Life Is a Fiesta! : At The Wildly Colorful New Beachside Resort in Rosarito : Destination: Baja California

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Sipchen writes for The Times' Life & Style section

When I was 7 years old, my cousins and I waded into the surf in Baja California. I got caught in a riptide. When my toes could no longer find the sand, I swam. But the commotion of waves quickly drained my strength, so I rolled onto my back and floated.

Each time I looked up, the shore was farther away and finally I didn't have the energy to lift my head, so I just stared at the blue sky. Then the color faded. My terror lifted. Time dissipated.

Eventually, I reared up weakly and saw that the flotsam-carrying current had eddied back toward land. A Mexican cowboy had ridden his horse into the water. He dismounted, struggled fully clothed through the waves and saved me.

Back on that remote beach, amid the requisite familial hysterics, I wiggled my cold toes in the warm sand and had a childish epiphany: It's really cool not to be dead.

That memory flickers through my mind as my wife, Pam, and I ease off the Tijuana-to-Ensenada toll road (Mexico Highway 1-D) and onto Rosarito's main drag.

The new Festival Plaza resort's brightly lit white facade gives the hotel the look of a gut-wrenching beachfront roller coaster. Pulling up in front, we can't help but notice that a giant weirdo with bulging eyes seems to be plunging headfirst toward the sidewalk. A daylight inspection the next morning suggests that this sculpted acrobat is merely doing a handstand, but the initial impression sticks, setting the plaza's tone: reckless abandon.

I recently read in a book review a passage from Los Angeles writer Carolyn See's new novel. It seems relevant here: "There's something to be said for free fall, the wild life. It's ruined us, but it's helped to save us too. It's given us our stories; and made us who we are."

Rosarito got its start as a tourist town during the United States' Prohibition era, and the partying never stopped. Festival Plaza ups the fiesta ante.

The resort threw its grand-opening bash last summer. Los Lobos, a roots-Mexicano rock band with a small but avid surf-dude following, serenaded a multicultural crowd from the plaza's central stage. Now the place is looking forward to spring break and a frenetic summer.

With metallic streamers spiraling down from the top floor and polka dots on the walls, the plaza's lobby looks like Pee Wee's Playhouse as remodeled by peyote-chawing Mexican folk artists.

Pam is deeply clown-phobic, and the pasty-faced, life-size fiberglass court jester lurking near the window gives her the creepin'-flesh willies. But the clerk smiles nicely from behind the desk, acting as if everything's normal. Behind her, the wall is a bank of color televisions. Each plays the same cryptic scene: a soundless loop of writhing starfish. Vague disorientation is an ingredient of any foreign travel, but in northern Baja California, with its compressed cultural cross-fertilization, the sensation can be particularly intense.

Our journey begins in a traffic snarl at the border. As CHP cars pick off vehicles roaring impatiently along the freeway's shoulder toward Mexico, a disciplined phalanx of 20 or 25 young, presumably undocumented, Mexican men trot boldly through traffic in the other direction.

Tijuana, for me, has always been like a decompression chamber, a chaotic transition zone that automatically reconfigures my psyche. Political and economic questions clamor. Feelings roil. Then, inexplicably, tension lifts, my soul heaves a big sigh, and I feel instantly revitalized.

A couple of years after my marathon float, my parents engaged in a rite known to many Alta Californians. They bought a travel trailer (a little pink Shasta with aluminum wings), hauled it across the border and planted it permanently on a sandy beach. "Baja" became my second home, an outpost of discovery: A toe dragged along a beach at night leaves a wake of phosphorescent fireworks; gunnysacks of scuttling lobsters spill onto the concrete floor of a fisherman's living room; tequila around campfires makes fathers and teachers sing like Irish mariachis; a spontaneous bucket brigade snakes through the night, from the sea to a trailer home visited by a wayward skyrocket.

Such images still smolder in my brain as I survey the Festival Plaza, thrilled that someone has paid tribute to Baja's magic.

Guillermo Martinez de Castro, a.k.a. Mannix, was the chief architect on the plaza. His bio says he was born near Mexicali and hopscotched back and forth between countries as a young student. With obvious nods to Frank Gehry and to the ingenuity of this region where car hoods, plywood signs and driftwood may make a home, he uncorked his imagination and let it rampage.

We arrive in his fantasy on a drizzly night in late February. Employees greet us warmly as we squeeze our luggage through the plaza's "jazz grotto" bar, distracted by the view through ceiling-to-floor windows of an eye-level pool, with swim-up bar and tiled waterfalls.

Our one-bedroom, two-bath, three-level casita, on the beach side of the self-contained plaza is titled "Pera"--pear--and the interior is the green of that fruit, offset by purple, red-and-blue chairs and patterned curtains vivid with all the hues of a smashed watermelon. It offers a tiny garage at street level and a deck on the top level that's like box seating for the plaza's big amphitheater. The lines connecting the three levels give the place a pleasant, spacious feel. The small touches add to its coherent if slightly cockeyed quality: Black Naugahyde valances on the windows match the couch and canvas chairs; the TV rack is oddly angular. Don't expect perfection, though. The bathroom tile work is beautiful, but the wallpaper is already peeling. (Another thing: The sound system cuts off at 2 a.m. and slams back on at 9. By Sunday morning, I could see Pam's brain vibrating in her skull and could hear her screeching interior monologue: "Please, God, no more Lynyrd Skynyrd !")

For dinner that night, we walk 50 feet to the plaza's El Patio restaurant, where we sit beneath heaters near the open-air kitchen. A glass shelf displays a heartwarming sign of good taste and attention to detail: a connoisseur's collection of bottled hot sauce, including Hellfire and Damnation, 911 and Capital Punishment.

We plunge chips into three types of fresh salsa and a heaping bowl of perfect guacamole, slowly adjusting to the aesthetic disequilibrium. Tiles traipse across surfaces on whims. No wall continues at a reasonable angle for long, or goes where you'd expect it, and each time an angle changes, the color or texture generally changes too. And what about that 60-foot Ferris wheel that makes the place feel like one of those Mexican village carnivals?

Pam orders camarones al mojo de ajo . I also have shrimp, mine in a chipotle cream wine sauce. Both are excellent, and so begins a three-day food fest that will take us from fish taco stands to the Rosarito Beach Hotel's sea-view dining room.

We conk out early, but around 2 o'clock I sneak out to the second-floor deck, fill our private bathtub, which has whirlpool-style jets, with steaming water, and slip in up to my chin. Two blocks away, waves pound the beach and tequila-drunk norteamericanos stumble out of Papas & Beer, barking out demons that might remain forever repressed in Van Nuys or Chicago: Aiiiiiii-yip-yip-yi-yi-ahooooooo!

All evening, the sky's been drizzling. Now, over the ocean, thunder booms. Big raindrops splatter on my bald head and rat-a-tat the casita's corrugated tin roof.

Whipping open the bedroom curtains in the morning, we're aesthetically ambushed by the sight of the eight-story hotel, in all its mauve and mustard glory. Before heading for the beach, Pam and I figure we'd better explore this dreamscape of shops, bars and restaurants contained, village-plaza style, within the complex.

El Museo Cantina offers more than 50 types of tequila. A 20-foot concrete sombrero caps an open-air saloon with pool tables facing a dance floor and, on the fringes of the pool area, Rufino Tamayo-like watermelons rise up in Claes Oldenburg sizes.

Then there's the enormous sculpted serpent, which rises up beneath a stylized radio antenna with a goofy grin on its face and a disc jockey platform in the top of its coils--from which incessantly upbeat rock, salsa, reggae and world music blasts.

There's a story here: "Once upon a time, in a sleepy little fishing village, the people were happy at work and at play," explains a brochure. "Their days were full of laughter and song, and at night they danced together in the plaza of the little village.

"But on a night without stars, a great serpent came into the village. The serpent, who did not possess the ability of laughter and was quite envious of the villagers' joy, brought with him great clouds of constant rain, darkness and despair."

The village's evil spell is broken, this tract explains, when a young poet and his lover slip the snake a magic watermelon seed that makes him laugh. Now the plaza brings together folk "from everywhere in a never-ending celebration of life and culture."

Pepe and Penelope's, a Cali-Mex diner vaguely reminiscent of that joint in "Pulp Fiction," offers a similar yarn about its namesakes: a Rosarito-born boy and Los Angeles girl who fall in love and start a restaurant blending the best of two cuisines and cultures.

Our waiter, who ran away from Mexico City to the United States when he was 14, and worked for several years at a supermarket near our Los Angeles home, seems to think the story is true. But a direct question to hotel management reveals that it's not. And that leads to my uneasiness with Festival Plaza. Anaheim probably needed Disneyification. Baja California doesn't. In fact, that ubiquitous, safe, slick sheen of corporate sanitization is part of what people flee when they come here.

Pam and I ride the elevator to the eighth floor and stand on a balcony, looking out on the hodgepodge sprawl of Rosarito and thinking about the peninsula's odd and romantic history: Hernan Cortes hunting for black pearls; American wild man William Walker claiming the tip as his own country.

In the afternoon, we head south down the old highway (the non-toll, free or libre road: Mexico Highway 1), stopping to check out favorite surf breaks, ducking into ramshackle trailer parks for nostalgia's sake. Just before reaching the town of Puerto Nuevo, for no good reason, we abruptly head for the hills on a route not found on our maps.

The dirt road rises steeply, passes yards fenced with old tires and clotheslines displaying the elegant dresses young women will wear nightclubbing that evening. People work in their yards molding, stacking and baking bricks. Then the population thins and we pass herds of goats, whose fates presumably await at the birria stands lining the highway.

Deeper into the hills, horses graze in green fields tinted with yellow mustard. We pass a junk car ranch, with hundreds of stripped hulls neatly arranged on a hillside with a view of 50 miles of shoreline. A mile or so later, we stop near the foot of a jagged peak. I turn off the engine, and we listen for a while to the silence of California before it got rich and crowded.

Just after dark we pull into Puerto Nuevo. Here's another story, a true one: Twenty-five years ago, a few Puerto Nuevo fishing families served fresh lobster in their modest homes. Americans loved it. Now at least 30 restaurants jostle for business, and single-minded diners from the Californias alta and baja have turned the uneven cobblestone streets into a nightly carnival.

Pam and I try a new place, Maria's, and are relieved when our waitress, a member of the family that owns the place, asks the only acceptable question to Puerto Nuevo purists: "What size?"

We opt for small and medium, and soon our bare table is cluttered with platters of steaming lobster, split in half, seared in grease, and accompanied by butter and perfectly plain beans, rice, and soft, lightly charred, mildly sweet handmade tortillas.

As we eat, a young boy wanders in and retrieves a skateboard from behind a bar strewn with toys and trailer hitches. Mariachis armed with an accordion, a bass-toned guittaron, and a pearl-finished snare drum fill the concrete-floored room with a sound so joyful we grin as we chew.

The next night, at Pam's suggestion, we drive south again for dinner, this time stopping just outside town at a place I've watched fly by in the car window since I was a kid.

Named after the queen of the mythological island of California, the Calafia resort is another imaginative outburst, a complexity of stone-and-wood terraces spilling down a cliff to the water's edge, where a replica of a Spanish galleon, complete with rigging and sails, serves as a stage. It's chilly out, and the place is deserted, almost eerie in a brine-scented mist. Still, we choose a candlelighted table on a terrace, and eat a fine meal of salmon and steamed lobster as a cat purrs at our feet and spotlighted waves bash against the rocky cliff. After a while, after a margarita, I begin to notice something. Just as sunlight has observable qualities, so does darkness. Especially in winter, when the sky is overcast, Baja's night is beyond black. It is a void that extends from far out over the Pacific and into the empty hills, overpowering the few futile lights on the coast and absorbing everything under its spell. In Southern California, light is always there to comfort. Here, darkness is still a force of nature.

Eye-searing color, loud music, conviviality and corazon are antidotes.

Pam and I had checked out Rosarito's night life our first evening. At the Rosarito Beach Hotel, we'd smiled as two Mexican-American families sang Motown to a karaoke machine.

Rock & Roll Taco, an indoor-outdoor club attached by a bridge to the plaza, pulsed with '90s rock, and college-age men and women danced with a ritualistic intent so pointed that a married couple kinda felt left out. Steering a middle course, Pam and I wind up at Cha Cha Cha, another plaza club, where we dance to Latin music played with gusto by a young Tijuana band, Relax--Un Nuevo Concept.

Relax cranks out Banda, Mexican disco and Latin rock, throwing in Gypsy Kings, Santana and reggae. People of all ages, mainly from nearby but also from Tecate and Ensenada and the United States, pack the place, and a wedding party from Tijuana pours in through the cave-motif entrance. The bridesmaids sing along and act out little routines, and we dance in the happy throng, carried helplessly by the currents.

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GUIDEBOOK

Rosarito Revelries

Getting there: Take the toll road (Mexico Highway 1-D) out of Tijuana, 11 miles to the clearly marked Rosarito exit (the toll as of mid-March was $1.80 each way) or follow old Mexico Highway 1 through Tijuana 15 miles.

The Festival Plaza is at the south end of town at the corner of Boulevard Benito Juarez and Calle del Nogal (mailing address: Mex-410, P.O. Box 439060, San Diego, CA 92143-9060; telephone 011-52-66-229-58.

Resort rates: The Plaza's 113 rooms, now through Oct. 1 (First price is Sunday through Thursday; second, Friday and Saturday nights. Rates are per person per night, excluding 10% tax. For two persons, double the quoted rates. Extra lodgers pay $16.50 each. Children under 12 are free.):

Studio ($22.50, $27.50); single ($32.50, $42.60); double ($27.50, $37.50); rooftop suite ($42.50, $52.50); casitas, one bedroom, two baths with garage and folding couch in living room ($47.50 and $57.50); two-bedroom villas with fully equipped kitchens also available at casita rate.

Where to eat: The Plaza has several restaurants, bars and combinations thereof as well as three retail shops and a yogurt shop.

Puerto Langosta: Slightly upscale dining with a strange nautical theme, street entrance winding through a faux cave. Corn and lobster soup ($1.95) to filet mignon ($9.95).

El Patio: Beautiful outdoor dining space. Cactus salad ($1.80) and tortilla soup ($1.80) to chicken breast in apricot sauce ($5.40), shrimp tequila ($8.40).

Pepe and Penelope's: Inexpensive diner-style coffee shop with machaca (a spicey mix of shredded beef and scrambled egg) and BLTs, jumbo chili dogs and arroz con pollo.

Rock & Roll Taco: A small, labyrinthine dance club, boasting lots of decks and dance floors, an outdoor pool, and attached taco stand.

Other dining choices:

Rosarito Beach and Northern Baja crawl with good restaurants, ranging from tiny fish taco wagons to places featuring Chinese, Japanese, Italian and French food. Seafood is the staple.

Just for the Halibut, across from Festival Plaza. With a slapdash surf-motif design, this is the perfect place for a cold cerveza , batter-fried halibut fish taco and quesadilla after a good morning surf session.

El Nido, on Boulevard Benito Juarez. The outdoor patio, with its aviary, fountain, ranch implements and a roof made of dried cirio cactus is a good place for breakfast or dinner. Steaks, Mexican food at modest prices.

What to do: Rosarito Beach attracts more locals than norteamericanos . It should be noted that the water throughout most of northern Baja is often dangerously polluted and swimming and surfing are done at some risk. Scrawny horses are rented up and down the beach (a ride up one of the small arroyos, back into the hills is a nice change of pace). You can also rent three-wheel all-terrain vehicles.

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