January 5, 2014

Day trip to Ensenada: totally worth it, but never again #travelogue #travel

Last night we got home from a 1,500 mile road trip over nine days. We saw many cousins, visited a college, toured Universal Studios, visited a missionpartied in Los Angeles, walked around downtown LA, and saw a space shuttle. A pretty busy trip. But the crazy bit was our day trip into Mexico.

Originally, we thought we might drive across the border and down to Rosarito Beach or Ensenada. A lot of people told us not to do that, though. They said we'd get beheaded by drug cartels. A bunch of googling, though, made us believe that there was virtually no actual risk in going... but I didn't want to drive my new car in a foreign country, so we looked into other options.

Our timing was bad for a tourist bus from San Diego to Ensenada (only Tuesdays and Wednesdays that we could find), but more research showed another "easy" way to get there: Walk across the border and take a Mexican ABC bus to Ensenada.

It should be said here that I did zero research. Maria learned everything and planned everything. So I was going in blind, essentially, hoping it would all work out. This is my positivity strength working full force.
So we left our cozy, beachfront timeshare in Dana Point about 8 a.m. and drove an hour to the San Ysidro border crossing. We figured getting into Mexico would be easy, and it was. A few armed guards eyed us as we came through the building on the Mexican side, but no one asked for papers, no one asked if we had anything to declare... no one asked us anything.

And there we were, in the middle of a chaotic, crowded, noisy city. Maria tried to navigate to the bus terminal from the one blogger's directions, which were accurate but not as detailed as one might have hoped. But here are the correct walking directions thanks to Google Maps, at least as of January, 2014:
We walked back and forth until we figured out we had to go over the sky bridge across the highway.
Once we got over the highway, it was easy to find the ABC bus terminal: Past the tourist shops and restaurants, past the taxis, left through the plaza to the tall mirror-glassed building. The bus was there, but we were confused about the price. It was twice the price that we'd read online. After some calculations and a quick stop at the exchange counter for some pesos, we realized we misread the blog posts. Still a $110 round trip total for four people didn't seem outrageous. So we took the 11:45 bus from Tijuana to Ensenada.

At the time, we did not know that part of the coastal highway had fallen into the sea just a week before. We might have rethought this whole trip had we known. Or maybe not. We're reckless that way.

Anyway, the bus was comfortable and smooth for the 90 minute ride, and it dropped us at the Central station in Ensenada. A ten minute walk to the ocean got us to the tourist district, where we had lunch and bought a few souvenirs. We didn't know the return bus schedule, so we figured we'd try to get back to the terminal around 4 p.m.

We got totally lucky, walking onto a bus at 4:15 p.m. that got us back to Tijuana just after 6:15 p.m., well after dark. I admit to a little unease as we navigated the streets back to the border crossing--the place had a tweener feel to it like most tourists had left for the day, but people were still preparing their shops and bars for Friday night. If we'd missed that 4:15 bus, I figure we'd have reached Tijuana after 7:30 p.m.

We had no idea what to expect at the border. Maybe an hour or so wait in line for returning US citizens with valid passports, right?

We were so very, very wrong.

We wandered around trying to figure out the protocols, and ultimately one semi-friendly woman and a local official helped us understand that we had to stand in the "general public" line, which stretched up and away from the border farther than we could see. We began walking back along the line, which had not moved one inch in the ten minutes we wandered around, when a guy came up to us and offered to shuttle us across the border.

I was skeptical. He said it would take 30 minutes or so, dropping us on the other side of the border. The walking line looked at least three hours long. Probably more. (No exaggeration here. It's dreadful.) Ten bucks a person for the shuttle. He wanted to leave right away, had four seats. Ten bucks each.

I am always afraid of getting scammed in an unfamiliar place. Chaos all around. If it was so quick and cheap, why wasn't everyone doing it? Or at least a few more people abandoning that four hour line?

But he had a laminated official badge on a lanyard around his neck. His shuttle was a 15 passenger van, already nearly full of people, parked right next to a couple of Mexican border police. I set aside my skepticism and hopped in the van with Maria and the boys.

Best $40 we ever spent. The shuttle took us on a 20 minute drive to the Otay crossing, where we got out and went through a 20 minute line across the border, then picked us up on the other side and drove us back to our car at San Ysidro around 8 p.m.

All in all, this was a great experience. But it could have gone really wrong at multiple points. We got lucky with the border crossing shuttle, and with the timing of the return bus. The reroute due to the freeway collapse was a harrowing ride over the mountains on a windy, crowded precipice road without guardrails. And of course there are the beheadings, right?

Ensenada was fun--great food, of course, and typical tourist shops. The cruise ship wouldn't arrive until the next day, so it felt like we had the town to ourselves. But the people were friendly, and the walk to and from the bus station showed us a look at Mexican local city life. An experience I am glad we had, but I wouldn't do it again. Not as a day trip. If we were going to stay for a couple of nights in Ensenada, I would definitely consider doing the ABC bus again. But not for a day trip.

Lunch, with Super Donkeys! (i.e. big burritos)

Tourist section, without many tourists.

I'm guessing this place rocks when the ship is docked.

Souvenirs included Baja shirts, a blanket, and a little ceramic skull.

Local business.

On Avenida Riveroll, walking back to the bus station.

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