Sunday, December 19, 2010

La Paz - December 10 to 20

Tomorrow we head back up into the islands north of La Paz after 10 days of rest and relaxation in this lovely seaside town. The weather looks promising with no strong winds in the forecast, 30 degrees during sunny days and cool nights. The moon will be full and on the 21st we will see it in full eclipse. We are looking forward to exploring more of the bays and coves of Isla Espiritu and, perhaps, further north to Isla Partida before making the two day crossing the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlan.

I love it when I see things like this!

We’ve enjoyed our time here. Although many cruisers choose to anchor in the channel of La Paz, Ka’sala has been moored to the dock at Marina de La Paz located near the downtown area and at the beginning of the city’s famous tiled malecon. It’s been nice being tied to the dock – water, electricity, internet, laundry and shower facilities at our fingertips and a few steps to restaurants, cafes and provisioning. Almost like real life!

Entrance to Marina de La Paz

 There are many cruisers in La Paz – I will hazard a guess and say 50 - in various stages of coming and going. Every day more arrive and more leave as La Paz is a resting place for those who come down the Pacific side of the Baja, and a staging point for others exploring the Sea of Cortez or getting ready to cross it. There seems to be a core of yachting people who come back to La Paz each year. Some leave their boats here full time, others live nearby in retirement – but they use the marina as their hub.

Wildlife abounds at the marina - Blue Heron
Fish at the marina - the reason the heron is here!  These fearless fish bump into Ka'sala's hull on a regular basis - not a condusive swimming environment for humans!

We left Bahai San Gabriel in calm conditions and motored on a flat sea for three hours to get to La Paz. Entry to the city is through a well marked channel and, as you follow its course, the city unfolds to port. On the starboard side  is a spit of land with a developing condo-like complex and down the centre of the bay is a large sand bar. There are four marinas in town, Costa Blanca is at the beginning of the Channel, Marina Palmilla 2 miles further, then the city stretches out along the malecon. On the other end is Marina de La Paz and the fourth marina – Fonatur – is further down the channel at the other extreme of town. There is a "virtual" marina beside us - a planned marina with only pilons installed.

Doug on the malecon

Yachts at anchor in front of the malecon

City front of malecon

Evening on the malecon

La Paz recognizes the influence of sailors - Diego Carbon, standing beside him, also looks out to sea

Beautiful statues and sculptures line the malecon

La Paz is a refreshing change from Cabo San Lucas and very different from San Jose del Cabo. For one thing, this is a city that has not sacrificed itself for tourism. There is a strong heart to this place, with traditions and culture several centuries old.

This cathedral has already been under construction for 45 years!

Wyland Foundation mural across from the malecon ( - murals around the world designed to raise environmental awareness about the undersea world)

Mexican wedding

Mexican elections are in February, but the campaigns are well under way.  Supporters stop traffic on the malecon to give gifts to potential voters

The first European here was Hernan Cortes who found the place inhabited by aboriginal hunters and gatherers. In addition to the safe harbor, what Cortez noticed was the pearls the natives used to decorate themselves. These lustrous orbs did not need to be cut or polished like gems to bring out their beauty, but were found ready to be used as precious adornment. As I’ve said in an earlier entry, these pearls would become all the rage in Europe and were sought out to the point of depletion.

The native people didn’t fare much better. By the time the Jesuits arrived in the 18th century to build their missions with local labour and convert the Indians to Christianity, disease had taken its toll and very soon their numbers were depleted as well. Today the Mexicans who live in La Paz range in appearance from Indios to fair skinned Europeans. In La Paz, there seems to be a growing middle class who are living well – many schools, nice homes, healthy bodies, lots of work, lots of stores – a very strong economy.

A typical Mexican home in La Paz

 In our time here I haven’t seen a single beggar on the street. I haven’t been touted once. I haven’t felt like I was being pandered to or felt that I was richer than the locals. Everyone has been genuinely friendly and helpful – I have next to no Spanish and, although I am learning fast, the people here are very patient. I’ve had several strange conversations where I try to speak Spanish and the Mexican I am conversing with tries to speak English. It can be frustrating, but it is a lot of fun. Spanish is a beautiful language – lovely to listen to, lovely to roll off your tongue. I could see that within a few months a person could be quite fluent because, in addition to the need to speak it, there are many words in common with French and English – especially when written. (Though you have to be careful – there can be some pretty spectacular mistakes in translation!  The other day I ordered two fishermen in a taco instead of two fish tacos!  The street vendor looked perplexed, but didn't laugh at me, and figured out what I really wanted.  It wasn't until later I discovered my mistake and I was grateful to him for his respectful response!)

There is an expat community here - this is an example of a house owned by a family from Vancouver

On our first few days here we devoted most of the time to cleaning up Ka’sala and catching up on our sleep. There are grocery stores all over the place and I was able to replenish our stores quite quickly and easily.  My favourite store is Aramburos - kind of like a Mexican Trader Joe's.  The prices are reasonable and I can find most everything I want and also many Mexican goods I can experiment with.  In fact, many of the products available here are similar to ones at home – I even found Cheez Whiz! When I couldn’t find something, like a good brie, I have enjoyed exploring the local possibilities – something I might not do unless forced to by necessity. In terms of cheese, although I haven’t found the equivalent of those splendid runny French ones, I have discovered a whole variety of soft textured quesa frescas that would enhance any Caprice salad- and the tomatoes! Oh! One with European epicurean sensibilities would not starve here!

Aramburo's grocery store

We have eaten out several times and a real favourite has been Rancho Viejo. The two branches of this indoor/outdoor restaurant serve the most incredible arrachera and asado grilled beef tacos, as well as fish and shrimp tacos and the patron-style pork I described in an earlier blog entry.

Rancho Viejo - malecon branch

All their tacos come served with tortillas and bowls of accompaniments. We can eat our fill, and drink some cold cervesas as well, for under ten dollars. What a bargain!

Taco accompanyments: salsa, guacamole, cucumber, pickled onion, lime, grilled spicy habenero peppers, shredded cabbage with the famous asada salsa in the middle

We’ve also enjoyed fish tacos at a recommended street stand near Allende's, the English bookstore. Crispy deep fried fish and shrimp served with all the trimmings and a cold bottle of Coca-Cola for 3 dollars! - a steal and SO delicious.

I needed to find out the secret of the grilled beef taco and finally found a butcher who spoke English at a shop called Arracherras.

He told me that the Mexican’s don’t age their beef, so use the “magic spices” to make it tender. He recommended Angus beef, which was just a little more expensive than the regular, and to sprinkle the magic spices on the meat half an hour before grilling it. Okay – I bought a jar of the magic spices, which I later figured out was primarily MSG (remember Accent?) Then I asked about the sauces – especially Asado which is a dark, fine salsa with a rich smoky/spicy flavor – hoping to get a recipe. Not a chance! Instead, he told me it was very hard to make – many different vegetables grilled, then marinated together, though I did find out that grilled jalapeno peppers gave it the spice. I could see that I could spend many enjoyable years unlocking the secrets to Mexican food, but first, I would need to speak the language and, perhaps, study with a Mexican cook.

We’ve even found some very palatable Mexican wines – another example of being forced to try new things. A sparkling wine called: Chambrule, to my palate, is better than the Spanish Frexinet Negro and is made in the French champagnoise style of double fermentation, for under 10 dollars a bottle.

We’ve found a drinkable Malbec/Cabernet and a Chenin/Savignon Blanc, called F. Chauvenet, each under 5 dollars, that would rival any Barefoot wine found at home. These delicious wines all come from the fertile Guadelope area north of Ensenada in Baja California.

Silas Crosby came back to La Paz with us and chose to anchor out.

Silas Crosby at the "virtual" marina

We would see Steve and John most days as they brought their dinghy into the marina before launching off on their adventures. One day was John’s birthday, so I had some fun finding the fixings for a chocolate birthday cake and the previously mentioned champagne.

Los tries amigos:  Estevan, Juan and Diego

Dos hermanos, Una Senora

Cuatro amigos:  dinner at Rancho Viejo near the marina

Birthday boy - yes, it does get quite chilly at night!

 Steve decided to take a week of Spanish lessons and I seemed to run into him most days after his lesson somewhere in town. On another day, Steve, Doug and I visited the adequate Museum of Anthropology to find out more about the history of this area. All the time we have been practicing our Spanish.

Museum of Anthropology - all the signs were in Spanish, so it was a good chance to practice - we were able to interpret a surprising amount
Outside the museum - this cultural magazine Steve is reading - Peninsula- was especially helpful as the articles were written side by side Spanish and English

Club Cruceros, founded by cruisers, can be found at Marina de La Paz. They provide various services, such as a book exchange, DVD lending and mail service, but are famous for the daily 8am newscasts. By tuning in to 22A on the VHF we all find out the weather, the currency exchange, local events, swaps and trades, who has arrived and who is leaving, as well as helpful suggestions on where to find things and how to get there. The Club also does a great deal of local charity work. For example, while we have been here they have been raising money to provide diesel for free ambulance services.

Club Cruceros winding down the daily 9:30 coffee hour

The day after John’s birthday, he returned to Canada. We thought: what a perfect way to get our Christmas cards mailed! Problem was, we didn’t have any Christmas cards. We didn’t think that would be much of a hassle and headed into town to buy some. Well, Mexicans around here don’t send or give cards to each other. Finding Christmas cards in Mexico would be like trying to find a pinata in Canada!  We looked everywhere and finally we deduced that a paper store might be the most likely place. I screwed up my courage and tried to converse with a shopgirl with the help of my Spanish/English dictionary. Finally, I was able to make my request known and she dug around to find an old box under a counter. Inside was a variety of very old, somewhat yellowing cards – all in Spanish (of course – that’s okay!) all without envelopes. After more figuring out back and forth, she realized I needed envelopes to mail them. Well, try to find ones to fit! That took a great deal of searching and sizing, but finally we were able to cobble something together. To buy 10 cards with envelopes took us almost an hour and cost about 5 dollars. This episode reminded me so much of my frustrations in the first year or so we lived in Hong Kong. Trying to find a place that sold what you wanted, trying to communicate your desires in a foreign language once you have found it, learning the customs around buying, selling and service, working out the cost and how to pay, and so on. When I was younger these things would drive me up the wall. I would come home from one of these all day excursions and lay prostrate on the bed, muttering to myself, weeping and vowing to never go out again. Now, in the more mature version of myself, I can roll with the punches.

Cruisers say that La Paz is like a rubber band - once you have been here you are always drawn back.  I can see that now and also understand why Cortez called it "The Peace".

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