Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ensenada deserves better

ENSENADA, Mexico – So, here it is: I prefer Ensenada over Cabo San Lucas.

Click on image to see full panorama.
Ensenada’s reputation is only slightly better than that of its northern cousin, Tijuana, but this seems undeserved. OK, it’s no Puerto Vallarta, or even Zihuatanejo, our two favorite Mexican ports. But, even with its honky tonk bars, Viagara dispensaries and souvenir shops, it feels less artificial than Cabo.

This by no means makes its main shopping district anything like an authentic Mexican town, but it feels less forced. The cruise terminal is clean and tidy, the walk to downtown is a comfortable 15 minutes, and Ensenada is where the fish taco was created. Intermingled with its loud party bars and trinket stores are street stands where they are actually shelling fresh oysters and making real ceviche while you wait.

Yes, yes, there are small children selling gum and crappy wooden whistles, but what Mexican port would be complete without them?

I was lured into a restaurant with the promise of six beers and four tequila shots for 10 bucks. The tequila was clearly watered down, but those were real Dos Equis in the bucket. Naturally, when we asked for the check (the written version of which, mysteriously, couldn’t be found), the tab for the liquor was 15 bucks and the whole tab for our movie-theater nachos, one fish taco, margarita and the loss-leader booze was 35 bucks. They clearly don’t expect we rich Americans to raise a fuss over the mysterious five-dollar price hike, and we didn’t. Doesn’t that make the whole thing all the more, well, real?

There’s more – the restaurant’s restroom had no running water (less a problem for me than for Kathleen, since the urinal was a nasty brick trench), and our taxi driver for the ride back showed us the dent in his binoculars where he’d cold-cocked a would-be thief. The driver was a San Diego native of Mexican descent who had moved to Ensenada to make a living. That’s a story you don’t hear often.

Anyway, I took an immediate liking to Ensenada and would prefer an afternoon here to one in Cabo, even though the chamber of commerce in Cabo has discovered that we Americans are finicky about our toilet facilities. If I had to choose a place to live, well … Cabo would win out. But that’s not under any serious consideration.

The fake Cuban cigars in Ensenada are more cleverly disguised than those in Cabo – they keep them in what appears to be humidors (I saw no evidence of actual humidification) instead of selling them on the street in glass-topped wooden boxes, the latter a dead giveaway. I stopped at a stand less than 50 steps from our boat and the merchant had no problem with my request to slide the label off of what appeared to be a Cohiba (complete with the typical fake certificate of authenticity), for sale for $18.50 (about half the price of what they went for in Cabo). Sure enough, the inside of the label was smooth – real Cohibas, I’m told, have the telltale feel of stamped paper. I passed, and he was polite and, it appeared, a little surprised. 

Kathleen bought a concrete-and-stone turtle that weighed at least 30 pounds (destined for our windy front porch to secure our welcome mat), which went from the requested $40 to $30, including a free four-dollar taxi ride back to the boat. The nice man running the shop said they were manufactured in a nearby town, and I’m buying the story.

No, I didn’t guzzle all six Dos Equis. Two of them made the trip back to the boat with us.

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