Here is a great road trip and weekend destination, only an hour and a half from the border to Ensenada. The beautiful bay invites massive cruise ships here for a reason, because there is a very special place of old world charm, just off the busy main thoroughfare. For four blocks, starting at Calle Castillo and ending at Avenida Riveroll, both sides of the López Mateos (aka Calle Primera) are lined with restaurants, small quaint shops selling everything from fine leather boots to silver jewelry and art. Many hotels are nestled in this section of Ensenada, once a stage coach stop into the gold fields. Today, you can get a mocha frappé, eat mouth watering seafood fresh from the morning’s catch or hit the internet from a bistro cafe. The best way to see this is by parking your car and taking a walk. So, put on your walkin’ shoes, this is going to be fun!
Ok, let’s get started! At the stoplight on Lárazo Cárdenas, just past Plaza Cívica with the three gold statues; turn left. In this first block find parking in front of the Hotel Misión Santa Isabel, as parking on López Mateos can be problematic. Start on the east side of López Mateos at the corner of Calle Castillo at Hotel Cortez for enticing fruit filled pastries and great coffee. Sidewalk seating is found all along López Mateos and some of these are enclosed. Zu Taza, is a homey coffee shop where you will find the young professionals in lively conversation. The coffee treats will give you a good jolt to start the morning. Have a breakfast croissant or an early lunch. Sitting outside on the enclosed patio, you can watch the occasional horse-drawn carriage from another era pass by. There are many blocks to go, temping you to sample the seafood cuisine.
Lively notes of a clarinet catch your attention before you are even out the door. A small indigenous man, Manuel, with hands looking as though they are made of leather, plays his well-worn instrument. Self-taught, he is from Oaxaca, as many of the vendors are during the tourist season. He hopes to gather tips for his adventure. His eyes are lively as he talks about his life. There are tourists and then there are travelers. Travelers know the story, with its richer experience, is found in the people they meet along the way.
Sauntering is a lost art. But López Mateos begs you to learn. There is a sign just ahead, Gelato Italiano “Come in! The smiles are free!” Well, how can one resist, both the smiles and this addictive gelato delight?! The young girls are happy to share that all flavors were made daily of the freshest ingredients. The boysenberry tastes as if the berry was plucked this morning and the lemons are right off the tree. The winning flavor for this palette was the almond, or, no wait, maybe it was the berry.
How fun it would be to stay a couple of nights and really get to know this area. Hotels abound, there is the Bahía, Villa Fontana Inn, El Rey Sol, Hotel Villa Marina, Hotel Misión Santa Isabel to name a few. Depending on how you have stretched out your morning, by lunch you might be at the famous taco stand. At the corner of Alvarado is La Guerrerense, established in 1960. Anthony Bourdain, famous chef and travel writer did a review that can be seen on YouTube. He speaks very colorfully and often had to be bleeped, but it was obvious he loved the place. What sets this stand apart from all others is La Guerrerense uses many unusual sea creatures in their tostadas. The Mexican people are brought up eating fresh sea urchin, sea cucumber, and mussels. Of course, there is the more traditional for the American visitors. The oohs and aahs come from the variety of sauces that one can choose from, including a peanut sauce for a totally different taste treat. Since this is a taco stand, it comes and goes. Check for it on the corner next to the Palacio de Los Perfumes in the late morning, it is the stand jammed with people. They could be sold out by 4 pm.
Walking into the Spirit Lounge and Gallery is like entering a dark rich Arabian night. The store is filled with eclectic art and fabrics from around the world. There is an upstairs coffee shop and reading room. Art, books, fabrics and very interesting nooks to relax after having completed half your tour.
If you had a desire to continue several more blocks beyond Riveroll, you would come to Papas and Beer, a hot night spot. Hussong’s, is nearby and is the oldest known bar in Baja. However, today we are going to cross to the other side of López Mateos, heading back. You’ll continue to be enticed into the little shops for clothing, art and more eating delights. The afternoon sounds of Mariachi music are spilling out onto the street from the restaurants. At the shady garden setting of Café Márago, very classy Mexican women have come to enjoy a lunch together. The music moves them and they dance con gusto to the historic sounds of Mexico. They are very happy to share their pleasure and music. There are those free smiles again. El Patio, another charming outdoor eatery is perfect for resting the weary feet. The waiters are charming and margaritas surprisingly good and very refreshing.
Nearly to the conclusion of the tour, the compelling smells of fine leather goods will pull you into Laredo Boots. Really, is there anyone who doesn’t love cowboy boots? These boots are actual works of art. The craftsmanship and tooling are done in rich buttery leathers. The use of other textures and designs are stunning. A very special pair was inlaid with woven textiles in bright Peruvian colors. Definitely dancing boots. Do not walk by the chocolate store where they make a truffle that has to be the best found anywhere on the planet. You’ll take home a little bit of Mexico and lots of free smiles.