I’m in Baja, Mexico for an EcoTour camp and Wellness Retreat to see whales. This is my first time visiting any country in Central or South America, so I feel some trepidation mixed with excitement. Every opportunity to travel provides surprises, both pleasant and disagreeable. What’s important for me is to turn everything into “Lessons Learned.”
It was a good idea to come a couple days early to acclimate. However, it may have been a mistake to stay at an American-style resort 30 minutes from the closest town, Loreto. The resort was beautifully manicured, much like the resorts on the Big Island. But like those resorts, this one is isolated, and hardly provides an authentic encounter with the locals. Yet it did provide a safe experience for the uninitiated (me).
The good news is that there’s a shuttle several times a day into Loreto. We were on it at 8:30 am our first morning here. Loreto is a small town on the Sea of Cortez, only 18, 535 people; it has only one stop light. It’s clear that they rely on tourists. Even the advertisement on the wall of the pharmacy left no question that they are catering to the tourist trade: everything an American might need away from home, including Viagra.
I’m with a friend, Malia, a veteran traveler who’s been to Mexico many times. It was a comfort to rely on her experience and ability to speak some Spanish. Loreto was inviting with its shaded main street and Our Lady of Loreto Mission. Our first order of business was finding a bank to exchange dollars for pesos. To our astonishment, the centrally located bank in the heart of town did not offer money exchanges.
So we trudged off to another bank in a nearby neighborhood, off the tourist path. Malia reminded me to look where I was putting my feet. There were many dogs (and some dog poop), though most had collars. Malia said this was an improvement over the scruffy bone-thin dogs she had seen in other regions. The bigger problems were the holes in the sidewalks, some very deep and big enough for a foot, and gutter pipes that ran into the sidewalks. Dodging these and teetering on cobblestone gave my knees a workout. I switched to sneakers after realizing the sandals were part of the problem.
After the bank, we walked along the waterfront, and looked for breakfast and a baño. We found a tiny place recommended on social media. Its second floor location provided great views of the water. Even though we arrived before they actually opened, they seated us, and we happily rested for a bit. The food was so good. The home-made chips were crispy and not greasy, and the salsa was warm, a nice touch. What I learned here about the baño is that it is typical to have mercy on old plumbing by folding up one’s toilet paper and putting it into a trash can in the stall. This place went the extra step of not providing toilet paper. Thank goodness for sinks, water and soap. From now on I will always carry a toilet-paper substitute. I should have learned this long ago.
Then we enjoyed some leisurely shopping with our newly acquired pesos. The colorful eye-catching contents of the tiny shops spilled out onto the sidewalks and street.
There, in the middle of color-chaos, I thought I saw bit of home. Could that be a piece of metal-work with the Green Bay Packer’s logo on it? Yes! Most of the merchandise we saw was not marked with a price, and this was no different. I hate haggling, but it is the custom here. “Quanto?” How much for the Packer art? The merchant said, “10.” How could I pass up 10 pesos? But I dutifully haggled. “How about eight?” We agreed on nine and I looked for nine pesos. But the smallest money I could find was two five-peso coins, so I offered them to him and said “Keep the change.” He looked at me incredulously. “Dollars, not pesos!” Wow, did I feel stupid. The good news is that I did have exact change in dollars. The big difference in the exchange rate tripped me up a number of times, but eventually I learned to think in pesos.
On the way back to the resort, we stopped in the town’s largest supermarket, on par with Malama Market in Honoka’a, but with many empty shelves. Since our resort studio has a kitchen, we decided to cook some meals. I picked up a half dozen eggs. Unlike the US, these eggs were offered by weight – take as many as you wish. The cashier placed them in a separate plastic bag, but this provided no protection. Unfortunately, back at the studio, they fell out of the refrigerator door and cracked. Oh well, I ate them anyway over the next couple days. Next time I’ll cushion them.
One thing I did right on this trip was to not sign up for the All-Inclusive Plan at the resort. Given my proclivity for getting my money’s worth, I’m sure I would have been eating all the time. Lots of people are over-drinking too. At the resort’s hot tub (the biggest I have ever seen – more like a small swimming pool) half the people were so drunk they could barely stand up, especially during two-for-one Happy Hour.
Something I almost regretted doing was beachcombing for shells on the resort’s private beach. The selection changed daily depending on wind and tide conditions. It was legal to take these shells, and I carefully chose a few to bring home. What I didn’t know is that the EcoTour camp for the four-day whale tour was on a Marine Reserve where no collecting was allowed. On the van trip across Baja, we were stopped at an Army checkpoint complete with machine-guns and were “asked” to get off the van. Later, we were stopped by the Mexican Federal Police. If either had searched our bags, they might have accused me of taking shells illegally. I was sweating. Luckily, they didn’t. Our tour leader told us this might happen, but knowing and experiencing are two different things.
Overall, my first trip to Mexico was wonderful. My next blog will be about the EcoTour camp, the retreat put on by my friend Jeanne, and the whales:
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