Drive across the border for family-friendly fun in beautiful Ensenada, Mexico! This itinerary for four days in Ensenada with kids includes the harbor and central downtown, as well as excursions to nearby sites.
We visited Ensenada when our kids were 4 and 7, as part of a family road trip from Los Angeles, down through Baja Norte, and back up into the United States through Tecate.
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Where is Ensenada?
Ensenada is a port city on the coast of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. With a population of around 400,000, it is part of Baja Norte, and is considered the gateway to Mexican wine country.
Ensenada is a common cruise ship destination and also draws US tourists looking for a more authentic Mexican experience than they can find just over the border in Tijuana.
How Far is Ensenada from from the California Border?
Ensenada is approx. 70 miles south of the US border. Driving from San Diego, you’ll reach Ensenada in about 1 1/2 hours, an easy drive on toll highways that are in good condition.
Don’t Miss: Driving in Mexico: Everything You Need to Know
Itinerary: 4 Days in Ensenada with Kids
We had a great time exploring both the touristy sections and some of the more local sections of Ensenada as a family. E(4) in particular had a lot of fun practicing her beginning Spanish on everyone around us on the sidewalks.
We’ll focus on how to structure your time in Ensenada and some of the family-friendly things to do around town, but you can read more about our personal experience in Longing for Tourists: Traveling in Baja, Mexico with Kids in 2021.
Ensenada with Kids: Day 1
We drove to Ensenada from the small town of Puerto Nuevo, just north along the coast. After this four-street town, Ensenada felt like a big, bustling city. There were traffic lights and big stores, and lots of cars.
Take your first day to explore the Malecon (the pedestrian area around the harbor), and the main tourist shopping strips downtown.
Enjoy Fresh Coconuts
If you plan to enter the Malecon from the south end, head down Castillo, past the ATV rental, at the end of the street you’ll find Cocos de Colima. They have covered picnic table seating and fresh coconuts.
Try a Coco Sencillo (simple: lime, salt, chile powder) or a Coco Locos with all the fixings. They’ll cut the coconut open for you, and you can drink the fresh juice. When you are done, they’ll cut the coconut meat up for you and add in the other ingredients.
Walk the Malecon
Head up La Marina and you’ll find the entrance to the Malecon on your left. As you enter, you’ll see a large round plaza, with a playground to your left. Right in front of the ocean is a large interactive water fountain, and the large colorful letters for Ensenada.
Keep walking up the Malecon, you’ll pass a series of boats, before hitting the Plaza de las Californias. This is where the restaurants and souvenir shops really start.
Take your time exploring the shops, or stop for a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants with outdoor seating.
As you exit the Malecon on the north end, you’ll walk through the fish market. You can buy fish here and cook it up for dinner if you like. On the opposite side of the alleyway are many seafood restaurants.
Some people love eating seafood here as it’s clearly very fresh. I don’t love eating in such close proximity to the smells and sounds of the fresh fish market.
Stroll Av. Adolfo Lopez Mateos
Head inland one block to Av. Adolfo Lopez Mateos. This is the main tourist shopping and dining strip. This strip runs from Avenue Ruiz on the north end to Castillo on the south end. As you move south, you’ll find that the shops and restaurants become a bit more upscale.
Famous Fish Tacos
Pull up a red plastic chair and try the famous tacos at Tacos Mi Ranchito El Fenix. Head to this small taqueria on Calle Sexta and Espinoza. They are well known for their tacos de pescado (fish) and taco de camarones (shrimp). At 20 pesos each, you can eat a few!
Ensenada with Kids: Day 2
For your second day in Ensenada with kids, head south into the hills. You’ll ride horses, and then dine with aliens before a relaxing afternoon.
We booked a family horseback ride directly through Chrystal at Desert Trails. You’ll have the option of either riding on the beach, or in the hills around Ensenada. We chose the hills, as this was our girls’ first experience, and we thought the hills would be a slower, easier ride.
Desert Trails was great about accommodating nervous kids- we had S(7) on a horse on her own for the first time, so she rode on a lead held by our guide. E(4) is too young to ride on her own, so she rode in front of Waker on his horse.
Overall it was a positive experience for all. You’ll ride from the farm up through the hills, past houses, backyards, and a few local dogs until you come to a viewpoint looking down over the town below.
Our guide only spoke limited English, so it was a pretty quiet ride. Google maps to “desert trails” will take you right to the farm, the last bit is along dirt roads. It’s about 40 minutes south of the main downtown area of Ensenada. You can contact Chrystal at [email protected] to arrange a trail ride for your group.
Punto en el Cosmos
After horseback riding, head to the fanciful restaurant Punto en el Cosmos for lunch. This alien-themed restaurant is a lot of fun, and the food is delicious. We saw a lot of local families here celebrating various events together.
For the kids, there are malteadas cosmica, and for the adults, latte cosmicos! These “crazy shakes” are full of fun cosmic swirls and sprinkles. There is a large outdoor deck as well as indoor seating. There is a small playground outside as well.
You can find it at Punto en el Cosmos Maneadero, 22790 Ensenada. Closed on Wednesdays, check their Facebook page for updated hours.
Beach or Pool Time
After a busy morning, spend the afternoon relaxing at your hotel pool, or head to one of Ensenada’s southern beaches.
Just south of the city center is Playa Baja or Ensenada Municipal Beach. Just south of this is Playa Hermosa, with a restored Malecon. Both offer a clean stretch of sand, mild waves, and plenty of nearby amenities.
Dinner at Taza Bistro
Relax at Taza Bistro. This coffee shop and cafe has a great menu that includes salads, bagels, pasta, and sandwiches. This is a great option if you need a break from heavy dinners. Their Bangkok salad with chicken curry, coconut, and peanuts was excellent.
Churros for Dessert
Just outside Taza Bistro, you’ll find a window selling churros. Choose from many different fillings from lechera to chocolate. The churros are hot and fresh, delicious!
Ensenada with Kids: Day 3
For your third day exploring Ensenada with kids, head down to the tourist site of La Bufadora, before exploring a bit more of downtown Ensenada.
Visit La Bufadora
La Bufadora is a marine blowhole located south of Ensenada. Here you’ll find that you are discouraged from driving too close to the blowhole. Rather you will park and then walk down a narrow row of vendors and restaurants before reaching the water feature.
You will pay to park (approx. 50 pesos), then stroll through. You’ll see all sorts of crafts, from bookmarks to water pitchers. There are also Pina Colada vendors (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), as well as fresh oysters.
At the end of the vendor strip, you’ll find La Bufadora, and the quintessential “Ensenada” colored letters. The blowhole is a natural formation where the ocean water carves out the rock from underneath to form a cave with an air passage to the surface. When the water comes in, it cannot escape fast enough through the narrow opening and is compressed, causing it to shoot up through the rock and into the air, sometimes up to 100 feet. We stood and watched for a while- you’ll see several smaller sprays, before being surprised by a much larger eruption.
La Bufadora is between a 45 and 60 minutes drive from downtown Ensenada, depending on traffic.
Alternate Activity: El Salto Waterfall
El Salta Waterfall is located approx. 40 min north of downtown Ensenada. Follow the directions on google maps, you’ll then pull of onto a dirt road, where you’ll see a blue sign and a gate. From here, the hike to the waterfall is about a half-mile.
If the waterfall is open, someone should come to charge you for parking and entrance (about $2). When we attempted to visit in December, the gate was closed, and we were told that the waterfall was all dried up.
Alternate stop: Puerto Neuvo
We spent several days in Puerto Neuvo before heading to Ensenada, but if you haven’t, this small town would make a great day trip. The whole town is a handful of cross streets packed with restaurants and vendors.
The town is known for its unique preparation of lobster (langosta), which is why most people visit. We recommend Villa Ortega for food- it’s not the cheapest place in town, but has a solid menu, and great views of the water.
Explore Riviera de Ensenada
Back in Ensenada, head to Riviera de Ensenada. This large, extravagant complex was a hotel in the 1930s, as well as a former casino. Stroll through the building and the gardens. There is currently a bar here, with a lovely patio, as well as the Museo de Historia de Ensenada.
Don’t Miss: Just behind the Riviera de Ensenada is a lovely playground. From the patio at the back of the complex, head to your right to find it.
Dinner On Ave Ruiz
For dinner, there are many options on the main tourist restaurant strip. However, you may prefer dinner on the quieter back streets behind the main strip.
Walk up Avenue Ruiz, and you’ll find restaurants without staff out front trying to draw you in. Birria Restaurant Guadalajara has traditional Mexican food, handmade tortillas, and great reviews. Or, try Tamaky Sushi Bar, which has great Japanese food.
You’ll pass Hussong’s Cantina, which is rumored to be the home of the original margarita. This cantina is the oldest cantina in Baja- it opened in 1892. Finish with dessert from Las Crepas, farther down Avenue Ruiz, just before C. Tercera.
Ensenada with Kids: Day 4
On your fourth day in Ensenada with Kids, you’ll explore the Valle de Guadalupe, the wine region of Baja, and make your way north to the town of Tecate.
Valle de Guadalupe
The Valle de Guadalupe is the wine-making region of Baja that has become more well known over the last few years. Many people come to this area to spend the weekend wine tasting, eating wonderful (expensive) meals, and even visiting spas.
Depending on the age of your kids, (and their patience level), you may want to spend more or less time in this area. Regardless of how many stops you make, it’s a lovely area to drive through, with unique vistas and some interesting architecture. You’ll spot elaborate vineyards and small glass cabins built for entertaining weekend guests.
La Cocina de Doña Esthela
This restaurant used to be a “hole-in-the-wall” secret- but is now extremely popular. They do not take reservations. You’ll find yourself on some bumpy dirt roads to get here, only to find a packed parking lot.
The food is supposed to be well worth the drive. We made the mistake of attempting to visit on a Sunday when the wait was quite long, and the crowds were thick.
Bring cash, be prepared for all Spanish menus, and try the eloté hotcakes! Closed on Mondays.
Visit a Winery
Our kids have little patience for watching us taste wine, so we didn’t visit any wineries on our trip through the Valle de Guadalupe. However, we hear good things about Finca Altozano and Corona del Valle. Both are said to be more family-friendly than neighboring wineries.
Tecate is a border town between Mexico and the United States. It has a lovely zocalo with beautiful bougainvilleas, a gazebo, and of course, the Tecate colored letters to pose in front of. The zocalo is also called Miguel Hidalgo Park.
The Zocalo is framed by several Michocanas if you need a sweet treat, or head to Mejor Pan de Tecate a few blocks east of the zocalo for a huge selection of bread, rolls, and sweets.
Across the street, closer to the zocalo is Tacos la Güerita, which we hear has some of the best tacos in Tecate.
Crossing the Border at Tecate
If you plan to cross the border at Tecate, note that the border crossing can be difficult to find. From the center of Tecate, the border itself is just a few blocks north, but you’ll need to go around to the east to get in line for the border.
Head away from the border, south to Blvd. Defensores. From the zocalo, head south on Blvd Universidad, then turn left onto Blvd. Defensores right after the McDonalds. Stay on this road heading east until you see signs for the border. Follow the signs until you reach the line for the border. You will then turn east to follow the line of cars until you reach the back of the line. Plan to be in line for several hours.
This border crossing has limited hours- it currently closes at 2 pm on weekdays. Alternately, drive to Tijuana to cross there where the border is open 24 hours. We got in line at just after 1 pm on a weekend, thinking we had plenty of time before the border closed at 4 pm. At a few minutes past 4 we were still in line, and making backup plans to drive to the Tiajuana crossing. Luckily we made it through, but plan lots of extra time for this crossing.
What time of Year is Best to Visit Ensenada with Kids?
We visited Ensenada in December and found it too cold to relax on the beach. The best time to visit is April to September when the temperatures are warmest. The summer months bring the hottest weather, with average highs in the 80s. These months also tend to be crowded, so aim for the shoulder seasons around these.
Where to Stay in Ensenada with Kids
We recommend staying onAv. Adolfo Lopez Mateos, on the south end, between Av. Riveroll and Castillo. This is the far end of the tourist shopping strip, where you’ll find nicer boutiques and restaurants. This section of the road is also closed off on weekends to create a pedestrian walkway.
Affordable Hotel: Hotel Cortez. There was a lot that we really liked about this hotel. It has a great location, and the decor is lovely and modern. It has a central courtyard with a small heated pool. They have covered parking beneath the hotel that is easy to go in and out of. Our only complaint was that the beds were uncomfortably hard.
Alternate Hotel: Hotel Casa del Sol. For our next visit, I’d love to stay here just down the block from Hotel Cortez. The outside looks more blocky and modern but the inside looks adorable, and they get great reviews for comfort.
Is it Better to Stay in Rosarito or Ensenada?
For families, we feel Ensenada is a better location than Rosarito. Rosarito has a reputation for being more of a party town, while Ensenada is a larger town farther from the US border, and tends to be a bit quieter.
Rosarito is a beach community, while Ensenada is a seaside city, with beaches both north and south of the main town.
Is it Safe to Walk around Ensenada with Kids?
There is petty crime in Ensenada, so take normal city precautions. We felt safe walking around and did notice obvious police and national guard presence both in town and on the major roads around Ensenada.
Can I Drink the Water in Ensenada?
The water in Ensenada and most of Baja is considered to be fairly clean- most of it comes from wells. However, you never know what the pipes of a specific building may have in them, so it’s best to be careful.
You can drink bottled water, use a filtered water bottle like Lifestraw, or purify your water with UV light using a Steripen. This is what we use, as we can purify large amounts of water for the whole family.
We do not worry about ice in our drinks or avoid eating vegetables at restaurants. We also brush our teeth with tap water and have not had difficulties, though many people choose to not take the risk. You can decide for yourself how comfortable you are, based on how sensitive you generally are to foreign water.
Check Prices: Steripen Water Purifier
Is Ensenada Expensive?
Ensenada is much less expensive than the United States. We found that the prices varied widely from restaurant to restaurant. As an example, an espresso, for example, generally costs between 35-40 pesos (around $2 USD).
Can I Pay with US Dollars in Ensenada?
It’s best to be prepared to pay in pesos, you can easily find banks with ATMs around Ensenada to get cash. Street vendors and small shops do not take credit cards. Some restaurants will take credit cards, but not all. Plan to pay in cash, or ask before you order.
There are some places in Ensenada that will accept US dollars, though they will often only be able to provide change in pesos. On the reverse side, we paid for parking at La Bufadora in pesos and received our change in US dollars.
Do I Need to Tip in Ensenada?
Generally, you should plan to tip about 10-15% at restaurants in Ensenada. If you are at a bar, you should plan to tip 10-20 pesos per drink. For other services, just round up to a convenient amount.
Do I Need a Car in Ensenada?
You will need a car to easily move around Ensenada if you wish to leave the main downtown area.
If you are considering renting a car, we recommend Discover Cars. They are very clear about what is included in your rental, and if your plans change, they have free cancelation.
Check Prices: Discover Cars
Are There Free Things to Do in Enesenada with Kids?
There are lots of free family-friendly things to do in Ensenada with kids including playgrounds, strolling the Malecon, and exploring the Riviera de Ensenada.
Can I Swim with Dolphins in Ensenada?
While you can swim with dolphins year-round in Mexico, Ensenada is not the best place to do this. To find wild dolphins, you’ll need to go farther south to Cabo San Lucas, and the Sea of Cortes.
Tips for Visiting Ensenada with Kids
Here are several tips for visiting Ensenada with kids to help you have a smooth and pleasant trip.
Ensenada is a mostly cash town- even many of the tourist-focused restaurants do not take credit cards. Plan to carry enough cash to buy what you need. ATMs are plentiful and secure though there may be a line. You’ll often see security outside of major banks.
Practice your Spanish
While many people in Ensenada speak English, it’s a great place to practice your Spanish. People will appreciate the effort, even if your Spanish is basic.
Eat as Late as Possible
Most locals eat quite late, as the evening hours when it is cool are the most pleasant time to be out on the town. Try to eat closer to local hours if you can.
Get off the Tourist Strip (a little)
While we don’t advise wandering back streets of a Mexican town with no regard for the neighborhood around you, we’ve found that by wandering a few blocks off the main tourist strip, you’ll find more authentic restaurants and services. We love to grab food from a local supermarket to make a simple dinner in our hotel room.
Stroll in the Evenings
In the evenings, the decorative lights come on, the sun is down, and the streets become a more interesting place to stroll. Many streets are blocked off for pedestrians on the weekends, and restaurants extend their seating into the street.
Get Travel Insurance
Don’t forget travel insurance! We use SafetyWing for long-term travel, it renews automatically and covers everything we might need for an affordable price including trip interruption.
There You Have It
Four days exploring Ensenada with Kids. This lovely stretch of Baja California is very family-friendly, and an easy drive from California.
Interested in reading more about Mexico? Check out Exploring Mexico with Kids: 6 Week Itinerary.
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If you’re driving, check out all our best advice about road trips with kids including Road Trip Essentials: What to Pack for the Ultimate Road Trip.