Many people have told me that you don’t see the “real” Mexico unless you get away from the Mexican border towns, and I don’t doubt it.
However, if you’re visiting Southern California (especially San Diego) for a vacation or business trip you might want to go south of the border to get a taste of the Mexican culture. I’ve done it hundreds of times through Northern Baja California, and it’s a fun little getaway.
Yes, you have to be careful, and I would not recommend bar hopping in the main tourist area of Tijuana (or anywhere else for that matter). The last thing you want to be doing is walking around the streets while not having your wits about you.
What I would recommend is taking a drive down the coast to Ensenada on the toll road during daylight hours. Start early in the morning and make a day of it. Ensenada is about a two-hour drive from Tijuana, and on a clear day the ocean views are absolutely gorgeous through Northern Baja California.
And don’t speed or roll through a stop sign… even when you see others doing it. Going just a few miles over the speed limit (or other petty “violations”) with a USA license plate tends to attract attention, and getting pulled over can ruin your whole day.
On the way you might want to stop in Rosarito Beach for breakfast at one of the many restaurants along the beach side of the highway. Or you may want to check out some other places that are a little farther along the way like Puerto Nuevo or La Mission.
Ensenada is a nice little city where you’ll want to get out and walk around, see some of the local sites and maybe practice your Spanish at one of the local restaurants when you decide on a place for lunch.
If you didn’t stop at Puerto Nuevo on the way down then plan on having dinner there on your return trip. There are some nice restaurants with beautiful ocean views and there are a lot of little shops throughout this tourist spot where you can pick up souvenirs.
But don’t pay the first price you’re given for anything you may want to buy at a souvenir shop. That’s for suckers.
Part of the fun is bargaining with the locals for better deals, and they expect you to do it. A rule of thumb is to negotiate for the best price and then tell the vendor it’s too much and start to walk away. That’s when they’ll give you their best price.
Do try to get across the border at San Ysidro or Otay Mesa before it gets dark. One reason is to make sure you have enough light to clearly see the pot holes in the road. Some of them are pretty deep. You also want to be able to read the street signs if you’re going through town. You can’t count on street lights.
When you leave you can play it safe by simply following the traffic at the end of the toll road and signs that say “San Diego.” You may have a longer wait in line than trying one of the entry lanes on the east side of the Tijuana River, but you won’t run the risk of getting lost and finding yourself in a questionable neighborhood.
All in all, a day trip to Ensenada through beautiful Northern Baja California is a nice little getaway.