Photography by Yuri Krasov
New Year’s Eve in Mexico… margaritas, mariachi, mar… Latin lovers!
But don’t let me get carried away. As I start writing this story, my husband Yuri (of so many years) and I are waiting for a camera-ready sunset on the balcony of our oceanfront suite at the Rosarito Beach Hotel Pacifico Tower.
There is something enticing about staying in a big hotel off-season. Undisturbed swimming pools, wind-swept sandy beaches lined with swaying palms, angry waves, moving to the shore in bottle-green rolls – lead-gray beneath the horizon line… Devoid of human presence, Mother Nature is deep in self-reflection. It’s been raining all day today, all the way from Oakland airport to San Diego, to Tijuana, to Playas de Rosarito – a very special town in Baja California, seemingly conserved in time. (Suffice it to say that the original “pet rocks” were imported from here to the United States back in the 1970s… how groovy is that?)
Founded in 1925 and popular with Hollywood types during Prohibition, and beyond, Rosarito Beach Hotel maintains its distinct character, and a special charm of a glamorous era. Big stars were regulars here, among them Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, John Wayne and Frank Sinatra.
In the Azteca Restaurant, where we had our breakfasts (Baja omelet and jugo verde made of nopal, apple, celery, and parsley) brass labels point to the favorite tables of celebrity visitors. Spencer Tracy used to sit in a corner, order salmon tartar, and ask if the fish was caught by an old man (referring to his own role in The Old Man and the Sea).
Manuel Barbachano, the hotel founder, was a local visionary, who also brought electricity, telephone, and Tijuana-Ensenada highway to the area. The legend has it that his young bride, Maria Luisa Chabert, wanted to be an actress, so he promised to bring Hollywood to her. She never made it to the screen but became a great party hostess in the hotel, decorated according to her impeccable taste, and catered to the crème de la crème of both Californias.
A historic hallway in the original building, Salon Maya, is still adorned with the floor tiles, wall murals, and painted ceiling beams from the 1930s. The owners’ mansion now houses Casa Playa Spa and Chabert’s Restaurant, both intricately decorated with colorful Mexican tiles, chandeliers, mosaics, mirrors, and period furniture. Hugo Torres Chabert, Rosarito Beach Hotel’s current owner, is a descendant of the founders and just finished his second term as a city mayor. He served his first term in 1995-98, when he initiated the municipalization of Rosarito Beach and its separation from Tijuana. Mr. Torres and all the hotel administration and staff participated in the New Year’s Eve Party at the hotel, which was open to the public, including hotel guests and the city dwellers. And what a swell party that was!
Salon Mexicano – a celebration room with a stage, a bar, and a pool access, now obscured by the buffet with a “2011” ice sculpture at its center, started to fill out at about seven. At eight, the show began, featuring Ixtacihuatl dancing company, named after a dormant volcano, in its turn named after a legendary Aztec princess. Mexican folkloric dances were followed by rock’n’roll, tango, swing, belly dance, and Brazilian carnival numbers, all performed in gorgeous costumes and to live music. I learned that in season, the company performs at the hotel every weekend.
After the show, the dance floor was open to all. I couldn’t quite remember when was the last time that I danced so much and with so much pleasure, surrounded by a joyous crowd of local families from toddlers to grandmas, hotel guests and staffers – mingling, laughing, and just having fun.
At midnight, a collective champagne toast was accompanied by hundreds of colorful balloons falling from the ceiling, and the party went on and on.
Strangely, none of us got any back or foot aches the next morning, most likely because we spent it in the hotel spa. Our masseuses, Marta and Margarita, worked on our computer-crippled backs and shoulders, and then a hot bath followed, with a cup of apple-cinnamon tea. Taking a short nap in a relaxation room, I was daydreaming that this mansion was mine, and that my bliss would last forever…
There were many more things though, waiting to be discovered in and around Playas de Rosarito. Isaias Flores, of GoBajaEasy, took us to Popotla Boulevard, block after block lined with artisans’ wares from brightly painted tiles and pots, to cast iron garden sculptures and furniture. We stopped at Calafia cultural center, by a “historic landmark” hill which separated Baja and Alta California since the 1700s. The Calafia founder, Don Sixto Acevedo Perez, started an educational institution here, which now includes a collection of Aztec and Mayan art, museum of Mexican architecture, library, and a hotel under the direction of his son, Conrado Acevedo Cardenas, a historian, book author, and cinematographer.
Then we ventured into what looked like a movie set, a fishing village Puerto Nuevo, where every single restaurant serves a specially prepared local lobster – deep fried, and accompanied by rice and beans. We had ours at Restaurant Puerto Nuevo II, owned by the Plascencia family, one of a few long time residents of the area.
On another trip with Isaias, we visited Valle de Guadalupe, the wine country of 40 plus wineries. We stopped at Bibayoff, founded by the Russian Molokans, religious refugees, back in 1905. Current winery owners, with familiar Slavic faces, speak very little in their native tongue, but maintain the legacy with a small museum of Russian costumes, lace, household items, books, and photographs.
Even a winery cat has blue eyes (when you are on the premises, please feed the poor thing – she’s pregnant and therefore always hungry…) Winemaker Jesus Cortes creates some mean zins here, many awarded gold medals at various competitions.
We moved on to some degustacion at the nearby L. A. Cetto – the largest winery in South America, which also owns a huge open-air event facility and a bull fight circus. Then we sat down on a sunny terrace of La Casa de Dona Lupe, where we met its lovely owner, Dona Lupe, who produces an enormous number of homemade olive oils, jams, preserves, and other goodies, besides excellent wines.
On our way along Ruta del Vino we spotted a newly open Capule restaurant, named after a large tree in its yard, and stopped their for lunch. Its chef/owner, Saul Flores, is 27, ambitious, talented, well-versed in French and California cuisine, and trained to use fresh local ingredients. His creative Nuevo cocina Mexicana menu consisted of seafood lasagna with chipotle sauce and guacamole; hot-smoked salmon “cappuccino” soup with poppy seeds; seared tuna with mushroom, red wine, and ginger sauce; and a sliver of rib eye in coffee crumbs with shiitake and shallots.
Back in town, our favorite eating place was found on the main drag, Benito Juarez Boulevard, steps from the hotel. El Nido (the nest), owned and operated by Lupo Perez, is a local landmark since 1971, popular with romantic couples and those who know their food – they come from near and far. Set in an old brick building with patios, passageways, small and large dining rooms, and even a tiny chapel, El Nido is as cozy as a nest and as wild as a jungle. It has tropical plants growing from the walls, with streaming waterfalls among them; bird cages with chirping love birds; a bubbling creek with fish and turtles; antique gadgets and art pieces, lamp shades made of cirio cactus, fire ovens, a bakery, and a tortilla maker – all food preparations done right in front of you.
The meat comes from the Perez farm – lamb, venison, rabbit, and quail, all grilled with oak and mesquite wood – also from the farm. The result is lean, naturally juicy, tender lamb chops with fragrant mint jelly, and tiny plump quail drumsticks – heavenly delicious, redolent of garlic butter and served with fresh avocados, tomatoes, radishes, and cilantro. For dessert, El Nido offers house-made candied chilacayote (squash) and simply grilled plantains.
Every evening, before the sunset, we made it a habit to walk upon a wooden pier built by the hotel in the 1990s. It goes out over the sea far enough to grant a view of playing dolphins, or even passing whales whose season starts mid-winter. On our last night at the hotel, the sky was clear, and the flaming sunset was especially beautiful.