Escape from LA: A Weekend Drive Down the Baja California Coast

By Daniel Lichtenstein-Boris

I left Rosarito, Baja California around 8 am Sunday morning, drove slowly, finally arrived in Puerto Nuevo for breakfast. There were many homes alongside the shoreline, some three-story homes, squares piled on top of each other with large expansive glass windows to view the ocean, others wooden shacks. Several large multistory condominiums, maybe five to ten stories high, rose periodically next to the bluffs alongside the tollway and a winding two lane paved road parallel to the shore. The waves crashed against brown and black cliffs of dirt and rock as I drove slowly past stores selling painted ceramics and stone structures, small stands selling honey and avena, a hot chocolate drink. I arrived at Puerto Nuevo, a small four-square block area of tourist shops and restaurants. They all serve lobster, which is their specialty. The waiter told me that fishermen go to catch lobster near here, before four in the morning. They throw their nets into the ocean, arriving right before the restaurants open.

My friend Jay in Los Angeles recommended this place the first time I drove down the Baja coast, so I decided to stop for breakfast and try it.

I bought a medium lobster plate, which includes handmade flour tortillas, rice, and beans for $25. Here, sitting on the second floor of Mariscos Puerto Nuevo, I could see the hillsides in the distance descend into a thin layer of translucent mist and then into the blue calm placid sea stretching out far along the Baja California coast.

The people smile. Shopkeepers, the women and youth employed at tourist stores, seemed of indigenous descent, generally shorter, with redder skin, and straight black hair. They looked quite different than the white and mestizo Mexican Americans from Los Angeles vacationing in Rosarito. A mother and her child employed at a small store near where I parked greeted me and asked me to look around. I conversed with them in my broken Spanish. They said I spoke well. Several brightly colored patterned woven ponchos hung, adorned with picture of Frida Kahlo.

Frida’s face is everywhere in Mexico; the iconic feminist painter was married to acclaimed muralist Diego Rivera—whose mural at New York’s Rockefeller Center was torn down for including a picture of Vladimir Lenin. She also had an affair with the Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who fled to Mexico in the 1930’s before his assassination.

I saw a green woven Frida poncho, with a v cut for the neck, that would drape over the shoulders and down one’s side, with white fringes draping down from the bottom. Along the walls, small ornaments and carved wooden and ceramic figures were placed on display. Woven blankets of United States football teams like the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers hung prominently. In the back I could see, almost hidden, a painting of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe.

The Virgen Mary of Guadalupe, the mother of Jesus Christ, the legend has it, appeared before the indigenous Chichimeca Mexican Cuauhtlatoatzin, later called Juan Diego by Franciscan priests, in a small town north of Mexico City in 1531. Spread orally, then written down in the indigenous language of Nahuatl, and later Spanish, the story of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe protects those who seek her.

The ocean is calm, small ripples make the water shimmer off into the horizon. Two small birds float on the water, white dots fifty to a hundred feet beyond the coast. I sat admiring the view from my table. The coastline was crowded here with lobster restaurants, one orange, the other painted red. Patios with the tile floors, white cloth covered tables, steel and glass railings overlooked the broad blue Pacific Ocean.

Men and women in the morning moved about, preparing their restaurants for the day’s business, wiping down seats, mopping the floors, and picking up chairs from dinner tables, flipping them over, and placing them on the ground. The restaurant’s staff conversed with each other as they worked, quickly and diligently, but not rushed or hurried. Each wore a black, long sleeve shirt emblazoned with the restaurant’s unform and black pants.

My hotel in Rosarito the night before cost around 100 dollars for an ocean view. Many of my fellow guests live in Los Angeles, mostly bilingual Mexican Americans in town for the three-day holiday weekend. Rosarito is about three hours south of downtown LA, depending on traffic. And about thirty minutes from the border. Puerto Nuevo is about ten miles further. All the tourists spoke English, and many of the town’s hospitality workers knew at least enough to get by. I ran into a man in his forties in the elevator headed up to his room. He lived around 60th and Vermont in south central Los Angeles and was in town with his family. Another, two sisters who ordered coffee with me before I left for breakfast, also arrived to enjoy the seaside for the weekend.

The hotel was a ten-story concrete structure a one block from the beach. It had a guarded parking lot underneath glass elevators the rose above an open atrium lobby with a giant glass wall letting in natural light. Several massage chairs were placed in the lobby. For a few dollars one could feel the soothing vibrations and kneading of leather covered rotating plastic of reclining seat.

Once I crossed into Mexico, I didn’t even stop to change currency, so I was worried when I arrived on a toll road leaving Tijuana. But the friendly attendant took U.S dollars, gave me change in dollars, and I continued on my way. It was easy.

Even at breakfast in Puerto Nuevo, while gazing out to watch the blue sky descend to the Baja California coastline, there are a few patches of what look like unnatural clouds, thin white webs a few streaks low hanging in various points overhead. Traveling south through LA on the I-5 freeway the day before, the cloud cover was more intense. Small planes or drones seemed to paint thick white stripes across the celestial canvass. These white streaks dissipated into a broad white cloud cover obscuring the sun. Like the Netflix movie, it is often said, don’t look up.

Everything seemed calm in Mexico. The constant din of noise and traffic subsided, and I could take a deep breath and inhale the clean air, my skin itself seemed to tingle and jump for joy in relief.

Around six pm last night in Rosarito, I could smell burning plastic in the oceanside air, otherwise the area seemed free of air pollution. Earlier in the day I walked on the beach. Families sat on plastic chairs a few feet from the water, sitting under wide umbrellas shading plastic tables where they ate fruit and tacos from nearby stands, sometimes serenaded by accordions and guitars while vendors sold bracelets and blankets. A man sold coconuts for five dollars from a cart. One could drink the coconut milk out of a straw and afterwards he would chop up the coconut and place its white fleshy contents inside the shell. It was a full meal. Children rode ponies along the city’s beach.

The streets of Rosarito were full of bars and restaurants, clothing stores and coffee shops. Some of the land near the beach was undeveloped, though prices in the area are rising fast. There is a lack of drinking water in the area. Streaks of black petroleum tainted sand contaminate the beach front, washed up on shore after leaking from large vessels docked off the coast, drilling for oil. From a distance on the freeway driving back, large patches of the thin grey sheen of oil residue float across the seaside coast. Police patrol Rosarito’s downtown on cars and motorcycles. There were stories of police shaking down tourists for drinking and driving or travelling with marijuana, which is illegal in Mexico. It’s really a favor. For $100 or more, tourists don’t get a DUI and don’t have to go to jail.

Rosarito had pharmacies and banks, currency exchanges and fast-food restaurants, and a Walmart right as cars exit the tollway.

When I left Los Angeles I traveled past the Starbucks, dive bars, and trash strewn sidewalks of Hollywood, down the hill a few blocks from three to four story multimillion dollar structures carved into the hillside overlooking a layer of brown smog covering the increasingly unaffordable and destitute city of angels. There were no cranes in sight. The big skyscrapers, many built in the late 20th century, poked up out of the soot and dust coughed up by the network of freeways, the only visible public investment in the city besides the airport, the port, and a slowly expanding but underutilized metro system. The city’s smog has decreased considerably in the past decade or so, as new pollution standards and the offshoring of the remaining manufacturing jobs allows drivers to see snowcapped Mt. Baldy as they sit in freeway traffic.

The streets of skid row are crowded with tents and blue wrinkled tarps pulled taught. Most of the homeless downtown are African American. Rising prices have forced an increasing number of elderly residents of Los Angeles into homelessness. 500,000 Californians have fled the state in the past two years as well.

The black homeless residents of skid row do their best to survive without sewage or running water, sweeping trash and the dust from air pollution away from their immediate vicinity, piling rubbish in designated areas in the hope that the understaffed and under resourced Los Angeles sanitation workers will come by once in a while to pick it up.

City sanitation workers agreed to forgo a raise during the pandemic when the city was reeling from the economic impact of the government shutdown. But in an era of rising inflation, a cooling housing market, and the increased cost of rent, gas, and food, many Los Angeles city workers wonder when they will benefit in a state that is considered the fourth largest economy in the world.

There is a new, “civilized” way of helping the homeless in poor areas outside the zones in wealthier neighborhoods where police forbid encampments. There are porta potties placed every few blocks where tents crowd the sidewalks and storefronts are sealed shut with grey metal doors. There seems to be one porta potty for every fifty to hundred tent dwellers, only open from 7 am to 7 pm. Due to police fears of homeless using porta potties for drugs, prostitution, and crime, each relatively cheap, plastic toilet is staffed by a paid attendant who sits to monitor its use.

In most restaurants and stores, bathrooms are for customers only. In area gas stations, toilets are out of order, unless, of course, you are white or well dressed.

The mansions of Hollywood, once inhabited by wealthy celebrities, rise above the fray. But in many respects, they pale in comfort to the three-and four-bedroom homes complete with Terrazas and Jacuzzis overlooking Mexico’s Baja California shimmering blue coast.

To get to the really wealthy neighborhoods of Los Angeles, you have to travel further west, first along Sunset Boulevard, past billboards plastered with pictures of pale thin models and actresses, and the occasional sexualized black woman, advertising new TV shows, designer clothes, and accessories.

In the hedge lined gated boulevards of Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and beyond, there the truly wealthy live. But even here they live in fear. Beverly Hills has invested heavily in a network of surveillance cameras covering the city. Police drones can quickly rise to look for crime above the hedges hiding fountains, arched entryways, multicar garages, and five or more-bathroom single family mansions that populate the hillsides and spotless streets. When a brazen thief stole a rich man’s half million-dollar watch, the newspapers screamed of crime and safety for months.

That is not all the corporate press screams about. There is an immigration invasion, they say, that must be stopped. Asylum seekers are turned from the border, for public health or whatever reason. Texas and Florida bus migrants to New York, fly them to Marthas Vineyard, and push them from place to place. News websites report New York hotels housing asylum seekers left filthy, and prominently advertise low level narcotics arrests of Mexican American men. On February 10th, 2023, the Los Angeles Times publicized a U.S. State Department press release urging citizens to avoid 17 Mexican states during spring break.

Back in Baja, my food arrived. Three lobsters, butter, bowls of rice and beans, handmade flour tortillas, chips, a salsa of marinated tomato, onion, and cilantro, and a cool, refreshing horchata. I could see a small boat in the distance, fishermen checking on lobster nets.

I decided to drive to Ensenada, less than an hour south. A tollway parallels the ocean, climbing hundreds of feet above the clear water’s vast expanse. I decided to detour through hills and canyons into the Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California’s wine country. The grass and hillsides were bright green. Vineyards dotted the rolling hills. Resorts, wineries, and restaurants were advertised along the road. I took a back road, winding through vineyards, houses, pastures, and fields. I eventually arrived at a freeway and drove about fifteen minutes downhill until the coastline appeared again, driving past industrial part of Ensenada before getting stuck in traffic. There was a carnival parade planned that day.

Ensenada is a port city about an hour and a half south of the U.S. Mexico border. In its harbor large container ships unload their cargo, and cruise ships dock at port. A five to ten square block city center attracts tourists who meander across patterned red brick sidewalks, spending freely at bars, coffee shops, restaurants and wine tasting rooms. Along the docks travelers buy afternoon boat rides. Bands play. Families eat and drink seated together at long plastic tables. Fishermen sell shrimp, tuna, and other seafood. Fish tacos are plentiful, fried and breaded, covered in lettuce, hot sauce, and a white creamy goodness. Mountains rise around the city in the distance.

There was a carnival in town when I arrived. Families gathered along the parade route. A father sprinkled confetti on toddler strapped to his chest, as his wife smiled broadly to capture the moment on her iphone. First a batman car, then Southern California cholos wearing crisp button-down shirts and jeans pedaled past in bedazzled silver low riding bicycles. A caravan of antique cars slowly cruised past. Performing on a flatbed truck, three uniformed musicians blew their horns, keeping in tempo with the drummer. The kings and queens of the carnival waved and danced in glittering regala. Women danced on a moving stage to upbeat music. To wrap up the parade, a column of fifty cowboys on horseback pranced through the street, two abreast. It drizzled a little while the city watched the carnival parade proceed. I had an umbrella. People didn’t mind.

On the way back to my car I bought an embroidered purple and gold Frida Kahlo poncho. Purple and gold, the color of royalty, and also the colors of the Service Employees International Union, the union of many Los Angeles families working in healthcare, the public sector, custodial, security, and fast food. Some of these workers, the ones who make Los Angeles run, are immigrant workers themselves, sending money home, or saving to retire with their families abroad. Others are native born, trying to survive, to have a little savings in case of a rainy day, to raise their children, and to keep a roof over their heads.

But there is dignity in a good paying job. Many can afford to bring their families south of the border to eat lobster on a long President’s Day weekend. It is well worth it.

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