Repeat visitors to this space will know that this is not a travel blog. We are much more likely to discuss natural gas pipelines than to wax about resorts and yoga on the beach at sunrise, preferring to leave those complicated topics to skilled specialists such as Cancun Canuck and Mexican at Heart. Nonetheless, tourism is one of the most important sectors of the Mexican economy, so it is fair game. With this in mind, we took advantage of the recent holiday period to head up to the state of Baja California Sur to do some research on two critically important market sectors: fish tacos and beer. Our fieldwork revealed that Baja is a great place to visit! And along the way, we also observed some interesting quirks about the local economy.
Baja California Sur shares the Baja peninsula with the state of Baja California, which borders the U.S. states of California and Arizona to the north. The northern half of the peninsula is perhaps best known for being home to the city of Tijuana, beloved playground of Good Time Charlies coming down from nearby San Diego to drink tequila and make new friends. In recent years, Baja California has gained renown for its emerging wine industry and associated gastronomy tourism centered around the Pacific coast city of Ensenada. We had made several fact-finding trips to Tijuana and Ensenada in the 1990s, and from what we can recall it was fun — in a sort of booze-fueled-suicide-mission sort of way – but decidedly scruffy. This time, under improved circumstances, we opted to explore the opposite end of the peninsula.
Leaving the Ensenada wine region for a future visit, we focused on the southeast corner of the state of Baja California Sur, just north of the Cabo Pulmo national park. To the south of Cabo Pulmo are the internationally renowned tourist destinations of Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo, commonly known as Los Cabos, but heading north from the park the main town in the region is the significantly more modest Los Barriles. San José del Cabo has seen a spate of gangster shoot-em-ups in recent months but down Los Barriles way, it was all reggae music and turtles wearing sunglasses. The Los Barriles economy seems to be focused on sport fishing for foreign tourists, mainly from the United States, and these folks were well represented around town. But we were pleasantly surprised to find that despite the heavy focus on U.S. tourism, Los Barriles still seemed like a Mexican town. The folks working in the local businesses were all laid back and good natured, and even if most could muster some English to sell to the tourists, Spanish still prevailed. This is in stark contrast to what we found in the popular Pacific coast beach town of Sayulita a few years ago, where it seemed an English-only rule was in force, the irritable locals refused Mexican pesos and Americans and Australians staffed the taco shops and bars. This might seem great if you’re visiting from California, but coming from Mexico City it totally harshed our mellow.
As a key component of our fieldwork, we stuffed ourselves with delicious food every day. But our gastronomic research in the area turned up a peculiar finding: While the local fondas all offered fish dishes, it was surprisingly difficult to obtain fresh seafood of almost any kind to prepare on your own. Staying with friends at a nearby beach house, we figured we would load up on fresh fish, clams, oysters, shrimp, lobsters and whatever local delicacies might be available and spend the afternoons making ceviches and slurping shellfish. Wrong! We combed Los Barriles for fresh fish and found packages of frozen fish available at the local stores, but received mostly shaking heads and no-can-do’s when asking about fresh seafood. “All of that goes away from here,” one gentleman responded mysteriously. We were perilously close to substituting Hot Pockets for ceviche while gazing out across the endless sea until we discovered El Pirata, a family-run seafood restaurant that sells a small amount of fresh fish and occasionally prawns out of a beer cooler on the sidewalk. El Pirata rocks in all ways, by the way.
This fish thing was a real head-scratcher. You’re surrounded by the spectacular Sea of Cortez, one of the most biologically diverse marine habitats on Earth, and the stores are stocking frozen fish sticks and surimi? YouTube is chock-a-block with videos of Baja California’s famous “chocolata” clams, and not a clam or oyster was to be had in Los Barriles. Then again, we also hoped to pick up some Chanterêves Chassagne-Montrachet Les Morgeots at the wine shop in state capital La Paz, and had to settle for Pink Champale.
So what did we learn? Once again, we learned not to try to turn a monkey into a parakeet. Everywhere we went in Baja California Sur, friendly people served us insanely delicious fish tacos and other fabulous Mexican food along with generous helpings of cold beer, which we consumed daily with great relish. In early January, the sun was warm and the skies were deep blue and the sea glittered all day long in no hurry whatsoever. It was truly peaceful, unlike our daily bike commute to work through Mexico City traffic. Los Barriles is off the beaten track, which probably helps make it so nice. But if you happen to be in the area, we recommend you hit up our homeys at El Pirata for a sublime afternoon of ceviche and beer. You can score the Hot Pockets next door at Chapitos.
All photographs © 2017 Mexico Business Blog