Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Driving Baja Again...and Visiting the Wine Region

The drive up Baja from our casita is a study in contrasts: wet and dry, blue and brown, sea and desert, exhausting and exhilarating.

Sea of Cortez
For the second time in two years, we took four days to do it. Yes, it's possible to drive it faster. But spending more than six hours at a time in a car is not our favorite thing. Besides, as I wrote about here, there's a lot of cool stuff to see on the way.

Like last time, our first stop was Loreto. But this time we stayed at Coco Cabanas. Happily, it has a pool--a great antidote to the heat. And floating feels wonderful after all that sitting still. We were the only ones swimming that afternoon.

The next day, the drive was gorgeous, especially between Loreto and Mulege. On the way, we stopped at Bahia de Concepcion for a picnic lunch on the beach.

Just drive right up to the shade palapa and "palapa" yourself down.
The second night we spent in Guerrero Negro, the halfway point, where we met up with friends who had driven twelve hours that day. Together we had an excellent dinner at Malarimmo--a restaurant that makes you feel like you're in old Mexico, with its dark, heavy furniture and suave waiters. Order anything with fresh fish and you won't be disappointed. The hotel rooms are very basic and the least comfortable on the route, but they're cheap.

The drive from Guerrero Negro to San Quintin has some of the roughest road, which for some reason isn't as well maintained--but it boasts amazing desert scenery.

Sublime  (credit)
Before we hit San Quintin, we stopped in at Baja's Best in El Rosario. Except for the Starbuck's logo painted on the wall, the bright yellow building looked like someone's casa...and indeed it was, complete with dogs on the sofas and a telenovela on the TV. The food was as homemade as if you were eating at a friend's house. I could eat that shrimp chile rellano every day for the rest of my life.

Baja's Best pups
At San Quintin, we stayed at the Hotel Jardines. Last time we drove down all kinds of bumpy dirt roads to find it, but this time we drove right to it--thanks to Dave's excellent sense of direction. How someone can go someplace once and then, a year later, find his way back so easily is a mystery to me.

As its name implies, this place is a little Shangri-La of gardens steeped in flowering plants, trees, and so many birds I felt like Snow White. They also grow their own produce to use in the restaurant. The food was a bit gringo-fied but good--better than we remembered from last time.

But what really knocked our socks off was a place we found the next morning. On the main drag about ten miles north of Jardines sits Restaurante Santa Isabel, where Dave was served a savory nopale (cactus) salsa with his bacon and eggs.

Go Warriors!
Our last time crossing the border at Tijuana involved chaos, pandemonium, and delays. So this time we decided to cross at Tecate. It adds miles, but we'd heard it's a much better experience. That's an understatement.

To get to Tecate, you drive on nice roads through the Valle de Guadalupe (Guadalupe Valley), Baja California's wine region. Its beauty rivals the other "California" wine country.

We stopped at just two of the 150 wineries. Each had charming buildings and offered low-priced wine tastings. One included free cheese, bread, and olive oil for dipping. And of course there were dogs.

Most of what we tasted were red blends. We bought some delicious bottles for gifts. The area was so nice that next time we plan to spend a few days there.

(I know some of you are curious about the state of my drinking life, since I've written about that. It's this: I drink very little, because it feels better that way. The tastings were fun, and a glass of wine every few weeks with a meal is about all that interests me.)

The one thing I haven't mentioned that happens on the Baja drive are inspections. In 1,000 miles, our car was stopped seven times. Five times we were waved through. Two times we had to get out of the car while the teenagers-with-guns checked out our car. Once I was asked to zip open my suitcase so the kid could riffle through my silky underthings.

At that time, a guard and Dave engaged in a conversation about the languages they speak. They were laughing as Dave taught him "hello" in Mandarin, German and Japanese.

Crossing the border at Tecate was a miracle. Seriously, people: NO WAIT! Only two other cars crossed with us.

When the border officer started speaking English--and with a southern accent no less--it took my brain a moment to register that, of course, he was an American. We were crossing back in the U.S. after three months in Mexico.

He asked us if we had anything to declare. Four bottles of Baja wine, I offered, having been told that we could bring in two bottles per person. But the California winemakers have an even stronger hold on wine imports than that. The guard said, "Sorry, it's only one bottle per person."

"Oh, that's not what they said at the winery," I said.

"Of course not," he said, pitying me, the naïve rube. After a dramatic pause he added, "But I'll let you go through this time."

So we had enough wine to share with our friends when we hit San Diego.

A sweet evening.
We made it up to Northern California in time attend the celebration of life for my Aunt Ruby who died at age 93. My cousin Bobby, her son, died shortly after she did at age 68. In the midst of these losses, it felt really good to be with family, loving and supporting each other.

Circle of life: my nieces and nephew at my aunt's funeral.
Shortly thereafter we took another road trip: this time to Lake Berryessa, near Napa.

On the road again.
We didn't do any wine tasting there. Instead, we met up with my sister and a bunch of her friends for houseboat shenanigans.
My sister's boat.
So here we are, back in the Bay Area for a little while, staying with our awesome friend Mark, whose home feels like our home-away-from-Baja home.

Perhaps one day we will be flying into Cabo. But for now, there is something special about taking the drive. It's like a slow initiation back into the English-speaking world.

We are here for a few weeks and then off to the next adventure in Asia. Life itself is a study in contrasts.