I awoke to the sound of the ship's diesel engine humming away. It was just before dawn aboard the freighter from La Paz to Mazatlán. Anticipation and something I ate couldn't keep me in bed. I carefully climbed out of the camper and out onto the ship's deck. Light was just beginning to illuminate the clouds. I love being on open water. The mainland of Mexico was out there in the distance. What would it bring? Would it be relaxing and friendly like Baja? Was danger lurking around every corner, like we had been warned? Would there be reliable cell service? Would we fall in love with this country? As we approached the city and the harbor my heart began to race. Excitement!
At first we saw the city skyline and several offshore islands. Blue footed boobies chased the ship. Magnificent frigatebirds were overhead. Fishing boats were abundant in the waters. Another ferry followed a couple kilometers behind. The city raced. Taxis, motorcycles, little mini cars, the haze. The cool ocean air gave way to sticky humid heat that hung in the air. This was going to be different, for sure. We drove off the ship howling; we'd officially set foot on the mainland. I followed the course of traffic, not really sure of where I was leading my family, but confident we'd figure it out. I arced my way around the city and after twenty minutes of thick traffic I decided I had had enough of driving. We parked in front of the aquarium and decided we could kill a few hours there while we waited to check into an airbnb we had arranged for a couple of nights in order to acclimate ourselves to these new environs.
The aquarium was a big hit. They have all sorts of fish inside, many from the local region, and a large outdoor area with birds, reptiles, a pool of manta rays and a seal pool where we were able to watch a show with seals doing tricks and singing. Joey loved it. We walked across the street to have lunch at a street taco vendor, our preferred method of obtaining food in Mexico. We each ate one too many tacos, noting the slight differences in regional flare, and also first noticing the appearance of swordfish on the menu. Mark always craves seafood when we visit aquariums! A few glimpses of beautiful colored fish full of life, and BAM, his longing for sushi is quickly inevitable! We returned to the aquarium and chased Joey around for another hour until we decided he needed a car nap. Back into the truck!
We lapped Mazatlán for a little while before meeting our airbnb hookup. We had a delightful little apartment in the center of the old city. It was comfortable enough and we were exhausted of camping in the heat, so we immediately decided to extend our stay there two extra nights. The air conditioning, fast wifi, and shower was all too appealing. We were safe to park on the street there in the old city and we did our best to make friends with the neighbors, who were mostly older folks; quickly softened by Jojo's waves and "holas", and happy to return our smiles. Mazatlán is a nice city attracting many Americans and Canadians to it's cruise ports. We felt comfortable and safe there. Compared to anywhere in Baja, there was simply more activity everywhere. More houses, more people, more cars, more exhaust, more colors, more life!
A block away from our apartment was a small town square housing the beautiful Mazatlán cathedral, the Basilica de la Inmaculada Concepción, completed in 1899. It was a gorgeous masterpiece, inside and out. We could hear the church bells ringing in our apartment windows, which is always nostaligic to us, reminding of our early weeks of love in our first apartment together three years prior. The historic district of Mazatlán is full of Latin charm. A lot of Spanish-style store-fronts and casitas that are painted ice-cream colors with tile roofs, massive wooden doors, and wrought iron windows. Every few blocks, you find a landscaped town square with some type of monument, park benches, and tall tropical trees. We were also only a couple short blocks from a bustling marketplace where we bought all of our produce for the next few days, and some beach toys for José (as we endearingly call him here).
One afternoon, we spent a relaxing day at Playa Bruja, or the Witch Beach. It was indeed supernatural, with rhythmic crashing waves, a frightening drop off, and a rocky edge. We were warned about jellyfish and rip tides. Only Mark was brave enough to swim it, though the water was warm and clear. It was far enough away from the busy resorts and offered a nice view of the city.
A few blocks from our apartment, we discovered a delicious restaurant called Topolo. We loved the colorful décor and open grotto in the center with its looming vine covered trees and its tranquil fountains. In addition to the wonderful food, they also shared with us the memorable service of preparing fresh salsa for us tableside with a pestle and mortar, in whatever style our tastebuds desired. Extra spicy with a lot of cilantro, por favor! Here we also got to try a couple new Mexican specialties, first being unusual delicacy of huitlacoche soup. Huitlacoche, (pronounced wee-ta-la-coach-ay) also referred to as corn smut, is a type of mushroom that grows atop the elevated parts of the corn husk, and has been deemed the Mexican Truffle. Since the time of the Aztecs, this earthy fungus has been a celebrated part of local cuisine, and to be fair, it is absolutely mouth-watering. Undoubtedly one of the best soups we had ever eaten, with a complex buttery flavor and an unusual grayish coloring. We also indulged in the tamarindo margaritas, which were a spicy mix of citrusy sweet flavors, made from the tropical legume, the tamarind. José was a bit jealous of our fancy tamarind garnished beverages, but the wait staff was quick to offer him a tamarind stick of his own, sin alcohol, which he completely devoured.
Lucky for us, Joey is a very adventurous eater, or as we say, he is a foodie, like us. He has experimented with so many new textures and flavors in our travels, and most are to his liking. Since being in Mexico, he has tried a lot of new foods, especially seafood. Raw oysters, ceviche, crab, clams- he will try anything with an open mind. And likewise, we find that our enthusiasm for food is one of the greatest ways to experience culture.
In our few weeks in Mexico, we have already observed many slight regional changes to the coastal staples we love. Like ceviche, for instance, can be prepared with any number of different fish and vegetable varieties, depending on what is plentiful. In Baja, we saw a lot of white fish with tomatoes and avocados, or sometimes cucumber. Around Mazatlán, we first saw ceviche with shredded raw carrot and onion. Each region has its own unique twist, with fresh lime being the only constant feature. And of course, Mexican ceviche is very different from Peruvian ceviche- but long story short, we love it all! When the fish is this fresh, you just can't go wrong.
Another new thing to us was the camarones al la coocaracha, or cockroach-style shrimp. Sounds appetizing, doesn't it? I think this may have been one of those moments when our order became lost somewhere in translation. In the end, we hate to see food go to waste, so we tried it- a deep fried shrimp with the shell and tail left on and cooked until it is very light and crispy. You are supposed to eat the whole thing, no peeling necessary. I was a little leary at first, but after a couple beers, the coocarachas were starting to grow on me!
We will try pretty much anything once, and sometimes, due to the language barrier, we admit we actually do not know exactly what we are ordering. Its like a fun mystery to see what we end up with! A sorpresa! And just a little more incentive for us to learn the language and attempt to integrate into this beautiful culture. Baptism by fire, I'm telling you! There are really only a couple of rules that we adhere to when choosing a restaurant or street vendor: 1) Never go somewhere empty. We ALWAYS choose places that look like the local favorites, where a lot of people are crowded around a small taco stand or where the tables are full. If a place is empty during peak hours, we often assume there is a reason. 2) We like to avoid places where the signs are written in English. Why? Because we are in Mexico. The language here is Spanish. Most restaurants that advertise in English are advertising to gringos, which usually means that the food isn't as authentic and the prices are higher.
Well, gotta go, this post is making me hungry...
Oh my, where to start. We've been having a wonderful month in Mexico. We first crossed the border into Tecate. The crossing there was easy. Very little traffic and the officials merely inspected the produce inside our fridge. They made very little fuss about looking into any myriad of boxes or compartments in our truck and we were soon on our way. In fact, we were so excited to get in that we forgot to have our passports stamped and obtain visas! They didn't even look at any ID! The next day we realized our mistake and we returned to Tijuana and got our FMM (tourist permits). They issued us six month visas, per our request, as we knew that we would exceed the routine stamps that allow you 30 days of travel.
South of Guadalupe, is the village of Viñas del Sol, the wine country of Baja. We were told that there is a ranch with an unassuming restaurant serving the best breakfast on earth, "el mejor desayuno del mundo." Or so it was voted by some travel food website. Indeed, it is amazing and impressive! Deliciously warm homemade tortillas, strong Mexican coffee with fresh cream and the slightest hint of cinnamon. If you arrive before 10:30 am or so, they have young fresh cheese to serve that is so good. They pair this with chips and salsa. This was also our first hand experience at how *ahem* affordable Mexico is. We couldn't believe we ordered two fresh juices, one coffee, hot cakes and a plate of heuvos with papas, chorizo, frijoles and sauce for only $125 pesos. (Around $6.00 USD) Although some services and goods can be expensive in Mexico, the amount of money that you will spend eating wonderful quality, organic, and locally sourced food is extremely low. This place is highly recommended.
After a few days around Ensenada, where we got used to eating amazing street vendor fish tacos all the time, we made our way to La Bufadora. Here we camped at Campo 7 Minas, on top of the hill before the town. It was windy and a bit chilly, but the host Ricardo and his family were so friendly and gracious, we stayed three nights. We were easing into this whole Mexico business gently indeed. Here we also became acquainted to Mexican hospitality and the constant doting on our son. Ricardo kept giving Joey treats from their little tienda. Joey, smart as a whip, got up first thing in the morning and ran over to the shop to go get more cookies. It seems to be a tradition here to spoil little ones with a lot of sweets, and although we have our conflicts with him eating sugary treats for breakfast, we also deeply appreciate the wonderful giving spirit that is generously shared with us. After three nights here and the last few mechanical projects to cross off our list, we continued south.
After filling up our tank and stomachs in cute little El Rosario (fish tacos of course), we began driving through the most interesting stretch of desert we had ever seen. We've literally driven thousands of miles throughout the American West, but nothing could prepare us for what we would find in central Baja. South of El Rosario and north of Guerrero Negro is a vast desert that is federally protected and contains a staggering amount of cacti and succulent diversity. We couldn't even keep track of all the different species we would discover. All different shapes and sizes and colors. Some looked like they were straight out of a Dr. Seuss story. Additionally, it is so barren and remote out there that we were able to enjoy some back country BLM style desert camping again. We love to camp out in the desert. Just watch out for red ants, scorpions, tarantula hawks and cactus needles!
Next we found one of our favorite places in all of Baja California. At Bahía de los Ángeles there is a free beach on the northern end of the bay called La Gringa. Here we made many friends with whom we shared beers and plates of homemade food, beautiful swimming in the calm warm water (Joey's first time on this trip), bird watching blue footed boobies, pelicans, gulls, terns, plovers, egrets, herons and frigate birds, and best of all collecting over three dozen oysters from the sea floor each day which we hungrily feasted on. Nothing is better than fresh oysters you have collected yourself. Holy fuck, I'm hungry just thinking about it. That was one incredible place. The only downsides were aggressive bees on the beach and, when no wind blew, incredible heat. It was also during Victoria's first time clamming that she endured a jelly fish sting, and inadvertently caught an octopus (or two.) No, I didn't pee on her, but of course I offered. We stayed here five days before deciding to get a move on.
After being baked in the hot sun at Bahía de los Ángeles for five days, we headed back across the peninsula to the pacific side just south of Santa Rosaliíta. Here are many miles of uninhabited beach front property. Also here are many surf breaks as well as a plethora of washed up bones. We collected dolphin skulls and blue whale ribs in addition to beautiful conical seashells and various whatnots.
The next day at the very moment we got back to the main road, I saw a Westie passing by, replete with cargo roof box, solar panel and little family inside. I gave a big wave out the window and I think they honked as they passed by. Colorado plates! "Look honey, more gringos traveling down Baja." After shifting the transfer case out of 4 LO and back into 2WD, I sped onto the tarmac. As I caught up with them, I noticed a small bicycle on the back. "Looks like they got a kid." Our own Jojo is a little small for bikes yet, but we were excited all the same to come across another travelling family. At the next gas station we both pulled off to fill up. Several minutes later, as I was fumbling for my pesos to pay the attendant, a woman came up to our truck to say hello. We exchanged greetings and determined we were both on our way fast or slowly (?) through Mexico and beyond. Our boys met and were shy at first. We agreed to meet out at a camp spot later in the afternoon and humorously proceeded to run the same errands in town before catching up on the road just before the camp site. We set up at a fish camp shared beers and the last of our oysters. They obtained a fish from the seamen and we chatted until the kiddos were ready for bed. It was good to meet another family traveling more or less the same route we planned. We exchanged contact info and pledged to meet again. The next morning we made our way out of Guerrero Negro, having now crossed the state border into Baja California Sur. Let the journey continue!
In Mulegé, back on the Sea of Cortez, we made some more friends and enjoyed the tranquil playa. South of the town here are many quiet bays with clean sandy beaches and palapas set up for shade. This was when it started to feel like we'd really made it to paradise. Northern Baja is wonderful as well, with its distinctly arid shores, but here it begins to feel a bit more tropical. Albeit without the mosquitoes ;)
Also, north of Mulegé, we found a quiet beach called Santa Ines. This remote spot was great for skinny dipping, howling at the moon, and fishing. Just a few more days in paradise.
When we were in Carlsbad, California, we met a guy who worked in the parks department, and he had raved about the surfing in San Jaunico or "Scorpion Bay." His tales of surf breaks and warm waters had lured us all the way across the peninsula yet again, this time off the main road and on rocky trails; 60 miles of washed out gravel, further eroded by a recent hurricane, crossing the Sierra Gigantes. It was a beautiful, sweltering drive across the desolate valleys. Eventually we made our way back to a paved road and found our way to the quiet little surf town on a breath-taking bay. Just in time for the Scorpio new moon.
Fresh clams, pulled straight out of the ocean, and gifted to us by three fisherman we met about 60 seconds prior. Again we are met by the outrageous generosity of complete strangers. Hard to feel foreign even in a totally unfamiliar place.
Here we are, stuck in the sand at Punto Conejo. Like, really really stuck. Miles away from literally anything. With everything we own in the dirt (to shed some weight). Luckily we were rescued by a local guy named Pancho who lived nearby. He was our savior. We gave him some US dollars for his help and shared a few cervezas. He came back with the most amazing fresh oysters we have ever had, hand picked himself, from the beach in front of his house, literally the size of dinner plates. Incredible! We enjoyed this delicious moment of connection. To give and to receive, in equal proportion. This is what life is all about my friends.
Alas, after almost a month in Baja and a couple of days before the big election which got anxious and decided to jump on the ferry one day. La Paz was a nice enough little city and the beaches north of there were wonderful quiet and beautiful, but the mainland was calling to us loudly. We found Baja to be a very special place. Still wild and untouched in this crazy world of industry, commercialism and tourist high rises. The Sea of Cortez is crystal clear, full of sealife and it's beaches are pristine and desolate outside of a few small towns. The people were warm and welcoming and we always felt completely safe, especially south of Ensenada. We were happy to have finally discovered this unique corner of the world for ourselves.
To make the crossing to the mainland we opted for the TMC freighter ferry. It is cheaper than the Baja Ferries passenger ferry and being that it is a commercial ferry it is expected you come equipped with your own sleeping quarters: perfect for overlanders and truck drivers alike. The sailing lasts about 16 hours and cost half as much as the other ship. Before we set sail, we also made sure to acquire our Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit from the Banjercito adjacent to the harbor. This is required for the mainland and to ensure we have no issues upon exiting the country into Guatemala or Belize. The whole process of getting the TVIP, customs, truck weighing (6400lbs) and tickets for the ship was a breeze. God bless Mexicans for keeping things simple! We drove onto the ship listening to Joey repeatedly crying, "A boat, a boat!" We all loved to be on board the ship: new sensations, the open water and the next leg of our journey on the mainland. We were on our way to Mazatlan.