Jonathan Roldan's Blog

WON News Column by Jonathan Roldan

WON’s weekly Baja columnist as WESTERN OUTDOORS magazine’s Baja

Backbeat, Jonathan Roldan came to Western Outdoors Publications after writing for numerous national and international publications and has been writing for over 30 years.

He worked in radio, TV and print publications for many years and then attended law school and practiced as a courtroom litigator in the the ‘80s and ‘90s. However, having been raised fishing, diving, hiking and camping all his life, the draw of Baja and writing lured him away. He moved to Baja Mexico in 1996 where he operates a Tailhunter International fishing tours in La Paz.

Jonathan Roldan can be reached at:

Some 20 years ago, I was on my way to my new job working at a scuba dive shop and setting up a fishing operation in La Paz. I had driven down from San Diego in my road-weary Dodge Caravan pulling a flat trailer stacked with multi-colored kayaks.

There seemed to be a lot of vehicle congestion along the La Paz waterfront and a police officer was directing traffic to a backstreet detour. I followed the cars for several blocks then broke off back towards the waterfront.

As was my habit in those days, I had Led Zeppelin blaring from my van speakers and my windows open. I pulled back onto the waterfront and suddenly…

I was attacked by clowns!

About half-a-dozen clowns jumped on my van and trailer! One jumped into the passenger seat. What the…??? Then, I heard the cheering and yelling and clapping.

I had apparently pulled into a parade and was now one of the “floats!” There were floats in front of me…behind me. There was a marching band and clowns and freaky dressed folks in costumes everywhere. And my own clown posse was bouncing up and down on my trailer and hanging off my van doors whooping it up too!

What the heck. Go with the flow is my motto. I cranked up the Led Zep “Whole Lotta Love” and waved at the crowds like a Rose Parade Queen and pretended I knew what I was doing.

At some point many blocks down, the clowns high-fived me and jumped off my van and went running back to the crowds. I continued on my way with a laugh. Welcome to La Paz!

Actually, it wasn’t until years later that I was informed that I had stumbled into one of the largest of Mexican festivals. I had inadvertently joined the Carnivale Parade and one of six of the most boisterous days on the Baja social calendar.

Carnivale became popular in the middle ages and rolled into the New World with the Spanish who, among other things, brought all the makings for a good party…gunpowder, wine, horses, drums, trumpets, guys dressed in robes and colorful banners and adornments. They also brought a great excuse to party…RELIGION!

Basically, the idea was to party like heathen cavemen before the numbing penitence of Lent descended for 40 days prior to Easter. Bust the moves and get the pent up insanity outta your system before the grey-ash days of fasting and sacrifice of Lent.

The local indigenous populations took right to it as it coincided with many of their own religious holidays.

Party with the overlord Spaniards! Everyone is equal behind the masks. Peasants, farmers, merchants, soldiers, royalty, friars and Indians mixed it up. Everyone is your bro. It’s like the file clerks wearing lampshades at the Christmas party and getting to dance with the boss’s secretary in front of the board of directors. Everyone gets a pass. And God or gods say it’s OK.

A perfect storm. The perfect reason to FESTEJAR! Party! Break the rules. Be all you’ve always wanted to be. Let out the repressed inner child. Cross dressing was fine. Be a nun. Be a clown. Drink like fish. Dance like no one is watching. Lust like bunnies and wear masks and costumes to hide your identity. Be loud and blow horns and make music to chase away the evil was the attitude of the week-long-celebration.

In the 18th century, the Spanish Crown understandably felt it was getting out-of-hand and aggressively repressed much of the revelry. In the 19th century post Mexican Revolution, again, the political newbies suppressed the party because of its’ ties to the colonial past.

However, by the late 1800’s the event staged a growing comeback. But, it’s tough to snuff out a good reason to party.

Largely divorcing itself from its religious roots and gaining popularity as a huge social and community event, Carnivale spread throughout the Latino Americas and New World.

In many cities like Rio de Janiero, Carnivale (Mardi Gras) has become synonymous with the city itself. Many Americans are, of course, familiar with Mardi Gras in New Orleans which is a direct descent from its Spanish heritage.

Mexico is no slouch. Huge celebrations in Veracruz and Mazatlan draw thousands of revelers from throughout Mexico as well as internationally. Like most modern carnivals, they are marked with the election of a carnival king and queen, the burning or condemning of an effigy of “bad humor”, floats, parades, street vendors and music of all types.

Mazatlan has the oldest of the modern carnivals dating back more than 100 years to 1898.

The two major celebrations in Baja take place in Ensenada and La Paz. La Paz’ celebrations also date back to the 1890’s. Ensenada can fill with more than 300,000 visitors during Carnivale.

Taking place over 6 days, hundreds of thousands attend the giant street fairs which are filled with food, music, concerts, parades and activities of all types. Many of the attendees are Californians who come annually from across the border.

If you’re headed to either city or other major cities in Mexico between Feb. 4-9, bring your party dress. It’s a great opportunity to participate and witness a truly grand party. Vamos a festejar!

The road less traveled
There’s a lot of things over the years that I’ve sworn off for my New Year’s resolution. I won’t get into the list, but most of my resolutions never worked anyway. Action wasn’t quite as strong as the intent.

But, one thing I have never tried to give up was eating good food. Even for Lent. Not candy. Not baloney sandwiches with crushed potato chips. Not black olives. Not mac ‘n’ cheese.

I’d give up watching Batman or reading my Mad Magazines before I’d give up Swanson TV-dinners (yes, even that yummy brown-gravy-Salisbury- steak with the crusty-dry brownie in it).

I’m a foodie. I like to eat. I’m also Asian. Food is part of our culture.

And I’m blessed enough to live smack in the middle of the kind of food I love best, Mexican food!

Given the choice between a hot dog or a microwave burrito with questionable ingredients, I’d probably take the burrito bomb. That’s how bad I am.

There’s a place up in the mountains between Cabo San Lucas and La Paz. It’s a hole-in-the-wall. Well, more like a hole-in-the-rocks. It’s run out of a modest little hillside-home tucked into big boulders and a stand of trees next off the gravel of the road.

Plastic chairs. Plastic table cloths over plastic tables. Real flatware, but it’s paper plates. You grab your own Coke or Sprite out’ve a refrigerator on the concrete patio. No beer.

Mama, her daughter and dad serve food out of an enlarged window that goes directly to their kitchen. And, it’s not unusual for about a dozen people standing outside that window. Tour buses and shuttle vans cram the driveway.

No wonder. From that kitchen mama and the family steam up the best tamales in the mountains. Homemade masa. Sweet roasted pork. Green olives and bits of California chilis and potatoes too.

From that kitchen come their famous empanadas. Pastry dough stuffed with beef and deep fried until hot golden and crispy. Served with chunks of fresh moist homemade mountain goat cheese and red salsa fresca.

They make 300 tamales a day and 200 empanadas. Once they sell out, they close the kitchen window. Sometimes that lasts until lunch time. Sometimes not.

But there’s no paper bill at the end. You tell them what you ate. They tell you how much it costs. They trust you.

I know another place. Again, run out of a home. You’d only know about it because a local had told you to walk around the back and into the patio. And a lot of folks know about it. You’ll find tables, chairs and the soccer game on the TV that never ends.

There’s no menu. Papa and mama walk out and tell you what they have in the kitchen. Or you can ask. If they have it or some variation of it, they’ll whip it up for you.

Papa says, there’s no camarones (shrimp) today, but the chickens out back laid lots of eggs and mama just made a big batch of salsa verde and salsa roja.

Just trust him.

Out comes a huge plate of “Huevos divorciados” (divorced eggs). One fresh fried egg gently laid on warmed red salsa and another fried egg laid on the warm green salsa.

The two eggs are divided by a fat strip of homemade refried beans chunky with bits of Mexican chorizo sausage that mama makes fresh and cooks over a big skillet on an open flame.

If you want “bistec” (beefsteak) healthy chunks of beef are also grilled, seasoned and served on the eggs with hot handmade flour tortillas. Coffee is served in chipped ceramic mugs. None of them match. Fifty pesos…about $3.50 for everything.

Take some to go. Papa shakes everyone’s hands and reminds you that Sunday, mama is making menudo and birria (goat soup) so come early before all the rancheros come in to nurse their Saturday hangovers. The spicy soup is guaranteed to force all poisons out’ve their pores!

Seemingly, along all Mexican roads, countless mom-and-pop food stands dot the highways. Some are little more than carts-on-wheels. Some are metal and wooden booths. Some are actual homes.

But, if you really really really want to get into local Mexican eating, outdoor food stands are mandatory. Beef tacos, seafood tacos, pork tacos (carnitas), roast chicken, pork sandwiches (tortas), shrimp cocktails, skewered shrimp, tamales, soups, clams and oysters, Mexican hot dogs…if you can eat it, someone is selling it and it’s all pretty darned tasty.

But, progress is on the way.

New roads. New highways. Traffic is being re-routed so folks, especially tourists can get from Point A-to-Point B faster.

There’s that famous quote about the journey being just as important as the destination.

The problem is that the super highways are blowing right past the old roads with the cracked pavement, the gravel and the little barrio neighborhoods. They’re bypassing all these family-owned little eateries.

If you really want to know a people and their culture, you won’t find it in a big faux steakhouse or white-table-clothed-venue. Eat where the locals eat.

I’m all for the new roads and highways. But, don’t forget the road-less-traveled. There’s some great culinary treasures waiting for you. Getting there should be part of the fun!

Have gift card, will shop!
So…the calls and e-mails are coming in. A lot of my buddies and clients got gift certificates for Christmas to their favorite tackle stores, Bass Pro Shops, Turner’s, Cabelas and other big boy toy stores.

Like Nordstroms at a shoe sale for the ladies!

Oh, the excitement! Oh the carnage! Plus all the holiday sales are on and the big fishing and hunting shows are start up too!

What should I get?

What do I need?

What’s the best?

If I can only get one rod or one reel which one should I buy?

Listen, I’m a big fan of online purchases. Living in Mexico, we just can’t just go out and buy a lot of things available in the U.S. Amazon and UPS are my best buddies.

But, there are certain things that are just best purchased by putting them in your hands and trying them out. Like shoes…I never buy shoes online. They never ever fit! One company’s size 8 is another company’s 10.

Lots of fishing gear can be like that, too.

If you have to buy online, of course, buy the best you can afford. Check the ratings. Check the reviews. Talk to buddies. Name brands that everyone uses are generally gonna be just fine.

But, if you can actually go to the tackle shop or store, all the better. I have several hundred rods and reels…I think. I used to also sell tackle in a tackle store. I know many of the great manufacturers and still deal with many of them as friends. Not all things are the same!

Take reels for instance. I know one manufacturer that’s quite famous and they make great state-of-the-art reels. But, I’ve been to their factory for purchases.

I can pick up 10 of the same models and not three of them will be exactly alike. Some seem to free-spool a little better. Some seem to crank a little better. None of them are bad, by any means. But, some just have a better “feel” to them.

Those of you that are hunters or have been in the military have told me certain rifles or pistols have that same “feel” as well. A car or motorcycle can feel that way.

In my free time, I love to play one of my growing collection of guitars that take up far too much space in our little place. Any guitar player will tell you that in a guitar store, if you have 10 exactly the same guitars, not a single one will play the same!

So, if you’re headed to buy a reel, ask to take several out of the box and give ‘em a spin.

Put ’em in your hand. By all means, take it off the counter and ask to put it on a rod that’s similar to the one you’ll be using. I think you’ll find there’s a difference. Check out the drags and the freespool, especially.

Same with rods. Having been in the industry now for several decades, many anglers don’t realize that just because two rods are rated 20-50 pounds, they are NOT necessarily equal.

Is it for a spinning reel or a conventional reel? Is it a bait rod or a jigging stick? Is it meant for trolling or bottom fishing? A good salesperson at the store SHOULD be able to tell you. Usually, that’s NOT the guy at Walmart or K-Mart although I have found some who do know their stuff.

Even more so, what’s the “action” on the rod. Is it “lively?” Good for casting a bait with a softer tip or stiffer for a jig? Does it have a “quick taper” that “shuts off” and helps you lift a fish. Or, is the rod shut-off (stop bending) closer to the butt and more forgiving? Again, a good sales guy or gal will know!

Do you know that even all fishing lines are not equal? Two lines rated at 30 pounds can be very different. One might break at exactly or close to 30 pounds. The other might actually break closer to 40 pounds! (They’re not lying…surely it can withstand 30-pound pull!).

But, ever wonder why sometimes two guys fishing the same line…same color… and one guy is getting bit more than the other? Or his bait swims better?

When you buy line, take a look at the line diameter. The good brands have it printed on the side of the spool.

Two lines rated the same can be different. The guy getting bit more might have purchased the line that has the smaller and limper diameter. His bait swims better. His line has less visibility in the water. He’s getting bit!

I’ve actually seen very cheap off-brand discount line that’s not even consistent. I took a micrometer to it and the diameter of the line over several yards varied considerably! Almost like it had bumps in it! You get what you paid for!

Casting jigs aren’t the same either. Go to your favorite saltwater tackle store where the guys really know their stuff. Take a Tady or Salas, Raider, Sumo or other “candy bar” type jig off the rack. There could be 50 all the same color and style.

Hold it by the ring and using your same hand let the lure spin slowly while hanging down. Finding two that spin correctly with the correct balance is what the pros do! Impossible to do if you can’t hold the lures in your own hands.

Like I said, I’m a big fan of online shopping. But some things are best when you can touch, hold and feel them!

Best fishes for a Happy New Year! May the fish be with you!

Christmas letters
It’s that time of year. We live in Baja all year, but just before Christmas, Jill and I come up to San Diego for the holidays. Oh joy… about 11 months of mail is waiting for us.

But, speaking of joy… there are also so many wonderful Christmas cards to sit down and read. It makes for a nice evening of reading for us in our hotel room while we play all the rented Christmas TV shows…Charlie Brown’s Christmas…The Grinch…Miracle on 34th Street…

Many cards contain letters. So many of them say things like, “You may not remember me, because you have so many clients, but…”

Or, “About 8 years ago, my family and I visited you and we will never forget…”

Or, “Jonathan, you can’t possibly remember that giant roosterfish my dad battled…”

I’ve gotten to the point in this wacky fishing career when I realize I have more days behind me than ahead of me. But, my old brain and heart have a big memory bank full of Kodak moments…like these.

I remember squinting into your first Baja sunrise. Full of expectation and anticipation. We bounced across the flat sea and the sun shred the morning chill. You gave me a thumbs up and a big grin that said it all.

I remember that day you finally hooked that marlin. And it beat you up, but you refused to hand over the rod. I was proud of you.

I remember that day sitting up in the flybridge with you. The trolling lures were skipping behind us and the stereo blared the Eagles. We sang “Take It Easy” at the top or our lungs as we toasted those icy Tecates.

I remember all the hooting, hollering and high five’s as those schools of dorado slammed into us fighting for our baits! Every rod bent. Ever reel screaming. Bloody decks and barefeet!

Do you remember how tasty those crummy sack lunches were in the early days? Why do baloney sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs taste so good when you’re fishing? Even when the beer got warm!

And that day that giant school of spinner dolphin stayed with us for hours playing in our bow waves?

Remember the day your buddy was locked in fighting that big sailfish and you guys yanked his shorts down around his ankles?

I’ll never forget when you proposed to your wife out there on the beach at sunset and then we surprised you all with the mariachi band. I think everyone had a tear in their eyes.

I remember when we took your dad’s ashes out in the bay then scattered flowers. He sure loved his time with you fishing. I will miss him.

I’ll never forget the kindness when our van broke down in the middle of nowhere and a guy in his pickup truck gave us a ride to his little ranchero and his wife cooked up the best huevos, beans and tortillas ever on a smokey little wood stove.

I remember Mary’s first fish…and her 2nd…and her third. Like a little kid at Christmas. And you were worried she wouldn’t like Mexico or fishing. I’m glad you married her!

I remember that other time you guys all streaked through the hotel, but your buddy then locked you outta your room leaving you all in the hallway butt-naked! Then being chased by hotel security!

Or the time some of you kidnapped the hotel statue and put it in your brother’s bed. Man, he screamed when he woke up!

Or the time you duct-taped the toilet in your cousin’s hotel room after he passed out the night you all had a taco and beer chugging contest?

Or the first time you brought your son and dad to fish with us? And both of them hooked giant roosterfish at the same time. I still have that photo of the three generations. I remember how proud you were when your son said, “Dad, let’s release them.”

There was that other time your buddies caught you tying bananas to their hotel doors. I never saw you run so fast!

And there was that other time you fought that big tuna…stand up. I told you not to use that light gear. But you “manned-up” for two hours in that hot Baja sun. Then lost the fish. I felt for ya, Bro. Those are the ones you surely never forget.

What about the time you brought your granddaughter? She outfished you every day and wouldn’t let you forget it. And that was just fine with you.

And do you remember how good that warm sand felt between your toes as we watched sunsets, ate clams and tried to figure out a way never to have to go home?

Sure…I remember!

On this Christmas, I look back at all of you who have enriched my life and taught me so much. You have gifted me in so many ways and allow me to do what I love.

It’s never been about the fishing. That’s just the vehicle that brings us all together. Like Christmas…ultimately it’s about the smiles. We will always be fish brothers and sisters.

They say that once you visit Baja, you never leave because a piece of the Baja goes with you. You may spend only a tiny bit of your life with us, but the time you spend with us stays with you for a lifetime.

It works both ways. I have a treasure chest of memories.

Feliz Navidad y Que Dios te bendigas por siempre. Merry Christmas and may God bless you always.

You can tell the season’s changing now. The obvious signs are here in town. It’s that slow gap between the end of summer, but not quite Christmas…yet.

Town is kinda empty. Tourists are mostly gone. Fishermen? Gone for weeks now. Snowbirds filtering in from their frosty homes in Canada and the Dakotas.

It’s not as hot during the day. A subdued Baja sun casts longer shadows. There’s always a breeze.

Nights are cooler. Visitors are still in shorts and t-shirts. Us locals are more prone to long pants and sweatshirts.

Chatter in the neighborhood coffee cafes tend towards the “chilliness” of the weather (“We used two blankets last night!”) and the upcoming holidays (“My wife is cooking her chicken mole this year!”).

Chatter comes easy. Coffee is savored slowly while cold hands wrap around chipped mugs.

Everyone is moving at a slower pace.

You may have heard that Mexico is the land of “manana.” (Tomorrow). Right now, add “tranquilo.” (Slow and calm).

Don’t move if you don’t have to. If you have to move…Tranquilo! Take it easy. No rush. No stress.

You hear it a lot. Como estas? How are you?


How are things?


Are you busy?


How’s the family?


A little different from the hectic pace in the states. Here in Baja, many folks have their Christmas decorations and trees already. If you head to the store to buy decorations, they’re sold out.

There’s no Thanksgiving in Mexico to act as a speed bump before Christmas! After Halloween, we slid right into the holidays.

Lots of the Christmas gift shopping is already done. Much of Mexico had their “Buen Fin” (Black Friday Shopping) several weekends ago.

I inadvertently wandered into that madness to buy some stuff for dinner and got crushed by the holiday shoppers! Twenty minutes to find parking. Twenty minutes standing in the check-out line. Sheesh…my bad. Feliz Navidad!

The rush is over!

And so what do we all do now? For the last nine months all of us have been working pretty much seven days a week. The next three months are “tranquilo.” Sort of.

If you ever wondered what your favorite captains and “Baja guys” do when you’re not there, I’m sure it’s similar to what my crew will be doing.

For the captains, it’s time to clean and repair gear. Time to scrape the hulls; paint the fiberglass; and finally take in the motors for that long overdue 4-zillion-hour scheduled maintenance.

For those who had steady work, they can kickback a little during the off-season. Or work to help supplement their savings.

A good number of the guys head off to fish commercially at the islands or at the various fish camps that dot the Baja shoreline. They’ll drag big coolers full of ice with them; fish for a few days and stay in the fish camps.

It’s more economic to just stay out at the camp. After several days, they’ll bring the fish back to the waiting trucks from the seafood wholesalers.

Life in the ramshackle sites is a combination wild west mining camp and outpost trading post. Think about a bunch of guys camping…it’s the same no matter what the country or culture. Exhausting solitary daytime work. Campfires and camaraderie… beer, beans and and tall tales on the beach at night.

Some of our other guys…

Chalo and Pepe usually take it easy in the off-season. Old-timers. They’ve put in several decades fishing. It’s been another long good season. Let the young guys go shiver in the fish camp!

These two guys take their rifles up in the mountain every few weeks to hunt deer and pigs.

Gonzalo goes to town and helps his family with their little restaurant. Brother Chuy leaves his panga on the trailer and goes to work picking chilis for the local chili ranchers.

Julio has a mechanical background and gets boat repair jobs in the shipyard. Omar drives a taxi several days a week while Luis has a part-time job driving a truck for the city.

Marcos has the best tranquilo off-season of all. He’s still single. He has a concrete block house with a tin roof and chickens in the yard. But, he also has satellite TV.

He sits on the couch with a beer in one hand and the TV remote in the other. He loves watching American football and Mexican soccer in his undershirt and shorts. So, the other captains tell me. He’s a popular guy. No wife. No kids and a TV with sports. The other captains love hanging out at Casa de Marcos!

Gabriela makes all our breakfasts and lunches for our fishermen nine months of the year. Her neighbors love her kitchen fragrances. She’s been making Christmas tamales for weeks and freezing them for the holidays.

Miguel is one of our shuttle drivers. He is working in a toy store and on weekends he dons a Santa outfit to wish everyone Feliz Navidad at the town square near the mission.

With the doves and pigeons. For tips. Because it makes the kids smile.

Life outside the fast lane in Baja. Until next season. Manana. Tranquilo. Take it easy.

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