We often don’t lump Mexico in as being an exciting international getaway destination. You need to stop this mindset immediately. Born and raised in Los Angeles, but a mere three-hour drive away from the Mexican border, I too was a culprit of this belief. I love my food and I love me some good international travel. I’ve traveled to roughly 40 countries, and other than a brief stint where I got stranded in Tijuana with a donkey painted zebra, I never had any intention of really making a vacation out of Mexico. However, I was absolutely blown away by the food, scuba diving, clear waters, and most importantly, how incredibly affordable Playa Del Carmen is.
Where to stay
For just $33 a night (yes you read that correctly), I’d recommend staying at Hacienda Real del Caribe. It has a beautiful salt-water pool and very spacious rooms. I’m a big fan of flat screen TV’s, which it was lacking, but the location of this hotel is just so perfect that you’ll forget all about that detail. This hotel is literally one block away from all of the night life, a plethora of great restaurants, and only a 5-minute walk to the beach. Ummmm, I think I also mentioned that it was $33 a night…so, yeah…if you’re on a budget, this is an amazing place to go.
A scuba diver’s paradise
Cozumel constantly gets all of the hype for being one of the most amazing diving spots in the world (and rightfully so), but you have to make sure you don’t miss the Cenotes. I’ve been on some cool dives in the past, but the Cenotes….well….just look at these pictures for yourself. You won’t see much sea life down there, but the colors and the fact that you’re 35 feet under the surface of Earth is a pretty cool and special feeling in its own right. You are literally below the bottom of tree roots.
Ditch Cozumel and stay in Playa Del Carmen
Don’t make the mistake that my buddy and I made and get a hotel on this island. There really isn’t all that much going on there other than the best chile relleno you could possibly imagine! Cozumel is known world-wide as being one of the top dive locations in the world because of its ridiculously clear waters and visibility. However, I strongly suggest just staying in Playa Del Carmen and paying the extra $5-10 to the dive shop to take you to some diving out there. If you really want to spend some time on the island, it’s literally a $20 35-minute boat ride that leaves every hour from two different ports in Playa Del Carmen. Don’t bother renting a car either, since you won’t see very much other than the port and undeveloped areas.
Do make sure that you go on some dives out there though as the swim-throughs are spectacular and plentiful. If you go within the next couple of years, be ready to see a lot of Lionfish and don’t be an idiot like me and get too close. Yes, they’re beautiful, but they are also extremely poisonous. Enjoy them from afar but don’t try to take that coveted selfie with one. Your underwater selfie can wait until you’ve entered one of the very few shipwrecks in the area. Look for the slightly dirty restroom and make sure you keep your eyes open for some of the biggest eels you’ve ever seen hanging underneath the cracks of the floorboards.
Overall, Playa Del Carmen is definitely a place you don’t want to miss. The food is great, the stay is cheap, and there is beauty all around you — and under you in the case of the Cenotes.
Tijuana Brewery Hop with Turista Libre
Written by and photos by Nadia Ibanez
Since moving to San Francisco, I crave SoCal sun, food and beer on a normal basis. Yes, SF has some of the best food and a never-ending calendar of things to do. But there’s absolutely nothing like the San Diego sun and local brews. I flew down to SD for another Tijuana tryst with Turista Libre to attend his Tijuana Brewery Hop.
I’d like to think I’m a Turista Libre veteran after going on a bunch of his Tijuana tours. I have a TJ waterpark, Lucha Libre fight and TJ baseball game under my belt so a beer tour seemed fitting. On the agenda was three craft brewery visits and a bite to eat at a food truck stop. (My memory and apparently my photos toward the end of the night are extremely blurry so I ask for your forgiveness now.)
With this blistering heatwave that has come through San Diego the last few days, I’m seeking daily, cooling refuge in the form of jumping into the ocean and seeking out food and drink that’s light and bright. Lucky for me, the Latin Food Fest in San Diego last weekend was just what the doctor ordered. Cocktails, tequila tastings, cool ceviche, delicious tacos and so much more were offered at the Grand Tasting Village at San Diego’s Embarcadero Marina Park.
San Diegans truly are blessed with easy access to some of the country’s best latin food. The team behind the Latin Food Fest work hard every year to bring forth the best restaurants and beverage vendors to accumulate over a single weekend.
When I’m totally parched, the first thing I look for is fresh coconut water. Since the trend has gained momentum, this thirst-quenching juice can get a bit pricey at your local grocery store. Luckily the guys behind Coco Jack have created a line of tools so that you can break through your own young coconut and serve yourself. The tools may look like they’re straight out of the caveman era but they do the trick within seconds.
By far, my favorite taste of the day was the Smoked Albacore Ceviche from the Tequila Bar & Grille located inside the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina. The ceviche was perfectly seasoned and sat on top of a crunchy tostada.
Another favorite of the day was the Choritos a la Chalaca from Cafe Secret in Del Mar. I’m not a huge mussel fan but these were served with perfection. Ceviche was plentiful throughout the Grand Tasting Village, but I especially loved the Ahi Ceviche from Venga Venga. Bright with citrus, avocado and fresh fish, this ceviche was fantastic.
While I wish there were a few more dessert offerings at the event, one of my favorites was the Chocolate Mole and Tres Leche ice creams from Calexico Creamery. The ice cream was super creamy and their mobile ice cream shop was absolutely adorable.
The drinks were flowing at the Latin Food Festival and we had our pick from dozens of different tequilas, cocktails, beers, micheladas and wines. It was like having a taste of Tijuana and Ensenada without ever crossing the border. Attending foodie festivals like this one is great because you find out about restaurants, wineries and spirit purveyors that you would have never stumbled upon otherwise. The Latin Food Fest in San Diego is one of my favorites each year and I’m always so excited to be invited back to cover this delicious event. From the tequila tent and endless food, to the entertainment and beautiful San Diego skyline backdrop, the Latin Food Fest is definitely one to add to your calendar. For more information, visit www.latinfoodfest.com.
It never ceases to amaze me that we are less than an hour from Mexico. While the majority of the population is still terrified to enter into these international waters, my recent trips to Ensenada and Tijuana have been nothing short of exhilarating and exciting. We recently visited Tijuana with our good friend, Turista Libre, for an evening of baseball, mechanical bull rides, vuvuzuelas, tacos, TJ hotdogs, and so much more.
As Tijuana Toros first timers, we were prepped completely. Proper baseball stadium food, cheeky cheerleaders, silly monkey and chicken mascots, and an excitable crowd. And let me just say that Mexican baseball games are 100% times better than anything you’ll see in the MLB.
(Check out our previous trips with Turista Libre to El Vergel waterpark and the Lucha Libre battles.)
Here are some photos from our recent trip with Turista Libre. A very special thank you to Derrik, Pilar and the entire Turista Libre familia for always showing us a great time.
When it doubt, use duct tape.
While it may look like a bloody mess, Mexican beer is SO much better with a rim of Chamoy. Try it and I guarantee you’ll love it.
Estadio Gasmart has every typical baseball food you could every imagine, and more! Take your pick between street tacos, tortas, TJ hot dogs, fried chicken, caramel apples, cream-filled churros, and the like.
Why settle for ketchup, mustard and relish when you can opt for bundles of radishes or grilled green onions and green peppers?
Just some of the sights and sounds from the Tijuana Toros game.
After starting a new job and settling into my new apartment, I was long overdue for a weekend getaway. Luckily, Adam and I managed to find the time to plan a visit south of the border. While we were slowly learning our way around Tijuana, we decided to delve deeper into Mexico and conjure up a trip to Ensenada.
Perched on the Bay of Todos Santos, minutes from downtown Ensenada and within earshot of the Port, Hotel Coral is amidst all of the city’s land and sea offerings. With nearly 150 ocean view suites, outdoor and indoor pools and Jacuzzis, an onsite spa, watersport rentals, and a fantastic bar and restaurant, Hotel Coral is perfect for business and leisure travelers who want to enjoy the city without lifting a finger. Whether you want to plan a whole day wine tasting in the nearby Guadalupe Valley, need a taxi to explore downtown, want to check out the seafood market, or need local restaurant recommendations, the staff at Hotel Coral will go above and beyond to cater to your every whim.
WHERE TO EAT
Bistro & Cava – Hotel Coral & Marina was not only our home for the weekend but also provided delicious meals throughout our stay at Bistro & Cava. If you want a taste of everything Ensenada, go for the daily breakfast buffet where you’ll get your pick between handmade corn tortillas with all of the quesadilla fixings, a variety of typical Spanish dishes, an omelet bar, traditional Spanish breakfast pastries, and so much more. You cannot miss Sunday brunch at Bistro & Cava. In addition to its standard breakfast options, Sunday brunch goers can taste ceviches, seafood paella, freshly fried fish tacos, roasted meat on a spit, and so much more. Be prepared to eat yourself silly when you visit Ensenada – the seafood and traditional dishes are out of this world.
We also had the chance to sample the dinner menu at Bistro & Cava, which was equally outstanding. Take your pick from seafood and meat dishes, or let the chef lead you in a tasting menu. We loved his tuna tartare, enormous molcajete, and pretty much anything that came from the sea. Even if you’re not a hotel guest, make sure to check this restaurant out.
La Guerrerense – Before even crossing the border, food recommendations were coming left and right and all pointed into the direction of La Guerrerense, a street cart serving some famous seafood tostadas. Once we found the cart in the middle of downtown Ensenada, we waited a moment, watched locals order, and followed suit. While I couldn’t tell you everything I ordered, I highly suggest you ask about popular menu items, follow your eyes and nose, and go for the specialties. (And if you’re daring enough, order the award-winning sea snail tostada) You won’t be disappointed — there’s a reason why some call this the best food cart in the world.
While I apologize for devouring my tostadas before even taking a single photo of them, I encourage you to go La Guerrerense and experience it for yourself. Only after your first bite will you understand why I couldn’t put my plate down to take a photo.
Malva Cocina de Baja – Malva Cocina de Baja is a fine example of how winemakers and regional chefs have carried the farm-to-table concept to the already progressive area. Executive Chef and Owner, Roberto Alcocer, mans the Swiss Family Robinson-styled restaurant, which serves locally-sourced Baja dishes with a twist. Floating above the Mina Penélope winery, we were honored to have Chef Alcocer guide us through his tasting menu.
While the restaurant may look and sound unassuming to the average wine-goer, Malva and its team work to showcase local ingredients wherever possible. Along with locally-sourced seafood, Chef Alcocer is raising a few families of goats and chickens onsite (for their meat and milk), further showing patrons that their food has its roots in Ensenada.
Our favorite dishes from Malva include the escolar with an onion ash in a corn cream served with sliced radish and lemon confit, grilled oysters with a drizzle of rich olive oil, braised goat, and goat’s milk ice cream with homemade dulce de leche and a marzipan crumble. A meal in wine country isn’t complete without a wine pairing at the Julio 14 from Mina Penélope made for an even more well-rounded lunch.
The entire space and concept at Malva is definitely something to fall in love with. We’ll definitely be back soon and can’t wait to see Chef Alocer’s concept and passion prosper.
WHERE TO DRINK
Valle de Guadalupe – I’ve had my fair share of wine tasting tours throughout southern California, but I would have never guessed that the quality and abundance of winemakers found in the Valle de Guadalupe would be as significant. Our hotel set up a wine tour for the afternoon and we were able to squeeze in a few winery stops, all of which had their own distinct style and finesse.
Among the winemakers in Ensenada talked about how they brought in regional, natural resources to design their winery. Fernando Perez Castro, owner of Hacienda La Lomita, shared the story of how he carved out caverns in the natural hillside to hold their aging wine, while the winemakers at Las Nubes repurposed the rock and stone found after the demolition of the landscape back into the décor of their property. Go for a glass of Pagano at Hacienda La Lomita, which emphasizes the free-flow, gravitational approach to winemaking, if you’re looking for cherry, coffee and blackberry notes. Las Nubes has delicious, cloud-inspired wine blends and I especially enjoyed Cumulus, a Grenache and Tempranillo blend. Pay them both a visit and you’ll just get a small glimpse into what the Valley has to offer.
Hussong’s – If you really want to liven up your night, head downtown and go straight to Hussong’s. Established in 1892, Mexico’s oldest cantina serves up a mighty margarita. Rightfully so – one of Hussong’s bartenders created the first margarita in the 1940s. If you really want to drink like the locals, order your margarita with sangrita, a back of tomato and orange juice mixed with hot sauce. The “palate cleanser” will definitely help with the bartenders’ heavy tequila pours.
Ultramarino – If local craft beer is more your scene, head over to Ultramarino. Just a couple blocks away from Hussong’s, Ultramarino offers local beer at a great price. There were a number of beers on tap so pick your poison with some help from the bartender. If you need something to soak up the booze, order up some oyster tacos and ceviche.
We had an amazing weekend in Ensenada and barely reached the surface of all of things to do and see in town. With only a mere 70+ miles in between the San Diego border and Ensenada, we’ll definitely be visiting more frequently. (We must give a HUGE thank you to everyone at Hotel Coral for their generosity and hospitality. We’ll surely be seeing you soon!)