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The Perfect Vacation--Even Without a Roof

August 09, 1995|Robin Abcarian

Nearly a quarter century ago, my family discovered the beaches of Baja California, and for years after that, we never vacationed anywhere else.

No more Mammoth. No more Yosemite. No more King's Canyon. Why bother? We'd struck gold.

We'd found a place that was close to home yet exotic and foreign, a place with perfect beaches, a place where you could eat lobster in a fisherman's living room for laughably little money.

In the beginning, we had camped in tents on high dirt bluffs overlooking choice surfing spots, nameless places known only by their distance in kilometers south of the border. But in 1972, my parents bought a little cabin on the beach at K-55, about 15 minutes south of Rosarito. It's an odd sort of social reversal--even as Mexicans come north to find their version of the American dream, Americans stream south to find theirs. Where else but Baja could a middle-class Southern California family afford an oceanfront vacation home?

The cabin's previous owner was a man named Chester C. Crush, memorable only because he had carved his initials into the front door. He left Baja for Hawaii, I believe, his move foreshadowed by the cabin decor, which consisted of fishing seines billowing from ceilings dotted with dead starfish and cork floats, and a fireplace flanked by two huge sea turtle shells. Chester C. Crush had also papered the ceiling of the tiny single bedroom with Playboy centerfolds.

As soon as my parents traded $6,000 for the keys, my mother set about repapering the bedroom ceiling with flora and fauna from Sunset magazine. She left one perky pair of breasts exposed.

Family joke.


The cabin sits on the beachfront of a place known unofficially as Campo Lopez. A rickety guard booth used to herald the entrance, along with a creatively spelled list of forbidden activities that included "No Immoral Acts."

Campo Lopez consists of about 100 homes on rutty dirt roads that cascade toward the Pacific from the highway. You could drive right by it and not really notice it. Lots of the homes are typical of classic Baja beach construction: trailers to which rooms have been attached by carpenters of widely varying talents. Nothing about Campo Lopez is splashy. It is funky and real--a world apart from the pseudo-fancy tourist meccas that spring up every year along the Baja coast.

Many vacations during my prime tanning years were spent at Campo Lopez, but over time, the intervals between visits grew longer. Somehow, eight years had passed since my last stay.

My sister, whose two adolescent daughters have spent parts of every summer in Baja, finally persuaded me that it was past time to introduce my own child to the wonders of Campo Lopez.

I should have known what to expect when we pulled into the dusty encampment last Friday. The flawless ocean view was the same, the rocky point was where it always has been, the neighbors' places looked just as I remembered them.

Still, I was shocked. Where our little cabin had once stood with its rough stone chimney and tacky decor, now there was only a cement slab.

Two years ago, my father decided to rebuild the ramshackle cabin, knocked it down and applied for a construction permit.

He is still waiting.


Technically, Campo Lopez residents are leaseholders--most rent from the Machados, a family that has owned the land for generations. But the couple dozen or so plots along the beachfront are controlled by the federal government, which owns everything within 30 meters of the mean high-tide line.

Perhaps because the place was imprinted on me when I was a teen-ager, I never had more than a teen-ager's understanding of it. I cared only that the sun was out and paid little attention to the convoluted history and considerable internal politics of Campo Lopez.

Now, of course, all we want is to rebuild.

But it is difficult to ride herd on a building permit from 175 miles away. Also, Mexican bureaucracy is not known for its silken flow.

While we wait, we are now compelled to camp on the site.

"Slab camping," my sister called it as her husband set up their tent trailer. "Not bad, huh?"

Not bad at all.

Cabin or not, we savor the place and the things that seem immune from the passage of time: the taste of fresh, steaming bolillos from the bakery across from the Rosarito Beach Hotel, the smell of fresh-caught kelp bass sizzling on a griddle, the bliss of sitting on the patio as a sinking sun burnishes the sky and gilds the waves.

Why on earth go anywhere else?

* Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

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