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Sometimes taking the more difficult route or the road less traveled is simply part of a grand adventure. This would be the case when I made my annual Christmas migration from my native San Francisco to what I call “my adopted country” of Mexico. For the past 12 years, I have been having a not so secret love affair with the country “south of the border.”
Having a deep affinity for “winging it” without much thought I started the journey with a drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, then a $179.00 one way ticket from Los Angeles to Cabo San Lucas on Alaska Airlines. Let the journey begin! Being a firm believer that Mexico is safe country, as in twelve years of living part of the year in Mexico, I have yet to have a encounters with bandits, drug lords, or over zealous police. Working my way to Puerto Vallarta by any means of transportation was just another adventure in the land of ”tacos and tequila.”
El Arco is Cabo’s famous arches and rock formation known as the Three Friars
Fly from San Francisco to Cabo San Lucas, drive a rental car from Cabo to La Paz, take the ferry from La Paz to Mazatlan, take an 8 hour night bus to Puerto Vallarta. With time of the essence to arrive in P.V. on Christmas eve, this would redefine the quick adventure. On December 14th I would drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, spend one night and fly to Cabo San Lucas, and on December 24th, Christmas Eve would I would need to arrive in Puerto Vallarta. A quick jaunt traversing the Mexican states of Baja Sur, Sinaloa, Nayarit, by any means possible, and finally arriving at my home in Puerto Vallarta, in the state of Jalisco.
Travel 1,000 miles south of San Diego, California and you will reach Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo and La Paz. Offering year round warm weather made the decision to finally visit Baja quite an easy one. Inexpensive flights on Alaska Airlines, three nights courtesy of the Fiesta Americana resort,in an exotic setting. Who could ask for more. Delicious cuisine, sport fishing, surfing, snorkeling and scuba diving, golf, striking rock formations, a vibrant marina, and combine a year round warm climate, and you have paradise. The town has been further made famous by rock musician, Sammy Hagar. Known as the “Red Rocker,” Sammy Hagar has further put Cabo on the map, for the better, I believe, with his Cabo Wabo Cantina and tequila.
Cabo offers something for everyone, in a breathtaking setting, where the Baja desert meets the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez at the tip of the Baja peninsula.
I decided to spend my limited time sunbathing, scuba diving and whale watching
Whale Watch Cabo offers small and private group tours with English speaking biologists and professional photographers. There is nothing like the possibility for an up close encounter with these behemoth mammals. Whales in their natural habitat are quite the specticle. A most enjoyable trip. I was accompanied by a family from Montreal, Canada, and Colin, an Australian student traveling the world on a three year trip. I asked Colin if he had ever seen a whale before. He said, no, but was clearly excited about the opportunity, and mentioned that he had come to Baja specifically to fulfill a dream of a lifetime to get up close with these gentle giants. As good luck would have it, on this warm December day, we were fortunate enough to see two grey whales.
Seeing a whale up close is perhaps a once in a lifetime event
If you’re lucky you just may meet a few Rays on your dive like I did
Scuba Diving in Cabo is an experience of lifetime. The pros at Manta Scuba Diving took me on a wonderful underwater journey to Pulmo Marine Park and Gordo Banks. Now I understand why Jacques Cousteau calls the Sea of Cortez, “the world’s aquarium.” The Sea of Cortez is home to almost 900 species of fish. Here there is 34% of all marine mammal species on earth. One of the best dives of my life. I live to see big fish when I dive. Anytime I can get up close to Rays and other big fish, I consider it a successful dive. Located on the Cabo pier. Manta Scuba took me to special, local spots where the array of sea life was truly spectacular. Manta Rays,Sting Rays, Sharks, Dorado, lined the sea.
Didn’t meet Sammy. Oh well!
Cabo Wabo – What would a trip to Cabo be without a trip to the famous Cabo Wabo. Since being founded in 1990 by Sammy Hagar, Cabo Wabo Cantina has long been one of the most popular places to eat and party in Mexico. As a “rocker” myself, I had pay a visit to Cabo Wabo. Owned by the “Red Rocker” himself, Sammy Hagar. Cabo Wabo is a giant bar complex where you can listen to rock music, sip tequila, and if you’re lucky, see the man himself perform, and sign along to the likes of ”Mas Tequila”. If you want to see both tourists and locals drinking the night away, and love live rock music, the place does not disappoint. Mas Tequila, indeed.
Sun worship on Lover’s and Divorce Beach – These beaches were part of the reason I came to Cabo. Accessible only by panga boats, you must hire a local boat captain on the pier to make the 15 minute ride. Although maybe not the greatest beaches for swimming, if you ever want to feel like you’re in a James Bond movie, this is the place. The signature beaches and arch rock formations of Cabo is where the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean meet, in a truly remarkable setting on white sand beaches. A great venue to watch the sun go down with a cold drink in hand.
Mariscos Mazatlan was a pleasant surprise of tasty seafood, fresh from the sea. I have discovered that referrals by Mexican locals can be hit and miss. You never know what you’re going to get. But this place offered large portions of seafood, spicy seafood cocktails, Ahi Tuna and more. The seafood cocktail was loaded with succulent shrimp and could have been a meal in itself. The sea bass in white wine melts in your mouth. The reviews seem to be mixed on this place, but my personal experience was large portions or fresh from the sea, fish and shell fish cooked to perfection.
El Torito De Los Mariscos was another seafood restaurant which came highly recommended, and did not disappoint. Mounds of fresh seafood. One can share a meal and be full. In Cabo you will never go hungry, as I was learning. One can see why Mexico is such a happy country. From fresh seafood to street tacos, food is in no short order.
Another favorite eatery among the tourist is Nick San, an upscale sushi and Japanese restaurant. Although pricy by Mexican standards, the sushi is some of the best and freshest sushi that I have ever tasted. Nick San is known for some of the most innovative sushi and Nouveau Japanese cooking that you will find. Minimalist decor with a rich wood interior accompanied by sophisticated Japanese delicacies. Sushi as an art form? The presentation was better than I have ever seen, including Tokyo. If you’re going to splurge a bit, do so at Nick San.
Japanese culinary bliss
After spending three days in Cabo, it was time to move on. The next part of the journey would be renting a car and driving from Cabo to La Paz. This stretch of the journey on a two lane road with the Pacific Ocean on one side, and desert cactus on the other would prove to be one of favorite drives. Since I have not traveled much in the Southwest of America, cactus, long, lean, and prickly was new to me, and seeing cactus almost touching the beach was a new travel scenery to me.
Perfect waves and beach, driving to Todo Santos town
Clearly the highlight of this part of the journey was the town of Todos Santos (all saints) and surrounding beaches, known for its big waves on a sleepy, laid back surfer beach and as an artist community. There is an abundance of small artisan shops and open-air restaurants, all surrounding the colonial downtown district. The town was put on the map by the legendary Eagles song, Hotel California. But, the truth is as Eagles front man, Don Henley claims, there is no association to the hotel. But, it makes for a good story. Yes, in this quaint art center exists the famous or not so famous Hotel California. The beautifully restored hotel was the highlight of this two hour drive. Have a drink at the bar and take pictures of this refurbished masterpiece. I still drove away singing the words and feeling the Eagles vibe. “On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair, warm smell of colitas rising up through the air.” One can easily spend a few hours shopping and walking the streets of Todos Santos.
Mexican charm at the Hotel California
Cactus meets the beach
La Paz is a city of more than 200,000 citizens, with plenty of activities, excursions and a nice slow pace with year round warm weather. This tranquil seaside setting remains authentically Mexican. The downtown boardwalk is the center of it all, attracting locals and visitors, who stroll at a leisurely pace absorbing the tranquil life of La Paz. Restaurants, cafés and galleries are all located within walking distance, allowing visitors to explore every inch by foot, if desired. Many U.S. and Canadian expats now call La Paz their year round home. If you like a relaxed setting away from the hustle and bustle of Cabo, La Paz is a peaceful town with a nice malecon, (boardwalk). The outer beaches of Balandra, Tecolote and Pichilingue were not only warm with crystal clear waters, but also quite secluded. It appeared as if laid back La Paz has been forgotten by the hordes of travelers staying in Cabo.
The Sea of Cortez
Wedged between the Baja California Peninsula and the mainland of Mexico is the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez. Called the “world’s aquarium” by Jacques Cousteau, this is one of the most diverse seas on Earth. This stretch of sea is home to species representing one-third of Earth’s marine mammals. Unique creatures that exist only here include the vaquita harbor porpoise, the world’s smallest aquatic mammal and the most endangered of all cetaceans.
Espiritu Santo – Paradise – Undiscovered in the Sea of Cortez
It’s difficult to believe that any stretch of beach in Mexico is as secluded as the islands in Baja Sur. Off of La Paz lies a collection of small islands. The most accessible is Espiritu Santo. This is easily the most visited and photographed island in Baja. These small islands lie 15 miles from La Paz. Boats can be chartered from the Marina in La Paz. The Unesco protected area is filled with sea life. The turquoise waters and white sandy beaches are a must visit to any Baja visit. I did this trip in one day. But, this could easily be a two to three day trip. If you don’t want to get a local boat captain to take you out, check out Baja.com and, Baja Expeditions offers one to five day tours. There are no hotels, but travelers can sleep in the small vessel’s eight tents from around $260.00 per person per night.
The old man of the Sea of Cortez – Sinaloa Star – Baja Ferry
Ferry From La Paz to Mazatlan
The night boat from La Paz to Mazatlan costs around $80.00 per person for a private room. Buy your tickets in advance for the overnight ferry ride from La Paz to the mainland city of Mazatlan, or you will wait in line at the ticket office, which is an unorganized mess. Print out your ticket well in advance and carry them with you. I made the mistake of not printing my tickets and it took a good hour to figure out that I did indeed prepay for my ticket. Hordes of Mexican locals and a few foreigners make the 12 hour journey. Be sure to get a berth, as you’ll want your own room for this overnight journey. Getting your own room is well worth it, as from time to time people fall asleep on tables, floors, and in the hallways and wake up to missing belongings. There are two restaurants on board. One is a cafeteria style restaurant, and the other has a sit down menu. The cafeteria style restaurant is very popular with the locals and has long lines. The more expensive option is a sit down restaurant, and is a nice place to hang out and spend some time before bedtime complete with private dining along with a wine list, and a la carte menu complete with sharply-dressed Mexican waiters to serve you. Someone mentioned that there is a disco on board, but I opted to sleep. For tickets go to the Baja Ferry web site.
Arriving in the port of Mazatlan in the a.m. is very desirable, especially when you do not have a room reserved. Mazatlan once a spring break haven is no longer very crowded with young college students. Mazatlan now has become more of a retirement community for older Canadians and Americans. More Canadians, or so it seemed. I quickly discovered the Hotel Belmar, I would call home for the next three nights. For around $40.00 I was able to get an ocean view room with a private balcony. One aspect I enjoy about living on the Pacific side of Mexico is listening to waves crashing on the beach at night. The hotel is also walking distance to old town. Like many Mexican modern cities Mazatlan has a charming “old town” with cobblestone streets complete with 19th century old buildings. Plaza and main squares of Mexican cities and towns are the essence of life in Mexico and most of the Latin world. Mazatlán is one of Mexico’s older cities and a wonderful walking city. Visitors can stroll more than 20 blocks of Spanish colonial architecture, which is a unique blend of Mexican history. Most of the buildings are well over 100 years old.
Mazatlan life revolves around its big malecon beach front boardwalk. Chances are you will stay at one of the hotels facing the beach boardwalk or a few blocks off the beach. Mazatlan’s nickname is the “Pearl of the Pacific.” A charming town, rich in history. The city has 11 continuous miles of beach and the best hotels are along the boardwalk called the “Golden Zone.” Mazatlan is a laid back town. One of the first Mexican beach communities destinations that lured in Americans to a Mexican way of life.
When the taco chef needed a break, I gladly filled in. Tacos al Pastor are one of the many scrumptious treats of Mexico.
Mazatlan, like most Mexican cities , is all about food. On a happiness scale, Mexicans are among happiest people in the world. Living in Mexico part of the year, I never tire of the local cuisine. Fresh sea food is everywhere. Succulent shrimp dishes cooked in just about any way you like, grilled fish, and just about anything you may wish from the sea, carne asada, tomales, tacos, carnitas, and more.
Dine on the beach at Los Flores. Eat at Joe’s Oyster bar and baraka restaurant.
Bus Ride from Mazatlan to Puerto Vallarta
Contrary to popular belief, Mexican buses are quite clean and the cheapest way to travel the country. Most of the buses are in good shape, and on the newer side. Seats even recline. As in most large countries, you just may be the only foreigners on board. Thus was the case on the overnight bus on the last leg of my journey. As I really did not have time to stop along the way, and have driven part of this ride before, taking a night bus was the efficient way to travel. Mexico, unlike most large travel countries, does not have the most efficient air routes, as almost all domestic flights route through Mexico City. I find the night buses the perfect way to travel. Arrive at the bus station early as schedules can be off. The night bus departed Mazatlan’s central bus station at around 12 midnight and arrived in Puerto Vallarta eight hours later. Mazatlan to Puerto Vallarta by bus costs around $30.00. Be prepared for delays. The same bus was late arriving into Mazatlan from Puerto Vallarta, as many times is the case. Delays are not uncommon in Mexico. I’ve learned to go with the flow. Mexico is a relatively safe country, as long as take some precaution and use common sense. The road less traveled provided me a way to explore new destinations in the country that seemingly has adopted me.
After 9 days of traveling in Mexico, it was “home sweet home.” Puerto Vallarta is where I spend the winter and Puerto Vallarta and Rivera Nayarit, just to the north of P.V., offers a little something for everyone. A foodie’s dream town, complete with its own food festival. To the north are beautiful beaches for swimming and surfing. Venture south and you have mountains and jungle. Truly, Mexico’s “crown jewel” is Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit. Excellent for fishing, surfish, scuba diving, boating and just relaxing on the beach. I love this city so much, not only because I love the ocean as a surfer and scuba diver, but also for the kindness of the people.
Puerto Vallarta is filled with excellent restaurants. Try El Arrayan, La Dolce Vita, Takos Panchos, Barcelona Tapas, Sonora Grill, Café des Artistes, Kansai Sushi, Las Adelitas, Desantos, Mariscos Tinos, Archie’s Wok, Agave Grill, Daiquir Dick’s, La Palapa to name a few of my favorite local hangouts and hot spots. The Cuban restaurant and dance club, La Bodeguita Del Medio, just may be as close to Cuba as you may get.
Puerto Vallarta is an artist town with many fine art galleries. Galleria Dante represents many Mexican and foreign artists. The town of Sayulita to the north in Riviera Nayarit has the most perfect waves to learn how to surf. Head south tothe boat only accessible beach of Yelapa, and you’ll feel like Robinson Crusoe, about as remote as one can get in the Puerto Vallarta area.
Always good to be “home sweet home.”
My favorite beach and my club house is on Destiladeras Beach located around 22 miles to the north of Puerto Vallarta in Punta Mita, Riviera Nayarit
Baja and the west coast of Mexico are served by most major airlines from most U.S. and Canadian gateways. The airline code is SJD for Cabo San Lucas. Fly within Mexico from Mexico City and Guadalajara.
For more information on Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, Mazatlan, Riviera Nayarit, and Puerto Vallarta visit:
About the Author: Nick Kontis – Travel Expert and Founder of the World Travel List
Nick Kontis started out as a world traveler at an early age traveling back and forth between California and Greece every summer. But it was a backpacking trip around the world at age 24 that proved to be a life changing experience. After traveling by car, train, plane, bike and, boat around the world, it would be this trip of a lifetime that would lead to a life as a travel entrepreneur and world traveler. Nick has been on both radio and television. Featured on Arthur Frommer’s television show, and referred by Lonely Planet writers. Frequently mentioned as the “father of around the world airfares.” Arthur Frommer once said, “If Jules Verne were alive today he would use Nick to go around the world in 80 days.” Nick and his various travel companies have sent over 10,000 people taking their dream trip through airfare discounts of as much as 50% off the airlines published fares. Now Nick promotes travel through his World Travel List and ‘Trip Rambler’ by World Travel List. Having traveled to over 80 countries Nick hopes to inspire others to travel the world. Follow Nick’s “passion for travel” on the World Travel List.