Up for a short drive to a different country? Rosarito Beach is just 20 scenic minutes from the U.S.-Mexico border – but it’s more Mexico than it is Tijuana, and adventures are waiting.
The greatly expanded border crossing is complete (in both directions), so the wait is dramatically reduced. (You should still avoid U.S. returns on Saturday or Sunday afternoons/evenings.) Our trip prep included obtaining required auto liability insurance via email from Bernie’s Insurance. Cost: $30 for 5 days.
Rosarito: where to stay and eat
We reserved an ocean view room at the Rosarito Beach Hotel. Celebrating its 90th anniversary, the hotel is still grand after all these years. It sits right on the beach and offers ocean panoramas from many rooms, including its dining room, pool/children’s pool, and hot tub. With walls covered in historic murals, the restaurant offers delicious meals at reasonable prices.
Two of my favorite Rosarito restaurants: (both walking distance from hotel) El Nido Restaurant is designed and decorated as a “naturally unique environment.” The menu includes quail and venison from their farm, as well as more standard meat and seafood items. A block of “everything” vendor stalls begins next door.
Susanna’s offers California cuisine from both Californias. The dining space is filled with plants inside and out, and decorated with old wood and iron.
Half of Mercado del Mar (KM29.5) is a regular market (produce, canned goods, etc.) The other half is a cavernous room brimming with almost 1,000 tequila choices. We were stunned decision-less until the expert staff recommended three excellent selections.
Less than 10 minutes south of Rosarito Beach Hotel is the fishing village of Popotla, at KM33. Head south on the free road to just past Fox Studios Baja, and turn right under the funky white half-arches. The village lies at the end of the Fox Studios wall.
Still mostly unknown to gringos, Popotla attracts Mexican families for pescado zarandeado, Baja lobster and shrimp cocktails. The morning catch arrives and is cleaned and ready to go into ceviches, cocktails, and whatever your heart desires – here you can live out your seafood fantasies.
In Popotla, the seafood cocktail takes a pleasurable turn in an eight-ounce cup: tender abalone, or creamy Baja sea urchin swimming in a cold shrimp stock, seasoned with tomatoes, onions and cilantro. Callo de hacha (scallops) rank with the best in Sinaloa (perhaps the best traditional seafood in Mexico). They're cooked in lime, spiced by fiery chiltepin, dressed with cucumber half-moons and slivers of purple onion.
But the star is the spider crab (marciano); it’s deep-fried and paired with a spicy a la diabla sauce, or a mojo de ajo (garlic). It’s more savory than Dungeness or stone crabs, and the real magic is in the joints, loaded with crab meat. Sea urchin, abalone, pismo clam, black clams, red clams, enormous "huarache" oysters, rare chocolate clams and sea snail are also cheap and freshly caught. If you want to indulge in Baja lobster without the tourist spectacle of Puerto Nuevo, this is the place. Insist on live lobster, or move on. Any joint on the beach will serve it with refried beans, flour tortillas, and a melted garlic-butter dipping sauce.
Restaurants Mariscos La Tia and Atotonilco are decent-sized restaurants. They offer tables inside and ocean view decks (top), good food, good service, and live music on weekends. Popotla’s vendors are open daily from around 9:30 until midday; restaurants keep later hours.
Just north of the Popotla entrance is Curios Salvador’s, with an extensive inventory of beautiful talavera, only a small portion of it out front. There are many vendors selling pottery, talavera, curios, tile, stone, furniture and other items along the free road south of Rosarito, but this was our favorite.
More food adventures
We found Calypso at KM38 – a French restaurant whose menu had other European and Baja influences, including tapas, a selection of soups, salads, sandwiches, and superb entrees. Outdoor seating faces the ocean, while it’s warm, cozy and charming indoors.
Half-Way House (KM53) opened in 1922, the first bar between Tijuana and Ensenada. Chef Johnny took over 16 years ago, as the first chef in the area with culinary training. Reviewers say that he's the best chef in Baja. Order from the menu, or just ask him to prepare what you want.
East of the Baja freeway, the hills offer more opportunity for exploration. We spent two days at a goat ranch, free and all-inclusive, and our host never stopped laughing. That’s another story.
Keep reading for Bill Brophy's Baja travel adventures in La Misión and Guadalupe Valley.