The Music Scene On Baja’s Emerald Coast
By Bart Allen Berry
The local merchants have long tried to come up with a name for the coastal region from south of Rosarito and North of the City of Ensenada. Some have tried to promote the name ‘Emerald Coast’ which seems fitting where the beautiful blue and green Pacific Ocean is always part of the backdrop. Besides being a popular weekend surfing and seafood region, the Emerald Coast has recently sprouted several new clubs and restaurants which are giving each other serious competition by hosting great classic rock and blues bands. This is where - or why you might want to make your next Baja adventure one that includes great live music. Ok, so you’ve handled the stress and confusion of crossing the border and found the signs pointing to the toll road heading you south on Scenic Highway 1. As you start to relax again at the first toll booth you realize that this is one of the best maintained roads in North America and certainly one of the most beautiful. It makes it easier to navigate the clubs and restaurants along the coast by realizing that the kilometer count from north to south starts here and it’s a good way to gauge where you are on the Baja coastline at any one time. All of these music destinations are easily accessed either just off the toll road or with a short drive down the ‘free road’ between one or another of the toll road exits. Just past the City of Rosarito, get off the toll road at the Popotla/Las Rocas Exit just before the second toll booth. If you miss it, you get another chance by pulling into the Pemex/7-11 complex that has it’s own off-ramp immediately afterwards. (Fill up your car here for a 1.25 a gallon less than in the States). Cruising down the free road now you enter
the artisan village of Popotla which has seen a lot of growth since they widened the street to three lanes on either side. About halfway through town, keep your eyes open on the left side of the road for the recently opened “Splash Too”. It’s painted bright green and usually has a lot of cars parked in front. This is the new sister restaurant to the original “Splash” further to the south (more about them later). Splash Too in Popotla has great food and has become a local favorite from the first day of their opening just a few months ago. Splash Too is a great early evening scene with a trio playing classic rock, jazz and blues on Friday and Saturday nights. It is popular to start here and then head south to other clubs as the night goes on. Keep your eyes open on the right hand side of the road in Popotla for the new Cava Las Animas wine bar which is a great pit stop for a glass of wine and representation of the best wines of the Baja region. The new Cava Las Animas has been the chosen site for numerous wine and food small events which often feature good music as well on their outdoor patio. As you head further into Popotla down the free road, it’s hard to miss Baja Movie Studios where Titanic, Pearl Harbor and more recently Robert Redford’s new movie ‘Little Boy’ have been filmed. The long dirt road on the south side of the movie studios leads down to a scratchy fishing village and a protected beach where fisherman sell their fresh catch and there are a handful of ocean front restaurants that have cheap seafood and stone crab. This is a fun place to be at sunset with a rocking Karaoke scene, and as the seafood and tequila keep flowing you might find yourself part of a raucous scene with everyone cheering you on. Sometimes there are also local Mexican hybrid Norteneo and Rock bands. Leaving Popotla and heading south keep your eyes open for the Old Calafia Mission and Hotel. Calafia is closed for complete renovation and is now overshadowed by huge new modern condo towers. Coming around the bed in this area look for the brand new “Javis Paradise” . Pulling off the road is a bit challenging here and you can barely see the entrance. “Javi’s Paradise is a huge Cantina-like atmosphere, but done in islands style complete with bamboo and carved Tiki palm trees. Javis Paradise has just opened and are determined to be the definitive weekend music destination. With indoor and outdoor stages, room for 1000 people and a huge oceanfront backyard, it feels like a rock festival every weekend there. They even have horseshoe pits and a sand volleyball court. The Friday night band is the Pachuco Blues band who some say are the best in all of Baja. Hailing from Tijuana, Pachuco stole the scene at the recent San Felipe blues festival and have been known to keep playing for hours and hours without stopping. These guys love to play and they really rip. Travelling south on the free road, look for Las Rocas Hotel on the right hand side of the road, just below the giant Jesus statue on the hill. The bar and beautiful backyard at Las Rocas have been host to many weddings and corporate groups as well as the recent Cross Border World Class Leadership conference. Las Rocas has karaoke Thursday through Saturday nights that often lasts till midnight. Las Rocas is rumored to be hosting the next Battle of the Baja Blues Bands in September. Las Rocas is located at Km37.5 with the famous and recently remodeled K-38 surf shop, bar, restaurant and shops right next door. K-38 has begun to host various weekend afternoon events and music with new shops opening up in their complex and a very cool surfer hang out scene. A short distance down the road are Bobby’s by the Sea hotel and restaurant which has a multi-talented maestro playing guitar and keyboards as well as karaoke most nights of the week. Bobby has just opened a new sunset patio, indoor outdoor Palapa with full bar service and capacity for larger parties and fun. Bobby’s prime rib and crab legs are pretty darn good as well. Keep your eyes open for a lit up arrow pointing down a dirt road to the right and the locals favorite: Baja Cantilles. Great food, great prices, the local crowd and Mexican bands on weekends. A good chance there is something happening there when it’s not happening anywhere else. You will meet everyone at the intimate U-shaped bar whether you want to or not. A fun place where letting go a bit seems to be encouraged. Lock your car.
Another mile or so down the road is Fiesta El Pescador. A cantina-like atmosphere, indoor and outdoor dining and one of our favorite house bands ‘Flashback’ plays all classic rock with a female lead singer who will get you up and dancing. Fiesta El Pescador shares a parking lot with the local OXXO so it is easy to find. Fiesta El Pescador specializes in bar-bque and tends to run later on weekends. ‘Fiesta’ bands are required to play at least a few ‘Cumbia’s’ along with the classic blues and rock all the baby boomers recognize. Practice your salsa. Of course every band in Baja plays Santana. For some reason, the lobster village at Puerto Nuevo, despite having more than 25 restaurants doesn’t have an evening music scene. Most patrons can’t dance after eating all that lobster anyway. Before jumping back onto the toll road at Primo Tapia a little further south, look for the iconic Rubens Palm Grille on your right hand side with a large palm frond roof and huge backyard patio area. This is the local hangout for the Ex-pat community in the area and has various bands and individual performers on weekends and some week nights. The toll road entrance at Primo Tapia is across the street from Rubens. Travel down the toll road to Km52 and get off at the next exit. Straight across the road from the stop sign at the exit is probably the favorite local club for consistent food, great music and crashing waves right out the window that provides its own show all day long. Beautiful sunsets, an early evening individual musician and then the house band ‘Wandana’ is known for playing a range of rock, blues, reggae, and cumbias. Splash is one of the few places in Baja to get Black Sea Bass which is to die for. The atmosphere can only be described as warm and welcoming and if you’ve got talent, you might be invited to get up and jam with the band. Music at Splash generally lasts till 10:00pm. Remember to tip the parking guys: five to ten pesos is traditional in Baja. The next Exit off the toll road at Km 58 takes you to George’s Lighthouse Sports bar and restaurant. George’s has recently remodeled the entire establishment from the ownership and management to the program and decor. Any holiday is an excuse for an all day party with live music indoors or out and a weekend lineup of bands that is mixing it up from classic rock by bands like Coyote Mike and the Wetbacks and Route 69 to authentic Cuban rhythm crazy spectacles that will take over motor control of your legs so you just have to get up and dance. Like many of the great emerald coast food and music destinations, a view overlooking the ocean waves is included. For a more subdued warm atmosphere, the La Mission hotel next door to George’s features regular classic Latin guitar and violin maestro performances by Miguel de Hoyos and Alex de Pue who’s show you have to see at least once. So 58 kilometers means roughly 36 miles. From San Diego that means you can get down here for the sunset after work on a Friday, have a great dinner and hit several clubs. There are multiple reasonably priced hotels, many with a great morning surfing beach or pool. The trick to getting back across the border easy is to take advantage of the Baja Tourism departments ‘Fast Pass’ program. Ask for the Fast Pass when you have a meal in one of the popular restaurants and you can cross the border going north in the ‘medical lane’. This is the lane to the right of the ones everyone else is waiting in at the San Ysidro border crossing. Usually, this puts you about eight cars back from the border check in your own dedicated border crossing lane. Amazing huh? Further to the south, Ensenda is it’s own complete food, wine and music destination zone and needs to be covered in it’s own dedicated article, although August is the wine event season with many of the wineries in the Valle de Guadalupe and local restaurants hosting combination music and wine events. If you find yourself in Ensenada keep an ear out for local DZ Karga for authentic Jimmy Hendrix renditions and a serious show. Rosarito, not be left out, is hosting a Blues Festival at the Rosarito Beach Hotel on August 24-25-26 in the backyard on the water.
Now that summer is here, Baja is close and reasonable, and yes Martha, it’s safe down here.