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Life Is a Fiesta! : At The Wildly Colorful New Beachside Resort in Rosarito : Destination: Baja California

March 19, 1995|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Sipchen writes for The Times' Life & Style section

ROSARITO, Mexico — When I was 7 years old, my cousins and I waded into the surf in Baja California. I got caught in a riptide. When my toes could no longer find the sand, I swam. But the commotion of waves quickly drained my strength, so I rolled onto my back and floated.

Each time I looked up, the shore was farther away and finally I didn't have the energy to lift my head, so I just stared at the blue sky. Then the color faded. My terror lifted. Time dissipated.

Eventually, I reared up weakly and saw that the flotsam-carrying current had eddied back toward land. A Mexican cowboy had ridden his horse into the water. He dismounted, struggled fully clothed through the waves and saved me.

Back on that remote beach, amid the requisite familial hysterics, I wiggled my cold toes in the warm sand and had a childish epiphany: It's really cool not to be dead.

That memory flickers through my mind as my wife, Pam, and I ease off the Tijuana-to-Ensenada toll road (Mexico Highway 1-D) and onto Rosarito's main drag.

The new Festival Plaza resort's brightly lit white facade gives the hotel the look of a gut-wrenching beachfront roller coaster. Pulling up in front, we can't help but notice that a giant weirdo with bulging eyes seems to be plunging headfirst toward the sidewalk. A daylight inspection the next morning suggests that this sculpted acrobat is merely doing a handstand, but the initial impression sticks, setting the plaza's tone: reckless abandon.

I recently read in a book review a passage from Los Angeles writer Carolyn See's new novel. It seems relevant here: "There's something to be said for free fall, the wild life. It's ruined us, but it's helped to save us too. It's given us our stories; and made us who we are."

Rosarito got its start as a tourist town during the United States' Prohibition era, and the partying never stopped. Festival Plaza ups the fiesta ante.

The resort threw its grand-opening bash last summer. Los Lobos, a roots-Mexicano rock band with a small but avid surf-dude following, serenaded a multicultural crowd from the plaza's central stage. Now the place is looking forward to spring break and a frenetic summer.

With metallic streamers spiraling down from the top floor and polka dots on the walls, the plaza's lobby looks like Pee Wee's Playhouse as remodeled by peyote-chawing Mexican folk artists.

Pam is deeply clown-phobic, and the pasty-faced, life-size fiberglass court jester lurking near the window gives her the creepin'-flesh willies. But the clerk smiles nicely from behind the desk, acting as if everything's normal. Behind her, the wall is a bank of color televisions. Each plays the same cryptic scene: a soundless loop of writhing starfish. Vague disorientation is an ingredient of any foreign travel, but in northern Baja California, with its compressed cultural cross-fertilization, the sensation can be particularly intense.

Our journey begins in a traffic snarl at the border. As CHP cars pick off vehicles roaring impatiently along the freeway's shoulder toward Mexico, a disciplined phalanx of 20 or 25 young, presumably undocumented, Mexican men trot boldly through traffic in the other direction.

Tijuana, for me, has always been like a decompression chamber, a chaotic transition zone that automatically reconfigures my psyche. Political and economic questions clamor. Feelings roil. Then, inexplicably, tension lifts, my soul heaves a big sigh, and I feel instantly revitalized.

A couple of years after my marathon float, my parents engaged in a rite known to many Alta Californians. They bought a travel trailer (a little pink Shasta with aluminum wings), hauled it across the border and planted it permanently on a sandy beach. "Baja" became my second home, an outpost of discovery: A toe dragged along a beach at night leaves a wake of phosphorescent fireworks; gunnysacks of scuttling lobsters spill onto the concrete floor of a fisherman's living room; tequila around campfires makes fathers and teachers sing like Irish mariachis; a spontaneous bucket brigade snakes through the night, from the sea to a trailer home visited by a wayward skyrocket.

Such images still smolder in my brain as I survey the Festival Plaza, thrilled that someone has paid tribute to Baja's magic.

Guillermo Martinez de Castro, a.k.a. Mannix, was the chief architect on the plaza. His bio says he was born near Mexicali and hopscotched back and forth between countries as a young student. With obvious nods to Frank Gehry and to the ingenuity of this region where car hoods, plywood signs and driftwood may make a home, he uncorked his imagination and let it rampage.

We arrive in his fantasy on a drizzly night in late February. Employees greet us warmly as we squeeze our luggage through the plaza's "jazz grotto" bar, distracted by the view through ceiling-to-floor windows of an eye-level pool, with swim-up bar and tiled waterfalls.

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