Archive for March, 2013

La Paz!

March 29, 2013


After driving over 1000 miles, we reached our “home base” of La Paz, BCS for the next seven weeks.  Our first home (for approximately 5 weeks) is Casita McAllister, an adorable casita on the outskirts of the center of town.  Lovely Spanish tile everywhere and a fully stocked kitchen.  Our host, Sharon, is a sweetheart.  A former Oregonian who has been living in La Paz for ten years.  Tiffy, the resident gato also keeps us company. Our first day Tiffy was very friendly (or maybe a guard cat), following us everywhere and sitting next to me while I worked on my computer.  ImageOnce we found him napping in the bathroom sink.

We’re just 3 blocks from the beach, nice for walks but there are much nicer swimming beaches just outside of town.  But a nice view during the morning stroll.

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The seagulls were squawking as we strolled on the beach this morning, and all I could think of was “Finding Nemo” – “mine, mine, mine!” Went grocery shopping a few days ago (see previous post) and am thrilled that I get to cook again. Here’s today’s lunch, supplemented by yummy German Chocolate brownies Sharon shared with us (she bakes and sells her pastries at the Saturday gourmet market).

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Time to cook!

March 27, 2013


Okay the serious cook in me wants to hit the fish market, bakeries, produce markets, etc.  But on day one it was simply time to go to the supermercado to stock up and check out the prices.  Here’s a sample of what I bought today at Chedraui Supermercado, just two blocks from where we are staying in La Paz for the next five weeks.

700 ml tequila  $6.75

Bottle of Italian red wine  $7.84

Combo pack EVOO and wine vinegar  $7.48

Bar of bath soap (palmolive) $.76

1 quart bleach  $.60

Demiloaf artisan onion bread  $.66

Loaf of multigrain bread (Pan Bimbo) $1.72

6 handmade flour tortillas $.98

6 oz Di Giorno shredded parmesan cheese $5.29

Gallon fresh-squeezed OJ (unpasteurized) $8.13

½ gallon low fat milk $2.60

1 ½ dozen eggs  $2.84

Haas avocados $.78/pound

Jalapeno peppers $.64/pound

Roma tomatoes $.40/pound

Manila mangoes $1/pound

Bananas $.42/pound

Strawberries  $2.09/quart

Boneless chicken breast $2.59/pound

Medium shrimp heads off, shell on  $4.40/pound

Marinated flank steak  $6/pound

Here’s my kitchen.  Looking forward to start cooking!



March 27, 2013


Okay, I could die today and be happy.  We booked the whale-watching tour to Laguna Ojo Liebre (Jackrabbit-eye Lagoon), a 45 minute drive across the salt flats of Guerrero Negro.  We were loaded up in a small panga (12 to a boat). Accompanying us was the six-year old adorable daughter of the captain, who goes out with her Daddy whenever she’s not in school.  She knows whales by name and calls to them and they come to the boat.  They seem to love children. 

The grey whales come to the Baja coast (Pacific side) every winter to give birth in the Laguna, Bay of San Ignacio and Magdalena bay.  They spend the winter there, with the strongest adults guarding the narrow entrance to keep predators out. In the spring, the adults form a circle around the babies and they take the long swim north where they spend their summers, then they repeat the cycle the following fall, returning to Mexico. 

Marine biologists estimate approximately 700 whales in Laguna Ojo Liebre this year and we must have seen about 50-60, mostly in the distance, spouting, surfacing and twice breaching.  About 2/3 of the way into our venture into the Bay four whales (three adults and a baby) came up along side our boat and the accompanying boat.  They were curious and surfaced, lifting their heads up, and let us pet them.  Mama playfully splashed us and then spouted water all over me.  Three dolphins accompanied them, though the dolphins never lifted their heads out of the water.  The whales hung around our boat for about 1/2 hour.  After they had enough of head petting and belly rubbing (just like cats) they turned and swam off in the distance, spouting.  The highlight of our Baja trip thus far!

After the whale watching trip, we briefly toured the saltworks, the largest exporter of salt in the world. While driving on the hard packed dirt road, this huge critter blocked our path and stared us down.tarantula web

I was thrilled and got down low to the ground to take this photo, my companions, including the recent Italian marine biology graduate were not as thrilled. Our driver swerved around “pepe” and we were on our way. We checked out of the hotel late and crossed the desert for the Sea of Cortez coast.

As we approached the coast we gingerly drove down the very scary Pie de La Cuesta, the steep road hugging the mountain side with few guardrails on the downhill side and what appeared to be sheer drops of thousands of feet. Luckily, we were on the uphill side of the mountain, but I am already dreading the return trip when we will be on the downhill side while large 18 wheelers barrel toward us in the opposite direction. The view was spectacular until ugly Santa Rosalia came into view. An old mining town full of abandoned equipment an old quarry serves as the town dump, this is as ugly as it gets. 30 years ago, when I drove the Baja with some Mexican friends, we actually overnighted in Santa Rosalia. We must have gotten in after dark because I never would have agreed to stop there otherwise.

We blew through town and continued on to the river oasis town of Mulege. Still tiny. We couldn’t find the B&B by the river because the usual road was still washed out from the flood several years ago and settled on my second choice – La Serenidad outside of town. This was probably once quite the hotspot, with celebrities jetting in on the private airstrip just outside the hotel gate. But the grand dame shows a lot of wear. The hotel is reminiscent of an old hacienda, with low slung white-washed adobe brick buildings, expansive patios and plenty of rustic Mexican charm. But the bathroom was scary. The hotel made up for its somewhat with its famous Saturday pig roast. It was sad to see so few guests though, where once this place was probably hopping with rowdy partiers hurling shots of tequila while the Mariachis sang in the background.

Crossing the Desert.

March 25, 2013



What a difference another day makes!  We woke up early and took our mountain bikes along the back dirt road to El Molino Viejo, an old 19th Century granary that had been converted to a restaurant/bar decades ago, and is now a popular hangout for hunters and fishermen/women.  The restaurant sits right on San Quentin Bay by the public boat launch.  It was very quiet there.  Only one other family, also from California, was visiting for breakfast. Like us, they had driven down the peninsula, but they were on their way back.  They had two young children in tow, who had learned to speak some basic Spanish, such as asking the waiters for a glass of milk.Image

After a delicious Mexican breakfast, we road our bikes back to Jardines Baja.  A portion of the road was pure sand and it was very difficult maneuvering through it.  In a heavy rain, this road would be completely impassable except for the hardiest of 4-wheel drive vehicles.

We packed our car and said goodbye to friendly clerk Fernando (after a sharing with him a cup of Peet’s coffee, which we had brought down from California and made in the hotel communal coffee pot) and hit the road for the long drive through the Baja desert.  After gassing up in the outpost of El Rosario, the landscape changed dramatically to true desert.  We entered the Valle de Cirios, dominated by rock formations, strange looking Cirrio Cacti and the more familiar Cardon and fuzzy cholla cacti we remembered from our days in Arizona.  We stopped briefly in the halfway town of Catavina (really just four buildings) bought some fresh squeezed OJ, used the really scary-looking restrooms, and then continued on our way to the Pacific town of Guerrero Negro, famous for its saltworks and the grey whales that winter there to give birth in the Laguna de Ojo Liebre.

We checked into the Motel Cowboy (clean, very basic rooms with fuzzy TV and unpredictable internet – worked for me, did not work for John) and had a delicious dinner at the hole in the wall Asadero in the complex.  John and I had eight gorditas (tortillas stuffed with meat with plenty of toppings including guacamole, radishes, salsa and chopped cabbage) and cowboy beans for $12.   Across the street John found heaven in the form of a real espresso bar (but no non-fat milk), where we both had lattes and chocolate mousse cake.  We returned to the hotel and booked a whale-watching tour for the next day and hit the sack early.

Green, Green, Green

March 23, 2013


On our third day of our trip, we bid good bye to the busy port city of Ensenada and headed south.  Noisy traffic gave way to the wide open road.  For the most part Highway 1 was in good condition, in places even with nice wide shoulders. Going through small towns, we expanded our vocabulary to include those words we saw over and over:

Topes – speed bumps leading into every small town forcing you to slow down. This is why you should double the amount of driving time for any distance from what you would calculate in the states.

 Yonke – finally figured out this meant “junk yard”

telesecundaria – rural elementary school in every town where kids are taught classes via satellite.

vado – dip in the road

curva peligrosa – dangerous curve

Shortly after leaving Ensenada we entered the lush Santo Tomas valley, Baja California Norte’s agricultural heart and home to the oldest winery in Baja California.  You don’t think of “green” when you think of Baja, but it was incredibly green, maybe because it’s the end of the rainy season, or maybe because of the crops grown there.  We will see when we return in May.

After a comfortable and easy 3 hour drive or so, we drove through the small towns of San Quintin and Lazaro Cardenas, turned down a dirt road heading towards the Bay of San Quintin and found the beautiful oasis of Jardines Baja.  Photos do not do this lovely hotel justice.  We also had a delicious dinner at the hotel restaurant next door.  John had fettucine with shrimp and poblano peppers in a chardonnay sauce and I had sea bass stuffed with cheese, wrapped in bacon and sauced with a white-win shrimp sauce.  Yumm.  So good, I forgot to take pictures! shame on me.Image



What a difference a day makes! – mexican shrimp cocktail recipe

March 22, 2013



What a difference a day makes!  Tuesday, when we arrived, Ensenada was serene and quiet.  Wednesday is cruise ship day.  We strolled down to the malecon and saw the Carnival cruise ship docked in port.  Plenty of families with young children in town for the day.  Many of the restaurants, which were closed the previous day, were now open and crowded.  Loud music blared from Papas and Beer and we saw our share of drunk spring breakers spill out onto the sidewalk.  We fled the crowds for the fish market, which was lined with modest seafood restaurants, the birthplace of the famous Baja fish taco.  We settled on Gordos, right on the water.  We asked the waiter if we could sit upstairs on the outside deck for a better view and he obliged. Poor guy, we didn’t realize that the Ensenada seafood dining tradition is to line the table with at least a dozen containers of salsa and several more with condiments.  The upstairs tables were not set and he ran up and down the stairs with bottle after bottle, jar after jar, dish after dish to ensure that we were not for want of salsa.ImageImage

John ordered a whole fried fish – excellent choice.


I had fish tacos and a shrimp cocktail.  The shrimp cocktail tasted as I remembered, except that the goblet was so huge the shrimp were swimming in the sauce.  There was plenty of shrimp -no complaints there, but I wish they had added some cucumber and avocado to make it more chunky.  Here’s my recipe for Mexican Shrimp Cocktail:

24 oz Clamato (tomato-clam cocktail)
1/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup freshly-squeezed orange juice
juice of one lime
1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped
Tabasco sauce to taste
1/2 cup peeled sweet onion (Walla Walla, Texas sweet, etc), chopped1 pound arge shrimp, peeled, deveined

2 avocados, pitted, peeled and diced
2 cucumbers, seeded and diced
limes, quartered

Combine clamato, ketchup, orange and lime juices, cilantro, onion and tabasco. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour, up to 2 hours.
Heat a pot of water to boiling.  Place shrimp in a steamer basket and steam covered just until shrimp turn pink (only 2-3 minutes).  Immediately plunge them into ice water to stop the cooking.  Cover and refrigerate at least 1/2 hour, up to 2 hours.
Gently combine cooled shrimp, avocado and cucumber.  Add enough sauce to cover the shrimp mixture but don’t make it soupy.  Serve with limes.  Buen provecho!

After lunch we strolled through the market and I was in heaven!  The fish!  The fresh seafood!  The prices.  The prices are in pesos 12 pesos to 1 U.S. dollar.  Weights are in kilos 1 kilo = 2.2 pounds.  Do the math.


Sigh, if only I had access to a kitchen.  I’ll have to wait till we get to La Paz.  Tomorrow, through the San Tomas Valley and on to the Bay of San Quintin!

The Mexican adventure begins!

March 20, 2013

Squirrel Mama is back!  About a year ago, John had been retired for about six months. We started discussing returning to my ex pat roots and living abroad.  We thought it’d be fun to live a couple of months in a country and then try another one, seeing if we’d like to settle elsewhere or just be global Bedouins.  The dream became a doable plan when I modified my work so I can work from anywhere there is a good internet connection.  I plan to continue working part time, while exploring other countries.

A friend suggested international house sitting, and we signed up for several international house-sitting sites.  One of the first replies we received was from a documentary film maker with a home in El Centenario, a sleepy town just outside of La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. 

The El Centenario house-sit didn’t work out for this Spring (though we have a potential to house sit there late this year) but it sparked our interest in Mexico as the first country to exploreImage.  John had worked in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico for 10 months in 2008.  Most of you probably know that Ciudad Juarez has the highest murder rate in Mexico, and in much of the world, due to the narco wars.  Although he survived his experience physically unscathed (although he was “patient zero” for the H1N1 virus) he was not keen on returning to Mexico.  It has taken about four months to convince him that this was a trip worth taking.  First it was “I’m never going to Mexico.”  Then it was “I’m never driving to Mexico.”  Now it’s “Okay with Baja, but not going the mainland.”  We shall see! 

As for me, I’ve driven down to Baja (from Seattle!) many times in the 1980’s.  I’ve driven all the way down the Peninsula to Cabo San Lucas with friends (again in the 1980’s) and have fond memories of the road trip.  So this was a chance to relive my law school days when I was first introduced to Mexico by my friend Sandra, whose family lived in Ensenada.

We found short-term renters for our house in San Pedro for considerably more rent than we will pay to rent in La Paz.   Although we have nothing booked in La Paz until the end of the month, our renters needed to move in March 19, so our plan was to hit the road for the border March 19 in the a.m. and slowly make our way down to La Paz over the week.

Murphy’s law definitely applies to our travels.  it seems every time we are about to leave on a trip, something happens.  Once a water pipe developed a pinhole leak behind the wall.  Another time, water started leaking under the sink (this is why we always want the house occupied while gone). This time, that nasty “Homeland Security ransomeware virus” overtook my computer yesterday morning.  Fortunately, doing a system restore to March 17 seemed to fix the problem.  But it did set us back a few hours from our planned departure time.

The trip to the border was far less eventful.  We flew down the 73 toll road past San Diego to the border town of San Ysidro, where we filled the gas tank and made a pit stop.  Then it was into the lane of “no return” to the Mexican border.  Easy crossing, we weren’t even stopped by immigration officials, just waved through – John remarked how there were a lot fewer armed soldiers at the border than he used to see in Juarez.  Once crossing the border, however, we realized we were in the wrong line because, unlike those just going in for a few days, we needed to stop at immigration to get our tourist cards and our passports stamped.  We waved an immigration official down, who guided us the wrong way (against incoming traffic) to the customs building, told us to park and escorted us into the building (again against customs traffic) into a tiny office.  The building itself was very new, very shiny and very empty.  There was no line in the immigration office.  The very friendly and helpful immigration official helped us complete the tourist cards (very tiny type, John couldn’t read it – the eyes are the second thing to go), took the entry fee (you used to have to walk to a Bank to pay it) stamped our passports, gave us our half of the tourist  card and we were back on the road.

I had downloaded a map to get us from the border to the toll road, avoiding going into  Tijuana proper.  The first 1/2 mile goes directly along the Mexican side of the ugly border fence US border control has put up.  To the left (Mexico) are ugly concrete buildings with tin roofs, billboards and lots of construction activity.  On the right (U.S.) is a patch of bare land.  In the distance in the hills you can see the large tract homes with their immaculate lawns.  The biggest contrast in economic disparity at any international border, I’m told.

We almost missed the turnoff to the toll road to Ensenada (swerving into the left lane at the last minute).  They accepted U.S. dollars at the toll booths, giving us change in dollars and then we were on our way!  The road was in excellent condition (if narrower than US roads), two lanes each way.  In some parts the median was beautifully landscaped but there was no shoulder to speak of.  You absolutely had to keep your eyes on the road (and away from the gorgeous scenery unfolding) to avoid going off the six-inch edge and overturning the car.

Once on the highway, the ugly buildings disappeared and the landscape unfolded with one gated community, highrise or beach resort after another.  This area really didn’t look much different from southern California. Between communities we would see one beautiful ocean vista after another.

We rolled into Ensenada about 1 1/2 hours after crossing the border.  It was cloudy and cool (temps in the 60’s).  We checked into the the Best Western El Cid for $67/night (taxes inc).  It’s an older very Mexican looking hotel.  rustic and charming with lots of tile, dark wood, wrought iron, stained glass, molded stucco and Mexican artesenal artwork throughout the rooms.  The walls are VERY thin, though.  Our neighbors were having sex last night and I could have sworn then were right in our room. The ones upstairs sounded like they were playing basketball in their room.

The city itself has cleaned up tremendously from my college days.  The main drag is spotless and the cobblestoned sidewalksImage gleam.  Being a Tuesday, with no cruise ship in town, it was very quiet.  I could see a lot of empty store fronts and can see how the economy is hurting, not only from the worldwide downturn but also tourists scared over media reports of narco-violence.  But somethings never changed. It’s always been my tradition to hit Cantina Hussongs, a western-looking dive bar that has been in Ensenada since 1892.  Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Steve McQueen have all hung out there.  We walked it and it looked the same.  We were hungry though, and told the waiter we’d be back.  The taco stand next door was still there, with same menu and we had $1.35 tacos washed down with dark beer and agua de jamaica (hibiscus punch).  Returning to Hussongs (the only visible face lift was the clean bathrooms with self-flushing toilets and no smoking indoors).  Four beers and two tequilas later (and $12 poorer), we concluded day 1 of our Mexican adventure.