Finding Solitude and Big Fish in Baja California

by Ken Cowder

The Sophisticated Traveler a New York Times Magazine

 
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 believed it.

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 Destination Lottery.

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 moment."

 

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 Pescadero.

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 sideways business.

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, like us.

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 immaculate beach).

 

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. Appetizers.

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 that."

"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 devolve.

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 out front.

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.

 

 

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