Thursday, Oct. 11, 2007 | The first time I went to the Rosarito Beach Hotel I was 9 years old. Five of us piled into my uncle’s prewar Ford convertible to drive down from Playa del Rey. There was no Interstate 5 in those days — you just drove along the coast, through little towns called Carlsbad and Oceanside, took a turn by La Jolla and on to the border, a breezy little outpost where you waved at the Tijuana guards and they waved back.
I was with my parents and aunt and uncle. My uncle was an Army doctor at Lompoc and his snazzy red Ford (they didn’t produce any new models until ’47) was big enough for five if one of them was my size. None of us had ever been to Mexico before, though my great-grandfather had been consul general in Mexico City under Diaz, and my grandfather met my grandmother at the embassy there.
The Rosarito Beach Hotel, which became a popular spot for Americans during Prohibition, was the first hotel I’d ever stayed in. The first night I stayed up watching my father and uncle play pool in a room with high ceilings and Mexican murals, and then we went down for a midnight dip in the ocean. We stayed in Rosarito three days, and then it was back across the border again, this time with a breezy wave at the American guards, who waved back.
My second visit to Rosarito came 45 years later, shortly after arriving in San Diego. I drove down with a friend, waving at the border guards again, who didn’t wave back, and stopping at the hotel for lunch. There was a new wing but otherwise the hotel looked the same. The same except for one thing, that is: When I asked the waiter where the pool room was, he looked puzzled. “Ah, la sala de juegos,” he replied, directing me to a room filled with electronic game machines making a horrible racket.
That was it for me and the Rosarito Beach Hotel until last week. With another friend, we were heading to Ensenada (skipping the wave at the border), and we stopped at the hotel for lunch. A huge condo building going up next door and a gate at the parking lot detracts from the charm, but we went in anyway.
If you haven’t been there lately, Rosarito looks nothing like it looked 60, 16 or even six years ago. A friendly señorita at the hotel told me Rosarito’s population had doubled in the last ten years, or since Rosarito split off from Tijuana and incorporated. Construction is everywhere, and if the señorita is right, as many Americans are coming to Baja to work each day as Mexicans cross the other way. Americans are also coming to live, filling the high-rises and developments that stretch for miles north and south of Rosarito. Mexican title searches and disclosure have improved, making real estate purchases for gringos less risky.
The town, now a city, has lost its charm, and I assumed that with a sala de juegos replacing the pool table and a giant construction site towering overhead, the hotel was a lost cause as well, but not at all. To my astonishment, the hotel, which has been run all these years by the same family, has reverted to its origins, seeking to keep some of its funky Mexican chic while the rest of the town (city) emulates Tijuana.
The lobby still drips with 1930s elegance; the murals of Matias Santoyo look as they did when I observed them curiously as a nine-year-old; the tiles and boiserie are unchanged. Best of all, the electronic games are gone, replaced by — pool tables. Outside, the beach looks better, doubled in width with imported white sand, and a new, 300-meter pier that stretches out into the Pacific, where people can waste time dangling lines.
I was here 60 years ago, I told the waiter at lunch.
“Ah, that’s why I don’t recognize you,” he said. “I’ve only been here 46 years.”
There’s no more breezing back to San Diego with a jaunty wave at the border. For people used to today’s endless waits in a carnival of armed police, drug-sniffing dogs, vendors and crippled beggars circulating in a miasma of fetid fumes, it’s hard to imagine the relaxed border of a half-century ago, when people still came and went between the two countries as they wished.
But that’s what it was like before one out of eight Americans lived in California, when Mexico’s population was 25 million instead of 100 million and drugs were something you bought at the drug store.
Those fetid fumes and endless waits have kept me from visiting Rosarito as much as I would have liked in recent years. It’s an hour door-to-door from my house to the hotel, but even a pleasant lunch at the Rosarito Beach Hotel isn’t worth a two or three-hour wait at the border coming back.
Last week, our wait at San Ysidro was 10 minutes. Check into the Sentri pass program. The border will never be like it was in 1946, when a wave and a smile got you across, but 10 minutes isn’t bad.
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.