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”!