San Diego Union Tribune February,  2000

Where
Los Cabos (translated "the capes") is the term used to describe the entire 40-mile-wide tip of the Baja Peninsula. It consists of three distinct areas:

-The East Cape area, which begins south of La Paz on the Sea of Cortez side, and covers the eastern shore.

-The resort city of Cabo San Lucas on the western (Pacific) side of the tip, 1,059 miles by car from the San Diego- Tijuana border, following Transpeninsular Highway 1.

-The quaint city of San Jose del Cabo, approximately in the middle of the Cape.

Generally, Cabo San Lucas is referred to as "Cabo," while San Jose del Cabo is known as just "San Jose." The East Cape is made up of many smaller towns and villages, with no central destination. The Los Cabos Airport in San Jose serves the entire Cape area.

Best time to visit
The East Cape has always been a year-round destination for windsurfing and sportfishing. Just a hair over the 28th parallel into the Tropic of Cancer, the weather is balmy in winter and bearable in summer, with an average daily temperature of 75 degrees. Daytime highs are about 100 in August, but it's dry heat, and there's plenty of water around for cooling off.

Cost
Accommodations, food and even fishing excursions are significantly less expensive along the East Cape than In Cabo San Lucas and San Jose. Don't exchange more than a minimum amount of money at Los Cabos airport. Exchanges rates are a rip-off there. Instead stop and exchange money at a bank in San Jose.

Culture shock
Minimal along the coastal communities; more so in the small, inland Mexican towns and isolated villages. Credit cards are accepted at most Sea of Cortez hotels, but inquire first. Carry cash, preferably pesos, for all inland restaurants and activities. English is spoken in the main tourist areas along the coast, but not always inland.

Kid-friendly
Absolutely, if your kids are open to new cultural experiences, are old enough to hike, or just love the beach and can entertain themselves without video games and TV. Almost everything in the East Cape area - from fishing to food - is affordable for families.

Travel tip
Although Transpeninsular Highway 1 has some spectacularly scenic spots on the East Cape, especially between Buena Vista and La Paz, the stretch between San Jose and Los Barriles/Buena Vista consistently has more cows, burros and horses in the road, day and night, than possibly any other spot in Mexico. Drive with great care or you'll be sporting a new hood ornament.

For more information
Call the State Tourism Coordinator's office in La Paz for East Cape information at 011-52-612-124-0100. Ask for Felipe Davis Smith.

 

 

Baja California's East Cape
Unspoiled and undiscovered

Baja California's East Cape is as unlike Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo as rural, coastal Maine is from Miami Beach.

Stretching along the Sea of Cortez from La Paz to the eastern tip of the Baja peninsula, the 70-mile East Cape lures hard-core windsurfers, serious divers, very serious marlin hunters, and vacationers who want to explore an unspoiled and mostly undiscovered Mexico.

Within two hours of San Jose, you can visit a charming village zoo run exclusively by children - one of only two zoos on the entire 1000-mile peninsula. You can kayak down the raging arroyos of the Sierra de la Laguna after a late summer storm. You can snorkel with trumpetfish, swim with sea turtles, tour the tide pools or dive with a dazzling variety of fish on the only living coral reef in the Sea of Cortez.

And when your legs or fins won't take you any further, you can unwind in your own private, natural hot-springs spa, one of hundreds hidden away throughout the East Cape foothills. There, sheltered by bamboo and lush foliage, you'll quickly forget about cell phones, beepers, laptops and e-mail.

Country roads here run through pleasant valleys lined with trees that produce guavas three times a year, filling the air with their unforgettable fragrance. Thousands of mango trees dot the landscape in every direction, and small, very sweet, pink papayas grow in profusion. Between the spiky palms and the shorter lemon trees, you'll also find pomelas (soft grapefruits that pull apart like tangerines) and broad shade trees featuring huamuches (strong, sweet-flavored fruits that look like large white green beans).

It is such a friendly back country, meant for exploring and meandering, and depending on your comfort level, you can do the East Cape on your own or with a guide. Either way, it's easy. And, along the way, you won't have to hassle with a single major city, tourist trap, traffic light, nightclub, or someone selling chewing gum.

Activities

Hot stuff

Hot springs. Hot rocks. Hot spots in the ocean, right off one of the Cape's most beautiful beaches. Hot, natural spas that bubble out of cracks in the mountainside. Even hot rivers. And hardly anyone, except for a handful of locals, knows about them.

According to longtime naturalist and area wildlife expert Chuy Valdez (who also owns the Hotel Buena Vista Beach Resort), a branch of the Colorado River passes through the base of a nearby volcano, emerges with steaming, purified water, then continues its winding, underground passage to the sea. Along the way, it bubbles up or out in places, causing the area's many hot spots.

Of the half-dozen East Cape hotels, from Buena Vista to Los Barriles, only the sprawling Hotel Buena Vista Beach Resort sits directly on the secret river, which accounts for the hotel's lush landscape in the midst of otherwise stark desert terrain. Just off shore from the hotel's dining patio, the river bubbles up into the ocean, creating a perpetually hot swimming hole.

Day trips

No matter how much of a marlin nut you are, no trip to the East Cape will be complete without a visit to one of the hidden hot spots.

If you prefer to travel on your own, grab an East Cape map at the airport, jump into an open-topped VW convertible and just start exploring. Begin by taking Transpeninsular Highway 1 from San Jose's airport and heading northeast toward Santiago. It's the launch point for any East Cape adventure, with or without a guide.

On the smooth dirt road that heads dead east out of Santiago, you'll be touched and amazed by the immaculate Santiago Zoo, cared for by village children and containing every indigenous animal, bird and reptile of Baja. There are small local leopards, furry-tailed possums, black-and-white ground hogs called tejones and cat-sized raccoons called mapaches. And don't be surprised if you hear a lion roar. An African lion and an enormous Bengal tiger share a shady enclosure in the zoo's center. Exploring this tranquil, very special place, with its giant shade trees and widely spaced, palapa-topped enclosures, is free, but you can certainly leave a donation.

Five minutes further down the same dirt road, in the tiny village of Agua Caliente, you'll find wiry woodcarver Oscar Garciglia Castro. Oscar's workshop, yard and small house are jumbled with heavy pieces of palo chino, a local mountain wood with unique graining. From it, Oscar carves life-sized bears, eagles, marlin, foxes and coyotes for sale to Cabo San Lucas hotels and exclusive shops, but you can buy direct.

Another five minutes dead east from Agua Caliente, you'll run into the hot spring of EI Chorro, just beyond the tiny village of the same name. Here, villagers have built a large swimming reservoir, heated by nature. Nearby, a steady trickle of hot water from a crack in a large boulder feeds a man-made hot tub. All around, the huge rocks that jut from the mountainside feel warm to the touch. This quiet, undiscovered spot is a camper's delight, with potable water available from any of the springs.

Two miles to the north of Santiago, in the village of San Jorge, you'll discover an even more enchanting oasis. Where the mountainous dirt road from Santiago ends, a spring-fed river runs through the arroyo. The river is dotted with flat boulders, each large enough to host a picnic for four. Around them, individual pools form intimate spas or larger swimming holes.

The small, white sand beaches at the river's edge and lush bamboo groves give the spot a tropical, Eden-like feel, so serenely different from Cabo San Lucas, just 25 miles southwest. These many hidden hot springs are one of the Cape's most enchanting secrets.

And if you continue to venture north of Los Barrilles on Transpeninsular Highway 1. don't miss the stunning, abandoned mining town of EI Triunfo. Pericu Indian women sell handmade baskets of rare and legendary patayas during the late summer - a blood-red cactus fruit so revered by ancient and modern Indians that they are almost never seen in city markets. Naturally fermented after falling to the ground, they have been known to make both animals and humans drunk with their sweetness. Perhaps this accounts for the staggering cows and burros in the road.

Guided tours

If this is your first trip to the Cape and you'd feel more comfortable with a tour guide, look no further than Hortensia Fisher - local expert, wildlife whiz extraordinaire and the best guide in town. Hortensia, based at the Hotel Buena Vista Beach Resort, knows every plant, bird and back-country village at this end of the peninsula and will cheerfully share the info, as well as provide lunch. Call the hotel to set up a tour. (8OO) 752-3555 or (619)-429-8079.

While Hortensia leads day tours to the hot springs of EI Chorro and Agua Caliente, along with backwoods adventures beyond the charming village of Santiago, Chuy Valdez himself often leads hunting excursions into the mountains for black-tail and mule deer, mountain lions, coyotes, white-wing doves and ducks. Other Buena Vista-based tours include the area's pre-historic cave paintings, hiking tours to the arroyos or the Sierra de la Laguna and to fossil-collecting areas, and van tours that explore the coastal tide pools. Most day trips cost $55 and include lunch if you're a hotel guest. The hotel can arrange any of these tours, in addition to dive and snorkel trips to nearby Cabo Pulmo reef.

Sports and recreation

Although the entire East Cape is known for excellent fishing on a year-round basis, the peak season is May through October. Blue marlin, striped marlin, swordfish, sailfish, dorado, yellow-fin tuna, yellow tail, wahoo and roosterfish are among the most common catches. Charter trips can be booked through any of the East Cape hotels. Prices vary depending on the season and size of boat, but a party of four can fish for the day on a 28-foot boat for about $350.

The area's unique winter wind conditions have also made this same strip of coast a top international windsurfing destination since the early 1980s. At Los Barriles, about five miles north of Buena Vista, a wind tunnel cuts through the nearby mountains and blasts the otherwise calm coastal waters. During the high-wind months of November through April, experienced sail boarders can sail 20 miles out to sea without losing sight of the shore.

Windsurfing packages at local resorts can be arranged through Vela Highwind Centers (831-461-0820 or 800-223-5443). Packages include all levels of instruction and state-of-the-art equipment, along with discounted room-and-meal deals. Seven-day packages run about between $900 and $1300 per person, depending on the facility and type of room, and there are now opportunities to try out kite flying as well.

Savvy scuba divers and snorkelers are also turning on to the East Cape as word of mouth spreads about the nearby Cabo Pulmo reef system, south of Buena Vista at the La Rivera turnoff and near the southeastern tip of the peninsula. Known for its easy accessibility from shore and its dazzling variety of reef fish, eel colonies and colorful sponges, the reef's biggest draw is the chance to swim with whale sharks, giant mantas, sea turtles and schooling hammerheads during the summer and fall. Cabo Pulmo is the only living coral reef system in western North America and was recently declared a National Marine Park by the Mexican government. There are 14 dive locations within the extensive reef system.

The village of Cabo Pulmo is a tiny and isolated dive community, with only a cluster of small, rustic beach houses for rent, two small open-air restaurants and two very experienced dive centers.

Pepe's Dive Center (011-52-624-141-0001) has the only telephone in Cabo Pulmo and is fully equipped for all diving. The Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort has no phone, but housing and dive equipment rentals or trips can be arranged on the spot. Snorkel and dive gear can be rented from either operation, and one-tank boat dives run $55; snorkeling trips are $40. The Hotel Buena Vista Beach Resort also provides dive trips to Cabo Pulmo, as well as tanks, equipment rentals and complete certification courses.

Accommodations
The East Cape offers a choice of accommodations, from free camping on the beach to a top-of-the-line luxury resort. Here's a sample:

Casa de Huespedes Palomar
Calzada Misioneros (the main street)
Santiago
011-52-624-142-0604
This immaculate budget hostel offers six modest rooms set in a mango grove behind the EI Palomar restaurant. You'll pay about $30 per day.

Hotel Buena Vista Beach Resort
Transpeninsular Highway 1
Buena Vista
(800) 752-3555, (619) 429-8079, 011-52-624-141-0033
This old fishing hotel has repositioned itself as a beach resort, adding fountains, a portal entrance, bronze sculptures and a giant, free-form pool complete with swim-up bar, bridges and a palm island. Activities other than sportfishing center around the pool, which is visible from most of the tiered wings that house the rooms. The restaurant has a buffet, and meals can be eaten by the pool. Flowers, artwork and trophy-size fish mounts add to the seaside ambience in the public areas, although the rooms themselves are rather plain. Rooms feature tiled floors, wood furnishings and two double beds (some have one double and one twin). Most rooms open onto a common patio, but the sight of the ocean is blocked by lush landscaping. Still, the beach is sandy and has shaded canopies, and the room rates ($90 to $240) are reasonable when compared to other local resorts. Airport pick-up and transportation can be arranged with advance reservations.

Hotel Palmas de Cortez
Transpeninsular Highway 1
Los Barriles
(800) 368-4334, (818) 591-9463, 011-52-624-141-0050
This 26-room, beachside hotel features an oceanfront pool, tennis and volleyball courts. Doubles start at $130 per day, with deluxe suites going for $160 per day, including meals. Two-bedroom condos for up to five people start at $250 daily, without meals.

Punta Pescadero
9.3 miles east of Highway 1 at Km J-111
Los Barriles
(800) 713-4487, 011-52-624-141-0101
Remote but worth it if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle or high-clearance car. Otherwise, you can fly in by private plane to reach this fishing resort. Punta Pescadero is set on 125 acres of palm trees and sandy beach, and all rooms come with ocean views and patios, as well as TV and refrigerator. Some rooms have fireplaces. Outdoor activities include water sports, fishing, scuba diving, tennis and golf. Scuba equipment is available for rent. Rooms start at $115 a day.

Hotel Playa del Sol
Transpeninsular Highway 1
Los BarriIes
(800) 368-4334, (818) 591-9463, 011-52-624-141-0212
More modest than other resorts, but popular for water sports, especially windsurfing, this hotel offers basic rooms and a superb stretch of beach. Amenities include a restaurant, bar and rental fishing tackle. Ask about the seven-night packages that include all windsurfing equipment, instruction, meals and air-conditioned rooms, starting at $936 per week. Room prices start at $84 per day, with meals.

Restaurants

EI Palomar
Calzada Misioneros (the main street)
Santiago
011-52-624-142-0604
The specialties at this charming and restful little country inn include fresh fish in garlic butter and fabulous chile rellenos stuffed with shrimp, along with a variety of good Mexican dishes. You'll find the restaurant easily on the main street of this small town. Dine in the back courtyard, among the mango trees.

Hotel Buena Vista Beach Resort
Transpeninsular Highway 1
Buena Vista
(800) 752-3555, (619) 429-8079, 011-52-624-141-0033
If you're staying at the resort, you probably already had your picture taken with the "Catch of the Day" before it hit the menu, and that's always the best bet here. Although the Mexican combo dinners are good, stick with seafood. This is the heart of sportfishing heaven, after all. It's also the most upscale spot on the East Cape - which means you can still dine in shorts and sandals.

Tio Pablo
Transpeninsular Highway 1
Los Bailes
011-52-624-141-0334
This large, palapa-style restaurant is popular with visiting fishermen and windsurfers because it serves pizza, burgers and salads and features a sports TV. (Plus, it's the only restaurant in Los Barriles.)

- Paula McDonald for SignOnSanDiego