steal my vacation

Gabrielle Richardson’s Road Trip to Ensenada, Mexico

Crystal-clear tide pools, private beaches, and a cliffside Airbnb.

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photo: Gabrielle Richardson
Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photo: Gabrielle Richardson

Everyone knows that person who spends weeks sniffing around travel blogs, going deep down into TripAdvisor rabbit holes, collecting Google Docs from friends of friends, and creating A Beautiful Mind–style spreadsheets to come up with the best vacations/itineraries possible. In this recurring series, we find those people who’ve done all the work for you, and have them walk us through a particularly wonderful, especially well-thought-out vacation they took, that you can actually steal.

In October, model-activist-artist Gabrielle Richardson and eight friends rented a cliffside house outside of Ensenada, Mexico, which sits on the Pacific coast of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, less than a two hour drive from the Tijuana airport. They drove there from Los Angeles. Each day of the trip followed a similar rhythm: hiking the nearby trails, swimming in local tide pools, and relaxing with music by the fire pit. “My body felt great,” Richardson remembers. “The days were very rugged, but I was eating fantastic food in a beautiful space, sleeping fantastically. I miss it so much.”

Day 1

Noon: Drive from L.A. to San Diego

It was my friend’s birthday, and we wanted to leave America, but we were also very nervous about traveling. We actually drove from Los Angeles so that we could still be quarantined in some sense. There were two cars and nine of us altogether, and we headed out at noon.

3 p.m.: Cross the border

I know you’re not supposed to take food through to other countries, but because we were going for my friend’s birthday I had picked up a jelly cake in L.A. from Eat Nunchi. At the border, I was like, “Hey, am I allowed to take this over?” I showed them my cake, and they were like, “Uh, we don’t care.”

3:30 p.m.: Rent a car in Mexico

When you get across the border, the Tijuana airport is right there. There are rental car places there — we parked our cars and rented two new cars because one of my friends, who is from Mexico, told us that in the countryside it’s better to have a car with Mexican license plates. It cost around $200 bucks per car.

Then we hit a lot of traffic. But we were mostly on these coastal highways, and it was very beautiful, so you just got to look at the ocean. By the time we got there, it was really dark, and I was kind of freaking out because we were on the side of a cliff.

6:30 p.m.: Check into the Airbnb

We stayed at this place called Baja Off the Grid, which I rented through Airbnb. We paid about $300 each for five days. It was extremely beautiful — this big white house right on a cliff with windows facing the ocean.

It was also super clean and neat. The living room is open plan. There’s a huge balcony where you can see both the ocean and La Bufadora, the nearest town. Through the bedroom windows, you can see dolphins in the waves.

Day 2

11 a.m.: Pick up groceries

We did a huge grocery shop at at a small grocery store on the side of the road in the nearby town, La Bufadora. It was about an hour walk or a ten-minute drive from our house. A lot of us are vegan, so we bought tortillas, tons of veggies, and eggs.

1 p.m.: Hang in the tide pools

If you walk ten minutes down the road from the house, you get to all these trails. Each of them takes you to a different really gorgeous, secluded beach. The trails, I will say, were more on the moderate side. You’re not walking among trees; it’s a lot of cactus, agave bushes, and aloe plants — dry shrubbery. The beaches are rocky with really clear tide pools you can swim in. We’d just play in the tide pools and look at the fish.

There’s a cove right next to the house, about a five-minute walk away that you can swim in. It is really magical. The ocean water would spill in and create this huge, eight-foot-deep pool.

8 p.m.: Have a movie night

There was no TV there, but one of us brought a projector. One night, we were just so tired that we plugged it in and watched Spirited Away against the kitchen wall. Just with a tiny projector and a speaker, we made a movie night out of nothing.

Day 3

2 p.m.: Spend an afternoon in town

We spent a lot of time at the markets at La Bufadora, it was so much fun. All the shops are connected, it’s like a pathway. The stores don’t really have names, they’ll just say like, “Piña Colada,” and you go in and it’s the best piña colada. The guy who owned it would just come and talk to us. There were a bunch of boardwalk games, all these little shooting games like Skee-Ball, Whac-A-Mole. I bought a dress and a bunch of my friends bought leather espadrilles. There were a bunch of market stalls lined up on both sides of the street, and none of the stuff felt like junk — just little curated shops with T-shirts, shoes, vases, plates, little dolls.

We would also eat ceviche at Los Panchos (Avenida Josefa O. de Domínguez 1050). They have the biggest portions. People would come off the street and sing to us and play the accordion.

Day 4

2 p.m.: Scale a rock wall

There is this one trail called Campo 9 to Playa Escondido, which was a short drive from the house. We got there and realized it was a straight drop with a rope. You have to climb down this rock wall to get to the beach. But it was worth it — it was a really beautiful private beach that was sandy with a very gentle ocean, as opposed to the wavy rock beach by our house. Now we’re like, “Remember when we had to scale the side of a cliff?” Climbing back up at the end of the day was actually a lot easier than climbing down. Definitely wear some sneakers or hiking boots.

Day 5

7 p.m.: Eat pumpkin soup by the ocean

We only went into Ensenada once, for my friend’s birthday dinner, which we did at Planta Baja Sky Bar (Carretera Ensenada-Tijuana Km 103 22860, El Sauzal). Thank God they seated us, because there were so many of us and we had no reservation. But they let us in, and we just had this really amazing meal, right on the ocean. There was no one in the restaurant except for us. We were dancing and laughing the whole night. The crema de calabaza, a pumpkin soup, was especially good.

Then we went back to the house and sat around the fire pit. We did this at the end of each day, winding down and looking out at the ocean.

Gabrielle Richardson’s Ensenada Packing List

A Projector for Movie Night

Richardson recommends bringing a “tiny projector” to watch movies against one of the walls in the house. We found this to be the best-rated mini-projector on Amazon, with reviewers praising its easy setup and performance in all kinds of lighting situations.

A Portable Bluetooth Speaker

Everywhere they traveled, Richardson’s group brought a portable Bluetooth speaker (so much that she forever associates the trip with the song “Kakashi” by Yasuaki Shimizu). We previously reported that Amazon reviewers love this affordable speaker for its surprisingly good sound quality, quick pairing ability, and durable build.

An Easy, Breezy Dress (That You Can Actually Move In)

If you’re planning on bringing a dress or two, Richardson strongly recommends choosing “moveable dresses that you can run around in,” given the outdoorsy nature of the trip. “I’ve hiked in dresses, but big flowy ones,” she says. We named this breezy cotton dress one of the best to buy for spring, but there’s no reason not to wear it for your trip this summer.

Sturdy Hiking Boots

“Definitely bring some sneakers or hiking boots,” Richardson says, given that many of the excursions require tricky hikes and (in one case) scaling a cliff. “If someone was wearing flip flops,” she says, “it would be awful.” With the comfort of a sneaker but the support of a hiking boot, we think the endlessly recommended Merrell Moab 2 boot is the perfect thing.

The Strategist is designed to surface the most useful, expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape. Some of our latest conquests include the best acne treatments, rolling luggage, pillows for side sleepers, natural anxiety remedies, and bath towels. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change.

The COVID situation there: Americans are not currently required to present a negative COVID-19 test to enter Mexico or quarantine when they get there. Currently, air travel between the U.S. and Mexico is unrestricted, but since March 2020, the land border has technically been closed to nonessential travel. Despite air travel remaining open, the CDC currently advises against travel to Mexico but says if you do choose to go, ensure you are vaccinated first and wear a mask in all public spaces. While Richardson entered by car without issue during this period, we recommend you wait until June 21, when an announcement about the possible lifting of those border restrictions is expected. Otherwise, you can fly to Mexico City then take a three-hour flight up to Tijuana Airport. Baja Off the Grid’s owner says there are also many larger grocery stores in the area.
Gabrielle Richardson’s Road Trip to Ensenada, Mexico