Vacation Diary: A Trip to the Baja
Warning that this is a really long blog post! I wrote it mainly to help myself process and describe our time away in Mexico. I don’t expect anyone else to get through the whole thing, but if you do, I hope you enjoy.
We planned this vacation over two and a half years ago, in November 2011, when we found the deal through Eversave online. Looking back, it was probably not our wisest purchase. I was in my first trimester of pregnancy with Elanor, feeling nauseous and depressed, and not at the point of making wisest decisions. We were about to move, everything in our lives seemed up in the air, and for some reason we decided to buy a voucher for a week’s vacation to a destination we didn’t know much about.
Our plan was to get away before Elanor arrived, but with moving and everything, it never happened. Elanor was our baby for a year, and then our foster baby arrived. Getting away just the two of us even for an overnight was always out of the question, and finally we got to this summer when our voucher was about to expire, and it was use it or lose it.
We did get an amazing deal. What we didn’t entirely realize was that once you add two airplane flights, a passport renewal, a rental car, etc., etc., the vacation was going to cost a little more than we planned. And to be honest, I felt funny taking a vacation I decided on two and a half years ago. I think I was more adventurous then and more willing to take risks, at least in my approach to vacations. Now my whole life feels like a risk, and when I think about vacations, I’m thinking safe, secure, known, comfortable, not an unknown destination in Mexico …? But we bought the voucher, so here we go.
Monday, June 9
We spend the night at my family’s, since that’s where David and Elanor are staying, and my alarm goes off at 3:30 a.m. We leave for the airport at 4, arrive at 4:30, and take off without a hitch at 6:00. We have a 3-hour layover in Houston, Texas, where we buy Starbucks, make a last call home, and eat lunch at what is really the time for breakfast.
We get in our plane to leave and, no kidding, spend 3 hours idling outside the airport. The people in the back are about to mutiny, and everyone feels claustrophobic and grouchy. This is the one flight where Ben and I aren’t sitting together, and it is really no fun. I finish the novel I started that morning, read through an entire issue of Christianity Today, start a marriage book, read through the flight magazine, and think through a blog post I may someday write all before our plane even takes off.
We land at Cabo in Baja California Sur, which is one of the least populated and safest states in Mexico. It’s on the very west side of Mexico, on that little peninsula that stretches down, at the very southern tip. It isn’t until I get off the plane, motion sick and grouchy and exhausted after sitting in the same place for who knows how long, that I realize we came to a desert. The sun is baking tall brown mountains and rocky soil marked only by cactus and gray shrubs. We wait in line for a long time to get our passports stamped, the computers temporarily go down, and the Mexican officials chat happily and tell us they will be up and running soon. Which thankfully they are.
Going through customs is no big deal—no on even checks our bags, much less copies the hard drive of my laptop which I’d worried about. We take a shuttle to the rental car agency, wait a long time again for the car, and then get directions which sound very confusing despite the man’s assurances that it would be impossible to get lost.
We pull out of the parking lot and immediately disagree on whether we are supposed to turn right or left. At this point we’ve been traveling for about fifteen hours with not much to eat and neither of us are in the best mood. We back up and get directions again—it turns out that apparently it makes little difference whether we turn right or left—so we opt on left and get out of there.
I am driving this time while Ben navigates. The speed limit is in kilometers per hour, which throws me a little bit, as does the fact that Mexican drivers see no problem with honking loudly and passing me even though I am rounding a corner with a solid yellow line and going about 20 km/hr over the posted speed limit already. It isn’t uncommon for the speed limit to change from 90 km/hr to 60 to 40 back to 90 all within a very short distance and for no apparent reason. The other drivers seem content to cheerfully ignore the speed limit, as well as stop signs, though many intersections don’t have them and it seems just assumed that some will stop and some will go (or at least that we will all get through the intersection without hitting each other). Usually at those intersections I stop to avoid what seems like an impending accident, only to have everyone stare at me like I am nuts and honk loudly behind me.
We stop at Costco, and walking in feels so surreal. The layout is almost exactly like the Costco at home, most of the food is the same, and I half expect to meet a family from church in one of the aisles. We buy food for the two of us for the week, and fortunately there are tasters everywhere that basically becomes our dinner. Paying in pesos is a little disconcerting. For instance, our Costco bill comes to something like $1,800.00, but that’s in pesos so it’s okay, right? I hope so.
We try to find our way out of Cabo to the highway that is supposed to take us to our destination. It is supposed to be easy to find, but of course it isn’t, and our GPS takes several long minutes to kick into gear. So we get a rather roundabout tour of Cabo. The side streets are dirt roads, some badly eroded. There are speed bumps everywhere.
Finally we get out of Cabo to drive toward Todos Santos. Baja California Sur is a tiny peninsula, so after rounding the bottom corner, we drive north with beach on our left and desert on our right. It’s amazing how uninhabited the place is. It is a Monday evening during what might have been rush hour, but in driving for about an hour, we pass a few trucks, and that is it. Fortunately we have no trouble finding our destination, and bump down a dirt driveway for what seems like a mile, until we get there.
Tuesday, June 10
It’s a 3-hour time change from home and we’re not used to it, so the sun coming in the window wakes me up around 5:30 in the morning. Our villa isn’t air conditioned, but with high ceilings, fans, and sea breezes, it is surprisingly comfortable. It’s also surprisingly spacious. We have a family room that could comfortably seat six people, a kitchenette with a full fridge and stove, a bathroom about four times as big as our bathroom at home, and a very large bedroom.
It certainly isn’t a five star hotel, though. The screen is rickety, one of the light bulbs is out, there is a little sand in the bed, and there is no shower curtain and the water sprays out into the bathroom.
Still, I love it. It is so relaxing and rural and quiet. I step out on our patio and see the gorgeous blue-green water, and all the time day or night we can hear the rhythmic waves. The beach has always seemed relaxing to me, but I’ve never gotten to live so close to it.
Before the day gets hot, we walk up the beach to the hotel on the bluff, which seems like a beautiful historic mission with an eclectic mix of Catholic and Aztec art. The beautiful courtyard is filled with all kinds of flowers and palm trees. Apparently from January to April, it is a prime whale watching spot. We are a little disappointed to learn afterwards that the hotel is only six years old.
After a couple hours, we drive into the little town of Todos Santos, where the downtown streets are filled with art galleries and people trying to sell us jewelry and other local handcrafted items. We buy a couple things and even barter a bit. Then we hit a local grocery store which only sells produce and eggs. The produce is a disappointment, and the eggs are sitting out at room temperature in flats of 30, with feathers still sticking to them.
We stop at Baja Beans, where the coffee is some of best I’ve ever tasted. The coffee shop is at the end of another long, bumpy dirt driveway just beside a field of jalapenos. The courtyard where you can sit and eat is huge, and Ben is impressed by the various pomegranate and mango trees.
We get back to our villa, watch the Avengers that afternoon (this is our chance to catch up on all those movies we missed in the theaters), and walk along the beach in the cool of the evening. After wine and pizza in our villa complements of Costco, we end up falling asleep shortly after 8:00, and the wonderful thing about being away from kids is that whenever we are tired, we can just sleep.
Wednesday, June 11
It is amazing to wake up at 6:00 and feel so well rested. Today is all about rest and relaxation. Coffee and reading on the couch in the villa while the sun comes up, Bible time beside the pool, walk along the beach before it gets hot.
When the sun is overhead, we lay out a little reading. I’m beginning The Promise by Ann Weisgarber and so far it’s fascinating. We put sunscreen on, play in the waves, get in the pool, and lie out. For the afternoon we come inside to watch Saving Mr. Banks. I like it but not as much as I thought I would—too many unanswered questions, and the idea of using art to get the happy ending you missed in real life is a bit unsettling to me.
That evening we drive back toward Todos Santos, take a few tries to find an ATM, and eat at El Gusto, the nicest restaurant in town. We drive up a bumpy dirt road up the mountain and discover the restaurant on what is like a rooftop, shaded and overlooking the beach. So far I haven’t missed air conditioning here at all. Everything is open to the outdoors, and shade and sea breezes keep everything cool enough.
We order a portabella salad, tortilla soup, and grilled tuna, with chocolate mousse for dessert. At dusk the sky fills with bats and birds hunting for insects. It’s exquisitely beautiful and serene up there, looking out at the ocean and hearing the Spanish music.
It’s clear that we got more sun yesterday than we thought. We’re pink and sore enough to want to lay low all day today. I want to avoid the sun, but in the shade I’m actually too cold. After reading a marriage book together for awhile, we slather on more sunscreen this time and go out to lunch at a beautiful restaurant just minutes away.
Once again, it is completely outdoors under a shade made from palm branches. We sit in the middle of a vast garden where the food we’re eating has been harvested just that morning. Sipping hibiscus tea makes me cold again, so we explore the garden again in the sunlight to warm up. We have a delicious arugula beet salad, a cold zucchini/leek/cilantro cream soup which is actually amazing, and chicken enchiladas, with a banana strawberry cheesecake for dessert that is more like a baked custard. Everything is delicious and incredibly fresh. The restaurant seems family-owned and we get to watch them working in the open kitchen and heating up their brick oven to prepare for pizzas for dinner that night.
I love how outdoors everything is here. Since we left the airport, I’ve never felt completely indoors. The sea breezes find you everywhere. We might step into a room where there is no door, simply an arched opening, and the next room is a courtyard open to the sun and filled with exotic plants. It’s amazing to see the effort people have taken to bring cultivation and beauty to the desert. It reminds me of the verses I memorized in Jeremiah that when we don’t trust in the Lord, we are like a barren desert that sees nothing good, but with the Lord, our roots dig deep to find water and we become cultivated and fruitful and green. Seeing the desert here with the rocky soil, the cacti, and the thorny gray underbrush, I would give up on this land as good for nothing. But those who take the time to work it have made beautiful resorts and gardens. I hear also that just a little bit of rain, though it happens rarely, can immediately transform this place—as if everything is waiting for just the slightest bit of water to burst into bloom.
This afternoon we watch Philomena, which I think is my favorite movie we have watched here yet, a fascinating story of a forced adoption and a mother’s search for her biological son, with the humorous comparison of a friendly Catholic old lady with an cynical journalist.
As the evenings gets cooler, we walk along the beach, get in the waves, and then warm up in the pool. I’m nearing the climax in my novel The Promise but I make myself stop to get to bed at a decent time, and there will be plenty of time to read tomorrow.
Friday, June 13
Every morning we are sleeping in a little later—this morning it’s 8:00 when I get up to make my coffee and have my Bible time. I missed a yoga class on the beach on Tuesday and am hopeful they might have one today. But the office says they don’t know when the yoga instructor does her classes and I don’t see anyone on the beach. It’s interesting to be in a culture that is not as highly organized as we are in the states. So much seems to happen spontaneously, as the wind blows. For instance, what’s on the menu at a restaurant may not reflect what they are actually serving, but whatever they do have is delicious. I’m not that great at taking things as they come, but it’s easier to be that way on vacation.
This morning I see a mother and her young child on the beach, and I’m struck both by how I’m starting to miss our kids, and also how I feel worlds away from being a responsible parent, like I’ve almost forgotten what it feels like to have 3 little people constantly depending on me. I’ve never been this far away from any of the kids for this long, and though I love it, I am beginning to look forward to going home and I hope the adjustment isn’t too much of a shock.
We walk the beach instead of doing yoga. Ben makes a berry smoothie, scrambled eggs, and refried beans in our kitchenette before we head out to Baja Beans again to enjoy their delicious coffee and read together. I finish The Promise which ends up being surprisingly tragic. Still an interesting read, though. In the afternoon we watch The Book Thief, so artistic and such a poignant depiction of the German people during WWII.
That evening it’s hard to believe that this is our last day of relaxation here. I don’t think I’ve ever relaxed quite so much and it’s wonderful not to feel guilty about it, to know that at home I’ve been so busy and often stressed and for a few days I can just let all that go. It is delightful just to do nothing—to read, watch a movie, eat good food, enjoy the outdoors, and sleep. Maybe that means I’m getting old and boring, but I’ve deeply enjoyed these quiet days.
Saturday, June 14
Today is Ben’s idea, and it’s a little bit of a splurge for us, that has me both nervous and excited—driving about 90 minutes to La Paz, the capital city of Baja California Sur, to snorkel with sea lions.
We set our alarms for 5:45—no more sleeping in—and after a quick breakfast of scrambled eggs, refried beans, and blueberry smoothie, we leave for La Paz. At first the drive is fairly easy—just follow the long stretch of highway through the desert. As we get closer to La Paz it gets more complicated. Our GPS actually hasn’t been too helpful here since it’s difficult to enter the addresses for specific places. It does, however, help us to navigate the busy city of La Paz, with its busy intersections that are simply 4-way stops where no one ever seems to quite completely stop.
Thankfully we find our location, Costa Baja, right on the beach. The water here is calmer, since this is not the Pacific Ocean but the Sea of Cortez. We get our snorkeling gear. I am feeling more out of my element by the minute. Part of our group are experienced scuba divers, and in contrast I feel self-conscious and stupid. But a few others have never snorkeled before, and one woman is scared of the water and is planning to stay in the boat and watch.
We leave by boat around 8:30, and it takes about 90 minutes of boat ride to get to our destination, El Spiritu Island. On the boat ride we are served bottled water, soda, fresh fruit, and cookies. The family of experienced divers are actually very friendly and tell us all about their various vacation experiences. We sit up in the front of the boat and watch the view. We are skimming through green water past a variety of desert islands.
Finally we arrive at the island where the sea lions are. Our guide launches into an explanation of how deep the water is, how to avoid being attacked by the alpha males, and not to worry if a sea lion bites you, because it feels like you are only being bit by a puppy, or maybe a very large puppy. Does anyone want a life jacket?
I am trying to control my nervousness as I put on my snorkeling mask, life jacket, and flippers that make it hilariously awkward to walk across the boat to where we jump off. I went skydiving when I was in college. That was before I had kids. Now I’m trying to persuade myself that snorkeling with sea lions is safe.
It turns out to be an amazing experience. The water is a little cold and we don’t have wet suits, but we get used to it quickly. Swimming with a life jacket and flippers is incredibly easy. With my snorkeling mask, it’s fun to put my face in the water and beneath me looks like a scene from Finding Nemo. We see a huge variety of colorful fish and coral.
We swim through an arch in the rocky island to where the sea lions are. They are not playful today, which disappoints our instructor a little as she describes how she’s had about five of them on her before, but I can’t say I mind. After being in the water for about 45 minutes, swimming around and looking at the sights, we head back to the boat.
Our next stop is to a quiet island, and this turns out to be my favorite part of our day. We stop at what truly is a pristine beach—one of those places that you think only a few people in the world have ever seen. The water is as clear as a swimming pool, and bright aquamarine color. The beach is incredibly gentle, with no waves. There are two small bathroom tents, camping tents for those who stay overnight—I want to!!, and a shade with picnic tables where we eat our lunch. I expected our choice of cold wrap sandwiches or something like that, but instead we are deserved delicious hot soup, followed by fish with a cream sauce and bacon and shrimp, with salad and bread. Ben and I take a kayak out in the water, and I lie down to take a nap.
I think this is one of my favorite places where I have ever been, so detached from the stress and hurry of the world. It amazes me to think of God not only creating these beautiful places, but knowing them all intimately, even those places where no human being has ever been. This beautiful remote desert island is like a gift that few people ever experience. It’s so far outside my normal life, and makes me grateful that Ben insisted on splurging a little and going snorkeling with sea lions. A picture doesn’t do it justice. In person it gives you a sense of awe.
Eventually we take the boat back to La Paz, another 90 minute trip. Ben takes a nap, while I drink a Pepsi, another thing I hardly ever do but I’m getting tired, and look out at the waves in the wind and think about our kids and our foster baby.
When we get back to La Paz, we decide to walk the Melacon, a boardwalk right beside the beach. It’s nice to walk in a Mexican city where there are fewer tourists and we’re surrounded by the normal population. It’s hotter here than it is where we are staying. A hot air balloon show is going on, and we get to watch the balloons being filled up. We purchase a few necklaces at an open air market, and we get ice cream. Considering we know hardly any Spanish and the server speaks no English, we do pretty well. We stop at a little convenience store to buy bottled water and then head back to Cerritos.
By the time we get back it is late and I’m so tired. I don’t want to leave tomorrow!
Sunday, June 15
For some reason I wake up at 4:30 in the morning. This is the first time I’ve had insomnia on this trip. I lie in bed for awhile thinking about the 3-hour time change and how at home we would normally be awake and getting ready for church. I’m a little overwhelmed about getting home basically in the middle of the night tonight, and jumping into a Monday morning.
Eventually I get out of bed and step out on our patio. The sun is beginning to rise behind me, but above the beach toward the west, there is a full moon. It’s another idyllic moment that makes me want to freeze time. I read the Bible, and at 7:00 decide to wake up Ben.
We go for our last walk on the beach and then start packing. The power blinked once during our stay, but now it goes off for at least an hour, with no water either. That puts a bit of a damper on our breakfast preparations. We’ve just about decided to finish up our packing early and go to the coffee shop when the water and power come back on.
It’s the hottest day yet that we have been here, more humid with little breeze. It makes me a little bit more ready to leave. We check out and start driving back toward Cabo. We decide to get gas on the way and we both remember a gas station along the highway. Apparently we remembered it sooner than it actually was. We drive mile after mile of baking hot desert watching our gas tank reach nearly empty. I am incredibly nervous that we will run out of gas on the way to the airport and be stranded on the side of the road, two American tourists in the middle of nowhere who can’t speak Spanish and who are going to miss their flight.
Ben, never the one to be nervous, prays aloud that we will find a gas station in time. I don’t pray aloud because my prayer would be more like a Piglet “Help! Help!” Fortunately right as we reach empty we find a gas station. There is a gas station attendant who helps us get our gas. Then we drive the rest of the way toward Cabo.
Drivers are crazy here. We are on a toll road going about 30 km above the speed limit (like most other cars) when we are passed as if we were standing still by a car that almost has a head-on collision in front of us. So scary. I have never seen such a near car accident at such high speed. Thankfully we make it safely back to return our rental car, then to the airport, ready to catch our flight home.
Looking back this has been my best vacation ever. I know we can’t make a regular habit out of this kind of thing, but it has been so wonderful to get away. I can see looking back especially over the past year how our marriage can suffer just from the stresses of daily life. It’s easy to begin operating like two disgruntled coworkers, parents bending under the pressures of three young children, busy work schedules, home projects, family relationships. At home right now our fridge needs repairing again and our deck is in the middle of being refinished. We’ll get home tomorrow and Ben will be slammed with work for an upcoming deadline, and I’ll be trying to care for three kids, a foster care case, grocery shopping, and laundry.
It’s easy in the whirlwind to lose touch with each other, literally and figuratively. The thing to remember, though, is that if I weren’t married to Ben, I wouldn’t have any of this crazy life that can now keep me away from him. It’s good to get away and remind ourselves that our marriage should be central. (Christ is the center, but I think our marriage should be central, if that makes sense.) We need to take the time to keep a strong marriage at the center of all the whirling pressures. We’ve had good conversations while we’ve been away, have read some good books, and have goals coming back. Now I just hope that in the craziness of the next few weeks/months/years I can stop and remember what it feels like to be at a magical beach with the one I love, when all the distractions melt away and I remember what is really important in life.