Mexican Shingles and Tiles

  As I write this, it’s a balmy 45 degrees outside, and there’s snow on the way.  I’m not a winter person … don’t ski, don’t like fighting the icy roads, and I feel genuinely claustrophobic not being able to drive “over the hill” or down to the Bay Area for several months each year.  But such is life when you live in this land of four seasons that we call Central Oregon.  So it was a conscious effort to find a place to go for a brief vacation that was warm and sunny.

We hadn’t taken a real vacation since 2005, which was to the Big Island of Hawaii.  So this one needed to be researched and planned carefully.  And it was.  This was to be not only a get-away vacation, but also a fact-finding mission for a potential place to move or retire someday.  Via multiple books that are specialized resources, as well as countless hours on the Internet, I’d definitely done my homework on the subject of potentially living as an expat.  And this led to a single standout; La Paz, Baja Sur, Mexico.

La Paz is a small town on the east coast of the southern Baja peninsula, about 100 miles north of Cabo San Lucas.  Other than being neighbors on the south end of Baja, the two towns are like night and day.  While Cabo is a fast-paced night-life driven vacation destination, La Paz is smaller, slower and much more civilized.  Cabo is also much more expensive in virtually every regard, so it’s not the best place to consider for retirement.  The whole peninsula is also quite vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature, and specifically … hurricane season.  The “big ones” are rare, but they definitely materialize every now and then, both via the Pacific, cutting across the peninsula, and shooting right up the Sea of Cortez.

Finding a flight to La Paz proved to be a challenge.  We ended up changing condo bookings to coordinate with our air travel logistics.  Getting anywhere from Bend can present a challenge, as our little Redmond airport only has a couple airlines that serve us, and most flights require a trip to Seattle or Portland first, as well as a change of airlines.

On the day before we left on the trip, I had an itch in the middle of my back, which looked odd when I checked it out in the mirror.  Several little bumps dead center on my spine, that weren’t there the day before.  My next door neighbor is an RN, and I decided to ask her what she thought.  Ah!  You’ve got shingles!  Being a consummate researcher-type, I of course looked up all the details of what I already knew to be a not-so-fun condition.  I grew up in the age when pretty much everyone got measles, German measles, chicken pox, and mumps, which were all referred to as “childhood diseases.”  There were no vaccines, and these were actually things you wanted to get while you were young, because you’d never have to deal with them again.

Shingles can affect anyone who’s ever had chicken pox, which lives in your body forever.  They’ll commonly start in a central nerve area (like the center of your spine, somewhere) and erupt into a band of uncomfortable rash-like patterns that usually follow a group of nerve endings.  What makes them so painful is the “nerve ending” reference … it’s not just a rash, but also a connection to your nerves, and therefore they can cause you lots of accompanying pain.  For weeks.  I debated whether to go on the trip at all, but since it had already been paid for and we were totally looking forward to getting out of Dodge for a week, I opted to brave it.

It was in the mid-thirties at 4 AM when we drove to little Redmond Airport and boarded the first of the two flights to Cabo.  Seattle was a little warmer than Bend and Redmond, but the real eye-opener was getting off the plane and being treated to a gorgeous ninety degree day on the Mexican Riviera.  Having lived in St. Thomas in the late 70’s, I know and love this weather.  La Paz (and a good portion of Central America) tends to verge on unbearably hot during the summer months, but in late October, it was incredible.

We definitely weren’t prepared for the long wait at Immigration and Customs, however.  I’ve traveled to and from The Bahamas and all over the Caribbean, and this is the worse bottleneck I’ve ever seen.  The serpentine lines looked like the wait for an “E Ticket” ride at Disneyland, and in fact took us over an hour to get through.  Apparently, four planes all landed almost concurrently, causing the big delay.

We spent the first night in Cabo San Lucas, having been told that neither route between there and La Paz was particularly advisable at night.  My brother in law treated us to a nice room at the Mar de Cortes, half a block from Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo club.  After a couple beers and some killer fresh guacamole and chips at the hotel bar, we took a walk around the downtown area, and ended up at Pancho’s for dinner.  I ordered for the chicken tamales, which were steamed in banana leaves and served with an unbelievable mole sauce.  I’m beginning to think I’m going to like this “real” Mexican food!

After walking off our dinner in the downtown Marina area, we hit El Squid Roe for a beer and to watch the tourists let loose.  Very fun spot, great entertainment.

Back to the nice room at Mar de Cortes, the initial shingle area was no worse, and possibly improving, but the appearance of a patch under my right arm, accompanied by shooting pain, does not please me. I woke up the next morning with a slightly larger patch, but still feel fine overall.  I surmised that the shingles were spreading, though nothing major yet.

Breakfast downstairs at Red Peppers and an absolutely amazing burrito. Of course I had to add a small amount of their hot pepper sauce, and my conservative application proved to be a good call. Very good, VERY HOT, and this is from someone who routinely abuses my senses with dollops of Dave’s Gourmet Insanity Sauce.

A quick jaunt around the Marina, then it’s off to La Paz, which is a couple hour drive north.  The drive from Cabo to La Paz on the “new” highway is quite an experience.  Not a tremendous amount of scenery, other than Todos Santos, which is a quaint little artist and surfing community about half way up the 100 mile drive.  The recently completed road still left a lot to be desired.  Several “washouts” which would have been ridiculous to navigate at night, still quite a bit of construction, and long distances between anything resembling civilization.  And to add insult to injury, we were given a ridiculous excuse of a car from Alamo Rent-A-Car in Cabo.  It was a Jeep something-or-other SUV with 170,000 kilometers on it, and the engine light was on the entire way.  Not the best way to be traveling in a remote region of Baja where Triple-A is not an option and we don’t even speak the language.  It also had a peculiar habit of the alarm going off randomly when it was parked and locked.  Not at all amusing when this happened in the middle of the night and the condo guard had to come and wake us up … several times!

  But we did in fact make it to La Paz, and the directions to the La Concha Condos were excellent, as was the condo itself.  These are beautiful ocean front units, with ours being a nicely appointed, privately-owned residence on the second floor overlooking the pool, and directly out at the Sea of Cortez.  We let my sister and brother-in-law have the ocean view room, while we opted for the one next door, which was a little bigger and had a private bathroom attached.  After assessing all the condo amenities, we drove into town for a few necessary supplies … breakfast stuff, munchies, beer, rum, and what became one of our collective favorite beverages, Coke Light.  This is very different than our Diet Coke, and pretty much tastes exactly like original Coca Cola, which they also make and sell exclusively in Mexico.  Total treat, and we went through lots of it in the week we were there.  Why can’t we get that here?  Costco carries the “real” Mexican Coke, why not Coca Light, as it’s commonly called?

After returning to the condo, it was pool time (heaven), followed by some beverages and munchies at the Palapa bar, which was adjacent to the main hotel and restaurant.  I had a sip of my Corona, and while the nachos were being prepared, I took a little walk into the adjoining Sea of Cortez water.  The ocean water is a balmy bathtub-like eighty-six degrees, and stays that way pretty much year-round.  Nothing short of amazing, particularly for someone who grew up surfing in the 52 degree Pacific of Pacifica and Santa Cruz.  I could get used to this.

  For our first full day in La Paz, we decided to go into town and do some walking around and exploring.  We wanted to check out the newly-updated Malecon, which is a beautiful several-block long walkway, right off the ocean and marina.  The Malecon is across the street from lots of shops and restaurants, and is the perfect place to walk and watch the sunset over the bay.  Lunch, extensive walking around downtown, a little more grocery shopping, and it was back to La Concha for some more pool time.

That night, we had dinner at a great spot across from the Malecon, called The Tailhunter.  I realize I was in Mexico and I absolutely love Mexican food, but I felt like a cheeseburger, and I’m glad I did.  It just seemed right, with the baseball playoffs being shown on the big screen in the third floor dining area.  Gigantes!

I was the last person to go to bed on Sunday night.  I had left a light on in the living room, and went back in to turn it off, as this one didn’t work via a wall switch.  While walking back to the bedroom in the pitch black room, I managed to trip on a hard-to-see step up to the dining room, and fell flat on my left knee on the hard uncarpeted Mexican tile.  It hurt, but didn’t seem too terribly bad, and I went to bed.

 On Monday, we took a ride to Tecolote Beach, which faces Isla Espiritu Santo, a popular day-trip, kayaking and snorkeling destination.  This is a long, beautiful beach which reminded me of the St. Thomas beaches that I used to work on in the late 70’s.  Very different than Pacific beaches, and they’re all virtually flat and waveless.  And warm!  We had some fish tacos and beers from the beach front restaurant, met some great locals and tourists, and thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon.  I think I drank more beer during this one week in Mexico, than I’ve consumed for the past couple years.  I’m usually good for about one beer, and that’s generally when I’m cooking Mexican food at home.  But Mexico seems to lend itself to consuming cold beers, and I had several.

With the combination of driving and walking around both the beach and in town, my knee was really starting to hurt.  Dinner that night was at the hotel pool-bar, with a big Mexican wedding going on right next to us.  We left a couple hours into the festivities and it was just getting started.  On the walk back to the condo we spotted an expensive “sport fisherman” boat cruising a few hundred yards offshore, that really stood out as somewhat ostentatious.  While much of Mexico is relatively poor, there’s a genuine middle class here in La Paz.  No begging, no hawkers trying to lure you into a shop full of fake Cuban cigars, nobody sleeping in the streets, and certainly not an over-abundance of the afore-mentioned fishing yachts.  Most of the residents, as well as the visitors, would be considered middle-class.  And I mean this in a very positive way, as it’s not the norm in many parts of the country.

Tuesday. After a virtually sleepless night and an agonizingly painful knee that I quite literally could barely walk on, we decided to visit a small hospital on the other side of town. X-Rays were taken first, and confirmed that nothing was broken. The X-Ray tech’s initial recommendation was to drink lots of whiskey, and then follow up with tequila, if needed.  But the second doctor said it was likely something that should be seen by a specialist, and prescribed some Celebrex and asked me to come back in a couple hours to see an orthopedic. Following a great waterfront meal of pizza and Caesar salad (and Margaritas) we returned at 6:00 to see an orthopedic specialist.  The doctor diagnosed a fairly extensive hematoma, and prescribed an analgesic and an antibiotic, in addition to Celebrex prescribed earlier. Total cost for X-Rays, initial doctor and orthopedic specialist was about $75.  Fortunately, by the time we left, it was much better.  But what an unbelievably painful three days when it was virtually impossible to walk, and I was pretty much house-bound.  Great way to spend a vacation!

The drivers in La Paz are unbelievable, and not in a good way.  ALTO (Stop) signs are commonly ignored, with most locals going right through them.  The police apparently don’t mind, as we never saw anyone pulled over during this trip … and we saw a LOT of people run Stop signs.  Speed limits seem to be optional, and it’s not uncommon to see people going dramatically over and under the posted KPH limits.  In California or Oregon this would provide a lot of local revenue.  Not in Mexico.  It seemed that unless someone was doing something very wrong, the police are inclined to leave you alone.  Big Brother is not watching you here, and it’s actually a pleasant change from the U.S., where stepping out of line in any way will net you a fine.

We traded cars on Wednesday night, at the Alamo agency in La Paz.  We were promised a newish sedan of some sort, but by the time we got there they’d already rented it out, and we were given a big Chrysler Town and Country minivan.  And once again, the check engine light refused to go out.  And to make it even more fun, the air conditioning wasn’t working, so we had to contend with warm air blowing in on us for the trip south on Thursday.

We drove the “other” road south to the airport.  Highway 1 takes you through some beautiful mountain areas, as well as along the coast for a good chunk of the 100 mile trek.  We stopped briefly in the little fishing village of Los Barriles to see if my sister and brother-in-law were still at the hotel, but they’d already checked out.  The town seems to be comprised of lots of expats driving around in dune buggies.  If you ever wondered where all the dune buggies went from the 70’s and 80’s, they’re all in Los Barriles!

Other than the warm air issue, the trip south on Highway 1 was actually very easy, and nothing resembling the collection of potholes and cows strutting onto the roads that we’d heard about. The “new and improved” highway 19 that we drove earlier was actually loaded with potholes and road washouts. Highway 1 was great.

Checking in the car, the short ride to the airport, and customs check-in were painless, and the couple hour wait for our flight will be just fine. Lunch, a couple shots of Jose Cuervo Gold, and Corona Light’s in a can (stays way cooler!) will pass the time.  People-watching at the airport is always interesting, and this one was no exception. Tans, poseurs, young and old, beautiful, recently married, just came for the fishin’ … all paraded by.

My knee was actually healing nicely, and I could finally walk half-way normally, after hobbling around or sitting with it elevated and iced for the previous four days.  I opted to only take one analgesic for the flight home, vs. the two that the orthopedic recommended. And what to do for the four hour flight back to civilization (and snow, we hear)?  A little reading, some writing, and of course music.  Might just as well crank up the iPod Shuffle and start the Rush playlist at the beginning. Clockwork Angels, here we go!

I came away from La Paz feeling negative about the whole experience, but in retrospect this was mainly due to the fact that I was incapacitated much of the trip, and didn’t get to see much of anything other than the hotel room, the pool, and a little bit of the town.  The shingles never materialized into a major case, but my knee caused me four days of excruciating pain.

But I will go back, I will visit my friend Deborah who lives there, and who I got to see all of ten minutes the first day we were there, I’ll do lots more driving around, and sample the smaller restaurants in the heart of the city.  And with any luck I won’t get injured next time, or have to contend with shingles making me uncomfortable.  It’s a beautiful area, the beaches and Sea of Cortez are amazing, the people are some of the friendliest I’ve ever encountered, the food is incredible, and I’m already looking forward to my next trip.  And there’s no way I’m waiting seven years between vacations ever again!  Life’s too short!

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