Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Surfing the couch in Baja California Sur

on July 9, 2013

So here I am in Baja California Sur, the southern part of the western peninsula in Mexico.

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What I discovered when doing my research in Ensenada is that the Baja peninsula is not really a solo traveller’s friend. It is much more geared towards road tripping, hence transport is crazy expensive (a 12hr bus ride halfway down cost about US$100!) and the only cheap accom is in RV parks (if you have a tent or caravan) with hotels starting at ~US$40/night… That kinda price probably sounds cheap to some, but really doesn’t fit in with my backpacker’s budget which needs to get me through 6 more months on the road! Where are all the hostels?! Even one would do. The thought of paying that much per night when I could get away with AU$7-10/night in a dorm Asia made me want to cry. So then I thought, ‘Maybe I could buy a tent…?’ but that was soon followed by, ‘Hmmm, that would mean all of my worldly possessions would be left in a piece of fabric with a zip… Out in the open… In the middle of the Mexican desert…’ and I decided against that idea.

Then I though of couchsurfing! Most people have heard of it these days, but it’s a great concept- basically a reciprocal system based on people’s goodwill. There are members from all over the world offering up free hospitality and in exchange learning people’s stories, making new friends and guaranteeing themselves a couch to stay on when they next travel! Couchsurfing made my visit to Baja California Sur (BCS) possible, and all the more memorable.

First up was Carlos in La Paz (the one in Mexico, not the one in Bolivia). He is a doctor by day and couchsurfing host extraordinaire on the side.

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I ended up flying in from Tijuana- due to the aforementioned crazy expensive buses; this actually cost less and saved me 22 hours in travel time! From the moment I first arrived Carlos was the host with the most, picking me up from the airport on his motorbike, carefully balancing my small pack in front of him whilst I clung on the back loaded up with my big pack. What a way to get introduced to the vast desert landscape of BCS! It is stunning with the dusty plains, trademark cacti and rocky mountains stretching off to the horizon.

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Carlos invited me not only into his home, but right into his room- he and his awesome roomie Miguel actually donated me one of their mattresses for the duration of my stay (sometimes also utilised by Olga the dog). On my arrival, Miguel was busy preparing ceviche– I watched on as he marinated some raw fish in lime with diced onion, coriander and tomato which he then served up on tostadas with a selection of chili sauces. So I was welcomed with fresh and delicious food (sure-fire way to a dietitian’s heart), friendly smiles and a lot of quickly spoken Spanish that I couldn’t quite keep up with! Carlos also speaks perfect English so was able to help translate bits and pieces to me which was great. Afterwards I brought out one of my giant family size blocks of Cadbury Marvellous Creations to share (thanks nan!) which was a massive hit. Ahhh Cadbury, transcending language barriers all over the world… :-p

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That evening once the sun was going down, and the severe heat of the day was starting to dissipate, we all went down to the Malecón, which is the long waterfront esplanade. It was beautiful, looking out onto the bay with the sun setting. Naturally, this occasion called for ice-cream, which we duly purchased and enjoyed as we wandered around until dark.

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The following morning Carlos took me out to Ballandra, one of the iconic beaches in La Paz, home of La Piedra de la Bahía Balandra (‘The Rock of Balandra Bay’). This rock, which looks kind of like a mushroom, is featured on every postcard, fridge magnet, poster and brochure you can find in La Paz. The people love it so much, that when it fell down (I heard a wide variety of stories as to how this happened, ranging from someone climbing on it, to a boat crashing into it, to simple erosion) but however it happened, the rock was rebuilt and reinforced with metal and concrete!

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We lazed the morning away in Ballandra, seeing only one other person on our stretch of beach the whole time we were there. It was so serene, with the white sand, crystal clear, cool blue water and birds flying overhead. Eventually we had to make a move, as Carlos usually works from 2pm til 8pm, and we were getting roasted by the desert sun! On the way back, we were stopped by the feds who asked Carlos a few questions. One of them was ‘Is your wife pregnant?’, to which Carlos answered ‘She’s not my wife and no, she’s not pregnant!’ Kind of understandable, as I was sitting on the back of the bike in a purple dress with a purple bag on my lap, so I picked up the bag and showed them it was not a pregnant belly, and we were sent on our way!

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The next day I went to the natural history museum in town. I only had a 200 peso note when I arrived, and the lady didn’t have change so let me in for free! The first level was sculptures of scenes from pre-Hispanic times and the second some paintings and artefacts, but neither had any signs so I thought, maybe I won’t be here for long anyway… But the third level had a lot of signage, only in Spanish, so I stood up there forever deciphering a few to practice!

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The rest of the afternoon I wandered around the historic centre of La Paz, seeing sites like the cathedral, theatre, cultural centre, and town hall, and looked at a lot of art and photography.

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One of my favourites was an art exhibition by an illustrator who depicted many traditional Mexican games which was really interesting.

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In the evening I hit the supermarket as I was going to cook dinner for the house- pad thai- and I managed to find most of the ingredients, except strangely enough, the noodles! I had thought they would be easier to find, but no, I got rice wine vinegar and fish sauce, but had to settle with ‘rice vermicelli pasta’ instead of stick noodles. The resulting dish was unfortunately more like a mush as the pasta was too soft to stir-fry, but it still tasted nice!

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In the morning I took a day trip to the nearby town of Todos Santos, a pueblo mágico (magic village), which is a designation given to lots of small historic towns in Mexico. It was very quiet (aside from numerous couples making out on benches, there didn’t seem to be many people around); but the locals were so lovely and friendly that in every shop or gallery I went into, the vendor would want to chat. The town was full of beautiful buildings, so was lovely to walk around.

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The highlight of my day was meeting a painter called Luis Angel, who goes by ‘Angelito’. I was speaking to a lady at an opal shop for ages and then noticed these cool painted spoons and shells out front. I’d asked if the artist had a website or something as I was impressed by his work and the lady was devastated because he was usually there but had gone home for a bit. She insisted, ‘You have to see him paint! It’s an amazing experience! Do you have time?’ So she rang him and in a few minutes he was at the shop. He painted a tiny painting with oils, just using his finger and one tiny brush in front of me as we chatted, and got such detail in, it really was incredible to see. He ended up giving me the gorgeous little painting to remember the day.

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I went for dinner across the road at a place called ‘Bob Marlin’, a bar/restaurant which served tacos and of course played Bob Marley all day. I ordered a pork taco and a shrimp taco, but later was told there was no pork, is fish ok instead? And I said yes. Later out came two fish tacos. Then the owner of the bar René came and apologised to me as they had also run out of shrimp and said the tacos were on the house! Another guy Pablo who worked there also bought me a beer, so I had a very cheap night out, and was again amazed by the friendliness of everyone… Despite the crowd at Bob Marlin’s encouraging me to stay longer in Todos, I eventually had to leave to catch my bus. I thought I’d booked for 8pm but when I got to the station and looked at my ticket, I realised I’d booked for 11pm and my seat number was 8! The next bus was at 8.15, and the lady said I’d just need to ask the driver if I could use that ticket for it. All was fine when the bus arrived and thankfully I didn’t have to wait 3 more hours to get back to La Paz. The day in Todos Santos did feel magical in a way, luck was really on my side the whole time!

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The following evening I went out in town with Carlos. I tried a Mexican hot dog, where the sausage is wrapped in bacon (!), then topped with fried onions and smothered in salsa, mustard and mayo. It was AMAZING! We then went to a little hole-in-the-wall bar that used to be a corner store, where I tried a ballena loco (crazy whale), which is a giant bottle of beer (the ballena– almost a litre!) which you drink a bit out of and then you take back to the bar where the bar dude mixes some stuff into it (you don’t know what exactly, cos he does it under the bar!) but it includes clamato juice, and then the bottle is rimmed with chilli powder and topped with a salted apricot. After that one huge drink I already felt a bit tipsy! We then went to an Americano place for buffalo wings and cheese sticks, and later met up with Miguel and his friends for more beers, which ended up being a bit of a late night.

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On my last day in La Paz, armed with a powerade; I set out on a snorkelling tour to the nearby island of Espíritu Santo (Holy Spirit). I had been waiting all week to see if there would be a kayaking tour, but as it was so quiet, none were going (they need a minimum of 4 people) so I settled for snorkelling. On the way we saw heaps of dolphins who frolicked all around the boat before we approached the island to admire the impressive rock formations and caves.

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Our first stop was at the Los Islotes sea lion colony, where we got to have a snorkel with the sea lions. That was amazing, as they swim quite close to you. We had lunch of sandwiches and ceviche at a small beach and had a second snorkel along the rocks there before heading back. On the return trip, a little girl from the US told me I had a nice accent- first time I’ve ever heard that!

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That evening my next host, Ryan from Los Barilles was in La Paz to do some errands and was able to pick me up which was awesome. I said a fond goodbye to Carlos and Miguel- such awesome guys, I will never forget! Ryan and I went for dinner in La Paz, and tried the local almejas chocolata (clams). They were so fresh they still moved when you put the lime on them! That creeped me out quite a bit at first, but after a long while psyching myself up to eat one, I discovered they were delicious and got over it! We then visited a little boutique beer place called ‘The Beer Box’ which could easily have been a bar in Melbourne. It featured brews from all over Mexico and the world. We had a guava-infused beer from near Mexico City before hitting the road to Los Barilles.

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Ryan had recently bought an old van in the states, and is in the process of fitting it out. It’s a pretty pimpin’ old thing, and tough enough to withstand the bumpy desert roads. It was dark on the way, so I couldn’t see too much of the mountains and desert landscape, but the stars were out in force. And we did see some wildlife (a poor little bat which flew into the windscreen:-/…)! I was in awe when we arrived at the house. It turned out Ryan’s parents, Ben and Harriet, have retired to Los Barilles from Oregon, and have built a beautiful house there with ocean views. I had a plush room all to myself which was very luxurious! Ryan lives and works from there in online marketing- pretty sweet! :-p

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Los Barilles held lots of new adventures. The first was driving out to a canyon where we walked out to some waterfalls and rockpools in the desert sun. The water was deliciously cold, but the sun was pretty fierce and I burnt my feet on the thousand degree rocks trying to work up the courage to jump into this deep pool!

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We finished the afternoon at the beautiful hot springs at Santa Rita with a couple of cold beers. It was so quiet and peaceful and the landscape was amazing. On the way home we stopped for dinner at Hotel Palomar in the small town of Santiago. We had some beautiful fish in garlic and a shrimp quesadilla. Mmm!

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One day I went out fishing with Ben and a family friend Janet. I have never really been fishing before unless you count fish farms as a kid… So this was a whole new ball game- sport fishing, out on the sea in a boat, trawling through the waves with 3 lines dangling out behind us. We passed the time watching manta rays splashing and flipping out of the water and admiring dolphins frolicking in front of the boat.

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Whilst Janet and I were up on the bow admiring said dolphins, Ben, who was driving the boat at the time, yelled ‘FISH ON!’, so we scrambled back to the rods. I jumped in the chair and was given the catch and a 10 second run-down on how to reel it in. I started reeling away while the others brought in the other lines, and after what seemed like a while finally had the fish alongside the boat (quite a decent workout for arms which have done nothing in months!)

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We had caught a big dorado, which in the water was a vibrant yellow-green colour. It was strong and fighting hard. Ben had to hook it and bring it into the boat- it was pretty heavy, I could barely pick it up with two hands! It was a bit sad to kill it, as soon as it came out of the water its colour started to fade. But later that morning after we got back, Ben sliced it up, some was vacuum packed and frozen, and much was taken down to a local restaurant which cooks your catch for you in several different ways.

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Dinner that night was an absolute feast- the usual corn chips and salsa for starters, then 4 courses of fish! We had ceviche (my favourite course, mixed with apple on little tortilla chips), sashimi with soy and sesame, a crumbed fillet served with potato, veggies and frijoles (the Mexican touch) and lastly, Veracruz style- in a tomato sauce with capsicums and onions. It was all amazing and I was so full at the end of it. So at least our fishy went to good use, none was wasted!

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On my last day surfing with Ryan, he drove me out to Cabo Pulmo, a little town only accessible by car on dirt roads- no buses go down this way. The main draw here is the National Marine Park- the only living reef in the Sea of Cortez, which around here is often referred to as ‘The World’s Aquarium’.  I wanted to dive there, and without Ryan’s generous lift, I wouldn’t really have been able to make it there on my own! The diving was good, very different from any of my previous dives. For starters, all the measures were imperial instead of metric, so worked in feet and PSI instead of metres and Bar… It was also much, much colder than anywhere I have dived before ~19 degrees down at about 15-20m compared to the usual 30 degrees in Thailand and Malaysia! I had a full 5.4mm wetsuit (vs just a rashie in Asia!) and was frozen after our first dive, even though we were only down for 35 minutes! There was some intense current too which I hadn’t been warned about – our briefing was very, well… brief. ‘We’re going to go down all together and swim to the end of the reef. Let me know when you have 700PSI and we all go up. Listos? (Ready?)’ Got some good impromptu drifting practice in!

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We saw some pretty reef and beautiful fish plus big moray eels and groupers on our first dive. The second dive it was even more freezing than the first when we initially descended and one of the girls in our group actually had to go back up. We had to wait in the current for the instructor to come back down after taking her back to the boat, and it was like being in one of those tiny swimming pools with the current, where you swim on the spot! We just had to face into the current and keep kicking otherwise be whizzed away in the drift. Thankfully we managed to keep our position and the instructor found us again. When he came back we ascended a little and it was significantly warmer and the current was a lot less noticeable. We swam with a giant school of big eye jacks for ages which was pretty amazing- there were so many of them all around you, and they didn’t seem to mind that there were some strange big fish who had joined their posse!

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My final destination in Baja was Cabo San Lucas, at the very bottom of the peninsula. It’s a pretty touristy town, mostly families and groups on package holidays from the States, so is more expensive too. It is known as a party town mostly, but I thought I’d check it out for a few days. Here I couchsurfed with Hagai, a diving instructor who is managing a dive shop. His work kept him pretty busy while I was there, but he was incredibly accommodating, and again I lucked out and got my own room at his place!

After walking all the way across town from the bus stop to Hagai’s dive shop at the marina, I dumped my bags and headed out to explore. I first of all ended up in a bazaar, and the vendors at each stall asked ‘Hablas Español? (Do you speak Spanish?), then when I replied ‘Un poco’ (A little), they would respond ‘Mas barato para ti!’ (More cheap for you!). When they asked where I was from, the reply of ‘Australia’ was mostly greeted with surprise, and exclamations of ‘Ohhh Australia? Muy lejos!’ (Very far!). People were very friendly, happy just to chat if I didn’t want to buy anything. I actually got asked by one of the vendors if we have cactus in Australia, and it struck me that I wasn’t sure! Google fixed that, and I discovered that yes, Australia does have native cacti. In fact, Australia also has its very own Cactus and Succulent Society. True story, you can google it yourself…

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Anyhoo, Cabo is a nice town. It still has a historic centre with beautiful buildings and a leafy main square by the museum, but together with cute little shops, cafes and boutiques, has a whole lot of franchises, souvenir shop after souvenir shop selling piles of all the same stuff and a giant mall and marina which could be anywhere in the world. The highlight of my day was whiling away the afternoon at the Baja Brewing Co on the rooftop at one of the swanky villas. I watched over all the watersports and craziness happening on Medano Beach with a cold raspberry infused beer, mmm!

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One day I decided to take a trip out to San Jose del Cabo, the mature and artsy older sister of Cabo San Lucas who lives half an hour up the road (though longer if you take the bus…). I started the day by catching a collectivo (small bus) from near Hagai’s place into Cabo. The bus stop was a little rotunda thing which appeared to be draped with pieces of old sheets, just beside my favourite landmark, the roundabout decked out with a huge tinsel Christmas tree.

Luckily I asked a guy where to catch the bus to el centro, otherwise I would’ve instinctively gone to wait on the wrong side of the road (the collectivo takes a long random way through the estate to town instead going directly). Anyway, made it to town and then got on another bus to San Jose. This one I managed to get off just before it left town to go to the airport! These buses kind of operate on a system where if you are waiting by the roadside anywhere on the route, they will stop to pick you up. And if you stand up or yell out while on the bus, they will stop and drop you wherever. It was lucky I spotted a sign to the zona historico and quickly got up!

San Jose is a beautiful old town filled with galleries and handicraft shops, but still has its share of souvenir outlets too.

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My first stop was the municipal market where I had my first try of nopal (a type of cactus) and when I walked out noticed a minimart called Mandy two doors down from a salon called Laura. BFFs Mandaura reunited in Mexico! That put a smile on my face.

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Again I found the people to be super friendly, one guy called Jose from a glass shop kept calling me ‘my beautiful friend from Australia’ at the end of every sentence. In the evening they had the weekly Art Walk where the galleries stay open late, some have artists in residence there to chat to, and some offer free drinks- wine tastings or free mini margaritas. The main square fills up with artists selling their works on every surface, so it was a really nice day to visit.

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My last full day in Cabo was spent out at the beach. I took a glass-bottomed boat to Playa del Amor (Lover’s Beach) where we cruised out from the marina, got to view the famous arch (like the mushroom rock in La Paz, the arch is on all the postcards and tacky souvenirs in Cabo), checked out the pacific side of the beach, named Playa del Divorcio (Divorce beach) and then got dropped on Playa del Amor to stay til we told the boat to come back and get us.

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After walking out to the arch, I divided my time between snorkelling around ‘Pelican Rock’ and defrosting on the beach. It was beautiful snorkelling with some colourful corals and a lot of cool fish, but it was soooooo cold! So when I was kind of a bluey colour and covered in goosebumps, I’d have to relent and go back to the baking sand. There was no happy medium- it was either burning hot, or really cold!

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That evening Hagai and I went out for lobster and shrimp, and I was told to try the ‘Bulldog’- a combo of tequila, lemonade and beer… Sounds weird, but went down pretty easily! They also made both of us do a shot of tequila and lemonade which was something new… they covered the top of the shot with a serviette, banged it on the table 3 times so it fizzed up and then you took it. Much nicer than straight tequila, I’m bringin’ this method home!

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Unfortunately this was the evening I also discovered I had made quite the boo-boo when booking my flight to Mexico City the next day… Instead of booking from San Jose del Cabo in Mexico, I had booked from San Jose in COSTA RICA! Ahhhh! So silly. I called the airline and because it was an international fare, they couldn’t change it to a domestic one. However, for US$25, I could change the date and also change it to any other international route, so I managed to save it and use the flight to get back to the states later on. As for getting to Mexico City, I had to buy a whole new flight. And guess who tried to put it through on PayPal? Yep…

So just as I was breathing a sigh of relief to have everything sorted, I got an email from PayPal saying since the flight I’d booked leaves within 72 hours, PayPal was not accepted and the transaction had been cancelled! So I jumped back online and booked the flight for the THIRD TIME (noticing this time the bold red print saying you can’t pay with PayPal within 72 hours of flying…) and finally had a confirmed booking- the last available seat on the flight!! Phew!

So after a day of doing laundry, a 2 hour bus trip to the airport, curing a burger craving with a ‘Whopper Furioso’ at the airport Burger King and a middle of the night stopover in Tijuana, I was finally off to Mexico City for a bright and early 5.30am arrival!

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4 responses to “Surfing the couch in Baja California Sur

  1. […] Surfing the couch in Baja California Sur (mandyandtheworld.wordpress.com) […]

  2. kathleen says:

    hey Mandy, i love your journey and stories. I am heading down to Cabos and throughout for yoga training then travel.. in Cabos Lucas and La Paz, do you have some persons particular to contact for couch surfing… Where are you nowadays/ i am from the south Lousiana, a swamp girl…
    hope to hear back, heading out in 2 weeks.. merci kathleen

    • mandyhill25 says:

      Hi Kathleen, so sorry I didn’t see this message til now, I haven’t been on the blog for a while! My couchsurfing hosts in La Paz and Cabos have both moved from there now actually, so I probably wouldn’t have been much help to you anyway if that’s any consolation! I hope you enjoyed Baja though. Right now I am in Tonga in the South Pacific, its a beautiful place. I loved New Orleans, though I didn’t get to see many other places in Louisiana. I’d love to visit again one day! Anyway, happy travels 🙂 Mandy

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