By Georgia Tanner
A traveler heading off the beaten path farther down the peninsula or a visitor planning a few days in Playas de Rosarito can find no better place to absorb the color and culture of Baja California than the Rosarito Beach Hotel. Yes I admit to being partial--not only because the central core of the building retains the character of its origins in the 1920s, but because a week at the Rosarito Beach Hotel in 1946 was my introduction to Baja California.
I can’t remember how our family of three traversed what must have been dusty streets in a small Mexican town, but I vividly remember the blue tile and the white beach. The hotel had a casino in earlier times, and since gambling held no interest for a ten-year-old I spent most of the daytime hours swimming in the pool that paralleled the ocean or racing waves that rolled onto the sand like liquid glass.
Our hotel room had a baño almost as big as my bedroom back home in Ventura County, California. The bathroom was a square open room of dark blue tile containing a toilet, sink, and shower. There were no partitions, only a drain in the middle of the floor, and I could shower with carefree abandon. The baño did become my bedroom; my father snored so explosively every night that I dragged my mattress into the bathroom and slept in the center of the floor.
The hotel began as a 12-room hunting lodge called Rosarito Shores; then, in 1925, Manuel Barbachano bought it and reopened it as the Rosarito Beach Hotel. In 1932 the grand hotel foyer, the Azteca Restaurant, the Salon Mexicana ballroom and 50 additional rooms were constructed. After Señor Barbachano married the beautiful Maria Luisa Chaubert, he built a mansion on the ocean to honor his wife and family. Those classic buildings are now the Casa Playa Spa and Chaubert’s Restaurant. The latter is closed, but there’s a new restaurant, the Casa Blanca, between the long pool and the ocean.
The Rosarito Beach Hotel became Baja California’s largest resort with the addition of the 17-story Pacifico Tower (swimming pool number four is located on top). The older buildings remain, giving the resort its special quality. Entering the hotel, a visitor passes under the famous arch and tile mural proclaiming POR ESTA PUERTA PASAN LOS MUJERES MAS HERMOSAS DEL MUNDO (through this door pass the most beautiful women in the world), a tribute to such stars as Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, Kim Novak, and Rita Hayworth. Other celebrities who visited the hotel in its early days included Orson Welles, Vincent Price, Spencer Tracy, Anthony Quinn, Edward G. Robinson, Robert Stack, and the son of the Shah of Iran. They were attracted to the hotel’s beauty, Mexican soul, excellent food and service. It was "the place to be."
Every place is given its character by its design and its history, and by events that keep on happening there. Did Robert Stack celebrate his birthday with champagne in the Azteca Restaurant? Did Marilyn Monroe kick off her shoes and walk in the sand? Have countless children run to the windows to watch dolphins in the surf? Decades of Mexican music, shared meals, healing vacations, honeymoons, local fiestas, ocean and pool swims, and sunset walks have imprinted their warm energy in the walls and left a tangible ambience. By contrast to a modern hotel, whose lobby may have all the character of a bus stop, the Rosarito Beach Hotel feels more like a sanctuary.
Guests can choose to spend an entire visit within the hotel and its grounds--now there is even a fishing pier--but they would miss exploring some of the places within walking distance. Leaving the hotel, there’s a corridor lined with shops carrying clothes, jewelry, glassware, and the works of local artists. Ugi’s gallery, #106, features his paintings of colorful flowers and the multi-dimensional works of his wife Janet.
Leaving the corridor and following Magnolia Street, across from the hotel’s driveway entrance, will take you to Javier Rocha’s “Vive Fitness” at the end of the second block; it’s a first-class gym, and Javier leads Senior Fitness classes on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Backtracking west to the corner and walking north one block leads to Yaqui and its famous meaty tacos called Perrones, or "big dogs." After that fill-up you might head for the west side of the main street and walk north past El Nido Restaurant to the Mercado de Artesanías, the Crafts Market, a labyrinth of shops where one can bargain for everything from blankets, clothes, shoes, and purses to stained glass, jewelry, multicolored tote bags, and three-legged stools.
Your last stroll might be out on the pier to watch the sunset. If it’s a weekend, you could end your day with dinner at the Casa Blanca. Master Chef Erick Saenz calls his cuisine "Baja Fusion/BajaMed"; it combines traditional products of the region with new techniques. "Excellent view and excellent food," says a recent review. "Nicer than most places I saw in Rosarito, but no need to dress up." The hibiscus appetizer a must.