Impressions of Baja

Posted: Friday, February 25, 2011

On a recent visit to the Mexican state of Baja California Sur, the southern part of the Baja California Peninsula, I couldn't help but notice the scarcity of tourists. My friend Rod Arno and I were often the only gringos in sight.

People have heard so much about battles between Mexican drug cartels, and about shootouts between the cartels and the military or police, they're staying out of Mexico in droves. Since I came home to Alaska, everyone I've told about my trip has commented on how dangerous it must have been. A few of the comments: "I heard 35,000 people have been killed in the drug wars." "They're killing all the cops and soldiers down there." "Sounds like a good place to get kidnapped."

Rod and I didn't go looking for trouble, and none found us. The Mexican people were friendly and courteous. We never felt threatened or in danger. On a road trip, we had to stop at two different military checkpoints, but the troops were polite, efficient and didn't make me nervous.

It's a fact that there has been a lot of drug-related violence in Mexico, but almost all of it has been in the northern border region, mainly in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, and in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, Calif.. Due to the economic importance of tourism and Americans living in Baja, the Mexican government seems to have taken some measures to make Baja a safe place.

I hadn't been in Mexico since the late 1950s. Back then, I was shocked by the number of people living in poverty. From what I saw on this trip, poverty remains a serious issue. When I see so many people living in primitive, unsanitary conditions, I'm not surprised that they will do anything to get into the United States. Our poverty looks good to them.

While on a road trip to see cave paintings in the mountains, we stayed overnight in San Ignacio. At this town of some 4,000 residents, a spring flows from the desert. The plaza in the this date-palm oasis, with its nearby eighteenth-century mission, is a choice spot for sitting in the shade and enjoying a fish taco and cerveza.

While in San Ignacio, I asked a lady where the town's electricity was generated. A geothermal plant, she said. I later learned that we had driven right past this power source, The Tres Virgenes complex of volcanoes, which lies north of the road between San Ignacio and Santa Rosalia. Like Alaska, Mexico is pocked with volcanoes.

Due to windy weather and underwhelming fishing reports, I didn't fish in Mexico. I did, however, eat lots of fish, a large part of the local diet. I made ceviche with fresh rockfish, marinating it in the delicious juice of Key limes from a local market.

I'd always wondered how to pronounce ceviche correctly, so while at San Ignacio Lagoon on our whale-watching trip, I asked our guide, Carlos, to say it.

"It's pronounced seh-vee-cheh," he said, "but be careful. If you say it wrong, it sounds like a word that means, 'Take off all your clothes.'"

Later -- much later -- I caught on that Carlos had been having a little fun with the gringos, but I'm fairly certain he was right about the pronunciation.

While on our road trip, I saw goats, mules, cattle and horses, many of which were on or beside the road. Deer, sheep and antelope are said to inhabit Baja, but I saw none.

Baja has no shortage of birds. While out walking, I saw gulls, ravens, herons, egrets, pelicans, ospreys, cormorants, turkey vultures and frigatebirds. I also saw my first road runner. When I walked toward it, it ran as if Wile E. Coyote were right behind, but I was disappointed that it didn't go, "Beep, Beep."

Would I go to Baja again?

Probably not. There are so many other places to see, and so little time.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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