Queso and Identity

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Scenic side road on the way to El Triunfo.

If queso was a food group it would certainly be my favorite. But that’s not what this post is about – even though cheese is a primary ingredient in many Mexican dishes and I had lots of it this past weekend. What this post is really about is the kinds of unexpected quirks one encounters when road tripping in Baja California Sur (B.C.S) and the unusual, but interesting conversations that come up with locals. Seth and I covered three towns: La Rivera, El Triunfo, and Todos Santos, for different lengths of time, but each with a distinctive story to tell.

La Rivera was our first stop and a quite unsuccessful one at that, when we could not find the salt flats or marina/estuary we were looking for listed on eBird as fruitful hotspots. Our Spanish fluency did not seem to help as we pulled over, asked a man for directions to “las salinas,” and were pointed down a road that “dead-ended” at private property. We henceforth asked another man for directions and he pointed in the opposite direction, which then lead us to a beach. Asking for directions and getting turned around (to not say lost) is not anything new, but the confidence of the men in giving us direction to some place they had not heard of was. Maybe the flats ran out of salt?

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Road through Sierra de la Laguna Biosphere, B.C.S.

We didn’t plan to stop at el El Triunfo, but after driving for an hour or two through the Sierra de la Laguna mountain switchbacks, coming back to civilization and seeing all the repeated signs for queso along the roadside progressively beckoned my mousy cravings. We pulled up next to a slanted wood stand and asked the light-eyed woman about the cheese they sold and she responded “queso triunfero” (which almost translates to triumphant cheese). She took out a six-inch cheese wheel that looked like it could knock a person out. I inquired if she sold smaller portions but she explained that the cheese was only sold by the kilo because, well, Mexicans like cheese. I didn’t triumph in getting the cheese, but I did have a scrumptious chile relleno con queso (stuffed chili pepper with cheese) later that evening in Todos Santos for dinner. Triumphant – I think so!

Many of the exits near Todos Santos are only accessible from one direction on the highway, which means that if you miss an exit, you need to be be on the lookout for places to make a “U” turn (in order to get back on the side of the highway with the exit ramp). We found this out the hard way when we missed the unlabeled exit to the reclusive beach recommended to us by the owner of our Airbnb. We had to make two “U” turns before making an abrupt right-turn onto the single-lane, pot-holed dirt road that leads to Playa San Pedrito Las Palmas, or locally referred to as Las Palmas. Unlike our previous experience in La Rivera, the road did lead to the claimed destination, and, more significantly, one of best beaches I’ve ever been to (I’ll share more on that in a later post).

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View from one of the hills surrounding Playa Las Palmas, B.C.S.

Before we started the three hour drive back to Villa del Faro, we looked for ice cream signs in Todos Santos and stopped in front of a hand scribbled chalk sign that read “helado y chamoyada” (ice cream and sweet and spicy shaved ice). We walked into a front patio that had been transformed into an informal souvenir shop and an electric ding-dong alerted the owner we had entered. I asked the middle-aged man if the ice cream sign was his and he responded in the affirmative. There were three flavors to choose from – plum ice, tamarind ice and peanut ice cream and we chose the latter two. He came back out from the kitchen with the home-made ice cream in each hand, and before I was able to take out the final coin from my wallet, he was already talking to us about patriotism, arsenic poisoning, and our “true” identity – he would not accept our response that we both have a multinational identities. One thing for certain though, the Mexican identity was made very clear to me by the time I finished my tamarind chamoyada; it is a flavorful twist that that pleases the soul and has a piquant finish that awakens the mind.

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