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:

South of the Border nip, tuck and troll
Tourists cross the border to Baja for any number of reasons. There’s the food. There’s shopping. There’s the great beaches and hotels. And, if you’re reading this column, well, of course there’s the fantastic fishing.

But, there’s another side of tourism that doesn’t get talked about a lot. It often goes unreported, but more than 700,000 foreigners, mostly Americans and Canadians go to Baja for medical treatment every year.

Some are fairly routine.

“I bring my family here to fish every year,” explained Wilson, one of our clients at Tailhunters in La Paz. “But we also get our teeth cleaned. too,” he added with a grin. “ It costs me $150 dollars just for my kids back home, but here in Baja, it runs us only about $20 each!”

Josh, from California, spends several weeks in Baja each year. “There’s a terrific Chinese acupuncturist in La Paz who helps me with some nerve and muscle damage I have from Vietnam. Compared to back in California, I can go several times a week in Mexico.”

Others are a bit more urgent.

Over my almost 20 years working in Baja, I’ve had clients come to have surgery for a torn rotator cuff; carpel tunnel syndrome; hip repair and knee surgery. To most, they’ve told me the care was great, but more so, the costs were a fraction of what they had expected to pay back home.

In some cases, there were emergencies. There’s not too much worse than getting hurt while on a vacation.

Of course, there’s the usual…hooks-in-fingers…allergic reactions to bug bites…jellyfish stings…cuts…scrapes…dehydration…heat stroke.

But, in some cases, treatment was critical. A client who got a little too much margarita jumped into the shallow end of the pool. He went head-first and broke his neck. There have been several acute appendectomys and a broken bone or two (alcohol involved!).

In all cases, treatment was fast, quick, competent and especially in the emergency cases, surprisingly good and cheap.

John had an emergency root canal in the middle of his fishing trip. “It was incredible. The dentist spoke English and the facilities were as modern as any I’ve ever seen. It would have cost me thousands back in Los Angeles with our family dentist.”

Ralph’s side pain in the middle of the night turned into appendicitis and he was rushed to surgery.

“I got a private room for almost a week. Great nurses. Doctors who spoke pretty good English. They even called my family doctor to check on me and they had the hospital commissary make American food for me. “

He added, “At the end, when they gave me the bill they apologized that it was so high. I couldn’t believe it. Laughable. It was so low, I used my credit card and felt like I should have put a tip on it! Easily 10,000 dollars more at home in Utah.”

Other treatment, while perhaps not so urgent, to some is even more important. Baja is quite a center for cosmetic surgery as well. A nip…a tuck…a bigger/ smaller boob…a bit of lipsuction on the love handles.

Indeed, some of the cosmetic surgery clinics advertise “vacation packages” that include hotel and other amenities. You have a little work done under the radar. Recover quietly in sunny Baja. You return with a certain “glow” and no one is the wiser!

Like anywhere else, there’s good and bad practitioners. But, I’ve personally always had great care. Many of the doctors I’ve met and a good number of dentists actually received their training in the United States.

However, I always suggest asking around. If a doctor’s place looks like it’s down a back alley and has folding chairs, it’s probably not a good gamble. I won’t kid you that fraud is rampant and there’s guys out there that literally purchased their diplomas to hang on the walls.

But the good professionals have a track record and grow. Their professionalism in appearance is usually a good indicator of their abilities.

There are still some “doctors” who plant themselves next to pharmacies in little hole-in-the-wall offices. They literally sitting at a folding table. You walk in or walk up.

There might be a hallway of folding chairs each with someone who wants to tell the doctor their problem. The line moves fast. There’s no medical history taken. No temperatures taken. No names given.

Pay 5 bucks or whatever the going rate is . Tell the “doctor” what’s wrong. No real diagnosis. He just tells you what drug he thinks will help. He writes you a “prescription” for the pharmacy next door. Off you go. Next in line “por favor.”

Hopefully, you’ll never need any emergency care on a vacation, but especially with growing medical costs, Mexico is a viable alternative for many people.

A little fishing,a little sunshine, a margarita. While you’re there, suck some fat. Grow your boobs. Cap some teeth. Go fishing. More folks do it than you might think. Multi-tasking Baja style!

How we rolled, rumbled and stumbled
Driving the Baja…

There was a time not long ago when I actually had the time to drive up and down the Baja Transpeninsular Highway. Time was not “of the essence” and even with cheap flights, gas was still so cheap it was more economical to drive.

These were the days several decades before there were regular convenience stores and Pemex gas stations dotting the landscape.

Yes, the Transpeninsular was a relative Mexican engineering marvel for its day. Officially called Federal Highway 1, it was quite a feat.

Being in the U.S. we take highways for granted and few who visit Baja today remember what it was like before the highway. Even those first years after its completion in 1973 were a bit rugged.

Highway 1 dotted-dashed-scurried-and-ribboned the entire 1,000-mile length of the Baja corridor from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas. No doubt, to have one solid-length of pavement was a vast improvement over the previous road(s) which required the abilities of a world-class off-road driver and a vehicle that was about as indestructible as an Abrams tank.

Even in its completed state, it was politely called a “highway” sporting just two lanes. Laughingly and affectionately, it was called a “leveled goat trail” by its fans who still saw it as a vast improvement.

But, the word “solid” is relative. Like so much in Mexico. “Pavement” has many meanings!

There were sometimes more detours around missing parts of pavement than actual pavement. That meant forays into the nearby desert.

Potholes stretched for miles and trying to navigate in-around-and-out of them was like trying to dash through a minefield.

Sooner or later, the odds were you’d get rocked. The Spanish word for “pothole” is “Hoyo” (OY-yo)…as in OH-no! Which is what you said as your suspension or axle suddenly groaned in agony as it slammed into crater after crater. And you hoped you still had an oil pan.

But, so many of us drove the trek regularly, and looked forward to it. It was an adventure of adventures. It was almost a rite of passage to tell someone, “Dude, I just DROVE the Baja.” You didn’t “drive TO Baja.” You didn’t “TRAVEL to Baja.”

You proclaimed your coolness and told folks, you “DROVE the Baja.” It was sorta like “riding the Banzai Pipeline.” Or “running with the bulls.” Or “scuba diving with sharks.”

Instant cred. Very high on the “neato scale.” At least a 9 in the ooh-aaa factor. A bucket list things for guys.

Yup…Us cooler dudes, “DROVE the Baja.” Back in the day, the coolest of the cool folks declared they “SURVIVED the Baja” because that was always a pre-cursor to a good story, too! Driving the Baja was one thing. “Surviving the Baja” meant that a good tale was to follow.

The “survivors” brought back great stories and tall tales of roadside frontier adventure. There were flat tires…busted fan belts and axles and green unfiltered gas bought from a guy with a 50-gallon drum and a handpump.

How about those swarming mosquitos and flies? Sunburn… hangovers… stalling in sand-filled arroyos and waking up in strange places. And what’s a good story if it didn’t include Montezuma’s revenge… a hurricane… a sandstorm or the occasional ill-advised romantic liason?

But, there were also golden gems of deserted white sand beaches and glorious crimson sunrises… mouth watering handmade roadside tacos… ferocious fish that had never seen a hook… perfect thick-lipped waves that had never been surfed… friendly warm people… icy beers and barbecued lobster eaten with fingers and campfires under carpets of stars.

And always, there was one more dirt road off the beaten path that beckoned to be explored…begged to be explored. Every adventure started with the words… "We decided to pull off the highway…” Or “We stopped in for just one small tequila…” Or, “I was eating a greasy taco and my eyes locked on this pretty girl…”

Federal One has become bigger, better and safer after all these years. There are still stretches of the wild Mexican frontier that go for miles. But, you’ll see more gas station. More convenience stores. RV parks and hotels too.

It’s just not the same anymore. You climb on a plane in the U.S. You ride the sterilized tube through the air and maybe see a bit of dessert or ocean below. You exit into an air-conditioned terminal with a thousand other people.

The biggest adventure and closest brush with danger is running the gamut of airport vendors trying to rent you a car or get you on a time-share trip.

“Free fishing trip, Senor? Just need two hours of your time for a small presentation.”

“Eh amigo, do you need a taxi?”

“Discount snorkel trip for you and your family?”

The height of your anxiety and adrenaline level is wondering if your luggage will get searched by duty inspectors at the airport.

You remember that undeclared bottle of Jack Daniels hidden in your boxer shorts. Your wife thinks they inspectors will pull out her lingerie in front of everyone. Blood pressure zooms.

Or major panic. Now that you’re through customs, you can’t find the shuttle driver who was supposed to meet you at the terminal. Whew…there he is. He was hidden behind all those other shuttle drivers!

Man, that was stressful! Gonna have a double margarita at the pool bar as soon as I dump this stuff in the room.

It’s just not the same anymore. And neither are the good stories.

“The room service didn’t have cheesecake…” is a lot different from

“Did I tell you about the time these Mexican fishermen with lobsters came to our campsite and wanted to trade for a 6 pack of Budweiser? And one guy had a guitar…and my buddy Dave pulled out a bottle of Cuervo?”

“Man…let me tell you…”

Whoa… not so fast!
“One of the most glorious messes in the world is the mess created in the living room on Christmas day. Don’t clean it up too quickly.

Andy Rooney- humorist and writer

By the time you’re reading this, Christmas is probably right on your head. It’s about to crash like a big wave you’ve been watching now for a bit. It hits and then so quickly, it’s gone. Maybe too fast.

I used to feel like that when surfing. Great waves come followed by an exhilarating ride. And, just as quickly it then dumps you in the shallows and it leaves.

Like Christmas. I know it surely leaves too quickly. We do so much and prep like crazy and scuttle and run to get ready. And once it’s over, man, we clean it up and pack it away and onto the next thing. Goodwill and all that gets humbugged back to the shadows in diminishing increments with each passing day as we rush to the next whatever.

That’s just the way it is. The way we are.

I kinda like Mexico’s way better.

You see, Mexico doesn’t have a Thanksgiving Day like Americans. So, Christmas things start showing up in the stores about October. Toys, decorations and gifts start popping up on shelves with such regularity you can set your calendar to it.

By the end of the Halloween/ All Souls Day/ Dia de Los Muertos at the end of October, the Christmas season is on.

Here in La Paz, folks start buying and decorating trees. Yes, you can even buy real Oregon trees in parking lots two months in advance. It makes for some awfully dry trees by the time Christmas rolls around, but if you don’t move, they sell out fast.

Folks start working on their homes and hiding presents. There’s certainly no such thing as “mall crush” here in La Paz. Most folks did their Christmas shopping weeks ago and, if your-and-about now, chances are, you won’t find much on the shelves!

We Americans are so used to those last few frantic weeks or days to get ready. But here in Mexico, if you wait that long, you’re out-of-luck.

Last week, I tried to purchase a string of white lights to replace a burned-out set at our Tailhunter Restaurant. The shelves were empty and I had to go to five stores to find some lights. I bought 3 extra strings just-in-case!

But, in reality, Christmas truly is a “season” here. Christmas in Mexico starts Dec. 12th and goes to Jan. 6th. As I said, no rush. Things move slower in Mexico.

Starting on the 12th, there are nine “posadas.” They are small celebrations or even parades with participants carrying candles representing Mary and Joseph wandering and looking for a place to stay.

Traditionally, they are at a different home each night. The homeowners are “called upon” by the participants, similar to Mary and Joseph calling on inn keepers for lodgings. Songs are sung and then there can be a party often involving a piñata.

And food! Always there is food. Tamales fresh from a hot steamer made of homemade maza in corn husk with beef or pork; chicken; or chili and cheese. Very popular are the ones made with sweet corn maza then filled with raisins!

Mole (pronounced MOE-lay) is also a treat, which can be made in dozens of ways but is a dark brown or red savory sauce. It’s made with chocolate and sweet chilis and and peanut butter and the maker’s own carefully guarded family secret herbs! Poured over pork, chicken or enchiladas, everyone looks forward to their Christmas mole!

And then there are the pastries for which Mexico is famous! But during the holidays “banuelos” deep fried pastry skins or tortillas dripped with honey or carmelized sugar make for sticky fingers and big smiles. I like mine with a scoop of fresh vanilla ice cream and cinnamon!

December 24th is Christmas Eve called “Noche Buena.” It is often the last of the 9 posadas. Many folks also go to Midnight Mass which is called “Misa de los Gallos” (Mass of the Roosters since it goes so early in the morning!)

It’s also when many of the kids expect their gifts, but traditionally, many families wait until the 6th of January called “Dia de los Reyes.” This commemorates the Epiphany which is the day the Three Kings visited the manger in Bethlehem. Some lucky kids get a 2nd run of gifts!

And again, as always, there’s food and merriment.

That’s how they roll in Mexico. Slow and easy. Until the next holiday.

Feliz Navidad y Prospero Ano Nuevo, amigos!

Noche buena and a midnight clearly
I was only going to be in Baja for a year. Has it been almost 20?

The longer I am here the more Christmas seems to change a bit. The early years were surely different.

I was living out in the “country” then. Well, 10 miles down a dusty dirt road far off the pavement in the cactus and Baja scrub in a little remote Mexican bay. Far away from the city lights, I worked for a little off-the-grid hotel that only had four rooms.

And that’s all there was out there. Today, you still have to drive down a dirt road to get there and the hotel is closed and being re-claimed by the Baja sands. As so many Mexican dreams go.

I had very little then, but I often felt like I was king of the world at times. I was only half-a-step from living outta my old Dodge van at the time with fishing rods and an old one-room adobe. “Living the dream,” as many would later tell me!

I spent most nights sleeping outside in a hammock under a weathered palapa made of sticks. Jimmy, my little dog and I lived much by candlelight and a propane stove. No phones. No electricity to speak of.

And I remember it was Christmas. In the Baja. In Mexico. So far from Christmases remembered.

I remember the brisk wind and the clear starry skies overhead where clusters of the galaxies were so thick as to appear as if a huge black canvas had been lightly airbrushed with white. With no city lights, shooters streaked criss-crossing tracers from horizon to horizon.

I wore the same faded shorts and some awfully thin flipflops that had long since lost their tread. I’m sure I smelled like fish most days which is how I earned my living for the hotel taking their few clients fishing and diving.

No one ever complained about how I looked or smelled. I was part of the landscape in my ratty straw hat and cut-off t-shirts.

Mesquite was abundant so it was often just as easy to cook over a jumbled stone firepit I had made outside my little casita on the bare ground. It wasn’t much more than a rocky rise of hardscrabble Baja dirt. But during the day, the little spot had a zillion dollar view of the beach and bay that would make a realtor drool.

But not tonight. A moonless crispy December night in Baja. I could hear the waves of the bay lightly crashing against the sands down the beach somewhere in the darkness below. With barely more than the stars above, the orange glow of my little fire fought a losing battle to penetrate the darkness.

But all is calm. My fire bright. Noche Buena. Christmas eve.

I pulled my thin flannel shirt a little tighter against the chill. Me and and Jimmy the dog. I tossed another branch of twisted mesquite into the flame.

I had come a long way from American cities and holidays past. Never in my wildest dreams would I have envisioned spending Christmas like this. Life takes funny turns. There’s a thin debatable line between an idiot and genius.

No tree. No carols. But, I had nature’s own magnificent light show overhead and the dancing flames of a mesmerizing campfire to hold gaze into.

Completely alone but not the least bit lonely. On Christmas. And it felt like it just couldn’t get any better.

And then, just outside the ring of flickering firelight, a shuffle of feet. A bit of laughter. Faces and smiles materializing on the other side of the orange haze of whispy smoke. The spectral ghosts of a Dicken’s Christmas?

“Que onda? Que tal, Jona! Feliz Navidad! Felices fiestas, Mano!”

It just got better.

Some of the commercial fishermen and their wives had trudged up the rise from the beach. Several packs of beer in hand and tattered beach chairs. Uninvitedly always welcome. Saw my fire. Come to join. Come to laugh. Share the warmth of a chilly evening.

My Spanish was barely elementary back then. But, some things are universal. Bridges are easily crossed with smiles, high-fives, back slaps and shared fraternal cervezas. Especially on Christmas Eve.

They already had an obvious head start on me. No formalities needed. They plopped down around the fire and it was on. No need to break the ice. I toasted and laughed and did my best to sing.

In any language…”Noche Buena” is still “Silent Night.” I had no clue about some of the other rowdy rancho songs they sang.

We whooped at the top of our lungs and lifted Tecate cans to health and family, love, life and the star-filled night. Or nothing inparticular.

You know that saying about “Dance like no one is watching and sing like no one can hear?” There’s a special child-like exhilaration attached to that.

Of all things, they started singing “Jingle Bells” in Spanish. I doubt my amigos even had a concept of a sleigh or reindeer or even snow. Ni modo…no matter! One more time with feeling from the top!

Then they asked me to teach them the song in English. Por favor!

Me leading! Oh my…ever fall over laughing? I don’t think there had ever been such a bawdy version…Christmas angels winced but couldn’t help smiling…





HO! HO! HO! (Everyone jumped in on that part with gusto!)

And we laughed and snorted and guffawed and stomped our dusty feet. I stared into that campfire and thought of perhaps another chilly night in the desert many eons ago. That brought others to a spot in the desert.

Some wise guys and sheep ranchers. Amigos of different languages and cultures. Pulled in by the flame and warmth of a beckoning light.

And here we were… A bit of light in the darkness on a windswept beach knoll in Mexico. Sometimes it’s as simple as that. As primal as that. Some friends. A few beers. Laughs and smiles. A song and a welcoming campfire in the dark. Christmas Eve and all was right.

Noche Buena. Noche excelente.


Only in Mexico! Andale and Feliz Navidad, mis amigos! God bless us everyone. Peace to you my fish brothers and sisters.

Somewhere even the angels were singing along. Once more with feeling.

Great time to visit
I have an usual method to measure the “ changing-of-the-seasons” here in La Paz. My sure-fire way to know that the warm-weather tourist season has ended is goofy, but simple.

I walk outside our Tailhunter restaurant and use the street as my measuring device.

For about eight months of the year, getting across our main street from one side to the other is an exercise in agility, patience and frustration. The long straight “malecon” that runs along the ocean-front of our city is like a mini-dragstrip. Perfect for parades. Perfect for marches. Perfect to see how fast your car accelerates.

And that’s what it’s like getting across the street. No one stops. Pedestrians beware. Cars have the right-of-way. That’s the unwritten law most of the year. There’s two kinds of folks… the” quick” and the “quicker.”

Then, about now, it changes.

The shadows get longer as the sun rises and sets at a lower angle. The bay gets breezier. And, for some reason, people and drivers slow down. In fact, there’s just less people. And using my “measuring stick” of a street, I can cross at leisure. As many times as I want. I can even stand in the middle of the street and take photos. Ho-hum....

Where’d everyone go?

About this time, except for the influx of snowbirds, tourism just slows down. There will be a spike for the holidays like Christmas, but for many areas, from November to March, Baja changes from the “land of mañana” to “the land of maybe not even mañana… maybe the — day-after-mañana.”

But, it’s a great time to come down.

Depending on your perspective, winter in Baja is either warmer or cooler!

It’s surely cooler than April to October when the legendary Baja heat sends visitors cranking on their hotel air-conditioning units or spending their waking hours at the poolside swim-up bar. Humidity is nil. Daytime air temps in the 80s are more the norm. You might even use a blanket at night. It might actually be a good idea to pack a pair of jeans or slacks and a sweatshirt! Some areas of Baja actually get “cold” by Baja standards and frost is not uncommon and you’ll see us locals in down jackets and watch caps.

Conversely, if you’re from say… the Pacific Northwest… Canada… the East Coast… you’ll find the winter months to be head-and-shoulders over shoveling snow or drying out from rain.

You’ll get a grin watching us residents “bundle up” while you saunter down the marina or beach in shorts and send Instagram selfies to your envious neighbors back home while holding icy margaritas. Bargaining for silver jewelry for your wife beats crawling under your car to put on snow chains.

Further, as I alluded to above, crowds are down.

Be the only ones in a restaurant. The hotel staff call you by name. The bartender remembers your favorite drink. No lines for attractions.

Actually find a beach where you’re not dodging beach balls or forced to listen to someone else’s obnoxious boom box. Walk downtown and around town and sit and watch and listen, immerse and discover without a time-share or t-shirt sale dogging your every move.

If you plan to fish, winter-time fishing might put a whole different spin on Baja fishing for you. Cooler waters and perhaps windier conditions might predicate completely different types of fishing for you. Winter or inshore species you hadn’t considered like yellowtail, pargo, cabrilla, amberjack and others will surprise you. Shoreline fishing and beach fishing can produce sierra, rooster fish, jack crevalle and pompano and perch.

And there’s a good chance the waters won’t be crowded and the shorelines will be deserted!

And there’s that aspect again… just not many folks around.

And that’s good. There’s opportunities for bargains and deals. Taxi drivers need fares! Negotiate to have a personal driver for all your days. Or negotiate for a better deal with the rental car agents who all work on commissions.

Restaurants, eager for patrons have deals on drinks and food. Many of the smaller hotels, and oftentimes the most charming, will often negotiate as well, especially if it’s off-line and person-to-person. Ask for a deal on an extra night or two! All they can say is “no.”

Same with tourist vendors. Alway wanted to try snorkeling? Want to do that glass-bottom boat thing? Want some horseback riding or try that off-road ATV? Ask for a deal. Winter is the perfect time.

Bottom line is that often you’ll see a whole different side of Baja and Mexico during the winter months. Even for frequent visitors who usually only show up during the peak warmer months, they find a completely different complexion to their favorite Baja locations this time of year. For many it becomes a favorite. And a hidden secret they sometimes aren’t eager to share lest the crowds come back!

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