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With near-perfect weather, wide sandy beaches, and some of the prettiest, most rugged stretches of coastline in Baja, it’s no wonder people have been appreciating Rosarito’s charms for 4,000 years. But a couple centuries after Dominican priests established a mission nearby, the city’s legacy has taken a somewhat less holy turn. Rum runners and stars of the Hollywood Golden Age all spent time here during Prohibition, and in later decades, this laid-back beach town about 12 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border became an obligatory stop on the college spring break circuit.
Today, retirees and weekend escapees come to eat, drink, spa, golf, and sunbathe in any number of gated condo communities that line the coast. Visitors can shop for tchotchkes at the downtown crafts market; explore the coastline on horseback, surfboard, or stand-up paddleboard; or pop down to nearby Puerto Nuevo for a taste of the signature dish, fresh local lobster doused in butter. Sometimes the best plan is to do nothing more than stare at the sun setting over the ocean while sipping on a freshly machete’d coconut.
Out-of-towners can fly into San Diego International Airport (SAN), about an hour’s drive from Rosarito, depending on border traffic, or Tijuana (TIJ), about 30 minutes away. Having a car is useful for getting around Baja, especially if you’re traveling on your own. You can rent cars at either airport, but check the fine print to ensure that it’s okay to cross the border in your rental. When driving, stick to the coastal toll road, which is generally safe and well maintained; still, it’s wise to avoid driving at night. Have small bills ready; both dollars and pesos are accepted at the tollbooth. If you’re planning on crossing the border in either direction during your visit, don’t forget your passport.
Rosarito enjoys great weather all year, though its cloudy summer mornings can come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to the region’s May Gray/June Gloom—don’t worry, the marine layer burns off by afternoon. You can’t go wrong with layers, and don’t forget your swimsuit: Even if you find the Pacific too chilly to brave without a wetsuit in December, there are plenty of clear, sunny days to spend on the beach. Summer and fall are packed with events, kicking off with an art festival on Memorial Day weekend and the Rosarito-Ensenada bike ride, a popular 50-miler that happens twice a year. Autumn is ripe with food and drink festivals, from the Puerto Nuevo lobster fest to the Vendimia harvest party in wine country. In winter, keep your eyes on the ocean: You might spot the fluke of a migrating whale.
A few miles down the old coastal highway, next to a movie studio where a number of blockbusters have been filmed, an inconspicuous unpaved road leads to tiny Popotla Beach, where fishermen unload the day’s catch, which is then cleaned, filleted, and sold at small shacks set up right on the sand. You can buy whole yellowtail, oysters on the half shell, live langoustines, or plastic cups brimming with tangy clam ceviche.
If you’re looking to get the endorphins pumping on your beach vacation, try renting an ATV to cruise the enormous sand dunes at Primo Tapia, a village about halfway between Rosarito and Ensenada.
Drive down the stunning ocean view toll road from Rosarito for about an hour, hang a left, and soon you’ll find yourself surrounded by purple mountains, rustic homesteads, and dozens of small family-owned wineries. Welcome to the Napa Valley of Mexico, better known as the Valle de Guadalupe, where artisan winemakers are doing interesting things with Nebbiolo and Cabernet Franc, while talented chefs have created an equally compelling dining scene.