Familia y Fiestas

A few weeks ago, I hopped on a plane in LA heading to Mexico with my aunt and two of my first-cousins. A second-cousin left at the same time on a different flight and met up with my aunt’s fiancé and his son. We landed in Guadalajara just before another first-cousin and his girlfriend and were greeted at the airport by her immediate family… Are you confused yet? This was just the beginning of my amazing week exploring new regions of Mexico in a slightly chaotic way that always seemed to work.


The group that arrived at various times on Friday night!

So why were we all there? To celebrate, of course! My cousin Brett, the one I visited in Chile in 2012, just graduated from UC Berkeley in May and his girlfriend, Sofia, is Mexican. So our family seized the opportunity to visit and meet her extended family for two and a half weeks this summer. I jumped on the trip for my week off between spring and summer sessions at school. All I knew going in was my flights and what main cities we would be traveling to. The rest of the details had been graciously worked out by my aunt and Sofia’s mom.


Street performers in Guadalajara

After all landing sometime late Friday (or early Saturday), we stayed in Guadalajara for the night. Saturday we got up and explored the central part of the city. I’m not a huge fan of cities, but it was nice to get a taste of the history and culture while we walked through the older squares. There were some dramatic dancers performing, which was entertaining to watch. In the afternoon, we piled into the cars and headed about 1.5 hours southwest to the town of Sayula. This is where Sofia grew up and where her family owns several houses, two ice cream shops and an avocado farm (on the outskirts of town). We were greeted by many of the extended family at a fiesta that night, complete with tons of grilled meat and guacamole!


Sofia’s mother, myself, and Skylar getting ice cream


The Graduate!! Proud of you, Brett!!

Sunday we went to a family-style restaurant on a ranch that is incredible and only open on weekends. I tried so many new food that I can’t even begin to list them here. Suffice it to say that my definition of good Mexican food has expanded! After eating, we explored the grounds and checked out the peacocks and horses. Sunday afternoon we drove up into the hills surrounding Sayula, where the avocado farm is located. The family has over 6,000 trees of various ages and it was really interesting to hear Sofia’s parents describe their process of planting, tending, and harvesting the two species of trees they have. For a late dinner that night, we went to Tacos Panchos in town. Not only were the street-style tacos out-of-this-world, but the men making them were like food ninjas! I was mesmerized watching how quickly and efficiently they worked.


View from the avocado farm


Street taco ninjas

Monday morning we wandered around Sayula checking out the local attractions. My favorites were the mini-tour we had of the knife factory and the samples of cajeta (a creamy, wood-fired treat similar to dulce de leche). In the afternoon, we piled back into the cars for the three-hour trip west to the coast of Mexico and the city of Manzanillo. We couldn’t leave Sayula without one more scoop of delicious ice cream (pistachio for me!) and then we were off! The drive was actually quite beautiful until we got into the city of Manzanillo. We entered through the shipyard, which was the more industrial side of town and not so pretty. But just north of the city we turned into our condo complex and were thrilled to see how close we were to the beach!


“Our” cove, infinity pool, and water slide in Manzanillo


Iguana basking in the sun.

Tuesday and Wednesday were spent soaking up the sun at the infinity pool with excursions down to swim in the cove of the Pacific Ocean. There were plenty of card games, lots of book reading, tons of sunshine and even some intense water-sliding! We even saw some fairly large iguanas both on the rocks by the beach and in the trees by the pool. Dinners were delicious each night and no one could say they went hungry. And to top all of that off, my family is hilarious so most night were spent laughing, dancing, singing, etc. Never a dull moment with the Oliver/Butler clan, lol.


My extended family is pretty awesome!

Unfortunately, I had to head home Wednesday evening so I showered after the beach day and caught a ride to the Manzanillo airport. After a long(ish) layover at LAX, I landed back in San Diego late that night. This was an incredible trip with wonderful people and I am so grateful to have gotten to tag along on part of this adventure. It also got me excited to start my Spanish classes this week, but more on that later!


Cruising the (Baja) Cali Coast

Last Friday, my two closest friends and I decided that it was time for us to follow-up on our talks about camping in Mexico. We decided to hit the road early Saturday morning, head through Tijuana to Ensenada on the coast, and then (hopefully) pitch our tents on the beach. As per usual, we got a little bit later start than anticipated but that didn’t slow us down at the border. Before we knew it the scenery had changed and we obviously weren’t in Kansas anymore. I’ve been to Mexico half a dozen times, but it’s always been a trip planned well in advance and often to serve the needy. This time, I guess I hadn’t had time to fully process what I would be seeing south of the border and I felt a little shocked at the poverty. I will mention that the TJ (Tijuana) border crossing dumps you out in a lower-income area of the city. I quickly adjusted to the idea that I was really in Mexico and we turned south along the coast.


Our first stop was the smaller town of Rosarito. We drove the strip before pulling over to find a bathroom and check out the beach. It was actually a really nice beach, especially since it was still before 10 am so it was fairly empty. There were peddlers throughout the town but everyone was cordial and left us alone once we said, “no, gracias”. We wandered our way into a good market that I could have spent  hours in, but limited myself to just a few colorful minutes. It was time for a snack so the guys got their first authentic Mexican tacos and I settled on a Coke light. I mistakenly took the bottle with me to finish the beverage in the car, but was politely asked by the shop employee at my car window to pour the liquid into a Styrofoam cup so they could keep (and recycle) the bottle. On the way out of town we saw the Baja studios where Titanic was filmed… bonus! I’d definitely recommend a stop here instead of TJ because it’s smaller size makes it a much more manageable place to explore.



We continued to wind along the coastline, enjoying the scenery and practicing our (mostly) terrible Spanish. About halfway to Ensenada, the toll road was closed and we were forced to turn inland. We later found out that a section of the road slid into the ocean a few months ago and was still being repaired. The detour actually gave us a chance to see more of the countryside, which I appreciated. We rolled into Ensenada in time for lunch and wandered until we settled on a seafood restaurant, Mariscos Bahia de Ensenada. We all split two plates, one of boiled tilapia and one of octopus, squid, and shrimp tossed in a light garlic sauce. SO GOOD! It would have been a little pricey for lunch if we had all gotten a dish, but splitting two made it very affordable. A quick stop across the street at Cafe la Churreria for a small plate of churros and our bellies were quite happy!


From downtown, we drove an additional 10-12 minutes south to find the campground that sounded most appealing in our Camping Mexico’s Baja book. El Faro Beach Motel and RV Park had it all from RV hook-ups to cabanas to the flattened sand camping spots shown above. Xavier had rocked it out driving the whole day, so he took a nap in the car while Sean and I explored the beach. We climbed a rusted lifeguard stand, walked along the seawall, and even swam in the ocean! Brr! For pictures of these adventures, and the rest of our trip, check out my 30 Before 30 photo album on Facebook. Once X woke up, we set up our tents by the seawall so we wouldn’t have to attempt that in the dark. Then we went back up to Ensenada for dinner and more exploring!059

We walked and walked and walked throughout the town, through the fish market, past the monuments of important historical figures, and around the main shopping district. Once we walked up an appetite, we settled on a Mexican restaurant… not even sure what it was called. Which stinks, because they had the most incredible flavored margaritas on the planet. I’m not even exaggerating and Sean/X can vouch for me. I had a mango and a guava while X had a “melon” or cantaloupe. They were so smooth and had zero ice chunks. Delicious! We also split a Mexican appetizer plate with quesadillas, enchiladas, and flautas. After the drinks, we settled on splitting a beef fajita plate that was so delicious and so warm. It was a several hour dinner, embracing the Latin American culture. After that, we wandered back to the car and then headed to our tents. We sat and talked on the seawall for a while before playing a quick card game and then crashing into our sleeping bags.

065Sunday morning we wanted to be up and out fairly early, because we’d heard that the border crossing could take 2-3 hours later in the day. But we made a pit-stop for breakfast at this roadside stand. Sean and I had tortas (sandwiches) and X tried a chorizo burro (burrito) but “only” got a half size, not the big one… which looked like it weighed ten pounds. I offered to drive north for a while to relieve X, and off we went! We had to take the inland detour again and then continued north along the coast. There was very little traffic, which I was happy about. We didn’t take the most direct route through Tijuana this time, because we decided to trek inland and cross at a more remote checkpoint. It got so DUSTY when we turned east and left the city behind. Like sandstorm status. With tumbleweeds flying across the road directly at us. Again, I appreciated the chance to see more of Mexico and we figured it was better to be driving and seeing than sitting and waiting.


076Before getting in line to return to the States, we used up our pesos on Mexican candies and cookies. Those who know us can probably guess who picked which snack, but we all enjoyed them while sitting in line at the border crossing. We ended up crossing at Tecate and sat in line for an hour total. It would’ve been a bit faster but five cars in front of us had a problem… aka the border patrol pulled the passenger out of the car, frisked him, and then searched the car before moving them out of traffic. Yikes! We were happy to make it back onto American soil, but it was a refreshing trip with two of my best friends. We didn’t plan much, we didn’t do a lot, but we just enjoyed exploring a new area and spending time together. The trip also reminded me to stay grounded and be grateful for all I have in my life. I’d recommend this drive to anyone in San Diego and I’d love to continue down the Baja peninsula to Cabo one day. But for now… Hasta luego, mi amigos!




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