The Rosarito Beach Hotel, a longtime favorite of celebrities, is offering rack rates as low as $69 a night. // © 2012 Rosarito Beach Hotel
Rosarito Beach has been a popular vacation destination dating back to the birth of tourism to Mexico. Back in the 1930s, Hollywood types and just plain folks began making the drive across the border at San Diego to Rosarito for a Mexico self-drive getaway, only 35 minutes south of the U.S. border. They came for the sportfishing, surf and Mexican culture — especially the cuisine. Like many resort areas in Mexico, Rosarito has seen its ups and downs. When drug cartel violence in Tijuana escalated, nearby Rosarito suffered. Americans began thinking twice about visiting and tourism figures plummeted. Now that Mexico’s drug cartels have shifted their activities away from Tijuana, Rosarito is seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
“The passport restrictions in 2008 and increased security after 9/11 didn’t really affect our business,” said Daniel Torres, director of marketing for the Rosarito Beach Hotel. “It was the reports of drug crime and kidnapping in Tijuana in 2007 that really made visitors from the U.S. think twice about visiting us.”
Torres noted that 2008 and 2009 were very slow, but as the violence moved out of Tijuana and the city became demonstrably safer, visitation improved in 2010 and continues its upward trend.
Torres’ family owns the Rosarito Beach Hotel which, at 490 rooms and suites, is the largest hotel in Baja California. The hotel dates back to 1925. There aren’t many hotels that can claim celebrities spanning the decades, from Jean Harlow to Britney Spears. A recent guest was Robert Redford, who stayed at the hotel while he was shooting the feature film, “All is Lost.”
“Robert Redford would come down to the lobby in his bare feet and walk on the beach without a bodyguard,” said Torres.
During a Baja California press conference, Redford talked about growing up in a largely Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles and going to a Tijuana bull fight in his mid-teens. He said he had always loved enchiladas and joked that his favorite food is tequila.
Redford also lamented that media focus on violence among rival drug cartels in Mexico had discouraged some people from visiting Rosarito Beach.
“It’s unfortunate, since there are so many areas of Mexico that are safe to visit,” said Redford. ”More people should know.”
The beach is the main attraction in Rosarito, where popular activities include swimming, surfing, horseback riding and fishing off the Rosarito Beach Hotel’s pier. Torres noted that anglers staying at the hotel can rent fishing gear and have one of the hotel’s restaurants prepare their catch for an evening meal. Adventurous foodies will want to explore the street food scene in the town. One of the best open-air eateries is Tacos El Yaqui, only a few blocks from the hotel, where hungry locals and expats stand in line for tacos perrones, made from grilled beef.
A landmark restaurant in town is El Nido, which means “the Nest” in Spanish. The 30-table restaurant opened 41 years ago and is still operated by the same owner, Guadalupe Perez. El Nido is linked to a farm, 15 minutes away, where deer, rabbit and quail are raised to eventually appear on the menu as Venison Machaca or Mesquite Broiled Rabbit. The restaurant is cozy and rustic, with open fireplaces and lighting fixtures fashioned from cactus. The restaurant also serves its own wine, which is made from grapes grown on the nearby farm.
“We can arrange tours of the farm free of charge,” said Oscar Manuel Saltero, the restaurant’s general manager.
Additional attractions include the handicraft shops specializing in ceramics, tile, iron work and rustic furniture. Also noteworthy is the town of Puerto Nuevo, a 10 minute drive south of Rosarito, which is famous for its lobster grilled in the Mexican style.
As Rosarito regains its tourism footing, there are bargains for visitors. At the Rosarito Beach Hotel, a Penthouse Suite sleeping 10 has a rack rate of $350 a night, while rooms are going for $69 a night. Though no one is going to confuse Rosarito with Maui, Cancun or La Jolla, the destination does present an alternative for families and groups of friends on a budget, especially if they live in Southern California. Word-of-mouth is key and as visitors from the U.S. return home with positive stories, it’s a safe bet that Rosarito’s visitation will spike.
“I’d tell potential visitors that it’s a great time to visit Baja California,” said Torres. “It’s as safe as it’s ever been, with lots of new offerings, including our wine valley, which is an easy day trip from the hotel.”