South Of The Border

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The closest thing in the whole city to a historical museum or park, I discovered, is the Wax Museum, a place more entertaining than edifying. There I stood face to face with figures from Mexico’s past, including Montezuma II, Cuauhtémoc, Cortés, Father Junípero Serra, Pancho Villa, Zapata, and Porfirio Díaz — as well as Ayatollah Khomeini, Dracula, Jack “El Destripador,” Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Freddy Kruger, Kennedy, Madonna (bearing a remarkable resemblance to Phyllis Diller), Princess Diana (or Gov. Christine Whitman in a tiara), and President Clinton (especially illembalmed).

I was able to take another kind of look at the past at the Caliente racetrack. It sits across a hilltop overlooking some of the newer suburban sprawl around Tijuana, and since a labor dispute some years back it has been a dog track. Money-saving renovations have removed most of the details from its once-grand domed Moorish front, though the splendor of its scale survives, but the grounds by the entrance offer a surprising consolation: a whole zoo of caged tigers, bears, chinchillas, and exotic birds.

I felt I was closest to the living heart of today’s Tijuana when I stopped by the Mercado Hidalgo. If Mexican food is one of the glories of world cuisine, the Mercado is a glory among marketplaces, as lovely and bountiful as any in Paris or Rome. Its stalls brim with spotless displays not only of familiar fruits and vegetables but also of Mexican limes, guavas, gourds, beans, cheeses, cacti, sugar cane, and dazzling varieties of fresh and dried chilies and candies. Taco stalls and ceviche stands surround the market.

After a day in Tijuana I took a short drive south to Rosarito Beach. The Rosarito Beach Hotel is another Moorish fantasy, now surrounded by an aggregation of nondescript newish buildings. You enter under a stained-glass mural of a pretty señorita based on the founder’s wife, a 1930s Mexican actress. Beneath her an inscription reads POR ESTA PUERTA PASAN LAS MUJERES MAS HERMOSAS DEL MUNDO : “Through this door pass the most beautiful women in the world.” The lobby they passed into—and in the earliest years they included Paulette Goddard, Lana Turner, and Rita Hayworth— is a masterpiece of ornate blue-tile wainscoting under a high carved ceiling and of walls painted in 1937 with murals of Mexican missions; tall iron gates lead off into adjoining rooms. The hotel has a long, broad beach where sunbathers share space with horseback riders and, alas, people racing around on rented all-terrain vehicles. It also had, when I visited, a Titanic museum.

The 1997 movie Titanic was filmed a couple of miles below town in a studio alongside the sea where a nearly full-size replica of the ship went up (and went down) behind a clutch of hangarlike sound-stage buildings. The hotel’s exhibit had assembled some of the dregs of what was dispersed when the set was struck: papier-mâché bollards from the Liverpool docks, a few funnels, small stretches of wall, and an area of deck planking, so you could say you had stood on the deck of the Titanic .

The town of Rosarito Beach grew up around the hotel; today it is mainly a place where young Americans party in bars and tear up the beach on ATVs. Just outside of town, though, modern upscale resort hotels make the most of the dramatic coastal bluffs and beaches, and the Titanic lot makes the best of the unlikelihood of anyone’s coming back to make Titanic II by offering a better Titanic museum. This one includes a movie about the making of the movie and pieces of a first-class cabin, a first-class lounge, and three big mockups of boilers. South of the Titanic lot, civilization falls away, and the highway, a modern divided toll road, passes through a starkly magnificent landscape of brown, rugged hills reaching down to cliffs pounded by the big Pacific breakers.

Ensenada, a seaport and fishing city of two hundred thousand, is far older than T.J. Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, making the usual sixteenth-century search for a northwest passage, sailed into its bay in 1542; permanent settlement began in 1804, a gold rush brought crowds in 1869, and the town served as the capital of Baja from 1882 to 1915. I began my visit at the fish market, a worthy counterpart to the Mercado Hidalgo in Tijuana, with fantastic gleaming arrays of fish and shrimp and bivalves filling the stalls and surrounding lunch counters selling delicious shrimp cocktails and fresh fish tacos.

In Ensenada, as in Tijuana, I found the past most present in places of pleasure. The former Riviera del Pacifico Hotel, yet another glorious Moorish mishmash, had a brief, dazzling life: It opened in the early 1930s, entertained the likes of Johnny Weissmuller, Myrna Loy, and Dolores del Rio, was managed by Jack Dempsey, and closed in 1938, when gambling was banned. It is now maintained as a social, civic, and cultural center, with art exhibits, an archeological museum, and a bar unchanged from the early days and still serving drinks. The mural behind the bar is by itself worth a visit. It shows a drunken Bacchus on donkeyback being tugged by Cupid toward a dancing, castanet-snapping señorita, while a mariachi band serenades the scene.