On Friday my wife informed me that a) she had off the next four days and b) she had a hotel booked for them.
Huh, I said.
We were going to Puerto Peñasco, she declared, with one goal: authentic Mexican seafood. Well, one and a half; she wanted a seaside, fun Mexican coast time. It is a fact that everybody, every now and then, needs a fun Mexican coast time. And now, without warning, our time had come.
Puerto Peñasco is on the northern edge of the Sea of Cortez, just an hour’s drive from the border. I prefer Mexica far rather than Mexico near. That’s because farther Mexicans have more pride in their culture and nearer they tend to mooch off the U.S. To be fair, I’d never been to Tijuana. I sensed that maybe, just maybe, Tijuana might not be the superlative Mexican experience. And since I was being fair, I had never even heard of Puerto Peñasco.
Aha! An opportunity to break my preconception. That’s what travel was all about!
To avoid rush-hour traffic we departed at 4 AM. At 1PM we arrived.
Our room was not yet ready. Luckily, the beach was. There, for us margaritas, for I a cigar. The sand was wide and pale and groomed, the water vast and blue and calm. Opposite the bay, upon a rocky point jutting into the sea, waited Old Town. The sun was warm, the breeze slight. We watched two northern tourists receive massages on the beach. We knew they were northerners because they were paler than the sand, and wore bathing suits. The locals wore parkas and scarves. The temperature was not quite 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Huh, I thought.
We reminisced about authentic Mexican seafood of coasts past. Mazatlan, on a polished deck overlooking the ocean: shrimp plucked from the sea that morning, whipped up in coconut dropped from the tree that morning. Puerto Vallarta, beneath a palapa, feet in the sand: tacos of fish caught that morning, and later oysters from a vendor who set up a table on a sandbar. I excitedly discussed the possibilities of Puerto Peñasco, narrating how the world-famous underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau—inventor of the Aqua-lung—had oft claimed the Sea of Cortez his favorite body of water, due its abundant and varied sea life.
Huh, she said.
Hungry, we opted for lunch. It was a nice resort, with a courtyard network of heated pools, a lazy river, jacuzzi. It was so new the plant life had yet to mature, giving it a rather sparse look.
Sparse, it turned out, in more ways than one.
There was only a single restaurant: a bistro. Being from Las Vegas I was not keen on anybody’s haute cuisine. That was precisely what we didn’t want. It was closed, anyway. Only the poolside bar offered food. A basket of breaded shrimp came with a free draught of Budweiser. Technically, it was seafood and we were at the Mexican coast, but as authentic as Gorton’s fish sticks.
We ordered their only “Mexican” dish: nachos. A modest portion of stale chips, fake cheese sauce, pickled jalapeños. I’d driven nine hours for bowling alley nachos at the low, low cost of $10US. Hovering above was omen.
We walked the beach while waiting for our room. Now even more tired, we agreed to do the resort’s bistro for dinner, go to bed early, and hit the ground running in the morning.
Surprisingly, the bistro did not offer a view of the sea. We got circles of green on a sea of dunes: the golf course. Again there was only one Mexican entree. The remainder was burgers and chicken and such. True, there was also a Mexican appetizer. It was a plantain quesadilla. My wife loves plantain, so we ordered that and the lonely molcajete.
The waiter, noting our appearance, courteously observed that plantain would probably not be to our liking. He suggested the hot Oaxacan cheese. We heartily agreed, surprised we had overlooked it. Turns out the reason we overlooked it was because it was labeled fried cheese sticks. Ranch dressing for dipping, a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce.
Fortunately, the molcajete was a favorite of ours: a hot stone bowl of beef, sausage, cheese, and cactus, with a side of tortillas. And so it was upon this we dined, unable to view the sea, unable to taste it.
We did go to bed early. We did not hit the ground running in the morning. Alas, there was literally no coffee available anywhere within miles. Not until the bistro opened to sell us pancakes. Being Sunday, it opened late. So we drove into town.
Somewhere in the dirty mess of Puerto Peñasco we found a cute stucco restaurant. We parked, admired the wooden door with heavy ironwork. Inside we went. A single, cavernous chamber. Dark, as it was void of windows but for small stained glass squares. Empty, as it was void of bodies—including employees. The tables were long and in neat rows, rather like pews.
I don’t want to eat alone in a church-steraunt, said I. She concurred.
True, we passed a zillion places selling authentic Mexican seafood. We love roadside taco stands, but wanted to relax, soak up the atmosphere—not car exhaust. True, there were formal restaurants, but all were dark and shut out the outside world. We had driven all this way to dine over the sea.
Eventually we made it to Old Town. It was tiny, mostly shops selling kitsch and a few restaurants selling fun. They faced the sea, which fit our criteria. They served American food, which did not. Octopus was available—as a garnish atop sirloin steak. That was screaming tourist-food.
Yet one place beckoned, looming over a rocky beach above the sea. It was the quintessential tourist-bar, with rock music and dollar bills taped to the ceiling. The Satisfied Frog, it was called. Wanting to be satisfied frogs, we agreed to dine there regardless of menu. Their specialities were southern fried chicken and St. Louis-style barbecue.
But! They had Mexican food, too: fish ceviche. The waiter, noting our appearance, suggested the shrimp because it was cooked. We declined. Finally! Authentic seafood overlooking the sea.
The beach grew cold, so we watched the sunset from the hot tub. We chatted with a couple who owned a condo in the resort. Recently retired, lived in Northern Arizona. She waxed poetic about Puerto Peñasco’s food. Our hopes were rekindled. She asked if we liked it here. I gingerly commented no, not really. It’s about as Mexican as Chili’s. Her husband heartily agreed. He received a scathing look, retreated to a corner to soak alone.
Later I googled the restaurants she recommended. Each and every one was advertised as an American grill.
A cold front blew in. Our plan for a long morning stroll on the beach was scuttled. We would have to bundle like locals, but had not come prepared. We decided to cut our trip short. The drive home took 10 hours.
19 hours driving for 21 waking hours in Puerto Peñasco does not make a satisfying adventure. We rolled the dice and lost. So what? The game was fun. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll win next time.
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