Loreto Journal 2011

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Wednesday 3/16
Left Hilo 7:30 pm on Hawaiian Airlines with Susan and Annabelle Floyd. Arrived in Honolulu at 8:30, Left Honolulu 10:30 on United.

Thursday 3/17 - Photos
Arrived in Los Angeles at 6:30 am. Left at 11:45 on Alaska Airlines in a Bombadier DH-400 turbojet with two small leather seats on a side. Had to leave main carryon to be put in luggage area. Overhead had just room for Serge's computer case. Free drinks and snacks. Arrived at Loreto's small airport at 2:30 pm. They xrayed all our luggage again and hand-searched bags when people came with friends, but let families alone. Still took along time to clear because the same young woman had to run the xray machine and the hand-search. A Villa Group van was waiting for us and took us to the Santa Fe Hotel because the Villa del Palmar wasn't open yet. To compensate us for that we were given an All-Inclusive package that included meals, drinks, and tours, plus a move to the penthouse suite after a few days. We had a seafood dinner at the hotel. Serge had a rather tasteless scallop ceviche (which spiced up rather nicely with Tabasco), and both he and Gloria had sauteed scallops (which were brown and had an odd kidney shape), and Modelo beer. Dessert was cranberry ice cream (a lot like strawberry). Our room on the fourth floor had a very nice view of Loreto, the Sea of Cortez, and mountainous islands.

Friday 3/18 - Photos
As we are members of the Universal Vacation Club which is associated with the Villa Group Resort chain, this morning was devoted a "Member Update" tour (think of a time-share presentation with not as much pressure) to the Villa del Palmar Loreto Resort, still under contruction. This was a small coach trip about 35 miles south of Loreto past the new development project at Nopolo (with the only real river in the area) and through very dry desert/mountain terrain to the dirt road (still under construction) leading to the resort on a starkly beautiful bay called Ensenada Blanca. On arrival we were taken to a former "Eco-Resort" on a hill overlooking the bay for a decent breakfast and then to the (very unfinished) resort itself for a tour, starting with an overview talk on the seventh floor of the main building. From there we could see the six pool areas in the large courtyard which were cleverly constructed in the shape and pattern of a sea turtle. That was the best part. In spite of the continued pretense that the the resort might open on Saturday, it was very clear that it would be months before it was ready. The three buildings that were mostly finished still were partly without electricity or furnishings or amenities. In addition, there were no open restaurants, no entertainment areas, no market, no water activities, and no lobby, but there was a lot of construction noise. In addition, the power went off while we were on the seventh floor and before our walking tour began, so we had to wait hours until we started to take Annabelle down the stairs in her wheelchair. The power came on with three floors to go. All in all, our "hour and a half" presentation took five hours. Back in Loreto at the Santa Fe Hotel we had a big lunch of delicious steak tacos (four apiece with lots of guacamole, cheese, and black beans) and Modelo and Corona beer. After that we and Susan walked into town to pick up a car and visit the first Spanish mission built in 1697 and the cement boardwalk along the Sea of Cortez. We spent a bit of time in the spa by the hotel pool, had a late dinner of coconut shrimp, beer, and margarita, and went gratefully to bed after Serge wrote these notes.

Saturday 3/19 - Photos
Breakfast at the Santa Fe Hotel: scrambled eggs, sausage, hash browns, chilequiles (tortillas with cheese, onions, and a bit of chile sauce), fresh fruit. Not bad. No bike ride today because they didn't have one small enough for Gloria, so we drove to the Malecon (a concrete boardwalk running along the sea in front of the town) and walked a sort of pedestrian mall to look at craft shops and visit the Mission de Nuestra Seľora de Loreto (Mission of Our Lady of Loreto). This was the very first of the Spanish missions that eventually were founded all the way up to San Francisco. It was built in 1697 at the beginning of Spanish colonization in the New World. The Villa del Palmar Resort anounced its opening today and everyone was supposed to move out of the hotel and be taken to the resort, but given the distance (a 45 minute drive) away from the town and the state of non-readiness we had seen we opted to stay at the hotel and we were allowed to take up residence in a three-bedroom penthouse suite that was very light and airy with great views of the town, the sea, the islands and the mountains. This was seafood night at the hotel, so we had coconut shrimp, beer, and margaritas.

Sunday 3/20 - Photos
This morning we took a "shopping" tour to the local flea market outside of town, riding in a military type of truck with benches in the truck bed fitted out with seat belts and covered by a canvas top.. The market took place in a dry, dusty field and the vendors were set up in a long line of tents with a low canyon wall on side and parking on the other. There were quite a variety of good being sold. All kinds of used tools from the States were set up in tents and on the ground. Serge observed a bargaining session between a local Mexican and a displaced American that finally ended with the American selling a small screwdriver for 2 pesos (about US15ó) There were vendors selling clothing, cosmetics, toys, furniture, and household goods used and new. The real feature was fresh produce from a valley in the mountains. The variety was huge, but very beautiful-looking strawberries, oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, and onions stood out. Snack stands and makeshift restaurants - uniquely Mexican - were most popular with the men, women, and children who crowded the area. One vendor sold corn-on-the-cob which he pulled out of a barrel, pounded onto a stick for carrying, covered with mayonnaise, and decorated with sweet chili sauce. Another peeled fresh mangoes, put them on a stick, and sliced them for easy eating in a pattern that made them look like pine cones. Sweet dates also grow here and Susan bought a date pie for her mother's birthday. We all tried a drink called "Tapeche" from a juice stand that was made from week-long fermented pineapples. Serge thought it tasted as if it had been fermented in old tires. After lunch Serge did some writing while Annabelle worked on a quilt and Gloria, Susan, and Sigrid went shopping on the pedestrian mall and brought back a bottle of vanilla liqueur, Damiana liqueur, a nice Mexican silver bracelet for Sigrid, and silver and amethyst earrings for Susan. Sunday was "Oriental Night" at the restaurant and the food was very good. Serge had miso soup and crab rolls, and Gloria had large tempura shrimp, all washed down with - you guessed it - beer and margaritas.

Monday 3/21 - Photos
This was a day for driving. Someone had told us about some nice beaches about an hour to the north, so Serge drove Susan's rented car. The first challenge was to find our way out of town. Loreto is small, but we discovered right away that the main highway - Highway 1 that comes all the way down from California clear to Cabo San Lucas at the tip of the Baja Peninsula - was being reconstructed around Loreto, so we had to go on a lot of detours and dirt tracks until we reached the good part. The second challenge was a Mexican army drug check 25 km north of town (they were actually very nice to us), and the third challenge was driving on a very narrow, twisty, roller-coaster road through the desert mountains with no guard rails while local drivers wanted to pass us at high speed in no passing zones where signs emphasized that this highway was not built for high speed and drivers and big trucks from the other direction also went at high speed with casual regard for the centerline. Added to that were the occasional cow or goat herd that chose to cross the road right in front of us. After more than 100 km we came across the first white sand beach on a very long and narrow bay, and then more such beaches after that, each with a small number of happy campers. We were headed for the "town" of Mulege which took a lot of faith to finally reach at about 150 km from Loreto. Once there we wondered why we had tried so hard. Although it had a name, it could hardly be called a town. It was more like a bend in the road in the desert close to the sea where various people had decided to randomly put up small buildings for small businesses that seemed to be doing very little business. We stopped at one little roadhouse that didn't feel right and soon after that we were out of the town and headed into the deep desert again. However, we had spotted a sign that said "Hotel Serenidad" (Hotel Serenity), so we turned around and turned onto a dirt road that went in the direction of the sea and finally came to a very rough-looking compound with a hand-painted, crooked sign saying "Office" that pointed to a non-descript building with palm trees showing over the roof. Next to the compound was a 4000 foot dirt runway for small planes that blocked any access to the sea ("No Fuel: Plan Accordingly"). With some misgivings we followed the sign to the office and found ourselves in a delightful oasis of burbling fountains, tall palms, lots of shade, a cool lobby, a traditionally-decorated restaurant, very friendly service, and good food (not memorable, but good). After a leisurely, late lunch we headed back to Loreto without having stepped on a beach. Following dinner, Susan, Serge, and Sigrid played a Hawaiian form of Scrabble called "Hulo!" and Susan won.

Tuesday 3/22 - Photos
On this day Gloria and Serge were the only adventurers. They joined a group to head into the mountains for a cultural tour. The first stop was at a small oasis of palm trees, palo verde, and palo blanco to visit a small cave used by ancient inhabitants of the area and to view rock paintings too old to date. The Indians here when the Spanish arrived were the Guayacura, and these paintings pre-dated them by no one know how much. Unlike later paintings in Baja featuring humanoids and animals in various poses, the more ancient paintings were all geometric, except for one curved image covered in geometric patterns that presumably represents a turtle shell. Serge picked up an odd bit of lava rock containing green crystals not related to olivine. The whole geology of Baja California is odd, consisting of a wild mix of limestone, sandstone, granite and basalt, with mountain tops that look like seamounts mixed with flat plateaus all decorated with sea shells and fossils of sharks, whales, and dolphins. Beyond the paintings the narrow paved road disappeared and was replaced by very rough washboard. After what seemed like a long while we stopped at a local ranchito where the owners graciously showed us how they lived mostly self-sufficient so far away from everything. We stepped out of the very hot sun into the surprisingly cool shade of a home-built "palapa," an open-sided shelter made from local wood and thatched with the fronds of fan palms. We saw their vegetable gardens featuring carrots, dill, onions, and lima beans; their carnations, geraniums, and wild birds kept for color and sound; and their shed where they prepared, tanned, and worked their own leather for saddles, coats, chaps, and quirts. The visit was topped off with the lady of the ranch teaching everyone how to make tortillas and fill them with home-made re-fried beans. Serge ate the one Gloria made and pronounced it exceptionally delicious with far more flavor than store-bought tortillas. Then it was on the road again for another long ride to the Mission of San Javier (Xavier). When the first missionaries sponsored by Spain (who were mostly Italian at the time) landed at Loreto to found the first mission they noticed that the Indian population was fairly small and consisted only of men. As they learned the local language they also leaned that the main population, estimated at 35,000, lived in well-watered valleys deep in the interior. So a second mission was built way up in the mountains. This one was much bigger than the first and made of solid blocks of limestone. It looked like a fortress because it was. Many of the natives rebelled at being treated like slaves. As we turned off the road we came to a small village of whitewashed huts lined up neatly along a wide cobbled street that led to the mission, its tall tower and block-like body standing out against a high ring of mountains. The aroma of blossoming orange trees filled the air, and fruiting trees plus colorful orchid trees and bougainvillea enhanced the stark beauty of the place. The interior was built in a traditional crucifix layout. The main altar, originally gold-plated, featured St. Javier. The left side altar was dedicated to Mary, Mother of Sorrows, and the right altar to St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. Behind the mission, fed by a spring, was an olive orchard. Some of the trees were very old, twisted and knotted like something out of a fantasy. There was also a grape arbor,, with some of the vines dating back to the founding of the mission. This area was not affected by the grape virus that destroyed most of the world's grapevines in the 1930s. After our tour of the area we had a late lunch in a thatched roof restaurant on the cobbled street. Lunch was a bowl of olives, goat cheese, refried beans, cheese quesadilla, beef tacos, hot salsa, and our choice of Pacifico or Tecate beer or water. Dessert was cookies topped with guava paste. After lunch a farmer told us how the olives were dried in the sun for three days to get rid of most of the water, then boiled in water until all the oil rose to the top so it could be scooped off. He showed us how rich in oil these olives were by squeezing a partly dried one over his palm to release about half a teaspoon of oil. Then it was time for the long, dusty, bumpy ride back to Loreto (except for the paved part - everyone cheered and clapped when we came to that). In the evening Susan, Sigrid, Gloria, and Serge took Annabelle to a birthday party at the hotel restaurant. Gloria had a very nice grilled sea bass and Serge had a light meal of spinach salad with breaded brie, dried prosciutto, and sauces made from mango and balsamic vinegar. Susan had asked for a special dessert of some kind for Annabelle and what we got was very special. The kitchen staff came out banging pots and singing "Happy Birthday" as our waiter placed a large ring of baked custard on the table and prepared a flaming liqueur to pour into the center and all over. It was absolutely "delicioso!"

Wednesday 3/23 - Photos
A beautiful morning for a drive, so we drove south of Loreto town five miles to a new development called "Nopolo" on Loreto Bay. We found the entrance without any trouble, but the place is still very much under development, so finding our way to our destination, the Loreto Bay Hotel, was tricky. Past the impressive entrance the road was full of potholes and missing in some places. The first set of signs pointed impressively to the beach area and the hotel area, but the street ended at a big wall. From then on there were no signs. We tried several roads that were dead ends, passing large clusters of colorful townhouse shells waiting to be finished and bought by someone. Eventually we made a lucky turn and arrived at the parking lot of the Loreto Bay Hotel. We followed a long walk into the courtyard area which was very beautiful. Low buildings of browns, yellows, reds, and pinks form a kind of horseshoe that opened up onto the deep blue gulf, and a big crag jutted out at the south end of the beach. The breeze coming off the gulf was cool and the water was cooler, and smelling of seaweed. It would have been possible to get used to the water, but a sign warned of stingrays hiding in the sand and recommended that you scrape your feet through the sand if you were going to walk in the water so as to "avoid surprises." The sun was nice and warm, not overly hot. While we were there the wind picked up and small waves and whitecaps appeared on the sea. After a quiet lunch of guacamole con totopos (chips), quesadillas, nachos, and beer we went back to the Santa Fe Hotel in Loreto. In the evening, by popular demand, Serge read out loud the first chapter of his book-in-progress, "Mongolian Mystery."

Thursday 3/24
Today was a very light day, partly on purpose and partly not. The plan was to visit the Mission museum, but although it was supposed to be open when we went, it was actually closed for some special kind of meeting. Instead, we had lunch at El Cafe de Lolita, which specialized in capuccinos, lattes, and gourmet sandwiches. It was a tiny place off the pedestrian mall. The sandwiches really were special. Gloria had a Sombrerito, sliced beef roast..., and Serge had a Candelero, prosciutto with a blue cheese glaze and mango chutney. Susan and Sigrid also had the Sombrerito, and the bread on each was fresh-baked wheat with walnuts. Unfortunately, the coffee machine had broken down, so Gloria had orange iced tea, Serge had a Negra Modelo (a dark Mexican beer and one of his favorites), Susan had a fresh lemonade with soda water, and Sigrid had mango iced tea. Easing along the pedestrian mall, we wandered into the Hotel Posada de las Flores, a dark pink square block of a building with a thatched roof area on top. Inside it looked like a very old type hacienda, full of Indian and Spanish artifacts. It also had a spa that featured a private rooftop couples massage area next to a pool. The bottom of the pool, by the way, could be seen from the ground floor interior, and the sun shining through it gave a unique lighting effect. Then there was a stop at a Thrifty ice cream shop where Gloria got a good butter pecan cone. Susan and Sigrid ordered lattes, but suddenly their coffee machine broke down, too. Perhaps that has a cosmic meaning, but it doesn't matter, because we stopped at a supermarket on the way back from the hotel and bought our own coffee to make in our kitchen. We bought Chiapas - considered to be the very best - and Coaltepec and Oaxaca Puma, both considered very good. Good Mexican coffee is known for being light and smooth, and ours was.

Friday 3/25
Another light day.We gradually got our act together and had lunch again at El Cafe de Lolita on the plaza downtown and then visited the Mission museum. The displays were set up in various rooms of the mission that all faced a central courtyard where fruit trees were growing; mango, pomegranate, citrus, and others. The first display was about the Indians who were here, with a full-size figure of a Guayacura woman. Of an estimated 50,000 total Indian population when the missionaries arrived, almost none survived European diseases and treatment by the 1800s. These Indians were hunter-gatherers with no farming, no pottery, and no clothes to speak of.before the missionaries changed their lives in every way. The other displays were about the missionaries and the development of the missions throughout upper and lower California. None of the California missions were ever self-sufficient and were dependent on supplies and support from the Mexican mainland. Between 17 and 29 missions were established in Baja California, and 21 in what became the US State of California. In the mission courtyard was an interesting wood and leather device run by mule power for making molasses and sugar. First the juice was extracted, then it was boiled, and then it was poured into molds the size of cupcakes. When we were done with the museum, the ladies went shopping and discovered a very traditional shop jammed full of Mexican art and handicrafts right across from the museum. We spent a pleasant evening playing poker and Serge read another chapter from his new book.

Saturday 3/26
It was a beautiful morning for an adventure, so Sigrid, Gloria, and Serge went on one. We arranged to go on a whale-watching tour with the Groupo Ecologista Antares whose office and dusty little marine museum was in downtown Loreto. Actually, it turned out to be more of a whale-hunting tour, since we had to go looking for them, rather than go where they were and watch them. The three of us went out with pilot Luiz in a small motoboat that had four chairs and a viewing platform above the prow and a higher searching platform behind that. We left the Loreto Marina shortly after 8 am and headed south., looking for telltale signs of anything. Off the coast of Nopolo, a new development about five miles south of Loreto, we encountered a large pod of very active dolphins. These were called "Common Dolphins," They were fairly small, black on top with white stripes below. They were fast swimmers, but they never did leap very high. Only the very young ones cleared the water. From there we went further south toward Descante Island and saw a small pod of Bryde's Whales. These are relatively slim baleen-type whales (they have bony sieves instead of teeth to strain tiny organisms from the sea for feeding) about 40-50 feet long. They didn't let us get very close before diving apparently very deep, because they didn't come up while we waited. So we went toward the gap between Danzante Island, off Puerto Escondido, and Carmen Island, a very long island angling southwest-northeast a few miles off the coast. Before entering the gap we sighted a pod of four or five humpback whales, the same kind that come to Hawaii every year. These are also baleen-type whales up to 50 feet long, broader than Brydes with long side fins and a very pronounced way of humping their back just before diving deep. We noticed a curious thing about their diving. Just after a dive there would be a large circle of smooth water at that point that lasted quite a while before dissipating. None of them felt like breaching or "eye-hopping" (when they lift their head straight up out of the water apparently to look around), but we watched them rising, swimming, and diving for a long time before moving on. This time we went through the gap between the islands out into the open sea between Carmen, Danzante, and the island of Montserrat and motored around there looking for anything for a very long time. Apart from one sea lion and what might possibly have been a brief sighting of pygmy Brydes, we had no luck. Nothing. Nada. "A'ole. Zilch. The different wave patterns were sort of interesting, but that was all there was to look at. Finally, without telling anyone, Serge decided to sing to the whales or anything else available. For at least an hour he sang love songs with all his heart, but nothing responded except a single shark, briefly, and a green turtle, also briefly. As we were turning back north, however, a fairly large pod of finback whales erupted from the sea without any warning. Finbacks (also called "Fin Whales") are the second largest living animal on the planet after blue whales. Long and slender baleens, they can grow to 88 feet, and they are endangered. They rose and swam and dived and led us on a merry chase by coming up in surprising directions, as if they were playing with us. We had a good time with the finbacks for quite a while until it was time for us to head back to port. Serge decided to continue standing on the viewing platform as Luiz pushed the throttle to the max and off we went pounding through the choppy waves and swells for an hour and a half, sometimes meeting the swells head on and somtimes quartering them. Serge was holding on tight and bending his knees to adapt to the rising and falling and twisting and pounding of the boat. He said afterward that it was a thrilling ride, and felt a lot like skiing moguls - a whole lot of sometimes very large moguls. When we got to the port and tied up at the dock, Serge stepped off and onto the dock okay, but when he tried to walk his legs wouldn't move and he fell over like a tree onto the concrete dock. He wasn't even scratched, though, and he soon recovered. Back at the hotel we all finished the evening with Crazy Eights, poker, and a German game introduced by Sigrid.

Sunday 3/27
Today's big activity was a late lunch at Papagallo Cantando - "The Singing Parrot - a very atmospheric open-air restaurant just off the main square of Loreto. It was inside a compound with a lush tropical garden and a sparkling fountain. There were lots and lots of hand-made Mexican art, both practical and exotic. In the background was traditional mariachi music and the walls of the buildings displayed both paintings and painted pottery. Serge had his favorite Negra Modelo to drink and the others had unsweetened lemonade with sparkling water. The waiter served a complimentary bean and cheese burrito that was delicious. For lunch Gloria and Serge had barbequed "babyback" pork ribs freshly grilled on the outdoor grill in the garden, Sigrid and Annabelle had "Texas' double hamburgers, and Susan had a chile relleno stuffed with black beans, cheese, and baked banana. No one had room for dessert.

Monday 3/28
The laziest day ever, mostly reading and writing. A brief jaunt to the supermarket and the harbor. Serge did well at poker. A chapter reading and then to bed.

Tuesday 3/29
Another adventure day! This time Susan, Gloria, and Serge left at 9:30 am for the Loreto Marina to board a boat - "El Manananero" (The One Who Waits For Tomorrow) - for a ride across the bay to Coronado Island. Their captain was Gilberto and our boat was of a type called a "panga," small, narrow and open with an outboard motor. The Bay of Loreto was like a lake as we made the crossing, stopping only to say hello to a sleeping turtle. The Gulf of California only has a few volcanic islands and Coronado is the most southerly. From a distance it looks like a simple cone, but as they approached the eastern side they could see very wild lava formations extending into the sea. Up close it looked very much like parts of the island had formed underwater. They passed seveal headlands and then came to an active and noisy sea lion rookery. While some of the sea lions stayed on the rocks, others stayed in the sea, loudly protesting if they got to close. It was hard to tell, but there might have been as many as fifty, including one very big bull. As they came around one last headland they arrived at some pristine white coral sand beaches and dunes. Close to shore the water changed from turquoise to sea green. They beached the boat, hopped onto the sand, and took over a small palapa. It was so wonderfully quiet and peaceful. Only thing was, the water was so cool that none of them wanted to swim. After a walk and a very small lunch Susan and Serge hiked a trail leading to the top of the mountain. At the trailhead there was a sign saying that the hike was divided into three stages. Stage One was across the dunes through various types of desert plants and the way was marked by lines of stones. Scattered lava rocks in this area were small and rounded, as if waterworn. This part was hot, but fairly easy in hiking sandals. Stage Two started at the base of a ridge of loose volcanic rocks of many sizes, types, shapes and colors on top of very old coral and shell deposits and went on to follow the ridgeline until it reached the base of the main mountain. The faint trail was marked by occasional piles of rocks, the same way that trails across lava flows are marked in Hawaii. The trail was hot, in some parts quite steep, and the vegetation began to include cactus. They actually crossed several small ridges before coming to the main one. By that time they could hear the noise of the sea lion rookery from a long way off, and they had a beautiful view of the little bay of beaches and the coastal mountains of Baja. Stage Three was supposed to begin at the base of the mountain and be a very steep trail straight to the top. However, Susan and Serge decided that the part of State Two they had done was quite enough. And besides, they didn't want to leave Gloria alone too long. The way back on Stage Two was dangerous because of the steepness and the loose rocks, so they had to do it with great care. Till now the air had been hot and still, but on arriving at the beach a substantial breeze had picked up, so after a short rest they all decided to return. It had taken an hour to reach the beach by way of the rookery, but Gilberto took the shorter western way back, so they were at the Marina in half an hour. A quiet evening ended with more readings from Mongolian Mystery.

Wednesday 3/30
Today the whole gang drove out to the Villa del Palmar Resort which opened a few days after our arrival, although we stayed in Loreto. We wanted to see how far it had advanced from our first visit. Actually, it had advanced quite a bit. The road to it was better, It looked a lot better, it was a lot more quiet, entertainment was being provided, and two restaurants were open. So we had lunch at an Italian restaurant called "The Market," with food provided by Chef Roberto. Annabelle had shrimp and fresh-made multi-colored fettucine, Sigrid had another pasta dish, and Gloria, Serge, and Susan all had grilled beef filet topped with very tasty chopped portobello mushrooms, roasted potatoes, and roasted red and green bell peppers. All of it was absolutely delicious. Annabelle had New York cheesecake for dessert, which was good, and Susan had cannoli - tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough filled with a special cream and flavored with orange zest. She shared them with everyone and they were to die for. The chef came to our table to see how we liked our meal and was very pleased at our high praise. We drove back to Loreto, turned in the car, and had a quiet time until dinner, which we had brought up to the room along with our usual margaritas and pina coladas. The featured dish was chicken parmesan, which the hotel chef has consistently arranged to produce the most moist and tasty chicken breast any of us has ever tasted (but he won't give away his secret, even to his sister). We finished the evening with card games and with Serge reading another chapter from his book. Tomorrow we are all homeward bound.

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