By Greg Niemann
Tijuanans call them “Las Torres,” the twin, 28-floor, 295-foot skyscrapers that in 1982 became Baja California’s tallest buildings. The west tower is the 400-room Grand Hotel Tijuana, and it shares a symbiotic relationship with its partner tower, the Plaza Agua Caliente.
The office tower houses facilities that cater to long-term medical care and depend upon on the hotel next door for out-of-town patient lodging. Along with medical tourism, the east tower also includes various businesses, some of the home offices for maquiladoras, attracting business people from around the world.
Completing the symbiotic relationship between the towers, the hotel depends upon the medical and office complex for its core clientele.
Medical patients are allotted a designated hotel floor to cross between towers, completely bypassing the lobby. In addition, the 5-star Grand Hotel has a special floor for patients, many of whom are there for weight reduction surgery. Called Grand Care, the 11th floor offers medical and/or reinforced beds, wide doorways, a private lounge and special menus.
Along with weight reduction, the medical offices include body contouring, post bariatric plastic surgery, rejuvenating facial surgery, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, a spa, dental and vision services, and more. Weight reduction surgery, for example, requires several days on premises, and follow-ups. We met an older couple from Florida who were staying at the hotel for nine weeks while the wife endured continuous treatments for a form of cancer. They admitted to us that they were paying a fraction of U.S. prices.
While medical tourism is important to the Grand Hotel, they offer lodging to the flight crews of three airlines (Aeromexico, Interjet, and Volaris), and 12 teams of the Mexican Baseball League. During my visit, I saw several flight crews and the León Bravos baseball team.
Along with a business center and meeting rooms, there is a swimming pool, Jacuzzi, and gym. The Plaza Café has daily buffets, including a Friday Seafood Buffet with a great paella that left me waddling out of there. There is subterranean parking and the rooms have incredible city views.
Officially called the Grand Hotel Tijuana Casino and Resort, the adjacent Arena Casino is completed and now awaiting final permit approval to open. It will boast 550 slots, 6 tables, poker, and roulette. It has an agreement with Harrah’s to honor their 40,000 card members. There is also a Caliente Sports Book in the hotel.
The towers are located in the Rio Zona section of the central business district. Within a short walk are malls, upscale restaurants (The Fonda Argentina is across the street), American style fast food (Carl’s Jr., MacDonalds, Burger King), and a Smart & Final and Sam’s Club. There are also a Marriott, Hyatt, and Holiday Inn in the area.
Campestre de Golf
Perhaps most intriguing is the fact that the towers are immediately adjacent to the oldest golf course in Baja. The 18-hole, par 72, Tijuana Country Club (Campestre de Golf) was built in 1927, way before high rises began to dot the landscape. Initially designed by William P. Bell, the course was redesigned by the famous Alister MacKensie (who also designed Cypress Point and Augusta).
The course hosted two former PGA Tour events, the Agua Caliente Open and the Tijuana Open Invitational. The semi-private course has greens fees of $44.00 during the week and $79.00 on weekends and also offers golf clinics. Guillermo López Mendoza, Director of Golf, was eager to share the storied course’s history.
The hotel’s Plaza Café features a panoramic view of the verdant course. Many of the lower windows of the complex have been screened to ward off errant golf balls. Stateside golfers often stay at the hotel.
The Agua Caliente Casino Resort
The golf course opened when an entire resort complex was being designed to draw Americans to Tijuana. In 1928, the Agua Caliente resort, covering 655 acres and costing $10 million at the time, opened nearby. It included a 500-room hotel, health spa, hot springs, Olympic size swimming pool, dog-track, private airport, railroad link, bungalows, and casino. Everything was first class, and it became the most lavish and popular resort in the western hemisphere. A year later, the Agua Caliente Racetrack joined the complex adding horse racing to the attractions.
With Prohibition in the States, Americans flocked to the Agua Caliente hotel, casino and spa to gamble and imbibe in spirits. They were joined by Hollywood stars and celebrities. Rita Hayworth, doing a nightclub act, was discovered there. Musical nightclub productions from Caliente were even broadcast over the radio.
It was heady times in Baja and other casinos opened or were planned. Then came the death knell in several forms over a four year period. In 1931, Nevada legalized casino gambling. Then, in 1933, Prohibition was repealed in the U.S. Also in 1933, California legalized pari-mutuel racetrack wagering; and the Santa Anita Racetrack opened in 1934.
But most damaging, in 1935 Mexican President Lảzaro Cárdenas decreed an end to gambling and casinos throughout Mexico, hitting Baja California hard. The lavish Agua Caliente complex faltered, then closed.
In 1939, it was reopened as a junior high school (now Lázaro Cárdenas High School). Most of the buildings were torn down in the 1970s and replaced by modern scholastic architecture.
Agua Caliente Today
While the Campestre de Golf and the hills beyond dominate the south view from the Grand Hotel, from my hotel window we saw an intriguing tower that looked like a Muslim minaret. We learned that the minaret is actually a decorated former incinerator chimney that was part of the Aqua Caliente resort.
Remnants of the Agua Caliente casino including the minaret, Olympic size pool, and a few buildings, now anchor the west end of the 5,000 student Lázaro Cárdenas Preparatory School on Avenida Sanchez Taboada just off Agua Caliente Blvd. The proud principal of the college prep facility allowed us entry to muse over the historic site.
Up the hill a couple of blocks is the famed Agua Caliente Racetrack. While the large Casino Caliente today occupies most of the interior, out back is the Carrera de Galgos (Hipodromo), a greyhound dog racetrack which still offers racing nightly.
Beyond the track a large, orange building looms large. It is the Estadio Caliente, the city’s main soccer venue. In and among the 655 original Agua Caliente acres are businesses, restaurants, the golf course, and of course, the Grand Hotel Tijuana.
The Bustamante Family
While their business roots do not go back to the 1920s, the developers of the Grand Hotel are among Tijuana’s most influential families. Family patriarch Alfonso Bustamante Sr. was a bank teller in the 1940s who had vision and dedication. He began by establishing a heating and cooking gas (propane and butane) company which grew to the largest gas monopoly in Baja California, earning him a fortune.
He invested in real estate, construction and development and by the mid-1960s was one of the originators of Playas de Tijuana. He had gained international influence rubbing shoulders with politicians from both side of the border. By 1979 the New York Times estimated his wealth to exceed $200 million. That year he started construction on the towers next to the historic golf course.
Alfonso Bustamante’s four children and grandchildren have taken over the running of the hotel complex since he passed away in 2011 at age 95. His children are still prominent in Tijuana and throughout Baja California. Son Carlos Bustamante Anchondo was elected Tijuana Mayor in 2010 in a huge upset, serving until 2013. Son Alfonso Jr. was director of binational affairs for the city.
In addition to the Grand Hotel Tijuana, Grupo Bustamante today encompasses a wide range of industries, including land development, industrial parks, and Offshore Promotion, a subsidiary that facilitates investments in Tijuana’s maquiladoras. The family continues to support Project Concern and other charitable endeavors.
Tijuana’s future growth
While the towers of the Grand Hotel Tijuana complex were the first high rises in Tijuana, they certainly won’t be the last. Towers are going up all over the place, some of which have already exceeded 30 stories. Over the next two years over 2,000 condos will be completed, many in the Tijuana Country Club neighborhood.
Horizante Luxury Condos overlooking the golf course are now being sold at prices mostly between $200,000 and $300,000. The Bajalta development is also going up on 63 downtown Tijuana acres. Bajalta will feature 400 condos in four residential towers, and include one office tower, a hotel, and mall.
The Tijuana condo phenomenon is currently geared for Mexican clientele. About half of the buyers work in the San Diego area and about half work in Tijuana. Fewer than two percent are Americans. Those demographics could change with more Americans visiting Tijuana.
But regardless, the skyline of Tijuana is changing, and it’s going up, up, up. A principal of Probien Business Development recently said, “Give us five years – the whole city is going to be vertical.”
The Rio Zona area has led the way in Tijuana for decades. And it was the Alfonso Bustamante with the Plaza Agua Caliente and the Grand Hotel Tijuana that started the city’s high-rise boom!
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.