Sunday, March 28, 2010

La Paz – that refreshes!

After I checked into the Seven Crowns Hotel on the Malacon in La Paz I made my way up to my room on the 5th floor. Having stayed there before, I knew the room would be small, but it was well kept, the bed was comfortable and the shower worked well. There is a restaurant, but I have not eaten there, and a roof top terrace bar, which I have frequented. My perception is that the Seven Crowns is a “business” hotel, as opposed to the tourist/resort Hotels along the Malacon, it is located close to Government Offices and the commercial core of this State Capital city of over 200,000.

Although there was wireless internet in the building, it didn’t quite reach to the fifth floor and so I had to go back to the Lobby to check email, and then returned to my room to get ready to go out for dinner. Although there are many good restaurants in La Paz, I decided to go back to the one I had been to on my last visit here. The unlikely named “Buffalo BBQ” is a great steak house a ten minute walk from the Hotel, and, although perhaps misleadingly, there is no Buffalo on the menu, the steaks are thick and well presented. The small entrance is unassuming with about half the tables in the front rooms and the rest in an open air courtyard out back, divided by the kitchens.

It was apparently a quiet Thursday night and there were only a couple of tables occupied out front, but I made my way to the back courtyard where I dined alone for the first half of my meal when another table was occupied by three Mexican businessmen. I had a large Caesar salad that wasn’t as traditional as I had hoped (since this salad was famously created in Mexico), chopped Romaine and a bit too much dressing which may have come from a bottle. But the NY Strip steak was thick and juicy, probably Sonoran, which is where the best Mexican beef is raised, served with crispy fries, and grilled vegetables – delicious!

The next morning I had an appointment at SAT, the Mexican Income Tax office at 9:30, just a block away from the Hotel. I stopped enroute for a light breakfast of coffee and a muffin at a sidewalk cafe and enjoyed watching the morning “bustle” on the Malacon with a view of the harbour. Not long after I took my seat on the sidewalk, the normal traffic was interrupted by a Police siren that went on, and on, and on, without seeming to get closer or further away. Eventually it became clear what was going on – there was a parade – and the siren was from a Police car that was escorting a collection of trucks loaded with kids wearing all manner of costumes. Each decorated vehicle was surrounded by a phalanx of mainly Mothers, protectively escorting the precious cargo.

After consulting with Mexican friends, I have determined that I witnessed a traditional “fiesta” which is a double-barrelled celebration, the birthday of Benito Juarez (revered as the most important President of Mexico for creating the Constitution in the mid 1800’s) and the first day of Spring. Typically, kindergarten aged children dress up (hence, the popularity of bumble bee and butterfly costumes) and they get paraded around.

Following my breakfast, enjoyed with a slice of Mexican street culture on the side, I made my way to the SAT office for appointment, with some trepidation, not that I am “offside” in any way with the Tax Department – far from it! This was the fourth time in the past year that I have had to go to this office (the closest one to Loreto) to complete the various steps in the registration process, so as to be eligible to pay Income Tax. Armed with a Spanish letter explaining what was required (provided by my accountant) and several other documents and my ever-ready Spanish/English dictionary, I was pleasantly surprised, and somewhat relieved, that the entire process took less than half an hour and I was back on the Malacon enjoying the beautiful first day of Spring, again.

Feeling, like taking a stroll along the waterfront, I walked about a mile along the harbour front, enjoying the statuary displayed along the way and looking at the boats anchored in the bay, many of which would be “live-aboards” belonging to ocean-going snowbirds. Eventually I returned, to my Hotel to check out and get on with the next priority of the day – SHOPPING!

There have been two major additions to the shopping universe here in La Paz; last year a Walmart and Sam’s Club opened, followed recently by a new Home Depot store, across the road near the entrance to the city. Previously, the closest location of these “flagship” stores was in Cabo San Lucas, and they were part of the reason that we would travel there to shop. Now that they are present in La Paz, there is less need to travel the additional two hours to Cabo. Even before these stores opened, there was good shopping available in La Paz. City Club is a Costco clone, carrying most of the same categories of products and laid out on a very similar plan and scale. In addition there are a number of other large Mexican based chain stores like Soriano and CCC, as well as several new SEARS stores (which, by the way, are owned by Carlos Slim, who has recently been crowned “richest man in the world”, passing Bill Gates and Warren Buffett). I have written here before about how the shopping in Loreto, particularly for food, has improved in the past few years. But, for many ex-pats and Mexicans alike, occasional trips to “the big city” are necessary to stock up on some of the things, beyond the staples, that are unavailable in Loreto.

It’s funny how my perspective has changed, back in Canada I rarely shopped at Walmart, but here in Mexico, I look forward to the opportunity to shop there with great anticipation! Coincidentally, I met neighbours from Loreto Bay in the parking lot carrying a few last bags out to their car. They had been to Cabo and had more or less filled their car there, but had to stop here in La Paz for a few more bags full of “treasures” to squeeze in before the final leg back to Loreto – everyone shops at Walmart!

I had a comprehensive list with me but still walked up and down every aisle in the store, so as not to miss ANYTHING. I started in the bakery, French baguettes and chibatta buns, a head of Romaine (I have learned never to pass up good lettuce!), a tray of nicely trimmed steaks and two packages of marinated ribs (Walmart is a great place to buy meat here!), Kleenex, Drano, good dish detergent, a new shower curtain and a set of new Teflon frypans were among my “finds”.

Across the road Home Depot beckoned, and this is a store I love, even in Canada! My list was shorter here, but more important, due to the unavailability elsewhere. After some careful searching I was excited to find a very nice antique finished metal curtain rod that could be extended to 12 feet – perfect for hanging my new Ikea drapes between the kitchen and dining room! An electric juicer for another neighbour, a desk lamp for my office, just the right kind of sliding hinges to replace the one that broke on a drop front desk at home, and (blush) a seat to fit the new toilet I that was a different size than the one I replaced earlier this winter rounded out my purchases.

After packing everything away, Denny was looking like he had indeed “been shopping”, I headed north out of town on the 4 lane road through the outskirts. About 10 km north of La Paz is currently the only Federal Army Inspection stop on the way to Loreto. Southbound from Loreto I was just waved through this stop, but northbound (toward the border) is a different matter. First you are detoured off the highway onto a parallel lane where you are instructed to stop and wait until it is your turn to pull ahead to the inspector who asks a few questions in Spanish; “where are you coming from, going to, are you on business or vacation?”.

Once you get used to the fact that you are being addressed by a soldier, dressed in crisp fatigues, heavily armed, and in a foreign language, these inspections become more routine. So far I have never had a very thorough search at one of these stops, but I have seen other vehicles being methodically emptied of their entire cargo by several soldiers, while the driver and passengers look on, rather forlornly. I have also seen trailers full of hay bales being carefully probed with long metal rods and transport trucks full of hundreds of cases of tomatoes being unloaded. The object of this exercise is twofold – drugs and guns – which is why the focus of the attention is concentrated on the northbound traffic.

My stop was again brief, thankfully, and I was once again on the road, where for long stretches of straight road I could maintain 120+ kmph, followed, inevitably by curves and hills, which cut my speed in half. A couple of times during the four hour drive I would get behind a couple of big trucks and it could take 10 or 15 minutes before there was sufficient space and time to pass. Construction on the road can also cause delays, but it is never a source of frustration for me, because I view this work as progress that has gradually improved the highway over the past 5 years I have been driving it.

A little over halfway back I passed through Constitution and then just before the “T” intersection for the turnoff to Loreto, I stopped at a roadside vendor’s truck and bought a 3 ft long 25 lb mesh bag of local oranges for 50 pesos, about $3.50. In past years these vendors were often parked on a curb in Loreto, providing a cheap and easy source of oranges, but this year, due to the hurricane last fall that blew the entire crop off the trees, oranges have been much scarcer and more expensive so I wanted to stock up and start enjoying fresh OJ again.

The final leg back to Loreto was uneventful, with the last half hour, as you pass through the Sierra Gigante range and drop down to sea level, particularly scenic. Following long stretches of ocean shoreline and some stunning vistas as you approach Loreto Bay, my favourite view of the development is as you pass between two rocky hills and then, laid before you - the emerald green golf course is backed up by the multi-pastel coloured homes with the Sea of Cortez sparkling in the background. Seeing such beauty and feeling a sense of homecoming, after travelling over 10,000 km round trip, reinforces even more strongly how happy I am to be “Living Loreto”!