About Me

Hi, I’m Paul.

Welcome to Playas y Plazas. This is a travel blog about Mexico. I live in Guadalajara, Jalisco and travel up and down Western Mexico looking for food, culture, and surf. The name of the blog was inspired by an old Hawaiian surf company called Town and Country. I want to explore the rural beaches of Mexico and the plazas of every pueblo between here and the Rio Tijuana. These are mostly my stories.

Mexico Travel blog

I think Mexico is just about the best vacation destination you can imagine. The surf is world-class, the landscapes are breathtaking and there is a lot of culture. Personally, I think that the culinary arts scene is the most exciting on the planet. There are amazing ingredients, ancient traditions and modern techniques that make for some spectacular culinary experiences.

Growing up on the border

I’m from San Diego but I have been in Guadalajara for the better part of the last decade. I have been fascinated with Mexico since I was a kid exploring the Baja Peninsula. My parents gave me a touch of wanderlust and San Diego’s proximity to the border gave me the means to explore.

Tijuana Zebra in the 1990s

My dad’s hand-me-down Baja California travel guides were written before the transpeninsular highway was paved and he taught me to drive in the dunes south of Rosarito Beach. Back in the 1960s my mom and her friends drove a VW bus down to Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara where she developed a love of Talavera tile and started our collection. My mom still loves exploring: from Tzintzuntzan to Tijuana, looking for exquisite pottery and good food.

Tijuana cerca 2005

The University of San Diego High School

My Catholic high school was only 20 minutes from the border. A nun that taught English would take us to an orphanage in Tijuana to bring supplies and play with the kids. In the 1990’s you didn’t need a passport to cross back and forth. A nun could take a handful of kids across the border, teach them how to take a taxi, speak a little Spanish, and nobody was weird about it.

University of San Diego High School had a few dozen students from Tijuana that would cross the border every day to study in San Diego. Mexico is a Catholic country and the Catholic schools in San Diego are highly regarded. I didn’t realize it at the time but what an advantage those kids had to be professionally fluent in two languages at such a young age.

My high school economics teacher was a real inspiring traveler, surfer and just cool guy. He had been all through the Americas and had pictures and stories that made you want to travel.

We were used to crossing the border early. Tijuana, Rosarito Beach, and Ensenada are fun places to hang out and surf during the summers. There is a liberal minimum drinking age and we had friends to show us around. I have great memories of Mexico as a kid.

Learning Spanish

Early Spanish Language Education

I have been exposed to the Spanish language since I was little. My family spent a fair amount of time in Mexico and had bilingual friends but I didn’t make the active decision to really learn the language until I was in college. When I saw the list of study abroad opportunities I was sold.

Surfing Jaco Beach, Costa Rica
Surfing Jaco Beach, Costa Rica

Junior College Spanish

In order to study abroad, I had to pass two Spanish classes and find the money for the program. Turns out there are lots of Spanish speakers in the restaurant industry. I had a 7 am Spanish class and another 8 hours of “language lab” at my job waiting tables in a La Jolla restaurant. The people I worked with were stoked to help me with my Spanish homework and teach me all the vulgar jokes they could find. The combination of theory and practice were crucial to my success. For each hour of class, I had many hours of playful Spanish practice at work.

Sure enough, I did really well in both classes and was on my way to Central America backpacking for a month in Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, Mexico and Costa Rica. Needless to say, it was a lifechanging experience in more ways than one. I decided on a college major, I surfed the best waves of my life and I learned a lot of Spanish. This trip gave me a chance to practice my Spanish in the real world, evaluate my progress and focus on what I needed to reach my language goals.

I came back from Central America with a mission to become fluent in the Spanish language.

Spanish at the University of California, Santa Cruz

In the fall of 2002 I started school at the University of California, Santa Cruz to study Global Economics. That is a course in Economics with a hefty load of the Spanish language and Latin American Studies. I took Spanish every quarter including Literature, Theater (Quixote’s La Cueva de Salamanca), and Spanish for Spanish Speakers.

As soon as I started school at UC Santa Cruz I was already planning my next study abroad program and the Spanish classes that I would need to take to be ready for economics curriculum taught in my second language. Through the University of California’s education abroad program I spent six months in South America studying at the University of Chile and exploring the continent.

My brother met his future wife on this trip, moved back five years later to make his life with an amazing woman. We keep in contact with a lot of the people we studied with.

Spanish and Economics at the University of Chile

Chile is a spectacular country with a very difficult Spanish accent to understand. My economics classes were some of the most difficult classes that I took in college because of some false cognates and a thick accent.

One of my teachers has worked in Salvador Allende’s government as a top-ranking finance minister. His class was known as a gringo killer. I scored a zero. I don’t think that I have worked so hard in any class or learned as much. That guy was a part of a government that was violently overthrown by a fascist who dragged Chile into a dirty war lasting decades. I got to see both sides of the war.

September 11th, 2003 was the 30th anniversary of the golpe militar (coup d’ etat) that left the democratically elected president dead in the capital building. Agustus Pinochet came to a funeral at the church we were using as a classroom and my classmate shook his hand. We also went to the demonstration in front of La Moneda (the capital building where Salvador Allende lost his government and his life).

I wish I started my travel blog during Graduate School in Mexico

Roadtrip through Mexico
Roadtrip through Mexico

After college I found myself working in Silicon Valley recruiting engineers for Google’s global army. I was looking at resumes for some of the best engineers on the planet and saw a pattern of international education that I wanted to emulate.

The Institute of the Americas on the UCSD campus in La Jolla, California looks over the cliffs and the Pacific Ocean. It is an important hub joining together Latin America, The United States, and Asia. Interning at the Institute of the Americas I shook hands with former President of Mexico Ernesto Zedillo and listened to presentations by top Mexican politicians.

Josefina Vázquez Mota at the Institute of the Americas
Josefina Vázquez Mota, presidential candidate for the PAN political party in the 2012 elections.

I wanted to be a part of that global elite that speaks multiple languages fluently and truely understands different cultures. Someone who could seamlessly move between countries and speak Spanish at the professional and academic level.

I applied to the Tecnológico de Monterrey campus in Guadalajara for grad school and quickly fell in love with Mexico. Travel was a big part of my education. I visited the capital frequently and voraciously read about the relationship between the United States and Mexico.

Monterey Tec Study Abroad in Beijing, China
Monterey Tec Summer Study Abroad Program in Beijing, China

I also met my future wife.

Mexico Destination wedding in Guadalajara
Templo San Diego de Alcalá

The Restaurant Industry

It is hard to believe that I have more than ten years of experience in the restaurant industry. I went from waiting tables in San Diego to owning and operating something like a franchise in Guadalajara, Mexico. I have come to really enjoy the foodservice industry, from agriculture to markets and restaurants. I have spent a lot of my time in Mexico finding and growing heirloom ingredients, exploring the regional markets, and meeting cooks.

In La Jolla, California I worked at two restaurants that really taught me about food. Barbarella, on La Jolla Shores Drive, is a European bistro that takes a lot of influence from Alice Waters and Thomas Keller. The chef who opened the restaurant worked for Thomas Keller before moving south. The owner would spend lots of time in the area farmer’s markets buying local heirloom fruits and vegetables for daily specials. I still remember tasting an heirloom tomato for the first time. I couldn’t believe that I have lived for 20 years and had never tasted a real tomato.

Sushi on the Rock is another La Jolla institution that worked with local fishermen to serve amazing sushi. There were tanks with live sea urchin and live lobster, and the fishermen were bringing in buckets of the best quality seafood I had ever seen. These two experiences pushed me to try new and exotic foods.

I think it was working in those two restaurants that pushed me to continue studying food systems as a life long passion. I transferred to the University of California, Santa Cruz and lived right next door to the Alan Chadwick Garden. The organic horticulture and agriculture program at UC Santa Cruz is world-famous. The food (and marijuana) grown in the Santa Cruz area is nothing short of amazing.

Imagine trying an heirloom tomato for the first time but constantly finding new varieties of fruits and vegetables that you had only known through agricultural farming. I remember eating kiwis so sweet you could eat the skin and more lettuces than I have ever seen before. Agriculture and horticulture in Northern California are very special. And, this area has close ties to Mexico.

Operating a Restaurant in Mexico

When I came to Mexico to study at Monterey Tec in 2009 I was on a student visa. Monterey Tec expects that students will be working and will use data from their work to complete projects in just about every course. With a student visa, I was not able to work in technology as I had before returning to school. Some friends with a restaurant let me do projects for them. I did a statistical analysis of sales and headcount and another project on corporate social responsibility.

Four years after originally interning with Grupo Pasta, I invested in their 14th restaurants as an operating partner. Along with my partners, we built a restaurant almost from scratch. We converted a mid-century house into a successful restaurant. There was a cocina economica in the house before us but it was not a high volume restaurant. We structurally changed the house, upgraded the electrical, plumbing, HVAC and built a professional kitchen.

The experience of operating a restaurant let me experiment and learn with a professional kitchen, and I didn’t have to wash any dishes. The cooks that I had the pleasure of working with taught me how to make all sorts of sauces and protiens. We had a convection oven and a sous vide machine to play with. I brought in a tortilla press and all sorts of exotic ingredients that I found in the market. Working in the restaurant industry also introduced me to other restaurateurs and let me see other kitchens.

These are a few of the cooks that have inspired me.

Maru Toledo and Las Mujeres del Maiz
Maru Toledo and Las Mujeres del Maiz
Chef Andres Espinoza or el Tigre
Freddy is the salsa master

In my free time

I spend my free time learning about Mexico; history, culture and a whole lot of food. The restaurant has allowed me to meet a lot of talented chefs and hear about the food and beverage industry from all angles. The recommendations I get from guys and girls in the kitchen blow any guide book out of the water.

I also like to surf. Mexico has a lot of coastline and there are some spectacular breaks in these parts. There are waves for surfers of all levels of experience and adventures to be had.

SUP Surf La Jolla
SUP Surf La Jolla
Surf Centro Historico Mazatlan
Surf Centro Historico Mazatlan