Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 14, 2017

© Jeremy Ferugson/Global Gypsy

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Escape to Mexico

Lazy days of strolling and whale watching in Todos Santos

Day-trippers to the Baja California village of Todos Santos may think they’ve wandered into a down-and-dirty set straight out of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the ultimate bad-ass gringo flick.

And rightly so: the magic of this town isn’t really obvious to people passing through en route to southerly Cabo San Lucas or La Paz to the north.

Yet foreigners from as far as Australia, New Zealand, Italy and Sweden are going vast distances to visit this unfamiliar stretch of Mexico’s Pacific Coast. This is especially true from December to March, when whales crowd the area.

Festooned with barnacles acquired on the journey from Alaska to Baja’s bays and lagoons, grey whales arrive by the thousands to mate, give birth and begin to rear their young. It is the greatest whale migration on the planet. These greys are up to 18 metres long and as buoyant as butterflies. Their cirque kick-starts the sense of wonder.

Sighting whales can be a taxing affair in a tossing boat, but not here. All you have to do is walk to the beach. The whales come to you.

This marvellous vision stands in contrast to the 1950s, when the Baja sanctuary was first discovered by our species. What followed was mass slaughter.

“Look where the beach drops off quickly,” says my wife, “the whales are using the edge to scale the barnacles off their hides. They’re exfoliating; it’s a spa for them.”

We hadn’t come to Todos Santos for the whales, but they quickly became the highlight of the journey. We’d come, my wife Carol and I, for not much at all. We wanted to disappear into a place that was different and had great doses of sunshine, where we could read a few fat books, eat some fish and consume a great many margaritas. To this end, we’d rented a casita, a thatched-roof cottage in the Baja California style.

Todos Santos seemed just right, isolated on a scenic coast, yet less than two hours from the tourist mayhem of Cabo San Lucas. “Look at Todo Santos and you see a place far from a false consumer society,” said local restaurateur Angelo Dal Bon. “Life here comes in two speeds — low and lowest.”

Precisely our ticket.


Magic Realism

A typical casita comes handsomely painted in desert hues: clean, comfortable and outfitted with all the necessities right down to blender, coffee-maker and corkscrew. Guests curl up with books on their terraces or in a garden, often an oasis of palm trees, bougainvillea and hibiscus.

Nor is the town as ordinary as it seems on first glance. Two years ago, Todos Santos was named a “Pueblo Magico,” one of an elite group of villages, including San Miguel de Allende and San Cristobel de las Casas, designated “Magical Towns” by Mexico’s Ministry of Tourism.

Founded in 1723 by Jesuits, it has some history, and you can feel it. Moreover, it has culture — artists’ studios, galleries, craft shops, restaurants and bars — in disproportionate measure to its modest population of 6000.

Unquestionably, its greatest allure is the tumultuous Pacific and ribbon of broad, sandy beaches just minutes away. Treacherous undercurrents leave only a few beaches suitable for swimming.

We bounced over the long dirt road to the beach of Punta Lobos, where the local fishing fleet struggles to shore every afternoon. Here an audience of 100 or so pelicans, their long beaks clicking, clacking and even interlocking, vie for choice bits, as fishermen gut and clean the catch. Fishermen are happy to cut a deal and send you back home with an armload of fresh fish.

You don’t have to chase the fleet: every Friday, the fish lady comes to town in a pickup filled with jumbo shrimps, scallops, blue crabs, tuna and sea bass. And we practically hugged the organics lady who shows up five days a week with wicker baskets spilling over with arugula, lettuce, rosemary and basil.

Back at our casita, we washed the splendid arugula with purified water and dressed it with olive oil and rice wine vinegar. At the table, we scattered it with crumbled goat cheese and shelled pistachio nuts. Carol sautéed 10-centimetre-long shrimps for a minute or two and served them with Cambray potatoes from the town’s excellent vegetable emporium.

We drank Chardonnay and Petit Syrah from Mexican vineyards in the north of the peninsula. Eating on our patio, by the light of candles we’d bought, we raved about the magnificent whales and stumbled off to bed looking forward to the torpedo-size papaya we’d have for breakfast the next morning.


New Age Gringos

Much of Todos Santos’ fame comes courtesy of its population of expat Californians. Artists from the American Southwest began the migration south in the 1990s. The word got out. In recent years, Americans have bought up most of the Baja coast. This prompted a real estate boom that sent land prices into the stratosphere.

One expat suggests real estate profiteering is the hidden force behind the “Pueblo Magico” designation — local developers with government ties have found another way to get very very rich, very very fast.

They call the expat suburb “the Other Side.” Nestling behind the coastal dunes at the north end of town is a gauntlet of manses in fanciful styles from Mexican hacienda to Moorish fantasia. The occupants tend to be writers, artists, photographers, surfers, New Agers and senior hippies. These palaces take on a glow in the day’s last light, baubles in a desert sunset, as serenity engulfs Gringo Gulch.

Some of these mellow folk showed up for Sunday morning talks at La Arca meeting hall. The speaker was the psychologist and Buddhist scholar Robert Hall. He addressed a sea of grey ponytails.

Hall is a sad-faced man who articulates the inward journey with humour and compassion. He spoke of “a deep, deep place beyond thought.” Railing against material wealth, position and power, he called for “a fantastic heart beating for freedom” and concluded by asking, “Are you willing to look at your shit?” We weren’t, at least not then.


Italy on the Pacific

We’d talked about it over dinner at one of Todos Santos’ dozen or so very good restaurants. Our favourite, Tre Galline, translates from the Italian as “Three Chickens.” Restaurateur Angelo Dal Bon and his wife Magda divide their year between this Mexican town in the middle of nowhere and the family trattoria on Italy’s Lake Garda.

When Dal Bon and his family make the 26-hour journey from Italy, their suitcases groan with olive oils, balsamic vinegars, anchovies, concentrates and sublimely stinky cheeses.

The man can cook: he stuffs zucchini blossoms with Parmesan and ricotta and deep-fries them into fluffy wonders. He serves sweet-potato ravioli on a savoury Parmesan crisp, at once soft and sweet and salty and crispy. He tosses house-made noodles in virgin olive oil with fat shrimps and black olives. His fresh local mahi-mahi en papillote wafts with garlic, capers and black olives. Afterwards, there’s the deeply aromatic espresso the chef blends himself from 10 different beans.

For a real-thing Mexican breakfast, the best place is Café D’licia, an al fresco resto run by genial American expats amid a colourful menagerie of parrots. The superstar, on any given day, is a screeching white cockatoo named Howlie. Howlie could bring down the house at La Scala.

Breakfast is a lazy affair at Café D’licia. The menu from restaurateurs Don Mitchell and Alicia Dufaux covers the territory from banana-nut hotcakes to omelet Mexicano. But the dish to order is chile relleno, a large green chili stuffed with ranch and jack cheeses, deep-fried in a tempura batter, slathered with chipotle cream and served with refried beans and Mexican rice. And the coffee is terrific, too.

Finally, there’s the quest for the best margarita. Hotel California is no slouch, its margarita is accompanied with an alp of house-made corn chips, silky guacamole and a rippingly good salsa. But even this comes second to the knockout cocktail at the charming Fonda el Zaguan a couple of doors down from Tre Galline. A couple of these babies and you’re ready to walk on water and waltz with the whales.

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