Sunday, April 20, 2014

Semana Sante in Loreto Bay

Semana Sante, or Holy Week, is one of the biggest Holidays on the calendar here in Mexico, and as I begin to write this on Good Friday here in Loreto Bay that fact is apparent from the absence of almost all of the maintenance and construction workforce that would normally be here, but are now on holidays for this long weekend.  In the town of Loreto, Government Offices and many businesses including Banks are  closed for the 3 - 5 day weekend as well.  On the other hand, the Hotel here in Loreto Bay is busier this weekend than any other time since Christmas with mainly Mexican guests, and there are also a number of local Loreto families who have come to Loreto Bay just to enjoy a day at the Beach.   

Coincidentally, this weekend also marks the approximate beginning of the exodus of the "snowbird" residents, some of whom have started to leave Loreto to return to their summer homes back north and so there is an air of preparation for their departure in the community.  This can be seen as some people who drive back and forth are loading their vehicles for the drive north, while others store their cars for the summer months and catch flights departing from Loreto or Cabo.

The topics of some casual conversations have changed as well.  Earlier in the Season it was common to hear people meeting each other on the street asking "When did you arrive?", while now more often the question is "When are you leaving?"  There are of course many others who have arrived more recently and are staying longer, or who come and go several times throughout the year and operate on a different schedule.  But the trend is clear, and it will continue over the next month or so as this Season begins to wind down and the Summer Season begins.

As someone who stays here longer than most, this transition time leaves me with several impressions.  First of all, I am struck by the fact that the weather here at this time of year is about the best it has been since I returned here in the Fall - mainly calm sunny days and mild evenings that are even more enjoyable since we have "sprung forward" only a couple of weeks ago, joining the rest of North America on Daylight Saving Time, with the extended hour of late afternoon/early evening. 

The warmer weather also brings with it milder water temperatures and a resulting increase in water sports like snorkeling and paddle boarding, along with other water related activities like fishing.  I have heard recent reports of prized Dorados being caught along with more people chartering for fishing trips as the warmer waters attract the summer species of sport fish to the Marine Park surrounding Loreto.

While some of the winter residents prepare to leave, another segment of the population is becoming more
and more noticeable, and that is the Visitors whose numbers have increased significantly this Season, due in large part to the increased availability of flights to Loreto this winter, as compared to the past several years.  This influx of people renting Loreto Bay homes has been one of the biggest changes this Season, made more obvious now as Homeowners who have been here for months begin to leave.  This has also brought about a shift in the ages of the people who we see in Loreto Bay - from a mainly retired early Baby Boomer demographic, to a much more diverse range including young families with pre-school kids and younger "Boomers", many of whom are scouting possible future retirement options.    

In my Real Estate work I have met many more such people this Season than in previous years, and I continue to enjoy the almost unanimous enthusiasm they express about having "found" such a unique and beautiful destination.  These positive impressions are due in part to the fact that our Community has never looked better than it does now that many of the infrastructure features have been completed in the past couple of years.  This was a result of the Home Owners Association's initiatives to complete landscaping and build additional Community Pools and generally improve the overall appearance of Loreto Bay.

There are also other signs of progress that help to create the positive impressions that many first time Visitors have, like the progress on the two Posada buildings at the center of the Founders Neighborhood (as described in a recent Guest Blog by Nellie Hutchison the Broker/Owner of Loreto Bay Homes: ) and the continuing work on a growing number of Custom Homes that are now being completed.  On a smaller scale, but in greater numbers, there is also the continuing work being done to maintain and/or renovate existing homes, with cosmetic plaster repairs and fresh paint as well as bigger projects like tiling terraces and adding other custom features. 

Importantly, there have also been some homes that have been in "limbo" for a number of years, that have been purchased by new Owners who are making the necessary improvements to turn what were vacant, and in some cases deteriorating homes, into beautiful assets that add to the overall positive impressions of Loreto Bay.  With this transition, new ownership brings enthusiastic and committed people into our Community - whose influence and energy will continue to build on the positive atmosphere that has been one of the most important attributes we have had since the uncertain days that followed the sea change that affected most Real Estate developments like this four or five years ago.

And so, as one Season draws to a close as yet another begins, and the growing population of winter Residents begin to take their leave of their Loreto homes, while more and more Visitors experience the appeals of this special place for the first time.  This change of Season is a good moment to take stock of how far we have come, and how bright a future we will enjoy, as we continue the adventure that is . . .  "Living Loreto"!        

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Loreto Bay has gone to the Dogs!

To say that the Loreto Bay community is dog friendly would be an understatement, and that status was never made more clear than this past weekend when the first annual Baja Bark and Run was held by the Loreto Bay Volunteers.  This event, which was a 1, 2 and 5 k walk/run, with or without canine accompaniment, has been in the planning for over a year and the time and effort that has gone into it was apparent as I approached the Golf Course Clubhouse Sunday morning, half an hour before the scheduled 11:00 am start.

The Clubhouse courtyard and the grassy area between the Clubhouse and the driving range had been taken over by over 50 Vendor booths for the occasion, most of them sheltered under shade tents, and the entire area surrounding the Clubhouse was populated with what appeared to be an equal number of dogs and their owners, most of whom were sporting numbered bibs indicating their participation in the races to come.  

There had been a registration-breakfast for the almost 150 "runners" taking part at 10:00 am and the 5 km race was scheduled to start at 11:00 followed by the 2 and 1 km starts at 15 minute intervals. The course looped around Agua Viva (the second phase of Loreto Bay) following the front nine holes of the Golf Course in reverse of the normal direction of play and the different lengths of the race were marked by colored balloons.  The first group off was the 5 k runners who first assembled on the first tee box and then were escorted across the Paseo for the start on the cart path adjacent to the ninth green by Maryanne, one of the key organizers of the event, subtly disguised in a full body dog costume!

Ironically, this "cross dressing" was a predominant theme for the day - mainly manifested by a large
percentage of the dogs dressed up in various costume pieces, but occasionally by their owners who adopted some "doggy bits" as their wardrobe accents for the occasion.  Not being a dog owner myself, I should probably withhold comment, but I have to say I am conflicted between the alternatives of whether the dogs are unaware of their costumed appearance - or if they actually enjoy being dressed up!  Regardless, it was apparent that everyone, including the dogs, were thoroughly enjoying the excitement of the activities.

The 2 k and 1 k events were started in turn, and I was struck by the large number of Mexican kids and their dogs that were taking part in the shorter distances.  Participation by the Mexican community in the town of Loreto had been actively encouraged by the organizers, including collecting donations to offset the 300 peso ($23 US) registration fee so it would be open to all who wanted to participate.  This integration of local Loretanos with the ex-pat community is an important aspect of more and more activities here in Loreto Bay, and I believe it is a healthy sign of the growing acceptance and harmony between the two communities.

After the participants for all the distances had been started, I made my way back to the Clubhouse area to find that there were at least at least twice as many non-competitors milling around the vendor's booths as the numbers of people actually taking part running in the events.  In addition to the registration fees that were collected from the runner/walkers, part of the fundraising was from the rental of booth space for sponsors, businesses and other organizations looking for exposure and good-will.  Businesses from both Loreto Bay and the town were offering their wares including snacks, and food carts, as well as fundraising and public relations booths for different organizations including the Amigos de Loreto umbrella organization that co-ordinates much of the charity efforts of this community.

Which is a good opportunity to point out that in addition to the fun and community-building aspects of this inaugural Baja Bark event, the underlying purpose of all of the many volunteer's time and efforts were to raise funds for the Loreto Bay Volunteers, who have become a very active group within our development and organize many activities and co-ordinate between Homeowners wanting to contribute support and the many worthwhile organizations in and around the town of Loreto who can benefit from that help.  The Volunteer's focus their efforts in four main areas: Animals, Children, Environment and Community and the proceeds from this event alone will raise over 90,000 pesos ($7,000 US) and provide benefits in all of these areas.

When all of the "races" had been completed and the participants had returned to the Clubhouse area there were many presentations of recognition to the various permutations of finishers who then were able to draw a prize from the many contributions from booth sponsors as well as the business community at large in the town and Loreto Bay itself.  The afternoon continued as the almost 500 estimated in attendance browsed among the different booths and sampled the food and drinks available, while enjoying the opportunity for person and dog to socialize together on another perfect day in Loreto Bay.

Around mid-afternoon Loreto Bay's favorite minstrels, Los Beach Dogs, started to entertain in the
Clubhouse Courtyard and they were soon joined by enthusiastic dancers, taking advantage of what will be one of the final performances of our resident "rock and roll gods" for this Season.  And so went the rest of the afternoon, a delightful combination of kids and puppies, good food and cold drinks, browsing for souvenirs and treasures, and enjoying the company of friends and neighbors, many of whom were accompanied by their four-legged family members.

The timing of the Baja Bark probably marks the beginning of the end of another Season here in Loreto Bay, although our village is still buzzing with people and activity, and will continue to do so for the next month or two.  But as winter residents begin to pack up their homes in preparation for returning to where they spend their summer months, this will likely be one of the last big events of its kind until the Fall.  And given the charitable aspect, it is also a fitting way for the growing Loreto Bay community to bid "HASTA LUEGO" to their adopted winter home for the summer, leaving behind their generous support of many good works that the town of Loreto will benefit from now and in the future.  Which brings a unique perspective to bringing together our community's love of "man's best friend" with their desire to give back to the people who share this beautiful place with us - yet another way we all benefit from "Living Loreto"!     

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Mega Yachts come to Loreto!

Last weekend I was with a group of friends on a boat returning to the Marina in the town of Loreto from Coronado Island when we spotted two large "Mega Yachts" anchored offshore from the town.  Due to other boat traffic in the area our view was blocked until we were almost "abeam" of the two of them anchored some distance apart.  I first saw the more traditional of them which we were closest to before my attention was drawn by the other one a few hundred yards distant.

About twenty years ago I used to bare boat charter sailboats for holidays and for a number of years during that time I was a faithful subscriber to Yachting Magazine, where I avidly read articles and poured over photographs of state of the art Yachts.  A vivid memory from one of those sailboat holidays was seeing a yacht called Pegasus, that I had seen a feature article on, leaving the same harbor we were entering in the British Virgin Islands.  Although it has been many years since I had thought much about the rarified world of super Yachts, I found those memories coming back as we passed between these two floating palaces that had chosen Loreto as their however brief anchorage.

It was the other Yacht that was further away that commanded most of the attention from our boat, due to the radically distinctive design - I could tell, even from the distance we were, that it was probably a significant internationally known vessel, and that in turn raised a number of questions including: which Yacht was it, how big, and how much did it cost, among others!  As you can see from the hurried pictures I took as we passed, most of the rear transom was in a lowered position creating a dock across the stern of the ship and there was another opening on the starboard side where a motorboat tender was suspended, presumably in position to be stored inboard behind the lowered "door" that would close off the hull for travel.

By the time that I looked back to the first boat we had seen we were passing astern of it but I was able to glimpse the name "Ostar", which brings me to the other half of this story - Ostar is the name of Carlos Slim's Hotel division that is now the owner of the Loreto Bay Golf Resort and Spa.  While I have heard previously of numerous sightings of Sr. Slim's Yacht being anchored offshore around Loreto, this was the first time I had seen it "up close and personal" due to the coincidence of my being in the right place at the right time that afternoon returning to the Marina.

I was thinking back over this experience a few days later when my curiosity got the better of me and I
decided to try to find out what I could learn about these two massive Yachts from an internet search.  It did not take long to discover that the identity of the more unique of the two boats was in fact "Venus" and my hunch proved to be accurate regarding it's pedigree, it had been built for Steve Jobs (of Apple Computer fame) but it was completed a year after he had passed away and now belonged to his estate and wife Laurene.  Venus is 78 meters (255 feet) long, has a crew of 22 and can accommodate 12 (very indulged) Guests - at a cost of about $140,000,000 US!

In doing this research I quickly discovered that Venus was indeed quite a famous Yacht, the unique result of a collaboration between Steve Jobs (who was notorious for his attention to detail and design sense) working with international designer by Philippe Starck for over 5 years while it was being built at Feadship, a luxury Yacht constructor based in Holland.  It attracts attention worldwide wherever it goes and is apparently being repositioned to California, with Loreto, no doubt, being a pause in a Sea of Cortez side trip enroute.  I was even able to find this brief video (click the picture below to play) which gives an even better idea of the size and beauty of this vessel.

Although only by comparison, Ostar could almost be described as "modest" - in the league that Venus finds herself floating.  Built over 15 years ago in 1998, she is 52 meters (170 feet) long, has crew of 11 and can carry 11 Guests in 5 cabins.  Much less information is available online for Slim's boat, but one bit of trivia I found that puts this floating palace into somewhat sharper perspective is that it has a fuel capacity of 100,000 liters (26,500 gallons) and 5 years ago, when it was called Soulmate and was available for charter (presumably before Slim purchased it), you could hire it for between $200,000 and $250,000 per WEEK! 

Whether it was a coincidence that both these vessels were anchored off the town of Loreto on the same afternoon, and who was aboard, is open to any amount of speculation you may choose to indulge in.  But while Ostar has visited Loreto numerous times in the past, and, as Sr. Slim's business interests here continue to develop, will probably continue to be seen here more often in the future, the presence of a world class private Yacht like Venus on the same day is even more curious.  But regardless, on that day, returning from an idyllic afternoon spent on the beach at Coronado Island, it was one of those "Loreto Moments" to all of a sudden be surrounded by super Yachts, as we return to the modest Loreto Marina.  But "quien sabe" (who knows) perhaps this is a portent of what may become a more familiar part of "Living Loreto"!   

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Accidental Tourist

From the beginning of this Blog over 5 years ago I have maintained a positive point of view about Loreto in general and Loreto Bay in particular, following my dear Mother's advice "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all".  So this week's posting is somewhat of a departure, as it deals with a serious topic and I think it includes lessons that some residents and visitors alike could benefit from.

A recent visitor to Loreto Bay who has been reading the Blog for years and has visited here several times, after being introduced to the place during the marketing phase of the Development, came into my Office the other day and told me this story, suggesting that he thought it might be a good Blog topic.  I agreed, as it points out a real concern of mine that I think some visitors and residents here may not be taking as seriously as they should - responsibility and liability issues for foreign drivers in Mexico.

Different than in the US and Canada, Mexico operates under the Napoleonic Code - in effect you are guilty until proven innocent, which is why automobile insurance is so important for foreign drivers.  When I drive my Canadian registered vehicle into Mexico I have a supplementary Mexican Insurance policy that provides coverage while I am in Mexico.  However, unlike most North American policies, this insurance is specific to the policy holder NOT the vehicle.  So if I want to let another Driver use my car my insurance carrier requires me to write a letter (in Spanish and English) that specifically authorizes that person by name, address and drivers license number to drive the car, and keep this letter in the vehicle with the policy, for them to be covered by my insurance.     

While no one likes to think about the "bad" things that could happen while in a Foreign country, I think there are perhaps lessons for all of us in Don's story, which he has called; The Accidental Tourist.

After flying into Cabo and renting a car Don, his wife Ramona and 16 year old son Lucas drove to Loreto
Bay with an overnight stay in La Paz.  On arrival they unloaded their things and then headed into town for dinner, on their way Don had noticed the recently widened road that extends several km south of town, but at that time the new highway had not been painted with lane markings.  So on the return trip in the dark, without street lights or lane markings, Don thought he was being cautious by keeping in the right lane away from oncoming traffic.  However, in the dark, approaching a two lane bridge (which has not been widened to the new highway width) he only realized to late that he was about to drive off the end of the widened lane he was in and land in the arroyo, or dry riverbed.

The car crashed nose first, air bags deployed, seat belts locked up, but everyone survived - however Ramona had serious back pain, Lucas had the wind knocked out of him and Don was in some degree of shock from the sudden unexpected crash.  Getting help was his first instinct and so he scrambled back up onto the highway, over a barrier sign that had apparently been blown over in the high winds (but could have prevented the accident had it been in place) and tried to flag down approaching cars.  Much to his frustration no cars stopped so, with the help of Lucas, they moved the barrier sign into the oncoming traffic lane which finally stopped the next car.

With the assistance of the car's driver, who spoke some English, the Police and Ambulance were called and both arrived quickly from the nearby town.  Ramona was carefully removed from the car and put on a backboard for transport to the Loreto Hospital, where she was given a preliminary check, but they explained that their X-Ray equipment wasn't working and she would have to be transported to the larger Hospital in Constitution, two hours south by the Ambulance, to be fully checked out. 

While these arrangements were being made, Don paid the emergency treatment bill for 775 pesos (about $60 USD) and agreed to pay the 2,000 pesos (about $150 USD) for the return Ambulance trip, but before he and Lucas boarded the Ambulance with Ramona, the Federal Police Officer took him aside and, with help from someone the Officer called on his cell who acted as a translator, explained that he would let Don go with his wife in the Ambulance but he had to surrender his Driver's License.      

It was explained to Don through the interpreter that when you have a car accident in Mexico, even a single vehicle accident, blame is assigned and as the driver of the car he was to be "detained" until a report was filed. The Officer did not want to detain Don and would allow some leniency as long as he promised to report to the Nopolo Policia Federal office the next day.  Despite the language barrier, it was clear to Don that everyone involved was trying to be as helpful as possible, and the Officer even offered to loan Don some cash, but he didn't think he needed it. 

After a long and cautious drive through the night to the Hospital in Constitution, Ramona and Lucas were checked out and X-Rayed and it was confirmed that there were no serious injuries or fractures and after receiving some meds for the pain they were released for the return trip to Loreto.  But first Don had to settle the Hospital bill which, after a failed attempt to charge it on his credit card, was adjusted down by the Hospital to equal the remaining 2,500 pesos cash he had on hand.  After another long, but uneventful, trip back to Loreto Bay Don and his family finally arrived back at their rented Villa in Loreto Bay about 5:30 am and got a few hours sleep before Don got up the next morning to deal with the legalities from the accident the night before.

One of his first steps was to contact his Visa Credit Card, through which he had booked the trip and paid for the car rental, and they confirmed that they would cover the medical expenses and the full insurance he had purchased from Cactus Car Rental in San Jose would cover the damages to the car.  He then contacted the Car Rental and explained that there had been an accident and the car had been totaled and was now impounded and they made arrangements to send a representative and a replacement car to Loreto.  Don then contacted Dennis Guadalupe at 411 Solutions Office on the Paseo in Loreto Bay, who offers translation among other services, to assist him and they went to the Police Station to handle the necessary paperwork.

What followed over the next few days was a typically bureaucratic Mexican procedure that involved Don paying a 3,000 peso ( $230 USD) fine for his responsibility in the accident and the Rental Company delivering a replacement car and paying the impound fee to get the damaged car released to haul it back to San Jose, after a 4 hour round trip to Santa Rosalia to get the necessary paperwork done.  While the expression "All's well that ends well" might be an oversimplification, I am pleased to report that Don and his family are all doing well and enjoyed the remainder of their holiday in Loreto Bay, following their experiences on this visit, so I think it is appropriate that I conclude this more serious Blog post with a few words of conclusion from Don:

"This has been a lesson in Mexican medical care, their laws, their bureaucratic process and the multiple departments involved. Throughout it all there has been one consistent silver lining, and that is the kindness, compassion and patience shown to our family by everyone involved in Loreto, Nopolo, Constitucion, San Jose & Loreto Bay. What an awesome community.

In closing here are the things I am thankful for and would recommend  to anyone travelling in the Baja:

·         I purchased a Mexican Travel phone plan which was invaluable.
·         I purchased the extra collision and liability insurance required for car rentals which covered all damages, tow fees and the replacement car.
·         I used my Travel VISA card to pay for the flight and car rental which covers all medical expenses and any expenses not covered on the car rental primary insurance.
·         I engaged the help of Dennis & Chris at 411 for translation assistance which reduced my stress and anxiety as I knew what was happening every step of the way.

Thanks Drew, for allowing me to tell my story and hopefully help anyone who comes upon a similar circumstance in Loreto. "Living Loreto" means you are in a community that will support you when needed."

In conclusion, and continuing with Don's positive tone, I would like to share a link to one of several recent newspaper articles that have appeared in the US and Canada about Loreto, while I may quibble about some of the details in these articles, I cannot argue with the tone and enthusiasm that they express about this place I call home, enjoy:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Food and Wine . . .and more!

Sometimes timing and circumstances conspire to challenge my aim to deliver a regular and up to date snapshot about what has been going on here in Loreto Bay - like in the case of one of the "signature" events that has been held here for the past three years, the Loreto Food & Wine Festival which took place yesterday afternoon.  With my self-imposed schedule of posting by noon on Sundays, Blog worthy happenings on the weekend pose an obvious challenge between my wanting to make the post timely and the simple logistics of getting it done between when it took place and my publishing deadline.  So with that said, here is my offering, composed Sunday morning within about 12 hours of this event taking place.

For the second year this Festival was held on the grounds of the Loreto Bay Golf Resort and Spa, which is now under new management since it became part of Carlos Slim's empire late last year.  For the first time it was planned as an afternoon event between 1 and 6 pm, rather than the afternoon/evening timing of the previous two Festivals.  Once again, about 14 local restaurants provided samples of specialties served from tented booths set up in the patio gardens of the Hotel and four regional wineries were in attendance serving their vintages by the glass and bottle as well as offering special discounts for case and half case quantities. 

 In addition to the enjoyment of food and wine that is the obvious focus of this celebration, it also is one of the biggest charity fund raising events of the winter season for a variety of local causes that will benefit from the proceeds.  To that end there was a large Silent Auction of mainly locally produced arts and crafts, many of which were donated by members of the ex-pat community and a live auction of two premiere offerings; weekend accommodations at the Hilton Los Cabos Beach and Golf Resort with a dinner at H Restaurant in San Jose del Cabo, and a weekend charter on a 60' Houseboat on Lake Roosevelt in Washington State.

It is also a high profile occasion for entertainment, this year featuring two local bands; Aguas Negra, a Loreto based group of musicians, and Loreto Bay's own Los Beach Dogs who have become one of the most popular attractions among the ex-pat community and beyond.  The combination of these two groups illustrated the vibrant local music scene and the high level of talent that we enjoy here between the Mexican and Foreign communities.  A fact that was underlined by the exchange of musicians between the two groups during the afternoon's performances, with members of each "sitting in" during the other's sets, to the obvious appreciation of those in attendance who kept the dance area in front of the bandstand filled during most of the afternoon.            

When I arrived about a half an hour before the 1:00 pm start time, final preparations were underway at the food booths with the fragrant smell of Mesquite smoke from several wood fired grills mixing with the careful display of previously prepared samples of a mouthwatering selection of local delicacies ranging from Mexican style chicken mole and chilles rellenos to ribs, clams, sushi and sashimi, topped off with an impressive and tempting display of deserts.  Volunteers were busily making final preparations to the various ticket booths and check in counters, while the wineries were arranging their displays of product and the bands were doing final sound checks of their equipment.

By 1:00 a lineup had formed through the lobby of the Hotel as people arrived for the afternoon's event and they filed past a table affixing their wristband passes, depositing a numbered tab for later raffle draws, receiving a souvenir glass and a sample service of sparkling wine to get the festivities underway.  Drink tickets were available for purchasing wines, beers, soft drinks and water and people soon began mingling, finding tables, and checking out the food selections soon to be available.  The Silent Auction area was a popular venue with a steady flow of potential buyers, and as more and more people arrived the large pool/patio area of the Hotel was soon mainly filled with Festival patrons who far outnumbered the regular Hotel guests who must have been curious with the transformation of their otherwise sparsely occupied resort.

Soon Aguas Negra took to the stage with gusto and played several high energy sets of classic rock and blues mixed with some more traditional Mexican style numbers.  In a small town like Loreto there are few local musicians that can make a living just from their music, most have "regular" businesses or jobs and play as a creative outlet, perhaps covering their equipment investment and expenses from occasional paying "gigs".  So in addition to enjoying the music, many in the audience know some of the musicians in their other roles, like Gustavo who played lively percussion with the band and is familiar to many of us as the owner of a popular local furniture and decor store.

After most people had arrived and found a beverage and a table, the food booths were opened and
hundreds of hungry patrons converged on the 14 participating members of the Loreto Restaurant Association, filling plates with the buffet of sample specialties they were offering.  The afternoon's enjoyment of delicious foods and drinks, music, and lively socializing was complimented by the weather which was unusually overcast with a thin layer of high clouds, filtering the otherwise strong sun which has been raising daily temperatures here into the 80's most days, as early spring weather has been warmer than usual for this time of year.       

Later Los Beach Dogs took over the stage and performed their smoothly professional repertoire of classic rock and blues, accented with several of their own compositions, which have become crowd favorites among this audience.  Some of whom have developed almost "groupie" like enthusiasm for these "local heroes" whose diverse musical backgrounds have melded together into an ensemble that provides many of us who live here with what has become a sound track for our Loreto lifestyle.    

My small contribution as a decidedly amateur
Auctioneer raised a substantial contribution to the eventual charitable fundraising totals for the day, but this event could never have taken place without the enthusiastic support of many hardworking volunteers, some of whom have spent many hours over several months organizing this day.  And so the afternoon continued, with return sets by both bands, featuring some of the members of both groups joining each other for variety which encouraged enthusiastic dance participation from many of those in attendance.  While conversation and socializing was the activity of the day for the rest.

After several raffles for gift certificates, sponsored by many of the participating restaurants, the afternoon turned into early evening and another successful Wine and Food Festival came to it's conclusion by 6:00 pm. Leaving sufficient daylight for most of us to wander through the landscaped pathways back to our Loreto Bay homes with the feeling that we had both enjoyed a beautiful afternoon of food and drink and made an important contribution to the community that we have adopted as our winter home.  Bringing together the enjoyment of good food and drink, with local music, arts and crafts, and resulting in raising significant funds being raised to make a difference for many who live in our community, is a perfect blend of what is best about "Living Loreto"!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Whale of a Tale!

Ironically, the day began shortly after I woke up to find that the water was off in my house - although uncommon, not an unprecedented event, made somewhat more awkward due to the fact that I have had houseguests for the past couple of weeks.  But we managed to make a pot of coffee from the chilled water in the fridge and have a quick breakfast before getting in the car and hitting the road by 8:30 in the morning.

Our destination was Lopez Mateo, a small fishing port on the west side of the peninsula about 150 km south and west of Loreto, which is located on Magdalena Bay, a 50 km long narrow stretch of protected water separating the coast from the Pacific by a long narrow barrier island.  These protected waters are a breeding ground for the Grey Whales, and later a nursery for the newborn babies, where they are given birth, and spend their first few months growing in size and strength, under the watchful care of their mothers, until they are ready for the long trip north to Alaska, where they spend the summers feeding.

It has been a number of years since my last trip to Lopez Mateo to watch the whales, ( but it was on my visiting Guest's "bucket list" for their trip to Loreto, and so I was looking forward to the road trip and a day spent experiencing one of the iconic activities that people come from all over the world to share.  Yet, as someone who lives here most of the year, it took my friend's visit to break my routine and make it happen, becoming a tourist where you live is one of the gifts Visitors bring with them!

Under normal circumstances the drive would be straight forward, south from Loreto Bay on Highway #1 about 100 km to the intersection where it continues further south to the next major town of Constitution, but we would be turning north through the hamlet of Insurgentes, and then about another 35 km west to the coast.  However, just south of Loreto Bay, work has begun on widening the two lane road where it starts to climb into the Sierra de la Giganta Mountains and traffic has to stop periodically to allow the workers to proceed, making travel times unpredictable. 

I wanted to get a good start on the day, in case we were held up by the construction, so we would still arrive
at our destination by mid-morning and be ahead of the crowds and tours coming from La Paz and other places further south.  With lucky timing, we were only held up for about 10 minutes that morning, for the roadwork just south of Loreto Bay, and then continued on without out interruption, although we passed through several detours along the way where we were diverted off the highway to rough temporary lanes, while the main road was being prepared for widening.

(This project to twin the Highway in this part of the Baja is a major undertaking that will take years to complete, and millions of dollars of scarce infrastructure money, but has the potential to make the biggest impact to access and travel in the Baja since the advent of the original two lane paved road that opened the peninsula to vehicles 40 years ago.)

After leaving the main Highway, we made a brief "pit stop" at the Lay Express supermarket in Insurgentes
and then continued through town and made the quick left turn onto the Lopez Mateo road, arriving in the fishing village at a respectable 10:30.  There were not many cars yet in the Port area's surprisingly large parking lot as we made our way towards a row of whale watching tour booths that lined the far side of the lot.  I went to the largest of these, "Aquendi" which is a local co-operative of fishermen who are organized to provide whale watching tours from the port for the couple of months that the whales are in these calm protected waters.  A lucrative alternative to their regular fishing work that takes place the rest of the year.

A fluently bilingual "front man" greeted us as we approached the booth and he went on to explain that the boats were for hire at 900 pesos per hour for up to 8 passengers and they recommended 2 or 3 hour excursion.  The three of us could hire our own boat, or wait for more people to arrive and put together a larger group and share the cost further.  While we were discussing this, I overheard a returning passenger exclaiming enthusiastically about how his trip today was even better than the one he had been on the day before, good news, as up to that point I was unsure how active the whales would be this late into the Season that had started earlier than usual in late January.

As we were deciding how long to take a boat out and whether to wait for more passengers, another couple approached the booth and we soon decided to make up a group with them and hire the boat for two hours at a cost of 1800 pesos (about $140 US) divided five ways.  After signing in at the desk we were issued with life jackets and headed through a small cluster of souvenir stands to the dock where about two dozen "pangas" were tethered waiting for passengers.  Soon we were comfortably settled aboard a clean, well maintained boat, outfitted specifically for passengers with 6 padded benches and Marco, our young Skipper handling the late model Honda 90 horsepower outboard.

When we left the port we headed across the channel to the barrier island that runs parallel to the coast and is basically a sand spit about 3 km across, separating the calm waters we were in from the much rougher Pacific shoreline to the west.  These sand dunes looked like classic desert, except for the fact they were surrounded on both sides by water, and soon we were cruising beside mangroves filled with seabirds, mainly frigates with the odd herons and pelicans and sprinkling of gulls.  After a brief "photo op" for the birds, we headed further north to a break in the offshore island, where we could see the choppy whitecaps of the Pacific in the distance, but still were somewhat protected from the rough water by a reef.

This was the place that this spring's babies were "conditioned" by the mother whales to build their stamina for the long swim from here north to Alaska, and it was where the last of this Season's specimens were to be found.  As we approached this open water, there were three or four other pangas in the distance and we joined them, watching the surrounding water for signs of the whales we had come to see.  Within 15 minutes or so our observations were rewarded with the first "hump" being spotted rising out of the water 50 yards or so distant.  As we and the other boats slowly converged in the general area, soon we were seeing more and more activity with pairs of massive backs (mother and baby) rising side by side, exhaling plumes of spray and then disappearing - sometimes reappearing again a few hundred yards away.

What followed in the next half to three quarters of an hour was one of the most memorable experiences I
have had living in the Baja!  On my previous trips to see these whales the sightings were fewer and further away, but this time was different - our three or four small boats were essentially surrounded by successive pairs of mothers and babies coming close enough to gently nudge our boat as they slowly passed beside and under us.  More to the point, we were able to reach over the sides of the boats and touch these massive creatures, that were apparently getting as much pleasure from our touch as we were from the incredible experience of being that close to one of the largest mammals on earth!

So, what does a whale feel like?  Imagine an underinflated rubber inner tube, with skin that felt like the surface of a wetsuit - but unexpectedly warm to the touch, not at all like the feel of a cold blooded fish in the water.  The experience went on over a dozen or more of these encounters that usually started with an area of calmer water appearing amidst the choppy waves, then the water changed color from blue/green to grey/white as their backs slowly rose to the surface and their spine broke through.  This was usually followed by them venting through their blowholes a noisy spray of fine mist and then easing back into the waves and disappearing again.

But on this special day, these mother/baby pairs often lingered on the surface, while our expert panga 
Skippers deftly maneuvered their 20+ ft. boats back and forth in a careful dance, giving both us and the whales repeated opportunities for magical moments of contact.  While I may be guilty of anthropomorphism, it was clear to all who were sharing this experience that the whales too appeared to be enjoying "playing" among the boats, gently rubbing up against them, perhaps scratching an itchy back, before nuzzling their softly pointed nose up against the boat to be touched briefly by our reaching hands.  Sometimes as they rolled and frolicked we would literally be eye to eye with these 50 foot mammoths as they were "watching" us, as we bounced around on the surface catching our glimpses of them.

My words cannot come close to communicating the impact of that hour or so of cross species contact, my previous visits paled by comparison, and I now share the enthusiasm I had previously thought exaggerated by others who had had similarly close encounters.  So I have included a few brief clips below (courtesy of my Guest Steve) of one of the many of these moments we experienced and hope you can share in some of the magic of these encounters.  Finding a unexpected new level of experience, that will stay with me as a memory for years, while sharing a popular "tourist" experience with visiting friends is one more way I am thankful for "Living Loreto"!    


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Mardi Gras 2014

This past week I attended the Mardi Gras celebration held at the Golf Course Clubhouse, where it has been held for the past several years.  This event is a fundraiser organized by the Nopolo Homeowners Association (the community surrounding Loreto Bay) with the proceeds benefitting charity and improvements within their neighborhood. 

Similar to other annual events that are held here there was a certain "deja vu" aspect to the evening, but what sets "Fat Tuesday" apart from most other events held here are the costumes.  Without doing an actual nose count, by my estimate more than half of those in attendance had dressed up, or at least accessorized with beads or a mask to take part in the festivities.  And many of those who did were in some sort of full costume, with some of the most elaborate belonging to local year-round residents.

The party had been underway for more than an hour when I arrived about 6:00 pm, after finishing my day at the Office and then returning home to change into my ensemble for the evening.  You may recall from last year's Blog: that I wore my Kilt to this event a year ago and I had been wondering what to wear this year, until my recent Visitors presented me with a very handsome Guinness Beer apron that had been purchased for me on their trip to Ireland last Summer.  Worn over a black outfit with lots of beads and a beret on my head (don't ask me why, it was a last moment addition) I felt as though at least I had made an effort, and so with camera equipment over my shoulder I headed off for the evening.

On my arrival at the Clubhouse where the party was being held I was somewhat surprised, by the presence of an Ambulance near the entrance, but then mildly impressed when I realized that it was there on stand-by and not responding to a call!  I don't know if this was in response to some new local requirement (but I doubt it - this is Mexico, after all) or an abundance of caution by the organizers, but I couldn't help thinking how things have changed here over the years!  After showing my 350 peso wristband pass and receiving a numbered string of beads (for costume voting later in the evening) I purchased some drink tickets and joined the party.

Once again the central courtyard of the Clubhouse was where a stage was set-up for the musical entertainment, leaving the rest of the space for dancing and chairs were set up on three sides of this in the colonnade around the courtyard.  Passing through the courtyard I headed towards the driving range area behind the Clubhouse where on one side a bar was set up to serve wine by the bottle or glass and draft or canned beer and bottled water and on the other side was a BBQ pit and food service area.  Across the back of the driving range was table seating, some under shade tents and the rest open to the balmy early evening.

Which brings me to another comparison.  At the same party this time last year, I remember it being distinctly chilly on Mardi Gras evening - but this year has been the mildest winter of the seven I have spent here and this evening was no exception!  Which follows along with my current theory of climate change (as opposed to global warming) - the planet is a closed system, and for all intents and purposes nothing gets in or out.  So when somewhere that normally gets rain is having a drought, it follows that more rain falls somewhere else that is normally dry.  (Consider Loreto, that historically gets less than 4 inches of rain annually but has received 3 feet of rain over the past two years!)  Likewise it follows that when most of North America is struggling through one of the longest, coldest and snowiest winter's on record, here in Loreto we have been enjoying the mildest and calmest winter it has been my pleasure to experience since I started living here.

I was drawn back into the courtyard to listen to the entertainment with "Histeria" as the opening act, a four piece band of young guys from near Santa Rosalia two hours north of here, accompanied by Loreto's own Herzon, a guitar master of many different styles.  Later on, when the party was going full steam, there was an impressive dance ensemble called " Gujiaki" from the Casa de Cultura in Loreto that performed two styles of folkloric dances in appropriate costumes.  Later on in the evening, the local favorite "Los Beach Dogs" took to the stage and filled the dance floor for most of the evening.

Along with appetizers and rice this year the organizers of the event chose grilled skewers of meat, fish or vegetables as the main course, which was a good idea for portion control, but more grill space would have probably moved the food lines along at a faster pace.  However, the lines provided a good opportunity for visiting and costume watching, besides, no one was going anywhere anyway!  Later there was a collection of small deserts which satisfied the sweet tooth and made a nice end to a dinner under the stars.

During the rest of the evening, along with the entertainment there was a silent auction for an original piece of art, and a 50/50 draw as well as crowning a Mardi Gras Queen and Costume awards, however, I confess I hit Baja midnight earlier than usual that evening and headed home before the festivities had ended.  But in thinking back over the evening my final observation has to do with the ongoing evolution of Loreto Bay and the surrounding community.

While this year's Mardi Gras party was an undoubted success with about 250 in paid attendance and turning people away at the door, I know from my own casual conversations with people I spoke to, there were a surprising number who said they were not planning to attend the party - due to too many other events happening at this time of year.  While that may not sound unusual to casual observer, coming from a place where not so long ago bumping into someone on the sidewalk that you hadn't seen for a while was reason enough for a party (well, OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit - but not much!).  To now  hear that people are choosing to skip a beautifully organized event, held within walking distance of their home, because there are too many other things to do - well, perhaps that is another sign that our little community is growing up - and that may be the best part of "Living Loreto"!