It was a good sailing start into our first foreign country. We noticed that the wind was getting more consistent the further south we travelled, and we had a comfortable and reasonably fast trip across the border. Approaching the fat black dividing line on our chart, we were were filled with anticipation, and were amused to see that there was a fat black fence on land where the line was. As the fence approached our beam, I hopped up to the flag halyard and raised our Mexico courtesy flag, where it fluttered high and proud.
Pulling into our slip at the Baja Naval marina, we steeled ourselves for all kinds of language and paperwork issues that could be faced in a country we were unfamiliar with. To our pleasant surprise, the marina staff were very friendly, spoke excellent English, and made us feel right at home. We were walked thru our foreign vessel check in process and were good to go within 2 hours; there wasn’t even a line at the customs office. We were told by other cruisers that the check in process in other places around the world could take up to 2 days and wandering all over the city to accomplish. Customs officials were delighted by Rowan tottering around their waiting room, and started feeding him pastries and cooing to him in Spanish. Back in the marina, it was strange to see how almost every boat docked there was American, far outnumbering local vessels. Sports fishermen enjoy the abundance of sea life south of the border, penny pinching yachtsmen come for the cost efficient boat yards, and for everyone else, Ensenada is a convenient place to check into the country.
Ensenada, we were told, is a food haven. Restaurants and bars abound in the city center, fueled by fresh seafood from its shores, excellent wine from its interiors, and tourist dollars from the north. The foodie in me was excited; I wanted to try everything that I did not recognize, not just the Cal-Mex food that I was used to. And with food prices way lower than in the US, we could feast like royalty. Right in front of the marina, we had fun picking out Mexican sweets; candied whole sweet potatoes, tamarind fruit leather, caramel wafers and desiccated coconut bars. Then, we hopped over to the bakery next door and got some dessert breads; buns slathered in sweetened condensed milk and devoured on the spot with sticky fingers, and a blueberry and cream cheese loaf to go. After days of being accosted by barkers trying to lure us into one of the many seafood restaurants lined up between the fish market and the waterfront, we slipped into the quietest one for dinner. Mariachi band players walked among the customers, offering to play songs. There, I had a 7 Seas stew, which indeed had seven types of seafood in it, while Travis had ‘ surprisingly very good beef tacos for a seafood restaurant’.
The next morning, wandering into a restaurant that advertised ‘authentic Mexican food’ on its sign, we then had to place our order using zero English, broken Spanish and some pictures. I had no idea what I was ordering, but it turned out to be homely, hearty, and probably the best beef stew I’ve ever had. The restaurant owners’ children played among the tables, and no tourists could be found here; it was a regular mom and pop business. We then ventured out further away from the tourist district, searching out a taco truck that reputedly came up with the original recipe for fish tacos. Arriving at the little stall, contrary to our expectations, it was not at all touristy, and customers sat eating on stools set out on the sidewalk. This is the way we like it; authentic, no frills, just the way locals do it. We ordered some fish and prawn tacos; deep fried to crispy perfection, nestled in soft taco shells, and topped with the vegetables and condiments of your choosing; shredded cabbage, tomatoes, red, green or white salsa.
Interestingly, other than bars and restaurants, there was a disproportionate number of pharmacies in the city. Apparently, medications can be bought without prescriptions and for a lot cheaper this side of the border. We were amused by the tiny pharmacies blatantly announcing their discounts on viagra, with its blue triangle mascot standing proudly in front of numerous storefronts.
Taking a break from the sun, we stopped by the Riviera Cultural Center, once a hotel and casino, that now hosts a small museum and art, music and dance classes, as well as a craft market in its courtyard. Opened in 1930, the beautiful Moorish building hosted celebrity guests from Hollywood and Mexico.
Across the street from the cultural center is the Carasol Science Center, housed in a large and modern building easily identifiable from the waterfront. The museum has a nice earth science exhibit, but otherwise disappointingly did not seem finished for visitors. Local high school students volunteer as guides here, and the museum was nice and quiet, making it a good place for Rowan to run around in and explore.
Right in front of the marina is the civic center, in which a gigantic Mexican flag is flown, 50 by 28 meters large, 120 kilograms heavy. We managed to catch a flag lowering ceremony, whereby we counted at least 30 military personnel and an army truck needed to carry the flag and make sure it never touched the ground. Several times a day, an interactive fountain is switched on and coordinated to music, and lights too at night. Children play in the water and couples admire the view of the ocean as cruise ships disembark tourists in the distance.
Lacking an anchorage, we did not stay in Ensenada for long, but we were excited with our first taste of Mexico. In the coming days, we would traverse the length of the Baja peninsula, visiting anchorages far from cities and home only to fishing communities.