The People's Guide To Mexico

Carl's Journal
The Best of Mexico

by Carl Franz

San Carlos Bay, Sonora

Spring 1999
San Carlos Bay
Sonora, Mexico

Dear Friends,

I’m sitting in our apartment overlooking San Carlos Bay, listening to jazz and enjoying a more-or-less work free day. I’ve just emailed two web review articles to Yahoo Internet Life on biking and GPS units. One of the (dis)advantages of the internet is that wherever we go... work now follows us. In fact, doing these articles while traveling has been a good rationalization to buy some comfort, hence the splendid digs, complete with maid service and 2 drivel-filled cable television channels.

Lorena is off to an early Monday art class, and I’m planning an afternoon hike into the desert. San Carlos has seen some changes since our first visit some centuries ago, but then what place hasn’t? The good news is that it is still an outrageously beautiful coast, with many empty beaches and countless places to free camp. I’ve even found good campsites between the big hotels and a couple of prime beach front lots available for immediate squatting.

Should you pass by here and want to camp off-the-beaten-track, I highly recommend an uninhabited spot called “La Palapa”. Go north beyond Club Med until the pavement ends. Follow dirt roads for a few dusty miles (you’ll pass a couple of village-like fish camps) until you see a crude sign for La Palapa. If you miss it, you’ll dead-end at a major locked gate. If the latter, just backtrack to the first passable road that heads toward the beach. Go west about a quarter of a mile or so until you see the remains of La Palapa’s foundation on a low bluff overlooking the sea. This is a five star camp site, with fishing, hiking, a small beach and big sunsets. Better get there soon, however, as the fresh survey markers indicate imminent “improvements”.

As for “downtown” San Carlos... just a few minutes ago I was hiking down the beach, coming back from my “office” in the internet cafe, when I was hailed by a couple of young Mexicans from Michoacan. “Where is everybody?” they asked, clearly bewildered by the deserted beach. I explained that in almost two weeks we’ve seen no one swimming or fishing here, and only a few hardy early morning souls walking on the beach. They seemed to think I was joking. “But... where are the people?” The culture shock was obvious, so I told them all of the gringos were probably holed up in their houses, RVs and condos, watching cable. The livelier ones were out in their boats or down at the Internet Cafe, pounding out emails. “This place is dead for young people,” I said. “You better go back south, to Los Mochis or one of the big resorts.”

“This isn’t like Acapulco!” one of the boys muttered bitterly. When last seen, they were wandering up and down the beach, tossing pebbles and waiting for the crowds to arrive.

To backtrack a little, Lorena and I left our cabin in the Pacific NorthWet in early February, in the midst of yet another hellacious rainstorm. It got much worse in Oregon, where we fought hurricane-like conditions on I-5 all the way into northern California. Our first break came at Lorena’s mother’s place in beautiful Yuba City, where the sun made a tentative appearance and the temperature dropped below freezing. We laid over there for two days, purging the van of some excess camping gear -- one of the hazards of a long-delayed departure is that we were more than normally over-equipped. Also, it appears that VW vans do in fact shrink when left out in the cold rain, as ours is considerably smaller now than when we bought it.

The sun came out in full force by the time we reached San Diego, so we borrowed Lorena’s brother’s tools and driveway to make some last-minute modifications to the van. We mounted snaps to the rear door for a mosquito screen, put a compass on the dash, handles on the rooftop luggage carrier, and so forth. Finally, we visited Trader Joe’s for last-minute supplies.

Have you discovered Trader Joe’s? If not, put it high on your list -- we found stores in southern California and Tucson. It is a hybrid of discount deli and high-end (but also discounted) supermarket. Great prices on frozen shrimp, olive oil, chocolate, coffee, crackers, cheeses and other delicious comestibles that cost an arm+leg in Mexico.

Goodies in hand, we went from Doug & Martha’s to Hwy 10, turned due east and put the pedal to the metal. Well, it’s a VW van so we actually chugged slowly over El Cajon Pass in third gear, munching tortilla chips and listening to NPR.

That night we bivouacked beside Interstate 8 in a windswept widespot, huddled between a semi trailer and a massive RV. After doing the slow West Coast family tour, however, this seemed like our first night of genuine open road travel, and it felt good. In the morning our new Primus stove quickly turned out a pot of tea and a delicious tofu fry-up, then away we went.

Coming into Tucson I suddenly realized that J. and W. live near there, and being winter and less than 110 degrees, they were probably at home instead of cooling their heels in Mexico. We took the first exit, called for directions, and were at their place by late afternoon.

J. had told us -- in typical, self-deprecating fashion -- that she and W. live in a couple of rundown trailers somewhere out in the desert. I was expecting Tobacco Road with cactus, tin cans and old, discarded tires. As it turned out, they do live at the end of a narrow, heavily rutted road, but instead of “Rancho Redneck” we found ourselves in a beautiful grove of saguaro and mesquite, just a stone’s throw from a major wilderness area. The property is on the western slope of a low mountain, with a fine view of the sunset and western desert valleys. The dry climate and big sky enhance a strong sense of openness, yet there is enough vegetation to create a pleasant feeling of isolation and privacy. Compared to the claustrophic darkness and interminable, huddling clouds that make cabin life in Washington State such a challenge, it seemed almost perfectly balanced between rustic and civilized. From our rain-soaked perspective, they’ve got a great place.

As they walked walked us around the property , J. and W. described their unique living arrangement.

First of all, their trailers are not crackerbox “mobile homes” of formica and chipboard but classic American highway yachts from the early Fifties, crafted with aircraft grade aluminum and all-wood interiors. Thanks to the dry desert wind and immaculate housekeeping, both trailers shine inside and out. “We really live outside,” J. explained. “We go in at night and for privacy, to read, or to get out of the wind.” She has removed some of her trailer’s original partitioning to create a more open living space, and added a 3/4 size propane refrigerator. J.’s trailer is not plumbed to their well (“too permanent” she says) but W.’s has both an inside toilet and a small television.

The two trailers sit on blocks about 30 feet apart, forming a 90 angle. Facing them, a high ramada shades an outdoor kitchen and living room. Built of sturdy poles and recycled lumber, this airy, inviting space easily holds three large Mexican hammocks, a pair of tables and plastic chairs, and a simple wooden counter. (Wild pigs came through twice while we were there. They were almost fearless, and tried to pull the tablecloth down.)

Directly in front of J.’s trailer is a tight ring of well blackened stones and a neat stack of firewood. Parked slightly above and behind the trailers is a fine pair of vintage pickup trucks. W. maintains one of these in good running order for their summer trips to Mexico. They also have a somewhat battered but more modern truck for local transportation, reserving the classics for atmosphere and temporary storage. From my point of view, it all added up to a lifestyle of enviable simplicity, a textbook example of “No kids, no pets and only a few debts”.

During the many years Lorena and I have been together, I’ve sometimes suggested -- only half-jokingly -- that the ideal living arrangement would be two separate cabins, with a shared kitchen and bedroom. Rather than tripping over each other’s stuff and constantly renegotiating territorial treaties, we would each rule supreme in our separate, uncontested domains.

The architectural details of such an arrangement are still a little fuzzy to me, but I see my own cabin quite clearly: it is a single room, simple and rectangular, surrounded by tall, unmown grass and overgrown with blackberry vines. There is no furniture to speak of, just a cozy armchair, a reading lamp, and ten or twenty thousand books.

I see Lorena’s turf as a combination of Hearst Castle and Olde Curiosity Shoppe, its dusty rooms and unexpected alcoves stuffed to the rafters with vitamins and health supplements, photograph albums, sewing and knitting supplies, family memorabilia, environmental impact statements, magazines, science fiction novels (by women authors only) and miscellaneous, multitudinous travel souvenirs and ethnic art objects. There will be shelves, closets, cupboards, chests, baskets, and boxes, some with labels (“Old but perhaps still useable Zip Loc bags”). An entire room filled with dried up ballpoint pens and other things that can’t yet be recycled, but that Lorena knows will become treasured resources sometime during the next Millenium.

That evening we sat around a campfire, reminiscing about Mexico and old friends there. J. gave us a wonderful set of tiny postcards from Guatemala, quite old, and W. very generously replaced the hat I’d forgotten in San Diego with one of his own. It felt really good to be there and seemed to mark a very appropriate beginning for our trip.

We left their place slowly and didn’t hit the border until mid-afternoon the next day. I’d forgotten Nogales and was mildly impressed with the place, perhaps because of the hilly setting and relatively low level of border-town hustle.

We stopped right at the border, mistakenly believing we had to get our tourist cards there. The immigration office was classic -- ancient typewriters, battered furniture and a non-functioning bathroom. Just behind the counter, several silent young men in work clothes lay tightly packed side-by-side on a bedframe or wide bench, with their feet on the floor. The pleasant young official who attended us ignored these men completely but I noticed that they looked very worried about something. I presume they were either illegal immigrants from Central America headed north, or repatriated illegals being shipped south from the U.S. In any case, it was a grim scene so we quickly filled out our tourist cards and got out of there.

Our next stop, around Km 22, was for the vehicle import permit and customs inspection.

Because I would have to go to El Paso in a few weeks to lead a group on a Copper Canyon trek, we’d decided that Lorena would register the car import permit in her name. (We’d taken the precaution of including both of our names on the van title.) This was her solo into the maze of Mexican red tape, so for research purposes, I didn’t go along to help out.

Talk about changes -- getting the van's import permit was a cakewalk that took Lorena about fifteen minutes. I was amazed that they even handed her the “hologram” permit sticker and asked if we’d please paste it on the windshield ourselves.

With car papers safely in hand the final aduana (customs) stop still managed to stir up some familiar border-hassle butterflies. Perhaps it was the 18 new yoga mats for Barbara that were cunningly arranged as a mattress cover, the hoard of popcorn and vitamins, or the tasty array of electronics and computer gadgets we’d stuffed throughout the van.

What me worry? The actual inspection took all of 4 seconds: a token glance and a casual wave-through, and we were suddenly back on the four-lane, reaching a giddy velocity of almost 63 mph. After missing a couple of strange turns in Hermosillo, out next stop was the Islandia Trailer Park in Bahia Kino at about 9 p.m. (I know... driving after dark is a major taboo, but we’re Mexico “experts”, right?)

The Islandia is our kind of RV park: a sprawling, downhome place, close to the village and right next to the beach. We didn’t need hookups, so we got a choice grassy spot next to their less-than-choice bathrooms. I knew we were finally back in Mexico when the Welcome Wagon showed up about 11 p.m. -- several thousand unlicensed dogs rioted just outside the fence in a yowling, all-night gang rumble and new moon orgy.

But, as a brilliant sunrise proved, there are compensations, including an early visit from the Shrimp Man. Fresh, headless prawns, right out of the sea, for less than $6 a pound. We used restraint and settled for a full kilo.

Our next visitor was also on a bicycle: Tamale Man dished out his wife’s steaming green chilie and cheese masterpieces for just 45 cents apiece. Lorena and I each gobbled down a pair, which really wasn’t enough.

By the time we’d finished breakfast, it was noon and far too late to get back on the highway. We opted instead to take a nap, walk on the beach, eat shrimp dunked in garlic butter, and watch the sun go down.

The next morning it was obvious that we were going to have to stir ourselves and make some serious time in order to get to Mazatlan. Our plan was to find an internet cafe or other cyber-connection there, in order to meet our deadline from Yahoo Internet Life for two more web review articles. So, back on the road by 8:30 a.m. and full speed ahead....

It took barely two hours to reach the outskirts of Guaymas, where Lorena spotted a roadside sign advertising the Cafe de Internet in San Carlos Bay. If only for reasons of nostalgia, we had to check it out. By noon we’d signed up for 100 hours of internet use and rented this apartment overlooking the bay.

San Carlos isn’t exactly our cup of tea, but I have to admit that it has its attractions. Life is very easy here, especially if you have money. Even then, it doesn’t take a fortune, at least by north-of-the-border standards. We’re told that simple houses rent for $350 a month and we saw a beachfront condo for $500 (no TV!). Guaymas and the Ley mega-supermercado are just around the corner, so you can find everything from WD 40 to eggplant. Lorena discovered a local truck that brings higher quality food into San Carlos itself several days a week, including liters of fresh orange juice (20p); giant prawns (200 p/kg end of season), and excellent, pick of the crop produce. Down at the Internet Cafe you get 3 pancakes, 3 eggs, 3 large strips of bacon, fruit, OJ and coffee for 35p. It’s a tough life if you don’t weaken!

Which reminds me: we took the maid’s recommendation and tried a seafood joint on the highway outside of Guaymas called La Cobacha. (Her husband fishes shrimp in Mazatlan, so we figured she had marisco credibility.) La Cobacha is a simple place, nice but certainly not fancy. The parking lot was encouragingly full and the prices looked good -- I quickly noted that it was just 30p for “pescado sarandeado” and 15p for an order of ceviche. When asked, the waitress suggested the totoava sarandeado, so I “bit”.

Half an hour later we’d polished off chips and dip, a plate of ceviche, an order of guacamole and most of Lorena’s garlic shrimp. As the waitress approached our table with a large tray, I could see heads turning to follow her... and I knew that I was about to get more than just an ordinary chunk of fish.

This particular sarandeado turned out to be a huge tail portion of totoava, a fish I’d previously seen only on endangered species lists. They prepared it butterflied and bathed in some succulent sauce, then grilled to absolute perfection over mesquite coals. I guess my portion weighed about three pounds. Surrounded by fresh lettuce and radishes, it overflowed a large tray and looked the size of a hatch cover.

My first thought was, “My god, this will cost a fortune!” My second thought was, “Who cares... you only live once!”

To give hardcore seafood lovers some idea of how good that fish was, imagine blending the flavor of grilled wahoo with the juicy fattiness of snook belly. I did everything but roll in it.

I got my next shock when the bill came -- this world class dish cost all of $6.00! (The leftovers also fed us for two more meals.)

Useful link: Cafe de Internet maintains a community-oriented webpage in English for San Carlos Bay. (** This link no longer works. Does anyone know if there is a new URL?)

keep checking back... to be continued!

Carl's Journals

Carl's Notebooks

©1972-2008 by Carl Franz & Lorena Havens