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...