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Month: January 2017

Loreto, the town that Universal Vacation Group built.

Loreto, the town that Universal Vacation Group built.

On Saturday, January 28th, Sam and I flew to Loreto, Mexico, on the once a day flight from LAX.

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The pleasant Alaska flight flew between the coast and Catalina Island before crossing the border and flying east over the peninsula. Our seat was over the wing, so getting decent pictures was impossible. (In the photo below you can see Avalon to the left)

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We would find out later the only other daily flight to Loreto is ironically a Skywest from Calgary, where we visited less than a month prior.

After getting through customs we were herded through a small door with booths on either side displaying pictures of the resort. Both booths had men behind them with badges and white polo shirts. One of them approached us and said his name was Alejandro and he worked at our hotel. He said he’d be our concierge and asked us what we planned to do in Loreto before quickly getting into his offer of $100 discount on our rental car if we sat through 90 min presentation with free buffet breakfast.

I’ve been to a timeshare presentation before, so I knew the deal. However, we had large blocks of time in Loreto where we didn’t have anything to do and $100 off was $100 off. We said we’d do it the next morning and Alejandro told us to meet him in the lobby of the hotel at 8am. He said he normally asked for a $20 deposit, to make sure we’d show, but he took a single dollar as that was all I had in my wallet.

We drove to Loreto in our rented azul Jetta for a late lunch of surf and turf at the restaurant next to our hotel. The surf was tiny and the turf was tough. The chocolate clams we ate before that, served both on the shell and in a chowder, were better. Hard to complain about any of it when we ate a mountain of food for about $12 US.

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After checking in we explored the little seaside town of Loreto, which is to say we drove to the dock and turned around. We parked a few blocks away and walked to the mission underneath the tree canopy walkways. At the central square, we ordered a margarita and a very good chile relleno from El Zipotle. They also had a good home brewed stout, which I tried, but felt like something sweeter that night. At some point, a woman asked if she could photograph my margarita, which we thought was strange, but we later assumed she was the owner (or manager) as she spent some time behind the bar with the bartender. 

Sunday morning we met our concierge, Alejandro at 7:45am for the presentation and promised breakfast. We were hungry and confused when nobody else seemed to be in the lobby, nor any food. Alejandro said the breakfast and presentation was at another, better, facility that was under construction. He asked if we wanted him to drive or if we would drive. In the back of our minds, we wondered if this was a kidnapping scam and said we’d drive. After ten minutes on the road, we asked how far it was and he said “32 kilometers.” I looked it up online later and the total route was 41.

Keep in mind we’d explained to Alejandro that we wanted to be underway to the San Ignacio Lagoon before 10am. With each passing kilometer, we started to fear this would be impossible. Leaving late would leave us to navigate unsafe (and unknown to us) parts of the 1 (Baja’s main highway) at night. Eventually, we turned off the 1 and onto a dirt road. Around a few hills, we came to a guard with a big gate who let us in. A little further down we entered a large new resort complex called Danzante Bay. Alejandro handed us off to a woman (Lisa, maybe? I don’t remember) who would be our “guide,” on a tour of the facility after breakfast. When we stressed again that we needed to be on the road by 10 he said, “Well, you can leave after the 90-minute presentation, but we usually say to allow four hours.”

Uh. Okay. My math experience tells me 90 isn’t the same as 240, but we were about to find out that attendees to this presentation are not expected to have or use math skills in their decision making. Alejandro could sense our unease and crossed out the $100 discount, replacing it with $150 for further incentive to keep us from bolting right then and there (I’m sure he got a cut for getting us there).

But, we were already there. And hungry. And the place does look incredible, it reminded me of the Green Valley Resort in Henderson, but with beaches and a blue-water bay in front.

^^Not my photo, but accurate.

So we had our cheery guide (who said she was new at this) take us to the buffet which, despite being on an admittedly beautiful golf course with the Sea of Cortez as a backdrop, was actually the worst food we had on the entire trip. That isn’t to say it was unedible. It was just passable, which didn’t jive with the beautiful setting. Motel 6 cooks up better breakfast sausages in their microwave, but hey, it was free, and we’d get $100 for eating it, right? To be fair, they were out of eggs, so maybe the eggs were amazing, we’ll never know. The breakfast was at the clubhouse next to their driving range, which probably would have amazed some of our golfing friends. I recorded a video on my phone (I hadn’t brought my camera as we thought this was all going down in the hotel lobby) for one of them, but Mexico being Mexico it never got uploaded (no or spotty wifi/cellular).

By 9:45 we were getting a tour of a sample unit. The condos at the resort (and the resort itself) are as nice as anything at any other vacation destination in the world. Lots of smooth tile. Big rooms. Walk in showers. Views of the golf course and the water out the windows. All that good stuff.

Then our guide took us to the sales room, where we met Hector, who was also nice but a little too overconfident. Between telling us what a great deal the timeshare was Hector peppered in anecdotes about how he used to work at an office and now lives down here making six figures. All without actually telling us what the actual numbers of the deal were.

After explaining Sam and I met each other in business school and we wanted to see the actual dollar figures (and it was already past 10am and we needed to get going) I think Hector realized he was out of his league and pulled in the big guns: the sales manager/director/something.

Typical for timeshare salesmen Hector’s boss was a little overly pushy and confident, not realizing he gave away the flaws of his program several times while promoting them as bonuses. When you rehearse a script and recite it day in and day out it’s got to be hard to improvise. Anyone that works in marketing knows that salespeople are basically actors who weren’t convincing enough. That isn’t necessarily an insult. I couldn’t do either of those jobs, if only for my inability to remember a new person’s name for more than five seconds.

The bottom line at Danzante was a $32,000 payment for 1,200 “points” (which equates to 7 days at any of their properties per year) which would be financed at 12% interest for a ten-year payment plan. Oh! Plus a small maintenance fee of $512 per year (that I later read online will also increase over time – hooray!).

Pop! A champaign bottle opened at a nearby table and clapping commenced. We assumed this meant someone decided to buy. We’d later read that this group often ploys you with alcohol before putting the contract in front of you so you don’t even remember what you read (or didn’t read, as the case usually is). Although, if they were serious about this strategy they would have given us mimosas for breakfast. Maybe they did and I’m forgetting as I would have waved away any alcohol knowing I had a 5+ hour drive (in Baja) ahead of me that day.

To their surprise, we broke out the calculators and asked why we’d agree up front to pay $287 a night. This place is nice, but it ain’t in London. The sales manager said, “Okay, how about double the points?”

Why would we want to pay $143 a night up front unless we were only planning to go to London for vacation for two weeks every year? (We aren’t) Also, if you have that much leverage with price, then there can’t me much value in what you’re selling. Or it means you didn’t respect me as a negotiator with your first offer. Either way, it’s not a great place to start from to make a deal. So we asked what we do if we have buyers remorse in a week.

“Well, you can sell it if you don’t like it!”

“To who?”

“To us, of course!”

“And who is financing these transactions? What bank?”

“There’s no bank! We’re so rich we are the bank!”

Sam and I basically looked at each other and tried to stop from laughing. This was going from bad to worse. The irony is that a legitimate timeshare program might actually work for us, as we travel a lot and getting a decent hotel without blowing the budget is our biggest travel headache. But we aren’t the type of people who sign up for a five figure purchase without sleeping on it. (If your deal is that great it’ll wait a day, or a week, or a month, and still be desirable) After another ten minutes of polite, but curt, turndowns and walking them through why we knew it was a bad financial deal, the two men stuck out their hands rapidly, thanked us for coming, and issued us off to another office to collect our $150 discount.

There was nobody in the office. It was past 11am. Then a nice young woman came to help us but said she couldn’t find our dollar deposit. We tried to explain it didn’t matter, but she left anyway. After another ten minutes, we considered just walking out and were glad we’d driven our own car (we’d be trapped here, otherwise). When we started to walk out another employee, much more laid back than the others, asked us what happened and said he’d send someone to retrieve the young lady. After another bit of waiting where we almost left again, she came, apologized and handed us the voucher.

We left the complex at 11:30, having still not even checked out of our hotel back in Loreto. We now knew why Alejandro had given us an odd look when he asked at the beginning of all this back at the hotel if we’d checked out and we said no. He couldn’t urge us to check out, obviously, as he’d have to admit why, and then we’d just skip the whole thing entirely. 

A stop to grab some sandwiches at the deli attached to our hotel (which were actually pretty good) and we were on the 1 by 12:30. By 1pm we were at a standstill again as the Mexican military rummaged through our belongings (and Sam’s underwear) at a checkpoint.

The drive was a pleasant mix of cactus-filled valleys and views of the Sea of Cortez with the occasional goat, cow, or horse.

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If I developed amnesia I might have guessed I was driving through Arizona on the inland leg. After about an hour we reached the Bahia de Concepcion, a thirty-mile bay that loops inside the eastern edge of the peninsula. The calm waters of the bay produced many white sand playas (beaches). We stopped at El Requeson to walk on the sandbar making a bridge across the bay to a very close island. We made a point to come back and try to snorkel there until we drove up a bit further and saw something better: Play Santispak. However, since the timeshare debacle gobbled up so much daylight we couldn’t stop in Santispak, but made a note to stop on the way back a few days later.

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We made a point to come back and try to snorkel there until we drove up a bit further and saw something better: Play Santispak. However, since the timeshare debacle gobbled up so much daylight we couldn’t stop in Santispak, but made a note to stop on the way back a few days later.

We followed highway 1 to Santa Rosalia (roughly 3 hours from Loreto). The highway in Santa rosalia gets dicey for a minute, turning into a potholed mud road next to abandoned warehouses along the edge of the sea.

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Then the road turns away from the sea and curls around a burning trash dump. Immediately after the dump, the pavement begins anew and the road curls southwest for the leg of the desert drive westward across the peninsula, past the oasis of Mulegé to the tiny town of San Ignacio.

At San Ignacio there are signs taking you through town to the turn onto the only road leading to the lagoon. Don’t be fooled, though, the lagoon is still more than an hour away and the signs disappear once you leave town. We pulled over after 45 minutes to double check our directions. Eventually, the pavement has a cold stop and turns into a roadway made of raked and smoothed (well, bulldozed, but not smooth by any means) sand from the receded lagoon bed.

Here is another vistor’s video to show you what I’m talking about:

This part was the most treacherous, with big holes in the road. And I don’t mean potholes, I mean unmarked holes twenty feet deep dug out by backhoe to insert irrigation tunnels under the road. We found the real reason we were warned not to drive this leg at night; you could fall in the hole and not be found for a week. However, since we were driving due west and the sun was a half hour from setting it may have been safer to drive in the dark than in full stark direct yellow sunlight on a yellow road.

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Finally, we came to the lagoon, with water in front of us and a fork in the road that would lead to two different camps. We randomly chose to turn right and immediately arrived at Pacheco’s camp where we were welcomed by our guide, Josie, and our jack-of-all-trades host, Jorge. Neither of them spoke much English, but our needs for the next three days would be basic and already understood: dinner, sleep, breakfast, whales, repeat.

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That first night there were no margaritas, but there were plenty of Tecates and Jorge’s wife made two excellent (red and green) salsas to dip chips. Dinner, which we ate only with Jorge as we were the only guests that night, was even better: garlic shrimp with baked potato. We watched a beautiful sunset from the dining room (with walls constructed of old tires covered in concrete and seashells for carpet) before going outside to see perhaps the clearest view of the night sky in our lives. Jorge pointed out a passing satellite in the eastern sky. The only downer (other than no margaritas) was that Jorge explained we would not have hot water until tomorrow. A part had to be fixed, and it required a trip to town. We also discovered we were the very first guests for the season, so the camp was still in a constant state of repair. Sam elected to take a cold shower and I just decided to wait it out.

Banff Vacation Day 10

Banff Vacation Day 10

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Waking up early on our last morning in Banff and peeking outside the window drapes I noticed the sky was nearly as clear as on our first night. However, unlike that night, the temperature was the lowest ever. -27 is probably the coldest temperature I’ve ever experienced, and boy did I experience it.

I decided to try and photograph the sunrise not from Vermillion Lake, but up on the hill at the Norquay lookout. On the way up the hill, a delivery truck had already slid into the berm. An ominous sign, but I kept on.

Up at the lookout, I set up my camera on the tripod and waited as frost started to cover my nose. As the light kept changing over the back of the mountains in front of me I’d take another shot. Every five minutes or so, each one feeling like an eternity in the unbelievable cold. When I would wipe my nose on my glove I didn’t notice the usual liquid (like every other day) but ice crystals breaking off instead. I wanted to google signs of frostbite, but that would mean taking off my gloves, an even worse idea.

But dammit I had to get this shot, it was the best chance I’d had all week. So, I waited in agony as the sun slowly peppered the neighboring slopes with orange but still hid from mine. Watching a sunrise is normally a peaceful thing, sipping a momosa in your PJs from a hotel balcony in some tropical spot. An endothermic thing, energizing your body to start the day as the rest of your little section of the world does.

This wasn’t that. I mean, it was beautiful as most things in the Rockies are, but it was a completely exothermic experience, each minute numbing my body more. I would do jumping jacks in the snow (probably to the jeers of folks watching from the parking berm above me) to keep blood flowing, but then realize keeping my gloved hands out of my pockets only made them freeze faster. My decisions became slower and more irrational. While I considered tactics to keep warm few other brave souls would occasionally stumble down from the parking berm, take a few pictures, and say “Fuck, it’s cold!” and retreat to the safety of their trucks.

Either fearless or stupid, I stayed out there. For a full hour I stood in the snow on the mountain. The sun finally turned the snow gold around 9:45am. However, what minute variations in temperature the sun provided were of little use. As I picked up the camera off the tripod and started to take shots I noticed danger creeping up fast. The first sign was that my breath started to cover the surfaces of the camera and instantly turn to frost. The focus ring became almost immovable. Not that I could see through the blurry frost on the viewfinder anyway. Or maybe the focus ring worked, but I couldn’t feel my fingers to turn it. “Holy crap, I can’t feel my fingers!” The siren finally broke through the clutter of excuses in my brain to stay out to get the right shots. 

I stumbled, feet numb long ago, up the little hill and back to the car, abandoning my quest for the perfect sunrise shot just as it came into reach. Being able to hold onto other things for the rest of my life (not to mention walk) became paramount to getting a couple random favorites from strangers on flickr and likes from a few friends on facebook.

No. It wasn’t worth one minute more in -27 degrees. Inside the Chevy I waited for my hands and feet to warm up enough for me to drive back down the hill, breath still visible inside the car.

At the bottom, Sam was already packing up and getting ready to check out.

On the way to Calgary, we stopped to explore Elbow Falls only long enough to notice our fingers go numb and then run back to the car.

Banff Vacation Day 9

Banff Vacation Day 9

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On our last full day we were growing weary of the constant chill outside (and Sam was starting to get a cold) so we made a point to walk through the inside of the Fairmont, then visit the Bow River parking lot and called it a day.  Between those things, we visited the only Mexican restaurant in town, which actually wasn’t too bad. They fried the chile rellenos so the outsides were still crisp, which is how preferable to the mush that you get in some places. However, they lost a point because they stuffed the rice inside the pepper with the cheese (rice is much cheaper than cheese). It wasn’t a bad idea from a taste perspective (infusing the rice with hot pepper juice), but it resulted in much less cheese than a regular order of chile relleno anywhere else. Why am I going on so long about a chile relleno? I like cheese. Cheese Matters! Makes as much sense for a slogan as #MAGA. 

Moving on with our story… We had planned to do a sleigh ride at Warner Stables, but an hour sitting on metal getting wind blasted at sub-zero (and horse farts!) started to sound less fun when the day finally arrived. We hadn’t paid or reserved anything so we just skipped it. Instead, we soaked in the hotel hot tub until we got hungry. Or drunk. We made a point to finish the cream liqueur by mixing it with vodka in Sam’s water bottle and sipping it during our soak. It was still so cold in the air above the hot tub that the condensation on the metal bottle froze into icy bumps.

Getting hungry and overly hot we decided to have dinner on our last day in the hotel in the hotel restaurant for the first time. Our breakfast on Thursday had actually been pretty good so we were hoping for a good meal to finish our time in Banff.

We were warned our preferred entree would take 25 minutes, but it would be worth it. 50 minutes later the “wild game” platter finally came. Worth it? Hard to tell; food always tastes great when you’re starving. However, for all the blandness of the cuisine in town, I have to credit the hotel for trying to be a little upscale. Our breakfast, dinnner, desert, and drinks there did not disappoint.

Banff Vacation Day 8

Banff Vacation Day 8

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Another townie day. We went on the brief (and very windy) tunnel mountain hike then revisited surprise corner after dark. Taking photos of the Fairmont proved difficult with wind gusts blowing up from the Bow River. The only way to stabilize the shots was to hold the tripod. You don’t hold a piece of metal outside for more than a few seconds in negative twenty degrees. Looking for a calmer place to take night shots of the town we drove up the hill behind our hotel to visit the Norquay lookout.

We warmed back up in the hotel’s outdoor spa until 5pm, when it was time for me to torture myself by watching the Fiesta Bowl. I was glad we had alcohol in the room. As the game dragged on endlessly with nothing to cheer about waiting for midnight became an endless drag that ended with a whimper of a local fireworks show (five minutes long, the daily Disney fireworks are more impressive) viewed in the shivering cold from the hotel lawn. I was alone for the last part as Sam had started to feel sick and elected to sleep her way into 2017.