Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Reversing Direction; UP Mexico Highway 1 – June 5 -10

Once Abracadabra was in Summer Suspended Animation, we threw the t-shirts we had been wearing for the last three days of the decommissioning process into the trash and flew to La Paz on Aereo Calafia’s one-hour and forty-five minute flight across the Golfo de California.  From there we drove to Ensenada. 

Maybe it was the “return journey effect” (that a return trip often seems shorter than the original journey), better roads as a result of post-Hurricane Paul repairs, lighter traffic because it was off-season, or some combination – but this trip seemed easier than our drive south in October.

One difference was that, rather than receiving only a cursory glance, our car was actually searched at most of the military checkpoints.  Molly’s favorite “Mexican Moment” of the trip:  During a discussion of her passport picture (which is of a younger-looking brunette!) a handsome 20-something soldier looked closely at her and her picture and told her she had “beautiful eyes”.  We dare you to imagine a US or Canadian border officer complimenting someone’s eyes!  Viva México.

La Paz, Baja California Sur to Loreto, BCS -- 347 kilometers (216 miles): 

Our first hurdle was getting to the car storage lot only two kilometers south of the airport.  Like many airports in Mexico, official airport taxis in La Paz have flat-rate fares based on a zone system.  This works well for most arriving tourists; even if the fare exceeds what one might be able to negotiate, it’s consistently applied.  Unfortunately the system lacks flexibility for those traveling only two kilometers along the airport road!  We finally threw up our hands in frustration and paid the full (really galling) 300 peso ($25-ish) zone fare.  Lesson learned: arrange for a ride if you’re not going into town. 
Our little Volvo, which had been in the good care of La Paz Mini Storage / Park ‘N Fly La Paz, looked great.  We were particularly pleased to see that auto body work we had arranged for at a bargain price (about one-third of what we would have paid in California).  Once again, Mexican craftsmen had made a lie out of “you get what you pay for”; they had even matched the odd “Volvo green” paint color.    
An Aside:  This body work removed the results of an encounter Molly had with a parking lot post on the day we decamped from Sacramento in September, 2011.  That encounter wasn’t spectacular – but the effect on Molly was – and the little back panel crunch has acted as a reminder of how hard it was to “just sail away”.  We don’t need that reminder any more.

Back to La Paz to Loreto, 2013:  Our October trip south down Mexico Hwy 1 [2012/10/la-paz-and-abracadabra-is-lovely] followed the path of Hurricane Paul and as a result involved driving very slowly over several washed-out stretches of highway.  This year we drove on long bits of brand new highway. 
In Loreto we stayed at the Hacienda Suites Hotel.  This “hotel” is a testament to how nice landscaping and a clean pool can make an otherwise unglamorous motel inviting.  We’ll be charitable and suggest that the hotel’s use of the term “suites” is due to a translation glitch -- because we don’t think the little table with two chairs in the “standard suite” should be enough to qualify the otherwise ordinary (though very clean) motel room for suite status.

The Hacienda "Suites" Hotel
Loreto, BCS to Riscal de Cataviña, Baja California -- 571 kilometers (355 miles)
This was a long drive, with spectacular scenery on winding roads that could benefit from shoulders and/or pull-outs for slow traffic (us when Molly is driving).  Our destination was the Riscal de Cataviña boulder fields.  See our posting on this really cool place from last year [2012/10/poking-along-down-baja-california-norte] if your reaction is the same as ours: boulder fields?  This area has very unique and spectacular scenery. 

In this “middle of nowhere” place we stayed at the Hotel Mision Cataviña, a charming hotel with a lovely courtyard, a nice-ish pool and a beautifully landscaped desert walking trail that was perfect for a post prandial stroll.  The restaurant served a pleasant dinner and breakfast, the room was charmingly decorated and the bed was comfortable.  We have marked the location of this hotel on our Baja map.

Hotel Mision Catavina
Hotel Una Mas
Desert Walk
Riscal de Cataviña, BC to Ensenda, BC --  360 kilometers (224 miles)

Maybe it’s the result of Molly’s career in government finance -- but as we drove into the northern state of the Baja California we kept thinking that money budgeted for that state's roads in 2012/13 must have been diverted to pay for Hurricane Paul-required repairs in Baja California Sur.  As we drove north the new pavement disappeared, potholes got deeper and more frequent and trucks got bigger and more frequent.  The traffic increase was particularly noticeable as we entered the agricultural region around Ensenada and the other Lázaro Cárdenas.  Baja California is a major source of produce for North America, all of which travels by truck.

In Ensenada we again stayed at the Estero Beach Hotel, a place we enjoy not only because of its quiet location on an estuary south of Ensenada but because of the decor which doesn’t appear to have changed (except to be refreshed and repainted) since the hotel was opened in the 1950’s.  Before we go back we’re going to buy some Mad Men-esque clothes and some electronic cigarettes . . .
The next morning we took a short drive south on Mexico Hwy 1 to see La Bufadora – one of Ensenada’s “must see” tourist attractions.  The “blowhole” is pretty cool (it’s actually just a very narrow inlet into which the waves crash and spew dozens of feet high), but the real reason to go is to experience tourist frenzy.  To get to the spewing water, which was fun to see:

one must walk a veritable gauntlet of tourist venders.  Between the parking lots and La Bufadora one can purchase:



Luchador Masks

And Spiritual Enlightenment
Oh yes, it’s touristy.  But everyone should at least once: visit San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, ride on the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls, and go to a luau in Hawai’i.  So don’t be too cool to go. 

From there we went to the Santo Tomas valley, one of two small wine-growing areas outside of Ensenada.  We visited the Santo Tomas winery (very old and now very large), tasted their wines and had a cheese and Serrano ham picnic.  Location – lovely; wines – just fine (we bought one bottle of white); cheese – as with most Mexican cheeses good but young; and Serrano ham – great.
Valle de Guadalupe – “Mexico’s Napa”
Mexico’s primary wine growing area is in a valley north-east of Ensenada – the Valle de Guadalupe.  We had planned to stay in the valley for a couple of nights in one of the charming-sounding hotels we had read about.  Unfortunately, our “plans” hadn’t extended to actually making any reservations.  Lesson learned:  to visit the Valle de Guadalupe, particularly on a weekend, plan ahead – a long time ahead.  One hotel very kindly avoided sounding snooty when they told us their next weekend availability would be in October . . .

The Estero Beach Hotel was also full so we found ourselves scrambling for another hotel in Ensenada.  We landed downtown at the Villa Fontana Inn, which has an odd, kitschy “Victorian” motif.  But it was sparkling clean (love those little paper bands on the toilet seat that attest to the toilet’s cleanliness -- do motels still do that in El Norte?) and, once the crowds of pre-teen girl gymnasts and pre-teen boy baseball stars left the pool, it was quiet. 

Our day trip to the Valle de Guadalupe was fun.  We stopped and tasted at:

Nativo, a winery tucked way (way) down a windy dirt road, that has a lovely little house for rent (two bedrooms, one bath, kitchen, and hammock - $100 a night for two guests).  Our arrival coincided with the departure of a large Mexican-American family that had been enjoying a two-day long birthday celebration at the house.    

Essential Rental House Equipment

The winemaker arrived from his house down the road to say goodbye to the departing San Diegans, and took us to his cellar and gave us barrel tastes.  He told us about his training in Spain and was marvelously enthusiastic about his product.  There was never a moment when we sensed we were part of a corporate marketing campaign à la Napa.  And he enthusiastically and generously routed us to other wineries in the area! 

Bryce, consulting Benjamin
So, not so much like Mexico’s Napa; more like Mexico’s Amador Foothills or Eldorado County (wine areas near Sacramento).  We bought a bottle of a Zinfandel blent called Nativo Kumiai after a pre-Columbian tribe from the area. 

Vinas de Garza, our second stop, was a more corporate wine experience, interesting as a look into how the larger Valle de Guadalupe wineries are blending wines to appeal to the emerging Mexican wine market.  This winery is a beautiful place, but it didn’t feel like a “find”:

Wine Futures

Vinicola Trés Mujeres, was our final stop.  There the tasting was handled by one woman in a dusty little cave-like room.  We purchased a bottle of La Mezcla del Rancho (the ranch mix), a blend of Cabernet and Grenache.  It’s a perfect wine to go with spicy Mexican steak. 

Tres Mujeres plus one

Back in the USofA – June 10:

The next day we drove to Tecate along Highway 3 (the wine route), believing that the Tecate border crossing would be faster than at Tijuana.  It may be that we made the better choice, but our experience has resulted in a new Family Travel Rule:  Never attempt any border crossing (even one purported to take only 20 minutes) on a less than full stomach. 
For three hours we crawled along beside the infamous border fence in the sun.  On the Mexican side, every inch of the fence is covered with advertisements or painted with art  and we were offered the opportunity to purchase gum, water or tamales from strolling venders.  We weren’t able to see the source for the tamales (a Family Rule about street food) so we declined the offer -- though by the time we reached the border guard station we were sorry we hadn’t taken a gamble on them! 

The area on the US side of the fence is an empty DMZ for several miles.  Gazing at the vast desert we again regretted passing on the tamales.  It was an hour before we found what we were looking for -- one of the “first things I want in America” items: a turkey sandwich on sourdough.  Delicious. 

Our Summer “Vacation” Plans -- The Short Version:

  • A week in the LA area visiting The Brothers (currently underway);    
  • Five weeks in Sacramento/San Francisco house-sitting for friends and staying in the occasional hotel (probably without paper rings on the toilet seat); 
  • A week in Oh Canada visiting family;  and then
  • August and September in a one-bedroom house we have rented in Ciudad Guanajuato, Estado Guanajuato, Mexico.  We plan to blog only about this portion of our summer -- unless there are requests for descriptions of our annual eye exams and dental visits in Sacramento . . . ? 
  • Back to Travels on Abracadabra

At the moment it feels very good to be in the USofA – no matter how much we complain about it.  That’s our Constitutional Right, you know.  

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