Homestay in La Paz

I’ve been taking a few days rest in La Paz and also taking some Spanish lessons here. I arranged it through a local language school that also organises ‘homestay’ accommodation. That meant staying with a family and having a couple of meals provided each day. I thought it would be a good opportunity to get to know some locals and see what kind of cuisine I might find in a typical La Paz household. Of course, I did realise that being a vegan might render the whole concept of ‘local cuisine’ irrelevant. But I knew it would be something different.

The food provided (breakfast & lunch) was only on ‘schooldays’. So the weekend I had to fend for myself, which was no problem. Shortly after my arrival, Vicky, the madre of the household brought up some food when I arrived, and clearly there had been a miscommunication (or none) between herself and the school as I was served tacos with some kind of fish topping. Never mind, we both said, no problem. Tacos with salsa. Easy.

Onto Monday morning and I get a decent fruit salad. Is this what is typically eaten at breakfast? Not unusual, apparently. Back for lunch at 2pm (mealtimes are strict…) and I’m presented with the classic traditional Mexican comida…Chinese takeaway. Vegetables and spring roll, fair enough. Will I be having this every day?

I guess I can put Monday down to learning experience as the rest of the week saw me presented with a ‘variety’ of tortillas and frijoles refritos (refried beans). One day it’s a plate of beans with tortillas on the side, another day tortillas dipped in the beans, another day beans on a toasted botilla (basically beans on toast), another day beans with nachos. I think this is the only kind of recycling I’ve seen in Mexico so far…

Lunch had a little more variety – rice, lopales (cactus), different mixes of vegetables. It was pretty decent and a little more varied. Even the sopes felt different (which is really just a thicker, smaller tortilla cooked up with beans on top and garnished with salad).

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect this week. My room had a separate entrance (and stairs – which was a novelty after 2 months of street-level accommodation). Effectively I had my own apartment for the week, which meant little time with the ‘family’ (I ended up talking mostly to the housekeeper). Vicki and her husband both worked and seemed happy enough to leave me to my own devices. It’s hard to say how typical a family they are but are definitely in the upper end of the social scale. However they don’t live in an ‘upper class’ neighbourhood; their house stands unique along the street. It’s very modern with (I would say) a few tacky flourishes like the fountain and palm trees but on either side each neighbouring property seemed half-built (or crumbling into the dust). An upper-scale neighbourhood this is not, but it wasn’t any worse off because of it. People tend to look after whatever they have, and I noticed lots of sweeping and tree-trimming. I learnt quite a bit through the lessons (I hope) and got to see a bit of La Paz. There aren’t many tourists at this time of year but the city centre seemed to be bustling, even during the hot afternoons. Street stalls selling all kinds of clothing, food or cellphone accessories give the streets a lively air. And to get somewhere a little quieter I can walk along the waterfront. I’m not much of a beach person and so didn’t head up the coast to one of the many bigger beaches, but the waterfront has many stretches of little beaches along the way that open out onto the bay and make for a scenic stroll.

La Paz is my final stop in Baja California. It took some getting used to. The heat hasn’t let up but I enjoy this (except when I can’t sleep at night). Next stop is Mazatlan, across the Sea of Cortez by ferry. From there it’ll be a long run down the coast towards the south of the country, Oaxaca and Chiapas. That’s where I’ll be making my first Fair Trade visits, and although that’s still another 3+ weeks away, I’m really looking forward to it.

Todos Santos

I’ve been spending a few days in Todos Santos, a small but spread-out village just inland from the Pacific coast. It’s one of those ‘sleeper’ villages that has attracted a lot of attention (and US money) in the last few years due to its laid-back atmosphere and proximity to the major cities of La Paz and Cabo San Lucas (Los Cabos), collectively being re-branded as the “Cabo Rivieria”. Authentic Mexico it certainly is not. Numerous artists and would-be US retirees have set up here, but it’s not hard to see why. It’s also right on the Tropic of Cancer (so having crossed that marker I’m now officially in the tropics!)

I’m very much enjoying it though as it’s still a quiet enough place to unwind after days cycling through the desert. English is prevalent here, and all the signs of a tourist town abound – lots of cafes and restaurants, spas, boutique hotels, ‘health/well-being’ places etc. I found a coffee shop (La Esquina) that serves organic coffee, which I think must be my first since Ensenada. Very welcome indeed. I also checked the friendly GotBajaMaps store – quirky souveniers (not that I’m buying any as I have enough luggage…) and very helpful local information.

I also picked up a local rag called the “Gringo Gazette”, a free bi-monthly English-language ‘newspaper’ that is published from California but seems to think of itself as based in San Jose del Cabo. Either way, it’s a sloppy publication that seems to promote xenophobia and the colonial ‘us and them’ attitude that characterises new developments in ‘developing’ countries. Change is happening quickly in this part of the world, but really it’s the same story seen many times before. Money’s talking here but it’s not the peso.

I’m staying in a smaller little place called El Pescadero, where I can camp and enjoy the view of the small pool (I’ve yet to try, surprisingly). It’s a nice little spot to enjoy my time here, except for the 12 km commute I’ve been doing back into Todos Santos. Oh, and the heat, the dogs…ok, just kidding, it’s a pretty sweet deal.

El desierto: Part II

So yes the desert is tough in this heat. But when I’m riding during the day it often doesn’t feel as such, given the breeze that accompanies me along the way. Eventually however it takes its toll and making an effort to get at least some shade is important, if only for a short break. I’ve got used to the ‘bleakness’ and it’s grown on me. The things that I find hardest is the distance in between towns as it’s nice for me to know there are at least a few people somewhere along the way (though conversely I then wonder just what makes a person live all the way out here??). The early mornings and evenings are the best time to be out there.

So onto La Paz…and somehow in the back of my head I couldn’t help thinking, that maybe, just maybe, if things went very well, I could get pretty close. Close enough that there might be an alternative in the small town just outside of La Paz. I wanted to get to Todos Santos the day after so getting as many km in on the first day would make things a lot easier on the second. So a big day ahead and things went about as good as they could have done. A good breakfast to start (tortillas & beans), tailwinds and flat terrain for the first few hours (I could have cycled blindfolded the road was so straight) and so it continued. A delightful German lady stopping to give me a drink; feeling good on the ride; mostly tailwinds and not too many hills. By late afternoon I felt that La Paz was in reach, though I still scouted possible places to sleep. With the sun coming down low I was closing in on La Paz. I got a great view of the bay in the softening light around 40 km out of the city where the plateau begins to drop towards the ocean, and by then I knew I could do it even if it meant the last few km were in the dark.

I didn’t need to get to the city centre, so seeing an RV Park about 11km out, I checked in. and I must have been in a state because the owner asked if I’d like a room instead of camping. At the heavily-discounted price I couldn’t refuse. A hugely satisfying day, clocking my longest day so far.

And seeing as I’ve posted enough pictures of the desert already, here’s a few others things I’ve seen lately…

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El desierto: Part I

I spent a nice day in Loreto after my night ride and was able to relax and look around for the rest of the day, although not much was going on due to the heat. It was back inland after that and back into the hills. And somehow those hills just kept on coming. It was looking to be a very uncomfortable day and I didn’t get much respite with a lack of shade to be found when I stopped for lunch. Once on the plateau the wind was up and right in my face. Ah, a headwind for a change…but I wasn’t complaining too much because I knew when i arrived in Cuidad Insurgentes the road takes a sharp left and with it a likely tailwind for most of the rest of the way south. I was pretty spent by the time I reached town and so after some rest my initial plans for desert camping started to look unlikely. It was only 25 km to Cuidad Constitucion, a much bigger town. The irony of a whole day in the empty desert and now having an almost urban corridor made me smile. I thought that to try and get through the town and back into the desert was too much and getting too late. One issue I certainly have is that although Edna looks svelte (from her best angle!) she does carry a hefty package and any off-road situation is almost like pulling a bag of bricks. I did try to get off the main road but I was laughably incompetent trying to get anywhere. So arriving in Cd. Concepcion I lucked out in finding a pretty comfortable RV Park to camp at (with wifi!).

I woke up late the next day, packed up and then decided it was just a little too good (and cheap) to run from. It’s nice to change plans and I ended up staying another couple of nights.

Camping in the desert is not as hard or as bad as it might sound. In fact, some tourers thrive on it (I’ve met them) so it just comes down to whether you want to or not. Coming from the ‘comfortable’ US of A and my difficulties in adjusting in my first few days in Mexico did not really give me the right mindset for it, but I was much more comfortable now and would have been happy trying it out.

Maybe on the road to La Paz…? 210 km lay between me and La Paz and other sleeping options were pretty much non-existent. One night in the desert would be fine, wouldn’t it? But these two might give me some problems…

 

Night rider

My unexpected interruptions during my ‘idyllic’ night by the sea resulted in an early start. I couldn’t declare war on the ants. It was put up with or run away. I chose to run. After a long delay cleaning up my food bag and having to walk the bike up the dirt road, I was on the road before 4.30am. I reckoned that traffic would be pretty light as I’d not heard many lorries on the road. It was a little disconcerting at first but soon got used to it and I really started to enjoy it. The moonlight was bright, the stars were out and it was incredibly quiet. I hadn’t cycled in the dark yet on my trip and this was a great introduction. Only a couple of hours before dawn and I was cycling at a relaxed pace. The moon and my front light did enough to show the road ahead and all the traffic that did pass gave me a wide berth. I lost any fears I had over being out there on my own and continued at a steady rhythm. One advantage of cycling this way was not being able to see the hills in front of me, so I just took them bit by bit. At this early hour it meant I was just riding whatever was right in front of me. The day was as cool as it was going to be but I was more than warm enough anyway. By dawn I’d covered some good miles and enjoyed the sunrise, taking in the morning as it took shape and the heat rose.

It’s not something I’ll make a habit of but I was very glad to have done it and would try it again but switching to a ‘night shift’ is not in my plans yet…

 

Ants in my pants

Nico and I separated as I wanted to make up more ground on the road to Loreto, in order to leave a shorter day after. South of Mulege there are a number of ‘postcard’ beaches in the Bahia de Concepcion. All offer some degree or another of camping and some have beachside restaurants too. It’s a particularly attractive option to get a cabana, a little protective wooden shelter. And all very cheap. I passed a number of very nice ones, but pushed on to the end of the bay.

It all looked so idyllic and when I got to Playa Perla I thought this is just fantastic! Although it wasn’t the nicest one and had no facilities (it would be a stretch to call the toilet a toilet), it was empty (save for a couple of locals who looked they were living there…) and I was right by the water. Quiet, peaceful, a day’s riding behind me – almost perfect. I took a swim and later sat outside the hut for a typical tourer evening food (i.e. lots of peanut butter). Doesn’t get much better than this, thought I. A bright moon was rising, so as the sky deepened over the horizon I looked forward to getting an early night under the stars, just sleeping on my camping mat and sleeping bag. But as I keep learning, things are never quite as straightforward…

Around 9pm I got some fellow visitors. A couple of guys arrived and they wandered about the beach with a few beers in hand. After my US hiker-biker experiences I feared the worst. Luckily they weren’t too noisy but soon got the inclination to build themselves a fire. I have no idea what they threw in there, but it stank, and I was directly downwind…nice touch, fellas. Somehow though I got a bit of sleep together, at least to start with. It wasn’t long before I woke up scratching myself here and there. It soon turned into more than here and there and I wondered what was going on. Soon I got into the sleeping bag – better to sweat than suffer the bites, or least it was for a while. I considered pitching the tent but really just hoped I’d get away with things as they were. Ant bites everywhere was no fun and by 2.30am I was not a happy camper – I’d had enough. Time to get up and hit the road early! I’d guessed it was the ants and got another shock when I discovered hundreds of them all over my food bag. Another mistake not learned – I’d forgotten to hang up my food in the cabana. They were particularly keen on my oat biscuits. Little gits.

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Nick the Greek in San Ignacio

Dates weren’t the only other thing I found in San Ignacio. On arrival I did a quick tour of the village, just to see what it was like and check out the accommodation options. I stopped in the lovely plaza in the village centre to get my bearings and was quickly interrupted out of my distracted thoughts by a ‘hello’. And the accent didn’t sound Spanish. It turns out Nico (“Nick the Greek” as I couldn’t help thinking after he introduced himself) was a Greek-British guy cycling his way from Canada to South America. We chatted for a few minutes and he told me where he was staying, so Agnes got lucky again as I found the campsite Nico was at. We ended up spending the next couple of days together, cycling to Santa Rosalia and to Mulege the following day.

It was good to have some company and (as is often the case with these random encounters) it turns out Nico went to school less than 10km from where I did near lovely Leeds. Somehow we’d never met before then, despite both coming from Vancouver (Nico from Kelowna) at similar times and pretty much on the same route.

On a (sugar) high

Fresh after my haul of figs in Vizcaino (which also included a couple of mangoes) I rode to San Ignacio – an oasis in the desert. As well as being famous for its Jesuit/Dominican Mision, it is surrounded by date trees (and it has a lagoon!). For many a day ahead of time I looked forward to finding fresh dates, or at least vast quantities of local dried ones. Being a sometimes-ignorant developed world individual, I had no idea when date season actually is, considering their year-round availability (how many of us could actually say when the banana/mango/pineapple/lemon etc season is?). Turns out I’m a few months early. But after wandering around staring up at all the dates patiently hanging in huge quantities, I found a little shack in the village that was selling some. I’d even taken to foraging again (and found several of mixed quality) but the dates I bought hit the spot.

Dates and figs – I’ve gone from the lows of the dry, hot desert to the high of my favourite kinds of sugar-filled fruit. It’s still hot, dusty and half of me is in the desert (the other half next to the Sea of Cortez), but the dates and figs have made life happy again.

Agnes gets a look-in at last; figtastic

Since holing up in San Diego for a few days I’ve had Agnes packed up in my bag. She didn’t appreciate it but I was enjoying the hostel in SD and then the motels in Mexico. Camping just didn’t seem quite the same here…

But I found a hotel here in Vizcaino that did a pretty nice camping setup and it was a heck of a lot cheaper than the other options so Agnes got her first taste of Mexico tonight and she picked a great spot. Right next to orange and fig orchards. I thought picking right off the trees was a bit rude so just hunted for what had fallen on the ground. Figtastic! I found far too much that I can realistically carry along with, so I’ve literally stuffed myself with figs this evening and feel far too full to go to bed. I’ll be digesting this lot until tomorrow lunchtime. I wonder what I’ll have for breakfast…

Agnes seems happy and we’re going to get ourselves reaquainted pretty shortly.

Things I learned this week

As I posted earlier, I’ve had some challenges in the last week or so. Here’s some of my further thoughts on being in Baja so far (some of which might seem pretty obvious, but I learn the ‘experimental’ way):

  • Trying to do similar distances in a day to what I did on some stretches of my US ride is probably not a good idea (I’ve read of someone else who biked after dark to get mileage in, and that’s not something I fancy)
  • I like the heat, but too much of a good thing can cause trouble
  • The locals are mostly friendly but don’t trust everything they say, particularly when it comes to telling you how good their accommodation is
  • The trucks on Highway 1 (the road through Baja) drive quite fast!
  • Luckily they are noisy and I can hear them coming
  • However when they aren’t around there’s a fantastic, eery silence on the road – just the sound of the wind and my bicycle
  • Drink lots of water; buy extra (yes that sounds ridiculously obvious)
  • The midday sun is really the ‘all day sun’
  • The ride has very much been a mental challenge this week above the physical challenge; keeping my spirits up, adjusting to the new environment and being comfortable with the new limitations this presents has been a hard part of the last week
  • I don’t have to cycle every single metre; taking the bus when required is ok (Catavina to Guerrero Negro)
  • When on my bicycle, I notice the emptiness of a landscape much more. A stretch of 30km without habiation is a few minutes in the car; on my bike it can be a couple of hours
  • Even the villages have an emptiness about them, alluding to a way of life that is so far removed from my own I sense this peculiar desolation as if it’s harder to be in that village than on the empty road. To me I can’t help wonder about the inhabitants of such places; their half-built ‘promised land’ taco and burrito stands; other buildings left to decay; the dusty side streets; roaming dogs; empty and abandoned shacks commonplace. For these people I’m sure it’s just their way of living, but to see it first-hand and also to wonder if this was always so or did they get lured into thinking the tourists would flock to their village on their way to the major tourist towns in the south? Were these places built on desert-sand promises? Government falsehoods? I don’t linger enough to be able to find out, but it is a common and (for me, with my comfortable way of life) depressing sight at times
  • When a lorry sheds a good few tomatoes at the edge of the road, stop and pick up a pound or two. They taste delicious!
  • And when carrying chocolate, remember to eat it before the temperature hits 40+ degrees…
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