Outside magazine, September 1997
Paloma is waitress, head cook, and owner of the tiny Restaurante El Faro in Puerto Adolfo Lpez Mateos, a town of dusty streets, sleepy chickens, and wandering dogs on Baja's Pacific coast. El Faro is a pleasant open-air bistro with a dirt courtyard and six Formica-topped tables. There's a plywood ceiling and a bright seascape hand-painted on the front window. Off to one side, Paloma has arranged four old mismatched recliners, to facilitate digestion.
Even with its few tables, El Faro's seating capacity seems optimistic when you consider the fact that the village of Puerto Adolfo Lpez Mateos has fewer than a hundred souls and isn't even shown on most maps. In a country weary of injustice, Mexico's geographers perhaps decided it was unfair that a settlement so small should have a name that took up so much space and required so much labor.
To find Puerto Adolfo Lpez Mateos (whose name locals have efficiently shortened to "Lpez Mateos"), follow the Pacific coast of Baja south about three-fourths of the way down until the barrier island of Isla Magdalena swoops dramatically westward. The land shift is so abrupt that it's as if, in some long-gone geological epic, the island attempted to sneak away from its desert host but failed. Look inland and you'll see an estuary — Bahìa Magdalena, or Mag Bay, as it's known to gringos. Lpez Mateos is to the north, where the barrier island squeezes close to the mainland. If you arrive by boat, you'll see the bare dunes of Isla Magdalena and then a large factory of blue and beige corrugated metal. The complex is fenced, and there are guards at the gate. This is the Mareden fish cannery, the village's only employer and one of two sources of income — the other being the tourists who come each spring to watch the annual migration of gray whales through Magdalena Bay. Lpez Mateos is, in short, a company town. Every morning, a steam whistle awakens the citizenry at six and calls employees to work at ten till seven. Ten hours later, the whistle sends the workers home again.
Late one morning my friend Galen Hanselman and I were walking east past the cannery, heading toward the white church at the center of town, when we stumbled into Paloma's restaurant. We'd been flying all over Baja in Galen's Cessna 182, and we'd originally just planned to make a pit stop here in Lpez Mateos — thinking, instead, that we'd spend the night a little farther south along the bay, in a place called San Carlos (an uninteresting tourist town, it turned out). But our plan began to cave in as soon as we sat at one of the little Formica tables. We could have sat anywhere — we were the only living creatures in the place except for a dog lying beside one of the chairs. Eventually, a chunky Mexican woman approached. She had a flat, handsome face with vaguely Gaelic features, and she walked with the swagger of a trail hand.
Had we come for a meal?
Yes, we told her, a light lunch perhaps. She nodded with the kind of approval that one associates with grandmothers who like to see people eat. We expected her to return with menus. Instead, she returned wiping ice from three bottles of Pacifico Clara beer and carrying a very large ceramic bowl. One of the bottles was for herself. She toasted: "To the good life!"
In the bowl was ceviche: chunks of raw fish, onions, varieties of peppers and tomatoes, all soaked in lime juice. Ceviche, made properly and served fresh, is one of the great concoctions of the world, the bouillabaisse of the tropics. But even in the best restaurants ceviche is usually a disappointment, if not downright dangerous.
Galen dipped a spoon into the bowl and tasted experimentally. He looked at me and dipped the spoon again. "Hey!" he said. He began to scoop the ceviche onto his plate. "You're not going to believe this stuff," he said. "It's really good."
No, it was great. Maybe the best ceviche I'd ever had.
Next Paloma brought salad, tortillas, and a bowl of frijoles. "My God," Galen said. "These beans! Have you tried the beans?"
Keep in mind that we'd been flying all over Baja, a great peninsula in a great nation where people really know how to make beans. But truly, Paloma's beans were the beans of an artist.
Then she brought out a platter of grilled fish. It was corvina, a genus common in coastal Mexico and closely related to the weakfish of the Atlantic Seaboard. It's a nice fish to eat, very mild-tasting, but not particularly firm. Yet somehow Paloma's artistry transcended the frailties of the species.
Galen and I sat there feasting, and Paloma kept bringing food. We hadn't ordered; there were no menus. But we'd come for a meal, and that's what the woman was serving us. As we ate, she'd sometimes swing into a chair at our table and talk. Had we come in the small plane that recently landed? Yes, we'd come in the small plane — which seemed to either interest her or impress her, I couldn't tell which. Did we like the food? Yes, we loved the food — which made her grin. We were very lucky to have this fish, she said. It was the last she had. "I buy only fresh fish!" she said. "The fishermen know that I'm very fussy!"
As we ate dessert (papaya with lime juice and sliced wild oranges), I noticed Galen glancing at his watch. "I guess we have to get going, huh?" I said.
"Yeah, I guess so," he said. He was drumming his fingers on the table. "But, my God, that was really some meal."
I wondered if Galen was contemplating the same thing I was. "When you think about it," I said, "discovering great food on the road, food this good, is a rare thing indeed."
He was nodding his head. "Can you imagine what it would be like to eat dinner here?"
No problem. On Hanselman's plane I had stowed a 15-horsepower Mercury outboard motor and a beautiful little Avon Inflatable boat. And as I've already explained, the village of Puerto Adolfo Lpez Mateos is on Magdalena Bay, a place teeming with fish.
Bahia magdalena is formed by a 130-mile-long string of sand barrier islands that are separated by deep water cuts or passes (bocas, they are called), which allow ingress from the Pacific and which have made the bay a favorite harbor on this isolated coast. Its history is not unlike the history of all wild anchorages that are rich in resources except for one: fresh water. Although indigenous people lived here off and on since before the time of Christ, they were necessarily migratory. In the late 1800s, a U.S. land company settled 5,000 Americans on the bay, but the colony failed. It wasn't until the late 1930s, when deep wells were sunk, that the region slowly began to acquire a permanent populace.
Mag Bay's backwater littoral remains pristine, wind-cropped, wild with light, and seldom traveled. There's a good reason for this: It's extremely shallow, sometimes just a couple of feet deep, a fact that poses serious access problems and makes it a perfect place for sea kayaks and fast little inflatables like the Avon.
I tried to explain all this to Galen; the man is brilliant when it comes to aviation, but he's from Idaho, for God's sake, and knows nothing about the sea. I told him, "Visit any of the remote estuaries in the world, and the problem is always access. It's frustrating. All the fish you could ever want to catch, great birding and exploring, but you can't get on the water. This little Avon changes all that. We can go anyplace."
Galen was dubious. All week long, the wind had blown a steady 20 knots but on this cloudy afternoon had freshened to 25. The bay had a menacing arctic glow about it. Still, we were headed for the mangrove estuaries, not the open sea. And we were prepared. We'd packed several gallons of water, flashlights, military-issue MREs, and paddles.
I indulged in a second dishonesty. I'd read here and there that one of my favorite gamefish, the snook, also known as robalo, could possibly be caught in Magdalena Bay. None of the writers, however, claimed to have caught one, nor did they claim to know anyone who had. Indeed, the tone of the articles treated the snook like a shadowy creature of Baja legend. Well I, for one, wanted to prove that snook could indeed be caught in Mag Bay.
That afternoon we headed out in the Avon, crashing through waves. We went north along the mainland shore until I found a mangrove point where there was an interesting confluence of tidal rips. It looked like a good place to fish.
My first cast — boom. I played and landed a big corvina. Second cast — boom. I played and landed a California halibut that had to weigh ten pounds. A few casts later, I got a nice sea bass.
Galen didn't try to hide his surprise. "You actually caught something!" He hustled toward the boat to get his rod.
Back in the village, Galen and I drew a crowd as we walked through the streets shouldering the weight of a stringer full of fish. In the evening, lounging in one of the big mismatched recliners after one of the finest dinners I've ever had, I said to Galen, "You know, we can leave tomorrow, but I'd bet anything there are snook on that point. I'd hate to fly out without proving it." I proceeded to give a detailed explanation of tides and habitat to prove that my claim had merit.
He not only accepted this fiction; he embraced it. "Snook, damn right," he said. "They've got to be there. We should stay."
We did. For several days. We ate, we fished, we slept, and then we ate and fished some more — though we never saw a single snook. In the evenings, Galen and I would roam the streets, listening to the music emanating from the white church, conversing with the local fishermen at the docks. They claimed they often caught robalo. We never saw one among the piles of fish they did catch, but they were good stories to hear as we stood among the mud and small boats drinking beer with them.
We'd rented a cheap room at a boarding house, but the restaurant was our real home. We stopped there three or four times a day. At each meal, Paloma, brilliant Paloma, who had achieved an expanded artistry in this small, small place, swaggered about, bringing us more of this, more of that. She spent more and more time sitting at our table asking us about places we'd been, places we were going, and she seemed particularly interested in Galen's Cessna. "Many men in this village would be afraid to leave the ground in a plane," she boasted. "But not me! I would never be afraid!"
It finally dawned on us. "She wants to go for a ride," Galen said.
So on our last morning in Puerto Adolfo Lpez Mateos, we escorted Paloma Magallanes of the Restaurante El Faro through dusty streets to the landing strip. It was early. The steam whistle had just called villagers to work at the Mareden cannery, but Paloma ignored their stares with a regal indifference.
It was no wonder that they stared. Despite the intense morning heat, Paloma wore a long dress, a cape, jewelry, make-up, and a furry hat that came down over her ears. Also, the sand apparently made it difficult to walk in high heels.
When I told her that she looked as if she were going to a party, this normally talkative woman didn't reply. Indeed, she said nothing until we were banking over the emptiness of Magdalena Bay. It was then that she finally braved her first peek out the window, touched her face with trembling fingers, and smiled.
There was no swagger in her smile, only a trace of wistfulness. For the first time, she looked down on the little swatch of bleached sand and turquoise sea that had defined her entire life. "It's something I always wanted to do," she said. "I always wanted to know what it feels like, just once, to fly away."
Illustration by Michael Bartalos