Friday, May 2, 2014

Which Way to the Beach?

For many months we have been discussing a trip to the beach with friends Tom and Lynn. Finally it happened! The four of us headed to San Carlos near Guaymas, Sonora for 4 days last week.

Lunch at Doña Loly's
We left Banámichi on a Thursday morning and headed down towards Hermosillo, a 2 1/2 hour drive. On the drive we passed through the town of Ures, where just south of town there is an open air roadside restaurant under a shady palm frond palapa called Doña Loly's. The typical Sonoran food they serve is pretty good, reasonably priced and the atmosphere is congenial if somewhat centered on watching the traffic passing out on the road. Of course we stopped and had lunch.

After lunch we drove on through Hermosillo and then headed south on Highway 15 towards Guaymas. Another two hours and a right turn and we were headed down a palm-lined boulevard where we caught our first glimpse of the turquoise waters of the Sea of Cortez.

After Dan and I moved to Tucson in the mid 1960's, we often came down to San Carlos to camp on the beach. We used to go to the area around Playa Algodones (Cotton Beach) where the movie "Catch 22" was filmed. There was nothing there at the time except dirt roads snaking through the desert to pristine beaches. It was magnificent natural wilderness that we appreciated all the more for its isolation. However, as Robert Frost says, "way leads on to way," and we have not been back for nearly 40 years.

I was sure I knew where our hotel was located, but after a long and futile search discovered that I was entirely wrong! It was actually way out of town just about a mile shy of Playa Algodones! What a shock! That beautiful unsullied area was now a strip of large hotels and condos stretching out around the curve of the bay. Some would call this progress, and I am sure that the development has been a benefit to the local people in terms of  jobs and income, but in truth, what I felt was sadness and longing for a lost world and  nature irrevocably altered.

Soon we spotted our hotel, the Sea of Cortez Beach Club, one of the smaller ones on the strip. It actually proved to be a lovely place, attractive, well maintained, well equipped and everything worked! The staff were warm and friendly and actually seemed to enjoy working there. In my mind, all of this began to redeem the fact that the hotel actually existed in that location.
Sunset from the hotel
Back in the old days when we went down there, San Carlos was very popular with American tourists. We hardly ever saw Mexican vacationers there. But since then, the American economy tanked, and Mexico has had image problems in the States, so this time there were only a few Americans and mostly vacationing Mexicans. That was fine with me, this being Mexico after all.

We didn't plan it this way, but what followed after our arrival was the start of a 4 day feeding frenzy. There are many restaurants in the area. With good fresh sea food and simple Mexican preparations (onions, chile, cilantro, tomatoes and avocados in various combinations,) you can't go too far wrong at any of them. Each day over lunch, we planned where to go for dinner.
Lunch at Doña Rosita's

We quickly identified a couple of favorites. One of them, Doña Rosita's, was out in the small fishing village of La Manga, a ramshackle collection of dusty shacks, beat-up travel trailers used as housing, a newish building for Alcoholics Anonymous, and a simple dock redolent of dead fish. In spite of the poverty of the environment, the restaurant was wonderful...large, open-air, right on the ocean, with fantastic sea food. We returned there for Sunday lunch and found hordes people waiting for tables in the cavernous space. Apparently I was not the only one who longed for the older, more authentic experience! I had camarones al diablo...shrimps in a chipotle cream sauce. It was so good I could have spooned down a bowl of the sauce alone.

My new apron!
Another place we loved is called JJ's Tacos y Cosas (tacos and things) It was nothing more than a simple taco stand that has been in the middle of the tourist area for many years primarily serving fish tacos, tortas(sandwiches), and burritos - "big donkeys" as JJ calls them. Besides the wonderful smoked fish, JJ himself was the real attraction here. A wild and funny man with a friendly manner and a ready laugh, he wore an apron that said; "Many have eaten here, few have died." I loved it...had to have one! Fortunately, he he just happened to sell them.

Oh yes, apart from the food, there was also the beach...our real reason for going there in the first place. Dan and I assembled our Folbot...a kayak that folds into two largish bags... and headed out to sea. I love that boat...paddling allows me to fully enter the moment, and opens my senses to all the nuances that I might otherwise miss. I love looking at the sky, the water, the Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring overhead, and in this case, the brilliant royal blue cannonball jellyfish in the water.

Blue Jellyfish

Pelicans on an island

One of many beaches

On another day we took the boat over to Estero del Soldado (Soldier's Estuary)...which we simply called "the estuary" in the old days. Here, progress was actually for the better...the area is now a natural preserve. Back then Dan and I did our  share of harm to the ecosystem by collecting buckets of delicious clams for our dinners. But that was a different time with different sensibilities. Now, I am glad this area of mangroves, birds and shallow waters is protected from the likes of our former selves.

Tom and Lynn try the Folbot
The list of forbidden activities at the estuary did not include kayaking, so we lifted the boat over the chain link fence and off we went, only to find that several tour groups had done the same. It was a beautiful morning...the mangroves sparkled green in the sunlight.  A breeze riffled the surface of the water. A white egret sat in the trees and watched us carefully but never moved. At the mouth of the estuary there was a flock of squabbling, flapping, black headed terns, and another flock of meditating prehistoric looking pelicans. Later, while we gave Tom and Lynn a turn in the kayak, Dan sat with his feet in the water. Small crabs scuttled towards his toes to check them out, and it was a case of move or be pinched. Ahh, the problems of life in paradise!

Our time at the beach was over all too quickly. As we loaded up to return to Banámichi, we all vowed to come back to San Carlos several times a year.  I just hope it won't be another 40 years before we fulfill our vow! In spite of all the "progress," it was a wonderful 4 days.

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