La Paz to Todos Santos (BCS).

Another pleasant and easy bus ride swept me from La Paz to Todos Santos – early morning, New Year’s Day – 2019.

Celebratory bunting in the streets of Todos Santos.

Todos Santos is a very appealing town; a quirky mix of locals, fishers, surfers and New Age spiritualists. The town of ‘All Saints’ has thus far escaped the rampant tourism of the other Cape towns, but still has all kinds of things to see and do.

My accommodation was possibly one of the worst I have so far stayed at (on this trip) but the jump to the next grade up was too expensive for me. Staff at Hotel Maria Bonita (Beautiful Mary – a highly inappropriate name if ever there was) struggled to break a smile, despite my best efforts to get them to do so. The floor of my room looked like a barbers’ with strands of hair in every single nook and cranny – yuk! I eventually resorted to cleaning the room myself. This was met with a very angry glare from the cleaning lady.

Todos Santos’ newfound prosperity does not reflect its history. Founded in 1723, but nearly destroyed by the Pericú rebellion in 1734, Misión Santa Rosa de Todos los Santos limped along until its abandonment in 1840. In the late 19th century Todos Santos became a prosperous sugar town with several brick trapiches (mills), but depleted aquifers have nearly eliminated this thirsty industry. The crumbling, photo-worthy brick structures still remain in several parts of town.

Like many other parts of Baja, Todos Santos is changing and local development is rampant. Day to day costs are significantly higher here than other parts of BCS.

Next stage: Cabo St Lucas and Lands End.

A potter making amazing presents for guests at Hotel California.

Todos Santos is a haven for artists.

A place to relax is never difficult to find in Todos Santos.

Pristine beaches bereft of people.
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Loreto to La Paz (Bajá California Sur) Mexico.

After such a disappointing Christmas Day I made sure that I would be based somewhere a little more civilised for New Year. I thought La Paz would be the obvious choice, problem was – so did everyone else. The place was heaving with people during my first stay here. I was to return a week later to find the place much more peaceful and therefore much more pleasant.

Cosmopolitan La Paz is a mix of laid-back, old-world beauty and chichi upscale trends. It’s surprisingly international – you’re as likely to hear French, Portuguese or Italian here as English or Spanish, and yet paradoxically it’s the most ‘Mexican’ city in all of Baja. Its quirky history includes American occupation and even being temporarily declared its own republic. Hernán Cortés established Baja’s first European outpost near La Paz, but permanent settlement waited until 1811.

The beachside malecón, superb restaurants and funky stores make it a great place to meander, and you can shop uninterrupted by touts’ invitations. The city also makes a good base for day trips to Cabo Pulmo and Todos Santos. Stayed in a lovely B&B – Hotel Mediterrane – located very close to the malecón.

Next stage: Todos Santos.

Hotel Mediterrane.

There is one in virtually every tourist city in Mexico.

Quirky yet delightful – restaurant Zoe.

The malecón.
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Loreto – Baja California Sur.

Every now and then you drop on a location that really resonates with you, Loreto was one such place for me; it was a delightful place to visit and so beautiful. For a touristy location it was even quite peaceful.

Loreto has a lot going for it. It’s a very pretty small town with an excellent choice of hotels and restaurants, and it’s a water-sports paradise. It’s also home to the magnificent Parque Nacional Bahía de Loreto, where the shoreline, ocean and offshore islands are protected from pollution and uncontrolled fishing.

Most hotels and services are near the landmark mission church on Salvatierra, while the attractive malecón is ideal for evening strolls. My hotel was set slightly further back from here. Hotel Angra, an excellent family owned place, was a 10-minute walk from the centre and conveniently placed for the bus terminal.

The Loreto area is also considered by anthropologists to be the oldest human settlement on the Baja Peninsula. Indigenous cultures thrived here due to plentiful water and food. In 1697 Jesuit Juan María Salvatierra established the peninsula’s first permanent mission at this modest port some 135km south of Mulegé.

There are an increasing number of micro breweries springing up in BCS, 1697 Restaurant & Pub is one such example, serving a wide range of excellent on-tap beers. Owned by a Mexican-Irish couple (ask how they met, now there’s a story!), this restaurant and micro brewery has cuisine that is fittingly diverse, ranging from creamy pastas to fillet steak and chicken fajitas. Its decor and terrace under the stars make it a great place to dine.

Next stage: La Paz.

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Christmas Day – San Ignacio to Santa Rosalia.

View from the balcony of my hotel.

“Southbound travelers will welcome their first sight of the Sea of Cortez after crossing the Desierto de Vizcaíno. Though the town was badly damaged by Hurricane Jimena in 2009, and by the subsequent Hurricane Odile in 2014 , it has repaired and rebounded. Brightly painted clapboard-sided houses, the Iglesia Santa Bábara, the port, the malecón (seaside promenade) and the mining museum are prime attractions.”

The hotel that I had booked, Las Casitas de Santa Rosalia, US-owned, has a real five-star holiday-in-the-sun look with large rooms that have balconies, seamless Sea of Cortez views, exquisite tilework and tasteful artwork.

I knew in advance that the hotel didn’t have a restaurant. However, the owner, who I had communicated with on numerous occasions prior to leaving the UK, was confident that there would be ‘somewhere’ to enjoy a sumptuous Christmas day meal.

Having chatted with Brenda, the hotel owner, then soaked up the stunning views from my personal balcony, I decided, at around 6pm, to walk into town in search of a decent restaurant.

I ended up spending over an hour walking around and asking locals for restaurant suggestions but failed miserably to find anywhere that was open. I did eventually stumble upon a small convenience store and seized the opportunity to purchase some groceries, which ended up being my ‘Christmas dinner’. Feeling somewhat deflated I headed back to the hotel.

Clearing up after dinner didn’t take long. After all, a packet of crisps, a tin of tuna, a Snickers bar, and half a bottle of Malbec doesn’t create that much washing up!

Next day was different again, everywhere was open. This time I really enjoyed walking round town, visiting a few of the tourist attractions. The locals were friendly and chatty and made my day extremely enjoyable. That evening I found an excellent restaurant and tucked into a juicy steak with French fries, and a gorgeous side salad.

Museo el Boleo. Built in 1885 by the French to house the offices of the Boleo Company, this mining museum watches over town and the copperworks from its perch on the hill near the Hotel Francés. It’s surrounded by cool abandoned locomotives and other pieces of machinery.

Iglesia Santa Bárbara. Designed and erected for Paris’ 1889 World’s Fair, then disassembled and stored in Brusels for shipping to West Africa, Gustave Eiffel’s, of Eiffel Tower fame, prefabricated Iglesia Santa Bárbara was, instead, shipped here when a Boleo Company director signed for its delivery to the town in 1895.

Next stage: Santa Rosalia to Loreto.

Museo el Boleo.

Iglesia Santa Bárbara.

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Guerrero Negro to San Ignacio.

Hotel La Huerta.

San Ignacio, with a population of only 750, proved to be one of my favourite places to visit in this region – thus far. It took 3-hours to get there from Guerrero Negro, on a very comfortable bus operated by the company Aguila. The only problem was being dropped off along the highway – about 30 minutes walk from the centre of town. Thankfully I managed to thumb a lift.

“With its lush, leafy date palms and pretty tranquil lagoon, sleepy San Ignacio is a welcome oasis after the endless desert that accompanies you here. Jesuits located the Misión San Ignacio de Kadakaamán here, but Dominicans supervised construction of the striking church (finished in 1786) that still dominates the picturesque, laurel-shaded plaza. With lava-block walls nearly 1.2m thick, and surrounded by bougainvillea, this is one of Baja’s most beautiful churches.”

Again I found and excellent hotel, La Huerta, with lovely rooms, and a great restaurant, admittedly I only sampled breakfast. There just happened to be restaurants with a better ambience, for an evening meal, scattered around the main plaza.

During my stay I met a delightful family from Bristol. Mark and Lisa were travelling with their daughter and son – Isabela and Ollie. We spent Christmas Eve visiting some nearby cave paintings. It was compulsory to have two (Spanish speaking only) guides to accompany us. Mark drove and I helped with some translation assistance. In the evening we ate in a lovely little restaurant, on the edge of the plaza, that rustled up a mean Chicken Fajitas.

“The sheer quantity of beautiful petroglyphs in this region is impressive, and the ocher, red, black and white paintings remain shrouded in mystery. In recognition of its cultural importance, the Sierra de San Francisco has been declared a Unesco World Her- itage site. It is also part of the Reserva de la Biosfera El Vizcaíno.”

Cueva del Ratón, a cave named for an image of what inhabitants once thought was a rat (or mouse) but is more likely a deer, is the most easily accessible site. Drivers can get there on their own after registering and paying the park entry (M$70 per person) and additional guide fee (M$200 for four people).

The existence of the cave paintings was known to Spanish missionaries in the 1700’s. They only became known to the outside world in 1962, when an expedition was initiated by mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner. The painters were probably ancestors of the Cochimi Indians who were early inhabitants of the area, but the motives for their primitive art are still unknown.

Originally, the paintings were thought to be somewhere around 2,000 years old. Recent carbon dating tests have suggested that some of the paintings may have been painted as many as 7,500 years ago.

Next stage: San Ignacio to Santa Rosalia.

La iglesia San Ignacio.

Bougainvillea outside the church

Shop front – San Ignacio.

Cueva del Ratón.

Ollie, Mark, Isabela, Lisa, & Myself.

The long, but not so winding, road.

Inquisitive goats impeding our passage.

4-meres tall cacti plant – approx 150 years old.

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Ensenada to Guerrero Negro – whale watching.

“After the crowds and clamor of the touristy border towns, unassuming Guerrero Negro – a town that sprang up to service the lone salt factory – is a welcome relief. Though the main tourist draw is the proximity to the seasonal migrations of grey whales, there’s also excellent bird-watching in the shallow marshes, and the salt factory’s odd white crystalline plains are quite beautiful.”

Having bagged the 4-hour bus journey from Mexicali to Ensenada it was then time to embrace the 9-hour, overnight, bus to Guerrero Negro – pronounced gerero negro. This was not a journey I was looking forward to at all. The allotted time of departure – 20:15 – dragged terribly. However, I made the most of the people watching opportunity and the chance to further practice my Spanish – making small talk with some of my fellow passengers.

Ensenada bus terminal is a dilapidated affair and very unlike many of the other ‘plush’ terminalsI that I have experienced in other parts of Mexico. It reminded me very much of a train station in India with hoards of people, screaming kids, and luggage piled high in every available space not utilised by sleeping families.

The journey itself was reasonable – once the tv had been switched off, at around midnight! I think I managed to get some sleep for the remaining journey time. We arrived at Guerrero Negro at 07:30 (06:30 standard time). My hotel was very near to the bus terminal. I’d requested an early check in and sure enough my room was ready to settle into. A soothing hot shower was followed by breakfast. It was then time to book the trip that had brought me here – whale watching. The hotel very kindly arranged this. An hour later I was sat in a minibus trying to understand the running commentary that was being delivered by an American lady with a Spanish accent that I struggled to get to grips with.

Guerrero Negro is famous for two things salt and grey whales. The former is a 24/7 joint venture between Mexico and Japan. The latter is only available between December and April. It would be touch and go if we would actually see any whales this early in the season.

Having driven for about 30 minutes we arrived at a small landing platform and boarded a small boat – thankfully our group was made up of 8 people, including the captain. It was a gorgeous sunny day and the run out to the centre of the lagoon was fantastic with loads of pelicans, dolphins, and sea lions nonchalantly going about their daily business of feeding or basking in the early morning sun.

“Whale watching is the principal reason people visit Guerrero Negro, as hordes of friendly Californian grey whales (up to two thousand at a time), which spend most of their lives in the icy Bering Sea around Alaska, can be observed (at remarkably close quarters) from within the nearby Laguna Ojo de Liebre (aka Scammon’s Lagoon).”

Our captain obviously knew his stuff and quickly located our first grey whale no doubt helped by the shot of water that erupted from one of these amazing creatures. We then spent the next couple of hours following this particular whale, and a few others, as it brushed alongside side and (worryingly) underneath our tiny (in comparison) bobbing boat. It was an amazing experience and the photos can not replicate what an incredible an experience it was.

Next stage: San Ignacio.

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Baja California- Mexicali to Ensenada.

Although my time in Mexicali was a relatively short one I managed to find a nice hotel with an excellent restaurant and, for the first time ever, I used Uber to get me there. The transaction was smooth and professional, saving me £10 on what the airport taxi would have charged.

From Mexicali I took a bus to Ensenada. My original plan had been to take the 15-hour run direct from Mexicali to Guerrero Negro, but I just couldn’t face such an epic journey so close to my recent 13-hour flight from the UK. Two journeys, a 4-hour and a 9-hour, seemed like a more civilised option.

In Ensenada I went for the cheapest accommodation I could find, excluding hostels, and ended up plumping for a home stay. Unfortunately the owners wife had recently passed away. It was therefore not the most pleasant of places to stay, under the circumstances.

“Ensenada, 108km south of the border between Mexico and the USA, is Tijuana’s hedonistic cosmopolitan sister. The city has a quirky mix of just-off-the-boat cruise shippers, drive-by tourists from California, visitors from mainland Mexico and seen-it-all locals. In case you’ve forgotten you’re in Mexico (what with all those US dollars and English menus), just look up: a Mexican flag, so large it’s probably visible from space, flutters proudly over the tourist zone.”

I really enjoyed my day walking around down town Ensenada, which included a visit to an extremely interesting museum – Instituto Nacional De Anthropologia E Historia. Check out this interesting (YouTube) video How to feed the world. It highlights the challenges we face feeding an increasing world population and how we might address the challenge going forward. That evening I even enjoyed an excellent meal at a local Lebanese restaurant – delicious.

Next stage: Guerrero Negro – whale watching.

Mexicali to Ensenada to Guerrero Negro.

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Trains, planes, and auto busses.

Sunday 16/12/2018.

My iPhone alarm was set for 4am, I knew this would be an unnecessary thing to do but I did it anyway.

Had I packed everything? Would I sleep through the alarm? Would the train leave on time? Would I arrive at the airport in good time? With so many things going through my head I didn’t sleep a wink. That was until about 10 minutes before the alarm went off, at which point I was sleeping like a baby.

The train did leave on time, I did arrive in good time to check in, I even had enough of a window to enjoy a much needed coffee.

Birmingham is my airport of choice; It’s one hour from home (by train) and small enough to facilitate a swift (well as swift as it can be these days) journey through security.

My Christmas location was going to take 6-days to get to; San Ignacio, in Baja California (Mexico). A journey that would take in Mexico City, Mexicali, Ensenada, Guerrero Negro, and finally San Ignacio.

As a result of frequent visits, I’ve managed to hone a fairly smooth route in the enormous city of Mexico. I can navigate the incredibly cheap metro station and I have found a good but cheap accommodation option in the form of Hotel Ibis. It is in a great location – close to the historic centre, and some reasonably good restaurants.

I enjoyed a days sight seeing in the city before catching a flight to Mexicali, a large metropolis with absolutely nothing to see. “Mexicali is what Tijuana must have been like before the tourist boom – gritty, even scary – and most tourists just head southward.” This is exactly what I did.

Next stage: Bus to Ensenada.

Christmas tree- Mexico City.

Mexico City: Outdoor ice rink set up just for Christmas.
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La Ciudad de México – day one of two.

Much-maligned Mexico City is cleaning up its act these days. Revamped public spaces are springing back to life, the culinary scene is exploding and a cultural renaissance is flourishing. On top of all that, by largely managing to distance itself from the drug wars, the nation’s capital remains a safe haven of sorts!

Mexico City can at first appear extremely daunting – it’s enormous. Where to start? You could spend months exploring all the museums, monuments, plazas, colonial buildings, monasteries, murals, galleries, archaeological finds, shrines and religious relics that this encyclopedia of a city has to offer – Mexico City shares billing with London for having the most museums of any city in the world. Plan ahead as many museums close on Monday, while most waive their admission fees to residents on Sunday, thus attracting crowds.

Mexico City in Two Days – day one.

Day one dawned and I found myself stepping into a train on the Mexican metro, headed for station ‘Zócalo’. The cost of this journey was 20 pence.

Centro Histórico: Packed with magnificent buildings and absorbing museums, the 668-block area defined as the centro histórico was the obvious place to start my explorations. More than 1500 of its buildings are classified as historic or artistic monuments and it is on the Unesco World Heritage list.

Zócalo (plaza): The heart of Mexico City is the Plaza de la Constitución. Residents began calling it the Zócalo, meaning ‘base,’ in the 19th century, when plans for a major monument to independence went unrealized, leaving only the pedestal. Measuring 220m from north to south, and 240m from east to west, it’s one of the world’s largest city squares.

Catedral Metropolitana: One of Mexico City’s most iconic structures, this cathedral is a monumental edifice: 109m long, 59m wide and 65m high. Started in 1573, it remained a work in progress during the entre colonial period.

Templo Mayor: Before the Spaniards demolished it, the Teocalli of Tenochtitlán covered the site where the cathedral now stands, as well as the blocks to its north and east. It wasn’t until 1978, after electricity workers happened on an eight-tonne stone-disc carving of the Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui, that the decision was taken to demolish colonial buildings and excavate the Templo Mayor. The temple is thought to be on the exact spot where the Aztecs saw their symbolic eagle perching on a cactus with a snake in its beak – the symbol of Mexico today. In Aztec belief this was, literally, the center of the universe.

The Palacio Nacional is also home to the offices of the president of Mexico and the Federal Treasury. Inside this grandiose colonial palace you’ll see Diego Rivera murals (painted between 1929 and 1951) that depict Mexican civilization from the arrival of Quetzalcóatl (the Aztec plumed serpent god) to the post-revolutionary period. The nine murals covering the north and east walls of the first level above the patio chronicle indigenous life before the Spanish conquest.

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My top ten Mexican friends.

Travelling in Mexico can be amazing but sometimes a little challenging, here are a few friends that can help make the journey just that little bit easier.

1. The people.

Travels in Mexico quickly reveal that Mexicans are a vastly diverse bunch, but certain common threads run through almost everyone here – among them a deep vein of spirituality, the importance of family, and a simultaneous pride and frustration about Mexico itself! However, one thing you can never do with Mexicans is encapsulate them in simple formulas. They’re hospitable, warm and courteous to guests, yet are most truly themselves within their family group. They will laugh at death, but have a profound vein of spirituality. They embrace modernity while remaining traditional in essence. I have found Mexican people to be incredibly helpful and truly welcoming.

2. OXXO.

The closest ‘tienda’ (shop) you can get to a traditional convenience store back home, and pretty much offering everything you will need on a day to day basis – from topping up your Mexican cellular to buying snacks and drinks. You are guaranteed to find one on nearly every street corner in major towns and cities across all of Mexico.

OXXO has over 14,000 stores. It is the largest chain of its kind in Mexico and was founded in 1977. In the first stores, the only products sold were beer, snacks and cigars. The success of the stores was such that the project kept growing and OXXO built new locations rapidly, becoming an ubiquitous presence in Mexican cities and towns.

3. Busses.

Despite an extensive rail freight network, no passenger trains operate in Mexico (apart from a few ‘tourist’ options. Buses are your key to getting from A to B. Thankfully Mexico has a good road network and comfortable, frequent, reasonably priced bus services connect all cities. Most cities and towns have one main bus terminal from which all long-distance buses operate. Normally called ‘Terminal de Autobuses’. Bus stations in major cities tend to be generally clean, safe and highly functional.

DELUXE & EXECUTIVE

De lujo services, primera plus and the even more comfortable ejecutivo (executive) buses run mainly on the busier intercity routes. They are swift and comfortable, with reclining seats, plenty of legroom, air-conditioning, movies on (individual) video screens, few or no stops, toilets on board (sometimes separate ones for men and women) and often drinks, snacks and even wi-fi. They use toll roads wherever available.

FIRST CLASS

Primera (1a) clase buses have a comfortable numbered seat for each passenger. All sizable towns are served by 1st-class buses. Standards of comfort are adequate at the very least. The buses have air-conditioning and a toilet, and they stop infrequently. They show movies on TV screens. They also use toll roads where possible.

SECOND CLASS

Segunda (2a) clase or ‘económico’ buses serve small towns and villages and provide cheaper, slower travel on some intercity routes.

4. A Mexican chip (SIM) for your smartphone. Without one I wouldn’t be able to interact with some of the following.

5. Maps.me is an amazing app that I first started using in Cuba (google maps does not function in Cuba). It is especially useful for getting your bearings in a town, and most importantly helping you locate your accommodation. This app has saved me a fortune in taxi fares over the past year.

6. Trail Wallet is an easy travel expense tracker for iPhone and iPad. Designed to be fast, it takes the headache out of expense tracking. I have a daily budget and trail wallet helps me keep tabs on how I am doing. It has proved invaluable.

7. Trip Advisor. A great app to help find and book accommodation, as well as helping to find a decent restaurant, and suggestions on what to see and do in places.

8. Google translate. Invariably I get presented with Spanish words that I don’t understand, this is my personal translator. In addition this amazing app has a feature whereby you can take a photo of text and it will instantly translate it – really useful in museums where the context can be somewhat challenging.

9. WhatsApp. Great for keeping in touch with friends – both old and new.

10. Santander ATM’s. Most banks give you a terrible exchange rate, when withdrawing cash here in Mexico. Santander has consistently provided me with the best rates. Note: HSBC were the worst! Thank you also goes to my Halifax Clarity Credit Card – no charges from them either!

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