The hidden beauty of La Paz

You don’t have to look too far to appreciate the initial appeal of La Paz – mountain backdrop, sweeping crescent bay and hillside streets climbing up from the beachside malecon.

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Walking the malecon is the best way to orient yourself to La Paz. It runs the length of the historic centre and is lined with benches and palm trees. Amazingly, it is utterly free of touts pestering you about timeshares or boat rides. In fact, since the main road divides the malecon from the shops and restaurants, a stroll along the water lives up to the city’s name – Peace.  People-watching is what it’s all about.

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Maritime-themed sculptures dot the boardwalk – dolphins, mermaids and whales. We had fun watching the little boy to the right in this photo. We walked along with him as he took great joy in running away from his mother, grandmother and auntie – all of them calling him back with zero success.

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The northern part of the malecon is home to a great number of fishing boats – some of them still in use, others obviously retired.

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The southern end of the malecon has tour operators taking boats out to Espiritu Santo – part of a UNESCO World Heritage site comprising hundreds of islands. Snorkelling, diving and kayaking are all part of the tours and swimming with whale sharks is a huge draw.  Our timing was off – on the calm days we were doing other sightseeing and a number of days were simply too windy for the boats to go out safely.  We will try our luck when we stop here on our way back north.

Jacques Cousteau holds his rightful place on the malecon, casting his gaze over the Sea of Cortez, which he called “the world’s aquarium.”

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Even though the temperatures have not been that warm (18-22 degrees),  the sun is still very intense. I’ve given up on vanity  and we’re never without hats and water bottles.

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Most Mexican towns of any size have a cathedral and a plaza that form the centre of town. We parked in front of La Catedral de La Paz and returned to find pilons around our truck; they were attempting to clear space for a wedding. We wanted to watch for a glimpse of the bride, but needed to move out of there.

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We checked out the Saturday market, but were a bit disappointed. We were hoping for a great sprawling Mexican market with chickens and vegetables piled high and electronics and used clothing, but this one was quite small and catering to the gringo market. Vegan pesto, heirloom tomatoes, beach glass jewellery and artisan baking.

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All was not lost – this Italian woman and her son were grilling up sausages, but the real draw for us was the porchetta – a tender pork shoulder we had eaten before in Italy that could make you weep. A toasted bun, tomatoes, red onion, parsley pesto and as you can see from the photo, she didn’t skimp on the porchetta – whoa, so good.

When I commented to her about the number of Italians living in Mexico and why she moved from her home country, her answer was this, “Simple calculus. Italy has a negative birth rate and I wanted a future for myself and my children. My son was four when we moved (he is now mid-20s).” Although the economic advantage of moving to Mexico (for work) isn’t immediately apparent, it seems Italy and Mexico have a lot in common – the importance of family, appreciation for good food, proximity to the sea, rich agriculture and sun. It makes sense.

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Food in La Paz is very good; there is a thriving restaurant scene here. Admittedly, many of the restaurants and cafes are geared to the gringos, but this cafe had a good mix of clientele.

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This cafe, Doce Cuarenta, is a tourist hub. Very good coffee, baking and lunch items.

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We popped into this taco shop, which was mainly populated by Mexicans – usually a good sign. Communal tables, open kitchen, slightly gummy Tupperware containers of salsa, onion, cabbage and pots of salsa of varying degrees of heat.

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And the food – so fresh, so delicious. We had smoked marlin tacos, a “burro” with smoked marlin stuffed into a poblano pepper and topped with cheese, and my favourite – shrimp ceviche on tostado.

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We visited the Regional Museum of Anthropology and History, a small but well-presented history of Baja from prehistory to the 1910 revolution and beyond. All the signs were in Spanish, so we were able to get the gist, but missed the nuance of what we were reading.

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One section was photography devoted to cowboys, and the Mexican’s love of their horses.

I loved these two photos; they each capture essential elements of that life.

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La Paz is far more than the malecon, the restaurants and the tourist attractions. The hidden beauty of La Paz lies in discovering the little treasures that can be found by wandering the streets just back from the beachfront.

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A tile store and adjacent home.

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A sculpture outside a hotel

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Simple and perfect – white walls, red door, elegant sign, wrought iron, potted plants.

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Less perfect, but still interesting – more typically Mexican.  Great colours.

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The elegant Teatro Juarez

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A street view to the sea

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The travelling minstrels. Sooner or later, you will be serenaded by a singer with guitar, a mariachi band, or three old fellows who have played together for years. Levels of talent vary greatly and often they are largely ignored, but it’s fun and there are always extra pesos to drop in the hat.

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We stumbled upon this little park, tucked in off the street, with shady spots for picnics and a beautiful sculpture fountain. La Paz has a number of intriguing tiny parks – you just need to keep your eyes peeled.

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We talked to this family from Tijuana who were playing chess together. They told us they had driven straight from the border in 20 hours – obviously ignoring the often-repeated driving-in-Mexico mantra – “never drive at night.” Dad appeared to be winning.

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We drove out to Tecolote Beach, about a half hour outside La Paz, to see if the beach would be suitable for our trailer. Beach camping in Baja is incredible and in many cases is free, but not all beaches are accessible if you’re hauling a trailer or driving a big RV.

As it turned out, Tecolote Beach is completely appropriate, but can be quite windy. Since the weather for the next few days is calling for high winds, we will give it a try on our way back.

There is no water nor sani dump at Tecolote, but there are a couple of restaurants there, and a tour boat that goes out to Espiritu Santo. We drove out and took note of a couple of soft, sandy areas to avoid, but definitely will try and make it back. Very mellow, gorgeous swimming and snorkelling and nothing but starry nights and the sound of waves.

The backdrop to the beach at Tecolote:

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The beach:

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We’ve driven over some isolated mountain roads, some impressive potholes and topes, and endured that epic Hwy. 5 misadventure. So far, so good, but it is a common sight to see cars pulled off to one side, the hood up and a jack in place. Mexico has provided for highway mishaps in the form of angels – the Green Angels. This band of roadside saviours patrol Mexico’s highways and secondary roads to provide aid to motorists who have popped a tire, run out of gas, or otherwise broken down. Their services are free. We saw them a lot when we drove through mainland Mexico, but until now, never in Baja.  This off-duty Angel was at Tecolote Beach, enjoying the view.

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With such desirable beach camping and endless boondocking opportunities, you will see every imaginable form of RV in Baja – from rooftop tents to this beast. We arrived back at our campground a couple of days ago to discover this staggering vehicle, imported from Germany and clearly, the king of the road. We were not the only ones taking photos.

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It is far more likely you will encounter a varation of this old RV – a gentle version of transport that might have been right at home in what seems to be Baja’s heyday – the 70s.

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We’re spending a quiet New Year’s Eve, safely off the road and tucked into our campground for the night.

Tomorrow we will be in Todos Santos, about an hour away on the Pacific side, where we’ll hang out for a few days.

We wish you all nothing but good things for 2019 – good health, comfort, love, friendship and if it is at all possible – La Paz – peace.

Sorting out Loreto

Our time in Loreto is almost over – we leave tomorrow morning to begin our trek south to the more populated and touristy areas of Baja, and we’re curious to see it all – the “real Mexico” of La Paz, the charming, artsy Todos Santos, the wild winds of Los Barrilles and the pricey, over-hyped glitz of Cabo. All of these are pithy summaries of each place and our expectations may fall far short, or exceed the reality.

That has been the case with Loreto. It is a sweet little town with a few good restaurants and a beautiful malecon and beach, but it did not come close to what we had imagined, based on what we had read and on our experiences in beach towns in mainland Mexico. We pictured ourselves walking the malecon at night, surrounded by Mexican families and tourists, serenaded by mariachi bands and chased down by vendors. We imagined the town to be busier and somehow more. We thought there would be packed restaurants, many more shops and sidewalk vendors and more tourists. More Mexicans on the beach, with their families and coolers and music. Even at Christmas, Loreto felt half-empty, and we wondered why.

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From what we have seen so far, I think the best experiences in Baja fall into two camps – those with kayaks and surfboards and bikes; and the snowbirds with big rigs who camp in one spot for months. For the former, Baja is an unparalleled playground – crystal clear waters to paddle, fantastic snorkelling and windy beaches that attract surfers, windsurfers and kiteboarders from all over.

For the snowbirds, campgrounds become their second home; many have been coming here for years and this is simply a warmer version of their northern homes. They meet up with the same people from one year to the next and circle their wagons each day at 3:00 pm for happy hour.

We don’t fall into either group and found ourselves becoming a wee bit bored. Now, having said all that – we still enjoyed ourselves here very much. Loretta is worth a stop, maybe not for 10 days.

As in the rest of Mexico, there are many animals on the street and it’s not always clear if they have owners or have banded together for company and survival. These little characters draped themselves on top of what appears to be an ad for a cat-themed event.

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Returning from the beach one day, we noticed three young Mexican peering over the fence of a home near our campground.  We stopped to see what they were so interested in.  We have no idea how this tortoise got here and if this is its home, but the lot was fully fenced, and after a while, a dog began barking at us rather protectively.

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Mexico would not be complete without  people riding horses along the beach.

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The Centro Historico of Loreto is small but picturesque and anchored at one end by the Mision.

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There are a number of cute storefronts and as is always the case in Mexico – so much colour.

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Loreto has a number of old wooden structures that have a bit of a Caribbean feel to them – weathered wood, multi-paned windows and thatched roofs.

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There are also a good number of really extravagant beachfront homes – largely owned by Americans.

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Our campground is one block from the beach and between us and the beach is the Desert Inn Hotel, which appeared to be entirely empty for most of our stay. It was perplexing to us, as we saw people working on the grounds and cleaning the pool.  We cut through the grounds to get to the beach each day without being stopped, so we figured it was under renovation.  Then we met a couple from British Columbia who were staying there and  confirmed that indeed they had been the only guests for a while and were slowly being joined by other people.

The beachfront was beautiful, but very windy most days. We brought down chairs and books and it will come as no surprise to those of you who know our swimming habits – Stephen went in every day and I did not. I’m saving myself.

Beachwalks were always interesting – many, many dogs to greet and people to talk to. One day we watched fishermen cast nets, another day we came upon this curiosity – we think it was a pufferfish.

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One day we drove south down the coast a bit to check out the Loreto Bay Golf Course and Spa. This is a vast complex begun in the late 90s that includes an 18-hole golf course, spa, wine cellar, restaurants, shops and a really pretty, colourful village of homes and immaculate gardens – owned by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

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Wide, winding streets curve around the complex; we parked and walked into the village which is pedestrian traffic only. Three-storey homes hug narrow pathways; each home individual and really beautiful.

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The landscaping is fantastic; no chance this gardening has been left to random black thumbs – it is uniformly well cared for and lush.

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We walked through to the beach, which ran along a sheltered cove.

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It is an idyllic setting, but a couple of things happened that gave us pause. As we were parking our truck, two young men rode by on their bikes and we overheard one say to the other, “I really like being in a gringo village.” A shocking statement coming from a young man in his 30s who should be more curious, more willing to learn.   And therein lies the reality for a number of tourists coming to Mexico – that need to experience the luxuries and comforts and safety of home, while staying separate from Mexicans. They would have flown in, been driven to this resort and experienced a lovely vacation in the sun – really nice accommodations, beautiful beach, golf, snorkelling, paddle-boarding, perhaps a couple of planned excursions. Sheesh – I don’t begrudge anyone a nice holiday, but that sentiment of wanting to be in a foreign country without experiencing it is disturbing.

And then, we had a brief conversation with a man who was just walking out his front door. We commented to him about the beauty of the homes and landscaping and he agreed with us. Then he turned to Stephen, smiled and said, “by the way, thank you for your service”.

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What?!?  I explained we were Canadians and had bought the shirt while visiting Vietnam two years ago. This gentleman was referencing a war that ended over 45 years ago. What were the odds that someone who had actually served in that war would then be wearing a souvenir T-shirt? What a bizarre interaction.

Anyway, after we paid $15 for two small coffees and a danish, we left and headed to the marina at Puerto Escondido.   The scenery unfolded – so beautiful.

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We arrived at the marina to find a massive infrastructure and very few boats (where is everybody?).  But it’s always fun to check out the luxury yachts.

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As is always the case when we travel, the best part is the people we meet. We set off three years ago, thinking ourselves to be quite unique. We had sold our home! Most of our stuff! We were unhoused!  Well, that was hardly an original thought – we are meeting many people who have taken to the road and don’t know when they’re heading “home” again. We meet people our age, but we have also met many younger people – people in their 30s and 40s who have given up well-paid careers to regroup and figure out their priorities. There was a family from New Zealand, travelling with their two young daughters, who just packed it in, sold their home, bought a motorhome and are travelling North America for an extended period. We will likely meet up with them again as we travel south.

Then there was this trio – Pascale (originally from South Africa), with her Canadian partner Johnny (they live in Winnipeg when they’re not cycling), and their friend Flo, (from France – he has been cycling for 8 months). They stayed for three nights in Loreto for the basics ( showers, laundry, groceries) and in Johnny’s case, the hopes of having his tire repaired. The universe unfolded as it does in Mexico, and Pepe showed up – bike mechanic extraordinaire. High energy, perfect English and a deft hand with bikes and voila:

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These are the people, the stories and the experiences that keep us so addicted to this lifestyle.  See you again in a few days.

Feliz Navidad from Loreto

This will be the third time we have spent Christmas in Mexico – once with Alex, Alanna and Danny, once with Danny and this time just the two of us. Christmas in any warm tourist destination feels strangely disorienting – the Santa trappings seem so out of place. In Loreto’s pretty plaza, a sleigh with reindeer is patiently parked and ready for the big day.

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I have no idea why, but Christmas has always been a difficult time for me. I’ve never figured out a temperate, calm approach to the season – taking the best and ignoring the rest.  Each year, the conflicted emotions build up and by the end of a month-long onslaught of canned carols, too much alcohol and false cheer, I’m spent.  I don’t feel fortunate for what I have, I feel deep sadness for those who have so little, or who have recently lost a loved one. There are tears.

Christmas in another country is a way to avoid all that. Mind you, the local supermarket offers just enough Christmassy choices to make me laugh. Ferrero-Rocher chocolates, frozen turkeys left out on the grocery counter to partially thaw and 3-for-the-price-of-2 wine have been brought in for the gringos. We watched our neighbours hauling in bags full of Pacifico beer (“last year they ran out” ), and we’ve already hit up the ATM twice for the same reason.

We’re in Loreto for two weeks over the holidays and it feels exceptionally good to stay put for a while. We had reserved in a different campground on the outskirts of town, but when we arrived there, we felt quite crestfallen to discover a bald parking lot looking out over a rocky beach. After a quick online search, we found Rivera del Mar; right in town and charmingly quirky. We love the Personal Attention.

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Although the camping spots are right beside one another, it does not feel as crowded as it looks. Each vehicle is configured the same way to access water and electricity hookups, so in effect we have our backs to one another. This campground is lushly landscaped with a common area to meet other campers, which gives everyone a good balance of privacy and sociability.

Here we are, all settled in beside a huge truck camper. The gentleman who owns this was travelling with another friend with an equally big truck.  They have both been coming to Baja since 1969 and currently travel off-road and into mountain villages as much as they can. We have met many people like them – Baja attracts the adventurers.

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The town of Loreto is picturesque and relaxing – just built for evening strolls around the plaza, or windblown walks on the waterfront.

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The historical centre revolves around a plaza, which is ringed with outdoor restaurants, shops and the main municipal buildings.

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This area is considered to have had the oldest indigenous settlement on the Baja peninsula. In 1697 the Mision Nuestra Señora de Loretta was established here by the Jesuit missionaries and the centre built up around that. Just down the road from the Mision is Posada de las Flores, one of the many attractive small hotels in the town.

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Shops range from stands selling T-shirts and trinkets to a few higher-end stores. Interestingly, since shopping is not a big feature of Loreto, the merchants are low-key and allow you to browse in peace.

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What would a Mexican plaza be without the snack carts?

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When it is time to eat something more substantial that a bag of Cheezies, there are several good restaurants to choose from. Most restaurants are open-air, with patios and of course birds have free rein to fly in and out.
Strangely, this one cafe was absolutely swarmed with sparrows. They were not so bold as to land on a table while people were still sitting there, but the minute they left the clean-up crew moved in. We’ve never seen anything like it. Germaphobes would not last in Mexico.

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The Polizia Turistico are a presence downtown. I stopped to ask Officer Gloria about her job, and she told me her role is to “give touristic advice, solve problems, and offer security.” The force must be doing a good job – Loreto is about as mellow as it gets. She and her colleague offered to pose for a photo.

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Fig trees have been pruned and shaped to create an arbour over a couple of the streets. Although they are lined with benches, one thing is noticeably missing. On all of our trips to Mexico in the past, we were quite amused by the legions of amorous teenagers who would sit entwined, kissing, gazing into each others eyes. With no private place at home, the streets became their little love nests. We called them “the bunnies.” There has been no evidence of any of that in Baja so far. Maybe they are all out kayaking.

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Speaking of kayaking, if we have one piece of advice for anyone coming to Baja, it would be to BYOT (Bring Your Own Toys). So much of the Sea of Cortez is water sports paradise, and the Parque Nacional Bahia de Loreto offers world-class diving, snorkelling and paddling.  We will go out on a boat next week to snorkel and tour around the islands, but not having our own gear is limiting and becomes expensive to have to rent often inferior gear.  At least half the people we met have surfboards, paddleboards, kayaks, inflatables and bicycles with them – that really is the whole point of Baja. Now we know for the next time.

Another challenge being in Baja in December and January are the northerly winds – it keeps the water choppy and the winds are cool. If you come in February and March, you will see blue whales and grey whales, and be able to paddle and swim in more tranquil, warmer waters.

This is how the water looks most of the time in Loreto, in December.

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We shivered as we walked along the deserted beach, every palapa empty and blowing in the wind.

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We strolled out onto the wharf to watch dozens of pelicans diving headfirst into the water to catch fish. They all came up empty, but didn’t give up.

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We had a wonderful day travelling to the Mision San Fransisco Javier, which was about 45 minutes into the mountains on a stunningly well-paved road. That stone wall was meticulously built by hand – we passed one area where a group of men were carefully constructing another wall.

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There are a number of arroyos along the way (low areas where water passes over in the rainy season). We did drive through just one arroyo, with about three or four inches of water.

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This small settlement was founded in 1697 by the Jesuits, and although they planted fruit and olive trees, and set up a series of canals, the area was too harsh to sustain agriculture. Their mission was set up to convert the Cochimi Indians, who were nomadic hunter-gatherers to become farmers, but unfortunately, they succumbed to the European diseases of smallpox and measles and that population became extinct.

The mission has been abandoned since the 1800s, but is now maintained by Mexico’s Institute of Anthropology and History and is still in use.

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The 300-year-old olive tree, just behind the mission.

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The small village, with just over 100 residents.

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We stopped for lunch at this restaurant, and had a hugely entertaining chat with a group of eight Mexican/Americans who live in Riverside, CA. One of the gregarious women in the group told us she married into a family of four brothers who “go everywhere together”. When I asked how that worked with the wives,  she gave a sly wink – “we’re all family”.

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She knew a lot about this village and its history and pointed out a photo on the wall. “That is Mama Lola. She was 118 years old in that photo – she lived to 125.”  Never having seen a person that old before, I guess she looks as well as can be expected, but we wondered if there was something in the pure mountain air to keep her going for so long.

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Not to be outdone, one of the brothers pointed to another photo of Pancho Villa, and told us two of the village’s residents had joined his revolution.

Back to present-day, we finished our trip with a chat with Tom from Quebec City who was making his way through the Baja Divide – a 1700 off-pavement bike trip that runs from Tijuana to La Paz. He described the gruelling journey in colourful language, but undeterred, once back in Tecate, will ship this bike home, and drive back into Baja with his mountain bike, “I hear there are great mountain biking trails here.”

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I tried to keep this short, but see I am at the same word count – I must be programmed to talk for a certain length of time.

We wish you all a very Merry Christmas – hope you enjoy good food, great music and the company of family and friends.

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Photo by Acharaporn Kamornboonyarush on Pexels.com

Finding Mexico in Baja

Baja was causing us some consternation. It had the landscape of southern California, with roads like a war-torn country, upon which we rattled along, encountering scarcely another soul.   We were disoriented – where were the grand plazas, the early morning roosters, the music blaring from car windows? Where was the colour, the life, the history? We saw beautiful scenery, but few signs of life.

Then, on the road to Mulegé, we began to see reassuring signs of the country we know and love.  The volcano, the fields of cacti, the bent guardrails – oh, yes, now you’re talking. We were quite pleased to be driving on fresh pothole-free pavement, but take a closer look at these roads. The lanes are narrow and there are no shoulders. Trucks blaze through here at all hours of the day and night and don’t give an inch. Luckily, there is not much traffic and it is possible to navigate without mishap.

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Although clearly not everyone  gets through unscathed. The remains of this truck cab have been lying there for a long time. Without having a clue of the trucking industry standards in Mexico, I’m guessing the drivers may well drive longer hours than might be advisable. We heard trucks on the road above our campground south of Mulegé, driving late into the dark night on those mountainous roads.

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Among the nighttime driving challenges are the animals that wander onto the road. We passed a few burros and many an untethered cow and drove by with caution, but at night they present a true hazard.

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Our first glimpse of the Sea of Cortez, about 20 minutes from our campground:

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Our campground was on Playa Santispac, about 20 minutes south of Mulegé and on the mouth of the protected Bahia de Concepcion.  It is situated on a gorgeous wide sand beach, a first-come, first-served campground. Pick a spot, set up camp and wait for the fun to begin. The campground is rustic and does not have any services (including cell service), but it does have a dump station. Everyone else comes to you.

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First comes Chico, who offers to wash our truck and camper for US$50. While we are quite sure he would do a stellar job, we decide to wait until we hit Loreto.

Then, the water guy arrives and fills up our tank. We have propane, we have solar, we have water and we have wine – we’re all set to stay a while. There are two restaurants and a small store on the beach – the former which provides great food and entertainment every second night, and the latter which has a small store and turns out home baking when they feel like it.  We ate at Armando’s a few times, in equal parts for their food, their warm hospitality and their free wifi.

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The vendors come by every day, including one entertaining soul who drove by in an old truck so laden down it barely cleared the ground. He had blankets, jergas, door mats, hammocks and even a mini hammock,” you can hang bananas in your trailer.” Our “no, gracias” went unheeded – he also had chicken tamales and banana bread and at the last minute remembered silver jewellery. He left without a sale, but with all of us laughing.

We watched this man paddle out to a sailboat, with a couple of plastic bags that he handed over, contents unknown. Clean clothes? Takeout food? Beer? Home delivery, even on a sailboat.

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We did buy shrimp from a vendor one day – so fresh and sweet, it was more like eating lobster. We made a messy meal of shrimp in butter, sopped up with freshly baked bread and a chopped salad of tomatoes, cucumber and avocado.

We saw dolphins a few times playing quite close to shore and were hoping to go out for a boat ride into the bay to perhaps see them a little closer up.  The weather was not particularly cooperative – a bit of rain, very windy and quite cool, so we had to take a pass.  We lazed about and Stephen went in swimming twice. Mainly we relaxed, read a lot, enjoyed meeting our neighbours (a young Brazilian couple who have lived in Vancouver for a number of years and are taking a year off to travel), and went for beach walks. We were ideally situated to enjoy both the sunrise and the sunsets and by the time we left five days later, we were completely unwound.

Our 6:00 am wakeup call:

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The view an hour before sunset:

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We drove into Mulegé a couple of times, to buy groceries and do a bit of sightseeing. Mulegé is a cute little town set in a date palm oasis on the river. The winding, extremely narrow streets make it impossible to enter with any vehicle larger than a truck and even at that, it was a tight squeeze.

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We found Mago’s bakery and restaurant – a local hangout for both Mexicans and gringos with good food, a personable crowd and fantastic wifi. We used this opportunity to charge up our devices, catch up on emails; and I read about the latest Trump malfeasance and the ongoing fake news war between the Duchesses.

Mago, on the right.

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We walked over the dam through the mangrove to get to the Mision, which holds a command post on the other side of the river. This river is great for bird-watching and would make for a tranquil paddle  on a kayak.

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The Mision Santa Rosalia was founded in 1705  by the Jesuits and Dominicans and finished in 1766. Unfortunately, rather than saving the souls of the native population, they introduced European diseases that managed to wipe out large numbers of the intended congregation. The Mision was abandoned 50 years later – one of a number of missions in Baja that were founded with the same intent and the same tragic outcomes. Today, the Misions sit as well-kept and photogenic reminders of their misguided past.

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We’re starting to feel like we are in Mexico now, but perhaps “Mexico Lite.” Less people, less noise, less colour. More rocky and monochromatic, but still very beautiful.

We left Playa Santispac on a warm, sunny day (perfect for swimming or boat rides). We’ll quite possibly stop there again on the way back. We drove along this twisty road that snaked along the water and climbed up into the hills.

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The view from the passenger side – on the way to Loreto.

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Now we’re in Loreto for two weeks, parked in an amiable RV campground, with a large  British Columbia contingent! See you again in a few days.

 

 

Off-roading on the hurricane coast of Mexico

There are two main roads that head south on Baja – the Mex. 1 highway that winds down the Pacific and crosses over to the southern tip and the much shorter Mex. 5 that runs from the U.S. border town of Mexicali south of San Felipe along the northern end of the Sea of Cortez. We decided to take that route because we had heard big chunks of Mex. 1 south of Ensenada were at a standstill due to construction (not true, according to fellow travellers). There is always road construction in Baja, but none of the forums warned us about the severity of Mex. 5 (described as being “rough in sections”) and had we known conditions were this bad, we would have avoided that area entirely.

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We were off to a great start with our drive to San Felipe, a small fishing village easily reached by a very good road which ominously, had no-one on it. The first signs of life we encountered were just north of town –  a collection of homes and stores that cater to the expat population.

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When we were there, there was a fiesta celebrating some ATV racers event; swarming with racers, plenty of beer from the San Felipe Brewing Company and a band with the requisite 60-something rockers struggling through Margaritaville.  Several big racing events are held in Baja each year, notably the Baja 1000. This countryside is just begging for speed – there are miles and miles of sandy paths winding through the desert.

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We arrived at our campground in San Felipe and stayed for five nights – long enough to get off the road, do laundry, wash our truck and trailer, meet some lovely people next door to us, and just…relax and enjoy this view.

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In Mexico, you will be hard-pressed to find a way to wash your own clothes or clean your own car. And that’s a good thing, because when you hand your car over to a Mexican, it will sparkle.  There are many car washes, but there are also the guys on the street with buckets of water and rags. We grabbed this man to wash our car – he asked for 50 pesos (about $3.50). We paid him double and it was a deal at twice the price.

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Laundry is another Mexican delight. You take in a bag of scrunched-up dirty clothes and later that same day, you pick them up – T-shirts with sleeves tucked in and undies folded in thirds. We dropped off clothing, sheets, towels, tea-towels, washcloths and two hours and $11 later – we were all set. This is the lavanderia in San Felipe – typical in most of Mexico and a beacon for travellers.

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We were not in San Felipe in high season – apparently this is more of a Mexican destination and really takes off in the summer. We were among the very few gringo tourists wandering the waterfront and we disappointed the good-natured vendors who could not convince us to buy knock-off sunglasses or “almost-free” straw hats.

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San Felipe has an international airport, a glorious waterfront and easy access to the U.S. border, and yet it has missed that magic tourist bullet. The influx of foreign investment, snazzy shops and great little restaurants hasn’t happened. The south end of San Felipe is lined with a string of condo and resort investments that people have walked away from – the business just never materialized.

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And yet…we met Gabriella and Christian, a young couple (Mexican and French-Canadian) who met in Canada and who have committed to building a business in San Felipe. Their shop, C and G Cava, where they sell home-baked goods, coffee and cheese is open Monday to Friday, and they lead tours to the countryside on the weekend. Their energy was infectious.

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One of the nearby attractions is the Valle de los Gigantes, a region of the Giant Cardon, or Saguaro cactus. Much of the area is only accessible to 4×4 vehicles, but we were able to park a couple of kilometres from the gate and hike in from there.

The Saguaro reach heights of 50 or 60 feet, and some of the more majestic ones are over 2000 years old. Here I am, feeling positively petite and youthful beside a typical cactus.

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We were told that in the desert, flowers can spring up within hours after a rain. There had been rain the area the night before, and the valley was filled with these luscious purple flowers. We also loved the “bearded” cactus.

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A parting shot – the saguaro bracketed by ocotillo – an octopus-armed cacti which pops bright red flowers on the stems.

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And then…it was time to move on, and although we had been warned by our fellow campers in San Felipe about the “goat path” that lay ahead, nothing could have prepared us for the non-road we were about to travel on.

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This stretch of highway between San Felipe and the intersection with Highway 1 has been plagued with many years of hurricane damage and washouts. Repeated attempts have been made to repair and replace, and each year nature wreaks its havoc.

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For the first 20 kilometres outside of San Felipe, we drove through garden variety potholes and patched roads. Then…the construction began. At the same time that repairs are being made to hurricane damage, there is ongoing construction to build a new road.

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A double whammy – slowdowns through construction sites combined with at least a dozen areas where roads and bridges had been washed out from the latest hurricanes that passed through this fall. These areas were served with bypass roads – goat paths of the first order – clay, sand, sharp rock – that were, to put it mildly, “creatively engineered.” With nowhere to go but forward, we climbed down, up and over these roads, our little truck gamely pushing forward and our trailer following behind. At times we struggled, but always made it.

By the time we saw this sign, all we could do was laugh.

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Kilometre after kilometre we crawled at 20 kph, driving over sharp rocks, praying our tires would not puncture and then, as we were inching down a slippery hill, we met up with a tractor trailer that had jack-knifed and obstructed most of the road.

Imagine this: We are just up the road from the tractor-trailer. Stephen stops our truck and I run down to see if there is a way out.  There is – just barely – to the left of the truck. With about two feet to spare, we decide to go for it. We spoke to the truck driver – he agreed we could make it – and then Stephen began. You can’t see it from this angle, but there is about a 30-foot drop off the side. Stephen inched forward, sliding but keeping control, watching the truck driver who gestured encouragingly, (and not me, who was frantically waving and grimacing), until he made it to safety on the other side.

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We found out later that we made it through just in time.  On another bypass road, a truck dropped a load of scrap metal. An hour or two later, traffic backed up with no way out and was stopped for the night. The only vehicles getting through were motorcycles.

Our destination for the night was Gonzaga Bay – an idyllic swath of beach we had almost to ourselves. First we stopped for water – delivered to us with an inimitable Mexican work-around – a hose inserted into a sawed-off plastic bottle.

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Our respite from the road.

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And next morning – back at ‘er – the last stretch of the Road From Hell – it took us two and a half hours to travel 60 kilometres  from Gonzaga Bay to the shimmering mirage of Highway 1. This was a mild version of the road that included rockfall, confusing signage, multiple roads to choose from and almost no-one on the road.

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Today was a very slightly less terrifying than the day before, but with the added bonus of a most enigmatic diversion – Coco’s Corner.

We don’t know the story of Coco – a Mexican man who speaks English quite well, is a double amputee who lives alone, and sells beer and water to passers-by. We had heard about him, so stopped by for a welcome break from the road.

This is his home and small store – the only sign of life anywhere on this stretch of road.

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We were greeted by a young woman from Ottawa who, with her boyfriend, had stayed the night on his property. They found themselves at Coco’s Corner late in the day, and decided it was too risky to carry on in the dark, and were invited to park for the night. We spoke to them for a bit, bought a couple of beers from Coco, and pondered the room full of autographed undies. There are questions you just don’t ask someone you don’t know, but boy, I would love to know Coco’s story.

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And voila – just like that – it was over. The horrible road, the uncertainty of what lay ahead, the worry about puncturing a tire (or two) – we turned left onto Highway 1 and headed south. Over two days, it had taken us twelve hours to drive 400 kilometres. Our advice if you are wanting to visit this area? Consider yourself warned.

We are in Guerrero Negro for the night – the first town south of the Baja Norte border. This is one of the prime sites of the grey whales as they come to give birth. Since the season is not quite underway, we will stop here again in a month or so on our way north.

Baja’s wine region busts out

With recent headlines about threats of violence against the busloads of migrants approaching Tijuana, along with border shut-down uncertainties, we headed to Mexico with a good measure of unease.  We had made the decision long ago to avoid Tijuana (world’s busiest border crossing), and go through at Tecate, about two hours east. Now we figured this normally placid crossing might become swamped to avoid the mess at Tijuana, so when we arrived to find just one car in front of us, we wondered if we were at the right place. The kind customs official politely asked to inspect our trailer and the back of our truck and after about five minutes, he waved us through. We’ve felt far greater scrutiny (and far less warmth and welcome) crossing into the U.S. We found out later that the Baja/United States border crossings are fluid; many people work and live in either Tijuana or San Diego and cross effortlessly back and forth.

And so…our adventure in Baja begins. We will be here for at least two months and have begun our travels in a most delightful way – touring Mexico’s wine country. The Valle de Guadalupe (or Ruta del Vino) stretches from south of Tecate to the coast at Ensenada, and is now on the tourist radar.  Luckily for us, early December is not peak season and we had our campground to ourselves.

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Our only experience with Mexican wine in the past was nasty – warmish red liquid that burned the throat and rivalled cheap tequila for a hangover. Grapes have been grown in northern Baja since the 16th century, but it is just in the past 15-20 years that the “industry” has exploded; attracting winemakers from all over the world. There are between 100 and 150 small wineries, with Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel and Grenache being the predominant red varietals. Interestingly, each small area with its rolling hills and protected acreages has its own microclimate. One winery produces superb Cabernet grapes and has ample access to water. Just two kilometres away at another winery, those same grapes would struggle to produce the same high quality – that ground is better suited to Syrah.

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Many of the wineries plant olives and grapes side by side, as is the case with the gigantic L.A. Cetto; one of Mexico’s oldest and largest wineries. We stopped by for a wine tasting, and found the wines to be unexceptional. The smaller wineries do not hold Cetto in high regard; one young man smiled tightly at our mention of Cetto and referred to them as “commercial.”

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Stephen and I are barely wine-literate; just skip through the photos if you are looking for keen insight and/or reliable information. But as the saying goes, we know what we like.

Our three days here were spent in a happy haze of driving through glorious countryside, chatting with passionate and informative people, admiring fabulous architecture and gardens, sipping glasses of very good wine, and eating very good food. Naturally, where there is wine, there is food and this burgeoning scene has also produced some astounding eateries – everything from food trucks to a restaurant run by a Michelin-starred chef.

Our first food experience was at Cocina de Dona Esthela; endorsed by Anthony Bourdain and described by FoodieHub as being “The Tastiest Breakfast in the World.

Dona Esthela’s story is a big part of the visit. She was cleaning houses and doing laundry and cooking for the local workers when her reputation as a great cook began to circulate.  Today, she still serves food from her property, but her takeout window has turned into a large dining room.  Cars begin rolling in at 8:00 am and by 10:00 am there is a non-stop lineup until she closes at 5:00 pm.

What did we do before the Internet? We would have walked by this unassuming little place without a second glance.

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Dona Esthela, still making tortillas and with a big smile for everyone.

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I could not resist the corn pancakes and fresh fruit. That little dish with white cubes is queso fresco – slightly salty cheese made fresh each day – heavenly.

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We also ordered two house specialities. Machaca, which is dehydrated beef mixed with eggs, vegetables, chilies and garlic, and served with a warm basket of tortillas, wrapped in an embroidered doily.

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Stephen ordered the Borrego au jus – we’ll pass on the photo because it is simply a brown bowl filled with brown meat and brown liquid, but, to borrow a teenage expression, OMG. Lamb, seasoned and slowly cooked in an underground pit – the meat is so tender, so full of intoxicating flavours that any lamb you have eaten in the past simply pales by comparison.

All of this is washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice and cafe de olla, dark coffee made with cinnamon. If this was not the very best breakfast we have ever had, it came close. We didn’t even think about food again until dinner.

We visited 11 wineries in three days, and after just one tasting of four wines at Cetto, we opted to choose a glass instead and sit and relax and enjoy the properties and the views. We didn’t sample wine at every winery, but in all cases, there was plenty to appreciate.

The architecture and design in Mexico is exquisite. Mexican craftspeople have such a sophisticated eye for detail and their work is impeccable.

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Even the rustic design is striking – wire structures filled with decorative rock.

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A side wall of one of the wineries – built to resemble a Spanish hacienda.

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At first glance, this winery, Finca la Carrodilla, appeared quite nondescript…

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…until we climbed the stairs to the rooftop tasting room. Stunning plantings of succulents and cactus, far-reaching views and communal seating have transformed this space.

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Las Nubes (Spanish for clouds)  was another favourite. Simple, clean, spare – we sipped on a full-bodied blend called Cumulus and watched three stylish young women trim the room for Christmas.
This young man spoke perfect English. We noticed that a lot – there appears to be a comfortable foot in both worlds for many young Mexicans in this region, both staff and visitors.

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Adobe Guadalupe –  another photogenic winery.

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We had a fabulous lunch here – fresh shrimp stuffed into soft floury buns and served with a little salad. Add a glass of red wine, a sunny table, some canine companions and a beautiful view – there are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

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The owners also run a boutique hotel and raise Azteca horses, the sturdy breed favoured by Mexican horsemen.
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While this region is small and compact, most of the roads leading to the wineries are packed dirt, in varying degrees of repair. You will lead from this lovely paved road:

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…to this. You don’t need a 4×4 to navigate, just patience and a keen eye to avoid potholes and rocks. This is an example of a typical winery road.

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Vena Cava, billed as “the hippest winery in Mexico” is only reached after a bone-rattling, torturous 20-minute drive on a twisting, rutted, washboard road that had us questioning our sanity to even attempt it. Finally, we arrived to this sight:

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The winery design is fashioned from discarded boats, and is unquestionably hip – they even have a DJ. We were the youngest ones there by at least 30 years, and whether we were just annoyed by the drive, or annoyed by the fact that we are not hip, we felt put off and did not stay long enough for a glass of wine.

Still – Vena Cava is doing all the right things to add to the scene and to catch the attention of travel writers. They feature prominently in “Best-ofs” and “Must-see” lists, and  for that reason alone are worth a visit.

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We were fascinated to learn about the Russians who began growing grapes in this area over 100 years ago.  This winery, Bibayoff  has a small museum attached.

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A photo of the original Bibayoffs. This small area still has a number of Russian descendants.

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We spoke to David Bibayoff, the grandson of the founder and a most charming man who speaks English and Spanish fluently, but “very little Russian.” He talked to us about the area and how it has attracted so many interesting people from all over the world to move there, including a Canadian couple who were drawn to the beauty of the valley.

David and his son and grandson.

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What would Mexico be without Frida? Casa Frida’s homage to the artist begins with the bright blue wall at the entrance  to the design of the wine labels:

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To the tasting room:

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To the outdoor kitchen:

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To the seating around the bar and pond. We ordered two glasses of Syrah and sat down to people-watch and enjoy the late afternoon sun. This was the last winery on our tour, and a memorable one.

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Touring wine regions can almost be too much of a good thing. The wineries are only open for a few hours each day, and covering a lot of ground is a slow process.  We may pop by again on our way out of Mexico.

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