Saturday, 30 April 2011


24th - 26th April 2011

Just in case you´ve forgotten what the Mexican flag looks like.

From La Paz to either Mazatlan or Puerto Vallarta? That was the choice. Puerta Vallarta is a more substantial, modern and ´hip´ holiday resort further south down the coast therefore, because it was Easter holidays, and closer, I decided on Mazatlan. The ferry direct to Mazatlan was booked solid, so I got the one to the port of Topolobampo ( 8 hours ) arriving at 10.00pm, then taxi to Los Mochis and a bus to Mazatlan. Los Mochis , from what little I saw of it at 11.00pm, seemed a bit of a dump but it is the nearest place with a proper bus station. It is an industrial town with a run-down residential area, a bit like the back end of Hanoi, or the smarter end of Hull. It does have one claim to fame though; it is the terminus of one of the very few passenger railway routes in Mexico. The other end is Chihuahua, and the line goes through the ´Copper Canyon´. The Copper Canyon is, according to the guide books, spectacular. It is deeper than the Grand Canyon and more rugged and has not been subjected to Americana style touristification. I would probably have gone there but, for reasons that will become apparent, I have, in total contradiction of my self-imposed tour 'guidelines', inadvertently set myself a deadline and did not have time! So bus to Mazatlan it was and I arrived there at 8.00am after a 7 hour trip.

Left: The Baja ferry from La Paz to Topolobampo. It was packed, and everyone was given a ticket for a complimentary meal. I played a blinder by not queuing up with the masses for the ´free´meal but made a bee-line for the bar and got myself a prime position there. A good move! 

A point of interest. I have discovered that bus transport around this country is the prime means of getting places and seems highly efficient. Bus stations are substantial transport hubs and most have decent facilities. The long-distance buses are very comfortable and various companies operate regular and frequent services between all main cities. The main roads that I have travelled on have been in good nick and the drivers seem competent. You get a smoother ride than on East Coast Amtrak, that´s for sure! Also, travelling alone, there has always been a seat available when turning up ´on spec´ at any time of day or night. If it was full you would probably only have to wait another hour or two for the next one. I am, so far, impressed by the smart bus service.

Again on spec, but on recommendation from my guidebook, I booked myself into ´La Siesta´ Hotel. It was not expensive and it proved a great place to be. I am discovering that you definitely get a better deal for your money here than in USA. I was given a warm welcome by Mario, the proprietor, who proved to be a most amusing chap and also, fortunately, spoke good 'Eengles'. He gave me an informative briefing on Mazatlan and was, in all respects, extremely helpful. 


Right: Hotel La Siesta. Not much to look at from outside but great value, good facilities and service, spacious clean rooms, pleasant views from the little balconies and, attached to the left hand end, a great bar/restaurant called 'El Shrimp Bucket'. They even managed British style eggs and bacon for my breakfast ( plus tortillas, of course ).

Left: The view from my room. There were quite a lot of people around; promise! I think it looks deserted because I tend to wait for a clear shot.

Right: The inside courtyard of 'La Siesta'. Quite characterful, don't you think?

Mazatlan is a town of two halves. As Mario so pertinently pointed out, it has a split personality. Hotel La Siesta is in the 'Old Town' which is charmingly Mexican and very jolly. Six miles to the north, along the 'malecon' beach promenade, is the 'Zona Dorado' ( Gold Zone ) which is a more flashy and expensive high rise hotel, MacDonalds and Starbucks environment. Pretty ghastly, frankly. I walked up there ( and back! with multiple refuelling stops ) and was immediately set upon by several flash-Harrys trying to sell time-share apartments. I suspect it caters for the North American market. Having said that, Mazatlan is not exactly at the top end of the beach holiday resort list for the USA, I suspect.

Left: A bit of the 'Old Town' shore with the Zona Dorado on the skyline.

Right: The start of the flash ( ier ) Zona Dorado.

The locals emerged en-masse just before dusk ( at my end of town ) to set up stalls along the seafront. Lots of food stalls, clowns, jugglers, kites, music and things to buy. It was crowded, believe me! ( and no, I don't have any pics of the crowds because it was getting dark ). It was fun and much merriment was being had by all. One particular spectacle which caught my eye was a 'high diving' stunt by a couple of lads. They climbed up a rickety set of steps to a tower ( I did this too before I realised I was being stupid and in the wrong place and quickly went down again! ) wherefrom they dived, about 80ft, into a very rocky inlet with waves coming in. Quite mad! I got a video recording of this which, due to my ineptitude, I don't seem able to transpose onto this blog. Take my word for it, they were most skilful and rather brave and maybe just a bit foolhardy. I don't think British Elf 'n Safety would approve, somehow.

Left: One of these lunatics preparing to dive. Going going.......................


Left. The bottom left bit of this pic was what they were diving into. Part of the skill was waiting for the right moment for the waves to come in otherwise, I suppose, he might have got a bit of a headache. And this was taken from only 2/3 the way up! It gave me butterflys just to watch.

Right: Dancing the day away on the beach. The band made a terrible noise

Left: One of many statues and monuments along the seafront. This one was called 'The Fisherman's Monument'. On the right is a fisherman about to cast his net, on the left, a reclining naked lady, legs akimbo, with a fountain squirting up. I leave it to you to interpret this.


Right: Mode of tourist transport known as a 'Pulmonia'. Sounds a bit like a serious disease to me! There were hundreds of them; the local equivalent of the Bangkok 'tuk-tuk'. They were rather expensive to use. I don't know if these are peculiar to Mazatlan. Maybe other places have them.

Left: A boring pic of a local store. The only reason I show it is because everywhere you go, in any Mexican town ( Mario told me ), there are lots of, almost exclusively, these Oxxo stores. There are sometimes 2 or 3 within a few hundred yards. Some Mexican has secured a bit of a monoply here. Rather like gasoline, there is only one brand; Pemex. Pemex filling stations often have Oxxo stores attached. Maybe just a coincidence.

Right: There were some biggish waves and several people trying to surf them. I never saw anyone succeed. Along the 'malecon' were pleasant beaches with clean sand, and also some very rocky ones.

Left: All Mexican towns and cities have a central 'plaza'. They all look remarkably similar; only the sizes of the squares and the 'cathedrals' vary. They all have a bandstand. This is it in Mazatlan. The Old Town surrounding it is quaint and old-fashioned, entirely at odds with the crap at the other end of the bay.

Right: They pay due respect to their beer! Mexican beer is actually rather good. In my humble opinion it is much better than the American stuff. Not as good as the Adnams in The Grapes though.

Left: And a fond farewell from the great Mario! I promised him that I would tell all my friends ( so not many people perhaps ) what a good place 'La Siesta' is.  If anyone does happen to be passing through Mazatlan, please at least drop in and say hello to him. Thanks Mario. Hasta luego!

I'm writing this in Guadalajara. It's not so convenient now that my extremely expensive and robust lap-top has gone tits up. I hope to get it fixed in Mexico City. It will probably then be stolen.
Anyway, the next bit will be the 'low-down' on Guadalajara.  ............stand-by.

Monday, 25 April 2011


19th - 22nd April 2011

La Paz is a pleasant, quiet and very ´Mexican´ seaside resort on the south-east corner of the Baja California peninsular. The area in general is popular for big-game sea fishing (  Marlin etc ), sailing, whale watching and scuba diving. Further on around the south coast are the flashier, and expensive, Los Cabos areas which are the haunt of wealthy Americans in gated resorts, luxury hotels and smart ´condos´. I was advised that it was hardly worth the bus journey down there for a reaquaintance with Yankee culture. The weather was warm to hot and there are some very pretty white sandy beaches with clear and unpolluted ( looking ) sea around the town and local area. The locals were relaxed, friendly and helpful even though not much English was spoken. Luckily the chap at the reception where I stayed did speak good English. I mean, in general, it is a nice, clean and peaceful place but not, perhaps, the sort of beach resort you would fly all the way from UK to visit.

Left: A general view of the beach at the edge of the town. The ´Malecon´as these seafront promenades are called. It wasn´t as quiet as this makes it look. There were loads of holidaying Mexicans, normally.

Right: Another view. There wasn´t a lot more to take pics of´................Where are the people? I promise it was busy when I was there.

Left: A statue of a man in a paper boat. Why this photo is sideways I have not a clue. I am using equipment with which I am not familiar. I can´t seem to get it the right way up.

When I arrived I had overlooked two things. First, it was the Easter holiday week when all Mexicans take about two weeks off to go on hols or visit relatives, so a lot of things were closed ( ie the post-office ) and many travel facilities were booked up. La Paz was, as a result, comparatively busy with Mexican tourists. Second, they are a time zone ahead of the west coast of the USA ( including Tijuana ). I never did realise this fairly crucial fact until I came to get the bus to catch the ferry on leaving!

Right: The church in the central square. There were lots of people around on holiday. For some unknown reason my photos seem not to see them. Maybe I was imagining it! Spooky.

I met a most helpful American lady, Kathleen, who ran the Allende ( that´s a name to conjure with ) Bookshop in town. She was more help in 10 minutes than all the useless American travel agents I met previously put together; not that that says a great deal admittedly. She had lived in La Paz for 5 years and was, I think, married to a local guy. They had travelled extensively, by car mainly, around Mexico and to and from the States. She was most helpful regarding where I might like to visit and gave me some good pointers, and sold me a book about whales. She said she had never had a security problem in Mexico. In fact, in her opinion, many American cities have much worse crime rates, and are more dangerous ( especially within ethnic minority areas ) than most cities in Mexico. She told me that 90% of Americans entirely and exclusively believe what is broadcast by the American media. This media coverage consistently portrays everywhere abroad, with the possible exception of Canada, as being more dangerous for tourists than America, and Mexico as worse that most. Hence the blinkered opinions of the American population who, mostly, because of this propaganda, do not travel much outside the States ( and rather explains the ambivalent attitude of the agents I met ). I like to think we in Britain are a little more robust and independently minded?

Left: One of the watering holes. I´m getting scared, the population seem to have vacated my photos.

Another issue! I haven´t yet got my head around how they drink this Tequila stuff. There are about as many varieties as there are Scotch whisky, and prices range similarly. In a local bar here they had dozens of brands costing from 45 pesos to 200 pesos a ´shot´. ( 11.50 pesos to the $ ). So, as with malt whiskies, there must be afficionados who wax lyrical on the taste and provenance of each. However, I was persuaded that you are supposed to gulp the contents down quickly, then lick a bit of salt secreted on your clenched left fist, then put your glass down and suck a piece of lime. Well, this process, when sober, takes about 3 seconds, during which time you receive a sharp burning sensation in throat and stomach followed by an overwhelming taste of salty lime.Yuk! It might all get a bit more confused, out of sequence and take a bit longer after a few rehearsals while you simultaneously hang onto the bar, but, for the life of me, I can´t understand how you are supposed to enjoy, or even taste, the drink itself! It would seem to be the equivalent of diluting a beautiful ( and expensive ) malt whisky with Coca-Cola and downing it in one. I must be missing something here and will need to consult my Mexican ex-colleagues for advice.
Something else that confused and startled me, initially, is that the symbol for the Mexican peso is $. It looks, to me, the same as the symbol for the dollar. I got a bit of a fright when I looked at my first ATM receipt to find that I had been charged a fee of $25 for the transaction. It was pesos. Phew! The courteous Mexican bank chappie, seeing me in a state of shock, explained that the American dollar had two vertical stripes through the S, whereas the peso had one. I´m sure I´ve seen the US dollar with one stripe, as on my ( sadly deceased, without resurrection ) ´gringo´ very expensive lap-top computer. $ $ $? Same as on this Mexican internet cafe model.

Right: I was taking a pic of this beautifully green and watered bit of a golf course, surrounded by desert and cacti just outside town, for the benefit of Bryan who likes these things. Then this roadsign popped up.....

I was warned that I might become annoyed by marauding ´Mariarchi´ bands. I´m not entirely sure if I would recognise one of these if confronted by one. In La Paz I didn´t really notice any particular group of musicians ( for that is what Mariarchi bands are, I believe ) that might have fallen into this category. There were, however, several appallingly bad guitarists and singers in various bars and restaurants. I doubt La Paz is where aspiring and talented musicians come to further their careers. There were, however, noticeable groups of men carrying trumpets and guitars dressed in sort of Spanish Flamenco outfits with big hats. Only they seemed just to hang around outside drinking ( Tequila? ). I never saw them ´perform´. Maybe these were the feared Mariarchi bands? If so, they too were on stand-down for the Easter break.
I spent a few relaxing days idling around the beaches of La Paz. I got wet up to the knees on several occasions. I resisted the sales pitch of tour operators to go and wrestle with marlin. I suspect one would just end up sun-burnt and seasick because the marlin, sail-fish, yellow-tail, blue whales or whatever one is expected to catch were probably on Easter break too.
Then off to get a ship to Topolobampo. I really wanted to sail to Mazatlan but that ship was fully booked up for two weeks due to the hols. I managed to catch it despite me operating on the wrong time zone! I hope then to get down to Mazatlan by bus.
Onwards and downwards again..............arriba arriba!

Friday, 22 April 2011


18th - 19th April 2011

On to La Paz, on the southern tip of the Baja California peninsular. From San Diego, 40 mins by 'trolley' train to Tijuana again. Bye-bye USA. There are no customs formalities entering Mexico, just a walk through a one-way revolving gate and you are in. They probably reckon there is nothing else you can bring into Mexico that will cause a further problem. It is a very different matter getting back into the USA where a 4 hour queue for the 'law abiding' pedestrians is not unusual. Of course all the illegal elements seek more 'discreet' crossings elsewhere and play Keystone Cops with the police.
 Our 60 seat Autobus Baja California ( ABC ) coach set off at 1610hrs. We were allocated seats which were quite comfortable, spacious and reclined, sometimes even when you intended them to. There was air-conditioning and a loo on board. There were also, annoyingly, screens for watching badly dubbed films, whether you wanted to or not. When they weren't showing films there was music, which was preferable.
We were due to arrive in La Paz in 24 hours time and we had a crew of two drivers. This was going to be a long bus ride. It turned out to be rather interesting. The countryside varied between the vertiginous rocky and flat desert. Initially we went along the coast on some hairy cliff top roads to Ensenada for a 30 minute stop to exchange passengers. Then on down the flat west coast. There were various seemingly impromptu stops to drop off and pick up passengers. As it got dark we left the level going and headed off up into hills and then mountains. What interested, and slightly worried, me was the width of the road. This route was described as 'Highway One' and marked by a thick black line on my map. It had, in reality, only two lanes and was surprisingly narrow. I snuck down front to watch and saw when our bus passed a large oncoming bus or truck that there was a maximum of 4ft between vehicles! It didn't seem to faze the driver, and the road was the same width, hill and dale, for the whole 1000 miles!

Left: The drivers had to keep a steady heading...and this was on a straight flat easy bit. Imagine this on a sharp turn over a precipice! 

We seemed to be on a switchback ride through mountains for most of the night. The fact that it was pitch dark and visibility was restricted to either a steep embankment or nothing either side of the bus was probably a relief. There were few signs of habitation. Actually, since it got dark it was noticeable that Mexican towns and villages here have no street lighting and normally only one light over the front of houses. Night time, for them, means 'lights out'. I must have dozed, off and on, since they kindly stopped the film shows after 10.00pm. I woke up at one point, 1.30am I seem to remember, to find the lights on and a bloke with an M16 rifle standing next to me in the aisle. He was wearing a sandy coloured camouflage outfit with a scarf covering his face. 'Oh, dear, what is going on', I thought, or words to that effect. He wandered up and down the bus shining a torch at people, then got off. He had a buddy in an armoured vehicle outside. It transpired that this was a military check-point of which we encountered two or three more on the journey. They check buses regularly, no doubt searching for the elusive Herb Alpert and his Brass ( or his friends in the California Sur Narcotics Trading Co. Ltd ). No! Only a joke, Herb, if you read this!!
We passed through Guerrero Negro just before dawn. This place is world famous for it's Whale Watching, but otherwise looked a pretty non-descript place. The whales ( mostly Grey ) make a 5000 mile trip from the north Pacific to the Gulf of California for the winter, to breed in warm waters, then go back north for the summer to feed. They will be on their way back north right now. We crossed the peninsular from west to east here, to Santa Rosalia, and then down the middle around and through various sierras with terrifying drops and gorges.
There were one or two more brief stops sometimes, it seemed, to let people off in the middle of nowhere. At 9.00am we pulled in at an isolated roadside cafe ( probably owned by a relative of the driver ) for a 30 minute breakfast break, then onwards through Loreto which is renowned for it's sea game-fishing, and Cuidad Insurgentes. All the while, since dawn and maybe before, we had been surrounded by enormous cacti. On flat or mountainous terrain they were there in profusion. These were huge green things, about 10 to 20 feet ( or more ) high with  large spikey arms, of the sort you see in cowboy comic books. This was definitely Cactus Country with a vengeance.

Right: Our stop for breakfast....and to give you an idea of the transport. I haven't got the hang of Mexican breakfasts, desayuno, yet. Something I ate nearly blew my head off.

Left: Some of the miles and miles of cacti.... Not a good area for a parachute drop zone.

We arrived in La Paz at 1630hrs. This was by far the longest bus journey I have been on, so far, and I was most impressed by the skill and endurance of the two drivers. I must say there were a few 'buttock clenching' moments swinging around the outside of the road on serious cliff edges with traffic oncoming. But for the drivers, seemingly, never a nervous moment! One of them, George, said he did this round trip twice a week. It makes long-haul aircraft flying look a bit of a doddle in comparison!
On  arrival in sunny La Paz I had my first major disaster. I spilt coffee on my lap-top computer key-board. When I bought this expensive electronic item I was told it was very rugged and suitable for travel in arduous conditions. It was dead within 5 seconds. It is Easter so I am hoping that it might resurrect itself. No sign of life so far, though. This has rather pissed me off and I am now reliant on internet cafes. I am struggling right now to down-load some photos. It might not work. 
PS I nearly forgot to tell you; the loos on the bus were kept locked ( saved cleaning them out, I suppose ), or they were out of order. Therefore, warning: this is not a journey to be undertaken by those with weak bladders!

Wednesday, 20 April 2011


13th - 18th April 2011

Gateway to the Gaslamp Quarter

My final Amtrak ride was comfortable ( not such good food as VIA in Canada, and no Dennis equivalent ) and lacking the spectacular scenery down the California coast that I had been looking forward to because we were diverted inland via Bakersfield  and Tehachapi due to poxy engineering works. The only interesting countryside was going through the Tehachapi Valley.

Left: Average age of the passengers was about 70.
They even had wi-fi on this train which worked for some of the way. The ladies were more interested in knitting.

Right: Some of the hilly bits in the Tehachapi Valley



Left: So you think we have extensive wind-farms. This is only a small section of a vast array across the hillside, somewhere south of Bakersfield.

San Diego, the home of the US navy Pacific Fleet, and indeed a most pleasant city. "Howdy sailor!", or whatever the local expression is. All this countryside from somewhere north of San Francisco downwards was part of Mexico until the US annexed it in 1848 following the Mexican War. The US complain that too many Mexicans are now crossing the border. The Mexicans claim, with some justification, that the border crossed them. Much of the architecture and food in San Diego reflects this.

Right: Quite an amusing statue, amongst many others along the quayside depicting something to do with the US Navy and their San Diego heritage. This one is big if you relate it in size to the person taking the photo up her skirt. The thing on the right is the pointy end of USS Midway.

... right lads, you've got 'no hope' or 'Bob Hope'!
This is he entertaining the troops.

Right: The superstructure of USS Midway ( retired in 1992 ). It is now a really good 'museum'. I spent 3 hours on/in it and didn't even get to the upstairs bits. The Americans are unbeatable at putting on these exhibits with 'audio' tours and people ( ex-crew ) giving excellent briefings. They charge quite a lot too, but they get the customers.

Left: Two of many US Navy aircraft on display on the deck. For those that are interested, you know what they are. For those that are not, you won't much care. ( clue; left..'Top Gun', right...'Iraq war' )

Right: A tiny part of the 'enlisted men's' sleeping quarters, and there were about 4000 of them on the ship. It makes Alcatraz look comparatively spacious.

Flight-deck of an aircraft on the ship. Prize ( bottle of fizz ) to anyone who identifies it.

Right: There were many and varied 'simulators' open to the public. These particular four gave you, at $18 for 15 minutes, the chance to try your hand at flying and landing an F18 on the ship. I watched and saw some of these go through 360 degrees both in pitch and roll! ( yes, they could do that!). I didn't try because a) I was too mean to pay b) I didn't want to show my ineptitude and c) because I would probably have been sick.

Left: While all this was going on, some naval chap was having his wedding reception on the ship ( this was taken on the 'aircraft lift' up to the deck ). The lady on the right has a rather naff tattoo.

I was staying in the 'Gas-lamp Quarter'. Lots of pubs, restaurants including, of course, the mandatory Irish selection. One of which put on 'Irish Dancing' every night. It was extremely noisy ( all that irritating foot stamping 'river-dance' crap ) but the locals adored it. The area was high spirited until late but never never did one see any yobbish drunkenness.

Right: Girl with her pet snake in the Seaport district. This was a pleasant area on the quayside of quaint shops, bars and people doing 'exhibits' and handicrafts. Many jugglers, people with performing parrots ( which seems to be a popular American side-show ), musicians, clowns etc. It was jolly. There were also, as in all western US cities I have visited, a lot of 'panhandlers' plying their trade, which is an acknowledged irritation. For some reason, the south eastern states seem to have got rid of them ( they probably 'counsel' them...... with a truncheon ).

Left: The Hotel Del Coronado ( The Del ). This was one of the biggest and most luxurious hotels of it's age built in the US, on the island of Coronado in San Diego Bay, in 1887. It is built of wood. It has added to it's glamour because it is where ( I was told ) King Edward V111 ( as the Prince of Wales ) stayed with Mrs Wallis Simpson. I went in for breakfast. I soon came out again. There was a queue, and there was also the price............

.......I mean, can you believe it! $76.50 ( why bother with the 50 cents? ) for coffee, bacon and eggs! And that is without tax and a 20% tip. No wonder it adds that "Children should be accompanied by adults at all times". What child, 6 - 12, would be carrying that amount of cash with it for a bowl of rice-crispies. What adult would pay? But they must do. Amazing.

Left: This is an extremely boring photograph. I took it through the perspex windows of a tour 'trolley' bus coming back over the road bridge from Coronado ( it, the bridge, was opened by Ronald Reagan ). It shows, blurred in the background, the base of the US Navy SEALS ( as we were informed by the tour bus commentator ). They are yet another 'Special Forces' unit that the US military produce in such profusion. Most US forces seem to be 'special' in some way. The only really 'special' units are those that say they aren't! I took it because to do so might contravene some stupid law about taking pictures of 'top secret' establishments that only tour bus companies are allowed to disclose. It is also interesting ( to me anyway ) that the name of the SEALS parachute display team is 'The Leapfrogs'. They do 'naff' as well as they do 'secret'.

Talking of King Edward V111 ( somewhere above ), I was again struck by the fact that a large number of the US public are infatuated by our Royal Family. The recent film 'The King's Speech' has encouraged this. I was told several times by people of all ages that I met, how they were so looking forward to 'The Wedding'. There is a big interest and respect for our Royals ( I'm sure not by all! ). That and, as I've said before,  Premier League football, are by far and away the two most identifiable and popular national institutions that the UK exports to the USA, and maybe to the rest of the world for all I know. Not sure what to make of it, but possibly a good reason why not to denigrate the Royals, or football in UK.

There was so much to see and do in San Diego. Many US cities provide such a plethora of 'tourist' related things to see and do, and they do it with great panache. I was told that the three main income sources for the city were, in order, 1) The US Navy 2) Bio-chemicals 3) Tourism. I did not have time to do as much as I would have liked. I failed to explore Balboa Park, largely due to the fact that it was holding it's annual 'Earth Weekend' ( don't ask ) and was over-packed with visitors. This is the largest urban park in the US. It contains many museums, entertainments, gardens, a big zoo, theatres, an 'organ pavilion' donated by John Spreckels ( brother of our Adolph of 'sugar-daddy' fame in San Francisco ) which gives free concerts. It's theatre is situated under 'short finals' for runway 27 at the international airport. When a 'plane is approaching to land, an observer in the theatre switches on an amber light. The actors see this, and when the plane is about to go overhead, the light goes red and the actors freeze in mid-sentence or song until they get a green light to continue! It is one of the main attractions of this theatre! The approach to Rwy 27 is indeed low over the surrounding buildings ( I ducked, and I was in a bus! ).

I managed a visit to the 'Old Town'. This was built by the Spanish/Mexicans. It is a township-cum-museum. Fun! Lots of old 'Wild West' exhibits and Mexican things. They also, curiously, had a very expensive cigar 'emporium' specializing in Davidoff cigars (  Cuban cigars still cannot be sold in USA ). I was shown some of these selling ( not to me, I hasten to add ) at $80 each! You can, nearly, get breakfast at the 'Del' hotel for that.

Right: There was a 'US mail stable' museum exhibiting some interesting old stage-coaches, plus much other original memorabilia. This is one of the Wells Fargo jobs. I noticed that 'Studebaker', the famous old cars manufacturers, originally made farm trailers, of which several were on display.

Left: A jolly Mexican ´dummy´ which waved it's hand and said things ( can't remember what..... perhaps "ay Gringo, get inside for a taco-way pronto" ) outside a Mexican restaurant. To me it looks a bit like 'Pepe', for those who know Pepe. Perhaps it was Pepe!

Right: This Mexican guy played his harp spectacularly well. He did requests and was seldom flummoxed. I rather caught him out with my request for 'The Blaydon Races'.

One reason I was a bit short of time to sight-see was that I was trying  to organise my venture into Mexico. I am going to bang on a bit here ( apologies ) because I got somewhat angry with otherwise helpful Americans. My intention is to enlighten you! I had been to see three 'tour agents/fixers' in San Francisco and another couple in San Diego for advice on travelling to Mexico; people who should be knowledgeable on this matter. Tour Agents are difficult to find in the USA because, they tell me, of the internet. Those that I did visit were a) all women ( why is that? ) and b) absolutely useless. They were only interested in selling their pre-packaged tours and not interested in giving me any info on Mexico because there's 'no demand now'."Oh, that place is a bit dangerous", they all said  "we wouldn't recommend it". I asked if they had been there. "Oh no, it's too dangerous"! ( so it´s not surprising there´s no demand! ) OK, I know that there has been trouble with Mexican drug gangs having nasty shoot-outs. They occur mostly ( I was told by a chap in the Green Tortoise who has travelled extensively there ), in known border areas and involve, 99.9% recurring of cases, those involved in the cartels and agencies fighting them. Only very rarely have innocent bystanders got caught in the crossfire normally 'cos they accidentally strayed onto the pitch at kick-off. Acapulco and a few other touristy areas have had a few passing problems. Maybe one in a million ( I can't even be bothered to find the statistics ) tourists has been affected. But from this, the danger of travelling to Mexico has been exaggerated, embroidered, embellished and inflated by silly people such as these ( who haven't been there ) and they have spread fear, which is so easy to do, amongst the American public ( and probably the British too ), and Governments and insurance companies have not dared to contradict in case they may be held responsible if something happens. Sorry to bang on, but I feel strongly about these idiot scaremongers. I went over to Tijuana, Mexico, ( 40 mins by trolly-bus, and no hassle, except coming back through US customs and a 3 hour queue; it was Friday ) and organised a bus trip from Tijuana to La Paz ( 1000 miles ) in a 'luxury' bus for Monday with no problem. Tijuana is fine and the people I met cheerful and helpful but 'no speeka much Eengleesh'. ´´ Hey, you from Englaterra?´´, they ask, ´´you like Manchester United?´´. It was a little scruffy, dusty and chaotic ( and cheap ) compared to San Diego, but not in any way threatening and I felt safe and heard no rattle of musketry! My main worry is the Tequila. The only thing I knew previously about Tijuana was 'Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass' Do you remember him? Is he still alive? Is he now the god-father of a drug gang? I suspect that Mexico is no more, or less, dangerous than the UK where, in some dodgy areas, we hear of all sorts of stabbings and shootings of innocent people. Any catastrophe would be, as anywhere, like being hit by lightening. I might be proved wrong, and I may be tempting fate by saying this, but I suspect it is all over-blown. I will let you know. If I survive, that is.

I have just realised; this is probably the last time I will be in the USofA. I will take happy and vivid memories ( discounting some silly travel agents and, maybe, Miss Stroppy on the Amtrak Coast Starlight from Seattle to San Francisco ) of the place with me. My travels around the edge of this vast and disparate country have been... how do I sum it up.......Aaarsum!

........ or should I say "sumaaarse"!

I am next setting off from Tijuana ( with, or without, Herb Alpert ) on a 24 hour, just over 1000 mile, bus journey down the Baja California Peninsular to La Paz. I tell you this now in case the silly bats in the travel agencies were correct all the while and I end up feeding the worms they put in the Tequila bottles.

Saturday, 16 April 2011


9th - 12th April 2011

Ancient San Francisco cable car

Continuing the 'Frisco frolic...I bet not many people know, as we on one of the buses now know, that up on Pacific Heights, above Fisherman's Wharf, where all the city's movers and shakers abide, is a very large mansion ( $35m value ) where, at the beginning of the 20th century, lived an extremely wealthy sugar magnate called Adolph Spreckels. He created a furore when he married a girl, Alma, who was 26 years his junior. It is where the term 'Sugar Daddy' comes from. Honestly!
Talking of nobs living on heights, another famous 'Frisco personality was Lilly Toit. She was wealthy, a real 'playgirl' and a great friend of the San Francisco Fire Department ( lucky she wasn't French or her name might have caused her embarrassment ). She died in 1935 and donated loads of money to the city. They built a large erection in her honour, known as the Toit Tower, on the top of Telegraph Hill. It is supposed to be in the shape of the end of a fireman's hose. No, don't laugh! Anyway, you can go up it and get some great views which, of course, I did.

Left: Toit Tower. The end of a fireman's hose. The statue beneath, looking suitably embarrassed, is of Christopher Columbus. It was a bloody long uphill walk to the top of Telegraph Hill on which it was erected. There were 'lovely' gardens surrounding it.

Right: View north-west over Fisherman's Wharf towards Alcatraz, Angel Island and Sausalito.

Left: View north-east towards the ferry buildings with the Bay Bridge in the background.

Right: View south over 'downtown' city centre. The Green Tortoise is just this side of the tall pointy building ( known as the Pyramid building ).
I found a most civilised watering hole 100yds from the GT called Cafe Zeotrope. It is owned and often frequented by the film director Francis Ford Cuppola. See, I have gone 'native' and started to quote 'celebrities'! I did not meet him there. The barman was, curiously, a Tottenham Hotspurs supporter.

The old street cable cars were quite interesting. They are between 80 and 110 years old and were going to be scrapped as ancient and uneconomic decades ago but, due to popular demand ( something not paid much attention to in totalitarian UK ), they have been kept going. They are crammed full with some passengers happily hanging off the outside rails. The old steam powered system was replaced by a powerful electric engine system in the 1960s, but the original cable and pulley layout and design was maintained.
They have a 'driver' and 'brakeman' ( sounds like a two-man bob ) and great strength is required to operate the enormous 'gripping' and 'brake' levers.

Left: The cable car driver operating his huge levers, sadly hidden. Strong guys.

Right: The public are allowed to go into the 'engine room' which incorporates a museum, and also view the vast driving pulley system through a glass window below ground. I think there are 4X550hp electric engines. It is a complex system which operates on several streets and around many corners. I couldn't fathom it out.

Left: The inside of one of these ancient vehicles.

Right: This notice was nailed above the cable car ticket office. Sorry Kiwi! You'll have to walk,

There is a baffling public transport system in the city which incorporates, as well as the cable cars, trolley buses, normal buses, electric trams ( again ancient ) and an underground ( the BART ). I never got the hang of it.

Of course I had to visit the Napa and Sonoma vineyards which are about an hour's drive north. It was a good day out with lots of free 'tasting' and some you had to pay $5 for. I can't remember how many we visited. We stopped for a lunch break in Sonoma town. I really haven't a clue about wine; it all tastes much the same to me, especially after your eighth glass. It was sunny and very pleasant countryside with acre upon acre of vines.

Left: A charming couple, Sady and Alexandro, from Guadalajara, Mexico, who were on their honeymoon. They seemed to know quite a lot about wine.

 Right: I think we were being given a lecture on wine growing. The details escape me.

Left: Being told all about the wine making 'process' and what was put into which type of barrel and for how long etc. etc.

Right: Sonoma town hall. The lunch stop. As you can imagine there was much wine on offer here too. It was a very pretty town, and not a drunk in sight!

Left: This is the Jacuzzi winery. Messrs Jacuzzi immigrated from Italy at the beginning of the 20th century and made their fortune by designing the first laminated aeroplane propeller ( it was produced for the US army in WW1 ). They then went into the airline business. Somewhere along the way they invented the eponymous bubbly bathing facility. Then vineyards! Their wine club membership is called 'The Propeller Club'. Is that interesting?

Nearly finished! I went on a trip to Muir Woods. This is a preserved area of enormous redwood trees in the mountains to the north-west of the city. It was founded by a conservationist ( Mr Muir ) at the turn of the 20th century. It is quite impressive. Beautifully made wooden walkways have been laid, for miles, to allow tourists to view these monster trees, some over a thousand years old, without trampling the area.

Right: Not easy, with my poor photographic skills, to capture the majesty of these great trees in their serene and undisturbed mountain hideaway.......
 was a totally quiet environment. We were warned to switch off our mobile phones and "enjoy the dignity of this magic and atmospheric forest". People talked in whispers. There were signposted picturesque trackways leading off miles into the distance, up and down steep hillsides. All beautifully and tastefully organised by the devoted National Parks Service and a place which is revered as a sanctuary for these ancient and noble growths............. crossed my mind that it would be great fun to hide a recording of a chain-saw and watch the ensuing panic!

I think that's about all from San Francisco. I left on a continuation ( a mere 17 hours ) of the Amtrak Coast Starlight southwards via Los Angeles ( I chose not to stop there ) and on to San Diego. I had booked a 'posh' berth this time, more for the facilities and the culinary perks than the sleeping arrangements. We had been due to pass down the spectacular west coast of California but, due to 'engineering works' we were routed inland. Typical.
Sadly no more Green Tortoises ahead of me..............and more to follow.