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Thursday, September 9, 2021

Baja in May

Baja in May

This was our second trip to Baja California, and I had high hopes that it would be vastly superior to the first trip, which was last October. You may recall that I began the trip with rash (which was initially mis-diagnosed as shingles), and to add to the merriment, I tripped and pretty much destroyed my left knee on the third night of the vacation. So instead of seeing the sights, enjoying the food, walking around downtown and swimming in the crystal clear 85-degree ocean, I spent the bulk of the last four days in the condo with my leg elevated and an ice pack on my knee. What was supposed to be our first vacation in eight years, as well as a fact-finding mission to see if we might like to move to Baja someday, turned into a miserable time for me. But this trip was different in just about every conceivable way. I’ll state right up front that this time was a ball. Great weather, amazing food, fun with friends, lots of driving around, and no mishaps, physical or otherwise.


Flights to Baja from Bend, Oregon are a challenge. There are a couple flights each week that “only” take eight hours. They leave Roberts Field in Redmond at the ungodly hour of 5:30 AM, feature a three-hour layover in San Francisco, then a painless three hour flight to SJD … San Jose del Cabo International Airport, which is located about fifteen miles above Cabo San Lucas on the southern tip of Baja California.


Car rentals seem to be a consistent pain here. On our first trip, we had two successive cars with their “check engine lights” on the whole time, and the second car having little to no air conditioning. And Baja is hot … almost always. For this trip, the car fun was via two extremely rude and painfully indecisive dudes from San Francisco ahead of us. They quite literally questioned everything. The prices of all the services, how to get places, why do we need insurance, can we switch this car out for a jeep … Twenty minutes of unnecessary banter with the very nice and extremely patient car rental agent.


There are two ways to get to La Paz from Los Cabos, and we opted for Highway 1 going up the cape, and Highway 19 coming back, since we’d be spending the last three days in Todos Santos, on the Pacific side.  The two-and-a-half-hour trip up Highway 1 was hot and long, but uneventful. There’s a view of the Sea of Cortez (aka the Gulf of California) for much of the ride, and some interesting, though curvy and windy roads through the mountains.


Upon entering the busy outskirts of La Paz, I remembered the car fumes and specifically that they got ungodly in the more congested parts of town. Say what you want about our mandated emission limits being a violation of our liberties, but a trip to Mexico or many other countries will demonstrate why it’s necessary.


No problem finding our way through town, and back to the familiarity of the ideally situated, through somewhat dated La Concha hotel and condos. The first trip was spent on the second floor in a two-bedroom place, in order to accommodate four of us, but since this was only going to be the two of us this time, we opted for a smaller studio condo, situated on the third floor (view from the deck, left). While the first condo was immaculate, this one was not particularly clean, but we’d make do, considering all the other attractions in the area. The condos directly overlook the pool, and out over the Sea of Cortez. Spectacular, falls short of an adequate description of this view.

A quick change from tennies to Tevas, and it was off to the hotel’s poolside palapa bar where we knew a couple of giant Margaritas would be available for the asking. It was a pleasant surprise to see Giovanni was serving this day. He was our favorite server from the October trip, and a great guy. Killer nachos, fresh fish tacos, and a Pacifico beer made up for a long arduous day.


Early to bed after a long day that began at 3:00 AM, and an early wakeup call thanks to what seemed to be every small bird in Baja having a morning meeting just off the deck. Coffee to the rescue, followed by looking over all the restaurant and site suggestions, and we were off on our first venture into town. Weather on the first day was very Hawaii-like, meaning it was pleasant and high-70’s instead of 90’s. Lots of walking around town, and a late lunch / early dinner at Kiwi, which is on the Malecon, right off the bay. Two huge Mexican combo plates, fresh chips and queso dip, two beers each (I’m on vacation) came to 300 pesos … About $25. We walked the Malecon to burn off some of the calories, and then did some major shopping for “staples” for the week. Chips, fresh salsa, two giant size Coca Cola Lights (WAY better than the Diet Coke we get in the states), bananas, limes, a big container of mango juice, coffee, sweetener, 2 bags of ice … plus a six pack of Dos Equis, a liter of decent rum, and a bottle of 1800 tequila … The total came to about fifty bucks. This tequila alone runs $35 in the U.S. Everything resembling food and beverages costs less in Baja.


First time at the Sunset Bar, which is adjacent to the dive center and a short walk from the hotel restaurant. We met an interesting expat who was originally from Saratoga, California, who now runs an eco-friendly surf and dive center in Bocas del Toros, on the Caribbean side of Panama. Both the surf camp and Bocas sounded very enticing. I envision a trip there at some point!  Another amazing sunset, which seems to be a daily thing here.


Day 3, and still no Internet or phone access, but life has a way of going on. We had a great breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant. Risa had eggs Benedict; I had a breakfast burrito plate with THREE great burritos, and the ubiquitous dollop of refried beans and a couple tortilla chips. This is the norm here, pretty much everywhere. You know that huge mess of beans they serve you at every American Mexican restaurant?  Usually with a half-pound of melted cheese?  Not in Mexico.


We spent a lazy day by the pool, which always seems to be at the perfect temperature for cooling off from the sometimes-relentless Baja sun. I believe we’re at about ninety degrees today.


I’m currently midway into the first of what would be four complete novels, over the course of the trip. Getting into the last Michael Crichton novel, hanging on the deck with a couple Dos Equis, sips of 1800 Reposado, killer chips and salsa. I suppose we’ll have to think about dinner at some point, but for now, it’s just me, a great book, a beer, and the Bay of Cortez.


Dinner ended up being at Rancho Viejo, located a block south of the far end of the Malecon. The restaurant is very authentic, and the servers spoke very little English (this isn’t common, most speak it well). Both condo owners had recommended this place as being very good, and very inexpensive, so we thought we’d give it a shot. The food was in fact awesome, and as expected, very authentic Mexican dining. Risa had 3 shrimp tacos and I had the beef arrechara special (seasoned, grilled skirt steak), fresh tortillas, a huge selection of garnishes and dips and two Dos Equis. The total came to about $25 including tip. Excellent dinner and service, again at about half the price we’d pay at home.


We would have lunch at Rancho Viejo a couple days later, and it was equally amazing. Half a kilo (about a pound and a quarter) of arrechara, cut into taco filling-sized cubes), a dozen fresh tortillas, avocado dip, pico de gallo, salsa, chips, a selection of garnishes, two beers … $16. With every meal and every trip to a market I’m wondering how they pull it off. Or more correctly, why are we getting gouged so much in the U.S.?


One meal a day, two tops, seems to be the norm, at least on this trip. And I’m totally getting into eating my main meal around two or three in the afternoon, with maybe a small snack later. Not sure why, not the heat, or I would have adapted this pattern while living in Chico or Gilroy.


Still no cellular or Internet, but that would change later tonight, as we’d been told that wireless is available for the asking at the Sunset Bar. Amazingly, the initial withdrawal from email, Facebook and contact with the rest of the world, becomes bearable very quickly. As I sit on the deck, writing notes from today, listening to the tiny little ripples rolling in from the Bay of Cortez, I’m beginning to think of needs versus habits.

We visited a market (a “super mercado”) called Mega earlier today. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven after spotting the salsa aisle. Yikes. I resisted buying one of everything and settled on a Buffalo brand salsa classic, a La Viuda Negra “japones” salsa, and a La Anota chile habanero salsa. These will be smuggled home, but the red and green salsas, some shredded queso cheese, and a dozen tortillas will be a snack for later, and breakfast for several days. The 24 tortillas were still warm and ran under a dollar. The salsas were 65 cents each.


It’s inevitable that one of the Goomers (troll dolls) will manage to sneak into the luggage and join us at our vacation destination. This year’s stowaway was Maureen, who was one of Risa’s first, after joining the crazy Sullivan clan. They’re generally fun little creatures but they’ve been known to sneak into your liquor cabinet and raid your booze or eat the last piece of pizza you were saving for breakfast, while you’re sleeping. But like puppies that pee on the floor or the occasional overshooting of the sandbox by your favorite kitty, you tend to overlook it. Don’t sweat the little stuff.


Saturday morning in La Paz, Baja California South (BCS). Woke up to a gentle early morning breeze coming in over the Bay of Cortez. Coffee on the deck, waited for my longtime friend Deborah to arrive for a trip to a little street market, followed by lunch. Fun little market. Locals and a couple expats were selling handiworks, trinkets, souvenirs, and food. Overheard a lady using the phrase “I was fixin to …” and had to inquire which part of the south she hailed from. She and her husband and two (then) young boys escaped from Florida 7 years earlier. I learned years ago from my good friend Carolyn that “I’m fixin to” is as southern as y’all can get.


Lunch at La Bartola was memorable in many ways. The owner, Omet hails from the seaside town of Veracruz, which is situated just north of the Yucatan Peninsula. He said that his goal was to serve non-traditional Mexican fare. No tacos and enchiladas, but great regional selections from the Yucatan, as well as his native Veracruz. And he totally succeeded. I had a cochinita pibil, which is a pork dish that’s wrapped in banana leaves (very common in Yucatecan cooking) and slow simmered under hot rocks overnight. Amazing flavor. Traditional garnishes of red onions in olive oil and habanero chilis, and a small portion of black beans completed the dish. Deborah had a rice and seafood dish that was also amazing. Omet gave us a complimentary shot of his homemade torolito, which was cocoa, and milk based, with a bit of white rum. Perfect ending to a great lunch.


While we’ve been mostly eating only one big meal a day, we broke the habit that night and went into town for a burger at the Tailhunter, across the street from the Malecon.


We’d eaten at the Tailhunter on the first trip, and the burgers were good enough to warrant a return. We weren’t disappointed. We opted for an upstairs spot along the bar, where we were treated to yet another spectacular sunset, while enjoying a couple great burgers and Negra Modelo beers.


Back to the condo, and another trip to the Sunset Bar, which has become our nightly hangout for an hour or so, and it’s the only decent (and free) wireless. And we totally love Julie, the server. And then once again, it’s back to the deck of the condo. I listen to the several small groups of locals congregating on the beach below us, laughing, singing, enjoying their Saturday night. The crescent moon disappears below the horizon, the palm trees are flapping their branches much like Sally Rand doing a fan dance, a warm breeze brings just the right amount of cool air, and I marvel at the wonder of it all. I could get used to this environment very easily. Did I mention it never snows here?


Sunday morning, up early, alone on the deck watching a clear, windless bay, empty and peaceful, other than a couple small fishing skiffs, undoubtedly pulling in a couple of yellowtails, which currently are in season. I sleep well here, waking up rested and ready for the day. We toyed with exploring beaches today but opted for the peace and quiet of the pool. Beaches will wait ‘til manana. Plus, I need to do some laundry this morning (a small dose of reality).

So, Monday was beach day. We drove north past beautiful Pichilingue and Balondra and stopped at Tecolote. This is one of the most picturesque beaches anywhere. The crystal-clear turquoise water reminds me of St. Thomas and the Caribbean. The water was about 85 degrees, meaning it was the perfect temperature to counter the 90-degree sun. I settled in under umbrella, ordered a couple cold Pacifico’s, some guacamole and chips, and proceeded to enjoy the afternoon. Tecolote is a playground for both locals and touristas. Unlike the beach in front of the condo, which is usually very sparsely occupied, this beach draws a good number of people to its shore every day. And the reasons are obvious; the water’s clear and warm, the view of the bay and Espiritu Santu Island is incredibly, they offer everything from jet ski rentals to excursions, the food is fresh, and service is excellent, and it’s simply a great place to spend a day in the sun.

Great dinner Monday night at the hotel restaurant. I had chicken breasts stuffed with a spinach mixture; Risa opted for the sea bass over arroz (rice). While more expensive than Rancho Viejo or Kiwi, this meal was still about two-thirds of what you’d pay in the U.S., and both the food and service were very good.


Monday morning breakfast continued the trend of a couple tortillas, some queso cheese, a couple salsas, and a squeeze of limon (small limes) for breakfast. They serve small wedges of these native limes with literally everything here. The fresh tortillas from Mega were holding up nicely and lasted us the rest of the week. Today we’re going to do some driving around and exploring, followed by dinner tonight at Il Rustico with friends Gary and Susan Hackney, our Bend friends who moved to the El Centenario area a couple months ago.


We checked out a couple more super mercados today. If I’m even going to consider settling here, I need to be able to get (at least most) of the food staples that I use daily. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that most everything I consider “necessary” can be easily found here. Soba noodles, sriracha sauce, a wide variety of rice and pastas, good, canned tomatoes, and some very nice-looking produce. For some reason the lettuce didn’t look great, but the size and quality of onions, tomatoes, most vegetables, as well as the wide variety of fresh peppers more than compensated. I can cook here.


This was our last full day in La Paz. Tomorrow it’s off to Todos Santos for a couple more days, then home. We did some tooling around mid-town La Paz, which is too crowded, and of course the driving is crazy. One thing we noticed on our first trip was what the Mexicans call a “rolling stop” at stop signs. The logic is that they’ll slow somewhat when approaching a controlled intersection, and if nobody appears to be coming from the side street, they roll right through it. And they’ll HONK at you for coming to a complete stop!


We then had yet another great lunch, which today was at Bismark-cito, on the Malecon. Four tacos with four different kinds of fresh fish, two beers (between us), chips, salsa and guacamole dip … ten bucks. Very good food and service, as well as the hottest hot sauce I had on the entire trip. They warned me, I went for it, they were right.


After a final trip to the Sunset Bar where we finally met Carla, who’s normally the bartender, but had been off all week, we spent the evening packing up and getting ready for the sixty-mile trip across the peninsula to Todos Santos and the Pacific side. I suspect a much more laid-back environment awaits.


Wednesday morning, we bid farewell to La Paz, and head across the peninsula to Todos Santos. Check in wasn’t until 3:00, so we walked around town a bit and dropped into a friendly little restaurant for lunch. Once again, I had a great arrechara, guacamole, rice, and beans, and of course a Mexican beer.


Los Colibris is a very unique spot, and we were treated to phenomenal views of the Pacific from the small casitas that line the cliff. The ride from town was over a crazy bumpy dirt road, so we opted to make do with chips and a Dos Equis for dinner. Again, I marvel at the fact that one or occasionally two meals a day has been perfect on this trip. I’d be surprised if I haven’t lost weight on this vacation. Tomorrow we’ll explore Todos Santos, eat somewhere special, and come back for some quality pool time and undoubtedly another amazing sunset.


An observation today:  lots of Americans here, both tourists and permanent expats. And the Mexicans in town all speak very good English. Smaller town, but much more slanted towards American visitors and residents than La Paz.


Thursday would be our final day and night in beautiful Todos Santos. We started with a light breakfast at Cafe Felix, followed by a walk around the four-block downtown shopping area. Then it was back to the casita at Los Colibris and a few hours by the pool, before doing the bulk of the packing for the trip home. We’d heard great reports both from friends and in online research, about the Santa Fe Restaurant, so we decided to splurge and have a great meal for our final night in Mexico. Risa had lobster raviolis and loved them. I had spaghetti with a meat sauce which was also very good. A glass of Don Simon Spanish temperanillo was excellent, and a good recommendation from our server. We were apparently both hungry, and both got “clean plate awards.”  Following our great meal, we walked outside and joined the festival that was going on across the street. This was apparently one of several stops for a Mother’s Day celebration, which goes on for a whole week in Mexico.


Off to Cabo tomorrow morning, then home to Bend. While this trip was an amazing adventure, I’m feeling ready to be home. I miss friends, the familiarity of the house and “stuff,” my kitchen, and Emily, of “The Only Cat” fame. The trip was a lot of fun, the food was good to excellent, weather was great, but for me, the jury remains out about a permanent move here. Time will tell, I’m sure.


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