Paradise Found: Tales from Baja's East Cape
Updated: May 12, 2021
Day 1: Leaving the snow behind : We knew getting on a plane during the pandemic would be a calculated risk. After a 24 hr Seattle layover (no surprise it rained the whole time), and a fun evening with Val’s mom and brother, we boarded our nonstop to Cabo. I’d arranged an Uber ride from SJD to Los Barriles, an expat enclave and our destination on the East Cape of Baja, using Whatsapp. All in Spanish I might add. Once we discovered Uber is not allowed into the main taxi area and call to Isabel (our contact) we found Manuel waiting for us. Manuel is friends with Isabel’s husband. Like many enterprising Mexican families Isabel wears many hats; she also rents cars and I’m certain someone in her orbit will take us fishing eventually. After a quick stop at an OXXO for a cold Pacifico 6 pack, we were off.
Our hosts provided excellent written directions, however in English which was a stretch for Manuel. Luckily my cell phone roaming works in Mexico, and google maps brought us in. Manuel spied a friend on the main street, together we wound our way up the dirt roads to Kim’s Cottages. We dumped our stuff, gave Manuel $55 and a couple beers, met our neighbor tenant, and walked to La Casita restaurant. Two margaritas later, we devoured coconut prawns and fresh fish. Stumbling home in the pitch black we nearly took a wrong turn into the cemetery, but eventually found our way.
Day 2: Our digs Los Barriles is a fishing village / windsurfing mecca halfway between Cabo and La Paz. To say the least, LB is eclectic. Dwellings range from funky to fancy. We see both Canadian and Idaho license plates. There are several large campgrounds for the RV contingency. Our property is beautifully landscaped with a view of the town and Sea of Cortez, our cottage nestled beneath a longer term rental. Quiet and peaceful, the daily high is 75 degrees. Coffee on the terrace every morning.
There are two decent grocery stores, Chapitos, and Chapitos Express. Eventually we’ll rent a car and hit San Jose del Cabo for a big shop at La Comer. Maybe. Also, LB has a couple banks. My debit card didn’t work at the ATM, then I remembered I’d recently received a new chip card. After two fraud messages and a call to my credit union I was good to go. Upon exiting the bank I realized I was missing the quad keys. I had dropped them on the floor at the bank. Doh!
We are learning the secret to a good margarita is to keep it basic. Tequila, Controy, lime juice, and simple sugar. Limes are cheap and plentiful. They say the tap water comes from the nearby mountains and is safe to drink. So far so good.
Day 3: Our wheels Everyone in town drives a side by side rig. All shapes and sizes. Mad Max meets the beach. Ours is vintage, but a bargain. The transmission clunks into reverse and the turning radius is wide. The front left tire had a slow leak. This morning it was completely flat, but our kind host John fixed it immediately. Welcome to Baja he says.
After lunch at El Viejo we headed north. Many new homes going up on the water, beyond towards Punta Pescaderos it looks like the road goes on forever. We chickened out for now, but we’ll be back. Ran into John at Tres Palapas. From our vantage point the pickle ball resort serves (no pun intended) as a LB social hub. Kim left us a couple passes; might be fun. We found our upstairs neighbor at Hotel Las Palmas bar. Gathered local knowledge about snorkeling, weather, and more. Strong margaritas. Wind died down. Everyone thinks it’s cold. For us 75 degrees is heaven.
For dinner we grilled fish. I think it was snapper. Incredible flavor. Val figured out Amazon Prime and we watched Long Strange Trip. Unseen footage of Grateful Dead beginnings, including acid test days with Ken Kesey. The Dead were primarily a blues jam band living together in the Haight. Jerry, Bobby, Phil, Bill, and Pig Pen. Mickey Hart’s recruitment added new dimensions of world beat rhythm. Jerry drilled down on vocals for American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead. I especially enjoyed the Candyman clip. Jerry was a true visionary.
Days 4-7: Settling in
Our host left to visit her mom in San Diego, we have the place to ourselves. She dropped off wine and groceries, so nice. We finally gave up on the side by side. I cannot get that dang quad started. Must not have the magic touch. We pick up a jeep at the airport tomorrow. A detour but will work in our favor for our return flight. Soon we’ll be mobile and able to explore. We hear there are hot springs, waterfalls, and hikes in the nearby mountains. We want to take the dirt road that skirts the East Cape all the way to San Jose Del Cabo. Check out La Paz and Playa Balandra. Snorkel at Cabo Pulmo. Even go fishing.
Hotter today with just a lick of wind. Walks in the neighborhood. Lounging by the pool and playing gin rummy. Daily grocery shops. Food is inexpensive. Half kilo of coffee for $2.50, it doesn’t keep me awake at night. Eggs sold by weight with dark yolks. We splurged and bought a kilo of prawns from a street vendor. Maybe we’ll cook them tonight with pasta. Our unit has a gas grill, and we take advantage of it almost every evening. Last night I roasted a whole chicken with lime salt, pepper, and olive oil coating. Birds are smaller here but full of flavor. For all I know ours may have been walking a few days ago. Cooked up a big pot of black beans. Val found watercolors and paper at Chapitos, she’s painting today. She’s also in charge of telling Alexa what music to play, and doing a fine job I might add. My favorite beer has become Indio, a nice amber without too much hop.
Home security Baja style. Trust in Allah but tie your camel. Not sure how to translate that one into Spanish. More Dead episodes on Amazon. Keith and Donna join the band. Europe ’72 tour and double album. Pig Pen drinks himself to death at age 27. The song “He’s Gone” foreshadows his early passing. The wall of sound; speakers and scaffolding piled high and dismantled nightly by hand. I remember that sound stage. Eighty gigs a year beginning to take its toll. Jerry responsible for 50 people’s mortgages (his words). Decisions made by consensus; everyone has a say. No bosses here. Reminds me of my Community Foods days in Santa Cruz.
I once led a team build to the Springfield Creamery in Eugene, Or. Sue Kesey (Ken’s sister-in-law) told us the business was strapped for cash in the early 70’s. The Dead held a benefit show for the Creamery at the Oregon Country Fair grounds near Veneta. Had it not been for the Dead, the Creamery would have gone under. Sixty years later they are still thriving and, among other things, co-pack yogurt for Trader Joes. Nancy, by the way, was the gal that introduced acidophilus to yogurt culture (pun intended). I never knew that.
San Jose del Cabo
We backtracked to the airport to pick up our rental Jeep Renegade. I reserved it online at one of those sites like carrentals.com I paid $250 up front and the balance was supposed to be $305 at the agency. With full insurance coverage. The company was America, and it's not on the airport access road, but just before along the highway. I caught it out of the corner of my eye...good thing.
I bet you already know where this story is leading. We entered and the agent says “Oh no, the coverage you signed up for is only for reimbursement in case of an accident…much like you have with your credit card”. Long story short and $1100 later we got our jeep, only it’s 2wd. The had us over a barrile (Spanish for barrel and our town’s namesake). We’d already spent money for the nonrefundable rental. The agent said “Third party coverage is mandatory in Mexico.” I may dispute with B of A after I return to the US, but for now not gonna worry about it.
We decided to make a day of it and head to San Jose del Cabo. We hit Baja Brewery and I must say the beer is excelente. After a bit of shopping (I bought three cigars, Val a baby gift), we lingered for another refresco. The main square and surroundings have been rebuilt with cool shops, cafés, and galleries. On our way out we shopped at La Comer, the monster upscale grocery store near the main traffic circle. They carry everything. And then some.
I had a spur of the moment idea: “Let’s take the toll road out of town.” Finding the traffic circle exit at the last second we followed the sign that said “airport”, which was correct. We pulled into an empty toll kiosk and I looked for somewhere to insert money. No go. Good thing no one was behind us. We backed up and I pushed the button for “ticket”. Off we went. I then dropped my credit card into the black hole between Val’s seat and the center console. “Shit!” For those who don’t know me I can get amped pretty quickly. I pulled over and we exited the car to try and fish it out. Val prevailed. Meanwhile a car pulled up behind us. “You forgot your ticket, here it is, they charge you double if you don’t have it”. What nice folks. Derp!
Punta Pescaderos We opted for the paved road to PP instead of the dirt coastal alternative. At least that’s what we thought. North of Los Barriles the road veers left and up a steep grade. Up we went, must have been over 1000’, winding through valleys and sandy washes. The Sea of Cortez a deep blue in contrast with the stark Baja landscape. We turned right onto a dirt road at a blue sign that read Hotel Punta Pescaderos Paradise Shortly we arrived at the sea, only to see another sign: Hotel PPP 5 km. From there on it was rough. Our jeep (if you can call it that) bounced and lumbered along at 10-15mph. Up steep grades, over rock and washboard, around blind corners and drop offs. We were definitely out of our comfort zone.
We finally made it to the hotel, perched on a rocky outcropping flanked by beach. Located nearby is an airstrip with a few private prop planes and surrounded by a dozen or so (beautiful) homes. It’s an absolutely gorgeous, but very remote area. Val aptly described the hotel and grounds as an ageing beauty; we were just happy to be there. We lunched and inquired about our return options. Satisfied, we headed north along the sea, the road smoother than before. After a few km’s we passed a smattering of modest homes and a small store. Wonder where the access road to pavement is? I hailed a friendly local, she said it’s about 5 km further. I think 5 km must be a standard unit of measurement in Baja. Soon El Cardenol appeared along with pavement, and our way home.
The Flying Dead I finished the Grateful Dead series on Amazon. A few words about Jerry Garcia. OK, maybe more than a few.
There is no other sound that is unmistakably Jerry. The tone he got out of his guitars and equipment, his ability to compose a solo using a song’s melody, pentatonic, mixolidian, fridgian, and dorian scales, accent notes, timing, phrasing, bends, slides, sustains, pull off’s, hammer on’s, and overall knowledge and dexterity of the fretboard is unlike anyone else. Every time you thought you knew where he was going he’d surprise you. He made it look easy, it’s actually quite technical. Relying on the pentatonic rock scale is what most guitar players do. Jerry was no exception in the beginning. By Europe ‘72 he was progressing. He just kept expanding. Terrapin and Slipknot come to mind. The guy was a frickin’ genius.
Do I consider myself a Dead Head? Did I exchange bootleg tapes or follow the band in a van? Hell no. Growing up my two brothers were also into the Dead. I remember Dad teasing us by calling them The Flying Dead. I wandered many a show experiencing the full spectrum of utter loneliness to ecstatic belonging. I felt a personal connection to Jerry and his sound. Multiply that by a million fans clamoring for his attention and you can see why he ultimately faded. The Dead’s goal was always no separation between musician and audience. Jerry never wanted to disappoint, he couldn’t say no. When ticketless fans outside shows became unruly it was Phil who finally spoke up begging them to behave. Lot of good that did.
I was lucky enough to see the Dead play large and small venues. Eugene County Fairgrounds. New Year’s shows. Jerry and Merle Sanders at the Catalyst. Jerry on banjo with his Old And In The Way mates. And yes, I witnessed his eventual decline and need for teleprompter. But let’s face it, Bobby and Jerry really were yin and yang on stage. Bobby fit and clean shaven, sporting his too short shorts and polo shirt, Jerry with his beard and oversized black T. We all knew Jerry wasn’t a picture of health. That was the deal.
After Jerry emerged from a three day coma in 1993 due to exhaustion, he reached out to former girlfriend Barbara Meier. Calling her the love of his life, he proposed on a Hawaiian scuba diving vacation. Although they never married, Jerry became re-inspired, writing six new songs. Eventually he began using again, and when confronted by Barbara, told her it was time to go. He passed away at age 53.
As a guitar player I occasionally experience a glimpse of creativity when playing a solo. I suppose it’s like any art form or sport. You hit a good golf shot. You execute a ski turn perfectly. You commit. It just clicks. And it hooks you enough to keep coming back for more. You wade through the rote and mundane because you know the possibilities.
The series resonated with me.
Days 13-20: Further adventuring Resort Rancho Leonero
We headed to Rancho Leonero on a rare cloudy day. Seven km south of town we turned onto a dirt road towards the sea. The route was straightforward, but it was reassuring to have google maps monitoring our progress. RL is a gated fishing resort with probably a dozen stone casitas and a grassy courtyard. The resort was officially closed, but the bar and restaurant were open. The view south is towards Punta Arena and a few homes dotting the landscape, to the north Bahia Las Palmas. On the way home we stopped at a roadside seafood stand and bought a kilo of fresh fish for $6.
Los Barriles is beginning to grow on us, enough to consider a return trip with family / friends. Maybe even drive our own vehicle. Explore the wine country near Ensenada. Take the ferry from La Paz over to the mainland. Cut off hours of driving time.
At first glance our town appears as a decent place, not a touristy or souvenir hamlet. Upon settling in, more amenities and creature comforts are revealed. We recently discovered Sweet Gula, a petite (yet another pun) pastry shop / coffee house on the main street 20th de Noviembre. Along the paved backroad leading to the main highway is a produce market. Everyone shops there because the quality and selection are better than Chapitos. I’ve seen two nurseries. LB also has a health clinic (East Cape Health Center) and a veterinary office.
Culturally, it appears everyone co-exists harmoniously. People generally wave to one another when ceding way on the narrow dirt streets. Like any destination resort area, a dance between locals and non-residents likely occurs. This is windy season, kite surfers traveling the Hood River Oregon / Hookipa Maui circuit are here, camping and otherwise. The expat community in and around East Cape have their own newspaper, the Gringo Gazette. As mentioned before, new home construction is on the rise. American dollars put gas in the local economy’s tank. Those of us from El Norte are mindful and courteous. Mexico, after all, is not our country.
Cascada Sol de Mayo Our best day trip yet. Driving south on Highway 1 we turned towards the sierra, passing though the picturesque village of Santiago. It was refreshing to experience an actual Mexican town, lush with fruit trees and a square. On we went, past an elementary school, turning off the pavement. Once again, google maps had our back. Up a sandy but doable road, after ten minutes the road ascended abruptly. “Not sure about this”, I said to Val nervously. We soon crested and after a few more turns, arrived.
Wow! Sol de Mayo is an ecological oasis / retreat center nestled in the foothills of the southern Baja spine. Greeted by farm animals and colorful birds, it reminded me something you might discover in the Big Sur mountains; arid, rugged, but with cacti. We paid our entrance fee of 150 pesos apiece, said hello to the turtles, grabbed water and a snack, and headed down the trail. Soon rewarded with a view of the falls and pools, we descended stone steps and rope handrails to the water below.
There were a few families installed at the main lagoon, so we scurried up and over the rock, claiming a lower pool all to ourselves. We had swim gear, and in I went. Cool and invigorating, I paddled across clear green water. I could have stayed for hours. Soon a group of six twenty-something millennials appeared. We eventually waded across and scrambled out, wishing them well. Back at the entrance we drank cold beer and ate our lunch. Normally the restaurant is open serving organic food, but given current circumstances, is closed.
Playa Balandra Balandra scores in the top ten most beautiful places on the planet we’ve ever visited, and a must see if you make it to lower Baja.
After a relatively early start, we steered onto the trans peninsular highway for our 137 km drive towards La Paz. Hilly and curvy, the road eventually drops into the plain and outskirts of BC Sur’s capital. Turning towards Pichelingue and the ferry terminal, we skirted a hill that soon revealed white sand and aqua sea. The Balandra parking lot, however, was closed due to covid limitations. Our hopes dashed, we felt like the Griswolds at Wally World. Apparently people begin arriving at 5 am to secure a coveted spot. Undeterred, we continued to the next beach and promptly guzzled a Tecate to regain our bearings and composure.
Val, ever resourceful, discovered online we could take a boat into Balandra. We retraced our steps to Pichelingue beach, met Antonio from Azul Baja, and paid our $70 round trip fee. Twenty minutes later and after a photo op at mushroom rock, Antonio dropped us off at the last beach (there are seven in Playa Balandra). The playa and surroundings are designated as a preserved area, you are asked to remain near the shore. We had the place to ourselves except for a handful of other castaways. Sun screened and Aussie hat protected, I headed down the sand towards a rocky point. Just me and the pelicans dive bombing for fish. Heaven.
Bohemia. La cerveza mas fina.
Cortez arrived in the bay by La Paz in 1535. Surely he was as enthralled as we. Flanked by Isla Espirito Santo and sheltered by a spit of land to the north, the waters in and around the city are warm, calm, and shallow. Two catamarans entered our cove during the afternoon, presumably anchoring for the night. Antonio picked us up around 3:30, and after a stop to gaze at the sea lions, we began our trek home.
"Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, then to speak and remove all doubt.” -Abraham Lincoln. On that note, let us continue our story. Cabo Pulmo We heard the snorkeling was superb, but alas the sea was rough the day we drove to Cabo Pulmo. A diver’s paradise and UNESCO World Heritage site, Pulmo lies at the end of a long and bumpy dirt road. It took us a good half hour from where the pavement ended to reach the village. The landscape was textbook Baja, remote and rugged. We noticed a few RV’s camped near the beach along the way.
Taking in the scenery I counted a dozen dive shops and two bungalow style lodges. After a walk on the beach we were about to call it a day when good fortune struck...a restaurant! Pleased, we chatted with a fellow at the next table. Sixty-something, clad in shorts, hiking boots, and wool socks, Tom turned out to be a kindred spirit. Years of Baja travel experience under his belt, Tom is a repeat visitor to Cabo Pulmo. The town hosts around two hundred residents, more than I would have guessed. We swapped stories about Los Barriles; “They close the gate at El Viego at 3PM sharp, if you’re late you’re SOL” and “Don’t ask the chef at La Pirata questions, he’s temperamental and will ignore you.” Tom’s passion is kayaking. On calm days he paddles out to sea, traveling five miles or more to a nearby island. He was an interesting guy and I hope we run into him again.
Cabo San Lucas Nine golf buddies of mine would soon be arriving in Cabo for their annual junket, so Val and I booked a couple nights in hopes of a reunion. Calling upon my reservoir of experience I knew one evening of merriment would be plenty. Have you seen “The Hangover”? More on that later.
We roomed at The Bungalows, a reasonably priced Cabo boutique hotel. Walking distance from town, proprietor Eric serves up amazing breakfasts, each one surpassing the day before. Covid has severely impacted Cabo’s tourism and it felt good to support Eric and his family business. After checking in we headed down the hill past the square in search of lunch. One thing about Cabo: no shortage of good places to eat and drink. We chose a restaurant coincidentally named Los Barriles. I’m a big fan of chile relleno, and they did not disappoint.
Chileno Beach Eager to snorkel, we rented gear and aimed the jeep due east. exiting at the 15 km mark. It's amazing how quickly things change around Cabo; the upscale condo and resort complex at Chileno is now complete. I even saw their blurb on the Travel Channel recently. Fortunately public beach access was preserved, along with rest rooms and a wooden walkway. Gone are the days of snorkel cruises anchoring offshore this pristine and unspoiled locale. But the sand and sea are gorgeous as ever, and it was a hot day. I was reminded of our buddy Tom describing the near perfect weather along the Los Cabos corridor, less windy and warmer than the East Cape. I swam around a rocky point keeping pace with a school of fish with bright yellow tails.
At my brother’s suggestion we dined at Misiones de Kino. Tucked near the rear and adjacent to the Mar de Cortez hotel, the restaurant is dedicated in honor of Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino. Padre Kino established twenty-four missions and chapels throughout Baja. With an authentic atmosphere and a cool bar, Kino is a great find.
Hotel Mar de Cortez circa 1984
My first trip to Cabo was over thirty-five years ago. I flew to La Paz from Tijuana and took a bus to Cabo. This was before the Los Cabos airport was built There were only a few hotels and I stayed at the Mar de Cortez. Most streets in Cabo were dirt. My return to La Paz was via a vintage DC-3 twin engine prop plane, a tail dragger. You entered the rear of the plane and hiked up an incline to your seat. As the plane lumbered down the runway the tail lifted to it's horizontal pitch.
Todos Santos After a breakfast of banana pancakes we headed towards Todos Santos. The modern double laned highway beckoned as we sped north. To our left we could see whales spouting just off shore. Except for a few small fincas (growing strawberries I think) and a handful of roadside eateries, the landscape was wide open. Directly east we saw the other side of the mountains visible from the East Cape. I’m told there’s a hiking trail that traverses the peaks and valleys. Someday.
Todos Santos is experiencing rapid growth and ground zero is the Hotel California. It took us a while to locate a parking spot so I said to Val in a snarky voice, “We might as well be in California.” An art lover’s dream, TS is a haven for hand crafted jewelry, paintings, sculptures, and ceramics. We only had a few hours till the golf boys arrived in Cabo so we limited our exploration to nearby blocks and shops. Val found a pearl pendant and I a tile napkin holder plus two cigars. Chocked full of artsy nooks and crannies, our next sojourn to Todos Santos must include an overnight stay and further immersion. We stopped at La Palapa de Sabor for a cerveza and chatted with the friendly owner, a former Mexico City corporate refugee looking for a quality of life reset. I think she found it in Todos Santos.
Back in Cabo we met up with the gang for many tequila infused drinks and dinner. No golf for me this trip, but a pleasure to socialize (distanced and outdoors) Words cannot describe how I felt the next morning. Hopefully we’ll rendezvous Monday at the airport for one final toast.