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How an upstart Latin music fest is reviving a once-glamorous Baja beach town

Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

ROSARITO, Mexico -- The organizers of this weekend's Baja Beach Fest here had a clear goal in mind for their second annual event: booking Bad Bunny and Ozuna -- two Puerto Rican superstars at the red-hot center of the booming Latin-pop scene -- on the same bill.

"They both think they're the biggest guy in the space," said Chris Den Uijl, 32, who co-founded the music festival last year with his business partner, Aaron Ampudia, 26. "So getting the two of them to play together -- that was the challenge we set ourselves."

In that regard, the sold-out show is already a success: Ozuna and Bad Bunny are among the two-dozen acts scheduled to perform Friday and Saturday in this coastal resort town about 30 minutes south of the border. Set to take place on a plot of white sand near Papas & Beer, the popular Rosarito nightspot owned by Ampudia's family, Baja Beach Fest will also feature appearances by J Balvin, Nicky Jam and Becky G; as a whole, the lineup offers an impressive survey of the fast-evolving Spanish-language styles, including reggaeton and Latin trap, known collectively as urbano.

"I've been looking forward to the Baja Beach Fest for weeks," Balvin told The Times. "It's really exciting to see a festival in Mexico completely dedicated to urbano music."

Yet Ampudia and Den Uijl's aspirations reach beyond music. By bringing an expected 30,000 people to Rosarito Beach, which decades ago attracted vacationing Hollywood types like Orson Welles and Marilyn Monroe, the organizers want to prove to Americans that the Mexican state of Baja California remains a reliable travel destination -- not the chaotic way station depicted in stories about drug cartels and the so-called migrant caravan from Central America.

"We're trying to open people's eyes and beat the media frenzy about how wild this place is," said Den Uijl, who estimated that 90% of the festival's ticket buyers live in the U.S. "The fact that we sold out in three days shows that our audience thinks it's safe.

 

"You don't go somewhere dangerous just because Bad Bunny is playing," he added. "Nobody's doing that."

Others, though, have stayed away from the sun-drenched city where director James Cameron built a replica of the Titanic to shoot his 1997 blockbuster. Locals acknowledge that Baja's tourism business, tied to its surfing and seafood -- and to its legal drinking age of 18 -- has slumped in recent months, especially after the temporary closing in November of the busy San Ysidro crossing, where U.S. Border Patrol agents fired tear gas at migrants who had stormed the area.

"The end of last year was very difficult," said Ricardo Argiles, chief executive of the Rosarito Beach Hotel just down the waterfront from Papas & Beer. Occupancy at the historic establishment once known for hosting Rita Hayworth fell dramatically, he said, even by the standards of the city's low season.

But Ampudia, a Baja native, insisted that the perceived threat of violence -- fueled in part by President Trump's inflammatory comments about Mexicans -- is out of proportion with reality.

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