Baja Beach Fest 2021
By Mike Madriaga
Baja Beach Fest, known to many Gen-Z San Diegans simply as “BBF,” is an annual music festival held just north of the Muelle De Rosarito fishing pier. The festival, which started in 2018, is a showcase for reggaetón — a meld of Spanish rap, hip-hop, Caribbean, and Latin music — and has consistently brought in the A-listers of the Latin-urban-music scene. Reggaeton originated in Puerto Rico dance halls in the early 1990s. It spread throughout the island and into the U.S. mainland via bootleg cassettes, many of them featuring rapping by Daddy Yankee, “the king of reggaeton.” The style is based on the dembow rhythm, usually composed of a snare drum, kick drum, palito, timbal, and an occasional high-hat cymbal.
This year’s BBF, held over two weekends in August, saw Ozuna, Karol G, Lunay, El Alfa, Dalex, and other artists draw 17,281 concertgoers on the first day of the event. On Saturday, Anuel AA, Farruko, Myke Towers, and additional singers and DJs brought in 20,340, and on Sunday, 16,513 fans watched J Balvin, Agudelo 888, and Rauw Alejandro headline, while other famous singers performed earlier in the day. The next weekend, the artists did it all again before similar numbers of fans. Mario Escobedo Carignán, the secretary of sustainable economy and tourism for the state of Baja, said in a press conference after the first three days of BBF that it had already reeled in $24.9 million from food-and-beverage sales, lodging, concert tickets, and additional expenditures.
Covid and concertgoing
But as photos and videos from the Fest spread across social media, hundreds of Americans, together with Mexican nationals who live in the beach town and neighboring cities of Tijuana and Ensenada, expressed disdain towards the concertgoers, the event organizers, and even the government officials who allowed it to happen. “Apparently, there was a lot of money involved,” commented a Universidad Autónoma de Baja California alumnus. “I can imagine the hospitals full in a few days, but then, everyone is responsible for their own destiny.”
“That is why we are in a pandemic,” said a former Rancho San Diego resident. “I can comment because I almost lost my husband, who was intubated for 36 days. And my only two children were seriously ill at the same time. All three due to the virus. Thank God they were saved, but it was a horrible experience. God bless you and everyone to move forward.”
In response, the city of Rosarito, the Baja Beach Fest organizers, and the state and city health organizations assured critics that despite the state’s “yellow light” status on the El Semáforo de riesgo epidemiológico epidemiological risk spectrum, they had everything under control. (Throughout Mexico, the “green light” is the best scenario on the risk spectrum, while the “red light” designation brings a citywide lockdown.) “We’ve been on yellow light status for a while, long before the festival,” said Diego Knight, an American InfoNort reporter who lives in Rosarito. “Our city and the festival staff are taking the precautions seriously because the whole world is watching us after scrutinizing the Lollapalooza concert earlier in the month.”
On August 10, three days before the beach festival began, the festival’s Facebook handler posted, “In addition to uploading proof of vaccination or a negative covid test, we ask you to please bring your face mask and positive vibes. Masks are required at all times — unless eating or drinking.” A few of the festival’s 80,000-plus Facebook followers were upset. “Ughhh yea, at this point, I want my refund,” commented Lalo from Fresno. “How fun wearing a mask on the beach,” joked another concertgoer.
“Good thing I’ll be drinking all night.” But the 18-and-up festival’s new protocols did not faze Kimmy Hanby from El Cajon. If anything, they reassured her that “The land of cold beers, buenas vibras y muchooo perreo” — good vibes and a lot of reggaetón style dancing — “was safer” than what “salty trolls commenting online” said it was. Said Hanby, “Back on July 30, to activate our wristbands, we had to take a photo of our proof of vaccination and upload it onto the site. They also said if we didn’t have proof of the vax, we could take a covid test 72 hours before we went to the concert, and if it was negative, we were good to go in.”
A concerned concertgoer from north of Valley Center asked the promoters on Facebook, “Do we get an automatic refund if the covid test comes back positive, and [does] the wristband get voided?” Nobody from the festival answered the question, but the festival’s site stated, “Unfortunately, without completing this key step (vaccination/negative test requirement) you will be unable to activate your wristband, and as a result, it will not work at the gates of the festival.” (To ensure that wristbands stayed with authorized users, the festival partnered with Lyte, a third-party exchange-and-waitlist online platform that ensures secure and verified changes in wristband ownership. Before the event kickoff, I saw individuals on various social media platforms and websites — including TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, NextDoor, and Craigslist — selling general admission and VIP wristbands for double and triple face value, some asking for cash via in-person meetups. Festival-staff members who monitored online threads warned interested buyers, “Please do not purchase from anyone selling ‘VIP passes.’ These are scammers, and/or if they aren’t, they have no way to actually transfer you their pass at the moment.”)
On August 11, two days before the Fest, Baja secretary of health Alonso Pérez Rico, held a press conference at the Sala Forjadores de la Casa Municipal government building. He assured the resort city’s residents that the festival staff would be strict and require “that all attendees be vaccinated, wear face masks, and respect the healthy distance.” The assurance was necessary “because some bad press carried over from the past weekend,” reporter Knight explained. “At the Feria Rosarito 2021 event at Teatro Del Pueblo, a fight broke out during Aleman’s rap performance, and this made the local news. Many people noticed the crowd in the hundreds on the concert footage, not wearing masks.” Araceli Brown Figueredo, Rosarito’s municipal president, said, “This [BBF] event will be held with unprecedented health protocols, of the first level, of national and international importance, and will allow an important economic benefit for this region. Playas de Rosarito is a great tourist destination; we must not forget that this is our main vocation.” Irán Leonardo Verdugo, the director of Comité de Turismo y Convenciones de Playas de Rosarito, the city’s official tourism and convention committee, said, “Rosarito and Baja California are ready to have these kinds of events. We got the ‘Safe Travels’ [stamp in October of 2020] from the World Travels Tourism Council. That means we are a safe destination [where] we have all of the protocols to get tourism, visitors and people [traveling].” Also present at the municipal building were BBF organizers; Escobedo Carignán, the State’s Secretary of Sustainable Economy and Tourism; various city and state officials; and representatives of Papas & Beer, which sponsored and helped to organize the event.
Travels and arrivals
Early on the morning of August 13, hundreds of American festival attendees made their way to the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry and crossed into Tijuana. While some concertgoers braved it and walked a mile or so in, others jumped into yellow cabs or Uber vehicles and rendezvoused at Quartz Hotel & Spa in Zona Rio. Starting at 11 am that Friday and throughout the weekend, an estimated 5000 concertgoers boarded on 100 Central Turística de Tijuana shuttle buses for rides to the Fest. The typically 30-minute ride to the drop-off point at the dirt lot behind the Rosarito Beach Hotel took over an hour. On Carretera Federal 1D, traffic was backed up to the CAPUFE-Plaza de Cobro No. 34, the toll booth by Playas De Tijuana.
While Diego Knight waited for the buses to arrive at the drop-off, he activated his camera and external mic. “This is bus number two,” Knight said on Facebook Live as the concertgoers disembarked. “Hi, how are you? Where are you coming from?” Knight asked the first pair that stepped off the bus. “Juarez [Mexico],” they responded. Most of the young adults kept their masks on. Girls wore bikini tops and bottoms covered with sarong-style or netted skirts; boys sported fanny packs, cargo shorts, and Hawaiian print button-up shirts. A slender young man wearing a Willie Stargell Pittsburgh Pirates jersey said he was from the Bay Area. A few concertgoers said they were from San Diego. One came from Reno. “People came in from all over the U.S.,” Knight told me. “Some from the east coast.”
Meli, who got off the bus with her three friends from college, wore distressed jean shorts, a burgundy top with spaghetti shoulder straps, and flip flops. She had a black quilted backpack on her back and her phone in her hand. Denise from InfoNort interviewed Meli in Spanish near the porta-potties. “I drove us in from New Mexico, and it took us 12 hours,” Meli said. “We stopped in Arizona to get a [covid] test.” Next, Denise inquired about their tickets/wristbands for the festival. “We bought tickets last year, as soon as they went live,” Meli said. “[The price, per person, was] $400. “And, what do you think about the price?”; “Good, it was good,” Meli responded. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this event. It’s my first time here.”
Around 4:30 pm, Knight walked to one of the two general admission entrances to the festival next to the Pink Cadillac gentlemen’s club, a few feet west of the CocoBeach nightclub on the corner of Calle Nogal and Calle Rosarito. The clubs played reggaeton music so loudly that if you were standing at the entrance, it drowned out the artists on stage inside the festival. As thousands of attendees entered the venue, crowd control fences guided them to festival employees wearing blue shirts with ‘Familia’
(family) emblazoned on them. On Friday, those employees reportedly checked everyone’s temperature with a digital forehead thermometer. Banners over the entrance warned that “masks are mandatory at all times.” Based on Knight’s footage, it seems that every concertgoer who entered had a mask on; I also noticed a large box of masks sitting on a six-foot table close by the entranceway.
Papas & Beer, the self-proclaimed “largest beach club on the west coast,” was the first attraction attendees saw as they strolled in. “Try and imagine Rainforest Cafe meets Spring Break meets EDM party meets pool,” said an Elite Yelp! reviewer of Papas. “There’s another concert stage in the middle of the place with a sand floor, big screens, full stage lights, two levels, a pool to the left, and seven bars all around. The whole place sits right on the beach.” On the left, across from Papas, was the “Experiential Village,” where the Baja Ferris Wheel spun 100 feet into the air, overlooking the venue and the Pacific Ocean. Waves could be heard crashing in between sets on stage. “The Ferris Wheel was free with optional tips,” said attendee Kimmy Hanby, who agreed to be my eyes and ears at the Fest, “For me, the wait wasn’t that long; only ten people. There were custom hair braiders there, too, and it was like $25-$30 for that.” The next stop was the concession stands. Concessions were reasonably priced. “A big water bottle was $3. I bought a cheeseburger and fries for $6. It was pretty cheap, a piece of pizza was $3, and chicken sandwiches went for $6. Beer and mixed drinks were being sold. I bought a mixed drink, sort of like a margarita with orange juice in it; that was $7. “The only bad thing I noticed was the sand. Walking through it back and forth, then back and forth, was tiring.”
By the time a festival-goer reached the concessions, the music coming from the main stage was coming through loud and clear. DJ Luian — a Puerto Rican producer and DJ known for his work on “Mia,” a Bad Bunny rola featuring Drake, and a remix of “Soy Peor,” another Bad Bunny Latin trap song — performed from 4–5 pm. Nicky Nicole, a 21-year-old songstress and rapper from Argentina, was up on stage from 5–6 pm. She’s known for “Mamichula” — a song she made with fellow Argentines Trueno, a rapper, and Bizarrap, a DJ/producer. The song reached number one on both the Argentina Hot 100 and a music chart in Spain. Later that night, Dalex, El Alfa, Lunay, Ozuna, and Karol G would take the stage.
The mask ask
The next day, August 14, rumors of the Mexican state and local government canceling the festival began to spread through the beachfront city. “There are videos and photos posted online from the festival on August 13 where several people are dancing and singing and who did not bring their mask,” said Pérez Rico, state secretary of health, in an InfoNort report. “This is one of the most specific observations that was made. This cannot happen in our territory; we were quite clear from minute one in the scenario. Therefore, what happened there will be evaluated, we will talk with the organizers, the municipality, the entire state, and the rules will be quite clear when placed on the table.”
Per InfoNort: “The governor of the state of Baja, Jaime Bonilla, accepted that the sanitary protocols were not followed; from what he said, the support of the National Guard would be requested to reinforce sanitary measures. However, he clarified, ‘At the first change we see, the event must be canceled.’ The head of the commission for the protection of sanitary risks, Marco Aurelio Gámez, said that the reinforcement would consist of instructing attendees to wear the mask at all times, and placement of antibacterial gel. At the same time, the organizing company staff would be attentive to the sanitary filters for taking temperature.
“It’s a cultural issue there; people don’t wear masks,” said Brown Figueredo, Rosarito’s municipal president. “So today, we are going to insist that they wear masks.” The news report added that on the inaugural day of the event, of the 17,281 people that entered, 90 percent came from the U.S. [Many] came from the Latino community, of whom 16,935 proved to be vaccinated, 346 presented a negative test for Covid-19. But there were a thousand people who did not prove vaccination or show a negative text, and those people were not admitted. Hotel occupancy was at 100 percent of its capacity in Tijuana, Ensenada, and Rosarito.
The fans and the famous
Diego Knight and I interviewed and photographed people around downtown Rosarito on August 14 and 15. “We are staying at Las Gaviotas at KM 41 for the weekend,” said Esmeralda, a 23-year-old college student from San Diego who came to see Ozuna, “because I grew up with his music.” (Ozuna is a 29-year-old trap and reggaeton singer from Puerto Rico. The “Tu Foto” singer, who starred in F9 from the Fast and The Furious franchise, reportedly has the most one billion-view videos on YouTube. He headlined at the festival on both Fridays.)
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“My friend and I are spending $1000 each; we’re staying from Friday to Sunday.” Esmeralda said that she is studying at a Long Beach college to be in the health field. “I like the masking protocol the festival is enforcing, and I brought my vaccination card just in case.” She then explained how she had to get vaccinated at a particular facility on a list authorized by the festival. Afterward, the vaccination proof was sent to Baja Beach Fest, along with a government-issued identification card. “They sent me my bracelet, and it couldn’t be removed unless I cut it; if I cut it, it would cost $25 to get a replacement. I like the festival: the logistics are good, and I feel safe in the area.”
We interviewed siblings Raul and Mabel Gonzales from San Francisco. Raul is a 20-year-old college student; Mabel is a 26-year-old therapist. During our interview, Mabel noticed a churros vendor nearby and took off to purchase a few cinnamon-and-sugar glazed breadsticks. “It’s our first time here,” Raul said. “We spent around $2000 for gas, the hotel, concert tickets. We are with a group staying at Rosarito Beach Hotel.” That day, as concertgoers walked up to the festival gates, a new banner was hung. It read: MASKS MANDATORY. ZERO-TOLERANCE. YOU WILL BE ASKED TO LEAVE. Raul said he was OK with the mask mandate, but Mabel was not.
Fog hung over the venue in the mornings, and it remained cool until noon. “It’s been chilly compared to our previous August months,” Knight noted. On Sunday, it rained in the morning, which concerned some festival-goers, but by noon, the weather cleared up. Knight took photos of some BBF staff members as they passed out Baja Beach Fest newspapers with reggaeton star Farruko on the cover. The newspaper served as a souvenir and program directory for the fans who would attend that day and doubled as a personal shade for the many concertgoers who piled to the front of the general admissions section in the afternoon to await the headliners later that evening. Cover boy Farruko performed on Saturday night; he’s a reggaeton, Latin dance, merengue, bachata, pop, and Latin trap singer, who blew up on Myspace before collaborating with other Latin stars: J Balvin, Don Omar, J Álvarez, and Daddy Yankee. Anuel AA capped off the concert on Saturday night. Many say the 28-year-old rapper and singer from Puerto Rico founded Latin trap music, a sub-genre of the southern-U.S.-based trap music. Instead of English lyrics about violence, sex, drugs, and street life, his fans get the same thing in Spanish: violencia, sexo, drogas, y vida en la calle.
On August 19, there was a buzz after Anuel AA posted an online photo of himself: “He had an oxygen mask on, and that caused big waves with the news here,” Knight said. Municipal president Figueredo “immediately demanded clarification from the festival’s organizing committee,” reported the CNR TV Noticias news outlet. “In response, the representatives of Anuel AA sent test [medical documentation] to the office of the municipal president so he could move forward and perform at Rosarito Beach.”
Hanby heads south
On the morning of August 20, Kimmy Hanby, 29, was prepping for the festival at her El Cajon home. “I didn’t want to bring too much stuff to carry, just a fanny pack with my phone, keys, sunscreen, lipstick, portable charger, license, passport, and cash: most places won’t take cards.” Expats who’ve lived in Rosarito for a while give online advice to newbie tourists like Hanby to exchange their dollars at San Ysidro to get a higher exchange rate on the Mexican peso. “Some places were not accepting credit cards to avoid us getting the proper rate,” commented Lorenzo. “It’s called commerce,” responded Carolyn. “And here, you’re talking about less than 5 cents per dollar.” As I write this article, the rate is 20 pesos to one U.S. dollar; in Rosarito, some businesses reportedly exchanged 17-18 pesos for one U.S. dollar during the festival. “To be freaking honest, I don’t mind giving the city or businesses here the lower exchange rate,” added Ramon M. from San Diego, “because they haven’t had any big concerts since 2019, before covid hit.”
In June 2020, the promoters of Baja Beach Fest canceled the 2020 festival; local clubs and restaurants shut down. “Many people were struggling last year,” Knight said. “Everything closed down because of covid.” During the summer of 2020, Knight covered the food pantry lines, where Americans and Mexican nationals who lived in Rosarito would buy groceries and make meals for locals, many of whom worked in the downtown tourist section. Then on July 21, 2020, Rosarito residents and reggaeton fans found cause for rejoicing. “Ufff Letsss GO! Nos vemos en la playa Aug. 13-15, 2021 for Baja Beach Fest Year 3,” posted the festival’s social media handlers. “Passes are going to move fast… visit bajabeachfest.com to get your pass before they’re gone.” By August 18, “over 50,000 tickets” for week one had sold out. “I ended up buying my ticket for week two,” Hanby said to me. “I paid $371 online. I was scared, saying, ‘What if they cancel the show at the last minute again?’” Many of the 13,000 commenters underneath the festival’s Facebook “Letsss GO!” post shared Hanby’s sentiments.
Now here she was, happily checking the oil and tire pressure on her Toyota Corolla, the vehicle she’d usually use for her Uber gig or to bring her to her day job at a local school. “I’m driving to Rosarito alone,” she said to me. “This is my first time driving into Baja; the last time I went was with my friend who drove. I don’t have a hotel reservation either. So I don’t know what I’m going to do about that. But I Googled places, and I talked to one of my friends who’s been there and asked how it was.” There’s a page on Facebook called Talk Baja; with over 60,000 members, it proclaims itself the largest online discussion group forum for the Baja California peninsula. Many posters are Americans who have relocated or travel into Baja frequently.
Reporter Knight offered Hanby the parking spot at his home, less than a mile from the festival. “It’s a gated community, and we have a security guard in front who I introduced Kimmy [Hanby] to so she could park here all three days.” he told me. Some dirt parking lot attendants near the festival grounds charged attendees $100 USD to park for three days — the standard rate was about $15-$20 USD per day. “And people were getting towed,” Hanby said. “Like, I noticed some streets were empty.” It took Hanby about an hour and a half to get from San Diego to Knight’s Rosarito subdivision. She pulled into Knight’s parking spot at about 2 pm. From there, she walked to the Fest. Noted Knight, “According to two other newspapers, some taxi fares went up 400 percent. I checked on Rosarito Facebook forums, and a handful of Rosaritenses confirmed that taxi drivers upped the prices for the two weekends. A couple said that they were ignored by yellow cab drivers when waved down, because the cab drivers “preferred American patrons.” “They don’t use meters here that you can monitor; they just tell you the price. I know that taxi drivers will take you from here, where I live, to north Rosarito, it’ll be like a five or ten-minute drive, and it would normally cost about 40 or 50 pesos ($1.75-$2.75 USD). But during the festival, some drivers wanted like $10- $20 U.S. dollars.” As for Uber, well, the mayor of Rosarito banned the service in 2019. Knight said, “There are some Uber drivers that come here from Tijuana, but not many. It’s considered illegal.”
Knight and Hanby headed toward the Fest along Calle Nogal, under the archway marked Zona Rosarito, by Acuna Bar and Mar. “There were health officials at both access points, making sure everyone that entered into Eucalipto or Nogal had masks on,” Knight said. “Note that this was not to get inside the festival grounds yet.” The two proceeded down Nogal about 50 yards where it meets with Calle Rosarito; there, CocoBeach and Club Boom Boom sit on opposite corners. “It was crazy there,” Hanby noted. “A lot of people were drinking and pregaming before they went inside.” On Knight’s video footage, people are drinking beers and margaritas out of yard glasses. One American called the corner “Mexican Mardi Gras.” Hanby wanted a drink, and Knight took her to “my buddy’s restaurant, where outside, they sell the drinks in those tall glasses for $9,” Hanby was pleased. “That’s cheap, because, in Las Vegas, they are usually like $20-$30. They hooked me up with a bigger glass with more alcohol in it.”
Emiliano R. does tequila poppers in that area for about $5 a shot. “This time, I am doing better than Spring Break ,” he commented to Knight. “Does she want a popper?” Hanby responded, “Por favor,” got on one knee, and tilted her head back. Emiliano poured tequila down her throat while simultaneously blowing his whistle. “People walking by cheered her on, then Emiliano shook her head,” Knight continued. The two then approached the festival entrance, where Hanby handed the tall glass to Knight. She said adios, and strolled inside.
“They checked my temperature, scanned my wristband, checked my fanny pack, and I walked in. I wanted to be as close as possible to the stage on Friday,” she told me later, “so I was there for like, five or six hours. I was by the metal crowd-control fence that separated the VIPs from the general admission.” VIP tickets were “like $150 or $100 more. I wish I would have got the VIP. Some of the performers touched the fans in the VIP area, and like one girl from the crowd got on stage. Some fans threw their cell phones up on stage, and the artists would record and take photos and give them back [to the owners]. Justin Quiles did that for his fans.”
Hanby liked seeing Karol G perform. “She brought out her dog, and she was crying because I guess one of her songs was about her ex.” Karol G and Anuel AA dated for two years before they reportedly split up in April. When Anuel AA performed on Saturday, “they didn’t show him at all on the screens, I heard he was sick or something. If you were far away, you couldn’t see him. So I left around 11:30 before the fireworks went up.” Early Sunday morning, Hanby said, she crashed out with new friends she met at the festival. “There were four of them, they asked me if I wanted to smoke weed with them, and I joined them. I stayed at their Airbnb in Tijuana, and when we woke up, we ate at a taco stand, drank mezcal, and split the worm.” The group returned to Rosarito at 4 pm. There was a rumor that Bad Bunny would make a guest appearance, but he didn’t show up. At around 10 pm, as Becky G ended her performance, she left the stage and returned with Banda MS to perform “Qué Maldición,” a banda-and-rap song that Banda MS and Snoop Dogg released last year. Becky G starred in the music video. J Balvin, the “Prince of Reggaeton” from Colombia, headlined on Sunday and early Monday morning. “He ended at 1:53 am,” Hanby said, “and then he brought out a few surprise guests, including boxer Canelo [Álvarez].”
Hanby noticed that once concertgoers entered the venue, “they took off their masks. But some [festival] staff were getting on people and threatening to kick them out. I saw one person from the VIP area who got kicked out. But as it got darker, they (security) stopped caring about the masks.” Added Diego Knight, “There were two articles, one of them at BorderReport.com, that I saw saying that 1300 people at the venue were removed in the first week because they didn’t want to have their masks on.”
On September 2, state secretary of health Pérez Rico stated, “Seventeen days after the [Baja Beach Fest] event in Rosarito…we have not experienced any chain of [covid] transmission in the population of the 3000 workers who were at the event…Having an event with 90 percent vaccinated, and only allowing ten percent or less with negative [covid test results], keeps us within a safe margin. So will all the events that are authorized from now on, in the territory of Baja California.” Some attendees took to Reddit and mentioned they had diarrhea and felt nauseated after the festival. Most people on the thread blamed it on the food or the water, but were not specific as to whether those items were consumed within the festival grounds or outside. As this article goes to print, only one of the many posters on the BBF threads on Reddit has said that they tested positive for covid after the event. Kimmy Hanby said she felt fine after returning to her El Cajon home, and that she plans on returning to the BBF in 2022 as a VIP.