Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Baja Trip Report

ATV Tour
Migriño, BCS

November 5, 2006

We have an early flight to Salt Lake City before heading to Los Cabos. 4:45 A.M. and we're getting out of bed. Its fucking early. And I'm not feeling great this morning. Its going to be a long flight.

I'm sick with a head cold all the way to Los Cabos. I manage to grab some Dayquil in SLC which helps, but not much. I've run out of tissues and my handkerchief is soaked through and through. Isn't vacation fun!?

When we arrive in the San Jose del Cabo airport we pass through customs and immigration. Immediately after customs we are welcomed to Mexico. "¡Bienvenidos á México! How can I screw you with transportation to your hotel, señor?" We are instantly mobbed by people hawking all kinds of transportation options who tell us if we don't travel with them, we won't be able to get to our hotel. I have never felt so pressured into taking some kind of bus in my life! The cost is $24 for the two of us, I give the lady $25 and she gives me a ticket, but no change. When I ask for my dollar, she asks me if I think she is trying to steal from me? Do I think a dollar really makes a difference to her?

ATV Tour
Migriño, BCS
Yes, puta, I do think you're stealing from me. I want my dollar. We get our change and head to the hotel. This airport is fucked.

We arrive at the Hilton los Cabos and are welcomed by the staff. They explain to us that we don't need to go check in at the counter, instead they take us to the bar for a margarita. Dayquil plus liquor? ¡Claro! They bring us our check-in materials and show us to the room. The hotel is very nice and we have an ocean view room right above the pool. More Dayquil, down the hatch.

Its at this moment that I realize I haven't packed a bathing suit. Oops. I throw on some shorts and we head down to the pool. After a quick swim we went to the pool bar — in the pool — for another drink. I remind Steph that people who sit in the pool at the bar and drink all day don't just have freakishly large bladders.

Welcome to our ool. Notice there is no "p" in our ool. Let's keep it that way.

Since I'm still feeling a bit like death warmed over we decide to take a shower and head out to dinner. We head over to San Jose del Cabo, one of the two major towns that make up Los Cabos. I ask the bellman where to go for dinner, he suggests a place we found in Lonely Planet Baja called El Ahorchado (The Hangman). So we take a cab to the center of town to look around and then decide to walk to the restaurant. Downtown is absolutely deserted on a Sunday night, except for the guys trying to sell us a timeshare. Por favor, no me moleste, pendejo. I don't want your timeshare.

We start walking to El Ahorcado with directions from one of the timeshare guys. Why are we the only gringos out here? After 20 minutes or so we finally get to the restaurant and sit down for dinner. El Ahorcado is a taqueria frequented mostly by locals. You sit down at a table with a few bowls of different salsas, pickled vegetables like carrots, potatoes and red onions and some lime & cilantro. The menu is mostly tacos of all sorts with some quesadillas and queso fundido. We order some queso fundido, tacos and two quesadiallas, one each with squash blossoms and huitlacoche (corn mushroom a.k.a. corn smut a.k.a. Ustilago maydis for the genetics nerds among us). The food is amazing! For less than $20 we leave fat and happy. We'll be back! This was one of the places mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook, and definitely a hit.

Tropic of Cancer
Off to bed very early...

November 6, 2006

Good Morning, México!

We wake up early and catch the sunrise on the balcony with a hot cup of coffee before heading down to breakfast. Since I stay with Hilton hotels so much we're entitled to a free continental breakfast every day. A darn good thing, considering its $15/person! We find out that it includes not just the usual bread, fruit, juice and coffee but also smoked salmon and smoked marlin, yogurt, meats and cheeses. We can eat well and eat healthy for breakfast, what a deal.

After breakfast we pick up our rental car in the hotel rental office. Its a brand new Chevy Malibu with only 150 Km on the odometer — that's just under 100 miles for the metric challenged among us. Having driven in Mexico before I recall that Mexican drivers are fast and absolutely crazy, so we coin the phrase "When in Mexico, drive like a Mexican". And I did! The speed limit is 60 - 70 Km/hr (~40 - 45 MPH), but we're doing 100 - 120 Km/hr (64 - 75 MPH) over to the Mega, a local store like a Super Target, for some provisions. Tequila, margarita mix, beer, snacks and a bathing suit are all we need for now, so we head back to the hotel and down to the pool with drinks in hand. Why pay $10 for a margarita at the bar when I can spend $20 on a bottle of tequila and margarita mix and make my own?

Icecream Vendor
La Paz, BCS
The pool is gorgeous, its an infinity pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the perfect place to do some reading in the sun. After a few hours we head back to the room...

What the hell? Why does our room smell like a sewer?!

The maintenance man comes up with a bottle of Lysol to clear the air. The hotel sends up a bellman and tells us we have a new room waiting for us. Hopefully it doesn't smell like mi culo. Before we can get settled in we need to change and meet our bus to head to Migriño for an ATV tour along the Pacific beaches. Our driver picks up another couple at a hotel in Cabo San Lucas on the way. They own Ripple Run, a hotel in the Pacific Northwest, and proceed to tell us how much better it is in Oregon. If its better there, why didn't you stay, pray tell? Apparently they never travel on the same flight so they don't die together if the plane goes down. Freaks. I happen to be reading Freakanomics on this trip and the book discusses just this kind of misunderstanding of risks. They perceive a high risk in dying on a flight, but they stand a better chance of dying while driving — especially in Mexico! However, since they drive all the time and are in control of the car, they perceive the risk to be lower, even though the statistics show otherwise. Fools.

At Migriño, we meet our guide and get an introduction to riding an ATV. We decided to share an ATV with me driving and Steph holding on for dear life. The guide takes us up through the hills and then down to the beach where we're set free for 45 minutes to tear it up and go wherever we want. The first thing we both notice is the trash strewn along the trails and beach. Its unfortunate, but the environment is not well cared for in Mexico outside of the major tourist areas. We have an absolute blast down on the beach and dunes before heading back to the top of one of the hills nearby to watch the sunset over the Pacific. I highly recommend using Baja's for a fun afternoon!

The Road to
La Candelaria, BCS
We get back to the hotel, make a quick run to San Jose del Cabo for dinner — more time share hawkers! — and back to bed. This room sure is noisy...

November 7, 2006

Neither of us slept well last night. The location of the new room is very close to the lobby and stairs down to the pool, beach, etc. It was extremely noisy and woke us up multiple times through the night. Before breakfast we talk to the front desk and ask them to find us a quieter room.

Before hitting the road, we needed a good meal to get us going. So we headed down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. After finishing our meal we get a bill for almost $50! We ask the waiter why we received such a large bill and he explained that we at the buffet, not the continental breakfast. So we engage the manager who explains that the continental breakfast does not include the meats, cheeses, yogurt, etc. that we were explained were part of the deal yesterday. The manager continued to explain that we are not allowed to go to the continental breakfast buffet and take our own food, we need a waiter to bring us the food that we want. WTF?

Today is our first day on the road. We drove up Mexico 1 on the eastern side of the Baja to La Paz (see the map). We made a few stops along the way including the Tropic of Cancer, marked with a large shrine the the Virgin of Guadelupe and in a small town called El Triunfo to check out some local art. It was all crap, unfortunately. The guide book called the art colorful baskets made from reeds. Instead, the baskets are the color of the natural reeds and not of very high quality. Bummer. This is the first of many inaccurate entries in the Lonely Planet guidebook.

Heading north through the mountains the road is twisty and Steph was looking a little green from car sickness. She swears it's not my driving. I don't believe her.

La Candelaria, BCS
We arrive in La Paz just before lunch and head down to the oceanfront called the malecón where we walked around and found some lunch. We had hoped to do some sightseeing and shopping here, but there wasn't much going on. Instead we headed inland where we went to a small potter's shop called Ibarra where they make some traditional pottery that is only sold there in the factory. We bought a few small pieces and headed across town to a weaver's cooperative where we hoped to buy some tapestries for the house. All of the good stuff was imported from Teotítlan del Valle in Oaxaca, hundreds of miles away on the mainland! I was there years ago and I'm more sure than ever that we need to go back to Oaxaca some day to buy some woven rugs. Needless to say we didn't buy anything! Yet more bad info from the guidebook.

La Paz was very hot, so we found an icecream shop along the malecón where we tried a few flavors. First I checked out elote flavor. Imagine this: corn icecream! It tasted like corn! A bit odd for me! I settled on a pineapple and coconut icecream — think piña colada — and Steph had nanche icecream. What's a nanche (caution, poorly translated Spanish Wikipedia link!) you ask? We had no idea, but it was good! Turns out its a tropical fruit that is common in the Baja. Who knew?

Back on the road we drove south on Mexico 19, heading down the western side of the Baja. We decided to make the entire loop around the southern Baja in a counterclockwise direction on this day, plus Mexico 19 is a lot nicer road than Mexico 1. Our next stop was Todos Santos, a small community with a large number of artists, including some Americans. Since we got into town late, we didn't get to see a lot of art, but we did find some gorgeous locally made pottery in one shop. We also ran across an eco-tour company named Todos Santos Eco Adventures. After speaking to some people in town we decided to take a guided hike along the ocean cliffs which we scheduled for Friday morning.

One of the shopkeepers told us about a great hotel al ong the ocean just to the west of town. Posada la Poza is a gorgeous, small hotel in the most unlikely place at the end of a rutted dirt road. Getting here in our Chevy Malibu was interesting. I read the warning pasted on the windshield that the car was meant for on-road use only, off-road usage is not covered by the car's insurance. Oops. Posada la Poza is absolutely stunning! We sat on the whale watching deck and had a margarita as the sun splashed. If you ever find yourself in Baja, you owe it to yourself to spend some time in Todos Santos and spend a night, or more, in Posada la Poza.

Back on the road, we do a death defying drive back to our hotel under the cover of darkness. I think driving at night down here is absolutely nuts. I don't think it was the best choice for us due to the crazy roads and even crazier drivers.

Speaking of Mexican roads...

Every time I have been in Mexico I noted that many major roads — not interstates like we have in the US, but major "country" roads that connect cities and towns — head right through the center of town. This means that all traffic heads right through the middle of the town, including locals, tourists and all of the truck traffic. Unfortunately, many of these towns have no stop signs or traffic lights. What they do have is speedbumps, and lots of them! So if you see the words "Tope Aquí" on a sign by the side of the road, SLOW DOWN. Otherwise, your Chevy Malibu might wind up airborne. Also, watch for "Reductor de Velocidad", same shit, different pile.

We get back to the hotel and change rooms to a junior suite at the far end of the hotel, away from all the noise of the previous room. Unfortunately, the maid has decided to throw away a number of papers we had in the room (receipts, etc.), some of which we needed. The front desk manager was embarrassed and sent us a bottle of wine and dessert to make up for it. Nice touch!

November 8, 2006

Today is the designated pool day. I was up at 5:45 AM, head down to the pool and stake out a bed poolside for the remainder of the day...

Another morning, another breakfast at the hotel. After being seated, we're asked if we're going to have the buffet or continental breakfast. Of course, being cheap as we are, we want the continental breakfast. The waiter tells us where to go for the food... but wait! Yesterday we were told the waiter would get food for us. Steph goes off to talk to the manager and figure out what the deal is. The story has changed... again! We are allowed to get our own food (yay!) but we are limited to "fruit, juice, bread & coffee!". He so kindly spells it out for Steph with lots of hand gestures. Make up your mind, pendejo, and stick with it.

We spend the day poolside drinking margaritas and beers and sleeping under the canopy spread above the bed. This is the life...

Sunset on the beach
San Jose del Cabo, BCS
On a friend's recommendation we made dinner reservations at the Sea Grill at Las Ventanas, the swankiest resort in Los Cabos. We had an amazing 7-course tasting menu of Mexican foods from around the country as we sat right on the beach with the waves crashing nearby on a moonlit night. Unbelievable! As we ate our dinner they had a number of fire dancers performing an act on the beach. Hot bodies, lots of fire, dancing and drumming. This is the one moment I didn't have my camera that I really wish I did.

November 9, 2006

Today we're headed to La Candelaria, a small town about 20 miles outside of Cabo San Lucas in the mountains. The only way to get there is a dirt road using the directions we found in the Lonely Planet book. There is some locally made pottery from this small ranching village of less than 100 people which we read about and decide to check out. Perhaps we'll find some cool art or just have a good story to tell.

The directions to the road to La Candelaria are decent. The first challenge comes when we reach a three-way fork in the road. The book says to take the rightmost fork. We do and wind up on a dirt road through a small, poor suburb of Cabo San Lucas. After asking around for directions we figure out we're on the wrong road and manage to find the right road. It was the middle fork after all.

A short distance up this dirt road we pass a gate which is manned by an old gentleman who works for the ranchers. His job is to prevent poaching of the animals, so he lets two crazy Americans in a totally inappropriate car pass. We're on a dirt road... we keep driving. The directions make vague references to forks in the road where we have to turn, but our mile markers are now all out of whack because of our detour. We come to a fork in the road which looks right... so we take it. Wrong turn! We backtrack to Yonke Chinos, a junkyard out in the middle of nowhere. I ask for directions and get some half-assed directions which don't match the guidebook. Essentially, stay straight on this dirt road for 50 Km or more... sure, why not?!

Waves crashing on the beach
San Jose del Cabo, BCS
We drive for 20 min or so and see no landmarks. Are we lost? I flag down an oncoming SUV. He rolls down his window and I say, "Señor, puede ayudarme, por favor." (Mister, can you help me, please?). At this very moment I realize he's speaking perfect English to me and doesn't speak Spanish. He tells me we're on the right road in the wrong car and can't understand why we'd want to go to La Candelaria. We press on through some small towns and more stops to see if we're on the right path. It takes us almost 2 hours to go 20 miles, but finally we make it.

We find some locals and ask who has pottery for sale, they send us down a small rutted road to a old lady's home. Amongst clucking hens and a few goats we find her and she invites us into her ramshackle home. We take a seat and she pulls out some poor quality pottery with the prices marked in chalk on the side of each piece. Not exactly what I was looking for! However, we've come this far and disrupted this old woman, so we buy a small piece for 50 pesos (~$5). While $5 isn't a lot of money to you or I, $5 will make a difference in her life. We thank her for her hospitality and walk back up to town. After checking out another artists wares — conveniently made by someone else in another town — we declare this trip a bust and head home. The sign on the way out of La Candelaria says 22Km to Cabo San Lucas, the Lonely Planet guidebook tells you this is inaccurate and its really 27Km. Lonely Planet is wrong again. Its 22Km back to the paved roads on the outskirts of Cabo. We did finally manage to find some of the random landmarks (a fig tree in the arroyo with a small shrine, for instance, is only visible on the return trip!).

We make another trip to the Mega for some more tequila, another trip to El Ahorcado for dinner and then back to the hotel for the night. On the way home we got gas... and I got ripped off for $45 by the gas station attendant. I handed him a 500 peso bill, he handed me back a 50 peso bill and told me that I owed him 375 pesos. I apologized, handed him 500 pesos, got my change and left. Suddenly, I realized that I had just been screwed out of 450 pesos (~$45). Crap. Not a good way to end an otherwise good day.

November 10, 2006

Cliffs on the Pacific
South of Todos Santos,
We wake up very early for the drive to Todos Santos to meet our guide for the hike. After a hearty breakfast in Todos Santos we meet our guide, Mauricio and take a short drive down to one of the local fishing beaches for the start of the hike. We hiked up ~200m/660 feet and then headed along the cliffs and through the rocks as we made our way south. Mauricio was amazing, he knew most of the local flora and fauna and stopped to point them out along the way. We walked through the various cacti and scrub brush along the way. There's no real trail here, we blazed our own trail along the cliffs, past the old port and down to another beach where we had lunch under a palapa (thatched roof open air hut) on the beach. The hike itself was only ~4 miles, but it took us almost 4 hours due to the numerous stops we made along the way to take pictures and discuss the history of the area. November is the very beginning of the whale watching season, so we got lucky seeing a few humpback wales blowing water out of their blowholes off the coast.

On top of the world!
South of Todos Santos,
Though I didn't notice it until the next day, I had apparently stepped on one of the thorny bushes along the hike. Since I was wearing tennis shoes I didn't have very good protection from the thorns. I got lucky, a 2" thorn pierced the sole of my shoe and, thankfully, exited the sole on the outer edge, rather than inserting itself directly into my foot! Next time, I'm bringing hiking boots.

November 11, 2006

Its our last day! Time to pack up and go home. Looking back, it was a great trip. We had a ton of fun, despite some problems along the way. We drank... a LOT! Two bottles of tequila (700mL each), a six pack of beer, a bottle of wine... and that's just what we had in our hotel room!

South of Todos Santos,
Will we go back? Probably not to Los Cabos, but I'd definitely head back to Todos Santos again in the future.

One last item to note. We made it back to Atlanta safely and were getting ready to head through customs with our stuff. I reached for something in Steph's hand and we managed to drop the piece of pottery we had purchased in Todos Santos! Oh crap! Now its in pieces... Steph is trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, but it will never be the same. Bummer.

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