I may not be back for a while; the place is as shrill and garish as the rest of fast-expanding Rosarito. But it has survived, and co-owner Hugo Torres Chabert (who also is the mayor of Rosarito) is clearly as ambitious as his forebears were. In a so-far-unsuccessful bid to attract cruise ship traffic, the hotel added a pier in the 1990s. Now an 18-story condo tower is rising.
The curtain was falling on Baja's golden age by 1938, when the Agua Caliente hotel went out of business, and a new Las Vegas hotel would soon bill itself as "the Caliente of Nevada." By 1939, a group of schools had taken over the Agua Caliente buildings, including the Salon de Oro, which housed countless classes, graduations, proms and other social events until a series of fires and campus renovations leveled nearly everything in the 1960s and '70s.
I started with a walk on the golf course, where tournament winners 80 years ago were coming away with 5,000 silver dollars in a wheelbarrow. (Today it's known as Club Campestre, or the Tijuana Country Club.)
The next stop was the track, where Seabiscuit and Phar Lap made global headlines with their victories in the 1930s, where a fire took out the old grandstand in 1971, where the last horse race was run in 1992. For many years now, greyhounds have run outside on a track built upon a part of the old horse course, their finishes announced on the old racetrack results board.
Inside, satellite sports bettors and slot-machine players keep the machines humming. And for reasons surpassing my understanding, a handful of captive bears loll out front in cement-floored cages, the beasts so enfeebled that kittens roam among them as they doze.
Moreover, on the Friday night I turned up with guide Fernando Garcia, most of the grandstand was closed off and customers, about 200 of us, were routed to a blacktop area beside the track. Garcia, who worked at an arts and crafts store near the track's entrance as a teenager—when the horses were still running—looked stricken. The dogs, lean and silent, ran with impossible swiftness behind a mechanical rabbit. I won $3.
This will not bankrupt track operator Jorge Hank Rhon, a multimillionaire who served as Tijuana's mayor from 2004 to 2007 and in August lost a bid to become governor of Baja California. But given the condition of the property and the ease of reaping revenue these days from electronic bingo and satellite sports betting, I'm guessing Hank and company will be turning this turf to new purposes before long.
"It's done," Garcia says with a sigh. "It's sad."
So what about the casino itself, the epicenter of all that was grand about Tijuana so many years ago?
I approach by foot on a weekday morning, joined by Juan Saldaña, marketing manager for the Tijuana Convention and Visitors Bureau, whose grandmother worked at the old hotel. (The high school that uses most of the site allows tour groups to visit, Saldaña says.) We start with the dozens of guest bungalows, some now converted into school-adjacent private homes in varying states of repair. You can hear the echoes of the '20s, but just barely.
Then we advance to the old Olympic-sized swimming pool and a tiled arch, once a spa window, that frames a view of the resort's most visible remnant: the 150-foot tiled minaret. Why? Well, if you're building a lavish property with Moorish elements, it makes sense to include one of the scenic towers used to call Muslims to prayer. It makes even more sense if you need to hide a smokestack somewhere. The minaret was designed to carry away hot air from the boiler room.
As we circle the pool, Mario Ortiz Villacorta Lacave, cultural extension coordinator at Lázaro Cárdenas High School, explains campus programs. Hundreds of high schoolers lounge beneath towering palms and figs left over from the original hotel-casino landscaping.
The late President Cárdenas would be pleased; my old high school never looked this good. And even with the old buildings gone, it isn't impossible to picture the high and mighty at play. I gaze up at the minaret and tell Ortiz Villacorta how strange it seems to me, this sudden turn the city took, this minaret left to preside over a city that's 95% Catholic. He laughs and says it isn't really so strange, historically speaking. Then he starts ticking off Spanish and Mexican words with Arabic roots:
"Azul. Alhambra. Alcohol," he says. "Guadalajara. Guadalupe . . . "
I'm going to remember that moment for a while. In a flurry of renovation during the last four months, workers have refilled the swimming pool and put up more walls and arches as an homage to the old days. And on Sept. 8, the site was booked for the wedding of author Chris Nichols and Charlene Gould, in period attire. But on that summer afternoon, we were just three guys under an unholy prayer tower, a few miles from the world's busiest border crossing, staring into an empty pool like soothsayers seeking meaning in tea leaves.
I couldn't say what was happening in Las Vegas that afternoon, but I felt, all at once, very close to the place and very far from it.
TIJUANA'S PAST AND PRESENT
For all its curio shops and gringo bars, Avenida RevoluciÛn played a central role in the glory days of Tijuana in the '20s and '30s. Along the street, hints of its history can still be seen.