By Greg Niemann
There’s a graceful old dowager in Baja that seems to wear her age well. She’s the legendary Rosarito Beach Hotel and Spa, the first and still the biggest attraction in the seaside community of Rosarito, the newest municipality (incorporated city) in the state of Baja California.
For over 90 years, the venerable Rosarito Beach Hotel has welcomed over 4,000,000 guests from celebrities, to newlyweds, to Americans on their first visit to Mexico.
The four million guests since 1926 have entered under the curved portal above which is inscribed in Spanish, “Through These Doors Pass The Most Beautiful Women in the World,” alluding to the in-crowd that’s romped through the place for years.
The hotel was the Baja coast’s initial hotel/casino on a then lonely road about 15 miles south of Tijuana. A few shops grew up around the hotel and from that inauspicious beginning a major Baja California city has come into being, one that now draws about one million visitors a year.
The early years
Back in 1810, Spanish missionaries established El Descanso (about 15 miles south of Rosarito) to serve as a secondary mission site for Mission San Miguel. Following Mexico’s independence from Spain, the territorial governor granted the mission (just south of Cantamar sand dunes) along with 407,000 acres to Don Jose Manuel Machado. Machado took over El Descanso and developed a large ranch from there.
His son, Don Joaquín Machado, later took title to the land as Rancho Rosarito.
In 1920, a Los Angeles investment group acquired 14,000 of those acres and in 1925 established a few tents on the beach to rent to American sportsmen. In 1926, they began to develop the first Rosarito hotel which had only 10 rooms and one bathroom.
Prohibition in the U.S. forced Americans to look south across the border for a more tolerant atmosphere. In the mid-1920s an enterprising man named Manuel P. Barbachano bought the property and began construction of a larger hotel and beautiful casino. It was originally-named El Rosario Resort and Country Club before the name was changed to the Rosarito Beach Country Club. A small ad in the San Diego Union heralded the opening, and it immediately began to attract an international crowd.
In 1932, the grand hotel foyer was constructed. It was adorned with ornate tile, relief sculpture work, wondrous paintings, and bold Marias Santoyo murals.
Barbachano was forced to close the casino section when the Mexican government banned casino gambling in the mid-’30s.
But the hotel itself has endured for decades and today Barbachano’s nephew Hugo Torres Chabert and his five adult children run the legendary Rosarito Beach Hotel and Spa.
In researching my book Baja Legends some years ago, Hugo Torres told me that if there ever was a “Baja Legend” it should be Barbachano. “My uncle was a real Baja pioneer,” said Torres. “He was progressive and had a vision for Baja California. He was responsible for bringing in the electricity for the Tijuana and Rosarito area. He also established the first telephone company for all of northern Baja California.”
Even after the casino closed down, the Hollywood crowd had already made the Rosarito Beach Hotel the “in” place for romantic interludes.
Movie stars Joan Bennett, Rita Hayworth, Gregory Peck, Vincent Price, Lana Turner, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy were all guests. So were Marilyn Monroe, Jack Palance, Clark Gable, Victor Mature, Orson Welles, and Peter Lorre. Also spending time at the hotel have been the singing group Temptations, director James Cameron, Tiny Tim, Dolores Del Rio, and Larry Hagman.
Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith married there. Race driver Barney Oldfield and author Damon Runyon spent time at the Rosarito Beach Hotel.
The international playboy Aly Khan and actress Gene Tierney took over the entire hotel with Khan’s entourage for two weeks in 1954. “He brought his own cook, because he didn’t trust anyone,” said Torres. “And then when they started to leave, his manager didn’t want to pay the several thousand dollar bill, saying that the publicity should be worth something. So my uncle told them that if they didn’t pay, they’d never get back across the border. He told them he’d have police arrest them there. That scared them into paying.”
A lifetime at the hotel
Hugo Torres Chabert was born in Mexico City in 1936 and was a young boy in 1943 when he came to his uncle’s hotel. While he was later educated in Mexico City, Monterrey and San Diego, Torres has spent most of his life involved with the grand old hotel.
He remembers a number of the famous guests, and still greets newer generations of them today. “That Kim Novak was a beauty,” he recalled. “She seemed like such a happy person. I also remember meeting Mickey Rooney and Vincent Price. Vincent Price, of course, was on vacation and seemed so much more friendly than those roles he used to play.”
After the death of Barbachano, his widow Maria Luisa Chabert leased out the hotel operation to a Mexican/American partnership, Chavez and Greenburg, who ran the hotel from 1964 to 1974. Hugo Torres then took over his uncle’s venerable hotel in 1974 when there were only 51 rooms and has run it ever since.
“It was like a white elephant at the time,” recalled Torres. “It was spacious, had big gardens that required a lot of maintenance, and large rooms. It was just not very cost effective, so we’ve made a lot of changes.”
The large hotel is continually remodeling, adding, and retraining their people. From the 51 rooms in 1974, expansions have increased the guest room totals to 500 rooms in three beachfront towers, including 70 suites in the 17-story Pacifica Tower.
Among on-going upgrades, they hired a biochemist to constantly check the quality of the food and drinking water served. Upon his recommendation, they bought a new reverse osmosis water purification machine.
Also, rather than dumping raw sewage in the ocean they installed an artificial ecosystem sewage treatment plant that is checked regularly and approved by the appropriate state agencies. Those are the kinds of changes not noticed by the public but illustrate the attention to detail.
Rosarito’s driving force
Torres himself has become somewhat of a Baja legend. For years he spearheaded the movement to incorporate the City of Rosarito Beach, creating the state’s fifth municipality. It finally happened in 1995 and Torres served as Rosarito Beach’s first mayor, a three-year term.
He later served another term beginning in 2007, and spent the next two years cleaning up the corruption that had invaded the new city. Tijuana based weekly magazine Zeta named Torres “Man of the Year” for his efforts and determination in improving Rosarito. Of his children, daughter Laura Torres has also been very involved in Rosarito area politics.
The Rosarito Beach Hotel has been the setting for several Mexican and Japanese movies. The movie Baja Run was filmed there. An episode of the TV show Simon and Simon was filmed there with the usual cast plus guest star Morgan Fairchild. If you know what he looks like, you would notice that the counter clerk welcoming the actors is Hugo Torres himself.
Big times and visions of Hollywood returned to the old hotel when the Fox Baja Studio opened. Many of the people working on the studio about four miles south of town stay at the Rosarito Beach Hotel. During the filming of the blockbuster movie “Titanic” the hotel was a home away from home for many of that hit movie’s cast.
Always something going on
The Rosarito Beach Hotel never has a shortage of events. The hotel is constantly hosting meetings, shows, and special events. The amenities are endless. The natural attraction of pounding surf and a broad sandy beach has been enhanced with a pier that extends from the Beachcomber Bar. Tennis courts, swimming pools, horse rentals and much more make the old dowager a true resort.
There’s the comfy setting of the Azteca restaurant, also a traditional Mexican buffet at a folkloric ballet show in the Salon Mexicano, the poolside Beachcomber bar, and the Rosa & Rita saloon.
The Rosarito Beach Hotel’s Casa Playa Spa is a full-service spa and salon and offers therapeutic massages, seaweed facials, herbal body wraps and much more. While you need not be a hotel guest, advance reservations are recommended on holiday weekends.
The children of Hugo Torres are now active in the management of the hotel, serving in various functions. The Rosarito Beach Hotel is now 92 years old and the graceful old dowager that put Rosarito Beach on the map is still an attractive tourist destination.
Rosarito Beach Hotel's Website
From the US: 1.866.767.2748
Greg Niemann, a long-time Baja writer, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit www.gregniemann.com.