Is there any real Mexico left in the borderfied, industrialized, Spanglish north end of Baja?
Oh, yes, there is. Like, right now, we’re just pulling up beside an isolated house beside the old highway, south of Rosarito.
“The shortcut to Popotla?” says the taxi de ruta driver. “It’s behind Al Capone’s house.”
Al Capone? Baja? I get out of the taxi ($1 from Rosarito), right beside the shell of a two-story stone house at the edge of the old highway. People here swear Capone and his henchmen used it as a place to come hide when they needed to let dust settle up in el norte. But a fire has destroyed everything that’s not made of stone, and blackened the rest.
Place looks sinister, haunted, isolated.
I hurry out and into the field. Because this is the patch of land that leads down to my favorite fishing village. I hump down the track past Fox Studios, where they shot Titanic and Master and Commander, toward a collection of houses that look as though they’re sitting on the sea.
It’s called Popotla. But...uh-oh. As I get closer, I see a red flag flying over the roofs. That can mean only one thing: No one’s going out fishing. Too dangerous today, I guess. Lumpy sea, unpredictable winds. Rain’s coming and going.
But from my point of view, it’s all good. I can see Popotla hasn’t been turned into another Puerto Nuevo.
Popotla is a beautiful haphazard mess, teetering on top of this rocky outcrop. Houses and restaurants are built on stilts over the sea. And then to the left the dirt driveway swoops down into a protected sandy cove.
I walk down the slope. It flattens out into the curved beach. All the fishing boats, the pangas, sit on the sand, facing the waves, tied down.
The beach has lots of people. Because everybody here has something to do with fish. Catching it, selling it, cooking it. Just about every building on the rock is a restaurant, and Baja Californians crowd it every weekend, to eat fish right off the boat.
I ask around. “Is Pedro still here?”
Pedro Garcia Ureña has always been the Man in this village, each time I’ve come. I recognize his place, the first one on the beach. Spent an evening here sitting round a fire, drinking cervezas and eating fish Pedro fried up, with a German student, a lost Californian hitchhiker, a soldier, and Pedro. Hard to put a price on that evening.
Pedro’s known as El Loco. Yes, he’s eccentric. But he insists it’s everybody else that’s different. His place used to be called “Mariscos El Locochon.” But most of the time he’d fry your fish on the beach, in cooking oil in a truck’s upturned hubcap over a fire.
But he’s more than a hubcap cook. You might say this place, Popotla, is his. He started it, 58 years ago.
I find him in a little room jerry-built on top of his house that you have to jump over a ditch to get to. But its view over the cove you’d pay a few million bucks for up in La Jolla. He’s getting older. Long white beard, deep-lined, weathered face. He’s struggling to remember who the heck I am.
Soon after, we happen on Saritha and her husband José. They’re touting for an eatery business here on the beach. She has known Pedro since she was a little girl.
“He first came here around 58 years ago,” she says. “And he has been living in Popotla for 32 years. He was the first guy who started to fry the fish for everybody else. He started this whole settlement. Now we have 500 families living here. I guess that makes him mayor.”
“I came up from Ensenada to dive for fish, octopus,” says Don Pedro. “The real name of this place is Rancho Cuevas. First fish I ever caught was out at the Isla Todos Santos. Grouper. It weighed 120 kilos, 260 pounds. It was a big fish.”
He points to the blue house with the palapa front. “That is my house over there. It’s what I built back then. It was about 22 years before anybody else came here to settle. I was alone.”
He says Puerto Nuevo started about 1945. So, how come Popotla hasn’t developed like Puerto Nuevo?
“Everybody tries to keep this place real,” says Saritha. “This is the beauty of it. You can go buy your fish from the fisherman when he arrives in his boat and we fry it for you, right here on the beach. It’s 50 pesos to fry your fish, and you get beans, rice, homemade salsa, and tortillas.”
She says there are two Popotlas: Popotla Arriba and Popotla Playa.
The difference? “The prices! Popotla Arriba is the driveway that runs along the top of the peninsula. It’s for tourists. They pay more. Here, down on the beach, everybody can come. It’s the tradition that comes from Don Pedro. Don Pedro used to have a lot of money, and he used to have a lot of fish, and if you didn’t have any money, he’d open the ice chest for you, and he’d tell you ‘never mind’ about paying. And he’d cook one of the fish for you. That’s why everybody here will feed him now that he is old, if he’s hungry.
“Some don’t,” says Don Pedro. He laughs.
“Because now, he doesn’t have a job anymore, no pension from the government, and the little restaurant he had in his house, Mariscos El Locochon, he rents to somebody else to run.”
But with this beautiful cove, hasn’t any developer come by and offered to pour money in, build a tourist development?
“Well, some Saudi businessmen came and said they would like to turn this into La Jolla. We said, ‘No, thank you. We’re happy with it just the way it is. Simple.’”
So, how simple is “simple”?
“We have no electricity, no running water, no sewage. It has been the same all these years. We bring in our own water. At nighttime we use candles and lanterns.”
It seems unbelievable — and totally charming, too. But why haven’t the Rosarito city leaders stepped in?
“This is a federal place,” says Saritha. “Not municipal. They have no jurisdiction. We’re happy. Our federal status protects us. We don’t want to be like Puerto Nuevo.”
It’s dusk as I walk with Saritha and her husband José across the field toward the highway. The wind pumps music after us, on this first slope of an ancient mountain. “My Way” is playing in Spanish “…Y a mi manera.”
We come up to the burnt-out shell of the Al Capone house. “We have a bad feeling about this house,” says Saritha. “My nephew was driving up this highway. Too fast. Crashed into the house. There was an explosion, a fire. He didn’t survive.”
Wow. The sound of trucks and cars tearing past suddenly hits you.
Looking back down at the ocean, you can just make out one or two candles starting to flicker.