The superiority of the American childhood of the ’70s and ’80s to that of today is pretty well chronicled on the Internet, but missing from those nostalgic lists (Atari! Underoos! Riding in the back of a pickup!) are memories exclusive to those of us who spent part of our childhoods in San Diego: Baja adventures.
There were the family day trips—lunch at Calafia, curio shopping, maybe a stop in Tijuana for a photo with a zebra-striped donkey if we had an out-of-town visitor along. As teenagers, my friends and I took the trolley to San Ysidro and walked across the border, treating TJ like an exotic mall. San Diego kids went to Baja to surf and camp and eat fish tacos and drink Coronas. (Let’s not discuss the nightclub shenanigans we partook in once we could pass for 18.)
Baja trips were just part of growing up in San Diego. But by the time my kids were old enough to enjoy their first family trip to Puerto Nuevo for cheap lobster, going to Baja was no longer a simple thing you could do on impulse. I wasn’t scared by the dire warnings about drug cartel violence, which I always thought were overblown. But you now need a passport, and the reports of hellishly long border waits were definitely a deterrent. I couldn’t imagine sitting for hours at the border waving off peddlers of gaudy Last Supper paintings while my kids whined in the back seat.
“Kids went to Baja to surf and camp and eat fish tacos and drink Coronas.”
But folks, it’s time to take the kids to Baja again. We finally got Georgia and Ben passports this summer, so we spent a weekend in a suite in the new, modern tower at the Rosarito Beach Hotel. (Full disclosure: I did some business with the Rosarito Tourism Trust earlier this year.) The old Spring Break atmosphere is largely gone, replaced by a stronger emphasis on cuisine and arts.
Mexico’s family-friendly culture means you can bring your kids into a nice restaurant and enjoy a meal without getting the stinkeye from other diners. Now that most Baja hotels offer free passes to a special line at the San Ysidro border crossing, waits are about 15 minutes. Recently opened lanes have helped streamline the process even more.
Even with the upgrades, there’s much that hasn’t changed. The margaritas at La Fonda are still way stronger than they taste. You’ll still feel like the world’s most important customer when you choose a restaurant in Puerto Nuevo. And the caballeros offering horseback rides on the beach still haven’t caught on to the custom of requiring helmets and the signing of liability waivers.
Georgia and I went horseback riding anyway, and we lived to tell about our first family adventure in Baja. I have a feeling there will be many more.
Illustration by Kristina Micotti