Carretera Libre Tijuana-Ensenada, Baja
Our journey begins at the border. It is six o’clock in the evening.
The mission: find the historic Calafia Hotel — the one that hangs off a cliff south of Rosarito. Fill yourself up on its happy-hour freebies. The problem: I’m starting way late. The decision: carry on anyway.
I’ve got about $25 on me. In Tijuana I get one of the gold-and-white taxis de ruta on Madero that can take you down to Rosarito for a couple of bucks. At this hour, it’s about a 40-minute drive.
In Rosarito I swap chariots. Now I’m in a li’l country bus, heading south. It’s 7:30 p.m.
I jump out at a side road that looks like it heads for a cliff. Milestone reads “Calafia, km 34.5” Guess that’s how far we are from Tijuana.
Bus pulls away and suddenly it’s silence except for the whoosh of cars and a distant crash of waves. Realize I’m on a high promontory that juts out into the ocean. I walk south through the dark till I come to a dimly lit arch painted with the words: “Hotel Calafia Restaurante/Bar.”
But something feels wrong. There are no real lights, only a flood lamp that shines on a ghostly church front.
“Misión San Diego de Alcalá, 1769” is painted up top. It’s the façade of San Diego’s mission. Huh. What’s up with this?
I wander down through the buildings till I find a lone security guard.
“They have reproduced many of the missions here,” he says when I ask. “This was the division line between the Dominican and Franciscan control of the California missions.”
“How come it’s totally deserted?” I ask.
“We are only open Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” he says.
Great. This is Wednesday. So now here I am, stuck alone on a mountain without hope of a meal and no civilization in sight.
I crunch back toward the arch, and only then do I notice this giant new building that tumbles down the hill to the rocks below.
“Las Olas Grand,” says a sign on the wall. Think “olas” means “waves.” Then it says, “Restaurante Los Cristales.”
I go in through a parking entrance. Lone guard there says, yes, they have a restaurant, and it’s open. He directs me along marble corridors to an elevator.
Elevator swoops down six floors. I walk out to…whoa! Surreal. A floodlit white artificial beach and a pool set below two ginormous cliffs with waterfalls pouring down them. It’s like choppering into a 007 scene, deserted except for two kids with echoey voices playing in the sand next to a volleyball net. A hidden sound system plays cool jazz.
I walk a wood-and-rock path toward a rock promontory and a low, modern building. Next weird thing I see: hardbody gals on treadmills, sweating away inside a glass-walled fitness center — with the white teeth of waves crashing right in front of them. Then, on the right, a door. “OPEN,” it reads.
And now I walk into this ultra-chic space. A bar, a dozen tables, mirrored walls, and, just like the fitness center, waves coming at you from behind glass walls. You expect to see sharks gliding along.
Two couples sit at the bar, and a happy group of six gringos laughs over cocktails at a window-side table. I dunno. I kinda feel like Jody Foster arriving at that beach in Contact.
Gal at the desk shows me a menu. Heart sinks at the price of what she says is the most popular dish, parrilladas. It’s that Argentinian-type mixed grill of meats or seafood, or both, and it’s, uh, $55, $60.
I pick a table near the happy crowd. The waiter, Jesús, comes up. “Something to drink?”
I check the rest of the menu. Margaritas and tequilas start at $5, house wines go for $6 a glass. But prices can reach, hey, $176. That’s for a Balché. That turns out to be a fermented honey drink of the Mayans, according to Jesús. Except, oh, downer: he says this one is a bottle of cabernet sauvignon just using the name.
They do, however, have draft beers for $1.50. Now we’re talking. I order one of those and also, on impulse, one of the soups that sounds kinda cool: Crema las olas. “Cream waves.” Tatemado peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, herbs, avocado, and king crab, $7.50.
Jesús brings it in a big bowl, the avo and crab in the middle. It’s totally delish. The herby-tomatoey flavors are different from any tomato concoction I’ve had in Alta California.
So now I’m thinking, Can I afford something solid? They have pasta for $7. Any pasta with, say, pesto or Alfredo. Not exciting, but cheap. Main courses like steak are around $15. But pepperoni pizza’s $7, and a hamburguesa del chef is $8.50.
Table next door says to get the camarones glaseados, citrus-glazed shrimp with chiltepín chili. Problem is, that’s $16. No can do.
Oh, what the heck. I order the hamburguesa. When it comes, it’s a biggie. Stick fries, two fat onion rings, and a burger stuffed with romaine lettuce, pickles, tomato, two cheeses (provolone and cheddar), bacon, and an eight-ounce beef patty. Plus, nice crispy toasted bun. Nothing ’specially Mexican about it, but it’s a nice, squelchy challenge.
Full? Yes. Mission kinda accomplished. But you don’t even want to know about the trip back. The total at Los Cristales was $20.27, not counting a tip. That left $1.85 to get home. Oh, man. The waiting for hours up on the road in the dark, the tripping, the fall in the ditch…
A community bus finally appears, 90 cents. Then, at Rosarito, the kindness of Mr. Vallejo. Took me in his taxi de ruta from Rosarito to downtown TJ for my last 85 cents, rather than the $1.50 I should’ve given him.
I get across the line and onto the trolley and let out a big whew.
- The Place: Los Cristales, at Las Olas Grand Hotel, Carretera Libre Tijuana-Ensenada at Km 28.5 Cuenca Diaz, Rosarito, 619-713-7715 or 011.52.661-612-5227
- Prices: Draft beers, $1.50; crema las olas (soup) with tatemado peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, avocado, king crab, $7.50; pasta with e.g. pesto or Alfredo sauces, $7; pepperoni pizza, $7; hamburguesa del chef, $8.50; tenderloin steak with mash, $15; citrus-glazed shrimp with chiltepín chili, $16; parrilladas, Argentinian-type mixed grill, $55
- Hours: 2:00–10:00 p.m., Tuesday–Friday; 9:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., Saturdays; 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m., Sunday; closed Mondays
- Buses: Popotla, Calafia taxis de ruta
- Nearest Bus Stop: Roadside, at kilometer 34.5 roadside marker (and, yes, it’s different from the Los Cristales official address, above)