people are looking for space. For Ensenada, Mexico, a town that eight or nine years ago was on life support, all of that is music to the ears of the tourism industry.
Add in the regular festivals to craft beer and wine, off roads events, fishing tournaments and a growing gastronomic reputation and you have all the makings of a huge comeback in this somewhat sleepy seaport.
First “discovered” by Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo in the 16th century, more than 500,000 people, including a large group of US ex-pats, now call Ensenada home. When I first started coming to Ensenada in 1990, it still had it’s very laid back roots. Great tacos, margaritas and ice cold beer were the staples of many a visit, whether for the weekend or Spring Break.
Throughout the decade of the 90’s, the town started to change. It seemed as if all of a sudden, after years of tranquility, Ensenada had been rediscovered. I can still remember when Cafe Kaffa, the very first Starbucks style coffee house, opened on the main tourist boulevard, Lopez Mateos. There, right next to the Thrifty Ice Cream store, we could finally get one of those fancy ice cold coffee drinks loaded with whipped cream.
Then the cruise ships put the town on their itineraries and things exploded. No longer was Ensenada just a Spring Break location. this forced the leaders of the city to choose between the an ongoing sometimes out of control party atmosphere and the more lucrative cruise line passengers. Casting their lots with the bigger spenders who arrived on the floating cities of Carnival Cruise Lines, the main tourist area started to change. New restaurants opened, fine jewelry stores set up shop and you could find souvenirs literally from all over the world.
Add in the maturation of the wine and food industry and the area was primed for explosive growth.
That’s when the great recession hit, and with it, an incredible wave of drug violence in Baja California. The swine flu also affected the area and as if to add insult to injury, the main highway between Tijuana and Ensenada collapsed into the ocean, the victim of almost daily seismic activity.
Any one of these events would have crippled most cities, but taken together, they were almost a death blow to Ensenada. Cruise lines cut back to one ship a week, and that arrived half full. And then the people stayed on the boat for fear of encountering the narcos. Day by day businesses closed in the main tourist areas. The recession played no favorites. Restaurants, souvenir shops, coffee houses and even grocery stores shriveled on the vine as the area continued to reel from a lack of economic activity.
It was a few years ago that we started to see the first signs of an awakening. New businesses were opening. The city invested big money in redesigning and improving some of the main streets. The cruise ships started to return as America woke itself up economically once again and started to travel. Bit by bit we are seeing Ensenada again starting to grow.
After years of decline, visitor numbers here are strong and businesses are feeling bullish. I think it is safe to say that the doors to Ensenada are once again open for tourism. There are festivals of every kind from music to paella to wine to craft beer. There are bicycle rallies, off road races, regattas and concerts. In short, this is an incredible area to visit with tons to do and experience.
But be forewarned.
If you drive, gas is not cheap here, coming in at almost $3.50 a gallon right now. Also, the roads right now resemble something of a lunar landscape after the heavy rains of late 2016 and early 2017. Worse is that apparently, the city has no money to fix them. So they say.
But if you have a car that gets good mileage, or an SUV with strong suspension, you’re gonna love the city of Ensenada, the Comeback Kid of Baja California.