So, you’ve done the Baja/Mexico thing a bunch of times.
Yawn… — You did the booze cruise. Check.
— You’ve danced the Macarena until dawn. Check.
— Photo taken with the Tijuana donkeys painted like zebras? Done that.
— Photo taken upside down at the Giggling Marlin. Want to forget that one, but Check.
— Ensenada love boat/cruise ship. Check.
— Zipline and dolphin swim. Right.
— Flirt with skin cancer without a shirt on the East Cape. OUCH. That too.
— Camel riding? Uh… that one can wait.
So, what next? I was thinking of my personal list of “must do” things if you wanted to go outside your comfort box and maybe take your next Baja trip to the next level. Here’s some suggestions.
Eat at a Mexican food cart — To some of you, that’s as natural as pulling up to the McDonald’s drive-thru. To many locals, it’s exactly the same. I saw some statistics that show 85 percent of Mexicans eat 70 percent of their meals from carts.
However, you’d be surprised how many gringos either really want to try it and don’t know where or how or scrunch their nose at the idea. Give it a go.
Just like back home with a burger joint, go to the place that has a line around it, especially late at night. You can’t go wrong. Not only economical, but some of the best tacos, tortas (Mexican sandwiches), fresh seafood, burgers (served with ham… called a “hamburger” for a reason), burritos and hot dogs (Mexican style wrapped in bacon and slathered with chili, mustard, mayo and onions!)
Befriend a Taxi Driver — If you ever run into a taxi driver you really like, hire him for the day. Most of them jump at the chance to have regular work and not only do you make a great friend, but probably the best tour guide you ever had.
Taxi drivers know the best places for local food, shopping, and tours. Sure, it might be their cousin Sergio’s place, but so what? You’ll probably get extra special attention and better prices than at the tourist places. Tip well and make a friend for the rest of your trip.
Go to a Farmers Market or Open Market — Every Mexican city has an open market. Often in a warehouse, permanent or semi-permanent booths offer fish, seafood, vegetables, cheeses, household items and artisan handicrafts. And the food booths offering empanadas, sopes, menudo, tacos, carnitas (roasted pork) and other delicacies served at food counters or picnic tables are not to be missed. Get some true “local flavor” on all levels. You can smell the barbecue and chilis a block away!
By the same token, many open air “farmer’s markets” are popping up as well. Here’s where folks like us often purchase our organic groceries and vegetables, breads, cheeses, sauces, eggs and chicken. But, many vendors also sell barbecued meat, pies, wine, pastries, pasta and other goodies. You may have noticed a “food theme” in this column this week. Very neighborly atmosphere!
Visit a Church — As in many Spanish-speaking nations, the church has been a religious, cultural and social center since the days of the conquistadors. Take a visit, especially to one of the older churches. If you can, hopefully, you’ll catch a Mass, wedding, baptism or First Communion. If you really want a sense of the local community, this is it.
Be respectful. Guys, take off your hats. Go easy with the cameras. Leave a small offering.
If it’s one of the older churches, don’t forget to look at the architecture and artifacts… the massive beams… the stonework… the craftsmanship borne of religious dedication and simple back-breaking work. Imagine the energy it took in the Mexican heat to build the structure or get some of those items from the old world.
Get Wet Higher Than Your Waist — Our captains and I know what you’re doing when we see you walk out into the water only up to your waist! But seriously, take the plunge hopefully up-current from your buddies. At least step away from the hotel swimming pool!
I fished in Baja for years before I decided to bring a mask and snorkel. That led me to eventually get my dive certification and eventually become a working divemaster. I never regretted it.
It’s an entirely different world “down there” and even coming from Hawaii, Mexico has some of the most intensely beautiful waters in the world and surely more sea life. Jacques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez the “aquarium of the world” and to-date, more than 700 species of fish have been identified. It will give you an entirely different appreciation and respect for the fragile incredible ecosystem.
Find a Park on a Weekend — Find a bench. Feed the birds. Listen to free performers and musicians. Buy an Indican carving. Purchase some pastries from a food booth and wash it down with some icy sweet watermelon or cantaloupe agua fresca. Listen to poetry readings or school kids doing plays. Join into a game of checkers (no Spanish needed) or for a few pesos buy a card and play Mexican bingo with the locals.
Get yourself invited — I love telling the story of one of my fishing clients who was walking down the street after dinner one night. A retired school teacher, he got stopped by some young men. They invited him to a “party” the next night and said they would pick him up at his hotel.
He came to be a bit anxious and asked me if he should go. Without having been there or knowing more, I told him getting in the car with a bunch of young guys to go to a party might not be a good idea.
I found out later, he went anyway.
It turned out to be a bunch of college students taking an English class and they were on a scavenger-hunt-of-sorts to “bring a gringo” to dinner. The whole class was there for a barbecue along with several other “captured gringos.”
Being a former school teacher, he told me what a great time he had answering questions about life in the U.S., movie stars, English words and phrases. “The girls wanted to know about fashion and how many celebrities I knew. The guys wanted to know about American girls and pick-up lines!” He said it was one of the best experiences he ever had.
If you can make friends in Mexico (like your favorite taxi driver or fishing captain or waiter), get yourself invited to a dinner or a wedding or some other social event. Of course, don’t just wander off into a dark alley or jump in someone’s car, no matter where you are in the world. Use common sense! But, some of your most treasured moments of your vacation are often found away from the hotel swim up bar or buffet line. Be a good guest!