By Graham Mackintosh
For many years, heading down Highway 1, a typical first night in Baja for me meant camping in the peace and quiet of the desert around Cataviña. Leaving San Diego by mid-morning I would usually be there and setup by nightfall. Sometimes I’d sleep in a tent; other times in my vehicle. Most of my food, drink and supplies would be purchased in the US before crossing the border.
However with the peso-dollar exchange rate, for much of the winter, around 20:1 (currently around 18:1), I’ve been more inclined to take my time, buy what I need in Mexico, and enjoy some surprisingly inexpensive motels.
A Baja hotel or motel for me is usually just a place to crash… somewhere, hopefully relatively clean, convenient, quiet and, above all, secure till I can get out of the city and off the highway.
In Ensenada, I’ve discovered and returned to several motels that fit the bill.
In the central hotel zone, there are a wide range of motels for $20 or less a night midweek. Motel Coronado on Calle Primera or Calle Adolfo Lopez Mateos is my favorite. It is a small, recently modernized two-story motel close to the Riviera Cultural Center and Caracol Science Museum. It’s just south of the bridge which spans the broad drainage channel flowing into the harbor. There are walkways either side of the channel, variously called Sendero Escultorico or Paseo Riviera. Huge cruise ships and container ships often provide an interesting backdrop, while the channel is a great place to take your binoculars and urban birdwatch. Birds of prey such as white-tailed kites often perch on the wires above.
If you arrive early you can generally park outside your room. There’s good security as the small parking area is overlooked by the office… and the Federal police HQ and several local government offices are nearby across the street. The rooms are on the small side, but clean and respectable. The Coronado is popular with Mexicans as well as tourists. You’ll often see pickups and vans from phone companies and utility companies parked there… and twice I’ve shared the hotel with an entire film crew and all their vans and vehicles. It’s an easy walk downtown to see the flag and fish market, and to access most city attractions.
There’s an Oxxo convenience store and gas station close by. The Motel Coronado is perfect if you just want an inexpensive safe place for the night. A single room is 320 pesos (midweek) or $16 US at 20:1, but that jumps to 750 pesos Friday and Saturday and special holidays and occasions. If you can get a room after 11 PM midweek the price is just 240 pesos. But I wouldn’t count on it not being full before then. (Tel: 011-52-646-176-1416)
A block further south on the same street, the single-story Motel America is another small motel with relatively secure parking outside the rooms. It looks right across to the Federal police HQ. Rooms are bigger than the Coronado but not quite as modern and clean, and nearly all come with a fridge and stove. Midweek prices are 400-450 pesos single.
Between the Coronado and the Motel America, on Avenida Espinoza, #174, is the attractively priced Sahara Hotel. Advertised room price is 240 pesos, but that’s just for four hours! The cost per night is about 18 dollars single. I stayed there recently. Rooms are clean and modern for the money. There’s good security as again the always staffed office overlooks the parking area.
But even an innocent like myself quickly realized that with the short stay option, interesting curvy furniture, and the not for the kids channels on TV, this is not your average tranquil tourist sleepover. Indeed, there was much laughter and partying, doors banging and vehicles coming and going… but that petered out after midnight. The parking lot, which was close to full at 10 PM, was almost deserted by 2 AM. I seemed to be the only one there to sleep.
A motel that has long caught my attention just north of Ensenada is the Motel Sena. I’ve driven by it a score of times and wondered what was on offer for 320 pesos a night… that’s been the posted price for as long as I can remember. It’s located on the Carretera at KM 107.5, just south of the university complexes of UNAM and UABC, where highway one splits to go either the inland route downtown or along the coast to the Zona Turista. The Soriana supermarket is also there at the junction.
More out of curiosity than an expectation that I would stay, I checked it out three months ago when the exchange rate was 20:1 and was amazed to see that each room has its own private closing garage… the ultimate in discretion and security. Still a bit suspicious that these rooms could be just $16 all night, I asked to see one. It was clean with a 32-inch flatscreen Samsung TV. Room, bed, and mirrors were impressively large. Different colored ceiling lights were a feature. Heater and air-conditioning worked. There was some of that interesting curvy furniture and a nice ceiling-to-floor pole at the foot of the bed! Displaying considerable courage, I thought I‘d spend the night and see how much sleep I got.
Actually, vehicle secure behind the power garage door, I slept uninterrupted. But I did fall in love with the life-size curvaceous lady etched on the glass shower door! The room had the feel of a country club with embossed sheets and towels and modern décor.
Twenty-four-hour room service offers everything from coffee and cocktails to tacos and breakfasts and personal items. There was even a page described as a sex shop!
Not everyone’s cup of tea, I’m sure, but it has to be one of the better motel bargains in Ensenada… if not all of Baja. It’s one I’ve returned to four or five times, especially heading south with a loaded vehicle.
I always stay in the “basic” Junior rooms, but for a little more you can enjoy two other levels of appointment – Master (500 pesos single) and Royal (600 pesos)– if you feel the need for extras in a more spacious room, like classical columns or a Jacuzzi.
Midweek prices are a bargain, but on Friday and Saturday, holidays and special events the room rates triple. (Motel Sena, Tel: 011-52-646 174 5141)
Another place I’ve recently stayed several times is the Hotel Margaritaville along the Carretera in Camalú, just south of the low point where water races across and often blocks the highway after heavy rain. It is perfect if you’re northbound and you find yourself unexpectedly stuck waiting for the “river” to subside, but be aware the parking area may be slick and muddy after a deluge, but last time I was there they were working to improve drainage.
Rooms are basic but clean and a good deal for 400 pesos, single, which includes a terrific filling cooked breakfast and coffee at the adjoining friendly and popular Restaurant Mi Casita. Huevos rancheros and all their egg breakfasts are great, and even without a hotel stay are only 50 pesos.
Look for the palm trees and large double-decker burger on the roof. The rooms are set back from the highway and are relatively quiet.
For supplies, I’ve recently taken to shopping at one of the dozens of Oxxos lining the highway as you head south to El Rosario. Always bright and modern, these ubiquitous convenience stores are like 7-Elevens. But while the latter in the US tend to charge premium prices for their convenience, Oxxos and similar stores are often a bargain. On my last trip south I bought a 12-pack of Coors Light for 99 pesos… about $6 US, no CRV.
They sell beer, water, fresh made coffee and other hot and cold drinks, milk, fruit, confectionary, cookies, yoghurts, hot dogs, cereals, canned goods and a small but reasonable selection of spirits and wines. They are a gem for travelers in Mexico. I like that I can shop fast without losing sight of my vehicle parked outside. And paying in dollars is routine. Change is given in pesos at the current bank rate along with a detailed receipt which states the exchange rate and calculates everything for you.
I have more than once paid for a few dollars of goods and had enough pesos in the change for one of the motel rooms mentioned above.
Graham Mackintosh is a Baja author and adventurer. He has written four books on Baja: “Into A Desert Place,” which recounts the tale of his two-year, 3,000-mile hike around the coastline of the Baja California peninsula; “Journey with a Baja Burro,” his tale of hiking the rugged mountainous interior of Baja; “Nearer My Dog to Thee,” where he spends four months with his dogs in the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir; and “Marooned with Very Little Beer,” recounting his two months kayaking and hiking Isla Angel de la Guarda, the second-largest island in the Sea of Cortez.