Sunday, February 22, 2009

Visiting Privileges

(This week there are no pictures, I guess it's more of a pholosophical posting, and I hope you'll enjoy!)

Last week I mentioned that we had visitors here in Loreto Bay, so this week I thought I would share how the hosting experience affects us Living Loreto.

Since we first chose Loreto Bay and started talking to friends and relatives about it, the subject of visits has come up frequently. “Won't it be great when you are living there and we can come down to visit!” or words to that effect, were part of many of these conversations.

For someone living through a northern winter, the idea of having a friend with a home in sunny Mexico has a great appeal. And what's not to like? For the same airfare you would pay to get to almost any warm climate, there's the opportunity to share our home (and table) and experience a new exotic location without the hassle and expense of an unknown hotel or restaurant situation.

For us who are living here, there is the appeal of having friends and family sharing the place we love and live in, and the excitement that comes from introducing them to what makes us feel that way about it. Besides, we have new playmates for a while and the existing relationship that we have with them is enriched and deepend by that experience.

What we have come to understand, is that while almost everyone is enthusiastic while sitting back at home in Canada, it is a much smaller percentage that actually take the steps to make it happen. First of all is the travel. There are currently four flights a week arriving in Loreto, all by one carrier, Alaska Airlines (and their partner Horizon Air) on a direct flight from Los Angeles. Loreto has the only International Airport between La Paz, a four hour drive south, and several other cities more than a day's drive north, it serves a large area of south central Baja. This means that the demand for the available seats can be high, particularly during the prime winter season.

Couple this with the fact that due to the late morning departure time from LAX, it is usually necessary for Canadians to overnight on the trip, which adds to the expense and travel time required and increases the overall stress that is associated with air travel these days. Let's face it, between security, airport congestion, schedule changes, reduced in-flight services etc. “they” have pretty much managed to squeeze all of the pleasure out of airline travel, so any trip can be a challenging experience.

Then there is the “Mexico Factor”. When you say Mexico to an average North American these days, it's not uncommon for questions about safety and security to arise. After all, the media, always in search of grist for the 24 hour news mill, has been carrying some rather negative stories in the past year or two about the current state of the “drug war” that is undeniably occuring in some parts of the country. Alarming statistics about deaths and violence associated with this situation stand out in most of the coverage that is distributed north of the border.

For us, living near the small (12,000) town of Loreto 2/3 of the way down the Baja penninsula, this news takes on a different perspective. While it would be naive to ignore the truth of the situation, it is tempered by the reality of where we are and what our day to day experience is. The Baja is NOT mainland or border town Mexico! It is a remote and isolated part of Mexico that has always been considered somewhat separate and unique by the people and the government, who are in the much more populated and potentially dangerous mainland part of the country.

Having said that, there is no denying that the Federal Army inspection posts (of which there are 5 or 6 on the highway between here and Tijuana) take their job very seriously, any question of which is quickly dispatched by the obvious presence of some pretty heavy arms at the ready. However, on a positive note, we live our day to day life here without almost any contact or awareness of the reported “war” going on elsewhere in the country. The occasional sighting of a camoflaged “Humvee” with serveral uniforms picking up some groceries in town is just about the extent of our exposure. The fact remains - this isn't Florida or Hawaii - but from my limited experience in those places and my growing experience here, I feel safer in Loreto than I think I would in many major resort cities in the US and certainly many places I have visited in Caribbean.

Anyway, once our guests arrive, the fun begins. Their first acclimatization is the airport in Loreto, or, by the time you read this perhaps I should say, the “old” airport. Arriving planes are usually parked on the apron to the runway right in front of the brand new airport building, which has been sitting, apparently complete, but unused for about six months. (Can you imagine a major infrastructure project north of the border being completed, but left unused, for any significant time? There would be outrage and investigation media exposure, here people shrug, shake their head and say: Quien sabe? Who knows?) The first step is to line up for immigration clearance. Visitors are warned to check that they receive their Tourist Visa slip back from the Immigration Officer - sometimes the officials “forget” and then have to charge you $50 for a new visa before you can depart.

Once the immigration clearance is complete then you claim your bags. When our guests arrived nearly two weeks ago, the luggage conveyor belt in the old terminal had been removed, purportedly to the new terminal. Perhaps a sign of progress, and certainly an inconvenience to arriving passengers at the existing arrival hall. Once all your bags have been accounted for, you have to put them all (including purses and carry-on) through the big X-ray scanner. I'm not sure why it is necessary here in Loreto to scan the bags AFTER they have safely come OFF the flight, but that's the way they do it. After surviving the crush at the x-ray machine and collecting your bags at the other end of the scanner, you present the customs official with your declaration and then push the infamous Red/Green button that lights up a crosswalk-type light. Red means your bags get checked and green means you are free to go - almost. The final gauntlet is getting past the time-share salesmen that have apparently bribed their way into a no-man zone between the secure arrivals area and the public part of the terminal. They helpfully ask if you need ground transportation, and if you answer to the positive, the pitch begins. Our guests just politely declined and proceeded to our waiting open arms.

By the way, all of the procedure described in the previous paragraph takes place in a room that probably measures less than 2000 square feet - not a lot of room to manouver for the over 150 passengers and ground personnel, 300 pieces of luggage, various pieces of equipment all cordoned off by tape barriers. The new terminal can't be opened soon enough!

Driving new arrivals back to Casablanca from the airport can be a exercise in contrasts. First of all, everyone is excited about finally arriving after a long trip. First impressions of the weather are usually positive, it's almost always warm and sunny and the air, fresh off the ocean a hundred yards away, is a tonic. The road out to the highway is not a great introduction, a pretty barren landscape with a few industrial buildings. Once we are on the highway, the combination of the Sierra La Giganta mountain range and the ocean with Isla Carmen in the background probably makes the greatest impression, but what I tend to see is the litter and crushed concrete fill at the side of the road.

A similar thing happens driving into the Loreto Bay development. Guests are charmed by the multi-hued adobe style villas trimmed with wrought iron, and the beautifully landscaped flagstone paths winding between the homes. I see that the main street is partially torn up with pot-holes and patches of sand and that there are many unfinished raw plaster buildings with holes where doors and windows will be someday.

The best part of having guests, is that they cause us to see the familiar with fresh eyes and we become tourists again in our own town, sharing the places and things we enjoy the most but that we never seem to have the time or inspiration to do when we are on our own. For them it is hopefully a much richer experience than a typical resort vacation, because for a week or so they are actually living in a foreign place, not just visiting in a controlled and contrived hotel/resort environment.

The fact is that one can become jaded living in a place like this. We tend to become focused on day-to-day issues and challenges; house maintenance, trying to find something that isn't available here, often letting dust, noise or lack of progress in the development obscure the fact that we live in a place that is as close to paradise as many normal people could aspire to. Seeing and experiencing through the eyes of our guests is one of the best ways for us to fall in love with where we live all over again, and why we love to share it with those lucky people who take the time and make the effort to come. That too is part of Living Loreto!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Misionary Style

I apologize for the late posting this week, read on and I hope you'll understand.

Last weekend we attended and Open House held at the newly opened La Mission Hotel on the Malacon in Loreto. There was a great turnout of about 100 people, most of those were ex-pat residents of the town and surrounding area, including Loreto Bay. After a cocktail reception there were short presentations by the Sales Manager, Manuel Lopez, wlecoming us to the Hotel and inviting all to join a tour of the facility and see some examples of the different rooms available.

First of all a little history. The Hotel property is centrally located on the Malacon near the Marina facing the Sea of Cortez. This prime location had a partially completed three story shell around an open courtyard area and had sat abandoned for many years. Several years ago new owners purchased the site and work began on the new development. A fourth floor was added and the entire property received high quality finishes throughout. In the past year the project has been a hive of activity as it reached completion and we were anxious to see the finished results on our tour.

The first room we saw was a deluxe ocean view
room at the front corner of the Hotel with a large
bathroom beautifully finished in marble with high end plumbing fixtures a king bed occasional chair, flat panel TV in a hutch and a large private balcony overlooking the malacon and ocean.

We also saw a smaller room on the “back” side of the hotel with twin queen beds, a smaller bath/shower and a smaller balcony with a view of the town roof tops but finished to the same high quality as the larger deluxe room.

The third room we saw was also on the ocean
side, large like the first deluxe room, but with twin queen beds and another large balcony with an ocean view as well as overlooking the Hotels large pool patio area that fills the central area that the Hotel wraps around on three sides.

Finally we saw a one bedroom suite with a spacious living room with a dining area and kitchenette separated from the living area by a granit topped island. The impressive bedroom suite was open to a large soaker tub that separates the bathroom from the sleeping area and both the bed and living rooms had sliding glass doors to the largest balcony/patio area I have seen in a hotel. I am sure this patio area was equal in square footage to the entire interior of this luxury suite.

We did not see all of the public areas of the Hotel, but we did visit the dining room bar area on the mezzanine level, overlooking the impressive entrance lobby. The bar had a very nice subdued atmosphere, low lighting and comfortable chairs inviting conversation while the dining room was intimate with a partially open kitchen. Although I haven't eaten there yet, friends who have report that the food is excellent.

I also understand that there are going to be two other restaurants, I believe one will be a more casual deli style and the other will serve pizza, yum! The pool/patio area is surrounded by lounge chairs and tables with umbrellas and there is a fountain feature making for a very attractive place to spend a beautiful afternoon soaking up some Baja rays with breaks in the pool to cool off again. The Hotel also features a spa with all the expected services. There are a number of time-share units available within the Hotel and details were available about an offer to Loreto residents to make Hotel facilities accessible along with an accomodations package. The sales manager pointed out to those of us attending, that they did not have sales people on the streets or at the airport, as some of the more aggressive time-share projects that have started marketing actively this winter in Loreto.

In conclusion, I was most impressed by the extremely high level of finish and the detail of this project. The comment “good enough for Mexico” is not uncommon when discussing constuction here, but this building is a testament to the fact that world class quality can be achieved, even in a place like Loreto. Guests who are accustomed to staying in high quality hotel/resorts anywhere in the world will not be disappointed staying at La Mision, Loreto's newest and finest property, They have most certainly set a new standard that I look forward to future projects reaching for. You can get more information about rates and available packages at and if you do contact them please mention that you read about it here on Living Loreto!

This is going to be a shorter posting than usual, mainly because we are currently hosting my mother, sister and brother-in-law who are visiting from Calgary. Having visitors here gives us the opportunity to see this place again with fresh eyes, experiencing again the colours and flavours that make up our surroundings, remembering how they affected us before and realizing how our perspectives have changed, and how we have changed.

I think I may have mentioned in an earlier posting one of our “mantras” that we live by down here; “We are not going to change Mexico, if we're lucky, perhaps Mexico will change us, and if we don't want that to happen then we shouldn't be here.” Well, having visitors from home gives us a reality check about who and where we are, and perhaps that statement is coming true, perhaps Mexico is changing us, I believe for the better, and that too is part of “Living Loreto”.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Hunting and Gathering

A few weeks ago, in my Market piece, I promised that I would write about the regular in-store shopping now available in the town of Loreto. And now that we have dispensed with the relatively trivial facts of elections etc., it's time to get back to the really important stuff like where to buy a good steak; or perhaps more challeging; where to get the mushrooms and romaine lettuce to go with it!

First off, let me be clear. While the shopping potential of Loreto has improved dramatically in the past three years, let alone five, (or even 15, when we first visited here - but that story is for another time) it really isn't grocery shopping that most of you are familiar with. As this week's title says: it is really more a process of hunting and gathering.

Currently there is no one, dominant store that provides everything on your list, and even if you wound up getting it all in one place, you would first have to have visited a number of other stores before you could decide who had the freshest or ripest of whatever you were looking for. I can't say I have figured out any sort of schedule ("we don't need no stinkin' schedules!"), as to who gets what when, and in truth there probably isn't one. But there certainly are great variations in quality and quantity depending on where and when you shop.

While most of us who live here frequent most of the same stores, word of mouth about new finds and recommendations are a regular part of most get-togethers among Homeowners. Who has the best lechuga (lettuce) is always appreciated intelligence, and a new opening or discovery can be cause for celebration.

We often start a trip at Mercado Juarez, near the first traffic circle on the northerly main street (Calle Benito Juarez, this will only make sense if you're familiar with Loreto). Over the past several years this shop has grown in inventory and quality. It often has the best vegetables in town, and delicacies like fresh mushrooms, field grown strawberries (they actually taste like strawberries and are red inside!) and grape tomatoes are available. On a recent visit, I was impressed to see a line up of 10 people at the meat counter - not only a good indication of quality but also freshness and price. Salted butter is almost always available as are many other dairy products. Most other staples are also available here, but other places are better.

Next stop down Juarez is the recently moved and expanded, Loreto favorite, Dali Deli. When this young couple from the mainland opened in their original tiny location, a couple of years ago, they were supplying mainly the restaurant market (the topic of another blog to come). But quick to see the potential of the ex-pat market, they began to cater to North American tastes for prime quality frozen meats and they started to carry diverse products like dishwasher detergent and sushi rice. Last summer they moved into a much enlarged storefront, newly renovated with an expanded inventory and room to grow. In addition to an larger selection of frozen meats (great), and a growing dairy and deli section, plus the recent addition of herbs and spices, this store has made, without a doubt, the biggest contribution to the improvement of our menus since we set up house here three years ago.

A little farther down Juarez on the right is one of
many tortillarias, but we often stop here for fresh
tortillas (bet you saw that one coming) preferring them to the store-bought ones, that are also often made locally and probably are only a day or so old.

Just before you turn off Juarez onto Francisco Madero, you pass the Fruiteria. A couple of years ago this was one of the few places to buy fruits and vegetables and it has recently tidied up and reorganized. But now we usually only stop if something is proving elusive at our regular stops as the quality and quantity of items has decreased. Are you now beginning to see where the idea of shopping vs hunting and gathering develops?

Before you turn right on Madero, if you look left you should be able to see a big two story yellow building a couple of blocks away (which I didn't take a picture of). That building has a bakery on the main floor and a pizzeria upstairs. We haven't had much from the bakery except for boillos (the ubiquitous torpedo shaped buns) but they have a lot of big decorated cakes in a cooler for special occasions.

Just a few doors from the corner of Juarez after
turning right onto Madero is La Michoacana; one of the best Ice Cream shops in town (rumour has it there's a good shop on Misioneros in Infonavit, but unconfirmed by yours truly). La Michoacana has a great selection of housemade ice cream and an amazing display of popsicles and ice cream bars.

Farther down Madero you come to ISSSTE, also described as the "Government" store, and we understand that it is part of social service agency that provides reasonably priced staples like toiletries, canned goods, paper and cleaning products, and cereals. They also carry a variable supply of liquor and some domestic wines of modest vintage but no beer or any other stock requiring refrigeration. However, for basics, it is a good place to check out, although their inventory varies dramatically, depending on when the last truck made it's delivery. Sometimes the shelves look quite bare, and at others it's hard to thread your way down the asiles for the stacks of boxes waiting to be unpacked.

A little farther down the street you come to the city hall on your right, just across from the town square or Plaza where public events sometimes take place in the gazebo/bandshell. Also at the corner of this square is the original Bancomer branch with an ATM machine (don't ask me why costumers warrant their own entrance according to the orange sign). This was one of the town's busiest locations in the "old days" (a few years ago) as it had the only ATM in town. Now there is a new Bancomer branch on the highway which aims at the ex-pat market with some English speaking staff, as well as a new Banamex branch halfway out of town, so now we have several choices for the all important peso withdrawals and they hardly ever ALL run out of cash, as used to happen regularly before.

Leaving the square, Madero jogs a bit and crosses Hidalgo (the eastern continuation of Salvatierra, the main street) and continues south to the big arroyo near Zaragosa, where the Sunday market is held. On the left, about halfway between Hidalgo and the arroyo is a smallish "super mercado" called Chuco's. Chuco's has a bright purple and yellow storefront, and is conviently located across the street from Chuco's Hardware and Chuco's Disco. The market, while smaller than some, is very neat and tidy, with well stocked shelves of canned foods, dry goods, cleaning supplies and household staples. They have a small selection of refrigerated produce and dairy, of course beer and soft drinks and a small gift and notion selection with some good toiletry items. All in all a nice little store to check out, with very pleasant shop keepers. Across the street, Chuco's hardware is one of the best in town, well stocked and organized, but I can't vouch for the Disco, never having gone.

If you do a U-turn in front of Chuco's and go back to Hidalgo and turn left we are on the homestretch of our shopping excursion. In case you're a bit thirsty after all this shopping, watch out for Cactus, a couple of blocks up on your left. Conviently situated behind a medium sized cactus in the middle of the sidewalk, you can't miss it! This is the biggest liquor store in town, with the best wine selection (not great, just the best), a respectable liquor selection with, not surprisingly, a great choice of TEQUILA! There is a wall of beer coolers, and, like most other places, they will offer to pack your cold beer in a plastic bag filled with free ice, the original Baja cooler to go!

Past the next corner, (watch the traffic light, currently the only functioning one in town) on your right is El Pescador, the big kahuna of grocery stores in Loreto, which has recently freshened up the exterior with a coat of paint, a new sign and new doors. Now bigger is not always better, although I must say Pescador has improved dramatically since we were first here 5 years ago. The vegetables are fresher and the selection is better, the meat counter is much improved in appearance (and smell) again with more selection of fresher, better butchered meats. Due to the size of the store, they have the largest selection of all the regular shelf products that I have noted elsewhere and the biggest frozen food section in town where you can (sometimes) find french fries, good ice cream, neat little potato patties (with corn and peppers that fry up into a tasty side dish) along with a varying selection of other frozen products. There is also a second freezer in the corner by the produce counter with seafoods and other entres. While you're shopping, you may be able to have your car windshield washed by the "squeege guy" who patrols the parking lot, if you make eye contact with him when you park your car, you will return to a clearer view of the future (through your windshield) for a 10 peso tip, 20 if you want all the windows done.

Just a little bit farther west down the block on the same side as Pescador, watch out for Mariscos El Cora. This is a reliable source for frozen shrimp, scallops and a varying selection of other seafood. It looks sort of like a house with a palm palapa roof and they serve prepared seafood at a few tables in front.

Next up, again on the right is another smaller liquor store, Panchos. Nothing special here, but it makes a nice quick alternative to Cactus on your way out of town. Small wine selection, most types of liquor, not a lot of variety but all the beer you could ever need along with chips etc.

A little farther west, this time on the left, is Panaderia
Vienesa, a decent little bakery for boillos and
occasionally mexican style squares (or triangles). We have had really good hamburger buns from here a couple of times, but most of the time they don't have them and we have no choice but the dreaded Bimbo. Now you understand the significance of my homebaked bread (see "Raking & Baking" posted back in November).

A couple of blocks down on the right is a recent addition, Big Mart, significant more for it's appearance and merchandising style than the foods available. This place would fit right in in any strip mall in North America and is almost identical to a Macs or 7-11 back home. Small selection of wine & liquor, lots of chips and cookies a few fresh"ish" veggies and some premade sandwiches etc. fill out the inventory around the biggest selling single item; beer. By the way, since I haven't mentioned it before, I may a well point out that beer here is about half the price we pay at home in Canada; 52 pesos or about $4.50 CDN $3.75 US for a 6 pack - no wonder I love living here!

Last stop before you leave town is Los Bartolillos, which is, without a doubt, the busiest grocery store in town, primarily catering to the local Mexicano clientelle. This place too has undergone a considerable transformation in the last year or so, including an expansion and exterior paint job but, as you can see from the picture, the second floor is still in the planning stage. The vegetable section is not as good as some places, but I have heard good things about the newly renovated meat counter, and if line-ups are a good sign (and they are) we probably should check it out more often. They deal in a lot of bulk food here, beans, rice, & pastas, with fewer prepared foods and I'm sure a lot of the appeal to the local clientelle is lower prices on these basics. If you missed buying a bag of oranges at the market, there is often a truck parked outside here selling them on the street.

All of these stores are probably familiar to most Home Owners in Loreto Bay, but I have a tip to pass on for an excellent out-of-the-way fish monger. Given Loreto's history as a fishing village, finding fresh fish is not as easy for us ex-pats as one might expect. Driving around the side streets, you do occasionally see small signs for "pescado" but I am sure that the local residents all have a favorite place where they buy their fish from a friend or neighbour, and have done so for years, long before these other stores were established. That is why fresh fish is noticeably absent from any of the stores I've described.

So for my added bonus for all patient readers who have gotten this far in this weeks posting is a fishmonger, well off the beaten track of most of our regular shopping. It's called Pescaderia Jamel. To find it, head north on the highway past the cemetary and just after the old Jeep displayed in the traffic circle, where a road from town merges with the highway from the right, take the next right at the corner with the Modelorama (beer store). Continue about halfway down the block and watch for a weathered sign on a chain link fence on your right. If the gate is open, so are they! Inside the yard there is a completely screened in work area where Lupita cleans and filets fresh fish for you while you wait. Excellent quality, and to be any fresher, you'd have to have caught them yourself! In addition to the "catch of the day" they also had frozen shrimp and lobster the day we were there.

Hunting and Gathering for good food is one of the unique aspects of life here, and one of the most enjoyable. The lack of "one stop shopping" is also why it can easily take half a day, once or twice a week, to keep the kitchen well stocked. But taking the time and getting pleasure from doing these routine aspects of day to day life is one of the best parts of Living Loreto. Me Gusta Mucho!