FOOD IN LA PAZ

It's
hard to have a bad meal in La Paz, especially if you stick to
seafood.  In fact, if you stick to seafood (and avoid the Burger
King and Applebee's) it's hard not to stumble upon some of the best
meals of your life, just about anywhere.

The fanciest place we ate at in La Paz was the Bermejo, the restaurant
at Los Arcos, our hotel, but we didn't pay fancy prices there because
we dined on fish we'd caught ourselves (an experience I'll write about
in a later post.)  The hotel, which caters to fishermen, is happy
to prepare fish you supply yourself, and to freeze any of it you want
to carry home with you.

The simplest place we ate at was the Super Tacos de Baja California
Hermanos Gonzáles, an outdoor stand with a big terrace that's an
outgrowth of a sidewalk stand that got so popular it had to
expand.  My sister Lee had some stupendous fish ceviche there,
Harry and I shared some equally stupendous octopus and clam
tacos.  (Nora isn't a seafood fanatic and often had quesadillas of
one sort or another.)  We never ate better or cheaper food
anywhere in Baja
California.  One wall of the place had cool murals (above.)

One evening we took a lengthy walk along the marinas to the south of the malecón
to a medium-priced restaurant called the La Costa, palapa-roofed, right
next to the water.  We had super-fresh seafood there and Harry
felt moved to record the crab dinner he ate.  “A lot of work,” he
said, “but worth it.”

The Bismark is a rarity — an indoor seafood restaurant back several blocks from the malecón
The seafood was terrific and the decor was even better:

Harry and
I had dinner one evening at the Bismark II, which the clerk at our
hotel recommended.  It's right across the street from the
malecón,
with seating on a terrace or back under a high palapa roof.  A
charming place with the same great seafood as its parent establishment.

The only bad experience we had dining out in La Paz was at a place right on the malecón, the Kiwi.  Lee and I had fine smoked marlin tacos and Harry had a wonderful pescado entero
– a whole fish fried quickly in super-hot oil and then served whole
(but with olives replacing the fried eyes), which Harry also felt moved to
record (see the images at the beginning and end of this post.)  But Nora ordered fish and chips and the fish had gone bad
– very bad.  There's just no excuse for this in a restaurant
within spitting distance of the ocean, in a town where fresh seafood is
so ubiquitous and so cheap.  Foisting a small bit of bad fish on a
child might have saved the restaurant as much as fifty cents, I
suspect, but it lost our goodwill forever.

La Paz is a seafood lover's paradise, not just because there's so much
and such a great variety of it, and not just because it's so fresh, but because of the simple, perfect
ways it's cooked and served.  You feel you're eating the same food
the chef would make for himself or herself, or for their families,
prepared with the same unpretentious care and respect.


For previous Baja California trip reports, go
here.






[Photos © 2007 Harry Rossi]

LAND'S END

I
was leery of visiting Cabo San Lucas, reputed to be an outpost of
Orange County, but El Arco is there, the rock arch (above) that marks the
bottom of the Baja California peninsula, and it seemed unthinkable to
have driven most of the length of the peninsula and not visit its
terminal point, where the waters of the Pacific meet with the waters of
the Mar de Cortés.

We decided to make a beeline for land's end, see the cape, and head
straight back to La Paz.  This turned out to be easier than
expected because there's a new road to Cabo San Lucas from La Paz
which runs down the Pacific side of the peninsula.  (Mexico 1,
formerly the only paved route from La Paz to the cape, runs down the eastern shore of the peninsula and is a bit longer.)

The new road on the Pacific side is in superb shape, allowing for faster speeds than
normal, and we made it to Cabo San Lucas well before noon.  The
town of Cabo San Lucas still has some charm, but it's ringed about by
hideous condo compounds — enclaves for people who want the views but
don't want to live among Mexicans, in anything resembling Mexican
culture.  In forty years the whole of Baja California will
probably be encrusted with these compounds, as the Pacific coast above
Ensenada already is.  Go see it now, before the
yuppie stain grows insupportable.

The tip of the cape can only be visited by sea, unless you're an expert
rock climber.  We rented places in one of the glass-bottom
superpangas that take tourists out for a look.  Fortunately the
other passengers were one large extended Mexican family, cheerful and
friendly and good company.

As we motored out of the harbor we were greeted by the strange and
nauseating sight of huge party boats filled with tourists drinking and
listening to bad pop music from live bands blaring their sounds out
over huge amplifiers.  “We're having an experience — we're having
fun now!” was the message.  Not.  “We might as well be in Las
Vegas!” was more like it.

El Arco looks as though it might have been designed for dramatic effect
and beauty by some 19-Century landscape artist like Frederick Law
Olmstead.  It's a most appropriate and theatrical punctuation mark
at the end of the great peninsula.  Just beyond it you can
actually see the light green water of the Mar de Cortés mix with the deeper
blue of the Pacific.

The captain of our panga had his wife and kids and father on board –
his oldest son took the helm on the ride back to the docks.  His
father beamed at him and made sure we all saw how well he was doing.

We decided not to tarry in Cabo San Lucas but headed back
towards La Paz and stopped about halfway there at Todos Santos for
lunch.  Todos Santos is a lovely little town that's become
something of an artists' colony.  We looked forward to visiting
the galleries there, but they were all closed, because we came on
a Sunday.  You would think that Sunday would be the one day of the
week most likely to bring tourists into the galleries, but there is
obviously a higher law at work here — the Lord's day, and the day of
rest, trumping commercial concerns.

We did have a fine lunch at the Hotel California, a charming place
that
is often visited by Americans on the mistaken assumption that it has
some connection with the Eagles' song.  Harry had the Mexican
equivalent of surf 'n' turf — a plate of shrimp and carne asada tacos.

We got back to La Paz before dark, in time for drinks at sunset on the terrace of the Hotel Perla.

We were happy we'd visited Cabo San Lucas,
and land's end — even happier that we didn't have to spend the night
there.


For previous Baja California trip reports, go
here.






[Photos © 2007 Harry Rossi]

MORE ON MEXICO AND FILM NOIR

Check out the image above, from Where Danger Lives.  A fatal femme,
a trusting hunk, an inconvenient husband “accidentally”
dispatched.  What's next?  Mexico, of course — if they can
just make it across the line in time.

There are certain settings that appear over and over again in film noir
– nightclubs, dive bars, industrial plants, train yards, cheap hotels,
mostly in cities and mostly at night.  But there are also
settings that offer sunlit relief from these oppressive locales, most notably
rustic mountain or lakeside cabins . . . and Mexico.  Even more often, Mexico
is simply an impossible dream — a place to escape to, to hide out from
fate, but always just out of reach.

There's a rustic cabin in They Live By Night,
a temporary refuge, but the protagonists dream about making it to
Mexico, where they can leave their criminal past behind, start
over.  It's the same dream entertained by the outlaw couple in Gun Crazy, by Mitchum and femme fatale Faith Domergue in Where Danger Lives — and just as hopeless.  Only the couple in Where Danger Lives even gets close, but they get very close indeed — fate tracks them down just inches from Mexican soil.

Greer and Mitchum in Out Of the Past
have their romantic idyll in Mexico but can't bring the magic of it
back with them to the States.  This fits in with the notion of
Mexico as a lost or unattainable paradise.  But sometimes the idea
of Mexico went to filmmakers' heads — they got giddy with the
possibilities of it.  Films that started out noir would, once they crossed south of border, turn into larks, lighthearted and feckless.

Re-teamed in The Big Steal, Greer and Mitchum venture into Mexico to try to extricate themselves from typical noir predicaments
involving betrayal and unjust accusation, but the dark clouds vanish
almost immediately — they find love and high-spirited adventure
instead of noir's dark, impenetrable maze, and all ends well.  Film noir expert Elizabeth Ward amusingly suggests that The Big Steal ought to be labeled fiesta noir — a designation that would fit His Kind Of Woman equally well.

His Kind Of Woman
also stars Mitchum, this time paired with Jane Russell.  The
malevolent fate that dogs his character at the beginning of the story
more or less evaporates in Mexico, and the film turns into something
approaching a screwball comedy.

In general, though, the rustic cabin and Mexico are tantalizing chimera in film noir — poignant, even tragic images of an unrecoverable innocence and freedom.

Read more about Mexico and film noir here.

ESPIRITU SANTO

The
early Spanish explorers of Mexico, who almost always traveled with
priests, had a habit of giving religious names to the places they
“discovered” — which was fortuitous with respect to the region of the
Mar de Cortés, which has an unearthly, supernatural beauty.  It's
hard to imagine talking about, even thinking about, the Isla Espíritu
Santo, Holy Spirit Island, under some more prosaic name.

It's a severe, haunted, sublime place.  When the Spanish first
arrived there were about 300 Indians living there — they must have
been hard, solitary folk.  Disease or some other European-borne
catastrophe left the island unpopulated until a French entrepreneur set
up a camp there for pearl fishing around the time of the outbreak of
the Mexican Revolution.  Disease again intervened, wiping out the
pearl-oyster beds throughout the Mar de Cortés between 1936 and 1941.

Today there are a few shacks used by local fishermen (with solar panels
on their roofs for electricity) and a luxury tent camp for wealthy tourists.

There is something shocking, even frightening about the landscape of
Espíritu Santo.  It's a place for gods and monsters, not
people.  I kept thinking that when blind Homer imagined the
settings of The Odyssey in his mind's eye, they probably often resembled the Isla Espíritu Santo.

We rented a panga, with a captain, at Pichilingue beach for a cruise to
the island.

It was a magical journey — we flew like the wind
across miles of open sea to reach the island, then circumnavigated it
slowly, pausing to marvel at many wonders.

The captain took us
at speed through rock-bound channels barely wider than his boat, into caves and
along the seemingly endless curves of totally empty beaches, running the boat close in to the shore for dramatic effect.

We stopped to snorkel at a small island populated by hundreds of
braying sea lions, who swam close to us when we were in the water, eying us
ironically.  “You don't really think you can pass muster as an
aquatic mammal?” they seemed to say.

We stopped to look at what appears to be a mask carved into the rock
face of the island.  That seemed like an ironic gesture by nature
itself, vaguely threatening.

Finally we came ashore at a lovely beach.  The captain set up a
table under an umbrella and produced lunch — ham and cheese
sandwiches, exceptionally fine fish ceviche and pickled marlin.  We swam and ate and
felt utterly elated.

It was good to go to the island, and good to leave it — it didn't seem
like a place that wanted to be visited for too long by the children of
men.  All the same it might be interesting to camp out on it for a night
– like spending a night in a haunted house.  I imagine one would
hear exceedingly strange voices in the wind.


For previous Baja California trip reports, go
here.






[Photos © 2007 Harry Rossi]

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT

This film has to rank with Erich Von Stroheim's Blind Husbands and Orson Welles' Citizen Kane as one of the most astonishing directorial debuts in the history of American cinema.  It's one of the greatest of all films noirs yet also a film that looks forward beyond noir to the various traditions that would supplant it.

Like Out Of the Past, They Live By Night
is at its core a love story.  Both are hopeless love stories, but
for different reasons.  In the former, fate and moral confusion
suggest a universe in which men and women can no longer co-operate –
in which love and passion have become recipes for disaster.  In
the latter, the love at the film's center is the only good thing left
in a world that has become bewildering and malevolent.

You could say that Out Of the Past
represents the worldview of the generation of men who fought WWII and
came home with a feeling that the world didn't make sense anymore — that
there was a permanent disconnect between the central experience of
their lives and the society they now had to become a part of.  They Live By Night,
by contrast, represents the worldview of the next generation, which
would have to live with the consequences of this post-war moral
bewilderment.

Noir historian Eddie Muller, among others, has pointed out that the Granger and O'Donnell characters in They Live By Night
are in some sense models for the Dean and Wood characters in Nicholas Ray's later Rebel Without A Cause — that in his first film Ray was starting to invent the idea of the 50s movie teenager.  The
Granger and O'Donnell characters are not, in fact, teenagers, but they are as innocent and bewildered as teenagers
– and their “rebellion” is just as unconscious, as instinctive, as the
rebellion in the great teen dramas of the 50s, best exemplified in
Rebel Without A Cause.

In 1947, when Ray made They Live By Night, the noir crime
thriller was the only kind of film that allowed a Hollywood director to
deal explicitly with the kind of alienation and despair that Ray
clearly saw as major elements of post-war American life.  By the
time he made Rebel Without A Cause,
in 1955, he realized that he could deal with these elements in the context of
ordinary American middle-class life.  That in itself was a sign
that film noir was coming to the end of its usefulness as a form — filmmakers could explore the noir sensibility anywhere, and deal with its nature and causes more directly.

BEACHES



The beach along the malecón
in La Paz is narrow and the water is shallow — not good for
swimming.  But within 20 minutes of the town are beaches of
greater charm and a few of magical splendor.  The first one we
visited was Pichilingue — not a spectacular beach in itself but
featuring a big palapa-roofed restaurant next to the water with sublime
seafood.  I had some stuffed clams there that were memorable — Nora gave a very high rating to the piñadas.

Adults can sit in the shade of the palapa roof, eating and drinking
exceptionally well, while their kids frolic in the ocean, which makes
for a pleasant afternoon.  Harry and Nora went kayaking and Lee
made friends with a panga captain who offered to take us on a tour of
Espíritu Santo island for a price far lower than we'd pay if we
arranged the trip in La Paz.  We checked on this back in La Paz,
found he was right, and came back the next day to sign up for the
cruise.

On a different day we spent an afternoon at Balandra beach, which was
truly breathtaking.  It curves around a shallow bay, which you can
walk across to visit the famous mushroom rock, an iconic landmark of
the area.


 
There's a reproduction of it in the central square of
La Paz, across from the cathedral:

Smaller reproductions can be
bought as souvenirs, though I really can't imagine who would buy such a thing:

Some American tourists in La Paz told us
that the rock had actually toppled off its stem a few years ago and had to be
bolted back together — which turned out to be true.

For previous Baja California trip reports, go here.



[Original photos © 2007 Harry Rossi]

NOIRISH: THE HARD-BOILED DETECTIVE THRILLER

Film noir
owes a lot to the hard-boiled detective fiction of the 30s and to the
cycle of films this fiction inspired.  Like the gangster film,
this fiction mined a Depression-era fascination with the
underside of American life, examining it from a tough-minded point of
view that reflected the disillusionment of hard times.  But it
was, at bottom, a romantic genre — the detective, however, cynical,
had a code of honor that kept him untainted by the muck he had to slog
through.  He may not have trusted the police, or other
representatives of official society, but he was a law unto himself,
dispensing rough justice in spite of the failures of the established
order.  (Clearly there's a connection here, too, with the Western,
in which a lone-hand hero often must assert the values of decency and
order in the absence of official institutions dedicated to the purpose.)

This is a far cry from the existential estrangement of the classic noir
protagonist whose code of honor has broken down somewhere along the
line — whose chief problem is not doing the right thing but having no
clear sense of what the right thing is, or why it matters in a world
gone haywire.

The key to traditional hard-boiled detective fiction is a mystery to be solved,
which becomes emblematic of a moral imbalance that needs to be
righted.  Solving the mystery and righting the balance restore
hope.  In a true noir there's a sense, or at least a nagging suspicion, that hope is a fool's game.

The following detective thrillers are often identified as films noirs:


Murder, My Sweet



The Lady In the Lake



I Wake Up Screaming



Laura



The Big Sleep



Behind Closed Doors



The Mask Of the Dragon



Vicki

They all have noirish elements, and often look like films noirs, but they belong to an older tradition, one in which atomic-age angst and despair ultimately have no place.

[The noir credentials of the films listed above are as follows . . .
Murder, My Sweet
and The Lady In the Lake are included in the Warner noir DVD series . . . 
I Wake Up Screaming
and Vicki are included in the Fox noir DVD series . . . The Big Sleep and Laura are included on almost all lists of films noirs . . . Behind Closed Doors is included in Kino's film noir DVD box set . . . and The Mask Of the Dragon is included in the VCI Forgotten Noir DVD series.]

LA PAZ

Mexico
1 leaves the coast of the Mar de Cortés just south of Loreto and cuts
back into the interior of the peninsula before veering east again and
doubling back to the great sea at the Bahía de La Paz.  The city
of La Paz, nestled in the wide curve of the bay, was our main destination on this trip and Harry recorded the
attitudes of the passengers at the moment we arrived there.

Here's John Steinbeck on La Paz, as it was back in the 1940s:

La Paz grew in fascination as we
approached.  The square, iron-shuttered colonial houses stood up
right in back of the beach with rows of beautiful trees in front of
them.  It is a lovely place.  There is a broad promenade
along the water lined with benches, named for dead residents of the
city, where one may rest oneself . . .  [A] cloud of delight hangs
over the distant city from the time when it was the great pearl center
of the world . . .  Guyamas is busier, they say, and Mazatlán
gayer, but La Paz is
antigua.

We didn't approach La Paz from the water, as Steinbeck did, and it has
changed plenty since his time, but a cloud of delight still hangs over
it, purely Mexican, not fueled by American tourist dollars, and it it
still antigua, old and wise.  It's a tourist town, but it caters to
Mexican tourists, and so is graceful and slow in its rhythms, without
the frenzied party-til-you-puke atmosphere of Cabo San Lucas or the
Pacific coast above Ensenada.

There is nothing spectacular about the place, its allure is quiet . . .
but powerful.  After a day there I never wanted to leave, and I
wish I was there right now.

I thought it would be good to stay for at least a night or two at the
Hotel Perla, the first “destination hotel” in La Paz, built in the
1940s, which for a short time, into the 50s, was host to Hollywood and
literary celebrities, a kind of proto Cabo San Lucas — but the Perla was full, which led us happily
to the second destination hotel built in La Paz, not long after the
Perla, the Los Arcos.  The rooms in the main building were too
pricey for us, but we got fine rooms in a more recent extension of the
hotel across the street, the Cabañas de Los Arcos.

The main hotel was full of American fishermen, the cabañas were full of
Mexican families and so pleasant that, after a couple of days spent
searching for even cheaper accommodations, we sent my sister Lee forth
to negotiate a lower rate for an extended stay at the Los
Arcos.  This she accomplished, and when we checked out we
discovered that they had applied the rate retroactively to our first
days there as well.

This rate was cheaper than you'd expect to find at a Holiday Inn next to an
ugly Interstate off-ramp in the United States, though the big rooms had
views of the Mar de Cortés, the service was superb and the hotel was
located on the malecón, the
broad promenade along the water that Steinbeck mentions and that is the
heart of La Paz's daily public life, especially after dark.

I felt I had come home.


For previous Baja California trip reports, go
here.



[Photos © 2007 Harry Rossi]

SCHIZO-NOIR

The dramatic methods and strategies of a police procedural film, and
what might be called the moral climate, are quite different from those found in a classic film noir
– a proposition that can be demonstrated by taking a look at films
which try to combine the two forms.

As a case in point, consider Trapped,
starring Lloyd Bridges and doomed starlet Barbara Payton.  Bridges
and Payton play a counterfeiter and his moll.  The counterfeiter
gets a chance to redeem himself by co-operating with Treasury agents
but is sucked back into his old ways and hurtled toward ruin.  We
identify with Bridges in the role because he has an appealing screen
persona and because he's the star, which should be enough to place the
film squarely in the noir tradition.

The filmmakers, however, have chosen to place the Bridges character and his story inside a docu-noir
celebrating the Treasury department, its agents and procedures.  John Hoyt,
who usually plays villains, is the chief Treasury operative, acting
undercover.  The narrative encourages us to root for him — the
casting makes this all but impossible.

This might at first seem like an interesting formula, producing a
complex tension between the two narrative traditions, but it all falls
apart in the final reel, because the filmmakers eventually have to
choose which tradition to favor when constructing the climax. 
What they do is simply eliminate the Bridges character from the final
action sequence and ask us to identify totally with the agency and its chief
representative.  The denouement therefore has no punch, since it
doesn't involve or impact the character we've been previously encouraged to identify most closely with.

Crime Wave is another conflicted noir
with a slightly different dynamic.  It starts as a straight-ahead
procedural, with
Sterling Hayden as a police officer trying to hunt down some escaped
cons who've killed a cop in the course of a bungled robbery.  The
film veers into noir
territory when it switches focus and concentrates on a character played
by Gene Nelson, an innocent ex-con who gets caught up in the
case.  (We know that the Nelson character is a co-equal
protagonist with the Hayden character because he's hooked up with the
very vexing female lead, Phyllis Kirk.)

This is when things start to get interesting, because after we switch our attention to Nelson the Hayden
character, delightfully brutal and pig-headed but undeniably
charismatic, starts making mistakes, mistakes that plunge the Nelson
character deeper into his vortex of doom.  It takes some narrative
sleight-of-hand at the end of the film to redeem Hayden's cop,
and the police, who become the agents of the Nelson character's
salvation, thus restoring the pro-police bias of a procedural.  (The sleight-of-hand involves a classic film noir
heist-gone-wrong which turns out to have been not exactly what it
seemed to be — in other words, a bit of a cheat, though still
entertaining.)

This film does manage to have it both ways, after a fashion, but the core of it is noir,
because we spend so much of the time out of sympathy with the
police.  The cop and the innocent-man-wrongly-accused both seem
trapped in a hopeless and bewildering moral maze.

I think you can call Crime Wave a true noirTrapped is so schizophrenic that it's simply unclassifiable.

MAR DE CORTES

There
is just no way to describe the coast and the islands of the Mar de
Cortés.  Parts of it remind you of stretches along the coast of Alta
California as it must have been in frontier times.  Most parts of
it seem like a landscape from another planet, or like our own earth
reduced to its purest elements — sea, land, no frills.

Every mile of Mexico 1 that takes you within sight of the Mar de Cortés is beautiful and inspiring.

Driving east from San Ignacio we hit the Mar de Cortés just north of
Santa Rosalía.  Then we drove south in a state of enchantment to
Mulegé, a town built next to a palm-lined estuary, and stopped for
lunch at Dony's taquería,
where we had some fine shrimp and carne asada tacos at a sidewalk
counter.  Then we followed the road down the coast to Loreto,
where we spent the night.

Loreto is rumored to be the “next cool place” in Baja California, which
means that developers are building fancy condo compounds near it. 
The town itself is pleasant enough, though a bit touristy.  It's a
famous place from which to set out on the Mar de Cortés for fishing,
and we found that American fishermen tended to be the most
objectionable tourists in Baja California — mostly white, middle-aged
men with loud voices pretending to be Ernest Hemingway and behaving as
though Mexico was a country populated entirely by domestic
servants.  (We eventually became fishermen ourselves, however, and met some
very nice pescadores among the blowhards.)

The La Pinta inn we stayed at in Loreto was the shabbiest one we
encountered on our trip but it had a big pool right next to the ocean
with an island in the middle of it that thrilled Harry and Nora. 
Nora also had her first piñada here, a pineapple smoothie.  She became an afficionada
of the concoction and had them everywhere, rating their
qualities.  The ones with a cherry and a pineapple slice included
always rated highest, especially if they were served in a large
frosted-glass goblet.

Lee had her first fish ceviche
at the restaurant at the inn, which became an obsession of hers for the
rest of the trip.  All of it was good, but the best was a ceviche made from a trigger fish I caught myself . . . but that's a tale for another time.

On the Mar de Cortés, sunsets like the one above, at Loreto, which look unreal at first, quickly begin to seem routine — I guess because they are.

For previous Baja California trip reports, go
here.




[Photos © 2007 Harry Rossi]

A BOX OF NIGHT

It's always a cause for celebration when Warner Home Video comes out with a new box set of films noirs
These are first-rate collections of wonderfully entertaining films in
superb transfers, with generally very good (and sometimes genuinely
illuminating) commentaries.

The fourth set in the series was released last month — it has ten
films, as opposed to the five in each previous set, and I'm working my
way through them with tremendous excitement.  I've already
discovered that Act Of Violence, directed by Fred Zinneman, is one of the best of all noirs, and one which exposes very clearly the peculiar strain of post-WWII anxiety that fueled the tradition. 
In the story, two basically decent war vets have their lives ravaged by
the memory of wartime experiences that they can't either deal with or
run away from.  Only the women in the film are strong enough to
try and confront the buried demons directly, but even the women can't
head off the trainwreck that fate has ordained.

I've added the film to my own personal canon of genuine films noirs, and added another film in the set, Mystery Street, to the noirish but not really noir category of police procedurals.

MEXICO 1

Traveling
by car down the Baja California peninsula is one of the world's great
drives.  You pass through ever-shifting landscapes of the most
extreme, surreal beauty — from high desert to low, from mountain to
plain, from the shores of the Pacific Ocean to the shores of the Mar de
Cortés.

The surface of the two-lane highway is very well maintained these days
– the era of the lethal potholes is over.  Gas supplies are
plentiful at the government-owned Pemex stations along the way, though
you'll have trouble finding premium gas, if that's what your car
prefers, between El Rosario and Santa Rosalia.  (Stations do run
out of gas from time to time, mostly depending on how many big campers pass
through them in any given week, but if you fill up wherever possible
whenever your tank drops below three-quarters full you'll never get
into any serious trouble.)

Mexico 1 is a marvel of engineering but most of it leaves you
little to
no margin for error.  Shoulders are rare, especially on stretches
which
snake through high mountain passes with terrifying drop-offs just
inches from the edge of the road.  At every blind curve on such
stretches you just have to pray that oncoming vehicles, especially the
big trucks, will stay in their lanes and leave you enough room to
live.  It's on stretches like this that you want to be thinking
about Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and not about the drop-offs, though
this is difficult sometimes because of road signs reminding you of the
present hazards with icons of tall trucks flying off the edge of the
mountain.  Often you really do need supernatural aid to maintain
your nerve — as the trucker below, with his Jesus and Mary mudflaps,
clearly knows:

Even when the road cuts straight through level desert it's usually
built up on a high causeway with steep sides, no shoulders and few
turn-outs.  If you had to veer off the pavement suddenly, even
here, you'd probably roll your vehicle, though the roll probably
wouldn't end in flaming death, as it certainly would in the high
mountain passes.  And this is not to mention the livestock that
occasionally decides to share the road with you.

This is a road you never want to travel at night, or at speeds much
above the 80kph limit.  I mean, don't even think about it.

The road from San Ignacio to Santa Rosalia on the east coast of the
peninsula is one of the most hair-raising stretches of Mexico 1. 
But you're more than rewarded near the end of it by your first sight of
the Mar de Cortés, which is less like a real sea than a sea out of some
ancient legendary tale.  It enchants everything.

For previous Baja California trip reports, go here.


[Photos © 2007 Harry Rossi]

CAMARONES

The
best way to cook shrimp is just to boil it in beer, in the shell, until
it turns bright pink and fills your kitchen with that distinctive
boiled shrimp aroma.  Then you drain it, dump it out on some
newspapers spread on your table, salt it heavily in the shell and get to work — with drawn butter or spicy cocktail
sauce for dipping and plenty of cold beer to wash it down with.  A
better meal than this cannot be had anywhere, at any price.

But if you're looking for something a bit more exotic, or if you're
stuck somewhere dreaming about Mexico and wishing you were there, try
this amazing dish from Rick Bayless, the Mexican food guru — camarones enchipotlados, shrimp in chipotle sauce.  (Bayless' excellent book Mexican Everyday can be found here.)

You need a 15-ounce can of Muir Glen organic, fire-roasted diced
tomatoes.  (This is worth tracking down.)  You need a can of
chipotle chiles en adobo
the La Morena brand is easy to find and excellent.

You need one
chayote, a kind of Mexican squash — zucchini will also do.  Make
sure you have some fresh cilantro, garlic and olive oil on hand — and
about a pound of fresh shrimp, peeled and veined.  (Some fancy
grocery stores sell uncooked shrimp that's been peeled and veined for
you, with the tails left on, and that's worth the slightly extra cost,
since peeling and veining uncooked shrimp is exceedingly boring.)

Put three tablespoons of olive oil into a large skillet.  Peel and
chop up the chayote into small chunks and sauté it lightly over medium heat in
the oil.  Drain the diced tomatoes, saving the liquid, and put
them into a blender.  Add one or two chipotle peppers and a
tablespoon of their canning sauce and blend until smooth.  Finely
chop or press three garlic cloves and add them to the skillet — wait
about a minute until the garlic is brownish and fragrant, then add the
sauce from the blender, with the liquid from the tomato can.  Cook
this for about five minutes, to let the flavors blend, seasoning it
with salt to taste.  Then add the shrimp.

Cook the shrimp in the sauce, stirring constantly, until it's as done
as you like.  After about four minutes the shrimp will no
longer
be translucent and so ready to eat, but I like my shrimp better done
than that.  You have to keep checking by taste to get it just
right.  Add water or chicken (or fish) broth if the sauce gets too
thick and pasty.

Eat the shrimp, with some roughly chopped cilantro on top for a
garnish.  It's good with rice or just by itself, and great with a
strong beer, like Negra Modelo, served ice-cold.

You'll be astonished at how easy and delicious this dish is — it brings the sea and Mexico to you, wherever you are.




[Original photos © 2007 Lloyd Fonvielle and Harry Rossi]

DATE PALMS

On our third day in Mexico we drove from Catavina, in the center of the
Baja California peninsula, to Guerrero Negro, on the Pacific coast,
where we grabbed some lunch.  Guerrero Negro is a fairly charmless
town whose principal industries are harvesting sea salt and servicing
the tourists who come to whale-watch in the nearby Laguna Ojo de
Liebre.  (Whale-watching was out of season while we were in
Mexico.)  The town has some good restaurants, however, and we had
some great seafood at one of the better of them, the Malarrimo.

Just north of Guerrero Negro is the boundary line between Baja
California and Baja California Sur, where the magic of the peninsula
really begins.  We drove that day only as far as San Ignacio, back
in the center of the peninsula on the way to the Mar de Cortés, because
we were told that the last stretch of mountain road leading down to the
east coast of the peninsula was challenging and not to be driven when
tired.  That proved to be an understatement.

San Ignacio grew up around a freshwater lagoon, which the Spanish
missionaries tapped for irrigation.  What they planted, in great
abundance, were date palms, and so San Ignacio is a most improbable
palm-shaded oasis in the middle of the desert.  The town’s
once-famous dates have been undercut on the Mexican market by cheaper
dates from abroad, so the town has a sleepy, vaguely depressed air,
though it’s still extremely charming, with a central square planted
with tall shade trees and one of the most beautiful missions on the
peninsula.

We ate our first lobster at an old restaurant in town that looked as
though it had seen better days — lobster tacos for me and a whole
lobster for Harry.

The lobster in both forms was a bit over-cooked and over-priced but still delightful.

We stayed at yet another La Pinta inn, one of the few choices for accommodation in
San Ignacio.

When we got to the town it was being spruced up for its annual date
festival, to be held the following week, but there were no dates for
sale anywhere we could find . . . because, we were told, “the date
harvest isn’t until October.”  The mystery of this only added to
the slightly unreal loveliness of the place.

For previous Baja California trip reports, go here.

[Photos © 2007 Harry Rossi]