Some History and Background
Evidence of the presence of Paleo-Indians in this coastal region has been dated as early as 2,000 BC and by 1,000 BC, a group emerged that is recognizable as the Yuman ancestors of the Kumiai (Kumeyaay), who continued to inhabit the northern portion of the Baja California Peninsula at the time of European contact. The Kumiai referred to the area now known as Rosarito Beach as Wa-cuatay, which translates to “big houses” in their language.
In September 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo passed through the Rosarito Beach coastal area on his way from Ensenada to San Diego Bay but the region would remain largely as it was for a few more centuries until 1769 when Father Junípero Serra founded the mission in San Diego.
With the territory still under Spanish control in 1773, a frontier was defined separating Nueva (“new”) or Alta (“upper”) California, under the jurisdiction of the Franciscans, from Antigua (“old”) or Baja (“lower”) California, which was entrusted to the Dominicans and in 1788, a Dominican priest named Luis de Sales redrew the boundary, extending Baja California to the Rosarito Arroyo, known at the time as the Barrabas Arroyo.
In 1827, after Mexico obtained its independence from Spain, a property that was known as Rancho El Rosario was granted by the governor of the territory – José María de Echeandía to Don José Manuel Machado, one of the first soldiers stationed at the Presidio of San Diego, becoming the very first ranch in the modern-day Rosarito region.
Don José Machado’s large rancho was bounded on the north by Rancho Tía Juana, on the west by the Pacific Ocean and on the south by public lands with his son, Don Joaquín Machado, later applying for title to the land as Rancho Rosarito to President Porfirio Díaz.
On May 14, 1885, Machado received his title and registered it in Ensenada, then the capital city of the Northern District of Baja California Territory and May 14 is now recognized and celebrated as Rosarito’s Foundation Day by the Historical Society of Rosarito.
The area would later be divided up into a few large parcels, with most of it still dedicated to ranching and farming with names like Rancho Las Delicias, La Avena, San Patricio, El Toro, Gilbert, Crosthwaite and Machado.
A few others were sold to some entrepreneurs with one sale to a Los Angeles area investment group in 1920 who brought down tourists seeking to hunt and fish, with some of them camping on the beach.
In 1923, a two-lane blacktop road from Tijuana to Ensenada was completed and served to open up the coastline south of Tijuana and the investment group built a small motel on the beach nearby.
About the same time, a swinging-door cantina on a picturesque ocean bluff halfway between Tijuana and Ensenada known as Medio Camino (Halfway House) opened along the coastal route, serving as a bus stop for campesinos and an improvised gas station, selling fuel that was gravity fed from elevated barrels on wooden platforms.
Early on in the 20th century, a businessman named Manuel Porfirio Barbachano began purchasing property along the Pacific coastline of Baja California between Ensenada and Tijuana, eventually buying the small, beach-side motel which then included a restaurant/bar in Playas de Rosarito from the LA investors.
Barbachano would marry Maria Luisa Chabert who became enamored with the area and asked for her husband to build a seaside home for them to live in, adjacent to the small motel.
Barbachano immediately began construction on their new home in addition to the creation of a much larger, elite hotel that would include a beautiful casino and spa. The hotel was originally named El Rosario Resort and Country Club before changing the name to the Rosarito Beach Country Club, becoming a popular destination for many Hollywood stars and other celebrities who would come to the see the remote resort as a private escape from the limelight and prying paparazzi up north of the border.
Another name who figured prominently in local history was a man by the name of Juan Ortiz Velarde who in 1925 would open up a small motel, trailer park and restaurant bar/club. Ortiz passed on in 1935 and the operation was taken over by his son Rene and he would put his name on the business. The younger Ortiz would become very active in the development of Rosarito as well as taking on a leadership role in local politics and was instrumental in establishing and supportingt the Cruz Roja in Rosarito.
1950 would mark the beginning of a new era of urbanization for Rosarito with the building of streets and city blocks and a long term vision of development began to take shape. Land sales immediately began taking off and coupled with the construction of small restaurants, shops and two hotels, the city began to take on its present-day appearance.
In the late 1940’s, three families of fishermen would arrive and settle a few miles further south along the coast. The men would head out early each day in pangas to fish and trap lobster while their wives would prepare split lobsters friend in lard and served with beans, rice and freshly made flour tortillas. Over the years they would begin selling to tourists passing through on the coastal highway and as their popularity grew, so would the number of restaurants serving this unique style of lobster, creating what would become the Puerto Nuevo Lobster Village.
In the 1960s, Playas de Rosarito entered the commercial and industrial era with the constructions of a large thermoelectric power plant and the later installations of Pemex, the state-owned petroleum company, both made possible by the efforts of Manual Barbachano before his death in 1954.
After the death of Barbachano, his widow Maria Luisa Chabert leased the hotel operation to a Mexican/American partnership who ran the hotel from 1964 to 1974, at which time Maria Luisa’s nephew – Hugo Torres Chabert – took over the management of the hotel and has been at the helm, ever since.
Hugo Torres Chabert led the drive to incorporate the city in 1995 and was appointed to a three-year term as Mayor. In 2007, Torres Chabert ran for election and was overwhelmingly elected to a new three-year term.
Things to Do in Rosarito Beach
Less than a 30 minute drive heading south from the San Ysidro Border Crossing at El Chaparral, Rosarito Beach makes you feel like you stepped into another world and time.
A slower pace of life with million dollar views of gorgeous sunsets all along the sandy beaches on top of lots of daytime activities to choose from; spas, restaurants and nightlife that all together make Rosarito an extremely popular vacation / retirement destination that has something for everyone.
1. Rosarito Beach
Rosarito has been a surfer’s paradise for decades, so you can imagine how wonderful the beaches are. Still today, thousands of surfers per year descend on the local beaches searching for the perfect wave.
Rosarito Beach was once reserved for Hollywood film sets, but today, the shoreline is a thriving hub for locals and vacationers soaking up the rays, splashing in the warm water, exercising, or snacking on seriously good fish tacos.
Rosarito experts know that renting an ATV is one of the favorite things to do when it comes to exploring the beach. South of the pier is a sweeping stretch of sand where riders can cruise. Just outside of town are undulating sand dunes perched over the ocean, which are perfect for thrill seekers and more experienced riders.
Quite a few hotel options line the shore, as well, so you can pick prime real estate for beach access and unparalleled views. By night, the beaches come alive with evening activity, so if you’re a night owl, this is where you’re going to want to be.
2. Extreme Sports
With excellent surf, plenty of mountains, and lots of wide-open space, it’s no wonder Rosarito is a haven for outdoor adventure and extreme sports. Long stretches of beach breaks mean Rosarito is ideal for surfers of all levels.
Keep in mind, expert surfers will want to stick to the south end of the bay, while gentler waves break on the northern end. Experts say the best surf seems to be near the pier.
If you prefer wheels over waves, Rosarito has top spots for motocross and ATV rides. About 20 minutes south of Rosarito is the town of Primo Tapia, where undulating dunes set the tone for mile after mile of 4WD paradise.
Rosarito Canyon, another nature spot just outside the city, has dirt roads that web out in every direction, perfect for dirt biking. South of the Hotel Rosarito Pier is another large swath of open sand, where you can rent motorcycles and cruise the shoreline.
Other less intense outdoor activities include kayaking or jet skiing, and equipment for both of these is easily rented from shops around the beach.
Several hiking trails wind their way up into the hills behind the beach, as well. One of the most popular is the Cerro El Coronel, which has a panoramic view overlooking the coast below.
3. Visit Puerto Nuevo
Just 20 minutes out of Rosarito is the seaside town of Puerto Nuevo. A phenomenal dining destination that overlooks the Pacific coast, Puerto Nuevo is an excellent day trip or evening trip from Rosarito, if you’re looking for a change of scenery. With more than 40 restaurants, Puerto Nuevo is certainly a foodie’s paradise.
Not only that, it’s a great escape for a bit of pampering, as well. You’re going to want to visit Spa Ventana al Mar, which is one of the best spas in Baja, known for its massages, facials, and various pools.
The town is small – seriously small. It has less than 200 residents. Surfers will also have plenty to do in Puerto Nuevo, as the waves are always sounding off and are great for the more experienced surfers. Note: Lifeguards are not on duty, so this is only recommended for surfers who have been in the game for a while.
Rosarito Beach Map – Lookup Address / Location
4. Checkout the Local Galleries
The breathtaking scenery combined with a quirky clientele is the perfect combination for creating a rising arts scene in Rosarito. The small seaside city is bursting with art galleries and furniture stores. From iron sculptures to galleries and workshops, it’s easy to take a piece of Rosarito home with you.
The Local Artisan Market has dozens of shops featuring local arts and crafts. Meander the narrow corridors to discover clothing, leather, Talavera pottery, blankets, jewelry, and more.
In Plaza Pabellón, you will find clothing, restaurants, and coffee. And don’t forget the furniture. Rosarito is home to carpenters, iron artists, and sculptors, who have showrooms packed with handmade furniture. If you’d like something custom made, they can certainly arrange for that, as well.
Visit Polo’s Gallery, which is a must-see in Rosarito. It has been open for more than two decades and houses works from more than 15 Baja artists. At La Iguana, metal is welded to form beds, chairs, patio furniture, doors, and lamps.
5. Los Coronados
Looming just offshore from the Rosarito coastline are four largely barren, and rugged, islands. About seven miles offshore, these mesmerizing landmasses are more than just isolated rocks out to sea. Los Coronados, as they are called, comprise a natural paradise for snorkelers, scuba divers, fishermen, nature enthusiasts, and adventurers.
No visitors are actually permitted on the islands, as a way to preserve the wildlife, but throughout their history, the islands have played their part, whether being an alleged hideout of pirates or a stop for rum runners during Prohibition.
Today, the islands are a prime spot for local fishermen, and as such attract divers and snorkelers thanks to the clear blue water. Ten species of reptiles and amphibians live here, as well as pelicans, sea ducks, and more. It’s even possible to spot a whale or two during the right season.
Even if you don’t make it out here, they are still a sight to behold from shore, as their colors seem to morph throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky.
6. Rosarito Beach Hotel
Sleep in the halls of history when you book a stay at the Rosarito Beach Hotel. Not only a legend among Hollywood elite, this hotel is one of the very first locations that put Rosarito on the map.
For nearly a ccentury it has been an iconic hideaway, and it continues to be one of the best, if not the premiere, hotel in Rosarito. It was incredibly popular back during the U.S. Prohibition era with an impressive guest list that included names like Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, and Lana Turner.
Today, the beach hotel has three separate buildings: Coronado, Playas, and Pacifico. Each building has its own pool and Jacuzzi, creating mini hotels within the larger hotel, and each tower has its own particular vibe. There are 500 rooms to choose from.
Even if you’re not booking a room, this is still a spot to stop and admire and drink in a very important sip of Rosarito’s past.
Address: Blvd. Benito Juárez 31, Playas Rosarito, 22710 Rosarito, B.C.
7. Baja Studios
Rosarito has long been associated with Hollywood glitz and glam, having been used as a film set for decades and also a hideaway for celebrities looking to skirt Prohibition. But did you know that there is actually a film studio here?
Baja Studios was built for Twentieth Century Fox’s Titanic back in the 1990s, and today is a self-contained production facility with some of the largest stages, scenery shops, dressing rooms, and filming tanks in the world. It spans more than 46 acres, with more than 3,000 feet of oceanfront for filming.
In addition to Titanic, the studio’s rap sheet includes Tomorrow Never Dies, Deep Blue Sea, Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World, and more. It’s known as having the world’s largest stages and water tanks for filming.
Though the studio had a few quiet years when northern Baja was having tumultuous times, the rise of Amazon, HBO, and Netflix has revived the studio.
Address: Carr. Transpeninsular 45, Baja California
Just 10 minutes south of downtown Rosarito is the small fishing village of Popotla, a must for anyone visiting this part of Mexico. Seafood abounds, so if you have a taste for fresh fish, this will be like a homecoming – especially if you’re dining beachside overlooking the water.
While many of the coastal communities are giving way to touristic development, purists will love that the vibe of Popotla is decidedly authentic, laid-back, and local.
Popotla was put on the mainstream map (sort of) when Titanic was filmed just down the way at Baja Studios. Still, the crowds stayed at bay. It wasn’t until a visit from Anthony Bourdain that word started to really get out.
Today, it remains ever sleepy, with the only visitors being people who thrive from venturing off the beaten path.
9. Scuba Diving
The Baja peninsula is one of the best places to visit for scuba divers, and Rosarito is no exception.
If you’re not diving Los Coronados, you may want to check out the Underwater Park, most notably, the sunken ship Uribe 121. The Underwater Park is an ongoing project, which will include a ship cemetery with four wrecks, a tribute to the Titanic, an underwater Atlantis, and a sculpture garden.
Right now, Uribe 121 is the only ship below the water’s surface. It was sunk in 2011 after a fire damaged the Command Bridge, Bridge Roof Deck, Battery room, cabins, and more. She was beyond return to service.
Today, the ship is a dive site for expert divers to explore. Tour companies like Rosarito Ocean Sports take diving tours out to the site. Note: You must be certified as an Advanced Open Water Diver. The full-day tour includes lunch.
10. Ride Horseback on the Beach
Take a 30-45 minute horse back ride on the beach with a beautiful view of the local coastline, Coronado Islands and the iconic Rosarito Beach pier.
Some of the tours even include the option to continue with a tour of some of the best tacos in town, where you will have a tasting of tacos “carne asada,” “al pastor” and “birria.”