Thursday, March 22, 2012

Flavors of Mexico

Baja California Sur, specifically a pristine little spot about 7 hours north of Cabo San Lucas called Loreto. This is the sleepy little fishing village you've dreamed of. An unspoiled coastline, populated with hard-working, friendly people. Loreto, you could say, is the "anti-Cabo." The "un-Cancun," the "un-Acapulco," the list could go on and on. This is the area that Jacques Cousteau called "the world's aquarium," and for good reason. The wildlife is abundant here. Loreto is the town the Mexican government had big plans for. It was to be developed as a mega-tourist destination along with Cancun and Cabo, but somehow that never materialized, and there are many people very happy about that. Yes, money would have flowed but the precious eco-system that many species found only in this part of the world depend on would have suffered.

We recently spent 8 beautiful days in Loreto, soaking up the sun, sights, sweets, and savories. We timed our trip to coincide with the arrival of the whales - the blues and the grays. Amazing creatures. They make the trip to the Baja every January from the icy cold Alaska water to breed in the warm Pacific. We took a 2 hour ride to Magdelena Bay to see grays  - we were in awe of not only their grace, but their friendliness. You can see in the photo below how close this mother and baby were to our boat. 

My husband was the only one in our party lucky enough to touch the baby! The whales love to be scratched (it helps loosen the barnacles). Who knew?

Two days later we headed out by boat an hour south of Loreto in search of blue whales. These are the largest mammals on earth and touching them is not recommended! We spotted 3 or 4 from a distance, resembling a submarine cruising through the waters. Incredible experience!

Another day we took a tour to Mission San Javier. San Javier is a mountain town and the road to get there is not for the faint of heart! Steep twists and turns with few guard rails (no margin for error here)and the last 30 minutes is on a rough dirt road. But when you finally get to the mission, it's worth it. 

The mission dates back to 1758 and is considered one of the best preserved missions in Baja (they still hold services here once a week). The village surrounding the mission has a population of about 80 people, and most of the land has been in the hands of one family for generations. In fact, we met the current owner as he was coming back from picking beans. 

Then we met him again overseeing the restaurant where we stopped for lunch. I half expected to see him working in the store where we stopped to peruse the local crafts! 

This rancher has an abundant olive grove with one tree over 300 years old. The harvest is in the fall, but we persuaded the owner to let us sample some of their delicious olives.

As cattle breeding is a major industry here, our burritos were filled with delicious, grilled, tender beef. Along with frijoles, a slice of local cheese, a sweet biscuit topped with luscious guava jelly, and washed down with a cold cerveza, it makes for a simple but delicious lunch.

On the way up to the mission, our guide asked if we'd be interested in visiting a working ranch (ranchero) - of course! He made some introductions and the gracious family allowed us to tour their farm. Their bountiful gardens supply them with their own food needs but they sell most of the produce to local markets, in addition to feed for their animals. Three generations live on this tiny farm, along with several dogs, cats, donkeys, chickens, and who knows what else! The patriarch of the family and his adorable grandson walked the gardens with us and proudly pointed out radishes, broccoli, onions, and garlic. The fragrance from the many honeysuckle trees was heady. 

As we were getting ready to leave, our guide, Antonio, lead us to a bucket of cold water and asked us to wash our hands. We had no idea what was about to happen, but could never have guessed we were about to make fresh tortillas with the lady of the house. There in a hut with a dirt floor (the ranch kitchen) stood a sweet woman who showed us how to stretch and form the dough into tortillas (somehow my tortillas didn't look anything like hers!). 

The dough is then placed on a griddle fired by cactus wood, where she expertly turned them until done. A huge bowl of frijoles made from fresh beans served as the filling. These were the best tortillas I've ever had (probably because they couldn't get any fresher!). This side trip was a wonderful peek into a hard life in a harsh land.

And, of course, we did manage to fit in some other great meals! 

One of which was at Porto Bello in the beautiful Puerto Escondido marina. Run by the charming Pedro Lopez, Porto Bello looks out over the protected harbor and warmly welcomes you.  When I told Pedro I was looking forward to enjoying the same seafood combo I had a few months earlier (but wasn't currently on the menu), he happily obliged to make it for us. Sweeter bay scallops I've never tasted. 

If you are visiting Mexico, you may want to partake in some of the more well known specialties, such as Chicken Mole. During our trip to Loreto last November, we were lucky enough to discover Hoya 19 (19th Hole) at the Loreto Bay Golf Club. Although Chicken Mole is not on the menu, a visit to the restaurant a day or two before to put in a request is welcomed. This traditional dish is made with a long list of ingredients and requires many hours to prepare(hence the advance notice).  The smoky, spicy sauce that envelops the tender chicken is the real deal at Hoya 19. 

On Sunday we visited the Loreto Farmer's Market, where you can buy anything from fresh shrimp to all kinds of produce, to shoes and TVs! We came upon a young man expertly carving mangoes and sprinkling them with salt and a squeeze of fresh lime - quite refreshing!

In Loreto Bay, we spent hours just walking the beautiful village, admiring the architecture and the gorgeous flowers blooming everywhere. 

Loreto is truly a special place. In fact, it was number 8 on the NY Times list of the 41 places to visit in 2011. And there is talk of new resorts being developed. Could this mean change is coming to this charming seaside village? It could. But hopefully the local and national government officials will hear Jacques Cousteau whispering in their ears. The whales are counting on them.