Back to Basics in Baja: a family holiday

Holiday tally (10 days, party of 12) – weight gained: 63 pounds; bottles of tequila consumed: 4; cerveza: 364; bouts of tourista (aka Montezuma’s revenge): 3, mild; stops by federales with guns; 5; Live scorpion encounters: 2 

Tijuana has a long and fond reputation as a bawdy sex-and-drugs border town where you go to drown your sorrows when you’re on the run from the law or a less-than-gracious ex. But below Tijuana is a narrow, 1100-mile-long peninsula called Baja California, which separates the Pacific Ocean from the Sea of Cortez. I’ve come to love this peninsula, not least for its weird and wonderful deserts, beautiful beaches, fabulous food, and cheap beer and tequila. And I’m not the only one – tourism is now Baja California’s biggest industry and every year millions of revelers head south of the border.

I can thank my California-based father and stepmother for my latest drive down the peninsula. With a move back to New Zealand imminent, my father organized a family-and-friends road trip. Ten days before Christmas, our 12-strong band of Kiwis and Californians takes to the road in a convoy of four-wheel drives. I have the distinction of being the oldest of my generation on the trip, and the only 31-year-old I know on a family holiday as a child rather than a parent.

From our California mountain village we drive south through San Diego to the international border, where this affluent American city meets Mexico’s Tijuana. We join a stream of American holidayers and drive straight through. It’s not so easy the other way. Every day thousands of Mexicans queue to cross the border to study or work in the United States. And every night a few hundred more make a moonlit dash across the mile-wide no-man’s-land that separates the two countries, hoping to evade the U.S. border patrol.

We bypass Tijuana and head for the trans-peninsular highway along a road flanked with high corrugated iron fencing. As the road climbs higher, the fence changes to wire mesh and we can see the skyscrapers and marinas of San Diego across the dusty divide. We pass a group of young hombres heating a pan of beans beside the metal fence, perhaps fueling up for the night’s run.

The Pacific soon comes into view, and the narrow highway winds along steep scrubby cliffs. Clusters of brightly plastered new housing developments overlook the ocean. The fast lane is blocked with tumbleweeds – one of the giant balls makes its own dash for freedom, right into the grill of the sleek American convertible traveling in front of us.

Just north of Ensenada we stop in the beachside village of La Fonda. We check into a pink stucco hotel, then take a leisurely stroll on the beach to watch the sun set golden over the Pacific. We regroup later at the restaurant bar. Itching to get into the Mexico mood, we ask the resident mariachi band to play Guantanamera. But perhaps our television-induced stereotype is false – they’re not familiar with the song and fade out after one verse. It seems the band is more familiar with Elvis and the Beach Boys than the Latin “classics”. The restaurant soon fills with a crowd of locals and tourists, enjoying the show and the spectacular meals. I choose a traditional Acapulco dish – giant shrimps in a shredded coconut batter with a sweet coconut paste dipping sauce. Rachel, my chef-sister, says the taste is like licking someone “who dropped an ice cream on their coconut suntan lotion covered skin”.

The next morning, we stop in Ensenada for a supermarket stock-up. A once traditional fishing village grown to a city of 200,000, Ensenada is now on the cruise ship beat, but maintains the character and feel of a working city. The wharves are buzzing with fishing boats, fish markets and hopeful pelicans. We join a throng of tourists and locals, all of us potential customers for the rows of open-fronted taco joints into which noisy merchants are trying to entice us. We oblige – the fish tacos alone are worth the drive to Ensenada. Fresh white fish, lightly battered and deep fried, served in a warm corn tortilla. We add shredded lettuce, cilantro, hot green chili, roasted red chili and yogurt from a vibrant row of bulbous glasses.

Papa is soon checking his watch and tapping his feet, and we’re on to the next scheduled stop – the fish market. In the cool, dark market we banter with the jocular fish sellers, feigning horror at some of their wares. We pass on the swordfish, barracuda and squid, and opt for a huge bag of giant camarones (shrimps) for dinner. Rachel and I, along with our respective partners, then commandeer the Land Rover and hit the road, last in the convoy. We are temporarily rule- and schedule-free, but are soon pulled up for failing to join the convoy in a gas stop in a nameless little town. “You must be more observant!” Papa shouts after chasing us for miles down the road. Duly chastised, indignant, we open a six pack of cold cerveza and put on a CD. Rachel glares out the window and starts a dead animal count. (Day one tally: II dogs, 1 coyote, 1 fox, 1 horse, 1 cat, 2 unidentified.)

As we head south toward the sun, we are regularly stopped at police, military and federale checkpoints. Each checkpoint is manned by a band of macho youths in army greens, all packing mucho heat – heavy pistols for the guys in charge and huge automatic rifles for the young-uns. As we approach our third checkpoint we notice the ninos jostling for position, competing for the opportunity to play el jefe. They order us out of our vehicles with a wave of their guns, detain us for a tense five minutes as they give our vehicles a cursory search for concealed weaponry, then herd us on. It’s all for the protection of tourists, signs in English and Spanish reassure us. As the checkpoints become more frequent, we’re glad for our parental escort – the gunmen seem less inclined to bother our carload of “youths” when they know we have our own jefe in the van ahead.

Scorpions and cactus spikes in the Desierto Central 

Less predictable than the checkpoints are the gas stations. There’s no telling what’s opened or (more likely) closed since the last Lonely Planet guide was published, and at those stations that are open, queues of 20 cars are not uncommon. At our first desert gas stop, the roadside is lined with rickety stalls and vans selling tamales and tacos. From years of watching American television in my New Zealand home, I’m familiar with the phrase “hot tamale” but had no idea that a tamale was a real thing. For my 50 cents a smiling woman hands me a small package wrapped in a cornhusk, and tied with a piece of the same. Inside, a thick corn paste, cooked to the consistency of a semolina pudding, surrounds a hot and spicy chicken, tomato and chili mixture. Muchas gracias.

As I return for a second tamale, I marvel at the miles of dusty nothingness surrounding this little oasis of gas and food, and wonder where all the stall-holders live. Sometimes the only signs of habitation on the long Baja highway are the little shrines, replete with Madonnas, flowers and candles that appear regularly on sharp comers and long straights. Some even have tinsel and flashing lights. They mark roadside deaths, and there are too many of them on this vergeless two-lane highway.

We drive until evening, then set up camp 3,ooo feet above sea level, pitching our tents on the sandy desert floor by a large pile of boulders. Our campsite lies 15 miles from the nearest town, but it’s just two minutes walk to a shack of dried cardon cactus and Mexican fan palms that houses a generator and a fridge full of cold cerveza. The gas might be in short supply in Baja, but you‘ll never be left wanting for a beer – all along the highway are bold Tecate, Pacifico, Corona and Sol signs, promising cerveza fria for the weary traveler.

We gather firewood as the sun sets red behind the fields of giant cardon cactus, Dr Suess-like cirio trees and red spiky cactus. Once alight, the dried cactus spits vicious spikes out of the fire. As the embers burn low, we hear the howl of coyotes from a distant rock pile.

We spend another day and night on the desert plateau, climbing the giant boulder piles and exploring an abandoned onyx mine. We’re sad to leave the beautiful spot, but press on, past fields of cactus and rocks, through dusty disheveled towns, to Guerrero Negro and the border between the states of Baja California Norte and Sur.

Four days ago, we committed the bureaucratic sin of not having our tourist visas stamped at the San Diego-Tijuana border. We’ve heard tales of huge bribes solicited from renegade travelers like us, but it seems this border has been cleaned up. An older hombre with sad eyes, a sullen mouth and a moustache ushers us into the immigration room, and while agricultural officers spray our vehicles’ tires and confiscate our oranges and potatoes, we get our tourist cards stamped.

The first town across the border is San Ignacio, an oasis of date palms and citrus trees surrounding an 18th century lava-block church. We pitch our tents in a well-kept campsite, inhabited by a band of Mexico’s ubiquitous little dogs and a donkey we name William S. Burro. The donkey ignores us, concentrating instead on the pair of gray flannel pants he is eating, but the dogs accompany us on the short walk into town to visit the church and buy fresh flour tortillas. The town is remote enough for the locals to regard us with curiosity. Boys laugh and call to us as they kick a soccer ball around the narrow cobbled streets. They happily offer to pose for snapshots, then run off to resume their game. Back at the campsite, our dinner is chorizo wrapped in warm tortillas with hot salsa, with generous margaritas from the campsite bar. As we sit around the fire after dinner, a scorpion crawls out from under a rock. He is small – about two inches long with his tail straight out – but scary nonetheless, especially to us Kiwis who have never seen a scorpion. I freeze him in my torch beam while my brave step-brother picks him up with a shovel and flicks him away.

Later in the night, I wake to find my brother chasing the donkey in the dappled moonlight. William S. Burro is making a getaway with the tent in his mouth.

Winnebagos and palapos beside the Sea of Cortez

As we descend from the peninsula`s central plateau, the air heats up and we get our first views of the sparkling blue Sea of Cortez. We follow the Santa Rosalia river from the oasis town of Mulegé to a beachfront bar, where we down shrimp tacos and make snorkeling and kayaking plans. South of Mulegé, the Bahia de Concepcion has scores of sheltered little beaches, each lined with three- sided or circular huts built from dried palm leaves called palapas – a welcome new addition since we free-camped here five years before. We find a quiet beach with enough vacant palapas for our party, park our vehicles between a jeep and a caravan, and get busy lazing on the beach. The sand is white, the water is still and warm and the snorkeling is fine. Only five miles across the blue-green sea are the cactus-clad cliffs of the Sierra Los Gavilanes range, sheltering us from the wind and the waves of me Sea of Cortez.

A family of Mexicans arrives soon after we settle in, offering blankets, hammocks and jewelry – hitting up the new guys. Many of the other campers are here for the winter.

Katarina, an American massage therapist, says hi and offers her services. “Mine‘s the palapa down front.”

Her friend Bill greets us with enthusiasm. “We play volleyball every afternoon – you here manana?” Bill says he came to Baja to get away from American consumerism, “but now these folks are becoming Americans,” he adds, gesturing to the hawkers. “They want toys, stuff.” Bill has a home in Mulegé for when it gets windy on the beach. He often finds that when he’s been absent for some time, in Mulegé or back in the United States, people have been living in his beach caravan. Not that he minds. “They usually leave it better stocked than I did – and always with a thank you note.”

These beaches used to be obscure and hard to find. There’s still no running water or electricity, but in addition to the palapas, many of the beaches have a makeshift bar and ours even has a long-drop toilet. Bill resents the change in the area and the increase in tourists, but shrugs as he looks out at the bay and says, “There’s nowhere else to go.”

It’s certainly busier than when we were last here, but Bill says that in fact it’s relatively quiet. He puts it down to recent bulletins on 20/20, 60 Minutes and Dateline: 28 tourists were murdered in Mexico last year. “A body came up here last Christmas day,” says Bill. He enthralls us with tales of drug smuggling in the Sea of Cortez and helicopter gunfights in San Sebastian, but we feel so relaxed and happy it all seems rather hard to believe.

Taking a walk along the next beach, we encounter a startling array of buses, 4x4s and recreational vehicles. Retired North Americans on the Winnebago trail fill the beach. Fred and Olga greet us – “Welcome to our beach!” This is their sixth winter on the bay. They’re not put off by the 2000-mile drive from icy British Colombia. Before they hit the road Olga stocks the bus with enough hamburger parties, turkey, pickles and relish to last the winter. They meet the same gang here every year. As the sun sinks low in the warm winter sky, Fred and Olga play host to their fellow campers. Earl, Norm, Bob and Harold play a game of horseshoes while the ladies park their plastic lawn chairs on the Astroturf and enjoy a cold drink or three. Later in the evening, the gang adjourns to the other end of the tiny bay. “Wanda’s is the party palapa,” confides Fred. “That’s where we do our dancing.” Otherwise it’s into the rigs for some American television, thanks to the beach’s plethora of satellite dishes.

Back in our own campsite, the family circles the campfire, drinking beer or tequila from enamel mugs, while Rachel makes us a spicy paella with local camarones and pago pago, served with tortillas warmed over the embers. As the sun sets, a group of vultures circle overhead before they settle to land, one on each of the five branches of a nearby cardon cactus.

The locals are back early the next morning with a selection of fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs and ice for sale. As we’re finishing our breakfast of huevos rancheros, a long-haired, bearded man motors into the bay. A little brown and black dog, poised on the prow of the boat, howls at the approaching shore, Johnny has come to collect our $5-per-palapa fees. He lives on a boat offshore and has been here since 1985. He administers the palapas, built recently by locals who bought concessions to the beachfront lots. Some of them are now leased permanently, mostly by Americans.

“You’re not a travel writer, are you?” he asks in response to my notepad and pen. “The place is getting too busy. In two or three years it will be full of permanentes.” After taking our fee, Johnny calls his dog and ambles on up the beach in search of other new inhabitants.

My secret is out, and it launches my stepmother on a rabid tirade about the evils of travel writing. “You’re not writing about my Bajal” she demands, clattering plates and holding me personally responsible for all future exploitation of the peninsula. My father and stepmother have come here every year for the 12 years they’ve lived in California, and they resent the increasing commercialization and American influence. A family argument ensues. I try to explain and defend my travel writing as offering a sensitive and personal vicarious account, as opposed to a tourist-focused advertisement, but I can’t help feeling guilty. And perhaps my guilt should be shared – we might feel smug for choosing out of the way campsites and avoiding the established tourist zones, but aren’t we therefore jeopardizing the few places not already “spoiled” by tourism?

As we pack up our campsite the next day, Rachel observes that our stepmother shares my stress; our voice of temperance has become partial to a slosh of tequila in her enamel mug. For breakfast.

Too many nights sleeping in tents on the sand has made us all a little scratchy. We make our way south to the state capital of La Paz and check into the Posada Santa Fe. Billed as “a romantic inn on the Sea of Cortez,” the new hotel was built around a stand of 1oo-year-old palm trees on La Paz’s main oceanfront promenade.

Ed, our host, reveals that there used to be a restaurant on the site. The owner, a gambling man, took the ultimate gamble one night and lost at Russian roulette. The restaurant fell to ruin, squatters took over, and the building eventually burned to the ground. Ed bought the site in 1997 and built the Posada Santa Fe. He entertains us with tales of cats entering the house through closed doors and windows, and of strange footsteps in the night. “It happens often,” he says with a shrug.

Twenty-two years in Mexico has made this American matter-of-fact about such supernatural events, but he’s a smart businessman. Intended to “recreate the atmosphere of classic Mexican haciendas,” the multi-leveled and many-balconied inn was built with local marble, cantera and clay tiles, and decorated with furniture and arts from Guadalajara. We each retire to our rooms, built around a central paved courtyard, which are warm of shower and soft of bed. Papa finds what he believes to be a dead scorpion on the courtyard in front of his room, picks it up by the tail and throws it into the garden. It scurries away into the shadows.

The next day is for exploring. Our party splits into small groups and we soon lose each other in the crowds. The main playa promenade is full of tourist shops and restaurants, but a few blocks into the city the tourists are gone and the place is bustling with locals. As always seems to be the case in Mexico, an election is looming and the streets are covered with signs and banners proclaiming the virtues of the rival candidates. Martinez, from the PRI, is promising to “rescue Baja California” – whether from the hordes of Americans in RVs or the more traditional evils of poverty and corruption, I don’t know.

We spend hours in the local produce markets, admiring the variety of fresh and dried chilies. Rachel attracts the patient amusement of the stall-holders by insisting on learning the Spanish names for everything. On our souvenir and Christmas present hunts, however, we have trouble finding authentic Mexican goods. Easier to find are American-style gifts made from the finest Chinese plastic. Superheroes, Barbies and toy guns abound. We eventually find a hardware store selling beautifully made saddles, hats, cow bells and decorated machetes. Magic meets Catholicism in another small shop, where we buy a range of useful spells, votive candles and plaster Madonnas.

Trouble and tequila in the city of sin

South of La Paz, the cactus forest is greener and the cardon cactus are interspersed with flowering shrubs and bushes. This relative lushness seems an appropriate precursor to the approaching riches of Los Cabos.

Back at the beach, Bill had described Cabo San Lucas to us as “beyond disastrous – unbelievably ugly”. As we approach the land of surf and cerveza, frequented by rich time-sharers, spring-break hooligans and those ubiquitous retirees, our party’s stress levels begin to rise. Dehydrated and dusty, we pull into the city of sin, where the palapas have four stories, a satellite dish and a spa. The famous beach is obscured, visible only from the hacienda-like hotel complexes lining it. The dusty streets are full of tanned babes and dudes in VW beetles ready to party, music blasting from their stereos.

In the early 1900s, Cabo San Lucas was a humble fishing village. The nearby coast got a name for its sport fishing, and in the 1960s a few resort hotels were established. In 1974, after the trans-peninsular highway was completed, the federal tourism development agency moved in to create the infrastructure needed for large-scale tourist development. Now more popular than Acapulco, Los Cabos has nearly 1,000 hotel rooms, plus hundreds more in the massive white cruise ships anchored offshore. It also boasts four championship golf courses, condominiums, trailer parks, night clubs, discos – the works – all enjoyed by more than half a million exuberant tourists each year. And as with the northern stretch of Pacific coast from Tijuana to Ensenada, Los Cabos is home to tens of thousands of gringos lured by the cheap housing, cheap help, sea views and warmth, not to mention the opportunity for tax and alimony dodges. Any Web search of Los Cabos will invariably land you on the site of a real estate agent trying to sell you a time-share condo in the land of “sun filled days and fun filled nights”.

Much to our patriarch’s chagrin (“I can’t understand why you’d want anything to do with this godforsaken place!”), we insist on stopping. He sulks at the car while we gorge ourselves on shrimp quesadillas on the side of a dusty street, then head down to the beachfront markets, where we shop for the blankets, pewter and pottery we couldn’t find in La Paz.

The 18-mile corridor between Cabo San Lucas and the more traditional and unspoiled San Jose del Cabo is lined with massive hotels. We pass the lush green 18-hole golf course at the Cabo San Lucas Country Club, where hundreds of sprinklers and Mexican gardeners are busy transforming the desert so the tourists have something green and spongy on which to chase their golf balls through the hot Mexican air.

We continue east along the south coast, as the beach reverts to an unspoiled strip where desert meets ocean. We‘re heading for the holiday home of a Californian neighbor. We find it – a mansion in white stucco, plonked ostentatiously amid the rocks and cacti on the cliffside. Carol and Don finished building the place a year ago, but really, it‘s Don’s baby. A San Diego surgeon, he comes down here once a month, with the rest of the family joining him two or three times a year. Intrigued by our plans to camp on the beach below, our hosts get in their 4×4, and follow us down. They watch as we set up camp. I don’t think they’ve ever seen anyone pitch a tent before. We then continue to wow them with a beach-cooked meal. The bruschetta is cooked on a grill above the fire, the potatoes are cooked in its embers, and the salad is assembled on a table-like slab of granite. “That was the best outdoor meal I’ve ever had,” giggles Carol.

This remote place is where Don comes to take in the sun and get away from it all. There are only two other houses and a turtle reserve in sight. But not for long. “See that point down there,” he gestures to the end of the gentle bay curving out to our west. “They’re building a billion-dollar marina there.”

Two days later, it’s Christmas Day and we’re north of Los Cabos, on the wild southeast coast of the peninsula. Papa is treating us all to a stay in a 1960s fishing resort. We’ve exchanged our locally bought gifts before the communal fireplace, bashed apart a star-shaped pinata, and now we’re feasting on the dining room’s offering of shredded turkey, cheesy potatoes, and warm coleslaw. We all curse that we didn’t buy bubbly in Los Cabos, but are delighted to find some Mexican “champagne” on offer at the bar. Pricey, and with a, well, interesting taste, but what the heck, it’s Christmas. We drink toasts to our holiday, absent family, absent friends, and each other. It’s been a fabulous holiday.

RACHEL’S MEXICAN BEACH PAELLA

by Rachel Priestley

cooking oil
1 large white onion
3 cloves garlic fresh
chilies to taste
2 cups long grain rice
2 green capsicums
2 sticks celery
1 can chicken stock
4 tomatoes
4 cups water
Mexican spice, turmeric, cumin, salt, paprika
2 big handfuls of camarones (medium size fresh shrimps)
2 pago pago (or other little fish) filleted and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 bunch spring onions
1 bunch fresh cilantro

Heat the oil in a large paella pan over the fire, add the diced onion and sauté for a few minutes, then add garlic and chili and cook a further minute or two. Stir in the rice, coating it in the oil, and cook a couple of minutes before adding the capsicum and celery, then the stock. Next add the tomatoes and cook at a slow simmer until the liquid is absorbed. Place aluminum foil over the pan and stir from time to time, adding more liquid until the rice is almost cooked. Then add four cups of water, salt and spices. Stir well and bring to a boil. Add the fish and peeled shrimp five minutes before serving and pull aside to slow down the cooking process. Lastly, add the chopped fresh cilantro and spring onion. When the paella is ready, warm flour tortillas over the camp- fire by placing on the grill plate for a few seconds each side. Eat heartily, and wash down with fine Mexican beer (Pacifico or Tecate are best) and/or shots of tequila!

This story was originally published in an American magazine called PASSIONFRUIT in summer 2000.

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