Back from Baja

Ten days away was lovely. Sun, sand, sleeping in. Really good food. Seeing old friends, and making some new ones.

This was our third trip to southern Baja, staying at the same little place in Todos Santos. It is so relaxing, inexpensive, quiet and exactly what we crave in travel. Being back means we quickly settled into our routine (tortillas from the lady down the street, fish tacos, flan from Miguel’s, hanging out with the dogs and playing games) but added some new things too. We dug out the old hand press juicer and went through 44 lbs of oranges making juice in a week. We took a whole day to drive around the ENTIRE southern cape region and explored some beautiful new areas. A new restaurant was a dinner favorite and we had 4 great surf days on more advanced boards!

It was a lovely trip, and just what we needed as a last hurrah before coming home to garden and paint the house all summer.

A few photographic highlights:

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Vashon Island’s Baja Twin: Todos Santos

While the PNW is our true home, and Vashon Island our specific perfect “place”, we have found our sunnier, tropical “place twin” in the Baja town of Todos Santos. Last year Matt and I ventured down to Baja on a last minute trip with the goal of learning to surf. What we found was a place that we immediately knew we needed to come back to. This year (for my FINAL spring break EVER!) we trekked back, this time for a 10 day stay in our artsy, foodieetreat.

We left Seattle on a Friday morning, and by 4:30 had picked up our first rental car. Our first turn out of the lot revealed a broken turn signal so back again for a new car. New car? Yep, as in NEW car. Eek! Not ideal for rough Baja dirt roads! It ended up working out really well, and we actually appreciated the good shocks. We pulled out of the airport and cruised (ahem…perhaps a bit over the speed limit) across the peninsula to Cabo San Lucas to our first stop: MEGA supermercado. This place is our first point of call to stock up on groceries for the week. A highlight: the massive bakery. Since this was our second trip we were much quicker at navigating the isles, and picked up a tray and tongs for bakery goodies like old pros. Oh it feels good to be back! Sun was not on our side, so most of the drive was spent in the dark. Thank goodness we knew where we were going! We navigated across dirt roads and back alleys to arrive at Casa Rancho…our home for the next nine nights.

Dinner was yummy dishes from the MEGA hot line…some of the best chille rellenos I have ever had. It is so fun to try all the local food! We slept well that first night, especially since the next day was surfing!

We decided to alternate days of surfing and down time/adventures to other beaches. The approach saved our hands/knees/bodies from the wreckage of being beginner surf bums. Our first day at Cerritos we grabbed a board, two wet suits and hit the water. Matt had a good long session and then I went out. And lasted a whole 20 mins. Remember when I fell down the stairs carrying wine a few weeks back? Well that bruised?/sore? tailbone hit the sand once and I was out. Ouch. Not fun for surfing. I spent the rest of the day watching the waves and soaking up sun.

The rest of the trip was full of sun, sand and new adventures. Since this was our second trip, and longer than the first, we were a little worried that this small town would become too boring. How wrong we were! We discovered new beaches, new places to eat (La Casita, Café El Triunfo), world’s best flan, jugo de naranja, amazing refried beans from the tortilla lady’s husband, a new side town to visit and totally fell in love with the place all over again. There were old favorites too: the ice cream place, day trip to La Paz (more about that coming) and of course cooking and hanging out at the Casa.

 

One of our favorite day trips was a drive to La Paz. About 40 minutes across Baja we shot down on Hwy 1 to an old mostly abandoned silver mining town called El Triunfo that was recommended as a good place to stop. We wandered the cute streets, took photos of brightly blighted buildings and stumbled upon the place we were looking for (and apparently the only place in town!): Café El Triunfo! In the center of town is a beautifully restored brick building that has a stunning garden seating patio area for the café. We ordered a pizza and some fresh squeezed orange juice and escaped the hot morning sun under a big umbrella. The pizza was good, but the JUICE! Oh my that jugo de naranja! I was in heaven! It was hand pressed from fresh oranges and I had to order two. I must have drunk nearly a half gallon that morning. Such a great morning side trip. In the afternoon we headed to La Paz to visit some beaches. We started with one we went to last year, ___ and then found the real gem: _____. This beach had crystal clear water that was just over knee deep all the way across the bay. We walked in the warm, calm water (Sea of Cortez is MUCH warmer than the Pacific in Todos Santos where you surf) and just soaked in the beautiful scenery. It was truly one of the most stunning and enjoyable beaches I have ever been too. Great day crossing Baja!

We found three more new beaches in Todos Santos…one for buying fish off the boat (100 pesos for a whole tuna! That is like $8!), one for big waves and a cool hilltop hike, and the surf break further North up the coast. It was fun exploring new places, and these were great rest day adventures when we did not surf.

But surf we did! Four days at Cerritos was not enough…especially since the tides were not being cooperative. The tide was WAY WAY out for most of the day meaning if you wipe out (very likely) you do it in about 6-12 inches of water. Sand + wipeout = not fun…so we walked the beach instead. And ate ice cream bars. And flan. And found sand dollars. And got sun. And swam. So clearly it was not a real loss, but we would have like more time in the waves on a surfboard. The final day waves picked up late afternoon and we surfed until the board shop guys called us in. We could have kept going for hours though. The waves were perfect, the water crystal clear, and the sun was stunning in the evening beach glow.

 

Summary: great trip. We are going back. We have found our sunny warm twin to Vashon island. As Matt put it, Vashon and Todos Santos are twins that were separated at birth and grew up with different parents but share the same spirit. Both our totally our kind of place.

 

Tradition

A new year is a great place to start fresh. We started some new traditions this year, and brought back some 2013 fun that may evolve into an annual event. Let’s start with that fun event: Mexico! In 2013 we took a spur-of-the-moment trip to Todos Santos, Mexico and learned to surf. After a week of relaxation, fresh food, tortillas, sunsets and surf we were hooked. We have been talking about going back since before we even left. So last week we booked our second trip…this time for 10 days. It is the same week near the end of March (my spring break) and so the countdown has begun! Booking this, and knowing that we need to have our surfing muscles ready to go, commitment/tradition #2 became even more important: getting back in shape!

We literally stopped working out the day we moved. A combination of house projects, a new commute, no gym (so sad, no more kickboxing!), and our workout space full of boxes made our active evenings drastically slow down. Holiday goodies combined with no working out left both of us with a few extra pounds and strength pretty zapped. Not good for catching waves! So we are back to the workouts! We cleaned out a room in the basement and have been doing daily workouts. We are both already feeling better! Bathing suits in less than three months sure are a good motivator…

2014 brought another new tradition to our family: a family journal. Every night we are each writing 5 things that were good about our day or something we are thankful for in our life. A bulleted journal of nothing but the good stuff. The intent is to go to bed on a positive note even on rough days, and is something we can continue with our kids many years into the future.

And I guess this is a good place for an update on the cats and their 2013 potty training adventure. Well, things are going slowly. We were having great success with transitioning them to using the full toilet litter box stage (1 of 6), but as soon as we removed the first small hole, the cats were NOT happy. They were holding it and having accidents. It all came to a head this weekend when Alki peed on Matt’s hiking boots. The cats are quarantined to the bathroom, and getting lots of encouragement and support until a) they get it or b) we give up. Alki in particular seems to be ok if you are there coaching her through the apparently scary process so we will see how it goes. Patience.

Final commitment: stay focused and motivated for school. Only 5 months to go!

Surfers

part 5 of our trip to Todos Santos, part one starts HERE

Matt and I are proud to say that we are surfers. Maybe we are still only on the inner break, and maybe we don’t have the board skills to hang ten, but we can paddle out, pick a wave, catch it, and ride it all the way in. And come up grinning.

After the big surf the day before, we were concerned that we may have missed our opportunity to surf again, but we rolled into the sand parking lot at Cerritos early again the next morning and found nothing but constant, medium surf and the fog rolling out. It was going to be a beautiful day.

We each got a shortie wetsuit and rented one board to share. We figured that taking turns was the smartest way to go, and it turned out to be a great option. We took turns in the waves working on our form. When in the waves I made friends with another surfer gal that had been taking lessons the same day we did. She and I started talking and became surf buddies. Turns out that she and her husband were on their honeymoon, loved learning to surf, and had a ton in common with us! A vacation friendship was born.

For lunch we bought a sopa from a guy with a cooler under the lifeguard stand. After a long day of surfing, we reluctantly turned in our gear (our bodies were just too shot to keep going…surfing is hard work!) and treated ourselves to a post-beach drink with our honeymooning friends at their hacienda. Margaritas by the pool were a great treat.

Just as the sun was dipping down, we said goodbye and drove back to Todos Santos in search of dinner. By this time we realized how hungry we were, and the massive burros (that is right, these are big enough that they are not even called burritos) we heard about earlier sounded like they would hit the spot. I ordered a chicken one and Matt had beef. The oozy cheese and grilled char on the chicken gave that same satisfying feeling of tucking into a massive burger after a long day of skiing.

Big Surf

part 4 of our trip to Todos Santos, part one starts HERE

We were all ready for another surf day, and headed down to Cerritos early on Tachio’s recommendation to catch some morning waves. We arrived around 9:30, just as the fog was headed out over the last of the breakers. As soon as we pulled up though we knew something was different. The waves were massive, and the beach was empty. The lifeguards were all in a huddle, and there were red flags planted in the sand. We walked over, and our suspicions confirmed: the beach was closed. These waves were too dangerous to swim in, and defiantly not the day for two novice surfers to practice. We were both bummed, but also probably a tiny bit relieved since our bodies had not fully recovered from the lesson day thrashing.

With no preconceived backup plan, we decided to check out the Hacienda de Cerritos on the bluff overlooking the surf beach. It would be a beautiful view of the waves at least, and it was on our list of things to do. We drove up and just walked in, taking the approach of asking for forgiveness later rather than permission. We wandered the extensive building taking in tons of spectacular views, and oohing and ahhing over the hotel layout. There were two big Mexican tile kitchens, expansive pools overlooking the waves, and of course the crash of waves on three sides. We only saw one other guest in the hotel while we explored, and he was the right one to find…he excitedly told us where the hidden staircase was to the tower. It seemed impossible that the view could get better, but going up there it did. It was a stunning day to explore this hotel, and we enjoyed every second of it. For the nightly price higher than what week paid for a week at Casa Rancho though, I think we will still stick with our Todos Santos location next time.

We decided to pick up more camarones grandes, and some fresh yellowfin for dinner, and then headed back to our big wave beach near the Rancho. We figured all the beaches were not swimmable today, so we may as well as go to the one that is easy to get to and TOTALLY empty. This beach seriously goes for miles in both directions, and we were the only two people on it all afternoon. We collected shells and ate tuna avocado salad with a shell for lunch, and soaked in more rays before heading back for another epic dinner.

Surfing Cerritos

part 3 of our trip to Todos Santos, part one starts HERE

Surfing morning breakfast was breakfast tacos, filled with eggs, sausage, hot sauce, and avocados alongside big bowls of fresh fruit. We were fueled up for the day and ready to surf!

We drove out to Cerritos excited and a little nervous for our lesson. We walked onto the beach, not quite ready to settle for the first lesson stand we came across. We did learn a key lesson though: cash only. American cash preferably. Well, we did not have enough cash of any kind, so continued to walk down the beach looking pretty lost. As we watched some novice surfers take on the breakers, we must have been putting out some kind of vibe that we wanted to try it. One of the lifeguards came up to us and offered us lessons. He was charismatic and funny and was willing to give us lessons now and we could pay later. Deal!

We put on shorties and learned the basic steps on the beach and were quickly in the waves. I watched Matt take on his first wave…and catch it! He was up on his first try! My first wave was a flop, but I stood up on my second one and from then on we were both hooked. We were out with our instructor Tachio for about an hour, and then had the boards for the rest of the day. By the time we drove home, we were sore, exhausted and absolutely glowing with joy. We could surf!

The next day we planned to take it easy and recover. Boy it is a good thing we did! We were both so sore, and my calves were sunburned, so we took it easy. We gathered up the dogs (Inca and M. Dog were very sweet strays that had adopted Casa Rancho and they were our pets for the week) and walked to the beach near us to watch the waves. The waves were HUGE! Massive walls of water that crashed right at the edge of the massive sand banks. We could easily see why there were stern no swimming signs everywhere…these waves would pummel you. Even if you managed to get out, there was no way you could make it back into the beach without being ground into the sand by 20+ foot swells. Awesome to watch though. I took FAR too many wave photos (a theme on this trip!)

After our jaunt to the beach we drove back into town for more tortillas (corn this time) and camarones grandes (jumbo shrimp) for dinner. We marinated those bad boys in a delectable combination of Baja flavors, and prepared a feast complete with some Mexican sparkling wine. As the shrimp grilled, I quickly cooked the extra marinade as a sauce and added a (heavy) splash of tequila. The shrimp was out of this world. Five star dining in the comfort of our own Mexican rancho.

Here is the recipe. Amounts are rough because that is how we cook. Adjust to your taste.

Todos Santos Camarones with Tequila Sauce

  • 10 large shrimp, butterflied in shell
  • Cumin
  • Paprika
  • Salt
  • Green onion, minced
  • Fresh cilantro, minced
  • 4 cloves fresh garlic, minced
  • Oil
  • Pineapple juice
  • Juice of 5 mini limes

+

  • Tequila

Marinate butterflied shrimp in marinade for a few hours. Grill on high for a few minutes. While grilling, quickly heat marinade to a boil, add tequila to taste and heat through.

Serve shrimp and sauce with fresh coconut rice and beans, or a salad with fresh avocado.

Playa de las Palmas (aka: San Pedrito)

part 2 of our trip to Todos Santos, part one starts HERE

On our first morning in Todos Santos we woke up to fog blanketing the beaches to the West. Clearly it would burn off later that afternoon, but the fog gave us an extra excuse to slow down and enjoy our morning at the Rancho. We cooked up a wonderful breakfast of eggs and sausage with avocados and fresh fruit. We ate at our outdoor table by the pool, the reality of vacation setting in.

We decided to check out town and pick up tortillas and some fish for dinner, then head out to the beach. We drove into town and parked our car, then took on discovering Todos Santos by foot. It did not take too long to find everything we were looking for: views of the iconic church and town square, an ATM, the fish market, local produce stands. It was great. We were not really that interested in souvenirs, so past by most of those places in favor of groceries and getting to the beach.

After selecting some fresh snapper for dinner, and picking up fresh flour tortillas, we dropped them at the Rancho and headed to the closest swimming beach: Las Palmas.

Now it is a good thing we asked about the beaches because there are two things you should know before heading to Todos Santos.

A)     Many beaches have very dangerous surf and are stunning, but not swimmable (this was true of the beach that we could walk to from Casa Rancho)

B)     All beaches require driving on a sand/dirt/rocky/washed out and unmarked roads

Yep. It was a good thing we got directions! We were speeding down highway 19 when we suddenly saw our “exit” at km post 57: a dirt road taking off through the desert. Yep, we missed it. Of course on highway 19 there are very few exits (or rules it seemed), so we drove another km or so, flipped a U turn into the other lane, drove back, flipped another U turn, and this time made our exit. The road was pretty bad, but my off-road driving confidence was growing…even if concern for the rental car was also growing as we bottomed out a few times and made it through a few hairy ruts. Eventually we made it to what appeared to be the parking lot, and we grabbed our beach stuff and headed through a grove of palm trees towards the sound of crashing waves.

Las Palmas was beautiful; exactly what you would picture of a deserted Baja beach. White sand, clear blue crashing waves, arid desert cliffs and an oasis-like grove of palm trees. We went straight for the middle and set up camp. There were fewer than 10 other people on the beach all day, with plenty of space to feel like it was all ours. We baked in the sun, swam, and ate a mango and avocado washed down with cold beers for lunch. Great day.

After navigating our way back through the washed out road, we stopped for ice cream in town then went home to get cleaned up and grill some fish. Fresh snapper tacos really hit the spot. As we ate dinner and played Carcassonne after sunset we planned our next day: surfing!