Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Mexican Getaway: Part 1

Do I even need to start my posts with apologies for being so behind anymore? Seems I'm making a trend of it… oops, I swear mom, I'll try harder. Anyways, here is my long delayed first post of two about my trip to Mexico over New Years.

Although I like to think my life over the last 30 years has been more than just my amazing journey across Africa (dig back through the archives if you are unfamiliar), it seems to be the thing people often define me by, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little tired of it. Ever since returning from that admittedly formative part of my life, I have begun a new and completely different stage of life on a tiny island in the Pacific Northwest, and as far as I am concerned, this is me now and for the foreseeable future. My life went from being both interested and able to travel the world without a second thought, to living on and rarely leaving an island you can drive across in a few minutes. And I've been more satisfied with this new life than any other time before it. That said, I had the itch to go on another trip out of the country for a few weeks and the slow winter was the perfect time to do it.

The reason I choose Mexico was primarily because hell, it's our neighbor to the south and I still had never been! Years ago I intended on doing a big road trip through Mexico and bought a 1970 Baja Bug with the intention of driving that, but I found myself traveling Asia instead, then Africa, then moving to the island, so it never happened. But now I felt I wanted a big change of scenery, a little 'vacation' which I'd never truly done before, and needed to scratch the international travel itch again for the first time in two and a half years. This is how it all went down:

Shortly after Christmas, I loaded up my backpacks, the same two I've traveled with for years, and got on the plane. I had three weeks ahead of me and no real plan, but my goals were simple: surf, drink beer on the beach, read, swim with whales harks and eat tacos. I wasn't looking for a serious or in depth cultural experience, I just wanted to have fun. And I had this crazy idea in my head I was going to actually just hang out on the Baja Peninsula and relax for three weeks…

I had a late night flight to Texas for a layover, but that allowed me to fly from Texas to Cabo San Lucas in the daytime and enjoy the scenery changing out my window. Arriving in Cabo was just as I imagined it would be: the sun shining, blue water, picture perfect sandy beaches… and huge resorts as far as the eye could see, exactly what I had ZERO interest in seeing or doing. But it was OK, because I was not going to spend any time there, I was headed north to Todos Santos.

Ever since I started my travels and once I returned to America, I've worked to set my life up in a way to allow a great deal of freedom and flexibility. My boss has been great with that, and he actually connected me with his uncle Gail (left), who owned some land in Todos Santos and was willing to not only let me stay with him for a few days, but was even going to pick me up at the airport in Cabo. This was all perfect, and an awfully easy to begin my time in Mexico.

Gail had a piece of land north of town, and when he bought it a few years back there was no paved road and very few neighbors. Today the road is paved and other non-Mexicans, mostly Americans and a few Canadians, are building 'vacation mansions' all over the place. He calls it “Gringo-landia” and it's beginning to feel a bit like the suburbs. Gail has more simple tastes though, and for the time being, just has a small building with a roof-top deck and two trailers on the land. He uses the large one when he comes down and has a smaller one for guests or to tow around Mexico and beyond.

After getting settled a bit, we drove into town. Gail headed off to a meet some people and I did what I usually do when I travel: wander the streets to get a feel for the place. Todos Santos was even smaller than I expected it to be, and it didn't take long before I'd walked every street in the core. It certainly has a strong expat vibe to it, with plenty of shops and restaurants (and pharmacy) for tourists and American residents, but it still seemed to have a lot of soul. I have to say, I did enjoy the 'developing world' feel of some of the streets, but in general the town center is clean, organized and developing fast.

With 'eat tacos' as one of my primary goals for my time in Mexico, when Gail and I met up that evening for dinner I had a few tacos as well as a torta. And I have to say, the food was delicious and cheap.

The next day we headed out for a walk into the hills behind his place. It was hot, dry and sandy, with the ground covered in low brush mostly, but as we headed over a few hills and to a small drainage where water flows in the rainy season, we found ourselves surrounded by cactus about 15 feet tall. Very cool stuff.

In the afternoon Gail continued to show me around. For this round, we hopped on his quad and drove down to the beach which was maybe half a mile down from his property.

It was a perfect Baja day with the sun shining, the waves breaking towards the yellow sand and hardly a cloud in the sky. I wandered down the beach for a while and eventually sat down to read a book, another thing on my 'to do' list for this trip.

(So this is a lousy photo, but I hope it gets the idea across.) As it turned out, my trip lined up perfectly to see the gray and humpback whales. Both from the beach and from Gail's rooftop where this photo was taken, I could look out at the water and at almost any time see one, two or even three whales jumping, slapping their tails or firing water from their blowholes. It was really incredible, and I watched for a very long time, making reading my book a bit challenging. This photo is also a good representation of the kind of vacation homes foreigners are building in the area.

As I said, I watched for a long time, and from the rooftop was treated to fantastic sunsets every night.

One of my main goals for this trip was to spend time surfing. I've only been surfing a few times in my life so wasn't any good yet, but I was hoping by this trip I'd spend a lot of time on a board and improve my skills. Life seemed to have another plan though, and a week or so before I left on the trip, I hurt my back…

That said, I still wanted to get out and play in the water and decided a body-board would be a decent compromise given how I was feeling. So Gail and I loaded up the truck and headed to the Los Cerritos Beach. His favorite water activity is long-distance swimming, so he went out for a swim, while I hit the waves.

With my injured back my abilities were limited, but the water was comfortable, the beach was rock-free and I caught a lot of nice waves before heading back to land. To be honest, the place was a bit of a zoo, but it's clear that it's the perfect beach for easy waves and beginners, so the popularity makes sense. It was also pretty clear how fast the place was developing, soon I'm sure road will be paved, new resorts will move in and the shoreline will fill with expensive rentals.

On that note, Gail decided to show me the scenic route back north to Todos Santos, and we took the dirt coast road. He said this was where the hippy surfers on the 60s and 70s set up their camps and while you still saw a few of those holdouts, the land now is all divided up into small parcels and people are building fancy homes all over the place.

A little wildlife as we drove the sand/dirt roads back into town.

Another sight we went past on our little tour/exploration was some pretty surprising farmland. This area was surrounded in dry rocky hills on both sides and the “soil” if you can call it that seemed to be nothing but beach sand, but they were growing amazing looking basil and other crops! Of course I live on a small scale vegetable farm back home so I notice this kind of thing, and I have to say I was impressed. Confused, but impressed. I guess they just spray a ton of fertilizer on it?

Like every night, Gail and I went out to dinner, eating delicious Mexican food for just a few dollars usually.

New Years was upon us and while I'd been really enjoying my time with Gail, I decided I wanted to find some people my age and find a party. The obvious choice in the area was Pescadero Surf Camp, a backpackers/surfers place that I knew would be full of people looking to hang out and have fun. It was just what I was looking for, and I quickly met a bunch of people my age and found the party for the night.

Naturally it was a 'gringo-party' but I have to say it was a lot of fun, and whatever, I'm a gringo too.

Huge bonfires on the beach, giant mansions, bands, DJ's, pools, bars and people in cat costumes with suspiciously large pupils, it honestly looked like something out of the movies. After a while the fires burned down and I climbed in the surf-van of a Canadian I'd met at the surf camp (there were a LOT of people from BC down here) and headed back to the after-party at the camp and then to my tent to sleep. It was just what I imagined it would be like.

New Years day I got a ride back into Todos Santos with some other travelers in their rental car (which seems to be the best way to travel around down here if you want to camp/surf and have much flexibility). There headed to the clinic in town to get a shot for my back pain. In true Mexican style, they didn't even ask for my ID, or anything else before giving me meds, but I loved how easy it was and pondered how much effort it would have taken in the USA. For the service, meds and 3 shots over 3 days, I think I paid less than $20. I told them I didn't want a pain killer, I just wanted an anti-inflammatory, and received a shot that made me feel better almost immediately. Then I went back to Gails where I googled it and found out it was an opioid based pain killer…. Oh well.

Since I was unable to surf as I'd hoped to do when I thought up this trip, I felt I'd pretty much exhausted the options in the Todos Santos area and took a bus to La Paz. My time there was nice though, and my host Gail had been wonderful, a great introduction to Baja and an awfully easy way to begin the trip. I still don't know what I was going to do with the next two and a half weeks, but I felt like I had my feet under me now and was starting to get the hang of the country already. The bus was nice and modern, the road was pretty good but had that 'not quite up to Western standards' feel to it, and in a short time I found myself on the inland side of the Baja Peninsula, in the city of La Paz.

It was surprisingly difficult to find a cheap place to stay, as one place I looked for no longer existed and the next place was closed for the weekend (huh?) but I wound up, as many backpackers do, at Pension California. It was just a few blocks up the hill from the water, has a big colorful courtyard and lots of international travelers, I met many cycle tourers in particular. I wanted to relax for a few days in this town because it seemed like a particularly nice place, so I got myself a cheap room that had two beds, a private bathroom (with limited hot water) and a TV that got one static-filled channel of Mexican news.

After settling into my room and laying down for a bit (I must be getting old) I went for my usual walk around town. The stats say the town has 215,000 people, but it felt much smaller than that. The 'old town' where I was staying was easily walkable, beyond that seemed to be sprawling houses and a modern shopping mall full of American chain stores I'd seen on the bus in. I did find the old town center and wandered into the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de La Paz which was nice, despite the gaudy “Jesus and Winter and Christmas Lights” scene you would expect to see in a tacky American shopping mall.

Back at the malecon, the waterfront area, I wandered from the hart of the action to the very edges, stopping to admire the pelicans and gulls on the way.

More beach scenery.

Postcard perfect sunset over the beach. That night I wandered around by myself, feeling 100% safe by the way, in search of some nightlife and people to socialize with. As it turned out, there wasn't any… Most of the restaurants closed very early, I'm talking like 7pm early, and a few of the expensive waterfront bars remained open but had few patrons and didn't look like much fun. I was surprised, and ended up eating dinner alone at one of the few places I found that was actually open.

One of the big draws for visitors in La Paz is the whale sharks. After shopping around a bit, it seemed everyone was just offering the same thing at about the same price, so I got on board a boat from the beach and headed out.

The boat had about 6 people besides myself, and after 15 minutes or so we were on the other side of the low penensula outside of La Paz where the whale sharks (which are actually large filter-feeding fish) hang out. The boat was extremely unprofessional, and didn't even have working snorkel gear for everyone, despite that being one of the promises of the tour operator… glad I had brought my own mask and snorkel…

To be honest, I knew what I was getting myself into when I signed up, but I couldn't help but feel a little bad for the fish. The outing essentially consisted of the boat I was on, plus half a dozen others, chasing these fish around, then letting the tourists jump out to swim with them, many people (not myself) grabbing the fish, the fish swimming away, and then climbing back in the boat to chase them again. This seems to happen all day, every day.

That said, the fish themselves were pretty stunning. It is something I've always wanted to do, a goal of mine that was foiled way back when I was in Africa thanks to a hurricane, so now I was finally making it happen. The fish we saw were “young ones” and only about 15-20 feet in length, but to be in the water with such a creature was really something special. And I have to say, they seemed surprisingly undisturbed by the presence of all the people.

After chasing fish for 45 minutes or so, everyone on the boat was tired from swimming, and we headed back into town. The short nature of the trip, which was said to be 'half a day' and the total lack of equipment made it feel like a rip off and I was pretty annoyed with the place I'd signed up with, but it wasn't worth fighting over and the experience was honestly worth it.

The swimming and the time in the sun did tire me out pretty effectively though, so I had an easy rest of the day. After dinner at a local place that was supposed to be a 'sports bar', which like before was one of the only restaurants I could find that was open, and again, I was pretty much alone in, I bought some beers to take back to the room and laid in bed to watch some Star Trek, haha.

Staying with the water theme, as is pretty much the focus of much of the action on the Baja peninsula, the next day I went on the day trip to Isla Espíritu Santo, a small and uninhabited island that is a protected nature area. I'd read a little about it, and the highlight was supposed to be the ability to swim with sealions (seeing a theme here?) but I honestly didn't know exactly what to expect. Myself and the rest of the group who signed up hopped in a van and drove about 40 minutes outside of town, passing the ferry terminal where I'd find myself returning to shortly.

The boat was pretty basic, but large and well suited for the trip. After everyone got wetsuits, fins, masks and snorkels at the marina, we got under way.

As I said, I didn't know what to expect, but what I found was mile after mile of truly dramatic and unique coastline. The tremendous variety of rock formations along the way, combined with the clear waters below made for an amazing contrast.

After about two hours on the water and a great conversation with a woman from Iran who worked at the IMF in Washington DC, we arrived at the last little island in the chain, Los Islotes, where the sea lion colony lived. On this small jagged piece of rock, largely white from gull poop, sat dozens upon dozens of sea lions laying in the sun.

Of course the big event here is to swim with them and I donned my snorkeling gear with excitement.

I was amazed how they seemed totally comfortable with people around (and there were a few boats worth of people), but watching their agility as swimmers, it was clear we were very much in their world. It was mostly the young ones in the water, but they were active, playful and curious. They seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as us people did!

Even though the sea lions were great to watch, I also found myself enjoying the tropical fish and small bits of coral. Now this was no huge coral reef or anything, but there were some pretty interesting fish and plant life, and it was great fun to explore this new world with my camera.

This little one swan straight towards me and right over my shoulder.

After the group had it's fill of snorkeling with the sea lions and exploring the area, we regrouped on the boat and headed to make our lunch stop. This ended up being in a tiny little cove ringed with more great stone and a perfect white-sand beach. Naturally, I had to drive off the bow.

The boat from our lunch spot. Pretty nice huh?

It had been a few years since I've spent any time with a mask and fins, but it felt great to be back in warm waters again and testing my limits when it came to staying under.

I had already felt like I'd gotten more than my monies worth from this outing, but we had one more stop, a tiny island with a huge bird colony. Covering the entire surface were cormorants, gulls, pelicans, herons and blue footed boobies.

We watched the sun go below the horizon with the sound of the birds in the background and I though to myself how glad I was to be there right then.

At this point I was really unsure what to do with all the time I had. Because of my back problems I couldn't surf, the main reason I came to baja, and after reading some advice for the area, I felt like I'd kind of already seen the highlights, though admittedly only at a glance. So I walked and I wandered and tried to figure out what to do next.

Naturally, I had tacos and beer frequently, even with a hurt back I could do that!

On the advice of an older traveler I met at the hotel, I hopped on board a local bus, a diverse fleet made up of old American school buses, and went for a ride. The buses here just meet at a central location, near the main market, then drive in various loops around town. So I paid my couple of pesos and took a tour of the neighborhoods in the area.

There were a lot of similar looking dusty streets with small cinder block houses, but there were also a number of new developments in the area such as the condos on the hill here. Although I wouldn't say the place felt particularly dynamic, there was an obvious sense of modernization and development, and unlike in Todos Santos, this was not based on foreign tourism.

Wandering through the market. Unfortunately I didn't need a cowboy hat, nor a pink guitar at the time.

One of many, many churches I walked past.

For dinner, instead of going to a normal resturant, I just went to the food court in the market. This entire plate of chicken, beans, rice and salad was about $2, and was fantastic.

A statue on the water front.

By this point I'd decided I didn't need any more beach and because I wasn't any good at relaxing after all, decided to change my flight. Instead of spending the entire three weeks on the baja peninsula and flying in and out of Cabo, I'd take the ferry to the mainland, work my way down to Mexico City and fly home from there. I wish I'd picked this option all along, but I had this crazy idea I'd be happy relaxing on the beach. Silly me.

The ferry only goes from the peninsula to the mainland twice a week so I had some extra time to kill in La Paz, but once the day came to catch the boat I was excited to be on the road again and looking forward to seeing some fresh scenery in this great country.

I arrived at the terminal, which was surprisingly nice and began to wait. And wait. And wait. As it turned out, the boat was running about 6 hours behind schedule and didn't arrive until nearly 10pm that night, giving me a solid 8 hours to sit around. It wasn't too bad though, because I met a few other travelers also waiting, had some surprisingly great food from one of the windows in the terminal and go to see a fantastic sunset, though it would have probably been nicer from the water. The journey across the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlan was supposed to be 16 hours, but would turn out to be a bit longer.

Now of course I live on an island and much of life there runs on the ferry schedule, so I have a special interest in ferry boats. This particular boat was like none I'd ever seen. Built in Korea in 1978 and only recently acquired by the Baja ferry system, it has a rear opening bay and a tremendously strange looking series of levels and ramps for cars and trucks, and a tight, steep multi-story stair/ladder climb to the top for passengers. It was a strange and sort of unfriendly feeling ship, but I thought it was pretty awesome and was looking forward to exploring.

Above the car levels, there were two levels that were made up of overnight rooms for the passengers, a dining area, a movie area and a large deck at the rear of the ship to watch the scenery.

After spending a few hours in the waiting room together before the boat finally arrived, both myself and the other travelers, from Austria, England and another American, were ready for a few beers. There were a handful of other western and/or white people on board, but it was pretty much a local affair. And then it turned into a bit of a party, with people of all types buying by the six-pack and drinking up. After a while we connected with some young Mexicans, who were part of a traveling band and it was fun talking to them out on the deck of the boat until late into the night and into the early hours of morning.

Many people traveling by the boat buy a room to sleep in, but as many or more don't. At some point in the evening, the locals started rolling out blankets, setting down pillows and claiming the choice spots on the floors or in the movie room chairs to sleep. I planned ahead as well and brought my pad and sleeping bag, and decided I'd figure it out at some point.

At about 3am all the beer was drunk and even the young Mexican guys had gone to sleep somewhere, so when no one was looking I climbed onto the roof of the boat next to one of the smoke stacks and decided to sleep under the stars. This turned out to be a less than brilliant idea, because it was way too cold even with my gear and I got very little sleep.

Shortly after 6am, it began to get light and climbed down to the main level outside and watched the sun rise over the water. Because it had been dark when we began the journey I never saw the shore, and now that it was finally light I looked out expecting to see land, but was greeted by calm waters in every direction I looked. It was beautiful.

That said, after a long night and almost no sleep, I was tired, and the scenery outside (water in every direction) wasn't changing much, so I went inside to the movie room. They played a mix of movies, from a serious drama to a comedy, to a kids movie to some action movie that seemed way to violent for kids. I thought that was funny. They were of course all in Spanish, but they were nice enough to turn the English sub titles on most of the time.

I couldn't watch movies all day, so I'd alternate between movies and the sun deck. Outside I mostly just leaned against the railing and stated at the water, but a number of times I was lucky enough to see whales in the distance and even a few dolphins swimming and jumping in the wake of the ship. Yep, I was in the Sea of Cortez alright.

In the early evening we were still a long ways from land and many people gathered out on the deck to watch the sun go down and I've got to say seeing the sunrise that morning and the sunset that evening from the boat was pretty cool. A bit after 8, more than 20 hours after starting, the boat finally made land and my new traveling friends and I found a hotel room to share. From when I arrived at the terminal in La Paz on the Baja peninsula to the terminal in Mazatlan on the mainland: 34+ hours. 

We were now in Mazatlan, a place I knew nothing about, but I knew the name as a big vacation destination for Americans and expected an exciting night life and beach scene. So we set out into the night and found…….. nothing. I was amazed, it was a ghost town. I think we walked for at least 3 kilometers down the beach, and found less than 5 open restaurants/bars. There was a beautiful waterfront area, there were restaurants, bars, hotels and condos everywhere, but every one of them seemed to be completely empty. What happened to this place? We asked one of the few locals we saw and he told us “Just wait till the weekend!” but I didn't really believe him.

Waking the next morning.

Deciding to give the place another look (and with plenty of time to kill) we headed down the same area in the daytime, found breakfast somewhere and walked the same waterfront. Yes, there was traffic this time, and it looked like the postcards, but it still felt totally empty and dead. I was very confused.

From there all three of us went to the bus station and bought tickets to three different locations. My bus and the bus from the other American weren't for a few more hours, so we walked the town together and found ourselves in another colorful market.

One of the larger and more interesting squares in the area, with a large chapel along side.

Great color and an architectural style I really enjoyed.

A smaller area and bit of beach south of the main waterfront of Mazatlan, I thought this was especially nice looking area.

By the evening it was time for me to catch a bus, and I was heading inland to the city of Zacatecas, the cite of one of the Spanish mines that made them great riches in the new world. I was really ready to get away from the beach by this point, because although swimming with whale sharks and sea lions was awesome, at some point a beach just feels like a beach anywhere and I was ready for some diversity. It was clear that Mexico had a lot to offer and I was ready to explore.

Well, that was part one, the 'water' part of the trip. Next up will be the 'land' section with highlights including the impressive colonial town and silver mine of Zacatecas, horseback riding to a volcano, exploring Mexico city and the Teotihuacán Pyramids.