Mexico

La Ruta Maya

After driving up a steep, misty grade lined with pine trees on red clay  mountainsides, we arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas. San Cristobal is an old  colonial town surrounded by pine forest with a large indigenous Mayan population  in and around the city. The city is also known as the nexus of the Zapatistas who fight for indigenous rights and fair land ownership. It was the first day of  Semana Santa, the holy week ending on Easter Sunday and a huge holiday for Mexico. Our campground in the brisk pines just outside the city was tranquil aside from the chorus of roosters, birds, and what sounded like hundreds of dogs barking from miles around day and night.

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San Cristobal is a beautifully colorful, clean city with cobblestone streets and many churches. We spent a week strolling around the streets to museums, through markets, and other interesting historical sights.

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A visit to the city’s textile museum turned out to be far more spectacular than we could have imagined. The museum houses a collection of intricately detailed textiles, hand woven by indigenous women of the Chiapas region of Mexico as well as Guatemala. The art of weaving is one of the few traditional Mayan crafts women have kept alive for perhaps thousands of years. They spin sheep wool into thread, dye the thread using natural leaves and berries, and then weave each individual string into a beautiful, one of a kind creation.

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On Good Friday, we saw the reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus in the city streets. Dressed up Roman soldiers on horses led the procession, followed by a man playing the role of Jesus, struggling under the weight of a large wooden cross. Roman soldiers walking alongside Jesus would whip him and the other captives in the procession to add to the intensity of the event.

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Easter Sunday also happened to be the beginning of the weeklong Feria de la Primavera y la Paz (Festival of Spring and Peace). After the Queen of the Festival was crowned by the Governor of Chiapas, we watched the queen and her princesses parade through town on brightly colored floats. The floats were built in the back of pickup trucks and in classic Mexican style, one truck float stalled during the parade and had to be pushed and jump started by the onlookers. We love Mexico.

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On our last day in San Cristobal, we joined some friends from our campground for a bull fight as part of the Feria de la Primavera y la Paz. San Cristobal’s small bull ring was filled to the brim for the event. Vendors tiptoed between the isles of spectators cheering “Ole!” selling beer, peanuts, and chips while the matadors performed their dance with the toros. It was thrilling to see a huge, immensely strong, one ton bull charge at the matadors but the entire ritual killing of the bull is not our cup of tea. I had to hold my breath during a few close calls when two of the matadors fell and escaped being trampled and gored by mere centimeters. One matador was nearly speared in his rear but luckily escaped with just a rip in his pants (see the picture below).

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Leaving San Cristobal we set out towards our first Mayan ruins. On the road to the ruins of Palenque, we stopped at Agua Azul and Misol-Ha, two beautiful waterfalls nestled in the jungle. Agua Azul is a section of wide, turquoise blue river with multiple cascades and clear pools perfect for swimming, a great way to break up the long, hot drive.

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Misol Ha, about an hour down the road was less spectacular but still beautiful. The tall waterfall filled a large, dark pool and hid a cave behind it’s façade.

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We descended through the pine filled mountains into the heavy, humid air of the lowland jungle. From our campsite just meters outside the entrance to the Palenque ruins we could hear the whooping calls of howler monkeys in distant trees while in the evening fireflies sparkled around our camp like diamonds in the grass.

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Palenque was first inhabited around 100 BC and flourished from around AD 630-740 when many of it’s buildings were erected. The site consists of a labyrinthine palace with a celestial viewing tower surrounded by temples and outlying structures all deeply imbedded in the dense jungle. The most famous of the temples, the Temple of Inscriptions, serves as the tomb of Pacal (meaning “shield”), the king that Palenque flourished most under. The temple has nine tiers each representing a level into the Mayan underworld, at the time of discovery in the lowest level sat the sarcophagus of the ancient king, Pacal, along with the skeletons of others who accompanied him to the afterlife . The city was largely abandoned by AD 900, possibly due to overpopulation and the depletion of local resources.

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From Palenque we drove a few hours through the dense Lacandon jungle that borders Mexico and Guatemala until we came to Lacanja, a small, native Lacandon village alongside the Rio Umascinta. We camped and swam in the cool river with our new friends, Henrick and Karen, travelers from Colorado.

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Smaller than Palenque, the ruins of Bonampak are famous for intricate hand painted murals from the Classic period that have miraculously survived for thousands of years. The colored murals really spurred the imagination and provided a window into the life of the ancient Mayans. The murals each tell a story open to different interpretations but the theme is clear. The first mural shows the ruling family presenting a baby, the heir to the throne to 14 lords.

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Below there’s a musical precession entertaining the ordeal, some of the musicians are human while others are masked creatures of the land and water.

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The second mural shows men wearing jaguar skins leaping, dodging, and grasping enemies by their hair while plunging spears through them.

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The third room shows the ruling family involved in a sacrifice of shedding blood by piercing their tongues with a stingray spine as well as the sacrifice of the prisoners captured in the previous mural. It was quite spectacular.

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Our exploration of the ancient Mayan culture, as well as the Mayan culture still alive today, continues as we travel through Guatemala.

Categories: Mexico | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Oaxaca

After driving seven hours on the windiest mountain road you could ever imagine, we arrived in Oaxaca City. As the navigator, the first thing I did when we entered the city was get us lost. All of a sudden, we found ourselves sitting in traffic on perhaps the sketchiest street we’ve been on since the trip began. There were prostitutes hanging out on the sidewalk and all manner of unfriendly looking people walking all over the place. As we were stuck with cars all around us, all we could do was hold our breaths as we slowly made our way out of there. Not a good first impression of Oaxaca City, especially after the nauseating drive we had just completed.

After a few tries we found our way to the RV park where we would be camping. When we pulled in, we thought “this cant be the place!”- it looked completely run down and deserted. Then lo and behold, Mr. Oaxaca comes to the rescue. An enormously buff guy with biceps bigger than his head came walking by and we asked him if we were at the RV park. He assured us that we were and that the manager would return shortly. In the meantime, he offered to show us his gym across the street. The walls of the gym were covered in photos of Mr. Oaxaca in all kinds of modeling and body builder poses (he literally was Mr. Oaxaca back in the 90’s). Mr. Oaxaca took us under his wing and offered to show us around town. He took us to see the Arbol de Tule, a 2,000 year old Mexican Cedar 14 meters in diameter and said to be the biggest tree in the world.

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Mr. Oaxaca also took us to Ciudad de las Canteras, a beautiful park in Oaxaca City with a lake and cool rock walls and paths everywhere (canteras means quarry).

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Mr. Oaxaca had to work at his gym all week so Aron and I were on our own. We headed out to explore the center of town where we strolled around the main square, or zocalo, and saw Oaxaca’s Cathedral.

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The streets of the city are lined with colorful buildings and palm trees with churches on nearly every corner.

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Oaxaca is known for it’s food, it’s crafts, and it’s chocolate, so naturally we  had to get a taste of all three. We sampled some Oaxacan chocolate which had lively notes of cinnamon and cardamom as we watched how cocoa beans are roasted and turned into chocolate.

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At the Mercado de Artesanias (the artisan market) we perused row after row of handmade cotton clothing, woven wool rugs, and hand painted wooded figures called alebrijes. We made it out with a dress for me, a belt for Aron, and a rug and mirror for the van.

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One night we dined at La Biznaga, a restaurant that we had read about in the Lonely Planet and was confirmed as a great choice by our taxi driver. The mescal margaritas were strong, fresh, and delicious and everything we ate was bursting with the flavors of Oaxaca.

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We started with squash blossoms stuffed with cheese, lightly battered and fried, and covered in a flavorful green sauce. We also sampled some baked Oaxacan cheese wrapped in herb leaves and my favorite- a crispy tortilla horn filled with jamaica (a type of hibiscus flower) served with guacamole.

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For the main course we shared chicken stuffed with cheese and mushrooms bathed in black mole with blackberries. We have never tasted so many flavors in one bite, it was a delicious experience for the senses.

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Just outside of Oaxaca city, we visited Monte Alban, an ancient Zapotec site inhabited from about 500 BC to 750 AD when it was mostly abandoned. The ruins sit atop of a mountain overlooking the valley and Oaxaca City below. At it’s height, Monte Alban had nearly 20,000 inhabitants and was a great Zapotec City. Even the ancient Aztecs would visit Monte Alban with gifts because when the valley below was covered in fog, Monte Alban would be above the clouds and therefore closer to the gods that were so important to their culture.

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A local of Xoxocotlan (pronounced ho-ho-kot-lan), a town at the base of the mountain, happened to be jogging by and stopped to share the culture of his ancestors with us. He showed us the tomb of an ancient ball player in the ground which to a passerby would have simply looked like a hole. We climbed inside as he told us it’s story.

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The ancient ball games were a very important part of Zapotec culture and were played for the gods. Players were selected at a young age and were given a tattoo of the sun god on their leg to symbolize their privileged status. In each ball game, two players would use only their arms and upper legs to get the ball into a bowl on a platform in the center of the court. Once one player got the ball in the bowl, the game was over. Sounds simple but sometimes the games would last ten hours or more! Here is a picture of the ball court at Monte Alban.

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The winner was thought to be in the favor of the gods and would become a very important, high class member of society. The loser was thought to be not in favor with the gods and would be cast our of town to wander the valley where he would be shunned by all the other towns. When the winning ball players would pass away, they would be buried in a tomb deep in the ground with pottery, jewelry, and stone figures of the most important gods to keep them safe.

The fibers of the tree below were used to make the balls for the game. The little round berries on the branches were eaten to clean the blood- one was swallowed every day for thirty days.

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Our guide also took us to an ancient ceremonial center of Monte Alban which is only available to the local indigenas. Indigenas still gather there to communicate with the gods of sun, rain, and corn and the following day (March 20) there would be a ceremony to welcome the coming of spring. In the center of the ceremonial site, our guide showed us a carving of an Aztec god (on the right) speaking with the most important Zapotec god on the left.

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The villages around Oaxaca City are each known for a certain artesanry, or craft, such as green and black clay pottery, woven wool rugs, textiles, and alebrijes. Aron has a small collection of alebrijes back in San Diego so we stopped in Arrazola, the town where they originated. Manuel Jimenez of Arrazola was the first to make alebrijes. As Manuel and his alebrijes became famous throughout the world, the entire town joined in. We went into shop after shop of alebrijes until we couldn’t look at any more. Each artisan family
had a slightly different style and often the men carve the wood figures and the women paint them. All are hand painted with brightly colored dots and intricate patterns. We ended up looking at so many that we were too overwhelmed to buy much. We also visited the home of Manuel Jimenez’s two sons who continue their fathers tradition and host a gallery in their home. This is the one picture of an alebrije that I was able to take as the artisans usually do not allow pictures because they want to preserve the originality of their work.

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On our last evening in Oaxaca, we strolled the town center and visited the Templo de Santo Domingo, by far the most magnificent of all of Oaxaca’s churches. The entire interior from floor to ceiling is covered in three dimensional carvings and sculptures gilded with gold.

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The beautifully lit, colorful streets of Oaxaca were filled with people out for the evening.

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We stopped into a few art galleries filled with all kinds of beautiful, creative paintings and we wished we had the money and the space to make some purchases. Below is a photo of one of my favorite paintings.

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Our last stop for the night was the central square where we ate some elotes in front of the beautifully lit cathedral.

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Leaving Oaxaca City, we took a different road back to the coast but it turned out to be just as windy, if not windier, than the first. We drove past cute little mountain towns in the pine trees. One town in particular had colorful mushrooms painted on many of it’s wooden buildings and made a few references to Maria Sabina, an indigenous curandera, or shaman,  who had lived in the area for most of the the 1900’s and introduced magic mushrooms to the rest of the world.

We hit the Oaxaca coast and spent a few days exploring the beaches of Zipolite and San Agostinillo. Zipolite is a nude beach which we thought wouldn’t be a big deal, but we did feel a little uncomfortable when we sat down to a nice breakfast and there were elderly nude men and women strolling around and stretching in the sand in front of us. Don’t look too closely at the picture below or you’ll see what we mean.

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In both Zipolite and San Agostinillo we stayed in little hotels because we had a hard time finding a spot to camp in the van. In Zipolite we stayed at Posada San Cristobal (posada means guesthouse), a nice three story hotel right on the beach.

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In San Agostinillo, just a few kilometers down from Zipolite, we stayed at a restaurant/little hotel called Mexico Lindo y Que Rico where we rented a little cabana and ate wood fired pizza.

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Our last stop in Oaxaca state was Barra de la Cruz, a spot known for it’s long sand bottom right hand barrels. Unfortunately, we learned that a recent hurricane shifted the sand so the wave is no longer as amazing as it once was. Aron surfed some pretty alright waves in the evening but was a little disappointed after all of the surf videos of perfect barrels that he had watched.

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We did see a cute little pony though which I was pretty excited about.

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Overall, Oaxaca is a beautiful state, from the coast to the mountains. Next up- Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico.

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Surfing Mexico’s Pacific Coast

Leaving Puerto Vallarta we embarked on the next leg of our adventure into uncharted territory. The first stop along our three and a half week tour of Mexico’s gorgeous Pacific coastline was Playa Mayto, a remote, empty, long stretch of undeveloped beach two hours south of Puerto Vallarta.

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We camped on the beach in front of Hotel Rinconcito, one of the only two little hotels around and spent the evening swimming in the ocean and walking as far down the empty stretch of beach as we could.

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The next morning we learned that Playa Mayto is a popular place for sport fishing in the summer. Fernando, the owner of Hotel Rinconcito, showed us pictures of huge Roosterfish, Dorado, and Huachinango (red snapper) that had been caught right off the beach and the hotel had huge bbq grills for fresh fish fiestas.

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Later that morning we made our way down to Bahia de Navidad, a beautiful bay with the little fishing village of Melaque at the north end and the town of Barra de Navidad on the south end. There is a surf break at Barra de Navidad but there were no waves at the time so we camped at a nice campground on the beach in Melaque where we made friends with some elderly Canadians traveling in RVs. Heaps of Canadians come down to Mexico for a few months this time of year to escape the freezing Canadian winters- out of all the people we have met so far an overwhelming majority are Canadians. Pretty interesting, eh.

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The next morning we drove an hour south to Pasquales, a famous surf spot known for it’s big, fast, heavy barrels. We found a spot to camp at Hotel Rio de Pasquales which ended up being the surf nexus of town. It was Friday night and tons of surfers were visiting for the weekend, primarily Mexicans from Guadalajara a few hours away. The sand on the wide stretch of beach was dark grey and hot and was sadly littered with all kinds of trash. Out of all the beaches we visited on the coast, Pasquales definitely had the most trash, possibly because so many people flood in and out of the town during the surf season. Aron surfed some fun fast tubes in the morning and then we continued on our way.

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After the morning surf at Pasquales we drove south to La Ticla, a really fun left and right point break over a river rock bottom. We spent two nights at a large campground on the beach which consisted of a long row of palapa shaded sandy camping spots. Aron surfed some really fun waves and we enjoyed all the culinary delights that the local women would come to the campground to sell- tamales, pescadillos (fried fish tacos), and freshly baked breads.

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Next up was Rio Nexpa, a beautiful little beach town alongside a river with a firing left surf break. The beach was lined with cute little cabanas with palapa roofs. From any spot along the beach there is an amazing view of the waves peeling down the point. We camped at Mary Jane’s, a very chill spot consisting of a nice upstairs restaurant with a gorgeous view of the waves and a little sandy campground with bathrooms, showers, and a spot for washing dishes. The owner, Martin, originally a chef from Florida, is absolutely awesome and made us feel right at home. We made some new Canadian and Israeli friends that we shared some nice dinners with and we also met a lovely couple of Australians, Bryon and Stevi, who are traveling the coast in a Ford Econoline camper van. Aron surfed good sized perfect waves three times a day while I did yoga in the mornings, ran in the evenings, and read and watched the surfers on the waves during the heat of the day.

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After four nights in Nexpa we decided it was time to move on although we would have loved to stay for a month. We drove two hours south to Playa Saladita, a tranquil little beach town with a slow wave that was perfect for learning on. We set up camp in the sand on the beach under a shaded palapa at Paco’s restaurant and liked it so much that we stayed six nights.

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Aron took me out surfing every day and I got to work on my nonexistent skills a bit. Some days I would do yoga in the morning, surf in the afternoon, and then run on the beach in the evening- now that’s what I call a perfect day! Our Aussie friends were in Saladita too and we explored a few other surf breaks in the area with them. Twenty minutes south of Saladita just north of the town of Troncones is a little town called Majahua with a fun beach break called La Boca (meaning “the mouth” since it is at the mouth of a river). We drove across the sand out to the break where Aron and Byron surfed some fun waves.

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We also ventured thirty minutes north of Saladita to a spot called El Rancho, a remote left point that runs for at least a hundred yards and has barely been discovered. The only thing on the beach besides sand and surf is a little restaurant. Aron, Byron, and our Canadian friend Alex surfed some empty, fun waves there as well.

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After nearly three weeks of being salt crusted and sand blasted, we decided to splurge on a hotel room in Zihuatanejo, a pretty large, developed coastal resort town. We arrived in the city in the evening and didn’t have much of a plan except to drive around and find an inexpensive hotel for the night, which we’ve since learned is not the best idea. We quickly became overwhelmed trying to navigate the maze of streets in the crowded, unknown city, especially after spending so much time in little beach towns with hardly a single dusty road running through them. Hot, sweaty, tired, and frustrated, we parked the van while I tried to find a hotel in our Lonely Planet travel guide. After a few moments, a police truck drove by, turned around, and pulled up alongside of us. We were worried until we saw the huge smiles on their faces. The four policemen ended up being super friendly and just wanted to make sure that everything was ok. They even recommended a cheap hotel in the center of the city and offered to provide us with a police escort. We thanked them but decided to drive back along the coast to try our luck at some of the beachfront action. We parked the van near Playa Madera, one of the main beaches and strolled around. As we walked along the cobblestone streets a bottle of water came sliding down at us from the steep hill above. We caught it and walked up the hill to return it to its owner who we chatted with about places to stay for the night. He ended up offering his place to us which turned out to be a gorgeous $800 a night four story villa overlooking the bay that he takes care of. There was a group of Americans arriving the next day to rent out the villa, but he gave us the top floor for the night which had the pool, a kitchen, a library, a beautiful tile bathroom with hot showers, and an amazing view of the bay for 200 pesos (about $15).

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We had forgotten what a hot shower feels like after three weeks of cold showers. After cleaning up, Aron and I walked along the malecon to have dinner at a restaurant that our new friend recommended. We had a lovely romantic dinner of chile rellenos (stuffed chilies), mahi mahi, and margaritas and then walked back to the villa where we joined our host for a little tequila as we enjoyed the gorgeous open air view of the city. What started out as a hot, sweaty, frustrating encounter with the city ended up in a wonderful, memorable night in Zihuatanejo.

We spent our second night in the city down the street from the villa at Bungalows La Madera, a gorgeous, inexpensive hotel that I would recommend to anyone visiting Zihuatanejo.

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That evening we met up with Byron and Stevi for a delicious Italian dinner in the center of town. We had pizza for the first time in months and it was wonderful.

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The next stop on the surf agenda was Lagunas de Chacahua, a national park that we had heard about from other travelers. We caravanned down the coast with Byron and Stevi and arrived after a thirty kilometer drive on a super wash board dirt road that rattled the van like a maraca. I have never seen anything like Chacahua- the network of lagoons separated the beach where we were camped from an island with a long perfect right point off a jetty. There were egrets, herons, and other birds everywhere and the lagoon waters were clear and calm and perfect for swimming.

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A large portion of the population in Chacahua is Afromestizo- of mixed African-Mexican descent. We read that a slave ship may have sunk nearby long ago which is how the community started. We camped in a grassy area alongside a little restaurant run by a friendly, elderly local woman who cooked 50 peso fish plates for us.

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We would paddle across the lagoon or pay 10 pesos to have a lancha (little boat) take us across to the island where Aron and Byron had fun surfing.

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There was another wave on our side of the beach as well that barreled pretty hard and was even more fun although not as long.

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After two beautiful clear days and nights at Chacahua, the mosquitos that we had heard so much about came out and attacked with a vengeance. As soon as the sun would start to set we had to hide in the van for the rest of the evening where we would watch movies and read. When the swell dropped and we got tired of the mosquitos, we headed south for Puerto Escondido, a spot known as the “Mexican Pipeline” for it’s huge barrels. There wasn’t much for waves while we were there so we just spent one night camping next to a nice little garden restaurant on the beach before making the long trip through the mountains to Oaxaca.

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This last month of traveling has been pure bliss. We have seen so many new places and have met wonderful people all while hanging out, surfing, and eating amazing fresh seafood at some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. We are just living and loving life!

Categories: Mexico | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Puerto Vallarta- The Pearl of the Pacific

While I was living in Santa Barbara during grad school, Aron and I spent a few weekends taking sailing classes in the harbor. One day when walking around the docks, we came across a statue of a little boy gallantly riding a seahorse. A plaque at the bottom of the statue declared it was a gift to the city of Santa Barbara from its sister city, Puerto Vallarta, “The Pearl of the Pacific”. Upon arriving in Puerto Vallarta, we found the same statue of the little cowboy while strolling the boardwalk (or malecon) along the ocean in the center of the city.

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We arrived in Puerto Vallarta on the afternoon of Sunday, February 10 and found our friend Govinda “Benny” hard at work outside of Murphy’s Irish Pub on the malecon, enticing passerby’s to stop in for a drink or a pot pie. I have never seen two friends so happy to see each other. I just couldn’t stop smiling as Aron and Benny hugged and laughed and just couldn’t contain their excitement to be in this beautiful city together.

We walked up to Benny and his girlfriend Crystal’s adorable studio apartment where we would be staying for the next week to shower and unpack. It is located right in the center of town, three blocks up the hill from the malecon and is surrounded by plants with a gorgeous view of the ocean.

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We joined Benny for a few drinks and some dinner at Murphy’s and then walked over to Viejo Vallarta, the oldest part of town filled with vibrant bars, restaurants, and shops to pick up Crystal from her work. We toured a few fun bars in the area including The Roxy and Bolero where we met an awesome couple of Canadians, Steve and Kathy, otherwise known by their band name Butterflywingtip. They are some of the coolest people we have ever met and they make cool, creative music together that you can check out on Soundcloud at https://soundcloud.com/butterflywingtip. We ended up walking over to their treehouse apartment which was a second story open air studio surrounded by trees alongside the river Rio Cuale that ran through town, it was gorgeous. On the way back to Benny and Crystal’s we stopped for some late night street tacos and quesadillas.

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The next day was Benny and Crystal’s only day off of the week so we planned a fun trip to Yelapa, a beautiful little town in a cove only accessible by boat. Steve, Kathy, and their husky Skully joined us as well so the seven of us loaded up the van and drove half an hour to Boca de Tomatlan, the last little coastal town south of Vallarta that can be reached by car and also the town where some of Benny’s family lives. The sky was surprisingly gray and the ocean was extremely rough but nonetheless we boarded a water taxi along with ten or so other people and headed out for the 45 minute ride to Yelapa. We had to hold on for our lives as the little panga was lifted into the air by the swell and would smack back down onto the ocean. It was pretty exhilarating and we made a good time out of it but it was a little scary. We made it to Yelapa safely and found a perfect little three bedroom casa directly on the beach for 800 pesos ($65 or so) for the night.

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We wandered the cobblestone streets of the little hilly town and bought some fresh caught fish from some local boys and found a market with produce.

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We cooked a lovely dinner of fried plantains, guacamole, fish in garlic sauce, grilled peppers, and a salad and had a wonderful night with great friends.

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The next morning we woke up to a gorgeous blue sky. We strolled through the town and bought some fresh tortillas from a tortilleria and made another lovely meal at the casa.

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We enjoyed the day on the beach and Aron and Steve snorkeled in the clear waters. I couldn’t stop taking pictures and saying how beautiful everything was, it was just amazing.

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Our friend Justin from San Diego who currently lives in Yelapa and works at a swanky resort on the cove had the day off and met up with us on the beach. When we all gathered at a palapa restaurant on the beach for some drinks, Justin introduced us to raicilla, a type of moonshine made from agaves like tequila and mezcal. It was a little smoky like mezcal and really livened up the already fabulously fun day.

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To make things even better, the Pie Lady of Yelapa stopped by. The Pie Lady of Yelapa is known throughout Vallarta and beyond for her delicious home made pies and has been selling slices of her freshly baked pies to the lucky visitors on the beach of Yelapa for more than fifteen years. We had a slice of the chocolate coconut pie and it was one of the most amazingly delicious things I have ever eaten in my life. She had made it fresh that morning and I just wish I had the words to describe how good it was. The only picture I have does not do it justice either.

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The time we spent in Yelapa with our friends new and old were some of the most memorable days of our lives. It was pure bliss, we all had such a wonderful time in one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

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During the week in Vallarta we would spend the days strolling along the malecon or wandering the cobblestone streets of the town before going out for dinner and drinks in the evenings.

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We spent a lot of time enjoying some of the delicious food the city had to offer. Our favorite was Tacon Marlin, known for it’s fresh seafood burritos. I had one with red snapper and shrimp and Aron had their famous burrito with marlin, shrimp, and octopus. They were absolutely amazing and I have been dreaming about them ever since. We also ate fresh oysters on the beach, some of the freshest and most delicious we have ever had.

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For Valentine’s Day we drove back up north to Sayulita (about an hour drive from Vallarta) to explore it some more since we had only stopped there for a moment on the way down the coast. We found a nice little camping spot near the beach at Sayulita RV Park and Bungalows for 300 pesos and spent the evening and the next morning at the beach.

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Aron surfed some little fun waves and then we strolled the weekly farmer’s market which sold everything from clothing, jewelry, and trinkets to fresh produce and cooked foods.

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We wanted to stay in Puerto Vallarta longer but after a little over a week we knew it was time to move on. There is still so much to see on the road ahead of us. It’s difficult to keep moving when we want to stay in each beautiful place that we stop in but we are grateful for the beautiful places we have seen so far and the wonderful people we have met along the way. Thank you Benny and Crystal for showing us such an awesome time in Vallarta!

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Mainland Mexico- The Beginning

After two weeks in Cabo turned into two fun filled months, we headed to La Paz to board the ferry for Mazatlan. We arrived at the ferry terminal two hours early as instructed and I walked through customs while Aron drove through and waited in line to drive the van onto the ferry. We paid an extra 500 pesos (about $42) for a private little cabin with twin beds and a sink and it was well worth it to have a comfortable place to sleep and watch a movie during the 16 hour ride. The ferry was nice, nothing fancy, and had a little cafeteria that sold snacks and served dinner and breakfast and there was a movie theater like room with seating for passengers without cabins. There were also bathrooms with showers which was nice. In the morning we grabbed some coffee and watched the sunrise over the ocean and stayed up on the deck to watch Mazatlan and the islands off the coast come into view.

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As soon as we got off the ferry in Mazatlan we headed to the beach. We drove north through the city along the coastal boardwalk- or malecon in Spanish- and saw that people were busy setting up band stages and food and beer stands along the street. We realized it was the Friday of Carneval in Mazatlan, the third largest festival in the world after Carneval in Rio de Janeiro and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. As we continued driving we started seeing large artistic statues of old famous actors, comedians, and musicians like this one of a famous luchador (I assume) below.

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We drove to the northernmost end of Mazatlan, past the old city center and the Zona Dorada or tourist zone, to Playa Brujas (Witch Beach) and Playa Cerritos which are known for their surf. We found a little restaurant for lunch that overlooked Playa Cerritos where fishermen were bringing in fresh catches of fish, lobster, and oysters.

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We shared the pescado zarandeado, or flame broiled fish, and it was blackened, crispy, and delicious.

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After lunch Aron surfed little waves at Playa Brujas just south of Playa Cerritos before we decided we should probably start looking for a place to stay for the night.

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We stopped at a few RV parks that we read about in a Mexican camping book that has been really helpful and we decided on Mar Rosa Trailer and RV park for its beachfront location and proximity to the festivities. We paid 250 pesos for the night which included a secure camping space and nice, clean bathrooms with hot showers.

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After getting settled we headed out to explore the Friday night Carneval festivities. Carneval in Mazatlan is a five day celebration that always falls on the week before Ash Wednesday. It had started on Thursday, the day before we arrived, and is filled with events each day including a huge parade on Sunday that we would unfortunately miss. Friday night was a sort of fiesta night where 3 miles of the malecon and the street along it were closed to cars and were filled with food and beverage stands and numerous stages where different bands played.

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It cost 30 pesos to get in and 20 pesos for beer, so we spent about $20 for a night of fun with food and drinks for both of us. As the night went on, the streets became filled with people and the bands started to play. A lot of the music was traditional banda style with 15 piece bands consisting of trumpets, trombones, tubas, and other brass instruments.

We ran into some people we met on the ferry from Oregon, France, and Mexico and wandered around with them checking out all the different bands and dance performances.

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In the morning we headed out of Mazatlan with plans to camp somewhere along the way to Puerto Vallarta. As soon as we left the city the road started winding through little farms with grazing cows and horses and fields of corn and tomatoes and even rows of blue agave used to make tequila. After about 4 hours of driving on the toll road and passing a hundred little stands selling dried shrimp (camaron seco) and tamales, we arrived in San Blas. We had read about San Blas as a beautiful little surfing town lined with mangroves but also filled with lots of biting bugs like mosquitos, no seeums, and sand flies. We were a little hesitant to stay because of what we heard about the bugs but the sun was going down and we didn’t know what we would find further down the road. We paid 100 pesos to camp in the dirt parking lot at Stoner’s Surf Camp, named after a surf spot out front that wasn’t breaking while we were there. After putting on pants, long sleeves, and bug spray, we met up with some friends from Oregon that we met at Carneval and that are traveling though Mexico on motorcycles. We hung out in the town square of San Blas and had a few Palomas, my new favorite drink of tequila and grapefruit soda, and enjoyed some street tacos and fresh off the grill elotes (corn) with three different sauces including a delicious peanut sauce.

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It was Saturday night and the town square was a happening place. It was brightly lit and lined with places to sit and stroll where families and young and old were enjoying the night. Being Saturday night, upon returning to the van, we quickly discovered that we were camped next to the main street along the beach where people like to cruise in their cars and play music as loudly as possible until the wee hours of the morning. It was not the best night of sleep we’ve had but we did get to hear some bumping Mexican music.

We woke up early the next morning and packed up and left, but not before Aron got bitten up by bugs pretty badly after only being outside of the van in shorts for 10 minutes. Once on the road we drove past rivers and mangroves and the scenery became green and jungly. There were groves of banana, mango, and coconut trees along the windy road through the lush green mountains.

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We passed some nice little towns along the coast and turned off the road to check out Sayulita, a cute little colorful hippy surf town on the side of a hill.

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We jumped in the water and strolled around a bit but left shortly after because we were excited to continue on to Puerto Vallarta to meet up with our friends Benny and Crystal from San Diego. They had moved to Puerto Vallarta in October and were living right in the center of town.

So far, Mexico is even more beautiful than we had imagined and we are so appreciative to have a year off from work to enjoy traveling and seeing new places. A post about our time in Puerto Vallarta will be coming soon!

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A Taste of Freedom

It’s hard to believe that we’ve been in Cabo for a month now. With each sunrise we feel more at home and it becomes more difficult to pull ourselves away. Aron grew up in Cabo and has been coming back his entire life so this is really like a second home. We’ve always talked about living here and this is the first time in my life that school or a job are not holding me back. It will be difficult to abandon the comforts of home and all of our friends here in exchange for living in a van, but the excitement of the adventure ahead of us on mainland Mexico will pull us onward. If you look at the view from Aron’s dad’s house below, you’ll understand why it’s hard for us to leave.

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Aron’s dad, Eric, bought a dirt lot on an empty hill in 1980 when there was nothing around except cactuses and perfect waves. Over the years, the community on the hill grew as many Americans and Canadians were drawn south by the perfect weather and waves. The hill is now officially Rancho Costa Azul but is lovingly referred to as “Gringo Hill” by everyone down here. The beach out front is lined with condos and hotels and both the cities of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas have ballooned to encompass a population of more than 68,000 people each. Eric’s house is in San Jose, a tranquil, artsy town about 20 minutes along the coast from the wilder Cabo San Lucas.

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We’ve been spending the beautifully warm days at the beach and the cool evenings hanging out with friends or watching movies at the house. It has been a little windy most days but whenever the wind dies down we go stand up paddling or snorkeling. From the beach and even while driving along the highway we have seen gray whales swimming along the coast, flapping their flukes and breaching out of the water. Each winter gray whales migrate south from their summer feeding grounds in Canada and Alaska down the coast to give birth in the warm waters of Baja California. See my national geographic photo below for an up close look at a magnificent whale breach.

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During the winter, there aren’t many waves on the Sea of Cortez side of Baja where we are staying so we have been going out to Cerritos and Pescadero on the Pacific side for Aron to surf. Cerritos is a beautiful, wide beach with great waves for surfing and swimming and a gorgeous Mexican hacienda on the cliffs that I would love to stay in one day. Instead of spending a quarter of our monthly budget in one night, we camped on the beach and then explored the hacienda and enjoyed a few drinks by the pool.

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We have been doing a pretty good job of cooking at the house or bbqing with friends rather than eating out too often, although we have visited our favorite restaurant, Taqueria Mexico, a few times and indulged on fresh margaritas, tacos, amazingly rich stuffed potatoes loaded with veggies, cheese, butter, and your choice of seafood or meat, and my favorite- pescado al mojo de ajo (fish with garlic and butter, below). Our other favorite restaurant, Taqueria Rossy, delivers which has been dangerously convenient. They have the most delicious battered fish and shrimp tacos I have ever had, all delivered by a nice man on a scooter.

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While we’re on the subject of food, last week Aron and our friend Toby made some delicious sushi with tuna, crab, shrimp, and veggies (sushi chefs in action below) before a night on the town. It was lovely.

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After our sushi dinner, we went into San Jose for the weekly art walk. San Jose is a really cool, colorful town filled with lots of art, cute shops, and great restaurants. Every Thursday evening all of the art galleries open their doors and the streets are filled with people walking around sipping wine. We perused some beautiful artwork and I dreamed about having a house one day that I would fill with beautiful Mexican ceramics. In the town plaza we bought some steaming hot tamales, elotes (corn slathered with mayonnaise, hot sauce, and cheese), and some delicious fresh, hot, crispy churros.

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One of the highlights of our stay in Cabo has been “the farm”. The farm is a magical place. I swoon every time I think about the mango muffins we had for breakfast or the lavender martini I had at dinner. Flora’s Farm is nestled into the hills outside of town and consists of a beautiful open air restaurant surrounded by a lush, green farm bordered by palm trees and cactuses.

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The restaurant cooks with all of the fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables grown on the surrounding land and there is also a little market where produce, herbs, and freshly baked bread are sold.

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It’s a pretty pricey place and is apparently very popular with “A-listers” including Jennifer Aniston, Jessica Alba, Luke Wilson, and Quentin Tarantino who all dined there since we’ve been in town. Luckily, our lovely friend Vanessa manages the farm and is always kind enough to get us a nice table or help us out with some extra food and drinks, making the farm more accessible to us ordinary folks. Our friend’s band, The Shamans, plays on Tuesdays and Saturdays so we have spent a few magical nights indulging on gourmet food and drinks outdoors next to a row of sunflowers while grooving to some sweet tunes.

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On January 6 we celebrated Dia de los Reyes (day of the kings), a holiday commemorating the three kings that brought gifts to baby Jesus by following a star in the sky. This is like a second Christmas for children where they place their shoes by the door before they go to bed and wake up to presents in their shoes in the morning. Friends and families celebrate with a Rosca de Reyes, a buttery oval shaped cake covered in sugar and candied fruits. A little white plastic replica of baby Jesus is baked into the cake and whoever gets the slice of cake with baby Jesus has to host a fiesta on February 2 and provide tamales for everyone.

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We conveniently found a giant Rosca de Reyes at Costco and it was surprisingly delicious (even the candied fruit!). After a few moments of suspense, Aron’s sister Mary found the little baby Jesus in her slice of cake. Too bad none of us know how to make tamales. Either way, we managed to take down the entire cake in honor of Dia de los Reyes and found that there were more little white plastic surprises, seemingly representing each of the three kings and maybe Mary and the shepard.

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Next up is a quick trip back up to my hometown of Irvine, California where my best friend Megan and her husband Jeff are expecting a baby girl at any moment now. I decided that this is a moment I don’t want to miss and at the rate we are moving, putting our trip off for another week or two is no big deal. We’ve come to embrace our laid back attitude in regards to our schedule. We’ve lingered longer than we planned but we have had a wonderful time that we wouldn’t trade for anything. It’s liberating to not have a strict schedule for once, to have a taste of freedom. We can indulge ourselves and savor our time in each place without worrying too much about what’s next. We are learning to live moment to moment and make decisions as we go- to live, let go, and be free.

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The Shakedown

When we first started planning this adventure, we told ourselves that we would have the van ready to go early so we could do a test camping trip or two in California before setting off. Well, being us and being such good procrastinators, that didn’t happen so we decided to make the drive down Baja California our initial test trip. It was a beautiful drive and all went fairly well, but we definitely learned a lot including don’t stash your surfboard under the van and run over it, bugs suck, and check how soft the sand is before driving on it.

We left San Diego early Friday morning and drove straight through the San Ysidro border into Mexico. We need to get a tourist visa and a vehicle import permit in order to travel to mainland Mexico, but of course we decided to put this off and plan to deal with procuring these items in Cabo (hopefully that works out…). We drove eight hours south, through northern Baja to a beautiful area called Catavena with a landscape of boulders, cactuses, and palms similar to Joshua Tree. We turned off the main road and pulled into the campground at Rancho Santa Ynez which consisted of a large flat dirt area dotted with fire pits and surrounded by trees. An older Mexican man drove by and collected 100 pesos (about 8 dollars) from us for the camping fee which covered the use of the campground and water supplied through a little spicket. That night, we realized what a great choice we made on the color of the upholstery when Aron spilled an entire glass of red wine all over the inside of the van.

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Along the drive the next day, we stopped to have lunch at some stunning white sand dunes that we saw off the road along the coast just before Guerrero Negro. The sand was soft and powdery like flour and the dunes formed all these beautiful patterns and shadows. Unfortunately, while leaving this spot, Aron drove over his surfboard which he had pulled out from the inside of the van and stashed underneath. It was a huge bummer but luckily it was still in one piece… although a little warped.

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After that mishap, we drove through Guerrero Negro where there was a brief agricultural inspection and we paid 20 pesos to have the tires and the bottom of the van sprayed in order to control for the spread of seeds and other agricultural contaminants. We drove on through Ciudad Constitucion and continued on to Abreojos, a little fishing town on the Pacific coast home to a nice surf spot. There weren’t really any waves but it was beautiful and serene. A few little streets of brightly colored houses made up the town and the waterfront was lined with fishing boats. Just before the town down a flat packed salt road is a sandy point of coastline with a few houses where the well known waves usually are. We drove along the point looking for a place to camp and decided to practice our Spanish on the first person that we saw. We walked up to him and started our conversation (Hola, como esta?) and it turned out that he was from San Diego so our Spanish practice went out the window. He showed us around and pointed out all of the would be surf spots and then told us about a nice place to camp down the way. We took his advice and f0und a beautiful spot right on the side of the ocean just in time for the sunset. The beach was covered in large, beautiful, weathered shells and stones and we saw dolphins fishing just off the shore.

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The next morning, we left our ocean side spot to head over to the east side of Baja, to Conception Bay. The drive was beautiful and the landscape was very green since there was a lot of rain this year. When we dropped from the hills down to the eastern coast, we saw huge splashes out in the ocean and realized it was two whales jumping out of the water! It was such an exciting thing to see the first moment the Sea of Cortez came into view. The drive south along the coast and Conception Bay was gorgeous. We passed the charming little towns of San Ignacio, Santa Rosalia, and Mulege nestled in palm oases and then drove by many beautiful coves of white sand and clear blue water until we reached our destination, Playa Requeson. Playa Requeson is a sand spit that connects the coast to a little island and is surrounded on both sides by two shallow bays (we learned how shallow they were when we tried to snorkel in less than about a foot and a half of water). The beach is lined with a few palapas for camping and we were the only people there. While we spent the day lounging in the sun and trying to snorkel, a couple of men worked hard to fix the road to the beach by loading their truck with sand from the beach and then spreading it over the washed out rocky road. We spoke with one of them when he came by to collect the camping fee (80 pesos) which covers the cost of maintaining the beach and the road. He told us that the hurricanes this year did a lot of damage, that there was a lot of water and wind and that they were busy working to repair everything.

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For our last night, we headed to Conejo, another surf spot back on the Pacific side. We arrived in the early afternoon and found a big flat sandy area where we thought we might camp. The sand was pretty hard packed most of the way out to the ocean, but suddenly we drove into a soft spot and were stuck- for the first time but probably not the last. Under the soft, powdery sand was a layer of clay-like mud which the van could not get out of. We dug around the back tires and made little rock paths but the van just kept digging itself in deeper. After 20 minutes or so of this, a friendly Canadian couple happened to walk by and saw our predicament. They came back with a huge monster van and pulled us out in no time. After that, we decided to stick to the main road which led to a large camping area where we found a nice spot among the sand dunes. From our campsite we could walk across the sand dunes to the beach which was wide and flat, perfect for a nice evening run. Aron surfed some nice little waves in the evening and in the morning while I did some yoga on the beach and watched all the silver fish that were jumping out of the water.

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This practice Baja run taught us most of all that things are not always going to be peachy on this trip. There are times when we are going to be dirty. Times when we are going to be uncomfortable. Times when bugs are going to be overwhelming. We’re going to get lost, we’re going to get stuck, we’re going to get frustrated, but that’s all part of the adventure. The thing is, we’re not traveling just to get somewhere, to arrive at a destination. We are traveling to experience the world, the good and the bad. To learn, to grow, to live.

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