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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:

What would Ray, Fred and Gene think?
So, there I was standing at the counter in our booth at the recent Fred Hall Fishing and Boating Show in San Diego at the old fairgrounds about two weeks ago. Doing the usual thing.

Yakking with old fishing friends and clients. Answering questions for prospective new folks interested in fishing with us here in La Paz.

After three months of shows and almost 20 years at this, you kinda think you’ve heard a lot of different questions. I was having a casual chat with a couple of “Baja rat” guys…old timers who had great stories to trade. Flip flops…faded favorite fishing t-shirt…ballcap with salt stains on it…you know the type!

Guys like that don’t need our services. They’ve seen and done it all already. Guys like THAT start services like mine!

So, up walks a young couple. Very nice. They wanted to do some fishing but were seemed more intent on whether there were nice spas to have massages.

The Baja guys moved politely aside so they could let me do my spiel. They smiled and listened as I did my best to respond. I gave the couple some of our brochures…a DVD…and told them we’d love to see them.

Then, a young family walks up. Again, good questions…if you had a family.

“Did all the hotels we work with have air-conditioning?”

“Will there be a kiddie pool?”

“Is the water safe to drink?”

My Baja guys suppressed some grins. Again they listened.

Two new guys then walked up.

“How dusty is Baja?” (compared to what?)

“What’s the hottest months?” (One of them didn’t like heat. Might be better to go to Alaska.)

Again, I did my best. I could tell the Baja guys really really really wanted to chime in, but they let me struggle. I could see them rolling their eyes. I think they were enjoying the entertainment.

Over the next half-hour or so, they heard me field questions like:

“Is it possible to get a mani-pedi (manicure-pedicure)?”

“We’re coming for 4 days, will there be laundry service?”

“How good is the room service?”

“How hot is Mexican salsa?”

“Do you think I should use a lot of sunscreen if I come to Baja?”

“Do they have nude or topless beaches in La Paz?” (True question!)

“We heard Mexican toilet paper is rough, should we bring our own?”

“Are the Mexican police tough on tourists who bring their own pot to smoke?” (Not kidding!)

“What if I don’t want to catch big fish, can I just catch small fish?”

“I hear Mexican ice is bad. How can I drink my blended margaritas?”

After awhile there was a break in the action. I just looked at the two Baja guys and shrugged. They busted a laugh.

“Dude…THAT’s the kind of questions you have to answer?” guffawed one of them.

“All day and every day, my friends, “ I sighed with a shrug and grin of resignation.

“Back in the day, all you needed was beer, gas and be pointed towards the ocean to fish! And if you had two-out-of-three, you were grateful!” With that they high-fived me, laughed and moved down the aisle.

Yes, that’s the kind of questions we answer…all the time!

But, it got me thinking about my predecessors here at Western Outdoor News who wrote this column before me. Going back decades.

Ray Cannon. Fred Hoctor. Gene Kira. And can’t forget Tom Miller either. If you don’t know them, Google their names. Lots of Baja history there.

Grizzly, crusty, brilliant award-winning writers and authors. And all of them amazing storytellers and wordsmiths.

They didn’t just write about Baja. Heck, these guys put Baja on the map. Before there were “Baja Rats,” there were guys like these who frontiered the whole idea of undiscovered beaches; acres of breaking fish; incredible landscapes and wonderful people.

They didn’t just go rumbling down some Mexican road. These guys ran around Baja when there were only burro trails and they hewed their own paths out of the unforgiving Baja rock, sand and sun.

No ice. No gas stations. Minimal water. No such thing as air-conditioning.

Busted axles, blown radiators and punctured tires gave their lives in the course of seeing one more undiscovered cove…one more stretch of fish-filled water…the view over the next rise…and yes, even a virgin palapa-roofed cantina or two. They fired our imaginations with their literary articulation.

Some of their books and stories are still used as Baja Bible’s by the rest of us who followed.

I’ve been fortunate to have had a leg on each side of the transition. I saw the remants of the old Baja. And, I’m obviously part of the new Baja as well.

And, I wonder what those guys would have thought and what they would have written about.

How would those guys have handled subjects like deep tissue aromatherapy massages…booze cruises…swimming with dolphins…day care for tourist kids…sushi bars…internet cafes and time-share sales offices.

I never got to meet Ray or Tom. In my rookie years of outdoor writing, before he passed away, Fred Hoctor would call me and comment about something I wrote. He was what you might call an “old cuss.”

The phone call would usually start with, “Hey dumbass. I read your column…” Not even a hello. But, I always knew it was him. Good to hear from ya, Fred…

I like to think that all these great guys would spit, smirk, chuckle and toss a few invectives around hearing and seeing how much Baja has changed. They’d probably have a thing or two to say about my writing as well.

But, I hope I could still get a high-five from them. They left big footprints in the sand. Even if that beach now has condos on it.

The cycles come around
At the time of writing this, we’re just about to wrap up three months of attending the fishing/ hunting shows across the Western United States. We’re here at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in San Diego for the Fred Hall Fishing and Boat Show.

JONATHAN AND JILL at the Del Mar show opening Day in Del Mar with WON Editor Pat McDonell, who will host the 24-person second annual Summer Panga Slam June 16-21. There are still six spots remaining, but not for long.

Back where we started in December.

From here, we drove to shows in Sacramento, Denver then Seattle. From there we did the big Portland show then Phoenix and Yakima. From there the drive west to the Fred Hall Show in Long Beach, then Salt Lake. And well, here we are back in San Diego!

If attendance, bookings and retail sales are any indication, the economy is looking up. It’s been an exciting three months.

Many of these shows were “off the hook” as it were. Attendance records were broken. Crowds were shoulder-to-shoulder in the aisles.

Vendors were selling everything they had and running out of inventory. I saw them scrambling to find fishing rods, t-shirts, lures…you name it!

“In all my years doing shows, I’ve never run out’ve fishing rods to sell,” said one of my amigos who specializes in custom rods. “And people weren’t even bargaining this year. They paid the price on the sticker.”

“We had to have extra equipment drop-shipped from the manufacturer," admitted another amigo. “I ran out’ve some things by the second day of a five-day-show!”

Lodges, outfitters and guides also seemed to be having a banner season on bookings.

“Our lodge is completely booked up with a waiting list for the year. At the shows we’re actually booking for 2016 and 2017! “ said an Alaskan outfitter.

A couple who run a guide service in a remote part of northern Canada were wide-eyed, when they confided, “Our bookings are triple what they normally are. That’s a good thing. The bad thing is that I think we’re gonna have to hire more staff.”

One of our other friends who owns a South African big game hunting operation. Hunters pay up to $30,000 for a hunt. They wrapped things up after three shows and went home.

“We cancelled all the rest of our shows. We don’t have any more room for more hunters this season and most of next season, too," he told me proudly. “We’re going home early to get ready.”

The general feeling was that either the economy has gotten better or folks are just frustrated of “tightening-the-belt” and the pendulum has swung the other way. People are spending on vacations again.

For a while, a few years back times were slim. If people are losing work or fearing foreclosures or other events, then fishing and hunting trips aren’t very high on the list of necessities. Understandable.

A lot of outfitters never made it through the bumpy times. We lost a lot of friends along the way. I guess it mirrored what was going on for everyone.

But, a lot survived. Hung in there. They learned to run leaner and work just a little bit harder to hang onto their passions and livelihoods and thereby keep alive vacation dreams for so many others.

It’s good to see. It’s about time. The cycle always comes around if you can ride out the tough times.

It was like that for the fishing fleets of the West Coast, especially Southern California that just had a banner fishing year.

El Niño currents brought exotic and incredible fishing for tuna, wahoo, dorado and marlin to folks who normally never get to see that kind of action.

The frenzy of plentiful fish brought out the crowds. And many a landing owner, captain and boat operator let out a sigh of relief. They struggled during the years of tough fishing and slow economy, too.

One San Diego captain told me, “We saw and continue to see crowds we never saw before. Guys who hadn’t fished in years re-discovered the fun of being on a boat again. They came out once, twice or more.”

“They brought their families and kids too! And maybe that’s the most important. We were losing the kids to Xbox and Facebook. Fishing got them off the couch and onto the ocean. New fans for fishing!”

For those of us running operations south of the border, a string of setbacks put many in a spin. This included a slack economy; nervousness over swine flu; high airline rates and crime issues. The stellar fishing to the north meant there was no need to travel south for exotic fish.

But, an owner of one Baja resort put it in perspective. “As long as people are fishing that is good. Some years it is fantastic in Mexico and other times it is better in the U.S. “

“Like this year. Good fishing is good fishing. Think of all the people who started fishing again and all the new people who started fishing. At some point, they will think of coming to fish in Baja!”

It’s all a matter or perspective.

As it turns out, many of the Baja outfitters, hotels and fleets are also seeing an increase in bookings this year. We’ve been waiting.

Coupled with the heightened interest in fishing. Mexico is still a bargain place to visit. In fact, it’s the #1 destination for Americans to visit and has the highest tourism growth of any country. Additionally, lowered oil prices have resulted in cheaper airfare across the board.

It’s going to be a good season! We’ve been waiting!

Baja Editor Jonathan and his wife Jill Roldan operate Tailhunter Adventures in La Paz. They will be hosting the La Paz Summer Panga Slam with Western Outdoor News June 16 to 2, a three days of fishing, parties and a one-day tourney. See their website at

A museum is where you find it
Every now and them someone comes up to me and says, “I looked all over for a good museum, and didn’t find anything that I couldn’t walk through in 5 minutes.”

I agree.

Especially, in Baja, and even more so in the smaller areas, it’s hard to come across a “real museum” like the kind the average tourist might be looking for. There just aren’t that many.

But, I have found in my travels that if you really want a glimpse into the history, culture and soul of any place or people, there’s usually a museum in even the smallest towns or pueblos. They’re just not labeled as such.

Just find the church.

Remember when we were kids and many of us had to build a “California Mission” in 4th grade? It threw our families and fathers into a frenzy!

Our older sisters had to do it. Our younger brothers had to do it. The school chum next door had to do it. There was no escape from the cardboard, sugar cubes, construction paper and macaroni rooftops!

But, for many of us, our delving into the missions pretty much stopped when the mission got dumped into the trash.

But, the California missions were just a long line that extended all the way down to the tip by Cabo San Lucas. Those missionaries from Spain accompanied by their conquistadores were a busy lot. Claiming land and native souls for the Spanish crown…and the Church.

In that endeavor, they blazed a crazy trail up and down the western coast setting up churches big and small.

Many of us have visited the California missions regularly and they are huge tourism destinations…San Juan Capistrano…Santa Barbara…San Luis Rey. Pretty much many California cities can trace their genesis to an adobe house of worship around which grew a plaza…then a pueblo…then a village…San Diego…Los Angeles…Monterey to name a few.

The same thing happened in Baja but with less notoriety. But, the Fransiscan, Jesuit and other Catholic padres toiled in perhaps greater hardship in more arduous situations to create footholds in Loreto, La Paz, San Jose Del Cabo and numerous other little dots in the Baja desert. Some are still there. Others have disappeared into the deserts.

The history of each location is written in the church. As the center of culture, religion, and the life of the pueblo, history is recorded.

In my travels, I have found this to be unfailingly true….Buddhist temples…Jewish Synagogues…Christian cathedrals…Greek Orthodox churches…even the littlest chapel in the middle of nowhere, there is history to be found.

Where we live in La Paz, one discovers that the city church took numerous tries to be established. The Spanish kept getting rousted by the local natives who didn’t take well to being overlorded by a new king or religion.

Check out the church in San Jose Del Cabo and find out about the padres who were martyred in their efforts. They died horrendous deaths attempting conversions.

Take a day trip up the winding goat-trail-road to the mountains above Loreto to San Javier. The candle soot on the walls has been there for eons. Who in the world carried these giant beams up this mountain to build this church? How many native “converts” were convinced to haul this massive Spanish altar here using only ropes, burros and sunburned backs?

In any church, look at the woodwork; the pews; the statues; the art. It had to come from someplace or someone’s backbreaking work.

Even more so, take a reverent walk through the cemetery. Check out the last names. Spanish? Indian? Anglo? Italians? Asian? A surprising number of Asian and Italians were part of the Baja frontier. So were the Portugese who joined along as pirates, adventurers, convicts and merchants either voluntarily or involuntarily hoping for a better life in the New World. Remember also, that the Spanish came with slaves.

Check the dates. Life was short and brutal.

If you made it to 30 years, you were pretty much dubbed an elder! Many babies and children are buried as well. Disease and a hard life took many early. Women and girls married early. Many died in childbirth. Men married again. Had more kids. More kids died.

If you see an abundance of deaths close to each other consider an epidemic of smallpox? Measles? An attack by natives? All of that is there to ponder and discover.

Inside many of the churches themselves, are the tombs or relics from the old padres themselves or, in some cases artifacts from the actual saints for which the church is named.

Someone, from thousands of miles away in Europe carefully brought it over. Imagine that journey. Months on a leaky pestilent wooden ship. Overland on foot or animal in the heat in sandals or boots. Mountains. Deserts. Rocks. Insects. Hostile locals. No water.

That’s how they rolled. All for a piece of bone. A bit of vestment from the old country or the old monastery that belonged to the venerated saint.

Yes, those are right there under the brick and cement by the altar. If you can still make out the chiseled lettering…You’re standing on the 300-year-old tomb of the old padre who made that insane journey on a wooden ship from Spain and never made it home again.

If you’re looking for history, look no further than the local house of worship. Just remember that these are still churches and should be treated as such. The ghosts of the past are always willing to speak to you, but don’t forget that the living are still holding Mass…getting married…getting baptized. Church remains the center of life for many as it did centuries ago.

Doff your hat. Keep your voice down. Take it easy with the photography. Drop a few dollars in the poor box. Listen carefully and history will tell you its own story.

Yes you can…maybe!
Admit it. At least once…probably more than once…maybe even several times today, you said to yourself, “I’m gonna blow this place and just move to Mexico!”

Or, you’ve entertained thoughts of simply leaving no trail and vanishing into the Baja to put your toes in the sand; a cold one in your hand and create your own Corona Beer commercial. C’mon. You know you have!

The grass is always greener on the other side. Heck, I’ve lived in Baja almost 20 years and there’s times when even I get fed up and say, “I’m done with this. I want In-N-Out burgers; push-button convenience; and roads that don’t puncture my tires and wreck my suspension.”

But seriously, Baja is high on the “leave-it-all-behind” list. In fact as a whole, Mexico is the No. 1 vacation and retirement destination for Americans. Some have a plan. Some don’t. Some just wing it.

I once met a guy. He was in construction and got crushed in the latest economic fubar a few years back. Frustrated with trying to stay ahead of the game. Decided he’d had it and was going to make his own game.

Sold what was left of his business. Bought a big RV and tied his boat to the back of it. Strapped his surfboards on the roof and came south. No forwarding address.

Last I heard, he was living on the beach south of La Paz on the Pacific side. I won’t tell you where. He actually had a girlfriend come looking for him once who looked me up hoping to locate him. It wasn’t like I had an address or he had a phone.

He had built a little palapa over his RV. He was teaching surfing lessons. He had built a little public shower out of old pallets and bamboo and PVC tubes. Fifty cents for 10 minutes of hot water. Discounts on shower time if brought him a 6 pack of beer!

There was another guy many years ago. His family came down looking for him. His wife had passed. His kids were grown and off doing their own thing. He hadn’t had much contact with them. His exit was a little more dramatic.

All he said was, “I’m driving to Baja.” His family didn’t think much of it. He was retired and was a travelling kind of guy. But, as a former executive, he at least kept in touch with folks.

After five weeks, no one had heard from him.

They came into La Paz putting up “HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MAN?” posters everywhere. It had a fuzzy black and white photo of a smiling guy on an ATV named “Bradley” from Phoenix.

They had been up and down the Baja hanging posters searching for him. As I watched them put one up in front of our offices, I could see the angst, frustration and fatigue. They told me the story. All I could say was that I’d keep my eye out.

Several days later, I happened to be out on the sidewalk and saw a tall scruffy bearded guy in cargo shorts and sandals looking intently at the photo. He saw me looking. He looked back and smiled. I raised an eyebrow at him. You?

He raised a knowing-eyebrow back. Looked back at the faded flyer. Smiled a crooked smile and kept on walking. Hmmm….

Similarly, I’ve run into others who only go “by first name only please!” Or have openly told me they don’t want their photos taken or “I haven’t used my real name in years, and I like it that way.”

Usually said with a laugh. But, they are serious. They have disappeared into the “frontera” (frontier) of the Baja.

Some folks just don’t want to be found. They have their reasons. Some are being chased…family, wife, kids, the IRS. Or not. Others come to chase something else. A vision. A dream. Themselves. Everyone has demons and angels.

I haven’t quite figured out my own motivations for 20 years in Baja myself. I’m still working on it!

The stories can continue. Yes, it can be done. And many do it.

But, most aren’t quite so dramatic or abrupt.

But, before you put out the “closed” sign on your business; bid adios to the U.S.A. and just sail, drive or surf into the Baja sunset, think first.

Don’t crack that beer just yet without some due diligence and a well-thought out exit strategy.

I guess the most important thing. Figure out how you’re gonna eat. As good as beans, tortillas and cerveza were on your vacation, it gets old after awhile. And dorado fillets don’t just jump into your refrigerator.

If you’re not bringing a coffee can full of cash, then it would be a good idea to figure out a source of income.

That means Mexican bank accounts and well, perhaps all the things you were trying to get away from in the first place. Because, you need documents, documents, documents…starting with a passport…immigration forms…and that’s just to start.

If you hated bureaucracy (bureau-CRAZY) in the states, just wait until you get a taste of the Mexican version which is even doubly-mind-boggling, if you’re a gringo.

So much for disappearing because now you’re back “in the system. “ And then there might be taxes to pay. So, you hate the IRS? You may have to now pay taxes in TWO countries.

And don’t forget if you start buying things, like land; a home; a car (with driver’s license of course!) and other things. You’re leaving a trail.

So many have the impression that it’s “looser” in Mexico, but like anywhere else, there’s criminal laws, labor laws, civil laws; property laws, immigration laws etc. And like anywhere else you respect the law.

Compliance isn’t optional. And the last thing you ever want to do is run afoul of Mexican law.

If none of that matters to you and nothing I’ve written has discouraged you, then come ahead! There’s a sandy beach, blue water, the friendliest folks and a lifestyle unlike anything imaginable waiting for you! I’ll buy the first beer. See you down here!

Avoid looking and acting like a tourist in Mexico
Well, we’ve been at this almost 20 years now running our fishing ops here in La Paz and we see almost 1,000 anglers a year. I love to people watch. It occurred to me there’s some tips and observations to pass on about avoiding looking and acting like a tourist.

1. Don’t be afraid to speak Spanish. No matter how limited. Do your best! It’s appreciated and encouraged.

2. Don’t be an idiot and speak “Spanish” by simply adding an “El” to the front of every word or adding “O” to the end of every word. For example, “I want-O el plate-O of el chips-O ” will only get eyes rolling. Don’t laugh. I hear this more often than you think.

3. If someone doesn’t understand what you’re saying in English or Spanish saying it 10 times or saying it LOUDER is not going to help!

4. Don’t be the ugly American and complain out loud and try to make everyone understand YOUR English. Saying, “How come you don’t understand English?” isn’t going to make you any amigos.

5. Lose the sandals or tennis shoes with black socks. Or the leather Thom McAnn shoes with black socks…especially if you’re wearing shorts.

6. Don’t be a cheapskate. Tip for service! Minimum wage in Mexico is about 8 a day! So, even a dollar or two is much appreciated. Ten percent is nice. Fifteen percent rocks!

7. Try to restrain yourself. Starting sentences with “Well, back in America we do it differently” or “Mexico does everything backwards…” is bad form. Don’t be insulting. You’re a guest!

8. Americans love to walk around with shirtless. It took me years to realize, it’s bad manners. Sorta of like coming to dinner wearing your jockey shorts.

9. No one is impressed when you pull out rolls of cash. Be discreet.

10. Smile dangit! It’s universal. Works in all countries. You’re on vacation.

11. Never call someone over with your palm facing up and beckon with your fingers, “Come over here.” That’s how you clean parts of your anatomy. Better with your palm down and beckon with your fingers like you’re pawing.

12. Make a friend for life. Ask to take their photo! Mexicans, especially the ladies, love to have their photos taken and are very photogenic. It’s considered quite a compliment.

13. The universal “bro-handshake” with every cool guy is the casual side-to-side hand slap (low five) followed by the knuckle bump. Try it! Deckhands…captains…waiters…taxi drivers…Now you’re one of the guys!

14. Eat where locals eat. Eat at carts or little hole-in-the-wall places. If there’s others eating there, eat there too! It’s a sure sign that it’s better than the place next door where no one is eating.

15. Try something new on the menu or, if you’re in the company of locals, ask if they’d suggest something. Don’t scrunch up your face when they tell you what it is. Just because it has a strange name, doesn’t mean it tastes bad.

16. For sure, order what they serve. Don’t go to a seafood place and then order the steak that’s way down on the menu. If you want a steak, go to a steak place.

17. There’s no such thing as a “typical Mexican restaurant.” There’s places where locals eat and there’s places where tourists eat. Taxi drivers tell me all the time, that gringos ask for a “typical Mexican restaurant.” The taxi driver doesn’t know what to say. Tell him specifically what kind of food you’re looking for!

18. Lose the camera. Or at least be courteous. Respect privacy and use common sense. Folks love to have their photo taken, but no one likes having a video camera or your big zoom lens zero on them.

19. Share what you have. Bag of chips. Candy. Fishing gear. Fish.

20. Be remembered forever. Leave or bring a gift. A t-shirt with a logo or a baseball hat are highly prized and expensive in Mexico. Especially if it might be something that reminds them of you. Everyone loves souveniers. That shirt from the company picnic will be treasured a long time.

21. Pull up your pants. You might be “gangsta” back home, but locals think you look ridiculous. They’re laughing behind your back. Come to think of it, they’re doing it back home too.

22. “Please” and “Thank you” in Spanish or English is always understood and appreciated. At the very least!

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