Monday, March 30, 2009

La Paz that refreshes . . .

My apologies to those loyal readers who checked earlier for this posting, we arrived home from the trip I describe below last night, and I only finished writing this piece today, I hope you enjoy!

We have been “Living Loreto” with out getting out of town since we returned just before New Years, about three months ago. Now, for those of you up north struggling through the worst winter in recent memory, spending three months non-stop in a perfect climate may not seem like much of a hardship, but we have been planning a trip to the “big cities” since we arrived here last fall and this is the first time we have been able to plan a get-away.

One measure of the need to make the trip is The List. Almost the day we arrived last October we started making The List, writing down things that we thought we needed but could not find in Loreto. Things like: an appliance bulb for the microwave, an octopus electrical multi-plug, tea towels, a smoke detector etc. The longer we were here, the longer the list got. This list poses some very real questions about what we need to live and what we think we want.

I have extolled the virtues of the simple life we live here in Loreto, like how we take pleasure from finding good food to prepare and spending time with friends enjoying that food. But habits are hard to break, and coming from a large sophisticated city, we have acquired tastes for things that are not available here. In fact, it seems that the more things that are available here, the more esoteric the “wants” become.

Of course, when we plan on taking such a trip, we also accumulate want lists from some friends and neighbors, who have done the same for us when they have made the same trip previously. I must say there is a surprising satisfaction to be had from bringing someone something that they want and need, and have no other way of getting for themselves, we understand because we know exactly how they feel.

So, the day arrives, and we leave about ten in the morning as we are only planning on getting to La Paz for the first night, a drive of about 4 hours. As usual, the day is perfect, clear blue skies with just a few clouds to break up the monotony, and light breezes. We start heading south from Nopolo, the “suburb” of Loreto, where Loreto Bay is. After some dramatic views of the Sea of Cortez from the highway, we head inland and start negotiating the Sierra Giganta mountain range and some of the most extreme highway driving of the trip.

About 20 km south of Loreto we come across the beginnings of another bridge project. I have mentioned the bridge-building that is taking place throughout the Baja before - there are now two bridges between our home and the town of Loreto with a third currently in the beginning stages of construction. With this other new bridge to our south, that makes for a total of 4 bridges in about 40 km, none of which were here just over two years ago. According to a billboard we see along the way, the Federal Government is building 140 new bridges on the Baja between Tijuana and Cabo. This represent a major investment in infrastructure, and it is money well spent.

Most of these bridges cross over arroyo areas which are dry riverbeds almost year round but are prone to road wash outs when the heavy rains come in the fall. Because Highway 1 extends all the way from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas, and covers a distance of over 1600 km, it is the lifeline and central nervous system for the entire Baja area. It carries the vast majority of imports and exports in the many hundreds of transport trucks that are common vehicles on this road. This highway also carries a growing number of visitors, both long and short term, travelling to and from between their vacations and their homes, or in the case of the hundreds of RV's that use the road, they travel to their vacations in their homes.

All of this traffic can be brought to a halt anytime a sudden downpour washes out the road adjacent to these arroyos. This can strand vehicles and passengers, sometimes for days, while equipment and manpower struggles to work their way to repair the damage. Therefore, every bridge forges another stronger link in this chain, but also highlights the next weakest spot that will eventually have to be bridged as well.

Once we have climbed the Sierra Giganta range we travel on a high desert plain for over an hour before we reach the first major intersection at the town nearest to Loreto; Ciudad Insurgentes. When I wrote about going to see the whales, we turned north at this intersection, but for La Paz we head south to Ciudad Constitution, a reasonably prosperous agricultural centre, that's a bit more than double the size of Loreto. Because it serves a large surrounding area, there is more established commercial operations, principal among them, Super Lay, an impressive North American style supermarket.

No trip through Constitution would be complete without a stop at this store, at least to use the washrooms, even if we aren't shopping. After a winter in Loreto, the lure of a REAL super mercado proved too much, I got drawn into the bakery department where I picked up a small package of donut holes, not really “Tim-Bits” but as close as I've seen in a long time! Past a big display frozen pizza, on sale, no less, yes, Loreto shopping has come a long way, BUT, it still has a long way to go!

During the two hour drive to La Paz, we pass through several small hamlets, like El Cien (Spanish for 100) found 100 km north of La Paz, and apparently the town's only claim to fame. We also pass through the only Federal checkpoint between Loreto and La Paz about 20 km north of LP. These roadblocks are the only Baja expression of the “war on drugs” that has recently attracted so much media attention north of the border. While these roadblocks, staffed with well armed Federal Army troops, are a bit intimidating, we have never had any problems or even delays when southbound, and only cursory inspections when northbound, which is when the most rigorous checks are made.

Arriving in La Paz is surprisingly exciting. It starts at the outskirts, with real businesses, not just llanteras (tire repair) and taco stands, the approach road is divided four lanes, there's even and overpass! But the thrills are only beginning! At the north end of the city is a brand new Walmart, the latest addition to the “big box” shopping experience in the Baja. In fact, only last year we were excited when we visited a new Walmart in Cabo and now, here was another huge new store in La Paz - how long will it be before we have one in Loreto, I wonder?

La Paz, with a population of close to 200,000, is definitely a city, or ciudad. Heavy traffic, finding parking and getting lost are all part of the experience, and not the good part. But when shopping for stationary supplies that don't exist in Loreto, having the choice between Office Depot and Office Max, is an example of some of the good things that only a big city has. This is also the state capital and most of the official business of government takes place here.

The experience of shopping in a modern mega-store is much like riding a bike - you never forget how! In fact it is surprising how quickly one gets back into it, after spending most of the past six months “hunting and gathering” in Loreto. Within minutes you are once again surveying shelves chock full of inventory, looking for the precise option, brand or size that you had in mind, while in Loreto the mere presence of one of these many choices would have been considered a coup and cause for a small celebration. How quickly we forget - or perhaps remember?

After spending most of a day shopping and at appointments in La Paz we hit the road again heading for Cabo San Lucas, a little less than 200 km south and west, at the tip of the peninsula. The drive can be broken into two distinct legs, just over 100 km to Todos Santos and just under 100 from there to Cabo. The significance of these legs is that between them they can serve as an example of the future of travel in the Baja, compared with the current state of affairs.

After leaving La Paz on a divided 4 lane road you briefly return to the standard narrow two lanes before connecting with the grand new divided 4 lane highway that takes you almost ¾ of the way to Todos Santos. This brand new road, which has been under construction for the past several years, is the finest stretch of driving we have seen in the Baja. It is substantially wider than the divided highways south of Tijuana because there are actually shoulders wide enough to park a vehicle on. Not only that, but there is a cleared strip the width of another two lanes on each side of the road with sturdy barbed wire fences separating the road allowance from the surrounding fields. (The significance of this feature may be lost on most of you, but unexpectedly encountering “free range” cattle in the middle of the road is one of the most dangerous aspects of highway travel and this new road has the best protection from (and for) cattle of any road I've travelled on the Baja.)

Contrasting with this new “mega-highway”, is the second half of the trip to Cabo, beyond Todos Santos. While the scenery can be breathtaking, particularly where the road parallels the west coast of the peninsula and the Pacific crashes ashore against miles of windswept dunes, this section of the road characterizes most of the worst aspects of Highway 1. It is narrow, barely 20 feet without shoulders, plunges up and down dozens of steep hills that block any views of oncoming traffic. Added to this, the last 10 or 15 km approaching Cabo combines hairpin turns with steep hills that inevitably create a bottleneck for the many transport trucks that have to crawl up and around these obstacles. This in turn backs up dozens of cars behind them and encourages many hazardous attempts to pass.

So, in these two stretches of road, covering less than 200 km, you can find the best and worst of driving Highway 1 in the Baja. You also can see what the future may hold for an increasing length of this road. There are many other sections of the Highway where there is what looks to be preliminary clearing and grading work being done and now that I have seen the high standard of work that has been done on this one stretch of the road, it gives me a reason to believe that someday the dream of a divided highway the length of the Baja may become a reality. Call me crazy!

Finally we reached our ultimate destination – Cabo San Lucas. I will post a more detailed description of this icon of the Baja some other time, but, suffice to say for now, Cabo is a symbol of the best and worst that this part of Mexico has to offer. From world class five star resorts to tacky tourist traps selling every kind of cheap souvenir. From elegant restaurants with breathtaking views of some of the most dramatic coastline on the peninsula to sleezy bars catering to the spring-break clientelle all year-round. As a tourist it seems everybody is either selling time-shares for tens of thousands of dollars, or peddling the cheapest silver jewellery and annoying little clay whistles along the marina walkway.

It's hard not to look with some disdain at the excesses of Cabo, particularly having
come from somewhere so much smaller and simpler as Loreto. I must admit to wondering, as I sat at breakfast overlooking tens of millions of dollars worth of private yachts in the marina, what our quiet little Loreto will look like in another 10 to 15 years. No, Loreto will never become another Cabo, (God forbid!) but as development progresses, changes will inevitably follow, and I feel quite sure that we will look back on these days with fondness and some regrets for the innocence lost and that too is part of “Living Loreto”!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Check back later

I have been on the road for the weekend, so I am not able to post tonight, please check back tomorrow for the story about our trip to La Paz and Cabo,

Thanks for following Living Loreto,

Stay Tuned,


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Home is where the Association is

In my previous postings I have described many aspects of Living Loreto, mainly focused on the town of Loreto. But where we live is in Loreto Bay - a development about 15 km south of the town - a project that began just over five years ago and now includes about 400 completed homes with about another 200 under construction and a further 200 homes sold, and not yet started.

Over the past several weeks the main topic of conversation among the Homeowners in our community has been the establishment of the Homeowners' Association. Up until now, the Developer has been carrying most of the costs to maintain the common areas in the project, with Homeowners, who have taken possession of their properties, contributing a token payment due to the fact that construction has been ongoing in most of the common areas.

Starting about a month and a half ago, the Developer began informing Homeowners that the sub regimes of the Master Condominium Regime would be holding their first annual meetings this spring and the Homeowners' Association would be taking over full responsibility for the continued operation of the substantially completed areas. In addition to the added responsibilities entailed, this would mean that there will be a significant increase in the costs for each Homeowner to cover their full share of the expenses to maintain common areas and the general operations of the project.

Not surprisingly, the initial reaction by most Homeowners to this news was negative. Many people thought that there was still too much work to be done to finish the common areas and questions were raised about how the completion of the unfinished homes in each of these sub regime areas would impact the other finished homes and common areas.

A heated dialogue began on the private Homeowners' website with many people expressing their concerns and defiance of the process that they felt they were being forced into. Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and each sub regime was organized with a leader and then other volunteers to address specific issues and develop a plan of action to represent the many concerns shared by the owners in each neighbourhood.

These reactions by the Homeowners are understandable to me, because initially I shared some of them myself. However, as more information was circulated, and we learned what the reality was, and what our responsibilities and obligations were, we also began to realize the strengths and opportunities that this transition to “self-administration” represented.

I believe some of the initial responses from Homeowners were due, in part, to their past experiences and frustrations that we have all shared during the process of building a home in Mexico. We moved through the steps of choosing our lot and home plan, then the construction and finishing phases where we faced the real challenges of building a home in a foreign culture and language, commonly thousands of kilometers from where we lived. Everyone, it seems, has several “Loreto Bay stories” about the trials and tribulations they have experienced in the building process and later as they got settled and began living in their new home here.

With this as a background, I believe it is the case that many people found an outlet, in the controversy surrounding the transition to sub regime control, to vent their pent-up frustrations concerning their home completion and lack of amenities completion. Having said this, I don't want to exaggerate the problems associated with this project. In fact, having had some personal experience with doing major home renovations back in Canada, I think in most cases the experience that was the building process here in Mexico is not a great deal more complex or problematic than a major “custom” home project would be “at home”, allowing for the language, and distances involved.

On a positive note, the organization of the various sub-regimes, with some resident owners here and the rest spread out across North America, has become an opportunity for neighbours to meet, in person or by email, and volunteer to play different roles in the organization of their group. Neighbour and neighbour are working together for the common cause of a better run and more affordable community in the future. During this process, one thing that has become apparent is the diverse collection of homeowner skills and backgrounds that have been called upon to help prepare the “due dilligence” necessary for each sub-regime to prepare for their meeting. Architects, accountants, even condo regime specialists and other people with experience in running condos back in their other home location have come forward and add their expertise to the preparations for each sub-regime meeting.

All of this knowledge and experience is then shared with each of the other sub-regimes, making for a fairly formidable pool of resources that will be applied to the benefit of each neighbourhood and eventually contribute to the final structure of the Master Regime.

So what started out percieved as a threat and challenge to each individual Homeowner has become a rallying cry and community building experience, introducing us to our neighbours, switching our focus from the relatively minor frustrations within our own homes to the improvement and future strength and stability of our neighbourhoods as a whole.

I have often thought that one of the best features of the continually emerging community here is the new friendships we have made among the relatively small number of people who live here during the winter or visit more frequently than a week or so at a time. The congeniality we feel for many of the people we have gotten to know, must be due in part, to a sharing the values and sense of adventure that attracted us to “take the plunge” and get involved in this development when it was just chalk lines on sand. That bond has developed as we have shared experiences living and learning in a strange new world where something usually equally funny and frustrating happens every day. The best part is, that we have this network of neighbours and friends to commiserate with or share in congratulations, and almost always, laugh about it with.

Therefore it is my hope and expectation that this process of forming our Homeowners' Association, and accepting the costs and responsibilities that come with that, brings with it the unanticipated benefit of helping to build a stronger and more enriched community. Although most of us entered into this process with skepticism and feelings of resentment and resistance, I hope that we will emerge from it with a greater sense of belonging and ownership in a bigger community and that may be one of the most important parts of “Living Loreto”!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Road to San Javier

One of our favourite “road trips” is to drive up to San Javier, the site of the second Jesuit mission church built in the Baja in 1707, following the establishment “Mother” church in the town of Loreto in 1697.

The 32 km road to San Javier ALMOST joins the #1 Highway two km. south of Loreto. The ALMOST qualifier is because a little over two years ago, one of the candidates for Governor of Baja Sur (the state that Loreto is located in) made a campaign promise to pave the road to San Javier. At the end of his two year term he had delivered on his promise - sort of. He had paved SOME of the road - exactly 3 km or about 10% of the total length. However, because the new paving was a on a State road and the #1 Highway is a Federal road, they don't actually connect. There is a 30 meter unpaved gap from the shoulder of the Federal road to the beginning of the new pavement on the State road – likely either a disagreement over survey or jurisdiction. But the bumpy start is only a hint of what is to come!

The current Governor has also made a campaign promise of paving the same road, and he has delivered considerably more during his time in office. The road is now complete for about 10 km. and it is one of the nicest stretches of new pavement I have ever driven on in Mexico. It is smooth, wide (with actual 1 ft. shoulders beyond the white lines) with guardrails in appropriate places and good signage - a substantial improvement over most roads in the Baja.

In fact, a couple of weeks ago, when we made an earlier attempt to travel up to San Javier, we were stopped at a road block at the end of the new pavement where there were a large number of cars parked and an event tent in the distance. Apparently, the Governor was making a speech about beginning the next phase of the ongoing project, a 5.3 km stretch which will complete approximately half of the total distance to San Javier. This new phase is marked by the sign in this picture saying “El gobierno federal moderniza un tramo de 5.3 km que beneficia a 32 mil personas para vivir mehor” roughly translated as “The federal government is upgrading a stretch of 5.3 km, helping 32,000 people live better.” The 32,000 can’t refer to the population of Loreto, so I am assuming it refers to the yearly number of voyageurs making the pilgrimage, including yours truly.

One of the appeals of this drive is “to get off the beaten track” and away from Highway #1, which has it's own challenges and dramatic scenery, and head off deeper into the desert. The first 5 or so km are relatively straight and level but the road becomes progressively windy and hilly the further you go. As you drive, it becomes increasingly clear that the “easy” and “cheap” part of this road project is at the beginning and the further you travel the more this road will cost and the longer it will take to complete. By the end of the 10+ km of paving, you have finished what would be a challenging, but realistic bicycle trip for a reasonably fit cyclist, with increasing elevation changes the farther you go. In addition to widening the existing road, they have straightened out some of the sharpest corners and reduced some of the elevations changes, no doubt at considerable expense.

However, the fun is just beginning! Starting at the new section of paving, the project appears to be entering a whole new level of magnitude. At this point the road reaches into the canyon bottoms where seasonal floodwaters cascade through with a suddenness and force that I can only imagine. This necessitates reinforcing the roadbed in these vulnerable places with a solid boulder and concrete base to withstand the torrential floodwaters that can happen during the rainy and hurricane season from the end of August to mid-October.

The road is now approaching the base of El Pilon de Parras, a distinctive pyramid shaped peak, that is easily identified from the Highway we left 15 km back. From here the road gets REALLY crazy. This is the beginning of extreme roadwork, drilling and blasting to widen and straighten the track with the heaviest earthmoving equipment ploughing and grading the rubble into what will be a much more civilized and tame thoroughfare on completion.

At several points in the construction zone, it was temporarily unclear just where the road was, amidst all the mounds of fresh fill and tracks of the machinery. At one point, a helpful water truck driver waved us to follow him as he lurched up and over a particularly rough spot and got us back on track. Perhaps now is a good place to put in a few words about appropriate vehicles for this sort of travel, away from the highway. We drive a 10 year old Yukon Denali, purchased several years before we thought about living in this part of the world. So, it is more luck than good judgement that finds us in what I think maybe an ideal Baja vehicle - high road clearance, available 4 wheel drive, strong truck chassis, and yet still comfortable for long highway drives with lots of cargo space. It also is good to drive something that is a popular enough make and old enough for there to be a reasonable supply of second hand parts available in the Baja.

Once we passed through the construction zone of a couple of km, we returned to the original road which has not yet been upgraded. For all of the impressive manpower and horsepower involved in the current road work, what we realized was even more impressive, by comparison, was the engineering feat of the “old” road; carved out of sheer rock walls, twisting around hairpin turns and climbing and descending at sometimes precipitous grades of up to 20%. I have no idea when the older road was built, and no doubt it has been maintained and improved over the intervening years. But it is certain that the first road builders here had, by far, the toughest job, and they accomplished most of it with the simplest of hand tools and a staggering amount of labour!

Enough about the road! The scenery is nothing short of spectacular! This land may be a desert, but it certainly isn't lifeless. An evenly spaced combination of Mesquite shrubs, Elephant Trees, Jumping Chola, Organ and Cardon cactus, Palo verde and blanco are among the most recognizable species covering most of the terrain. But in the canyon bottoms, where there is fresh water, you will find lush palm tree oases. Did I say “fresh water”? Absolutely! There are a number of underground streams that surface periodically, depending on the geology, and wherever they do, the rich soil and abundant water combined with tropical temperatures produce jungle like conditions yards away from parched arid desert conditions. Did I also say “palm trees” in the desert? We understand they are not indigenous to the area but were originally introduced by the Jesuits and thrive with a consistent supply of water.

The occasional torrential downpour creates runoff that is so extreme, that there are dry waterfalls paths which have been so shaped and smoothed from the force of the water to appear to have been formed of molten rock from a volcano. But the staggering thing is that the water that has worn this hard rock into it's smooth flowing shapes, only flows for a few weeks a year - at most! Sometimes, for several years there is no water flow at all. Therefore, we can only contemplate how many thousands and thousands of years it has taken to shape this wild country into it's current form.

After successfully rounding El Pilon de Parras we emerge onto a high plateau and the road calms down into a relatively civilized, straightish path, albeit still very rough and dusty. This is ranchero country, and we pass over several cattle gates and past a couple of haciendas, built mainly from materials in the vicinity. These year-round working homes could teach us a lot about sustainable living in a harsh and beautiful environment. Where there are rancheros there are cattle and goats and horses and burros. The grazing area of these animals bring a whole new meaning to “free range”! They are largely left to fend for themselves, finding food and water the same way, and probably in the same places as their ancestors have for many generations. So far this year, because we have had several days of slight rain, the cattle we saw were well fed and sleek. At other times, in other years, you can easily count ribs from a distance.

At about the 20 km point, you come to Rancho Las Parras, one of the oldest rancheros in the Californias. Its name originally came from the wild grapevines that the first missionaries found in this oasis and the oldest buildings here date back to 1757. Another 6 or 7 km further is Rancho Viejo, where the first San Javier mission was established in 1699. About 5 km further and we finally reach our destination – the town of San Javier. The site of the present village was settled in 1707, and the mission was moved there in 1720. Construction of the beautiful stone church building began in 1744 and took 14 years to complete.

Constructed of locally quarried basalt and decorated with a gilded altar that was transported from Mexico City, it is in excellent, unrestored condition with original walls, floors and windows. Every time I visit this historic and religiously significant place, I can't help but wonder what an amazing sight the completed building would have been to the indigenous peoples of the area over 250 years ago!

The town itself has a wide cobblestone boulevard that becomes the focal point of the Fiesta de San Javier, held every December 2-3, celebrating the Saint's day. The local population of a couple of hundred swells by at least tenfold as thousands of tourist and especially Mexican pilgrims flock here from all over the Baja and mainland Mexico, many travelling on horseback and some (the hardiest pilgrims) even on foot! The church itself is in regular use and serves the needs of a sparse, but far ranging congregation of rancheros. It is open most days and receives a steady stream of tourists whose names and places of origin, from all over the world, fill the guest book kept by Francisca. This charming dona can often be found sitting quietly in the semi dark of the pews greeting visitors in hushed Spanish, and gently requesting no flash photography inside. The impressive altar wall and its remaining oil paintings, are remarkably well preserved in this arid desert climate.

There are crops in the fields behind the church, watered by a simple irrigation system of raised ditches, sourced by the river, which emerges above ground around the town site. This area is also home to an olive tree that is over 300 years old. This gnarly relic of the Jesuit occupation stands at the head of a grove of other olive trees and is the subject of an interpretive plaque mounted on a nearby stand. Between now and the time of our last visit about a year ago, a large branch of the tree had broken off, crushing the plaque and the stand. We hope it was an act of God and not of vandals, but the tree will undoubtedly soldier on into the future.

The return trip back to the highway holds just as many magical moments as the trip in, the same vistas from different angles, the first glimpses of the Sea of Cortez across miles of rocky desert terrain. But the biggest impact of the trip is the realization that this is just a 32 km slice into the hundreds of thousands of square miles of this peninsula and the imagination is staggered by what an abundance of space and beauty that this land encompasses. Understanding that we have just begun to scratch at the surface of a whole new world of exotic adventures, that too is a wonderful part of Living Loreto!

Reference books I used for some background material were:
“Best Guide - Loreto Baja California Sur, Mexico” by Alan and David Axelrod and Aaron Bodansky.
“The Baja Adventure Book” by Walt Peterson.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Me Gusta Mucho!

I have written before about shopping for food at the Market and in some of the stores in the town of Loreto (see “To Market, To Market” and “Hunting and Gathering”) so this week I thought I would post about some of our favourite restaurants, here in thetown of Loreto. For the record, the following notes are in no particular order, nor am I trying to review these establishments or rate them in any way. We have enjoyed all of them at one time or another and I look forward to going back to all of them in the future, so I am not going to play favorites here, just compile a partial list for your information. Finally, I would like to say that for a town of 12,000, Loreto is blessed with a fine collection dining establishments and we are lucky to have so many great options to choose from.

On the south end of Hidalgo, (the extension of Salvatierra east of the one and only traffic lights) just before you reach the seaside Malecon, is La Palapa. True to it's name, it is a Mexican style restaurant sheltered under a huge palm thatched roof (or palapa) with a wood fired oven in an open air kitchen at the street entrance. They offer a complete selection of traditional Mexican fare and the open air ambiance creates a great atmosphere for an evening of food and fun with friends. Perhaps, also in the Mexican style, the hours of operation are a bit uncertain, we have arrived for an evening meal and found the place either closed or packed full with no predictability.

The Malecon is the address for several different types of eating establishments. Mediterraneo has one of the largest dining rooms in town, on the second floor of their beautiful, purpose built location, two doors north of Hidalgo. With a choice of seating indoors or on a large patio with one of the best ocean views in town, they offer a sophisticated menu of mediteranean-style specialties (hence the name) with attentive service and a large wine list.

In keeping with the Mexican style of contrasts, right next door is a small modest restaurant called Los Mandiles de Santa Lucia with a few tables in the colourful interior room and an equal number of seats outside under a palapa roof right of the Malecon sidewalk. Here you will find a typical variety of local fare with tacos, enchiladas and lots of seafood selections.

At the north end of the same block is a local favourite, Loreto Islas. The specialty
here is seafood with fresh local catch as well as a variety of preparations of shellfish, shrimp, and scallops among other choices. Since the recent interior redecoration and the addition of rich colours and nice detailing, the atmosphere here is as warm and inviting as the excellently prepared fish.

Anchoring this stretch of the Malecon is the newest addition to Loreto, La Mision Hotel, which I wrote about here at some length recently (see Misionary Style). This establishment has quickly become a landmark and has set a new standard for elegance and quality hospitality. The main dining room on the mezzanine is quite intimate and enjoys another spectacular ocean view across the Malecon from the outdoor terrace. The menu features a classical selection of fine dining specialties, many of which, including rack of lamb and duck breast, are only available here.

Heading away from the Malecon on Juarez you find a quaint little bar/restaurant whimsically called The Giggling Dolfin. A unique feature of this establishment is the “beached” cabin cruiser high and dry between the sidewalk and the seating area in the back, that serves as the bar. They also have an environmentally sound margarita mixer - a bicycle with the blender attached to the drive wheel. The faster you pedal, the frothier your drink! In addition to these colourful details, the local seafood is well and simply prepared in a relaxed atmosphere.

If you head west on Juarez and turn south (left) onto Davis Street, you are heading toward the town square. Before you hit a dead end, you will come to 1697 - an Italian style restaurant in a low tan building with a wrought iron railing and a large side patio area beside the main building. The name, or number, refers to the date the Mission church was founded here in Loreto, and this stylish “bistro” specializing in pastas, pizzas and other local specialties, also has special theme nights featuring different international cuisines. Norma fronts the restaurant, while hubby Kieran runs the kitchen.

Next door is another local favorite, Mita Gormet. There is a large romantic patio area fronting on the main town square with a tiny building in behind housing the small bar, a few tables and one of the most “compact” kitchens in town. But, like in many aspect of life, here size is no measure of quality. From this small work area emerge some of the best local fish dishes available in town. In this family run restaurant, the host/chef is Juan Carlos who works closely with his wife Marta in their business which is named after their daughter.

As you cross the town square, Posada de Las Flores is on your left - a beautiful boutique hotel, that although quite new, looks like it could have been in this location for generations. On the ground floor, facing into the square, there is a cute little Tapas Bar. Unfortunately, with the beginning of a major renovation of the square, they have temporarily lost their patio area in front of the bar, but when the new square opens they will have a prime location for passers by to enjoy a drink and nibble.

Continuing west on the laurel tree lined Salvatierra and turning right onto the first street before the Mission church, you will find Canipole - one of the most beautiful and interesting restaurants in Loreto. They carefully prepare very traditional Mexican cuisine, and serve it in a beautiful open air courtyard nestled in behind the Mission tower. With colourful table cloths, a fountain and a facinating collection of household and kitchen implements they create a perfect setting for a looooooooooong relaxed evening of food and conversation.

Back on Salvatierra, just west of the Mission and on your left you will find one of the newest additions to Loreto's tourist district. While El Canaveral is not technically a restaurant, it sells the widest variety of fresh fruits and vegetables in town and makes fantastic juices and smoothies, a definite recommended stop on any daytime tour of the central historic district.

Again west of the first few tourist shops on your right there is a pretty little patio restaurant called Cascada. This is a great lunch stop in the centre of the shopping district and they have my favourite plate of fish tacos and one of the best fresh chopped pico de gallo salsas in town.

Around the corner from Cascada you will find another favourite destination for fine dining at Pachamamas. This Argentinian style restaurant has changed hands this winter, but the new owners Carolina, and her husband visited Loreto a year ago, and returned this fall to take over one of the most popular eating places in town. If anything, the fare has even improved under their sure hands. Great steaks, chorizo sausage, and melt in your mouth short ribs are just some of the delights that await you here.

“These are a few of my favorite things”, as the song says. I have tried to qualify my selection at the beginning by saying that this was not intended as a review but more of an information base of some of our favorite eating places. Let me go further and say that there are a couple of our favorites that I have not included in this listing, like a fisherman who dosen't tell you about his “secret” spots.

But the point of this piece is, that we are blessed to have an abundance of quality eateries offering a variety of foods, (with and accent on fresh local seafood) in settings as varied as taco shops with Tecate chairs on the sidewalk to linen tablecloths and flickering candles. It's important to note, in these days of financial strain, eating out in Loreto is very reasonable. Comparable meals in high end restaurants are typically half the price they would be “up north”, and delicious fresh fish tacos in an open air setting are less than the cost of a “full meal deal” in a mall food court at home.

Also, if you go to a restaurant here, more than a few times, you become a regular and are usually on a first name basis with the owner. What's even better, you will probably bump into those same restauranteurs shopping in the same stores as you do for the groceries that you maybe enjoying later that day in their establishment. So enjoying good food at reasonable prices in beautiful surroundings is a wonderful part of "Living Loreto"!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Leviathan Uncertainty?

Anyone who is currently connected with the Loreto Bay development knows that this is a time of uncertainty. With three prospective new owners involved in a confidential bidding process for the entire development, those of us who live here find ourselves in a unique period of “limbo”. We are waiting for the other shoe to drop; waiting to find out who will guide the future course of this project, which harbors our homes and our dreams for the future.

For some of you reading this, that probably sounds like a precarious situation - particularly with the reality of the current global economic situation and specifically the real estate component of the North American economy. However, for those of us living here in the winter of 08/09, that uncertainty, while it can't be ignored, is tempered by the day to day experience of enjoying a lifestyle in a beautiful place with an ideal climate.

In practical terms, the cost of living here is significantly less than where most of us came from. Food is less expensive to buy, and the selection has improved greatly in the past few years (see the previous posting: “Hunting & Gathering”). If we choose to eat in one of the restaurants in town, we can expect to pay about half of what a comparable meal would cost up north. Beyond those basics, the fact of the matter is, unless we travel to one of the “big” cities like La Paz or Cabo, there really isn't much else to spend money on here and what there is often qualifies as a bargain by North American standards.

For an example, one neighbor had to replace a pair of glasses and found that he was able to get his prescription progressive lenses in comparable frames for about a quarter of the price he had paid for the original pair that was purchased in Canada. Other medical expenses, although not covered by insurance, are also bargains. My wife, Cathy, spent 2100 pesos (about $200 CDN or $150 US) on a root canal in the offices of the local English speaking dentist, while cleanings are similarly discounted. She is also contemplating a dental implant, the price of which is 14,000 pesos (about $1280 CDN or $1000 US) while the same procedure in Canada would be at least double. Is the care as reliable as that up north? All experiences we have heard of have been positive.

Due to the government run Pemex monopoly, the price of a litre of gasoline is about 60 cents CDN or 50 cents US. While that may not be much different than the current prices at home, consider the fact that it was about the same price last year, when North American prices were at least double. Oil changes and other car maintenance and repair costs are far less than we are used to, and the quality and resourcefulness of the mechanics is excellent. Another automotive related expense is car washes. While prices here have risen in the past couple of years, you can still get a exterior hand wash with a thorough interior cleaning, approaching detailing standards back home, for the equivalent of less than $10.00!

Is there uncertainty in living here? Yes, of course, but where in the world isn't facing a higher degree of uncertainty of all kinds this winter? Having said that, I firmly believe in the future of this development and that we will look back at this period of time as the needed transition between the early visionary days, when we first were bitten by the Loreto bug, and the future realistic execution of construction in the newly restructured development. In the meantime, I can't think of a better place than here to weather out the storm battering the economies up north. Needs are simple, we live a healthy lifestyle, mainly outdoors, in an ideal climate, surrounded by spectacular natural beauty and in the company of a growing circle of friends and neighbors who share those experiences with us.

That sense of belonging to a community is an important buttress against the uncertainty and a fine example of that friendliness is the recent party that was held in the Bocce courtyard of the first cluster of mainly completed homes. What started as an informal get-together of the immediate neighborhood, quickly grew to include many of the friends and acquaintances currently residing in the Founders Area. Most everyone brought a snack of some sort and their beverage of choice and enjoyed meeting and visiting with each other. There was music playing and on-going Bocce games (with varying levels of expertise) and the conversations carried on until dusk, when people reluctantly headed for their homes before flashlights were needed to navigate the streets.

Another enrichment of the Loreto experience at this time of year is the fact that this is whale watching season. This activity can also can bring people together, sharing the drive across the peninsula and spending a magical day together experiencing one of nature's rituals of rebirth and nurturing. The adventure begins with an early start for the hour and a half's drive south and west through some dramatic mountain scenery, highlighted by the low angle of the rising sun. This takes us most of the way to the next major town of Constitution, before we turn off the main highway and head for Lopez Mateo, a small fishing port on Magdalina Bay on the Pacific side of the Baja.

While during most of the year this is a working commercial fishing port, in the spring the fleet of open pangas converts to the more lucrative enterprise of conducting whale watching tours in the protected bay that is separated from the Pacific by a dune covered barrier island. It is because of this protected water that the Grey whales have chosen this spot to give birth and nurture their newborn offspring. Depending on the size of the crowds of watchers that day, you may have to wait a short time for the next available boat, then you depart, typically in groups of about 6 passengers, for tours ranging between one and two hours. This year is proving to be one of the most rewarding in recent years, with more whales and more activity than usual.

The mother whales give birth about the end of January to a single calf weighing in the order of 600 kg or 1000 lb. By this time of year their young are nursing, growing fast and gaining strength. As part of their training, the calves are taking “swimming lessons”, where they venture closer and closer to the north end of the barrier island where the strong currents from the Pacific give the 15 to 20 foot “babies” a workout, developing the stamina that they will need to complete the long migration north to Alaskan waters that will begin in a few short weeks.

Once onboard the panga boat we are soon heading north or south from the marina, depending on where the activity is greatest on the day. All eyes on the boat are “peeled” for the distinctive back hump cresting through the calm water, sometimes accompanied by a plume of spray that spouts 20 or 30 feet in the air, much as a snorkler clears their breathing tube of water before taking the next breath. This activity usually draws nearby boats trying to anticipate where the next sighting will occur. Often, there will be a second smaller back cresting beside, and in rhythm with the mother, revealing the two or three week old “baby” swimming alongside.

Every trip out is a unique experience, with different encounters and memorable “Kodak moments”. The presense of these massive mammals (with adults twice the length of the boats and weighing many tons, rising effortlessly within feet of the boat, perhaps within touching distance) is a moving, almost religious experience. If you are lucky enough to see rare behavior like “spying” where an adult will literally “stand” on their tail and raise their head 10 or 15 feet out of the water to have an extended look around, or even just the flash of the tail fin as they take a strong stroke to plunge into the depths below, then you have truly won the “lottery” and have a lifelong memory. Regardless, there are no “ordinary” days spent in close proximity with one of the largest species on earth!

So, whether it is a spontaneous neighborhood get-together enjoying the simple pleasures of games, conversations and food, or a dramatic and memorable experience rubbing shoulders (quite literally!) with one of the ocean's most magnificent creatures, these are the diversions that temper the uncertainty of the times we live in, for those of us lucky enough to be “Living Loreto”

In closing, I have a special announcement to make, my blogging mentor and now business associate; Miss Nellie has made a new posting to her blog; so be sure to check it out and catch up on where in the world she is!