|I always thought there were only two Mexicos. One is
the Mexico of the package vacation, where all
Mexicanness has been neatly eradicated. Yes, you can
drink the water, eat the hamburgers and sleep well in
the high-rise hotels of Cabo San Lucas or Acapulco,
where Spring Break and St. Patrick's Day are highlighted
on the calendars. Only the weather is local and natural.
The other choice, I thought, was the "real" Mexico,
the garbage-strewn country off the beaten path, vital,
tragic and possibly perilous. So when we came here, to
Buena Vista, a scrawny dot on the map of Baja
California, I expected the occasional iguana in the
toilet and cockroaches the size and disposition of
airliners. A friend told me that the beaches in eastern
Baja were sometimes crawling with scorpions, and I
But it turns out that there is such a thing as a
compromise between the two extremes of Mexico -- a
lovely compromise. That compromise is a vast bay, the
Bahia Las Palmas, an hour north of Cabo San Lucas, with
Buena Vista at its center.
We -- my wife, Tine, and I -- have no clue it's
coming. At the San Josť del Cabo airport, we struggle
past the time-share salesmen (who try to lure us in by
absurdly masquerading as government officials), rent a
small but persistent car and drive north on Route 1. The
sun is glaring, the shoulders of the road papered with
litter, the cardon cactus crowding the steep brown
hillsides like gloomy sentinels -- a landscape of barren
beauty. After 40 minutes, the slate blue Sea of Cortez,
a hundred miles wide, appears on our right. Soon we pull
in at a rutted dirt road, and as we bump through the
dust we brace for the worst.
It doesn't happen. Our hotel, the Hotel Buena Vista
Beach Resort, is a sudden oasis -- a cool maze of
terraces overflowing with purple bougainvillea, pink
oleander and scarlet hibiscus. Fountains with cherubs
trickle idly here and there as we follow a winding path
down toward the sea. A hammock stretched between coconut
palms waits for us outside the front door of our
bungalow. Inside, the split-level room is welcoming (if
not opulent) -- with two double beds, a writing table, a
cool terra-cotta tile floor and a staunch
air-conditioner. There are no iguanas in the toilet or
shower. Maybe 20 paces away, there's the beach. Ella,
our 5-year-old, gives a shout, and races out onto the
sand; then she stops. You can see it on her face:
something out there is very odd. What is it, honey?
The odd thing is nothing: nobody. Not another soul.
We follow our girl out onto the warm white sand, and the
entire long crescent of bay stretches out all around us,
and there is no one. A shadow passes above us -- a
magnificent frigate bird, its amazing red pouch tucked
out of sight -- then a long gliding line of pelicans.
Small waves curl in, so perfect they look like they've
been carefully patted into shape before being allowed to
roll along toward the beach.
My wife and I look at each other as if we've hit the
Within a few minutes, we're in that water, and
there's another surprise. As we wade in, the sandy
bottom suddenly becomes warm -- in places, even hot.
"Hot springs!" my wife says, laughing. She stretches out
on her back in the hot sea, bathing in it, her long hair
flowing out behind her. She closes her eyes, then opens
them. "Let's frame it," she says. Frame what? "This
I want to know how this place rose out of all the
local dust. I sit down with Esaul Valdez, one of the
three grown sons of the patron, Chuy Valdez. Esaul is
large, careful, pleasant. "The big house was built over
50 years ago, by the governor general of the Baja
Territory. My father turned it into a hotel."
I ask why the governor built a house way out here,
approximately nowhere. "The water," Esaul says. "An
underground river flows into the ocean at our beach. No
place else in Baja has such a thing. It's good water."
"Can we drink it?"
"It's very good water," Esaul says evenly.
"Out of the tap?"
"Out of the tap, yes."
I ask him how long it's been a hotel. "Next year will
be 25 years," he says. He leans over somewhat
confidentially. "The 25th-anniversary certificates are
selling like pancakes."
There are all kinds of southeastern Baja, depending
upon who you are. The adventurous will dive for sunken
shipwrecks, go sea-kayaking around Isla Espiritu Santo
or hike for days in the vast mountainous interior; those
who need cities will drive to La Paz, through old
silver-mining villages (now eroded into picturesque
ghost towns), or haggle over the price of hammocks while
sucking on sugarcane in pretty San Josť del Cabo; and
then there will always be people like us.
The other face of Baja is one of arid, barren beauty
When you travel with a child, you're ruled by
childish desires. In this benign place, such wishes can
be satisfied. Yes, honey, you can ride a real horse on a
perfect beach; yes, you can have only french fries for
dinner; yes, you can swim in the pool until the chlorine
turns your hair green; yes, you can build a sand castle
that will last forever -- in the mind's eye, at least.
It takes us a while before we prod ourselves into
exploring. The pristine beach at Buena Vista has no
shells. We use that as an excuse. We drive north, along
the water; at Los Barriles, the road becomes a washboard
dirt track for eight miles. It's bumpy at best, at times
almost impassable because of fallen rock; twice the road
all but drops off the cliff. But then you reach Punta
There are four good hotels in this area, ranged out
along the pristine bay. Each is at the end of a cranky,
rutted and dusty dirt road. The road leading to the
Hotel Punta Pescadero is the longest and the worst. No
wonder there is satellite television at this hotel --
you'd hate to have to drive here at night, far better to
stay in and watch TV. But the place is spectacular,
small stucco buildings with red-tiled roofs perched on a
little point. We go down curling stairs to the beach,
then wade in the water, letting the warm surf suck at
the shells beneath our feet. Craggy little islands poke
up out of the surf -- coral. We find tide pools in the
coral, each pool as daintily appointed as a tiny
Japanese garden. We just sit, admiring electric-blue
minnows placidly trapped in this accidental aquarium.
Even for our child the feeling is meditative; we're so
quiet that dark-green crabs come clicking out from their
hiding places, look at us warily, then go on with their
Around the corner, we find an altar to the Blessed
Virgin chiseled into the cliffside. The Madonna too
regards us with a somewhat wary expression. Beneath her,
a candle stump is burning toward its end -- for this is,
after all, Mexico.
Or is it? at times, on the beach, we hear a noise
like approaching chainsaws. We look up: two ATV's
(all-terrain vehicles) are coming our way. Then they
start doing almost endless doughnuts in the sand. I
expect the drivers to be local teenagers, but when they
finally roar by I see a red-faced couple, middle-aged,
in straw hats and matching yellow T-shirts. Gringos,
Right now this bay feels like what the outer Hawaiian
Islands were some 20 years ago, before the condos hit. A
wave of development has already washed over Cabo San
Lucas; the rows of tall hotels there seem like rows of
teeth in a lurid smile, grinning out over the sea. In
another few years that wave will surely swamp this
place. At times, our resort already veers toward the
place where Mexico turns into an outpost of northern
Americanness. The guests are 95 percent North American,
and prices are in dollars. The swimming pool has a
swim-up bar, ringed by half-submerged stools; many
guests stay around the pool (preferring it to the
We didn't come here for the fishing; but we soon
discover that to people who are hooked on deep-sea
fishing, this place is an angler's mecca. The Bahia Las
Palmas holds storied quantities of dorado, yellowfin
tuna, wahoo, rooster fish and even the great fish
marlin. I don't fish, but I want to watch.
We go out early in the morning. The two fishermen are
Kerry, a cheery fellow who works at an RV dealership in
Sacramento, and Kent, a tall, calm one who works for a
software company in Driggs, Idaho. The boat is a
cruiser, big, with two fighting chairs. Poles and lines
sprout up from it like pineapple leaves. The cruiser
hammers out over the small waves, and all of a sudden
we're in a wide sea. The boat trails streamers to
attract the big predators -- by sound: the streamers
make a noise like a fish struggling. Sure enough, the
anglers start catching fish. Big fish, beautiful shining
yellow-green fish with blue spots: dorado. Together
Kerry and Kent catch three. "Grande," the young deckhand
comments, each time.
No one's caught a marlin yet this year at Buena
Vista. It's spring, the season hasn't begun. But Kent
sees something off the bow: a fin, splitting the
surface. Billfish. The deckhand pulls a big, bare hook
into a live mackerel. Kerry casts, as the deckhand
tosses handfuls of live sardines into the water.
Suddenly Kerry staggers, as if hit by a hammer. It's
all he can do to hang on to the pole. His reel starts
singing, Zzzzz-zzz, and the line shoots away. "Grande,"
the deckhand says. Then the fish breaks water: a marlin.
"Muy grande!" the deckhand shouts; this time, he means
it. The captain shuts the boat down, and the deckhand
tries to get the fighting belt on Kerry; Kerry is just
holding on, trying to get the butt of the rod stuck into
the belt. It takes a short version of eternity.
Kerry is an experienced fisherman; he's fished for
decades. He's even hooked marlin before, once in Fiji,
and once here in the Sea of Cortez. But Kerry has never
landed one (for one species of marlin, an average is 10
fish hooked for each one landed). He has a strangely
fierce look on his pleasant face -- as if everything is
suddenly on the line, and from now on his life will have
this moment as its pivot. "I'm gonna lose him," Kerry
says quietly. Just then the fish leaps again, and its
tail belts the air; the fish seems to be taunting Kerry
with its power, flaunting his freedom.
I've just dropped in on a Hemingway story, is what
I'm thinking. All that mano-a-mano stuff, man against
fish, seems real. Maybe it's true: every person is
connected to his fate, and sometimes you all but hold it
in your hands.
After a half-hour, Kerry begins to gain line. The
fish takes one more run, and then, in the clear water,
we can see it perfectly, close to the boat. The captain
comes down from the tower. "You want to catch and
release?" he asks. "Or give him to the village school?"
Kerry isn't sure. "We make machaca. Everybody in the
village eats," the captain says. Kerry's still not sure.
"Everybody eats," the captain says again.
"O.K.," Kerry says.
The deckhand quickly wraps the line around his gloved
hands, pierces the big fish with the gaffe, then leans
over and clubs him to death with a chopped-off baseball
bat. When I hear that sound, I think that it will be a
hard one to forget.
It's a striped marlin, about 150 pounds. That night
it hangs from a scaffolding on the beach. My wife and I
are eating dinner with a fly-fishing guide from Alaska
named Pudge; she's a dyed-in-the-wool catch-and-release
angler. She takes one look at the marlin hanging there.
"Shame," she says, shaking her head. I ask Kerry about
it. "Most fishermen I know," he says, "will tell you
there's an unwritten law: You only keep one marlin in
your life. But you can keep that one."
Every out-of-the- way town in the world seems to have
a Character in Residence. In Buena Vista, the Character
is an almost legendary American named Steve Chism. I
find him down at the beach, in a hut full of fishing
tackle, lying on a crate reading Jared Diamond's weighty
"Guns, Germs, and Steel"; books by Gnter Grass and
Philip Roth are beside him. Steve has a deeply creased
sun-darkened face and a long, ghostly beard. He looks
like John Muir; like Muir, he's a self-taught
naturalist. He knows everything; after all, he's been on
this beach for more than 20 years. "My main job is to
rent out fishing tackle," he says. "Myself, I don't fish
anymore at all, hardly." Why not? "Well, you stack up a
certain amount of fish, and in the end it gets kind of
pointless." He crushes a Marlboro on the concrete. "Most
people, they come here, they only get to the edge of
this place -- the beach. There's a lot more to see."
Steve runs tours: bird-watching, shell collecting,
archaeology, geology and four-wheeler tours. All right,
let's go. Next morning, I find myself driving one of
these horrible ATV's (something like a motorcycle on fat
balloon tires) behind Steve, on his. My natural aversion
to the vehicle disappears when we start zinging along,
going exhilaratingly fast, miles up the arroyos --
rivers of sand, the dry gulches that flash floods carve
into the hills. At the top of one arroyo, there's a
narrow opening, almost a slot canyon, that winds into
the sparkling granite rocks. Above another, there's a
surprise: water. Natural fountains gush with flowing
water, native palm trees tower overhead and wild fig
trees grip the rock walls with their roots; we clamber
from boulder to boulder, while warblers sing from the
bushes. It's a place of impossible beauty.
It's also so hot that I feel like I'm being fried,
and perhaps refried. But Steve is at home. "You go up
into these mountains, you find the weirdest things," he
says. "Indian artifacts. Cave paintings, way inland. It
makes you wonder. The coast is full of kitchen middens
-- piles of clamshells -- so you know there was always
plenty of food on the coast. Then you see those
paintings, inland, and you think, why would a man go way
up there in the first place? The trouble they went to.
Who knows, maybe they just wanted to be by themselves."
A smile creases his leathery face. "Some people are like
"You?" I suggest.
"Hell, yes," Steve says, and his smile widens.
It's our last day here. We've come rattling way down
another washboard road, several miles of serious dirt,
to Cabo Pulmo. Pulmo Reef is an underwater ecological
reserve, one of only four sizable coral reefs on the
Pacific coast of North America. The beach is the finest
sand, the water a luminous emerald color and the reef an
astonishing place to scuba dive, we're told. But even if
you just snorkel, Pulmo Reef is a stunning universe of
life. Ella builds a sand castle decorated with white
shells; Tine and I take turns snorkeling.
The closest heads of coral are right off the beach,
in only a few feet of bright water. I've been swimming
for about a minute when I look down, and ey come bumping
up against my nose, spinning around me -- so many that
it seems that I'm not actually swimming in water, but
floating in the element of silvery fish. I get the
sudden feeling that evolution has reversed -- I too am a
fish, a fish among smaller fish. I've come to Mexico to
When I come out, the sand castle is done, and it's
perfect. We're all hungry now. There's a nameless little
grill right on the beach, a restaurant miles from
electricity. We have tons of fish tacos and bottles of
Pacifico, which are, of course, the best we have ever
tasted. We eat sitting out under a straw awning, and
watch the water go from emerald to turquoise, like a
mood ring. There are no waves. If there's a cloud in the
Baja sky, I for one can't see it. Not today.
There are four good hotels in the Buena Vista area.
All of them have a game-fishing fleet, a swimming pool
and potable tap water. Prices quoted do not include
service charges and taxes, where applicable.
The Hotel Buena Vista Beach Resort, where we
stayed, is, with 60 bungalows, the biggest, as well as
the most accessible, choice. Double rooms, with three
meals a day, are $135 or $165. The grounds are
beautifully landscaped, and there are hot springs just
off their beach. Reservations: telephone: 800-752-3555
or 619-429-8079; fax: 619-429-7924.
My favorite restaurant was Loncheria Tia Licha,
a great breakfast-and-lunch hole in the wall on the
same dirt road as the Hotel Buena Vista Beach Resort.
The orange juice is freshly squeezed, the tortilla chips
and hash browns are homemade, and you can sit outside
and catch a good breeze. We also liked Tio Pablo's
Grill, in Los Barriles, where you can get modestly
priced fresh fish or chimichangas, or talk to the parrot
You can get in touch with Steve Chism through
the Hotel Buena Vista Beach Resort or by going to find
him, as I did, down at the beach there. Half-day tours,
including bird-watching and excursions to the mountain
springs, are $50, for up to five people; full-day tours
are $90. ATV rentals add $60 a person to the half-day
tours and $120 a person for the full day.
The best time to go to Baja California depends on
what you like. The weather is more temperate, and in
fact ideal, in February and March, but the game fishing
only gets going in earnest in April. Autumn is
oppressively hot (temperatures can reach 110 degrees)
and there have been hurricanes, but some say the marlin
fishing reaches its peak in September.