Cinco de Mayo Memories – Wild Times in Baja

Photo Courtesy of David Curry on Flickr
Photo Courtesy of David Curry on Flickr

If you were a young person living near the border with Mexico, there is one holiday you never missed — Cinco de Mayo. In the early 1960s, my friends and I from Chula Vista never missed any Mexico festivities, but Cinco de Mayo always reigned as the craziest and most fun.

Easter Vacation, as it used to be called, was the warmup for Cinco de Mayo. Some party spots for Easter week in Baja were TJ, Rosarito Beach, Cantamar, San Miguel, Ensenada, and Estero Beach. Balboa Island, Newport Beach, and Palm Springs, in Southern California, were good places to party as well.

During Easter Vacation, my friends and I would start talking about the upcoming Cinco de Mayo. Who’s driving, where are we going to be based, but most importantly, what’s fun? No one was left out, so who was going was never a question. It was normally a two-day event over the  weekend on or around the 5th of May.

Although most of us surfed, Cinco de Mayo was more about full-on partying so there was no need for boards or wetsuits. You couldn’t bring your local girlfriend, but it was not unusual to meet a new one during the trip. There were always loads of people, so it was easy enough to make new friends, mostly from Southern California. 

Usually during our celebration things got out of hand, and on occasion there was some unintentional destruction, yet there was never any deliberate disrespect for locals or their holiday. We all learned in high school history classes that Cinco do Mayo was a celebration of the Mexican defeat of the French in 1862 in the Battle of Puebla. But clearly, us Norte Americanos used Cinco de Mayo as an excuse to have a party. There may have been some economic benefits for businesses in Baja, but it wouldn’t have been much from my friends and I because we were relatively poor.

Cinco de Mayo was an all-day, all-night party so there was no concern about being in any particular place at a certain time. We would usually leave Chula Vista about midday Friday with the first stop being a liquor store in TJ. There, we would stock up on cerveza, tequila, and rum and start drinking immediately.

For this trip, we went over the mountains to Rosarito Beach because going to Playa TJ and down the coast was out of the way and the road was in poor shape. There were four of us for this Cinco de Mayo and it wasn’t my wheels on this trip. 

In Rosarito Beach, we started to see some familiar faces. This is where things started to rev up with more drinking and boasting about where you were going to hangout and party. Rosarita Beach was a good place to stock up on fireworks, mostly cherry bombs or rockets. I was particularly keen on water bombs, cherry bombs that would explode underwater, causing a big gush of water on the surface with a slight muffled sound.

We had something to eat at a local roadside cantina in Rosarito Beach. Here it was tacos carne with plenty of salsa picante and a cerveza or two.

After getting all filled up and further intoxicated, it was off to the races. Rosarita Beach was a great place to rent horses, which everyone liked to do. We would usually be able to make a deal and rent three or four horses for the price of two or three. If you were lucky, you would get a recently broken horse that was slightly wild and fast. Although racing horses, drunk, with fireworks exploding at random, was an injury prone sport, it was rare that anyone got hurt.

Next stop was a small trailer park on the beach called Cantamar just off HWY 1. A couple of our friend’s parents had permanent trailers at Cantamar where they would stay on weekends and longer during summers. We usually would find some friends there as well as the friend’s parents. I have fond memories of the warm hospitality we were always given, including food and an offer to stay the night. I think these parents felt responsible to at least try to slow these crazy Chula Vista kids down some, but we were in a hurry for more action, so off we went south toward Ensenada. I recall the farewell we would always receive which went something like, “now you kids be careful.” The problem was, we didn’t understand the word ‘careful.’

Next stop was San Miguel, a popular surf spot not too far from Ensenada. San Miguel had a great right breaking wave when the swell was right, but it was a one-person wave. This meant that not too many surfers would be around. However, when it came to camping and hanging out at San Miguel, everyone was welcome.

San Miguel is where Cinco de Mayo celebrations would kick into high gear. A lot of Southern California kids would camp in San Miguel. This is where we would see a number of our Chula Vista friends as well as old acquaintances from past Cinco de Mayos.

It had gotten dark by then and I was standing around drinking a beer and chatting with some friends. I had lost track of my companions, but I wasn’t worried about them leaving without me and if they did, I would catch up with them at Hussong’s later. Standing there, I noticed the smell of gas, which was odd because no cars were around where I was standing. I thought someone must have brought a can of gasoline to start campfires and it had spilled near where I was standing.

At that very moment I could hear the sound of a motorcycle and, as I looked around, it seemed to be headed right at me going at a good clip. The next thing I knew, the entire area where I was standing was aflame. The passenger on the back must have struck a match, or lit a lighter, and dropped it on the ground. 

I took off as fast as I could, but for a few seconds I was literally in the fire, but luckily not on fire. As I ran away towards where we had parked, I could see my buddies were all doing the same. We hopped into the car and drove up to the top of a mountain that looked over San Miquel and watched the fire burn. Someone must have put a couple of tires in the fire because even at night you could see the dark smoke as well as smell burning rubber.

What a way to start to Cinco de Mayo — burning down San Miguel, and narrowly escaping. We did find out later that no one got hurt. The sweet aroma of burnt rubber simply helped the campers sleep.

Next stop was Hussong’s Cantina, Ensenada. It was a short right to Ensenada from San Miguel, maybe 15 minutes. It was nearing midnight when we got to Hussong’s. Hussong’s always delivers day or night; it was loud and crowded with everyone totally under the influence. But Hussong’s was never especially dangerous in terms of fights and shooting, which were much more common in TJ. The bartenders at Hussong’s were on top of it that night with cerveza and tequila flowing freely. 

After getting past the cops at the door, we got a few beers and some shots of tequila. There were plenty of familiar faces in Hussong’s. The rumor had already spread about the fire at San Miguel and that’s when someone asked me, what happened to your face? The fire had burned off most of my eyebrows, the front of my hair was all curly and short, and my face was bright red. By that point everything was starting to get blurry for everyone, so who cared?

As we were talking with some friends, a loud explosion went off in the restroom. I knew immediately what had happened, someone had put a water cherry bomb in the toilet. All my water bombs were in the car, so it wasn’t me but, all hell broke loose. There was a panic to get out the front door, which we promptly did.

Next stop was Hotel Bahia Bar. This was a couple of blocks south of Hussong’s. Often someone we knew would have rented a room there where we could all crash. We left the car near Hussong’s and walked over to the Bahia where, once again, there were plenty of people we knew. The bar there was much more laid-back than Hussong’s, but still loud and crowded. A night cap there ended our day one for Cinco de Mayo, and luckily, we found someone who let us sleep on the floor in their room. Altogether there must have been ten of us in that room. 

We all slept well, I certainly did, because once I crawled into my mummy bag it was all over. The next day late morning everyone began to stir, and it was off for one of our favorite meals, huevos rancheros. If there were any hangovers, this was the cure. I usually chased this down with a refresco naranja (orange soda) but a cerveza was not uncommon for some.

Over breakfast we talked about what to do that day and there were plenty of options. We decided to walk over to the outside fish market to see how the catch was for that morning. They sold live spiny lobsters there. Cooking those tails over an open fire with some fresh corn tortillas could be on for an afternoon meal.

We decided to head south to Estero Beach, about 5 miles south of Ensenada, and see who was there. We would, of course, pick up some more cerveza, tequila and rum.

The usual crowds were at Estero Beach, which seemed to attract quite a few kids from Orange County. The San Miguel fire and Hussong’s explosion story had now gotten blown out of proportion. Stories ranged from all of San Miguel burning down, to an entire city block being destroyed with the Hussong’s explosion.

We immediately spotted someone at Estero Beach with a motorcycle, and that meant everyone needed to show off what they could do. We all loved motorcycles, but none of us could afford one, so the chance to ride was fully welcomed. In my attempt to do wheelies I must have fallen a half a dozen times, but finally, somehow, I kept that front wheel off the ground for 25 or 30 yards. Several people attempted to do all kinds of motorcycle tricks, most of which failed.

We hooked up with a couple of girls from Newport Beach at Estero Beach who we talked into going to see one of the wonders of the world, so we told them, La Bufadora (the blow hole). This was a little further south on Punta Banda. 

Hunger started to set in on the way to La Bufadora so we stopped at a little road side cantina around La Jolla Beach. I recall we were the only customers and we ordered, ate, and drank just about everything the little place had, including grilled lobster tails over an open fire. We probably spent 3 hours at that place.

By the time we got to La Bufadora everyone was pretty messed up, but we were having a lot of fun. La Bufadora did deliver with some pretty high sprays. 

After it was time to get back to Ensenada and see what was up at Hussong’s. The girls said they were on for more fun with us, their new friends from Chula Vista. We briefly stopped at Estero Beach for them to get some things then off to Ensenada.

Driving back into the central part of town we could see that a lot more people were there than the night before. When we saw someone we knew, we always made sure to holler some vulgarity at them. The party was about to shift again into an even higher gear.

As we walked around Ensenada, we started to run into all kinds of people we knew. This is when you could sort out the light weights from the heavy weights and real heavy weights. The light weights were the party observers, the heavy weights were up to some mischief, and for the real heavy weights practically anything was possible. That’s when we ran into two brothers from Chula Vista, that clearly fit into the real heavy weight category — no one outdid these two guys when it came to hell raising.

I knew these brothers well, and knew it was best to stay clear of them, but they saw us, and we all got to talking. As I was talking to them, I could see in their eyes a big and a bad night was soon to unfold. We told them we would be in Hussong’s or around there somewhere on the streets and would see them later.

Hussong’s was way too crowded to get in, so we just hung around the area on side streets drinking and talking with friends. Everyone was in a good mood, but I could tell our new girl friends were starting to get a little uneasy as the evening began to approach. 

It was about dusk, and we kept hearing the sound of a motorcycle racing around town. We walked over to the street that Hussong’s was on, and I could see it was one of the Chula Vista brothers speeding up and down the street with the crowd on the streets cheering him on. The next thing I saw was the motorcycle coming down the street fairly fast with the younger of the two brothers standing on the seat with his arms spread out like he was flying.

The bike went right by Hussong’s but within seconds our Chula Vista friend fell off, but the motorcycle kept going until it turned and crashed into the side of a parked car. We immediately ran over to help our downed friend on the street, but we weren’t fast enough because he took off running.

This caused a big ruckus with everyone cheering and hollering, and when the police showed up it got even crazier. Because a lot of people came out of Hussong’s to see what was happening I took the opportunity to see the results of last night’s bombing and took a shot at the bar.

It was surprising how much damage one of those water cherry bombs could do. The entire toilet bowl was split opened into several big pieces. But this didn’t seem to slow down Hussong’s one bit. Hussong’s was like the Long Bar in TJ but much smaller. That night it was extremely loud, full of cigarette smoke, and smelled like beer and urine, thanks to an open floor latrine and its recent plumbing issue.

The streets were packed with mostly intoxicated young people walking around holding on to each other. My friends and I kept moving, going from one group of people gathered around a car to another, touching base with friends from Chula Vista and other people we knew from San Diego and Orange County. 

Everyone was messed up, too messed up to return our dates back to Estero Beach. It was after midnight, but the party seemed to just keep going. We told them we would find a place to sleep in a motel and return them tomorrow. They were cool with that, although I could see they were amazed at how wild things were and continued to be. We were all acting like it was just a typical Cinco de Mayo in Ensenada, and it was.

We had run out of fireworks by then, but many people still had plenty of ammunition, as we called it. You needed to be careful because if a cherry bomb exploded too close to you, you would lose your hearing for a short while. Even if you were not that close to the explosion you would get a continuous ringing noise, sometimes for hours. If you noticed something rolling with sparks, or heard a faint sizzling noise, it was time to duck and run.

With rockets it was best to make sure they were pointed towards the sky by sticking them into the ground, or propping them up with a few rocks, lighting them, and quickly standing back. We couldn’t afford the bigger, more powerful rockets that would go really high with a cool shushing noise and a loud bang. Suffice it to say, if you got in the way of a cherry bomb or rocket it would be tiempo de emergencia.

As midnight rolled around, I was feeling no pain, mostly elation. I was keeping an eye out for the Chula Vista brothers, and sure enough I spotted them walking not too far away. I could see that they were both carrying a bunch of rockets, the big ones. And within minutes, all hell broke loose with rockets being launched horizontally like missiles down the street in front of Hussong’s. To launch rockets like that you need to use a pipe or tube of some sort firmly placed on a flat surface like the top of a car. This is exactly the type of skill the Chula Vista brothers would have.

If one of these rockets hit something before it stopped whistling and fizzled out there would be a small explosion and bang. Several of them were hitting cars and buildings with some skidding along the ground with a lot of sparks. About the same time this was occurring, someone started a fire in the parking lot next to Hussong’s causing a mad scramble to get cars moved. To make things even more scary some people began to throw their fireworks, mostly rockets, into the fire. With rockets going in all directions and crowds of drunk people screaming and running it was time to get the hell out of there.

At this point it was amazing that all four of us were still together. It was easy enough to get separated with all the madness going on. As for our two new girlfriends, although they were having a fun time, I think they were astonished at how totally wild things got. 

To end day two, we went back to the Hotel Bahia Bar for a night cap but no luck on finding any place to crash there. I thought it was time to do an all-nighter, but eventually we all bunked up in one room in a little motel on the outskirts of Ensenada.

It was bright and sunny the next day, Sunday, and as we all stirred around there was an odd sense of success. We had made it through most of Cinco de Mayo, unharmed and, most importantly, with some good stories.

We first went for some huevos rancheros then returned our dates to Estero Beach. It was fun being with them because they boosted our egos. All of us were all trying to be funny, brave, and act like we knew what we were doing. We were showing them a good time while protecting them from danger, but the problem was we ourselves were a little dangerous. 

It was day three now and as we passed back through Ensenada about midday, we decided to make one quick stop into Hussong’s. We were all kind of anxious to have a look at how the previous night’s fireworks ended up. Hussong’s had a few people sitting at the bar but was almost deserted. In an odd way it seemed like a normal day with everything outside and inside (except for the toilet) intact, even though less than 12 hours ago it was not normal at all. We ordered four shots of tequila and four bottles of cerveza and sat down at a table.

The first order of business was counting our money and making sure we had enough to get some gas to get back to Chula Vista. By this time our resources were practically exhausted.

As we were sitting there, we heard some sort of commotion at the door. It sounded like horse hoofs right outside the entrance. We all jumped up and ran over to the door. It was a good friend of ours from Chula Vista who was trying to ride a horse into Hussong’s. The door height, and a little partition right inside the door, was preventing him from getting all the way in but he gave it a couple of tries with us cheering him on. He couldn’t make it, so he headed off down the street, probably in search of a place for a cerveza with a bigger front door and no partition. It was time now to find our way back to the U.S.

 As we headed north, we cruised through San Miguel, which smelled like burnt tires. Only a few people were hanging around. Next stop was Cantamar to check-in with and see if we could get fed. Hardly any kids were around but sure enough, we were greeted with open arms by our friend’s parents from Chula Vista. Tortas were on the menu but, unfortunately, no cervezas because we were nearly broke by then.

As we crossed back into the U.S., we all laughed and kidded around as if we had just won a battle, like the Mexicans victory over the French. But it wasn’t like that at all. It was four kids from Chula Vista that had a crazy and fun few days in Baja, Mexico. The prize for the craziest activity had to go to the Chula Vista brother’s missile mayhem with no deaths or injuries, that I heard about anyway. However, if our friend had ridden his horse all the way into Hussong’s, that definitely would have taken the top spot. 

It was early evening on Sunday when I got home to Chula Vista. My dad asked me, “how was the camping?” and I replied, “we saw a lot of wildlife.” Then he asked, “what happened to your face?” to which I replied, “I must have gotten too close to the campfire.”

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