Puerto Peñasco birds March 2019

Arizona’s Beach

One of Puerto Penasco’s broad beaches

In mid-March, we drove six hours to the Sonoran town of Puerto Peñasco, known by many Americans as Rocky Point, its meaning in English. Drive due east on Highway 8 for three hours, and you’ll reach the twin towns of Calexico and Mexicali. Then drive southeast, down the coast of the beginning of the Sea of Cortez, due south of Yuma, Arizona. Puerto Peñasco has beautiful expansive beaches, some lovely Mexican resorts and not much else yet. But it’s the site of spring break for all the Arizona universities, with its beaches, good food and 18-year-old drinking age.

We’ve been members of the Vidanta group of hotels for eleven years, having signed up in 2007 at the Mayan Palace in Puerto Vallarta. Puerto Peñasco has, not only a Mayan Palace where we stayed, but a Grand Mayan resort with fabulous golf course next door.

We were also attracted to the area by the quantity of bird species, and saw 61 different birds while we were there, checking out its estuaries as well as the northern end of the Sea of Cortez. Here’s the entire list: Puerto Peñasco birds March 2019

When we arrived in time for a late lunch, we tried out Cholla Bay Oyster House at the northern end of town, right on the beach with a grand view, lovely local oysters on the half shell, and maybe the best crab cakes we’ve ever eaten. The manager, Edgar Silva, was a terrific host, and we ordered a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon blanc once we discovered that there’s not a single craft beer anywhere in the town! No bottles, cans, taps or growlers. Craft Brewing hasn’t arrived yet. Hopefully, it will before our next visit.

We left Cholla Bay for the rather long drive to the Mayan Palace, which is several miles south of the town of Puerto Peñasco, but when we got there, the drive was worth it. Seeing that we are members, the front staff upgraded us to a bedroom suite with a kitchenette and a wonderful view of the ocean and the pools that fill the resort. We rested a while after the long drive, then found the sports bar for happy hour, when the drinks are two for one.

Bakal Restaurant

The dining room, called Bakal, has an extensive buffet and also a menu, and the food turned out to be excellent, so we ate dinner there several times, since it was a half-hour drive into town, and Puerto Peñasco’s roads are very dark at night.

The next morning, we rode on the shuttle to the golf course and walked around part of it, logging in the first selections for our bird list. One of the birds we saw was a Loggerhead Shrike. Those of you who are interested in birds will be as surprised as we were that we saw perhaps twenty shrike while in Puerto Peñasco. They popped up on bushes and power lines everywhere we went. Always solitary, but so many of them!

Chef Mickey’s Place

We had read very good reviews on a restaurant called Chef Mickey’s Place and decided to drive into town to try it out. They weren’t quite open when we arrived, so we sat out in the Sonoran sun at one of their outside tables while we waited. Presently, a young woman brought us menus, then another brought water and silverware. We ended up staying right there and ordered a bottle of chardonnay. While we waited for our Caesar salads, a man walked into the courtyard and introduced himself. He was Mickey himself, and he welcomed us to the place and said that he hoped we would enjoy the food. He was born in Guadalajara, grew up in Las Vegas, and now had this restaurant.

Laurel ordered blackened grouper with shrimp, and I chose the giant bacon-wrapped local shrimp. The food was outstanding. I can’t remember Laurel raving so about a plate of food, and my prawns were incredible. We were so impressed with the food that we ordered two desserts, something we rarely do, and were rewarded with a perfect classic flan and apple-strudel-topped cheesecake. The manager, Miguel, was all smiles when we left, hearing all our oohs and ahhs.

Tonio at Three Boys Fish

We promised to come back later in the week, and we did, on Friday for lunch. Mickey does two or three wonderful things with the local grouper, and also with flounder, neither of which are common in San Diego. We talked to him about the quality of his fish, and he called his supplier, Three Boys Fish, and told us to see Tonio on our way north the next day. On Saturday at the Malecon, we did just that, and brought back two pounds each of flounder and grouper, as well as a couple of pounds of colossal shrimp. The shrimp was seven dollars a pound, and the fish only three.

The weather forecast predicted rain for Monday, and it was right. We got up Monday morning to see the skies gray and the resort pools pelted with rain. We had decided to visit the Malecon anyway and drove up to the other end of town, looking for El Oktopus, which we found near the end of the street. After circling the area three times, we paid the five dollars to park in the large parking lot at the east end, then walked nearly the length of the strip to the restaurant. At this time, the rain was more of a drizzle, and we made it there without too much worry. They were just opening up, and we sat at a window table and looked out at the gray day, sympathizing with the vendors whose stalls had already gotten plenty wet during the morning.

Grilled octopus and blue corn tortillas with octopus and pork belly

Laurel ordered whole grilled octopus, and I thought the blue corn tacos with grilled octopus and pork belly sounded good. And both of them were terrific. A few minutes after we sat down, it started to rain again, and this time it was pounding down, splashing off the pavement and flowing like a river down the hill at the corner. The outside vendors gave up and shut down, taking their tarps and carts with them. Too many people on the street were caught without umbrellas and got soaked, hurrying inside or to their cars.

That’s a lot of mud

Fortunately, it eased off again before we left, and we headed back toward our car at the end of the street. We stopped and talked to the owner of a restaurant on the bay side of the street. His place was closed, and he took us in and showed us his terrace wall which looked out onto the water. The wall had collapsed and been washed away during one of the recent storms. We drove back to the Mayan Palace through the soggy town, trying to avoid flooded intersections and mud that was more than a foot deep. By the time we reached the resort, our car was thoroughly coated with a thick layer of mud, and it stayed there until we returned to San Diego and had our regular carwash do a triple wash on everything and scrub as much from the engine block as they were able.

Negronis and Caesar salad

Folks in the know told us these two days brought in more rain than the town normally gets in an entire season. But by Tuesday afternoon, the storm had blown itself out, and the sun came out to start drying up the impromptu lakes and puddles. We drove back into town for an early sunset dinner and found the perfect antidote for the prior rain and gray sky. Next to the Malecon is a hill called Cerro de la Ballena, Whale Hill. At its top sits a fine Italian restaurant called Pane e Vino. Our table looked out and down the steep hill to a panoramic view of the entire end of the town and Bahia la Cholla, with the Sea of Cortez gleaming to the west. We ordered Negronis, our favorite Italian cocktail, and two Caesar salads. For entrees, Laurel had grouper with artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes, and I couldn’t pass up Jack Daniels bourbon shrimp. Excellent food and very good service from our waiter, Angel. One of the best in town.

Flounder with artichokes and tomato and Jack Daniels shrimp

On Thursday, we got seats on a boat for a ride to what’s known as Bird Island, real name Isla San Jorge. It’s about an hour out from the beach—a bunch of big rocks populated by sea lions and topped by lots of birds, mainly Brown Boobies, Blue-footed Boobies, pelicans, gulls and the occasional shearwater. Quite a few people went snorkeling or used the kayaks onboard to enjoy the spot, but the water was too cold and rough for us. The wind had come up by the time we headed back to the resort, and it was much rougher than the trip out. Unfortunately, the captain didn’t use good sense, and gunned the boat too fast, creating a very rough ride back that, to me, turned the entire experience sour.

Brown Booby

Overall, we came away with mixed feelings, partly because of the rainstorm which was nobody’s fault. The Mayan Palace Resort is a high quality place, and some of the seafood and restaurants are superb. We did quite of lot of birding there, and saw some very uncommon species. We were disappointed with the lack of paved roads in much of the town, but we’ll give Puerto Peñasco another try during the warmer season.

Blue-footed Booby

Anza-Borrego Birds, March 2019

Anza-Borrego–Hawk Heaven

Swainson’s Hawk

On the last weekend of March, we drove over to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It’s about an hour and a half inland and another world. Part of the attraction is the April migration of scads of Swainson’s Hawks coming from as far south as Argentina and flying north to Canada and even the Arctic. They drop in here and feast on sphinx moth caterpillars to sustain their trip. The early Saturday report from Hal Cohen, the resident hawk expert, said 511 Swainson’s Hawks had landed on Friday night, so we were excited to see what was happening.

We drove to the viewing site on Borrego Valley Road, arrived by 9am and were rewarded by a sky filled with departing hawks. Some of them were right above the road, maybe only 20 or 30 feet high. We had never seen the Swainson’s so close, and there were kettles of them on all sides, some high, some low. Probably close to 200 taking off. They were all gone by 9:30, and Hal told us that approximately 2/3 of the hawks from Friday night had left.

Juvenile Prairie Falcon

We said we’d be back for the evening show and drove south to Hawk Valley, where we had seen a Prairie Falcon the year before. We got lucky and saw an adult, plus a juvenile falcon. And at least two Rock Wren for good measure.

The flowers were very good, but not as amazing as two years ago. Some of them are running late this year because of the evenly spaced rain. Some have probably already bloomed. They’ve had rain in the desert every month of the winter season. And some of the migrant birds are running late as well, but we still saw plenty of good stuff. Speaking of plenty, Laurel managed to take plenty of terrific pictures of the flowers that were there. Here’s a sample:

Desert Dandelion, Indigo Bush, Parish Poppy

Beavertail Cactus, State Park Visitor Center

Fishhook Cactus, Ocotillio and Teddybear Cholla, Desert Chicory

Saturday evening we drove to the viewing spot about 5:30 to wait for the evening hawks. About ten of us waited and watched, but nothing happened. Finally, at about 6:00, we spotted a couple of hawks on the horizon, passing the farthest peak to the southeast, which birders call “the pyramid.” Over the course of the next hour, a few more hawks arrived from the south and landed in a row of eucalyptus trees half a mile away.

Then at 7:00, in the cloudless blue-dusk sky above us, a hawk appeared, just about half a block away, and dropped down into the trees of the nearby date farm. We continued looking up, and, seemingly from nowhere, another bird materialized. Although we only ended with about 20 birds total for the evening, seeing these birds simply arrive from out of nowhere was a magical experience.  In reality, they were dropping down from about 8,000 feet, the elevation they achieve while migrating those thousands of miles north. On the following Thursday, Hal reported between 1,000 and 1,400 hawks. Timing is everything.

Sunset at Carlee’s

Joe and Julia Ensley, good friends from Seattle, visit Palm Springs every winter, and they drove up to join us and see what all the flowers and feathers are about. We had a great time Saturday night with them at Carlee’s, one of the best restaurants in Borrego.

A Word of Warning:
Sunday morning we hiked some of the trails down by Tamarisk Grove. Because of the rain, some of the trails have been crowded by shrubs and ground cover, as well as by flowers. We were hiking the Yaqui Well trail, and parts of it were narrowed by the growth. Fortunately, I was looking down at the ground and spotted a rattlesnake in the bushes next to the trail a few feet ahead of me. It had its head raised, looking at me, since I’m not the quietest hiker. I shouted “Snake,” to warn Laurel behind me, as well as another couple coming from the other direction. It dropped down and started to crawl away from the trail, and Laurel pounded her tripod on the ground, which sped it up. It had four segments on its tail. Once we got home, we looked it up, and it was a Red Diamond Rattlesnake less than two feet long.

We saw another animal we’d never seen which was far less alarming, a type of squirrel that looks a little like a chipmunk called a white-tailed antelope squirrel. We also saw some other good birds—here’s the list:

Ram’s Hill

We discovered a new place for lunch on Sunday, as well, to toast my first sighting ever of a rattlesnake on the trail. It’s called Ram’s Hill, and it’s a very fine complex of residences and a golf course with water features. The restaurant sits atop a slope, and its large covered patio has a gorgeous view of the golf course and the valley beyond.

On the way back to San Diego, we stopped in Ramona at an excellent local winery called Chuparosa, which is Spanish for hummingbird. They make several fine reds there, including a superb Cabernet Franc and a Zinfandel that’s worth taking home. They told us about another winery in the area called Woof ‘n Rose, an extremely dog-friendly place that also makes a very good Cabernet Franc.

 

Gourmet Mexico, Part 2

We had made a reservation at Vinos Lechuza for noon on Wednesday. Having read good reviews, we called them to check on their hours and found that they did wine tastings by appointment only, so we decided on Wednesday before lunch. We were also interested in taking a look at Rancho La Puerta, a spa near a reservoir west of Tecate on Highway 2, which parallels the border to Tijuana, and figured there would be plenty of time in the morning before driving to the valle.

Rancho La Puerta, the spa we never found

Evidently, we took the wrong highway, driving west on the free road rather than the toll, and went right past the spa. After about an hour of nothing but auto shops, small businesses and Oxxo stores, we got concerned about getting back to Tecate and down to Guadalupe in time for our tasting. We stopped at a gas station and asked the attendant if there was a way south over the small mountain ridge to the valley, and he nodded and told us to go back to the road marked Las Palmas. Back we drove and, sure enough, found the Las Palmas road. We drove about 15 minutes up into the hills until we came to the town of Las Palmas, a new town of a couple of thousand people. We drove through it and discovered that it looked to be the end of the line.

Spotting a police car, we asked them how to get down to Guadalupe, and the driver smiled and said, “Follow me.” He proceeded to lead us clear down the road back to the highway, then turned right. In about a mile, he turned off onto an unmarked road and drove a couple of hundred feet, where he pulled over and rolled down his window. We pulled up and he pointed up the road and said, “Aqui.” Amazed at the time he had spent driving us down to this spot, we thanked him and drove on. Reaching the top of a ridge, we came to a gate and fence with a couple of large buildings beyond. The gatekeeper told us this was a branch of Northern Baja University, but the road went no farther and he wasn’t sure how we would get down to the valley, which we could now see below.

With a locked gate and no answers, we turned around and headed back. There was a small residential community on the next ridge east, and we found a side road that took us there. It was a quiet little place with very little going on. We drove around, and at one point, a large truck built for hauling dirt came out of a dirt road, blowing dust all over our car. A young boy about eight stood by the road playing with a stick. He waved to us, and Laurel asked him if there was any road that went down to the valley. He nodded, and pointed to the dirt road the truck had come from, then motioned right. “Derecha. Derecha. Derecha.”

The wrong way road

We looked at each other and decided we might as well try it. The road was rough with plenty of gravel and rocks and accordioned for a bumpy ride, but it headed in the right direction. Before long another truck approached and drove by us, then another and another. We had found some kind of primitive highway for construction trucks. Eventually, we reached a point where the road leveled out and continued past parked road equipment and piles of gravel and soil, then finally reached Highway 3, the road to Guadalupe. We were in Palm Valley and still 20 minutes or so from our winery date, but it felt good to be back driving on pavement. I called ahead to the winery, and the manager said no problem. We like to think of this holoholo as the “wrong way” to Guadalupe.

Vinos Lechuza

When we finally reached Lechuza, we were half an hour late, but our pleasant host seated us on their terrace and served us a delicious and educational tasting. He told us about other wineries he felt we should try and gave us the phone number for the owner of Bichi, just five minutes south of the rancho, to make an appointment for us. We bought a bottle of Amantes, an excellent red blend. We were also pleased to find that they work with a wine distributor here in the U.S., so we can buy their wine here at home.

Just up a side road from Lechuza is Finca Altozano, a casual, open-air restaurant, and one of our favorites in the valley. They serve very good food and a nice selection of local wines. We were starving after all the morning excitement, and we took advantage of its location in between three or four wineries in the center of Guadalupe.

The next day was Thanksgiving, and we celebrated by splurging at Laja, also just a short drive from Lechuza. We first tried Laja in 2017 and raved about it then, and it’s nothing but even better today. Laja is all about the food. A choice of either four or eight courses which change all the time. We asked for eight courses with the wine pairing. That’s eight incredible courses for only $50, plus eight matching wines for $25 more. I won’t write anymore, just quote the menu:

Tomato salad with aromatic herbs and roast piñons
Pressed piglet with butternut squash
Sea bass carpaccio with kimchi and black salsify
Spider crab raviolis with squid ink
Catch of the day with arugula pasta and tender squash
Local beef with sweet potato puree and sautéed vegetables
Yogurt and ramonetti cheese with quince in syrup
Flamed meringue with tuile and fig leaves ice cream

We liked it better than turkey and cranberries.

On Friday, we took the short drive south to Bichi, a new winery just a couple of miles from the rancho. With their first vintage release in 2014, the two brothers, Noel and Jair Tellez, and their mother, Ana Montaño, are putting Tecate on the map for a new concept in winemaking: Raw, or natural wine. In fact, the name Bichi means “naked” in their Sonoran dialect, where they moved from when they found Tecate, its ancestral grapes and its weather and soil. Raw wine is made from grapes grown on non-irrigated, organically farmed vineyards. They found some vines in the region that are so old no one really knows what variety they are. But so what, when the wine that comes from them is such high quality and wonderful tasting? With no additives and special aging techniques, Ana Montaño currently oversees the farming and is responsible for converting their vineyard to biodynamics. (Here’s a link to an article with more about Bichi and raw wine.)

With Noel Tellez at Bichi

Noel has ended his law practice in Tijuana and now spends all his time working at the winery. When we drove into the parking lot, we knew we were in a different kind of place—no tasting room, no souvenir shop, a working winery. Noel greeted us and led us past a couple of buildings and back to the edge of one of the vineyards. He found three glasses and a bottle of water he used to rinse the glasses between tastes, then took us into one of the buildings where he took wine out of an aging barrel and described its history and taste. And we sampled several superb wines that were completely impressive, except for one, which we tasted and then threw out at Noel’s request. He wasn’t happy with the way it’s aging. We ended up buying two bottles, one lovely rosé which didn’t yet have its label. I wrote Bichi Rosé on the bare bottle when we got home. We also got a bottle of “No Sapiens,” “No Name,” one of the grapes they bottle whose variety is unknown, but terrific to drink. While we were there, their mother, Ana, came by and gave us hugs and chatted for a while. Lovely people we’d like to spend more time with.

We had heard that Bichi was affiliated with Laja, where we had such a wonderful meal just the day before. In fact, we noted that two of the wines they served were Bichi varieties. But we were surprised and impressed to find that Noel’s brother, Jair, had founded Laja in 1999 and was the chef who cooked such exquisite fare. He now has two more restaurants, both in Mexico City, and is considered one of Mexico’s most influential chefs.

After all these discoveries, you can bet that we’ll be going back to Tecate before long.

Gourmet Mexico, part 1

Tecate sign at the Zocalo

In early November, Laurel spotted an extra good deal in her vacation timeshare program. It was at Rancho Tecate, which is appropriately in Tecate, Mexico. After some looking into it, we learned that Tecate is only a little more than an hour from San Diego. We’ve gone down to Ensenada several times, and two years ago, we discovered Valle de Guadalupe, the magical wine valley just inland from Ensenada. Well, Tecate is on the other side of the valley, just 45 minutes east and right on the U.S. border. So we decided to spend Thanks-giving week finding out more about the town that we only knew as the source of Tecate Beer.

The real photo

We drove down the Friday before Thanksgiving. It was late afternoon, so it was already dark. We found the rancho just 10 km (six miles) south of town, and turned in toward the gate. The guards checked our papers and told us how to find the business office. A lovely young woman named Esmeralda met us there. She was wearing a parka, as it was chilly outside, only about 40 degrees. (Tecate is at close to 2,000 feet high, so it gets cool as soon as the sun sets.)

She came out and climbed aboard a mini-cart to show us our room. We followed in our car, parked under a grove of trees and walked across to a row of Spanish style rooms. The place looked fine, and we moved  in our luggage, then drove back to the office and asked where we might find the restaurant. It was, as I said, dark, and we didn’t feel like driving back into town for dinner. Esmeralda told us the restaurant was just around the corner. Driving there, we saw a field of grapes on the right. It was labeled 1893. It looked to us like the rancho had deep roots here in Tecate.

The restaurant, Puerta Norte, was nearly empty with only two tables filled. We chose a table and Laurel asked the server what he might recommend.

“Parillada, for sure, ma’am,” was his answer.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Mexican mixed grill,” she said.

We agreed and ordered it, then asked to see the wine list.

“You will want to try one of our own reds, either Nebbiolo or Cabernet Sauvignon,” said the server.

We ordered the Nebbiolo and it arrived with a plate of housemade rosemary bread. The wine and the bread were both excellent, and just the beginning of what was a superior dinner. The parillada came on a large platter— several types of steak, plus chicken and chorizo served with beans, tortillas, chips and guacamole. We returned to our room very satisfied and slept well in the comfortable king-size bed.

On Saturday morning, we drove south on Highway 3 toward Guadalupe. After reading lots of good reviews, we had decided to try Corazon de Tierra (Heart of the Land) for lunch. It had become well known for using local everything in very creative, and sometimes surprising, ways. We reached the valley in just 45 minutes and decided to try a couple of wineries we hadn’t visited before. On the north road through the valley, in Porvenir, is a large winery called El Cielo. We went in for a tasting, but all their tastings included tours, and we didn’t want to take the time. Looking through their store, I found a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Malbec for only twelve dollars, and we got a bottle to try later. Up the road west is a winery known as Pijuan, named after its Spanish owner. We split a tasting there and were both impressed with the quality and the prices, so we bought a bottle there, as well.

Excellent small plates, radish ice cream, the kitchen garden

Driving back toward the center of the valley, we headed down a dusty road and made several turns before we found Corazon. It’s a modern wood frame building with lots of glass, and we could see that on a warmer day, some of the wall windows slid open to the surroundings. We were seated at a corner table that looked out onto the restaurant’s practical and picturesque kitchen garden, and we knew that we’d be sampling the harvest from some of what was growing there. It’s a prix fixe menu, and we had five courses, beginning with a velvety puree of bitter greens, and including minced roast carrot with tiny dice of lamb liver, and sauteed sweetbreads. We only had mixed feelings about the capper, an ice cream dessert made from pureed radish.

Sunday morning was bright and sunny, and we drove east toward Mexicali, which is two hours from Tecate. But we turned north an hour east at the small town of La Rumorosa and drove a few miles to the entrance of Sitio Arqueologico Vallecito, an important national preserve with many cave paintings by the Kumeyaay Nation, as well as others. The Kumeyaay lived in this region and all the way to San Diego. In fact, Highway 8 between San Diego and El Centro is called the Kumeyaay Highway. Some of the paintings at this beautiful piece of high desert are 3,000 years old.

An easy, mile-long trail takes you past five major examples of the paintings, one of which astonished us. The second painting on the trail features a red devil with horns. It’s called El Diabilito o del Solsticio, and to show how advanced these people were, it was positioned so that the sun on the winter solstice hit its eyes and lighted them up. I want you to appreciate the photos Laurel got here—many of them were in such awkward spots beneath over-hanging boulders that she spent a fair amount of time lying on the ground. The other interesting camera note is no flash is permitted, and admission is free except for a 45-peso charge if you plan on taking photos. There were signs everywhere warning of rattlesnakes, but fortunately they’re hibernating this time of year or Laurel wouldn’t have spent so much time on the ground.

Back in Tecate, we drove past the big brewery. We had planned on taking a tour, but they have recently merged with Heineken, and there is a lot of remodeling going on and no tours right now. We’ll have to do that on our next trip here.

Frida’s mural, chair fence, tortilla soup, 84-hour sandwich

We had heard good things about a restaurant named El Lugar de Nos, which loosely translated means Our Place. When we got there, we were sure right away that there were artists involved. Including the parking lot, the place is about a block long, with a large mural of Frida Kahlo next to a fence covered with pieces of chairs. Inside the parking lot, another wall was covered with all manner of wooden kitchen cabinet doors. The restaurant itself was filled with eclectic art pieces, another shrine to Frida, and three large dining rooms, all done in different styles. The place was buzzing with both diners and employees. We were seated right away, and began to peruse the varied menu. We were both impressed with their duck tacos and grilled octopus. Relaxed and friendly, we liked El Lugar a lot and went back a second time during the week, when we ordered tortilla soup which we agreed was one of the very best we’d eaten and a beef sandwich that was beyond tender. After all, it’s called 84-hour beef.

Can you top that? We can. One day we visited Restaurante Amores, a literal hole in the wall. Actually a glass door below a nearly hidden sign that opens into the kitchen. Our host, Joshua, met us at the door and led us past one of the cooks who was cutting large quantities of limes. The dining room feels a little bit like someone’s living room, and I spent the meal rubbing shoulders with a bookcase filled with cookbooks and listening to soft Brazilian sounds. Joshua is the young manager and a graduate and now teacher at a culinary school. The chef, Kenji, a Mexican of Japanese descent, is a brilliant food designer as well as a believer in “eat local.”

Our five-course tasting menu just made us say, “Wow.” Corvina, a delicate white fish, topped with chayote foam. Potato topped with smoky onion powder made from burnt onions. A fork- tender piece of beef. Orange cake gelato. And finally, three Mexican candies: piloncillo, macaroon, and marzipan. As he served each course, Joshua explained the philosophy behind the methods and the ingredients, so we learned a fair bit about cooking as well as eating like royalty. Not surprisingly, Amores is Tecate’s top new restaurant on Trip Advisor.

One morning we drove a little west of town and up into the foothills near the border to a park named El Profesor. It proved to be quite popular with Tecate residents. There were a lot of families and children enjoying the park, and evidently it’s a popular place for weddings, the natural surroundings and the views are so beautiful. We hiked most of a trail that took us to viewpoints that were really stunning.

By the way, you may know that much of the country east of San Diego is batholith, mountains made up of jumbled peaks of boulders. The area around Tecate and to the east where the cave paintings are also has huge slabs of stone, and many of the trails put the slabs, known as slick rock, to good use. Walking from slab to slab, it almost seems at times that you’re hiking on a paved road.

To be continued –

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Return to Paradise, Part 2

One reason we decided to go back to the island in September is the fact that they inaugurated an international birding festival a couple of years ago, and throughout the week we were there, there were guided tours and events. While we lived in Kona, we hiked many of the available trails and didn’t want to go back on them to the tune of a couple of hundred dollars each for a guide. But on Sunday morning, a pelagic tour left Kaloko-Honokohau Marina, and we had never done a pelagic trip in Hawaii. We knew there would be plenty of new birds for us there. Happily, the ocean was flat and blue, blue, blue, no heavy swells and no hot sun, when we boarded the boat, along with four guides, the crew and about 40 passengers.

Wedge-tailed Shearwater by Brad Argue

Offshore, we promptly saw a Wedge-tailed Shearwater, the most common seabird at the island, but still a new lifebird for us. We were to see many of them during the morning’s cruise. We headed makai until we had an excellent view back at Mt. Hualalai, then turned south. Throughout the morning, we counted eight species of seabirds, seven of which were new to us, like the Parasitic Jaeger and the Sooty Tern. We had seen Great Frigatebirds in the islands before, but only soaring up high, not down just above the water like these birds were flying.

Strangely, we didn’t see a single dolphin or whale, as they’re plentiful in the waters off Kona. For other bird nuts like us, here’s the complete list–Big Island Birds 2018–of what we saw during the entire week on the island.

After coming ashore, we drove down into town and celebrated seven lifebirds at a new brewery. It’s called Ola Brew Company, and while we were there, they were trying out a new brew, called A’a IPA, for our money the best IPA in the islands. We bought a growler-full of it to enjoy back at the condo. A’a is the word for one of the lava types that cover parts of the island, very rough and crusty-looking. The other predominant lava form is pahoehoe, which looks like melted chocolate that’s hardened. But this ale was nothing like either. Crisp, dry and hoppy, it was a pleasure to drink.

When we lived in Kona, we heard about the “cloud forest” on the way up Hualalai and drove up there a couple of times to walk the along the road looking for birds. There are quite a few Kalij Pheasant up there, and we also saw an Apapane, a bright red forest bird of the island. But when I was researching our trip back, I discovered that there is a guided tour through the cloud forest, directed by the owner of a large estate. The reviews of the tour were so good that I called the owner, Kelly Dunn, and he and I talked at length about what he’s doing. I signed us up for the two to three hour tour (only $25 per person!), and Laurel and I drove up there on Monday morning.

Kelly met us on the road outside his place and gave us each a big golf umbrella, “Normally, it’s sunny in the morning, but with this storm that just passed through, the rain is coming and going at odd hours,” he explained. A second couple arrived, and the five of us walked up the drive to Kelly’s house once they got their umbrellas, as well. As we stopped for a minute outside the house, the rain started. And for the next two hours, as we walked through the most fantastic tropical jungle we had ever seen, it poured. The umbrellas did a good job, but passing by dripping foliage and under trees adding to the downpour, we all got quite wet. It wasn’t cold, and it wasn’t muddy, as Kelly explained that the cloud forest has no soil under the plants. They grow on a few inches of dead leaves and roots, and below that is nothing but lava rock from old eruptions.

Hualalai is the only cloud forest left in Hawaii. In fact, while there used to be thousands of cloud forests around the world, today there are only 25 left, thanks to deforestation and development. One of the reasons that Kelly has acquired this acreage is a type of eucalyptus tree brought here from Australia. The Hawaiians dislike the tree; it’s foreign, and they have cut down most of these “painted trees” that grow on the island. The thing that fascinates Kelly is the rainbow bark on the tree that changes through its lifetime, and the fact that no insect will touch its wood. There may be a medicinal use if someone can figure out its properties.

He explained that the cloud forest is completely symbiotic. Everything that grows here supports everything else. You can break a piece from a plant and toss it a few feet away, and it will take root. And the plants grow here in such abundance that it staggers the imagination. Laurel and I were so impressed by what we saw and learned that we would recommend it to anyone visiting the island.

Humpy’s Big Island Alehuse

After the wet and wonderful cloud forest, we drove down the mountain to the sunny day below. On the main shopping street, Alii Street, one of our old haunts is still there. It’s called Humpy’s Big Island Alehouse, and it has a narrow deck with a street view that’s great for people watching with an ocean view. Plus, Humpy’s has 36 taps and either ono or halibut fish and chips. We sat there in the heart of civilization still amazed at what we had just experienced.

Monday turned out to be a day full of superlatives, because we had scheduled our big splurge for that evening. Our favorite special occasion place in on the Big Island is the Canoe House at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, a half hour north of town on the Kohala Coast. A grove of palm trees accents the view of the beautiful bay. The award-winning chef uses primarily local produce, meats and fish to create wonderful dishes like Heirloom Tomatoes “Poke,” Seared Ahi, and Sautéed Day Boat Scallops.

While we were on the island, we visited one of our favorite spots: Kaloko Honokohau National Historical Park. The beautiful beach that begins on the north side of the marina leads along lava tide pools, where you almost always see a few honu (green sea turtles). They love the sea lettuce that grows in the pools. And between September and April, the rocks are busy with Ruddy Turnstones, Wandering Tattlers, Pacific Golden Plovers and other shorebirds that call this island home when they’re not migrating back and forth to Alaska and the far north for breeding.

Kaloko Honokohau

Half a mile up the beach, Aimakapa Fishpond sits just behind the steep beach berm. Built by Hawaiians as a place to stock and grow fish, the pond is undergoing much needed expansion and cleanup. Some of the invasive plants that have taken over are being removed, and the net result will be a pond nearly twice the size to attract visiting birds.

In fact, the entire park is receiving a lot of attention and restoration. We stopped at the visitor center and talked to one of the young rangers, who was very excited about all the progress she’s seeing.

Mauna Kea Beach

One of the special attractions for us on the Big Island is its beaches. Many of the beaches on the Kona side have wonderful sun, sand and shade. In particular, the beach at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is a broad, sandy expanse that also has a rocky reef at its edge that Laurel loves for snorkeling and is edged by trees that I love for the shade they give me for sitting and reading. The beach is about a half hour north of Kona, but get there early. The hotel offers a free parking lot for visitors, but it fills up quickly. After a bit of walk down from the lot, there’s a nice bath and shower facility at the edge of the beach.

If you’re staying in Kona, another excellent option is Kahalu’u Beach Park, a county beach that’s right on Alii Drive toward the south end of Kona. Laurel says it has more fish than any of the other local beaches. It also has a free parking lot, bathroom and shower facilities and plenty of shady spots, as well as a large, covered picnic area.

On the day we flew back to San Diego, our flight didn’t leave until the afternoon, so we drove back down to Alii Drive and had lunch at Huggo’s On The Rocks. The place is right on the beach with beach tables and chairs, and the floor is lovely sand. It looks right out onto the bay and is a true piece of Hawaiian heaven. We had some more terrific fish and chips and beers to toast the island aloha and mahalo, then drove up to the airport to board our plane. We’ll be back.

And aloha and mahalo to all of you.

Return to Paradise, Part 1

Plumeria in paradise

On Thursday, September 13th, Laurel and I flew to the Big Island of Hawaii, just a month shy of five years after we left the island and moved to San Diego. It was a trip full of joy and remembrance. If you’ve ever been to Hawaii, you know that when you step off your plane and feel the air and smell the blossoms, you’ve arrived in a special place. And Thursday felt just like that.

We picked up our rental car and phoned our hosts, Cecilia and Neil Paulsen, who run a VRBO up the beginning of Kona’s mountain, Mt. Hualalai, which stretches up behind the town some 8,271 feet. (Two directions that come into play everywhere on the island are mauka and makai. Mauka means up the mountain, and makai means toward the ocean. Wherever you are on the island, those directions are important.)

Banana Hale bedroom

Cecilia and Neil’s place, which they call Banana Hale, is at about a thousand feet mauka Mt. Hualalai. It’s a comfortable home (hale means home) surrounded by, of course, bananas, as well as pineapples, papayas, guavas and all sorts of local fruit and flowering trees. The owners live upstairs, and they play host to a one-bedroom apartment and a studio on the ground level. We stayed in the one-bedroom, and it was a lovely, quiet place to spend the week, except for the early morning symphony of birds.

Around the island, things were unfortunately quiet, too. The recent eruptions of Mt. Kiluaea have scared many would-be visitors away, even though the island is more than 4,000 square miles in size, and the eruptions only affected 3% of the island in the far southeast corner. Friends on the island told us that now that Kiluaea has quieted down, the air is clearer and brighter than it has been in more than 30 years.

Sam Choy’s

We drove down to Keauhou, south of Kailua, for our re-introduction to Hawaiian food. Sam Choy’s sits up high on a slope with a view of the Pacific that’s almost as spectacular as the food. We ordered the Local Mix Plate—teriyaki beef, teriyaki chicken and fresh fish of the day, which was opah, also called moonfish, because it looks like a big round flat silver moon. If you’ve never had opah, you don’t know what you’re missing. It’s one of the best-tasting fishes in the Islands. The trio also came with a side of potato salad, made with local purple potatoes. We topped it all off with a couple of Castaways, the excellent IPA made by local Kona Brewery. Wow! Welcome home!

Since we had our own small condo unit, we spent part of the afternoon shopping at Safeway, KTA and, of course, Costco, for easy-prep dinners. We decided to save going out for dinner only for a couple of splurges.

Friday is discount evening at the Kona Brewing Company, so we had to head there and fill our growler with the day’s IPA, which was Kua Bay IPA for 20% off. Their slogan is “Liquid Aloha,” which we are in total agreement with. We stopped for dinner and had their terrific bacon cheeseburger pizza. I don’t know why more pizzerias haven’t discovered this taste treat. The chilled lettuce and tomato on top are a nice constrast to the rest of the pizza.

Daniel Inouye highway

On Saturday morning, we hit the holoholo trail, which is the Hawaiian way of saying, “We went for a trip.” We drove across the newly finished belt road named for Hawaii’s famous senator, Daniel Inouye. Forty-nine years in the Senate, Hawaii’s favorite son. The new highway is a major improvement over the curvy old road to Hilo on the east side, the windward side, of the island. Hilo is the largest city in the island, with a population of close to 50,000. It’s also the rainiest city, so it’s not always our cup of tea. But, besides just driving there to see the new road, we have a favorite pond over there where there are always interesting birds, and right nearby is Suisan Fish Market, where we stopped for a nice piece of ono and some of their terrific poke. Ono is known as wahoo in California and Mexico, and it’s a terrific firm whitefish. In fact, “ono” means “delicious” in Hawaiian.

Anthuriums by Laurel Scott

On the way across the island, we drove through a couple of downpours, but when we drove into Hilo, the rain abated, and the sun actually came out for a while, so we attended the weekly farmers’ market and picked up a nice pot of anthuriums for five bucks to liven up our home-away.

We left Hilo and drove north up what’s known as the saddle road, through the Hamakua Forest Reserve and west to Waimea, the island’s cattle country. Home of the paniolos, begun in the 1700’s when Captain George Vancouver brought longhorn cattle as a gift to King Kamehameha. The original paniolos came from old Mexico and taught the Hawaiians how to be cowboys, pre-dating the more famous American cowboy by decades.

Great drinks at Merriman’s

Today, Parker Ranch is the largest and most famous of the ranches in this area, but we had reservations at a restaurant named Merriman’s. We had heard great reviews about Merriman’s, but had never been there. Today, however, we learned that the reviews were all accurate. Located in a simple-looking little house, Merriman’s has some of the best food and drink on the island. I had a Kalua Pig & Sweet Onion Quesadilla, and Laurel ordered Prawns in Kalbi Sauce. The drinks we chose were both inspired—my Manhattan had an infused sauce in it I’ll never be able to describe, and Laurel’s Mai Ttai was topped with lilikoi (passionfruit) foam that was pure delight.

Valley Farm by Harry Wishard

One of our favorite places on the island is the tiny town of Hawi, tucked in the far northwest corner of the Kohala range. It’s a few blocks of art galleries, coffee houses and shops and is easy to check out in an afternoon. About an hour northwest of Waimea, it seemed like a good spot to go before driving home to Kona down the west side. We had a nice chat with Wendy Williams (not the Wendy Williams, but a woman worth talking to). She was host at the Wishard Gallery, an eclectic collection of paintings, photographs, sculpture, jewelry, and just about anything that’s artistic or interesting. Harry Wishard, the owner, is an inveterate collector as well as an excellent painter. Born and raised on the Big Island, he fills his gallery with all manner of fine art.

We left Hawi and drove south, back to Kona, pleased with a holoholo well done.

—to be continued—

 

Seattle–Seafood, Family and Traffic

Mt. Rainier and Washington State ferry

Laurel and I flew to Seattle in mid-July for our annual visit with my daughters and grandkids, to touch base with good friends who live there, and to fill up on the great seafood that runs rampant through the Puget Sound region. On this trip, the weather in Seattle was glorious: 80 degrees and sunny. And when it’s sunny in Seattle, there’s no place, as the song goes, that has bluer skies.

Before we left San Diego, we talked to our friends Joe and Julia Ensley and were warned that in the last five years, City-limits Seattle has grown from six to seven hundred thousand people. Be prepared for bad traffic, made worse by the fact that construction happening everywhere is blocking lots of streets. And the ferry terminal is being renovated, so consider driving around part of Puget Sound instead of sailing across to get to their place on Bainbridge Island. I checked out Google Maps and decided to do just that, so we headed south from Sea-Tac airport instead of north.

Tides Tavern in Gig Harbor

We drove down toward Tacoma and turned west to cross the Tacoma Narrows bridge, the famous span that was known as “galloping Gertie” and in 1940 broke in half and collapsed. Fortunately, only one death was caused by this amazing accident that someone actually caught on film. (Check it out on Wikipedia.) We continued northwest and entered the picturesque town of Gig Harbor, once the home to quite a fleet of salmon boats. Fortunately, it’s still home to Tides Tavern, which just celebrated its 45th anniversary. And even more fortunately, they were serving Copper River sockeye salmon and chips.

We sat out on the sunsoaked deck and had the first of several of the week’s great lunches, topped off with a pint of Fremont Lush IPA from the iconoclastic neighborhood in Seattle. Filled with independent spirit, there are signs that advise, “Entering Fremont Time Zone. Set Your Watch Forward Five Minutes.”

Zamboanga in Winslow

After lunch, we drove on north through Kitsap County past Bremerton and Poulsbo, then crossed the bridge at Agate Passage to Bainbridge Island and the town of Winslow where Joe and Julia have a store called Zamboanga, filled with clothing they design and commission on the island of Bali, half a world away. We stayed the night with the Ensleys, and, of course, Joe grilled salmon on the barbecue.

Seattle skyline

The next day, Thursday, the four of us took Marco, their Portuguese water dog, for a walk along the scenic shoreline of Fort Ward State Park, then stopped in Winslow at the Harbour Public House for lunch, where Laurel and I split a delicious ling cod sandwich. After lunch, it was no problem getting on the ferry to Seattle. We went up to the top deck to enjoy the views of the blue water and sky as we approached the city. We did notice that there were more building cranes than normal and remarked on the fact that the skyline was more populated with new buildings than we had seen the previous year. And, as we drove up the gangway and out into the streets of downtown Seattle, the removal of the old Alaskan Way viaduct seems at its height. I skirted around much of the downtown area toward Aurora Way North, Seattle’s highway 99, but the traffic slowed us every step of the way.

The Whisky Bar

The drive north to our motel took us past Woodland Park with its greenery and zoo, and Green Lake was busy with folks enjoying its grassy spaces and beaches, but it’s evident that the city is bursting at the seams. We weren’t really looking forward to the drive back into the city, but we had reservations at a jazz club called Tula’s and were looking forward to seeing Overton Berry, a jazz institution in Seattle. Once parked, we began looking for a new bar to us: the Whisky Bar. It was just a block south and quite a place, with more than 180 whisk(e)ys and 160 Scotches. We ordered two Sazeracs, the famous drink of New Orleans, and our friendly bartender served up a pair of excellent ones, after clarifying that we wanted the drink and not the brand, since they carry a brand that’s called Sazerac Rye Whisky.

At Tula’s, not tired of salmon yet, we split an order of Smoked Sockeye Salmon Fettuccine before Overton and his bassist came on the stage. He’s now 82, but still plays seemingly ageless piano, and his treatment of an evening of songs, including tunes from Black Orpheus, was terrific.

Bald Eagle

On Friday morning we filled our travel mugs with coffee in the motel lobby and headed north. The traffic out of the city wasn’t bad, and we passed through Everett and Mount Vernon, then turned west at Burlington to reach Deception Pass, whose bridge spans the deep passage between the mainland and Whidbey Island, which occupies the northern entrance to Puget Sound and Washington from Vancouver Island and Canada. The road south to the Clinton ferry at the south end is 55 miles long and travels through rugged forest, coastal shore and farmland.

We pulled off at the viewpoint before crossing the bridge and got out to enjoy the view and take a couple of pictures, and, as we stepped onto the end of the bridge, a majestic Bald Eagle flew down and landed in a snag just across the road, posing for pictures against the blue morning sky. It was the first of twelve eagles we saw that day, two of them sitting in nests atop high tension power poles.

We stopped at two of Whidbey’s state parks, Fort Ebey and Fort Casey, both of which, during World War II, held massive gun emplacements aimed at the entrance to Puget Sound from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a narrow body of water leading east from the Pacific Ocean and Japan.

Mountains of mussels at Toby’s Tavern in Coupeville

East of Fort Ebey, lunchtime found us in Coupeville, the county seat for Island County. Coupeville sits on a small body of water made famous by its mussels: Penn Cove mussels, arguably the best-eating mussels in North America and famous in restaurants everywhere. Sitting out on a pier in downtown Coupeville, Toby’s Tavern serves up Penn Cove mussels to the tune of more than 2,700 pounds a month. We happily sampled a pound each of the tasty bivalves, and Laurel was smart enough to order a cup of mussel chowder, too. I stayed traditional and had clam chowder, but the mussel chowder was better.

After spending a little time on another beach, we headed from Clinton across the short span to Mukilteo on a 20-minute ferry ride and headed south, and I do mean south. We had a date with our friends Dave Wilson and Barb DeVincentis in Burien, all the way south of Seattle and west of Sea-Tac Airport. Not to bore you, but at Northgate, 110th North in Seattle, traffic ground to a crawl and continued slow until we passed downtown, then happily sped back up. We had reservations for 7:00 at Angelo’s and arrived breathlessly seven minutes early. We had a great time with Dave and Barb and split an order of seafood cannelloni that was rich with Dungeness crab, another Northwest specialty.

We were expected at my daughter Emily’s place at three on Saturday afternoon and decided to check out one big park we hadn’t birded together. Now called Warren Magnuson Park, it was Sand Point Naval Air Station for many years before that. The park borders a large section of the Lake Washington shoreline and protects many acres of wetlands. Even though July is a notoriously birdless month, we did see many American Goldfinch, the Washington state bird, as well a goldfinch nest that was keeping a female busy. We also saw our first Downy Woodpecker for the year and a few other things, but it was mainly a nice walk.

Elysian Brewing Company at Tangletown

Elysian Brewing Company has expanded and now has five locations in Seattle, where they serve their wonderful IPA, Space Dust. We stopped in at their Tangletown location near Green Lake for lunch and were delighted to see that they served Saturday brunch with live jazz. Of course, we couldn’t possibly pass up two Sockeye Salmon Benedicts to go with the brews.

That afternoon, we hung out at Emily’s and petted her little rescued sorta spaniel, Daisy. We also got to know her new temporary visitor, Canela, which means cinnamon in Spanish. She’s a sweet Heinz 57 variety that’s one of 32 dogs rescued in Costa Rica and brought to the U.S. for new homes. Canela loves everyone and acts accordingly. Later, my daughter, Jenny, and her husband Kevin and high-school-senior son Nathan joined us, and we drove over to north Lake Union for an excellent Mexican dinner at Agua Verde Café.

Pike Place Market

On our last day in Seattle, not counting return flight day, we drove down early to visit the Pike Place Market. If you’re ever in Seattle, it’s a great place to visit, but do it early. By ten in the morning, it had become a mob. One of my favorite places is Jack’s Fish Spot, across the street from the main market. We picked up a nice piece of smoked salmon, and they wrapped it so it would hold unrefrigerated for 24 hours. We’re also quite fond of Jack’s clam chowder, which has smoked salmon in it, as well. We have the Pike Place Market Cookbook, and that chowder recipe is in it, so we enjoy it frequently at home.

The Hammering Man at SAM

We left the market and walked down to SAM, the Seattle Art Museum, just a couple of blocks south on First Avenue. They have a terrific show on right now that’s a major retrospective of Edward Curtis’ Native American photographs, combined with exhibits of three indigenous Native artists. Following that exhibit, we were pretty much museumed out, so we went back to the car and drove up to Capitol Hill.

Taylor Shellfish has grown to six locations in Washington, three in Seattle alone, and we went to the branch on Melrose to get some of the best oysters on the halfshell you’ll ever find. We accompanied that with a serving of their smoked oyster dip and a tuna poke bowl for a fabulous meal.

Sunset at Ray’s Boathouse

After an afternoon break, we drove over to Ballard in northwest Seattle, and it occurred to me that Laurel had never seen the Hiram Chittenden Locks, the connection between Puget Sound and all the fresh-water lakes in Seattle. On the far side of the locks the fish ladder is the gateway to Seattle and its lakes and rivers for spawning salmon, and we saw quite a few in the windows with underwater views of them on their way up from the salt water. We continued on to Ray’s Boathouse and Café, north of the locks with a view of passing boats, sat out on the sunny evening deck at the upstairs café, and split an order of sea scallop pasta, our first scallops of the week. The downstairs Ray’s Boathouse is a quieter, fancier place that serves all manner of 5-star seafood.

Monday morning, we flew home to San Diego, went grocery shopping and collected the mail.

The Prado in Balboa Park

The next day, Tuesday, July 17th, happened to be our ninth wedding anniversary, and we celebrated it by going to the wonderful Prado Restaurant in Balboa Park. Every Tuesday, they have what they call Date Night, which includes excellent salads and entrees for two, along with a bottle of wine for $46.95. Quite a bargain! By the way, we both ordered their excellent pork chops.

Seven Nights of the Iguana

In 1964, Puerto Vallarta was a sleepy little beach town of about 20,000 people. That’s when John Huston decided to film “The Night of the Iguana” there, and the ensuing media frenzy over the affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton put PV on the map in the eyes of U.S. tourists. Partly in response to that, the Mexican government gave a green light to an international airport, and PV hasn’t stopped growing.

Puerto Vallarta zocalo

In 2007, Laurel and I decided to visit Puerto Vallarta and liked what we saw. By now, it had grown to over 200,000 and was a full-fledged city. We found a restaurant called La Palapa right on the beach and went in for lunch. The long wall on the beach side is completely open, and you have a lovely view of the ocean. They almost didn’t take us because they were setting up the place for a wedding: Flowered platform on the sand, rows of linen-covered tables, a classical guitarist playing in the corner. But they offered us a booth in the back and we sat down and ordered drinks and lunch. After a while, with all this happening I couldn’t resist, and I asked Laurel, “When we get married, where do you want to have the wedding?”

She was surprised at the way I proposed, but there it was, and eventually we decided that the LA area made more sense for most people, even though Mexico and Hawaii both seemed romantic. This year, after more than ten years later, we decided it’d be fun to have a sort of anniversary down there.

Green Heron at Estero de El Salado

The town definitely keeps growing. It’s up to about 275,000 now, and a lot of the growth is good growth. There are many new high quality restaurants and hotels, and the state of Jalisco government is doing admirable things in preserving the quality of the natural surroundings. We spent a morning taking a boat tour through a mangrove estuary and were pleased with our guide, Flor, and our driver, Luis. It’s called Estero de El Salado, and it’s a very large nature preserve right in the city.

But there is growing poverty, as well. The magnetism of the place attracts a lot of people from other parts of Mexico and Central America looking for jobs, and its rapid growth has caused pollution in Banderas Bay, the large bay where the city is located. In fact, the people at the estuary have established a breeding program for the local crocodiles, which are dwindling because of the growth and are a major part of the ecology of the bay.

Sunset at La Palapa

On the evening we arrived, we went back to La Palapa, and, true to form, they were setting up another wedding. Folks see pictures of weddings on the beach and flock to lots of beachy spots in PV. And La Palapa, with its excellent food and location, is a major draw. We stayed over dinner long enough to see the ceremony, and I was tempted to approach the bride and groom afterward and tell them how the romance of La Palapa worked for us. In July, we’ll be nine years married.

Monday morning, we took the bus back down to next door to La Palapa. Today we were meeting our guide for a boat ride across Banderas Bay to Yelapa, a cove on the southernmost corner of the bay, for snorkeling, sightseeing and lunch on the beach. By the way, the buses in PV, while some of them are rattletraps, perform punctually every 15 minutes for only 15 pesos a couple. Less than a dollar for the two of us. Travis, our guide with Jet’s Boat Tours, met us on the pier, and we climbed down and boarded a nice, covered panga for the trip over.

Los Arcos

The bay was calm, and we passed by many palatial homes on the way to Los Arcos, a collection of tall rocks jutting from the bay. The rocks are home to the massive numbers of Brown Pelicans that patrol the shores of the bay, as well as a Snowy Egret rookery, where their chicks were visible in nests. We were also lucky enough to see three Blue-footed Boobies, an uncommon bird that lives in scattered spots along the Pacific coast.

Before we reached Yelapa, we stopped in a small cove, and Laurel went snorkeling. She said she saw plenty of fish, but the water was green, and the visibility not great. Travis told us that the bay tends to be a little murky this time of year. One major problem with murky water is not being able to see sharks that might be lurking nearby, but he assured us there are no sharks in the bay, because the dolphin keep them out.

Yelapa

We cruised into Yelapa and saw a broad stretch of beautiful sandy beach with restaurants and a few shops at the top. We waded in, and three employees from Tino’s Oasis, the restaurant we were heading to, helped us out of the water. We took a table at the front of the place, looking right onto the beach and ordered two Pacificos. Laurel had lobster, and I had a whole red snapper which fit perfectly on my plate. The service and the food were excellent, and we discovered why everyone raves about Yelapa.

By the way, we met Travis and the boat on a pier called Los Muertos, which means “the dead” in Spanish. Curious about the grisly name, we asked and were told that in days past, pirates used the beach to bury their dead. Ignoring the negative sounding name, there’s a very good brewery a few blocks from the pier. It may be called Los Muertos, but its brews are alive and kicking.

While still in San Diego, we read plenty of 5-star reviews on Trip Advisor about a birding guide named Gerardo Hernandez and had booked two mornings with him. Per the schedule, he showed up punctually at our hotel Tuesday morning at six o’clock. Today, he was driving us an hour north to a dry riverbed in what he called a dry tropical forest. Gerardo has been guiding birders in PV for more than 35 years, speaks fluent English, and knows the area’s birds incredibly well.

Golden-cheeked Woodpecker

When we got to the dirt road where we would start, he rolled down the window and slowed the car to a crawl. We heard a bird sing in the trees nearby, even though it was still only faintly light. Gerardo mimicked the bird perfectly and waited to see if it would repeat the call. It turns out that he knows just about every song of the birds in the region. We got out of the car, got our binoculars and packs on and walked to the riverbed, which was completely sand, and spent the next four hours walking on a beach in the middle of a dry forest under the gaze of grazing cattle, some of them Brahmas, all of them with horns, but completely indifferent to us. He told us that in a month, the rains will come, and the river will be totally filled with water, and this hike will be impossible until next year.

 

 

In El Tuito with Gerardi

On Thursday, he took us south to the small town of El Tuito, which he told us began in the sixteenth century, when the Spanish first came to Mexico. On this hike, we were up at about 2,000 feet on a dirt road in a jaguar preserve. There was no danger, as jaguars are very endangered as well as very shy. We saw many different birds, plus a few of the same. Altogether, Gerardo’s outings brought us more than 50 species, many of which are life birds. (For you bird geeks, here’s a link Puerto Vallarta 5-2018 to the complete list, along with others Laurel and I saw on our own.)

 

If you’re curious why I named this piece “Seven Nights of the Iguana,” I’ll explain by telling you that we stayed at a luxurious resort hotel called the Mayan Palace.

One of PV’s iguanas

The grounds are covered with trees and gardens, and a canal runs through the property and empties into the bay. Anyplace you have green in Puerto Vallarta, you have iguanas. They munch on the grass and eat leaves from all kinds of plants, and they are plentiful at the Mayan Palace, so we saw them every day lying on the walkways or climbing up into the trees. Ergo, seven days and nights of iguanas.

Earlier, I mentioned that the growth in PV has resulted in some high quality new restaurants. One of them is called Tintoque, and it’s just a few blocks from our hotel at the end of the marina shops and restaurants. We had dinner there one evening and were quite impressed. Besides single dishes, the chef prepares either a six- or eight-course dinner that’s fantastic. And the design on the plates is as elegant as the taste of the food, so Laurel had to take a few pictures. You can make reservations through Open Table, and we both highly recommend it.

Three of our fabulous courses at Tintoque

If you’re into craft beer, as we are, you’ll find another new place downtown on the Malecon. La Cerveceria Union has a beautiful view of the bay, a large list of craft beer and wonderful seafood, including oysters on the half shell and grilled octopus.

Misty morning view from our hotel room

Gaining two hours on our flight back to San Diego, it was strange that we left Puerto Vallarta at 4:15 and arrived in San Diego at 4:45, a nice, quick flight after a too quick week in a gorgeous place. PV, we’ll be back.

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"If one wants to follow a captivating couple pursue their careers in exotic climes brilliantly described,
Stairway of the Gods
is just the right way to do it."
Gordon Osmond at Bookpleasures.com

“The author, Vic Warren, skillfully weaves in actual political events into his tale, making it seem so real. I can’t help but congratulate him for making me stop at parts and ask, is this fiction or fact? I would highly recommend it to readers who enjoy a gripping tale of high adventure.”
From All Books Review

Read What Else They’re Saying About Stairway of the Gods

Vic Warren is an award winning Art Director, credited with creating the "Eskimo portrait" as the aircraft tail logo for Alaska Airlines. If you need help in designing your book cover, check out these designs.

Stairway of the Gods continues to impress. The book's cover just won the Best Self-Published Book Cover Design Contest sponsored by A&A Printing.