As we drive through a military roadblock, a young machine gun-toting Mexican marine shouts in Spanish for us to slow down while a half dozen other heavily-armed marines watch, but we are waved through after I utter the affirmative “Claro,” which means “Certainly!” or “Of course!” This is our welcome to the Baja battleground, just 30 miles south of San Diego.
Most tourists would find this encounter scary, what with the press reports of massive drug cartel violence, but where else can anyone find a beautiful ocean-front apartment fully equipped for $19.95 a night, and a lobster dinner complete with margaritas for $15?
The world-famous Rosarito Beach Hotel had about 20 guests during our visit, and this brave handful did bond into a tight group – the “few, the proud, the Baja touristias,” we joked over poolside drinks.
The rewards of Baja are endless. La Bufadora, a two-hour drive farther south, has one of the world’s greatest sea blow-holes. But beware, lining the road to the blow-hole are lines of shops where fake (and technically illegal) brand-name purses or prescription drugs are sold.
There are no hotels in La Bufadora, but Naomy Torres Lopez offers one of the finest views in Baja at Cantu, 10 minutes down the peninsula, where the two-bedroom master suite of her Naomy’s Mini Motel looks out on the bay from a huge deck overlooking a private beach. And the price is half what you would pay at any Motel 6 north of the border.
As everywhere in Baja, the people are very friendly. Naomy offered my wife the use of her laptop computer. Her daughter modeled a head of beautiful, never-cut hair.
Across the street is Sharkey’s, one of the best bars anywhere in Baja, where locals and occasional tourists gather not only to drink, but have great dinners at a fraction of American prices.
Dale, owner of La Bufadora Dive, said the economic slump and fears of violence has meant a huge drop in tourists. “Two years ago I’d make $2,000 a weekend, and now we are lucky to make $40,” said Dale over a beer.
An American, he has lived in Baja with his beautiful Mexican wife, Martha, for 31 years. They own a bay-view home, and rent a real estate office, two apartments and a newly planned restaurant in the seaside town. On the way back from La Bufudora, at a supermarket, a truckload of Mexican Army troops go by crouched behind stacked tires for protection, all pointing automatic weapons outward.
They are ready for any instant firefight. Shoppers pay no attention as a loudspeaker blasts loud Mexican hip hop.
Supermarket prices actually are higher than north of the border, a real hardship in an area where unemployment nears 40 percent and pay is meager for those who do have jobs.
Father south, Ensenada has grown from a sleepy fishing port into a large city with huge traffic jams and American restaurants like McDonald’s and Applebees.
The old flavor of the city is gone. There are numerous trailer parks, but many are almost deserted.
There is a feeling of despair for those remaining “gringos” who are trying to sell unwanted trailers or homes.
On a Saturday night the biggest hotel south of Ensenada, Estero Beach, had no bar customers at 7 p.m. Nearby El Faro beach is like a ghost town as trailers and homes stand vacant.
The Baja coast drive, except for a half-hour traffic snarl in Ensenada, is one of the world’s most scenic. And the threat of violence and warfare seems to melt away with the bubbles in the hot tub as the sun sets over a roaring surf at the Rosarito Beach Hotel.
A British couple, two of the few non-U.S. citizens in the pool area, know of the press stories of mayhem, but they say sip margaritas in the glow of sunset and say they love Baja. With vigilant around-the-clock security, the historic Rosarito Beach Hotel is probably one of the safest and certainly one of the cheapest luxury hotels anywhere on Earth.
It also is one of the most famous, with a long list of movie stars, kings and presidents who stayed and played there in happier times.
Happy times still can be found here. Where else can you sleep in an ocean-front condo, wake up to a bountiful breakfast, enjoy a fish taco lunch, and later a lobster dinner overlooking the waves – all for $35 a person?