Thursday, Oct. 11, 2007 | The first time I went to the Rosarito Beach Hotel I was 9 years old. Five of us piled into my uncle’s prewar Ford convertible to drive down from Playa del Rey. There was no Interstate 5 in those days — you just drove along the coast, through little towns called Carlsbad and Oceanside, took a turn by La Jolla and on to the border, a breezy little outpost where you waved at the Tijuana guards and they waved back.
I was with my parents and aunt and uncle. My uncle was an Army doctor at Lompoc and his snazzy red Ford (they didn’t produce any new models until ’47) was big enough for five if one of them was my size. None of us had ever been to Mexico before, though my great-grandfather had been consul general in Mexico City under Diaz, and my grandfather met my grandmother at the embassy there.
The Rosarito Beach Hotel, which became a popular spot for Americans during Prohibition, was the first hotel I’d ever stayed in. The first night I stayed up watching my father and uncle play pool in a room with high ceilings and Mexican murals, and then we went down for a midnight dip in the ocean. We stayed in Rosarito three days, and then it was back across the border again, this time with a breezy wave at the American guards, who waved back.
My second visit to Rosarito came 45 years later, shortly after arriving in San Diego. I drove down with a friend, waving at the border guards again, who didn’t wave back, and stopping at the hotel for lunch. There was a new wing but otherwise the hotel looked the same. The same except for one thing, that is: When I asked the waiter where the pool room was, he looked puzzled. “Ah, la sala de juegos,” he replied, directing me to a room filled with electronic game machines making a horrible racket.
That was it for me and the Rosarito Beach Hotel until last week. With another friend, we were heading to Ensenada (skipping the wave at the border), and we stopped at the hotel for lunch. A huge condo building going up next door and a gate at the parking lot detracts from the charm, but we went in anyway.
If you haven’t been there lately, Rosarito looks nothing like it looked 60, 16 or even six years ago. A friendly señorita at the hotel told me Rosarito’s population had doubled in the last ten years, or since Rosarito split off from Tijuana and incorporated. Construction is everywhere, and if the señorita is right, as many Americans are coming to Baja to work each day as Mexicans cross the other way. Americans are also coming to live, filling the high-rises and developments that stretch for miles north and south of Rosarito. Mexican title searches and disclosure have improved, making real estate purchases for gringos less risky.