If Everybody Had an Ocean: Surf’s Up in Los Cabos

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On Captain James Cook’s third expedition to the Pacific, his ships HMS Discovery and Resolution, made the first recorded European visit to Hawaii in 1778, when they stopped at the western end of the island chain on their way from Tahiti to the northwest coast of North America, stopping at the Big Island of Hawaii. There, at Kealakekua Bay, Cook was killed by Hawaiians when he made a misguided attempt to kidnap their high chief to force the return of a stolen boat.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Lieutenant James King, First Lieutenant of the Discovery was given the task of completing the narrative portion of Cook’s journals after Cook’s death in 1779 and devoted two full pages to a description of surfboard riding, as practiced by the locals. His journal entry is the earliest written account of surfing as a cultural practice:

“Where there is a very great Sea, and surf breaking on the Shore, the Men sometimes lay themselves flat upon an oval piece of plan about their Size and breadth, they keep their legs close on top of it, & their Arms are us’d to guide the plank, thye wait the time of the greatest Swell that sets on Shore, & altogether push forward with their Arms to keep on its top, it sends them in with a most astonishing Velocity, & the great art is to guide the plan so as always to keep it in a proper direction on the top of the Swell, & as it alters its direct. If the Swell drives him close to the rocks before he is overtaken by its break, he is much prais’d. By such like exercises, these men may be said to be almost amphibious.  The diversion I conceive to be very pleasant, at least they seem to feel a great pleasure in the motion which this Exercise gives.”

In the late 1700s, riding waves lying down or standing on long, wooden surfboards was an integral part of Pacific Island lifestyle, as much a part of the local culture as professional sports are to contemporary life in the United States. While the Pacific Islanders had a big head start in enjoying the pleasures of wave riding, the tremendous influx of GIs into the area during World War II brought the sport to the attention of American sporting enthusiasts.  Even as Americans were fighting in the Pacific, mainland surf culture began with people like Bob “The Phantom” Simmons, a Caltech dropout who pioneered modern surfboard design in Southern California, taking it from a heavy, rigid plank to something lighter, portable and more maneuverable. Employing balsa wood and then newer materials like fiberglass with a “form follows function” philosophy, Simmons created wave-riding vehicles based on hydrodynamics using graceful elongated shapes, fins and curves.  Almost overnight, surfing boards went from 2-man carries to something easily carried by a single person and placed on top of a car.

“You paddle out turn around and raise

And baby that’s all there is to the coastline craze

You gotta catch a wave and you’re sittin’ on top of the world”

“Catch a Wave” – The Beach Boys

The early SoCal practitioners, before surfing caught the big tsunami of The Beach Boys’ harmony-driven anthems, and became a multi-billion dollar part of the culture, were surf-niks like Simmons and “Ironman” Mike Doyle who camped out in their cars, slept on beaches up and down the coast, frequently riding alone and without wet suits in cold winter months.

The coastal highway and the breaking waves were the muse in Los Angeles, Orange County and then San Diego and into Baja, always beckoning to surfers in search of the perfect wave.  And there were plenty of them on the deserted shores stretching south of the border.

If everybody had an ocean, then they’d probably want it ringed with the dazzling white sand wave depositories that southern Baja is blessed with.  From the legendary spots in Todos Santos to Playa Cerritos and all the way to San Jose and the East Cape, there are surfing spots in Los Cabos suited to any aptitude and style, and the sport continues to evolve.

The Cabo area was surfed as early as the fifties by traveling California boaters and fishermen, and later surfing enthusiast Steve Bigler flew into a dusty airstrip in San Jose Del Cabo in 1967 to film some footage for the ’68 surf film “Golden Breed.”  Surfline’s Sean Collins, who passed away in 2011, began his lifelong exploration of the area in the late 60s and early 70s. But even though the Trans-Peninsular highway linking Baja Norte and Baja Sur was completed in 1973, the area didn’t really start getting popular until the mid-80s.

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There are many great surf spots around the coastline of southern Baja where enthusiasts from beginners to experts can enjoy the action.  Monuments, Zippers, Acapulquito, Costa Azul, La Roca, Old Man, Shipwreck, Playa El Tule in the Corridor, and Playa Cerritos up the road near Todos Santos are popular spots that offer consistently approachable breaks and classic wave action. Depending on time of year and water conditions, you can count on surfing conditions that range from fun and dependable to outrageous. With so many different opportunities in the area, southern Baja is a place where former world champions like Mike Doyle and ex-pat Pat Curren have decided to settle in and now teach others how to enjoy to action wherever it’s breaking.

The Fletcher Los Cabos Classic, held in 1991 and won by Kelly Slater, was the first big surf contest held here, and the surfing scene then was more like an extended beach party with a coincidental surf contest than anything else. Things began to get serious when the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA) started an annual conference in Los Cabos in 1998 and the local surfing population – both Mexican and gringo – has continued to grow as new aspects of the sport like stand up paddleboarding are introduced.  Recent news includes the announcement of the World SUP Championships to be held in Los Cabos in November 2012, a recognition of the world class status of the location and its many amenities.

Following is a guide by area to some of the top surfing spots in Los Cabos.  By no means definitive, this is designed to help those who are looking to get started in the sport and become part of the growing numbers of the coastline craze.

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On a slightly overcast beach near Todos Santos a small group of enthusiastic women have gathered to prove that they have what it takes to be surfers.  This beach, on the Pacific side of Baja California Sur, is where you want to be when west swells bring consistent waves, and when the conditions are just right 12-footers can appear for days.  But today these women are just learning surfing basics with their instructor Mario. Part of the Todos Santos Eco Adventures Surf Camp for Women, they participate in a full week of activities headquartered at Los Colibris that include not only lessons in wave theory, but also horseback riding, pre-surf yoga classes, Mexican cooking lessons, swimming with sea lions, tapas and wine tasting (sometimes followed by spontaneous dancing), massage therapy, visits to local art galleries, Hotel California and restaurants, and, yes, shopping.  Consider this package your one-stop introduction to all the good things that the Todos Santos has to offer, with surf lessons each morning, a fun/indulgent activity each afternoon, and authentic dining experience each evening.

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Near Todos Santos on Mexico Hwy 19 at approximately Km. 64 in Pescadero between Playa Los Cerritos and Playa San Pedrito with access to popular Playa Pescadero is the Pescadero Surf Camp, which is not limited to women and offers lodging and lessons for beginning, intermediate and advanced surfers.  The camp offers packages of excursions all around southern Baja and a year round onsite guide is available for individuals or groups to get you to the best swells from the East Cape region to the Pacific. All surf gear is provided or you can bring your own.  The lodging here is well-maintained and functional, with campsites consisting of palapas with electricity, lights and water, casitas with or without private showers and a camp house with two bedrooms, bathroom, shower, full kitchen, living room and private patio. A pool with swim-up palapa bar is often the social center for many of the more serious boarders in the area, but the camp is a perfect introduction for first-timers also.

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Also situated in Todos Santos next to the Hotel Santa Rosa is La Sirena Eco Adventures which offers packages for local surfing, kayak and snorkeling, sea turtle activities, whale watching and guest house rentals, cozy one bedroom/one bath casitas nestled in palm trees within walking distance to markets, downtown Todos Santos and Playa La Poza for turtle hatchling releases. The comfortable and predictable waters of nearby Playa Los Cerritos make it the perfect place for beginner and intermediate surfers.  La Sirena provides bilingual instructors with years of surfing and surf instruction experience and will design a package of custom lessons to suit a given skill level, including a three-day surf clinic which can be spread out over a week. La Sirena is a good base of operations for people who have more than one interest in the local ecology and they provide a lot of opportunities in preserving and sharing the natural resources of the area around Todos Santos.

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One of the most popular areas in all of Los Cabos is the surf break just in front of the Cabo Surf Hotel.  The hotel itself serves as host to a name brand surf school that comes with all the credentials of a world champion.  “Ironman” Mike Doyle’s surf school is located onsite at the Cabo Surf Hotel and offers a full 3-day clinic (hotel guests have special discounts on surf clinics) for the beginners and advanced beginners to get into the action on the waves at Playa Acapulquito, one of the most reliable surfing spots in southern Baja, where a reef brake forms waves that break before reaching shore, making it also a popular surf spot and a safe place for swimmers. Watersport enthusiasts can also enjoy stand up paddling during the smaller wave months (mid-November to mid-March). All of their instructors are certified by NSSIA (National Surf Schools & Instructors Association) and head instructor Miguel Rojas is a Mexican National Champion on Short Board representing Baja California Sur, and has been a Mike Doyle School instructor for 9 years.

Another reputable surf shop in the immediate vicinity overlooking Zippers and other prime surf spots in San Jose del Cabo is Costa Azul Surf Shop.  Owner Alejandro Olea started with a ding repair shack on Zippers beach in 1985. Since then, Costa Azul Surf Shop has become a thriving local business and headquarters for surf enthusiasts in southern Baja, where they provide updates on the latest surf conditions, custom surf wear and clothing and all the supplies you’ll need to enjoy your beach-going experience.  “We’ve come a long way,” Olea says, “but I feel like we still have a long way to go before we’re where I want us to be. That’s why we started our Costa Azul Surf Shop Surf Lesson Program. We offer professional surf lessons from teachers who have a combined 120 years of surfing experience and who are CPR and First Aid certified.”

Costa Azul also has its own stock of about 250 signature-design surfboards boards, hand-shaped by a team of skilled shapers using recent technologies coupled with old world craftsmanship.  The Costa Azul shop offers client transportation to the best local breaks, sponsors a junior waverider team and has a regular client list that includes the likes of Adam Sandler and NBA star Jason Kidd. Classes offered can include up to 10 people with four teachers per session, keeping the teacher-to-student ratio low. Private one-on-one lessons also are available by request. Beside its main headquarters near Zippers in San Jose, Costa Azul also has facilities in Playa Cerritos and Todos Santos to assist local enthusiasts there.

SurfinCabo, also in the San Jose area near Zippers, is a surfing Bed and Breakfast dedicated to guided surf tours for beginners up to expert level surfers.  The hillside location offers 6 comfortable private rooms with all services you would want for a local visit, including a swimming pool, video arcade and spa.  They also provide full surfing lessons, board rentals and repairs, and tours and excursions to wherever the best sets are breaking.  They’re located 5 minutes from prime spots in the San Jose area, and are within an hours’ drive from the best Baja surfing spots from the East cape to the Pacific side when the northern swells are active.

Stand Up Paddleboarding

A close relative to the local surfing action is the up-and-coming new sport called SUP, for stand-up paddleboarding.  Less dependent on surf conditions and easily approachable by the less athletic, SUP offers plenty of excitement and good exercise, as balancing and paddling provides cardio and strength training for a low impact, full body workout while enjoying the ocean environment in a zone where the surf meets the shore.  Locally, there are several SUP operations that will get you into the action with a minimum of training.

SUP Mexico, with headquarters in San Jose del Cabo, is a full service location offering all there is to know about the world of stand-up paddling, including lessons with one of their WPA (World Paddle Association) instructors and a full range of SUP boards by Doyle and Hobie C4 Waterman, Paddle Surf Hawaii and Boardworks.  SUP Mexico was started by Alfredo Salafranca and Kym Kuharski Salafranca, and opened for business in December 2010 in San Jose.  They recently added another spot on Medano Beach near ME Cabo.

Alfredo’s love for surfing brought him to the world of paddle boarding, and after getting involved up the sport and noticing other locals and tourists also were enthusiastic realized the need for a SUP business in Los Cabos.  Together over the years Alfredo and Kym have created a business that represents knowledge of the local waters and quality SUP products, and consistently promote their enthusiasm for the sport throughout the area. SUP Mexico is the official sponsor for two of the top ranked stand up paddle professionals in the world, Candice Appleby and Anthony Vela, and is also the founder of the Los Cabos Classic, a SUP Stand Up Paddle Race that is held in the fall each year at Palmilla Beach.

Cabo SUP is a stand up paddleboard club located in the heart of downtown Cabo that provides lessons, rentals, and guided tours. CABO SUP owners and operators Lee and Meredith Vosburgh started paddling 5 years ago in Montauk, Long Island. They continued paddling when they relocated to Cabo 3 years ago to be the onsite partners of the Bahia Hotel and Beach Club. The decision to share their passion for Stand Up Paddle was brought about by the ideal location of the Beach Club. The Beach Club is located on Medano Beach, one block from the Bahia Hotel, and the full service operation includes lessons and a full range of rental gear featuring SOS paddles boards and paddles (Lee promises you’ll be up and SUPing in only about an hour). Medano Beach is Cabo’s most swimmable stretch of sand where the famous Land’s End Arch marks the convergence of the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez, and, since many of the hotels on the Corridor don’t allow swimming due to rip currents and strong surf, many guests from that area take advantage of Medano Beach for all water activities.  It also makes it a convenient place for first timers to earn their SUP wings.

No longer the sole domain of tousle-headed daredevils driving VW vans with handmade boards looking for deserted beaches and awesome swells, surfing in its many forms has evolved into big business in Baja and has made itself accessible to everyone.  The waves that have been caressing the shores from Todos Santos to the East Cape are part of an endless cycle that has been going on for millions of years.  A connection to that natural force, a power that can be exhilarating and even addictive, is something that surfers, when they drop into the face of a wave, feel intuitively.  And now, thanks to the local entrepreneurs and water enthusiasts who love that feeling and want to share it, so can you.

For more information:

Todos Santos Eco Adventures: www.tosea.net

Pescadero Surf Camp: www.pescaderosurf.com

La Sirena Eco Adventures: www.lasirenakayaksurf.com

Cabo Surf Hotel: www.cabosurfhotel.com

Costa Azul Surf Shop: www.costa-azul.com.mx

SurfinCabo: www.surfincabo.com

SUP Mexico: http://mexicosup.com

Cabo SUP: http://cabosup.com

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Viva Agave! Tequila Aficionados Unite in Los Cabos.

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Hundreds of years ago, nobody is sure of the exact date, lighting struck an agave plant in Mexico, causing it to split and reveal a crude nectar that the Aztecs used to make a primitive beverage, an ancestral form of what we now call tequila. That’s according to an ancient legend, and it’s an event that is still celebrated in Mexico in story and traditional dance.  Tequila, as refined and rewarding a beverage as you can find, has now become one of the most celebrated alcoholic drinks in the world.

Tequila is North America’s first distilled drink, with a history dating back to pre-Hispanic times. Tequila isn’t just an alcohol beverage, writes Alberto Ruy-Sánchez Lacy, Ph.D., in his book Guía del Tequila (Guide to Tequila). It’s a distillation of a legendary part of Mexican history, with all its hard work and pride, and sipping a fine tequila is more than a direct connection to a specific region or producer, it’s also a connection to the heart and soul of Mexico.

After that proverbial lightning strike, the Aztecs were able to make a fermented beverage from the agave plant which they called octli – later called pulque – long before the Spanish arrived in 1521.   During the pre-Hispanic era, the Tiquila tribe from Amatitlan, learned the essential process of boiling and fermenting the agave plant to obtain a ritualistic beverage which was then only consumed by religious authorities.

When the Spanish conquistadors ran out of their own brandy, they began to distill agave to produce North America’s first indigenous alcoholic spirit.  Mezcal wine – tequila’s direct ancestor – was first produced only a few decades after the Spaniards arrived in the New World in 1521. In 1538 the governor of Nueva Galcia, an area that includes present-day Jalisco, created a law to control production of what was called vino mescal. Tequila, like Mexico herself, was born of a Mestizo heritage; the drink was first produced from a Mexican product by the Spanish in European stills of Arabic origin.

Tequila as an industry had its beginnings when Jose Antonio de Cuervo obtained land from the King King Carlos IV of Spain in 1758, before Mexico became an independent republic. In 1795, Jose María Guadalupe de Cuervo made the very first Vino Mezcal de Tequila de Jose Cuervo after receiving the first official permit from the King of Spain to produce Tequila commercially.  His distillery, La Cofradia de la Animas, is the predecessor of the well-known firm of Casa Cuervo.  Other early tequila pioneers include Tequila Herradura which was founded in 1870 and Tequila Sauza which was founded in 1873.

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Tequila is distilled from the juices of the blue agave plant (agave tequiliana Weber), commonly called blue agave (agave azul). This large plant is commonly confused with the cactus plant as the source of tequila, but it is actually a relative of the lily (amaryllis) family.  Grown in the state of Jalisco and in specified areas of the surrounding states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit and Tamaulipas, the large spikey plant was classified by German botanist Franz Weber in 1905.  Weber arrived in Mexico in 1896 and spent years studying the best agaves for the production of tequila.  His studies determined that the blue agave variety was the best source for tequila, and the plant now bears his name.

Tequila was first exported to the United States in 1870, but really didn’t really didn’t create much excitement in Northern America until Bing Crosby and Phil Harris began importing Herradura into the United States in the 1950s.  Little was known about tequila up until the early 1960s except by those who lived in the southwestern US where it had a market with the Hispanic population there, and with rabble-rousing college kids who went to Tijuana in search of wide open good times and cheap thrills.

Tequila’s early reputation with gringos established it as the wild child of alcoholic beverages. Mysterious and with a troubled history, tequila immediately earned itself a bad rap as drink with the sophistication of kerosene and a kick-in-the head hangover. This reputation, along with the mention of tequila in songs (everybody knows the party classic with the one word refrain from The Champs) served as marketing bait to lure the adventure seekers from the Hollywood crowd and college campuses across the border to Tijuana and other border towns.   The tequila consumed there was often an inferior grade, taken in multiple shots with salt and lime, sometimes with a Alka-Seltzer chaser, and consumption of that low grade rocket fuel was a guaranteed recipe for a bad tomorrow.

In the years after its introduction Americans learned to love their tequila, especially after the time-honored lick-some-salt, knock-back-a-shot, suck-the-lime consumption technique and the popularization of the margarita in all of its many machine-churned fruity varieties.

Luckily, tequila has changed a lot since then, and has evolved to a point where it can claim its rightful place among the world’s great distilled spirits. Now tightly regulated by the Mexican government, top notch tequilas are made exclusively with the fermented and distilled juice of the blue agave, and can now range from $40 to several hundreds of dollars a bottle.  That one source, the juice of the Agave Tequiliana Weber plant, has now been conjugated to produce an industry that includes over 2,600 labels in a dazzling array of beautiful handmade bottles, and the number continues to climb.

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Choosing from among the vast number of high end tequilas can be daunting. It’s not enough anymore to know your silvers or blancos (not aged) from your reposados (aged from two months to a year) from your añejos (aged for a year or more).  There’s also extra añejo (aged for three years or more), gran reposado, blanco suave, platinum and even flavored tequilas. The classification extra añejo, or extra aged, was the newest classification approved by Mexico’s National Committee on Standardization, and there are more and more world class ultra-premium añejos  arriving on the market every year.

But all of this background information can make a person thirsty, and it’s time to apply this working knowledge to a tour of some of the most prominent tequila sampling spots around town.  In a place that’s used to enjoying the finest of everything, there’s no shortage of great places in Los Cabos and its environs to educate your taste buds and enjoy a personal relationship with some of Mexico’s finest spirits.

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Let’s start with Pancho’s. The original ground zero for tequila lovers in Cabo, tequilero John Bragg’s restaurant now sports one of the largest collections in the world.  That’s no accident, since Bragg has been studying and sampling tequila for years, and has been working on the definitive book on the subject.  At Pancho’s you’ll meet Jose de Jesus Anguiano, who conducts the tequila tastings in a separate room at the back of the restaurant, with its credentials on the wall – a collection of certificates awarded them by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila, A.C., Mexico’s federal tequila regulatory council. Jose spent a full year earning his stripes in Mexico’s tequila-producing region, and has been Pancho’s Tequila Master for the last 10 years. Simple flights of good tequilas are served up on handcrafted wooden platters, and then Jose guides you through the basic types of tequila with the enthusiasm and knowledge of a true master.  After the tasting, participants are awarded a certificate anointing them as Tequila Connoisseurs, authorized by the local Experto en Tequila John Bragg.

Tastings at Grand Solmar have the visual advantage of being held in one of the great new properties with a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. Sommelier and Tequila Master Juan Carlos is your guide here, offering tastings that lasts about an hour to hotel guests and non-guests alike, in groups from two people to a group of 6 to 8. Juan offers a thorough introduction to the history and description of tequila in its many styles, and uses slices of citrus and green apples to demonstrate the complexities and levels of flavor in high end tequilas, and also suggests pairing with a variety of foods, including sushi, guacamoles and salsas.  A variety of mezcals can also be added to the agenda, where Juan Carlos describes the differences between fine tequila and its other agave-derived relative. This is a great introduction to the world of tequila, and the view and atmosphere at Grand Solmar only intensifies the experience.

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“We pride ourselves on offering our guests new experiences in food and beverages,” says Isaac Novoa, banquet and bar manager at Capella Pedregal. “We find there is a lot of misinformation about tequila – that it comes from cactus, that there’s a worm in the bottle, all of those myths. A lot of people only think of tequila as something they do as a shot, not something to enjoy in small sips. Good tequila, especially añejo should always be sipped like a fine cognac.” Capella Pedregal offers three different classes on tequila: a Beginner’s Course where Novoa explains the history and tradition of tequila and describes the basic styles: blanco, reposado and añejo tequila, along with mezcal. The Advanced Course teaches the unique properties of the various tequilas produced from agave. The Once in a Lifetime course presents some of the best extra aged tequilas Mexico has to offer. “Almost every one of our guests chooses level three — the Once in a Lifetime course,” says Novoa. “After our class, they have a much greater understanding and appreciation of tequila.  This is something that will stay with them the rest of their lives.”

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At the Museo del Tequila in the Marina’s Golden Zone you have the added dimension of being in an environment that is completely tequila-themed.  The room sports a tequila bar, and some of the actual implements used in harvesting and processing the agave piñas into tequila, including a coa de jima (harvesting hoe), machetes, an old stone mill to crush the piñas and an antique still originally used in processing the agave nectar.  There’s a lot of graphic narrative about the history and process of tequila making on the walls, and we also picked up a card detailing all the benefits tequila had to offer, including “eliminates shyness, improves digestion, increases joy, makes forget, gets friends closer and extinguishes guilt,”  among other things.  So take a seat at their beautiful handcrafted wood bar and see how many good side effects you can manifest during a tasting here.

Esperanza’s Tequila Master Christian Moya comes from the tequila-growing of Guadalajara, and grew up appreciating its history and traditions.  A tasting here can take palce on the terrace overlooking the Sea of Cortez at their Restaurant on the beach or any other of many vantage points.  Fresh green and red sangritas are made just before service and Moya offers a passionate discourse on the history and process of making fine tequila.  They have a dedicated clientele who revisit Esperanza’s tequila tasting every year.  “We offer different tastings every year, as we discover new, very special tequilas,” Moya says.  “We try to evolve the process so that people are always discovering something new about tequila. We also tell them about recommended cocktail recipes and matching tequila with foods.”   They also do things like pair an extra añejo with dark chocolate and spicy truffles.

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Guests at Las Ventanas al Paraiso receive a personal invitation to the world of tequila when they arrive, a sample of Tequila Clase Azul and an introductory note from Maestro Tequilero Oscar Mondragon, which includes instruction on tasting and an invitation to “awaken your taste buds by enjoying several dried pumpkin seeds with chili powder…sipping the tequila, taking a pinch of salt from several samples, a little lime juice, a few spicy almonds, and finally a piece of dark chocolate to taste with the tequila.”  That’s a personal introduction for their guests, but their full blown tasting takes places at their Tequila and Ceviche Bar.  There Mondragon offers a passionate introduction to the world of tequila, complete with their handmade sangritas which are made an hour before service.  After sipping their exotic elixirs, they hand you a diploma certifying you as a Tequila Aficionado. Sitting there overlooking the Sea of Cortez, your graduation certificate in hand, it seems life couldn’t get much better.

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The One & Only Palmilla is not known for compromise, and that also goes for their tequila tastings.  Available to both hotel guests and non-guests alike, our tasting took place in the Herb Garden on the hotel grounds, an open air space with a very calming feel to it.  Under the tutelage of Tequila Master Manuel Arteaga, tequila tasting are orchestrated using flights of eight premium tequilas set up a sheet that clearly identifies them: a Don Julio 1942, Casa Noble Añejo, 7 Leguas D’Antano Extra Añejo, Chicaco Negro Extra Añejo, Agave Dos Mil Blanco, Toro de Lidia Blanco, Oro Azul Reposado and Partida Reposado.  “We like to offer the tequilas to taste side by side, of the same type, so that they can taste the very distinct differences between two blancos or two añejos,” Arteaga says. As he goes through the various labels and styles, Arteaga describes tequila tasting in its entirety: the aromatics of the “nose,” the mouth feel and the aftertaste. He’s very familiar with these sometimes artisanal products and visits the tequila producing region at least once a year to buy from very select producers.

At Don Sanchez and Habanero’s in San Jose, owner, chef and tequila meister Tadd Chapman has created a comprehensive program that covers many of the subtle details and nuances found in the world of tequila. A video presentation covers the history, process and tasting of tequila, and then he offers a sampling of three 100% agaves in blanco, reposado and añejo styles.  The system here involves the use of a tasting wheel, a graphic reference with descriptions of the aromas and flavors found in tequila, from floral and spicy, to woody, caramel, nutty and fruity.  Graduation from the class is complete with the presentation of an official-looking Certification of Completion.  And, since you’ve probably worked up a good appetite by now, the food is great at both of these restaurants, and Tadd will be glad to provide some advice on food/tequila parings.

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At Costa Baja near La Paz they take their tequila very seriously. Home to an extensive collection of premium tequilas from select blancos to high end extra añejos and tequila based liqueurs, they currently offer two tasting menus and are planning to add more events in 2013.  Tastings will usually take place at Steinbeck’s Restaurant outdoors overlooking the picturesque marina.

Costa Baja’s collection includes many limited production tequilas, some which have attained a legendary reputation, like the Don Julio Reposado launched in 1987 and the Don Porfidio Reposado, to share with guests and visitors.  The collection is one of the most extensive in southern Baja, consisting of a private collection of 400 brands of blancos and reposados, and a special selection of unique bottles in the ultra-premium tequila category in handmade bottles.  Tequila tasting categories at Costa Baja include a standard level with samples of the Agavero Liqueur, Maestro Tequilero blanco, 7 Leguas reposado, Patron Añejo and 1921 tequila Cream.  A luxury tasting includes samples of the Agavero liqueur, Patron Silver, Don Julio Añejo Real, Reserva reposado and 1921 Tequila Cream.  This is an opportunity to become knowledgeable about top tier tequilas if you’re in the La Paz area, and you’ll want to keep in touch as they expand their repertoire here.

If you have the opportunity to visit one of Los Cabos’ tequila masters at any one of these tequila tasting temples, which we highly recommend, then consider the following basic tasting techniques when they bring out those decorative bottles  of Mexico’s finest:

  1. After the pour, hold the glass up to the light, notice the color by tilting the glass away from you against a light background. Blancos should be clear without occlusions or sediment; reposados and añejos will have more amber-like color picked up from the wood during their barrel aging. Check the consistency of the tequila as it drips down the inside of the glass (an effect called “legs”) Does it run down slowly or quickly? Is the viscosity thick or thin?
  2. Swirl the tequila and then give it a deep sniff. Much of what you will taste is a result of the aromas released as you swirl. Repeat as necessary, enjoying the medley of scents, which can include notes of caramel, vanilla and herbaceous overtones.
  3. Take a sip, swirl it around in your mouth, swallow and exhale. What flavors do you detect?  Common tastes include citrus, spice, wood, floral, vanilla, caramel and chocolate.  Hold the sample in your mouth; swish it around allowing it to coat your palate. Notice the feel in the mouth. Is it thin and mineral-tasting or rich and velvety? By “mouthing” the sample you will release its aromatics. That’s a good thing in tasting tequila.
  4. For many tequila tastings a special tomato fruit juice blend called sangrita is offered to guests. Sipping a sangrita with alternating sips of tequila can accentuate the complex layers in both of those beverages.

What it really comes down to is that good tequila makes the world a better place to live. So the next time you sip some premium blue agave nectar, it should go down not as just another flavorful, fine distilled alcoholic beverage, but as the potent essence of a very special place and culture, a direct connection to unique Mexican art form with all of its spirit and complexity.

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While we learned that the best tequilas should really be sipped in a proper Reidel tequila tasting glass, some aficionados will naturally want to mix good tequila into a variety of mixed drinks.  These can vary from the well-known tequila sunrise, the paloma, and, of course, the margarita.  This recipe shared by Las Ventanas is a flavorful and spicy classic.

Jalapeño Margarita

Ingredients:

2 oz.                      Centenario Reposado tequila

1 oz.                      fresh lemon juice

1 oz.                      agave syrup

1 oz.                      Cointreau liqueur

1                            jalapeño chile

Preparation:

Cut the jalapeño in small pieces and blend it with the lemon juice. Fill a shaker with ice, the lemon-jalapeño mix and add the tequila, Cointreau and the syrup. Shake it until you feel your hand start to chill.

Rub the rim of your margarita glass with the lemon and place the rim of the glass on a plate holding salt. Pour the margarita into the glass with some ice and enjoy.

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Tequila Tastings in Los Cabos

While most of the places mentioned are open for regular tastings, it’s recommended that you contact them to make a reservation in advance and get information on costs.

Pancho’s: www.panchos.com

Grand Solmar: http://grandsolmarresort.com

Capella Pedregal: www.capellahotels.com/cabosanlucas

Museo del Tequila: www.goldenzonecabo.com

Esperanza: www.esperanzaresort.com

Las Ventanas al Paraiso: http://www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/lasventanas

The One and Only Palmilla:  http://palmilla.oneandonlyresorts.com

Don Sanchez/Habanero’s: www.donsanchezrestaurant.com                                                                                                    http://www.habanerosgastrogrill.com

Costa Baja: http://costabajaresort.com

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Cabo Pulmo – Baja’s National Marine Park is Indeed a Precious Aquatic Paradise.

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After a fueling up with savory breakfast at the Cabo Surf Hotel, Paul and I jump into his Vanagon and we’re on our way to a southern Baja destination with a distinctive literary connection.  Like Jack Kerouac we’re on the road, but we’ve set our sights on a location that was documented by another literary lion, John Steinbeck, who stopped at Cabo Pulmo during his epic voyage around Baja California and documented his findings in the landmark book The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

Cabo Pulmo has a certain mystique to those who still appreciate remote areas and access to pristine water and a diverse selection of marine wildlife.  Part of that mystique is the fact that the last 16 miles are unpaved, which keeps out those who tend to avoid the possibility of occasional washboarding or a surprise washout along the way.  Another part is access to unspoiled natural resources and one of only three living coral reefs in North America.

Taking Mexico 1 toward the East Cape, we come into Miraflores surprisingly quickly, followed by Santiago and its charming home grown zoo.  But we’re looking for a different kind of wildlife, and press on into La Ribera and the junction with the road to Cabo Pulmo.  Not sure of the turn, Paul and I stop alongside a group of men who are sitting out the heat in their front yard.  “Cabo Pulmo?” Paul asks, and we get waved on, connecting to the road and its 16-mile long dirt terminus. We’re in the final stretch.

We’re lucky enough to have an invitation from our friend out at the Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort, Cole Barrymore, whose father, ski movie pioneer Dick Barrymore, discovered the area in 1970 and decided to settle in.  Building up the small resort literally by hand, the Barrymores created a small community of palapa-styled casitas that they furnished with their own hand made furniture and cabinetry.  Cole settled in permanently in 1993, married a local girl, Maribel, and decided to make Cabo Pulmo his base of operations.

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Cabo Pulmo’s offshore resources was designated a National Marine Park in 1995, meaning that things are pretty much the same as they have always been there, and the reef-building corals have produced the only living reef on the western shores of North America, a structure that fans out in eight distinct fingers just off the beach. It’s a refuge for an awe-inspiring collection of wildlife ranging from brightly-colored fish, turtles, moray eels, pelagic gamefish like tuna and marlin, and, if you’re lucky, schooling manta rays or the occasional whale shark.  Another dive stop is the nearby wreck of the El Vencedor, a tuna boat that sank in 1981, now a well-populated artificial reef. The area has become a Mecca for divers and water enthusiasts who want to spend time in a place that Jacques Cousteau has described as “the aquarium of the world.”

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Once the area became a National Marine Park it attracted a lot of attention from enthusiasts who wanted to experience the reef and its natural aquarium environment. With the increasing interest, Cole decided to put up a website and offer tours of the area, and a friend, a buddy by the name of John Friday, suggested that they start a diving program.  The rest is local history.

We pull up in front of the Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort, where a group of divers are cleaning up their gear, regaling each other with dive stories.  One group is speaking French, Henri, a dive guide, is from Holland, several other divers are from England. It’s a diverse, multinational group, sitting around in the mid-morning heat, drinking cold cervezas, clearly enthused about what they’d seen offshore.

CaboP3

“It all started with ten tanks,” Cole says over a plate of fresh fish tacos on the terrace outside the resort’s Coral Reef restaurant. “Today we’re one of the most popular and professionally equipped dive facilities in Baja.  We get them coming here from all over the world. That’s because of the numbers of fish and marine mammals that can be seen in the area.  We have 60 to 70 feet of visibility here all the time, and it’s not unusual to see the bottom from the boat.  Water temperatures are consistently 85 degrees until the end of October.  It’s just a comfortable way to see an awful lot of wildlife in the water we have here.”

Time to gear up. Paul loads his Nikon into the protective waterproof housing, and we get fitted for fins, masks and snorkels.  We head out to the beach, get in the panga, and then get launched by a pickup with a padded push bar.

As we approach the entry spot, Henri, our dive instructor, gives us some basic guidelines, and the scuba team is ready to hit the water.  Paul and I are snorkeling, so we’ll hit the water after they’re in and follow the bubbles.

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The first impression of the water at Cabo Pulmo is its transparency.  Not only in the visual sense, but also because of its temperature.  It’s almost as warm as the human body, close enough that you don’t really feel it.  You just feel suspended in a neutral, liquid environment, and then you start to look around.  Suddenly a group of brightly colored fish with bright yellow fins and tails, a school of gafftopsail pompano, appear next to us, then move away slowly, oblivious to our presence.  They’ve seen this many times before.

Down below the divers are trailing bubbles, which come up like pulsating blobs of mercury, as they head for the fingers of the reef. I can hear the amplified click of the Nikon in the water. There are fish everywhere it seems, some stratified at a certain depth, suspended in their part of the park, while groups of schooling fish come and go at other levels of the aquatic playground.

CaboP7

Down below the divers are exploring the crevices and the coral reef close up.  Here are the breeding grounds of the nurse shark, a group of moray eels, large triggerfish, schooling jacks, and an uncountable number of other fish, some curious, some quickly on their way to another part of the reef.  A group of small, iridescent fish envelops one of the divers, leaving a perfect cavity in their midst as they move around him, and then they’re gone.  It’s a small but miraculous moment of the kind that seems to happen here all the time.

After about forty-five minutes we’re back in the boat.  A gasping diver pulls off his gear. “I’ve never seen as many moray eels as I just saw down there!” he says.  He repeats it to himself, and you suspect it’s an experience he won’t soon forget.

In his book The Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck recounted a visit to Pulmo during a 1940 boat trip to collect biological specimens: “The complexity of the life pattern on Pulmo reef was even greater than at Cape San Lucas.  Clinging to the coral, growing on it, burrowing into it was a teeming fauna.  One small piece of coral might conceal 30 or 40 species, and the colors of the reef were electric.”

It may be hard to believe, as we live on a planet that sometimes verges on environmental catastrophe, but Cabo Pulmo may be one of the places where things are pretty much like they were described in 1940.  The waters are still clear and clean – a necessity for a living coral reef that can’t tolerate any clogging sediment in the water.  The condition of the park is due, in large part, to the respect that Cole Barrymore and other water enthusiasts have for this area.  With care and proper management, Cabo Pulmo and its spectacular sights will always be available those willing to take the trip along the proverbial dirt road less traveled.

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After the dive, we wander the streets of the town, a remarkably open place with a frontier-like atmosphere, where horses roam the streets and beaches unattended and nobody really locks their doors.  “The honor system is still alive and well here,” Henri says.  Local restaurants are also wide open, sometimes more occupied by sleeping cats than customers.  We stop at Nancy’s, across from the resort, which has a reputation for good food, when you can find the proprietor, an American who moved here to be with her daughter, and ended up cooking for the entire town.  Could be our timing today, but no one is there.  When Nancy is on hand and at the stove, this is the place for fresh seafood, pizza and home cooked meals in a cozy palapa setting with a full bar.

It doesn’t take along to cover the town, and we make the rounds over to El Caballero, which is where Cole met his wife. Run by a local family, El Caballero offers traditional Mexican plates on a large outdoor patio and is the place to go for breakfast huevos rancheros.  Another favorite stop is Tito’s, an unassuming place with a reputation for good fish and shrimp tacos, world class chile rellenos, and cold cervezas.  Don’t ask for a menu, as they don’t have one, but the prices are a bargain and the service is friendly.

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The sun is setting as we pull out of Cabo Pulmo.  It’s been a good day full of new experiences, and a trip that both Paul and I had always wanted to make.  Cabo Pulmo seems to be a world unto itself, a small sleepy Baja village, almost unchanged since Steinbeck made his stop, with friendly people, good food, cold beer, and one of the world’s most beautiful natural aquariums just offshore.  You couldn’t ask for anything more.

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From more information:  http://www.cabopulmo.com  Photos by Paul Papanek

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A Trip Along Baja’s Back Roads, from Miraflores to El Triunfo

miraflores bcs

 

Los Cabos is justifiably famous for its line-up of luxury resorts, gorgeous beaches and top rated golf courses. These amenities are some of the finest in the world, and a good reason that the area is featured in the high profile glossy ads that are featured in luxury travel and lifestyle magazines.

But there’s another part of this area that has its own appeal – the authentic charm of authentic Baja Sur.  Just around the corner from these impressive coastal features and luxury hotels lies the Baja of times past, the Baja of small villages, dusty side streets and smiling, friendly faces of the people who work hard to make a living for their families.

If you’d like to discover some of the charms of the backcountry in southern Baja you can follow Highway 1 towards and past the airport in San Jose del Cabo and you’ll quickly find yourself passing through two small, sleepy villages with an “old Baja” ambiance. Miraflores is located about 20 minutes north of the airport and is known for its fruits, vegetables and cheeses and a fine leather factory located on an access road between the highway and the town center. It’s a great place to shop for bargains on leather hats, belts and bags.

A little further up the road is Santiago, a community located in the middle of a fertile, palm-filled valley. Santiago is known for its colonial mission, founded in 1723, and the El Palomar Hotel and restaurant located on a shady lane in the middle of date palms, mangoes, sugarcane and papayas.

palomar-restaurant-bar

The Palomar’s restaurant gained a reputation for solid cooking, and Barbra Streisand once and declared the Palomar a favorite new restaurant after dining on fresh pescado prepared mojo de ajo (garlic butter) style. Don’t miss the photo of Bing Crosby with the original owners on the wall. If you have the time you can also visit the quaint little zoo in the village, the only one in Baja Sur.  While nowhere near the scope of a metropolitan zoo, it features many indigenous local animals, bears, tigers, monkeys, wolves, ostriches and rattlesnakes in a viewing pit.  Admission is free.

santiago-zoo_4810_r2

Continuing on the drive north on Highway 1 past the East Cape you’ll see the backdrop of the Sierra de La Laguna mountains.  The area was declared a Biosphere Reserve in 1994, and is home to an incredible diversity of animal and plant life. Today much of the wilderness is uninhabited and attracts naturalists, mountain bikers, climbers, and hikers. A number of small farming towns are located deep in the arroyos of the Sierra de La Laguna.

Continuing along Highway 1 you’ll come to San Bartolo, a lush oasis known for its fresh fruits, homemade marmalades and baked goods. For a fresh, healthy treat, stop at one of the stands along the road for mangoes, avocados, and a local treat – fruit filled empanadas. A number of places in town also serve authentic burritos with fresh local cheese, salsa and beans.

Further on you pass through San Antonio, a town that dates back to 1748. During this period a rich silver vein was discovered in the area and San Antonio became home to more than 10,000 residents.  When an earthquake heavily damaged Loreto in 1829, San Antonio served briefly as the capital of the Californias, before the capital was transferred to La Paz. Today San Antonio’s population has dwindled to less than 1,000.

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Winding through the mountains you’ll finally reach El Triunfo, a former mining town with crumbling colonial-style buildings, a stately church, and ruins of old silver mine foundry with a towering brick smoke stack.  In 1862 rich silver deposits were discovered in nearby San Antonio, and through the late 1860s El Triunfo profited from rich silver lodes. The town’s population swelled and it became the fourth largest city in Baja Sur. In 1918 a hurricane flooded the mines, the ore gradually declined in quality, and mining was finally stopped in 1926.  This picturesque little village today is a reminder of Baja’s former mining importance and a place to enjoy a walk and the oven-fired pizzas and breads at Cafe El Triunfo.

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From El Triunfo you can continue up toward the state capital of La Paz, or swing south on the new road connecting La Paz and Todos Santos for a visit to that well known and charming Pueblo Magico.

 

logoSecretaria

 

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