A couple of weeks ago now, I very much enjoyed my first visit to Mexico. The Baja Peninsula is relatively close to us here in Los Angeles and a short (two hour) flight took us to the beautiful Los Cabos region at the southern tip.
And it really is stunning. The incredible landscape is dominated by mountains and cliffs, beaches and coves. Although temperatures are seasonal, rainfall is low (averaging about 10 inches per year), and the sun shines almost everyday. It’s full of colour – a beautiful and vivid place. It’s true that some of Mexico’s newest and most luxurious resorts are found in this area (the so-called Corridor between Cabo San Lucus and San José Cabo), which bring with them all the rewards, difficulties and complexities of mass tourism. But as a visitor it’s also surprisingly easy enough to avoid them, as well as the crowds of people that they attract.
With only two days to explore, there was never going to be enough time to see, do and eat as much as I would have liked. But there were two – very different – types of food that I really wanted to experience: the growing local organic food movement (which I’ll say more about in a later post), and the taquerias (taco stands) that often characterize Mexican street food. A taco is basically anything that’s folded or rolled into a tortilla, and is generally served ‘do-it-yourself’ with various sauces, onions, chillies, and a range of other accompaniments served in plastic boxes and bowls. From taquerias – which may be mobile and / or temporary to more permanent structures – Mexican food is served fast and cheap. They are generally independently run, local and generally considered to be more authentic (probably) than any other eateries. It’s not unusual for them to be an extension of the family kitchen, contributing vital income to the household economy. Most taquerias also offer some shade in which to sit, make-up and eat your taco(s).
On our first full day, we drove from San José (where we were staying) to the tiny coastal town of Cabo Pulmo approximately 45 miles to the north-east. An attractive and wonderfully peaceful place, it’s also the focus of a national marine park that exists to protect the offshore coral reef and flourishing fish life, both of which attract thousands of divers and snorkellers each year. Although the town does get busier during peak season, it’s far enough away from the Corridor (largely along an unmade road) that it remains relatively quiet – a haven – even at the most popular times. We were there out of season, which did mean that most of the small local businesses were shut, but enjoyed an excellent lunch at a simple restaurant located right on the beach.
La Palapa (named after its traditional roof thatched from palm leaves) couldn’t have been situated in a more pleasing location, and although it might be described as a taquerias, its relatively large and permanent(-ish) structure made it feel more like a casual Mexican restaurant. The basic menu – based on fish – looked just fine, and I knew that I wanted to try the fish tacos ($80 Mxn), along with a cold beer ($20 Mxn). Perfect. It was reasonably priced (that’s about $10 US for my food and beer), and the food really was very good. The fish – locally caught Mexican yellow tail – was lovely, and the homemade pico de gallo (chopped tomato, coriander / cilantro, onion and chillies) and other sauces were perfect accompaniments.
On our second day we drove the other way – along the Pacific Ocean – to the small and ‘chic’ town of Todos Santos. It’s definitely a tourist town, but quietly so, focusing on art galleries and restaurants. There’s an annual film festival, held in the General Manuel Marquez de Leon theatre (built in 1944), as well as a music festival, hosted by the Hotel California. (Yes, it’s that Hotel California. At least according to various rumours, which in turn are flatly denied by The Eagles).
Here – under a thatched awning – we found the fabulous Tacos Chilakos, which we were quite simply unable to walk past without stopping to try the food. The smell of cooking was intense – full of flavour – and absolutely irresistible. We started with a burritos d’machaca (a tortilla filled with shredded beef that has been marinated with chili, lime juice, garlic and seasoning before being cooked and mixed with onions and jalapeños), as well as a taco d’carne asada (here steak is marinated in spices before being grilled and diced).
All the food is made to order, but there’s really not much of a wait. I’m glad that the tacos – cooked to perfection – were also homemade. The accompaniments included fresh lime, fresh and dried chili, shredded cabbage, pico de gallo, diced onion, and avocado puree. There is something particularly enjoyable about being able to construct your own food like this. They cost $15 (Mxn) each (that’s about $1.50 US), which was exceptional value, and we enjoyed another before moving on to explore the rest of the town.