In many cultures, there is power to a name. It tells you everything you should know about the essence and the spirit of a person or a place. In Spanish, the word ensenada translates to “bay”, but Ensenada Mexico is much more than that. It is locally referred to as La Cenicienta del Pacifico, the Cinderella of the Pacific.
And it really is.
Ensenada is just south of the San Diego border, about an hour drive or so into the Baja California peninsula. It is a fairytale in many ways, like stepping back in time. Tourism and development have brought construction of high rises and urban office-type buildings, especially in the city center closest to the coast, but the tropical green waters in the marina still rise and fall across white sandy beaches under ancient palm trees, which you can see across the spanish-style terracotta rooftops basking orange and red in the sun.
It’s a beach town, really. There are street vendors where you can buy crispy fried churro dusted with cinnamon sugar, or fried plantains, mango slices and hot sauce, and all kinds of knick knacks and souvenirs. The little bodegas and are often crowded with visitors bustling about, shopping for friends and relatives, or perhaps buying an authentic hat or poncho to take home; if you aren’t careful, a battered pickup truck trundling down the street may brush past. It is quaint, but it does come with dangers to unsuspecting or naive tourists.
Many of the visitors come from the cruise ships that pass by and stop briefly. The guests can stretch their legs and explore without venturing too far beyond the port and up into the rolling foothills where the urban center gives way to rural, slightly rougher neighborhoods. It’s a chance to shop, grab some authentic food, and explore a hidden gem.
For me, of course, it was always a place to fish, and when I was younger it was the epicenter of our pursuit for tuna and yellowtail. Ensenada isn’t exactly known as a fishing destination, but it was far enough removed from Newport or San Diego to be a true adventure, and certainly much less crowded or busy. The trek was worth it.
Not being a fishing town, there weren’t a ton of guides and experts to show us “the local way” of fishing, but we didn’t really need a guide. The fishing was good enough that we were able to figure it out ourselves. Much or our skills and knowledge translated directly to the coastal waters. We’d take small pangas out, usually not too far off the coast, and just cast our lines out to see what would hit. It was really just the price of the boat we had to manage, because the ‘guide’ was just a driver. He listened to us more than we listened to him.
After catching our fill of tuna or yellowtail, we would head back to land, load up our coolers, and putter off back up the road towards home. Across the border, we’d live off that haul for weeks at a time until the fridge ran bare and we’d load up the car to head back for more. It was a comfortable system, one that became familiar and fun.
But as a name like “The Cinderella of the Pacific” might imply, it was not always a fairytale ending. In fact, many fairytales have darker sides to them than the cleaned up childish versions made popular by Disney. For example, the original Cinderella story involves a lot of blood; the stepsisters actually use a knife to slice off parts of their toes and heels to better fit into the glass slipper. And for us in Ensenada, we nearly got ourselves arrested as a family for shooting off a bunch of fireworks.
We had to pay the cops under the table to get out of it, and I remember watching the money change hands with innocent curiosity. It wasn’t a bribe or corruption or anything sinister to me; it just was what it was. Looking back, I can’t help but feel that Ensenada was a magical fairy tale in many ways, albeit one written by a worldly, no-bullshit traveler like the late, great Anthony Bourdain. He would have appreciated the pursuit of a love like fishing, but the daring to venture far beyond the comfort zone of what is normal or even appropriate. It’s raw, and it’s real.
The tale of Cinderella comes with a ticking clock, however. She only has a short window of time before the magic wears off and reality sets back in, and that captures my experience well enough with this vibrant city. Since my youth, I’ve only stopped by Ensenada a handful of times, usually just pit stops from a cruise ship when I’m stretching my legs or passing on stories to my family and friends. My career is a little more advanced and matured now (at least matured from a fishing sense), and I doubt I’ll ever go back there just to fish.
For a young adventurer though, the rawness and natural beauty of the town were ideal, magical and brimming with untold potential. I could eat a griddle-seared octopus dish sizzling hot and savory, right from a little street vendor cart, and if I was hungry I could just grab another. It was dirt cheap. When I’d had my fill, I could wipe my chin on my sleeve and head out on a panga to fish, sometimes from sunup to sundown.
Ensenada was a place I could flex my own instincts, learn and grow as an angler while spending quality time with my dad and my brothers. Like Cinderella’s adventure, it was more about learning to be a better version of me, not just about having a ball. But when you grow and push your boundaries, when you take off on adventures, you have a ball anyways. That’s the magic. But don’t take my word for it. Go.