"This gym, NeoSpa, opened in 1988. It was started by a Russian group that came to Tijuana. They came up with the name and made the original investment. They also opened a disco and a health clinic -- a laser clinic. They never paid their rent. They defaulted on the rent for about a year. In 1989, they disappeared. "I believe they were from Moscow. I heard a few rumors about them, but I never found out if the rumors were true. They did have a Cuban lawyer. For as flashy as they appeared at first, in the end they disappeared. "These Russians had a complete misconception of what a gym should be. They actually hired a doctor to perform blood tests on people who wanted to be members of the gym. The doctor had a complete set of medical equipment here at the gym. No one wanted to have the blood test. It scared people. The Russians also were charging $500 to join the gym, plus an additional $50 per month. These prices were very high. The aerobic area was about one-fourth the size of what I have now. They also had no drinking water inside the gym. And their manager was this guy from Mexico City who used to smoke inside the gym.
Trim, 5'11", broad-shouldered, 41-year-old Carlos Peniche is one of Tijuana's pioneer gym rats. He's also the owner and general manager of NeoSpa, a gym occupying 24,000 square feet on the third floor of one of the two 28-story towers, las Torres de Tijuana, that loom over Boulevard Agua Caliente. (The towers' best-known tenant is the 422-room Grand Hotel Tijuana.)
On the floors beneath NeoSpa, Tijuana's health-conscious citizens can take advantage of two plastic surgery clinics, two "natural medicine" clinics, the American Bio Dental Center ("we use bio-compatible dental materials"), a vitamin and health-food store, and the O2-Xygen Clinic -- a sleek facility offering "hyperbaric oxygen therapy" and "thermo physiotherapy" for what the clinic's brochure describes as the "perfect state of mind and body." From O2-Xygen's lobby you can see the submarine-shaped hyperbaric chamber, its chalk-white interior illuminated by halogen lamps.
Bright light cascades through NeoSpa's tall windows that look out through the tops of eucalyptus trees to the Tijuana Country Club golf course and beyond to Chapultepec, one of Tijuana's wealthiest neighborhoods. In the gym's main room, 13 treadmills, 7 elliptical machines, and 7 stationary bicycles face this view. Behind them sit dozens of white strength-machines, their seats and backrests upholstered in bright blue. From the walls hang posters saying, "Here Begins a Positive Attitude," "Here Begins Equilibrium," and "Here Begins Discipline."
On a late morning last fall when I visited Carlos Peniche at NeoSpa, a well-proportioned young woman in a dark blue leotard sat in this room at a leg extension machine, toning her thighs while she paged through an American book, Sexplorations: Journeys to the Erogenous Frontier by Anka Radakovich, which Amazon later told me concerned "...nudist colonies, love therapists, Vegas...the sexual underbelly of America."
That same morning, Peniche told me that Mexican women, more than Mexican men, take an active interest in exercise.
"For Mexican men," Peniche told me, "you can still be a little chubby as long as you dress well and are capable of making intelligent conversation. But that's starting to change."
Peniche, fair-skinned, dark-haired, has an athlete's body and a soldier's chest-forward, shoulders-back posture. On the morning I met him, he wore a pair of dark blue track pants and a blue polo shirt. He peppered his fluent English with business terms. ("In 1985, I graduated from Notre Dame [de Namur University] in San Francisco. I got a master's in marketing," he explained.) Unlike most Mexicans who speak with reporters, Peniche was informal. He seemed American. When I looked at his business card, I saw that his full name was Carlos Peniche Bustamante.
"You're a Bustamante?"
"Yes," he said. "My grandfather, Alfonso Bustamante, built these two towers. I'm one of Alfonso Bustamante's 16 grandchildren."
The Bustamantes are one of Tijuana's "founding families" and, like most members of this small group, are at home on either side of the border. As reporter Matt Potter noted in this paper in July 1999, the Bustamante family's political influence in Mexico is "vast," and in the 1970s, Alfonso Bustamante contributed many tens of thousands of dollars to Governor Jerry Brown's gubernatorial campaigns. In the same article, Potter said that Alfonso Bustamante's wealth was estimated at more than $200 million.
"When I joined NeoSpa," Peniche told me, "there were only about 100 members. What most damaged the gym's credibility was the pricing. People would compare that to the prices offered by gyms in San Diego. Family Fitness was the big chain in San Diego at the time, and they were charging about $30 per month. So people would ask, 'Why pay an initial $500, plus $50 a month, when I can get better services with trained professionals for $30 per month?'
"What happened was that I was working for John Burnham Real Estate, and then the Gulf War started. Real estate went down. And then the maquiladoras went down. The economy was very shaky. So my grandfather said, 'Here's this gym, and I know you like to exercise. I know you like gyms. Here's an opportunity.' The Russian guys were paying $8000 per month in rent on the property. My grandfather said, 'If you can make that amount, I'll let you work it. As long as you pay the rent and other expenses, I'll let you work it.'
"The Russians had ended up owing almost $90,000 in back rent. So, they were sued. But they never responded to the lawsuit. They lost all their equipment. It was removed from the facility and brought back. I think, in total, the gym was probably closed for about 20 days. We kept it open for the credibility of the hotel, the offices, the whole complex.
"Our first move was to get rid of the $500 initial fee and to slash the monthly membership from $50 to approximately $25. So people started rushing into the gym. We got rid of the old manager and hired people who were into health. We put water stands everywhere and started aerobics classes. One of the first things my grandfather did before he handed the gym over to me was to install Jacuzzis and steam rooms in the women's and men's bathrooms.