Cabo Pulmo in Mexico’s southern Baja California draws the adventurous.
What a difference a dirt road can make.
I had just come from the busy Mexico resort town of Cabo San Lucas, at Baja’s tip, no longer the dusty burg I remember from a voyage there aboard my sailboat 20 years ago. Cabo is in the state of Baja California Sur — “sur” meaning south. With freeways, Costco and Holiday Inns, Cabo these days might just as well be called plain old “California South.”
But now, an hour northeast from Los Cabos International Airport, my rental Nissan is slaloming the final six miles along a winding dirt road to a whole other Baja.
Freshly graded, the road’s not too bad. The main hazard: speeding ATVs that keep popping around bends.
Most Read Life Stories
- 5 stops to make to connect with nature in the Columbia River Gorge
- From tapas to smoked prime rib, Woodinville's new schoolhouse district gets a taste of Walla Walla
- This fruit cobbler topped with cream biscuits shows off your favorite summer fruits
- Rant and Rave: Reader annoyed by Department of Licensing worker
- 4 new playgrounds to explore in the Seattle area
This East Cape coast looks familiar. I recognize landmarks from when I sailed into the Sea of Cortez in spring 1995. My family oohed and aahed at breaching whales, at giant schools of dolphins, at manta rays with 12-foot wingspans.
My destination this trip: a diving resort at Cabo Pulmo. What’s drawn me is what’s said to be the last surviving shallow-water coral reef on North America’s west coast. It’s part of a national marine park established shortly after my last visit.
It was then, in the face of dwindling marine life, an interpretive sign explains, that “this community decided to trade its fishing nets for tourism.”
Visitors come to Cabo Pulmo, but that road discourages throngs. Around a final bend I’m in a sleepy village with a school-crossing sign, four little cafes, a hole-in-the-wall art gallery, a few dive shops and a couple of one-room tiendas where you can buy a bag of chips – they might have four in stock – or some local eggs.
There’s no gas station. No ATM. Bring pesos, and stock up on groceries around Los Cabos.
Historically, this place now known as Cabo Pulmo was called Puurum, meaning “mountain” or “ranch” in the language of the Pericúes, known as the best divers and fishermen in ancient Baja. Pearl diving was their specialty.
Not long ago village children had to go away to boarding school, recalls Maribel Barrymore, the dive-resort manager, who grew up here. “My dad was a fisherman and there were only three houses then.”
That was before Dick Barrymore, an Idahoan who made films on the international ski circuit, bought land here in the 1970s and subdivided it for vacation and retirement homes. Maribel married his son.
The good news, if you dislike hustle and bustle: The project never built out. The scattering of homes on upland lots don’t intrude on the village’s calm. And charming, off-the-grid casitas in the village center, part of Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort, rent to visitors at bargain rates ($69 and up; cabopulmo.com). The sea is just steps away.
Electricity is from solar panels. Propane powers fridges and stoves. The few U.S. license plates on dusty Land Cruisers and pickups here are from Alaska, Colorado, Idaho — places known for adventure.
I chat briefly with a neighbor in the next casita — a fellow Seattleite — who has been here with a friend for days waiting to go scuba diving. A northerly blow has made reef waters too rough.
But she says great snorkeling, my objective, can be had a couple miles south in the lee of Cabo Los Frailes, “Cape of the Friars,” so called because its rocky silhouette resembles a couple of hooded brethren.
“It was awesome, we saw a leaping humpback and manta rays there yesterday,” she says.
So I’m ready when the young dive-shop attendant, Rodrigo Marroquin Ruiz, sets me up with a $15 wet suit and snorkel gear, plus a $5 park-fee wristband, and marks a map to help me find Frailes.
Camps on the beach
“Turn off where you see the fishing shacks,” Ruiz says. This is the edge of the national park and fishing is allowed beyond its boundary.
“Shacks” is a generous label. They’re pieced together from corrugated metal, palm thatch, driftwood, plastic tarps. But it’s not all primitive: Two have TV-satellite dishes.
Also here are gringo campers by the dozen, in everything from backpacker tents to massive RVs. In the bay bob eight anchored, oceangoing sailboats.
On the beach I chat with a retired couple from Kamloops, B.C., as they bring ashore their dinghy laden with fishing rods. He’s like a Hemingway character, in a sun hat with lots of flaps. They’ve been wintering here 13 years in their travel trailer.
“It’s free, but it’s all private land and it’s just a matter of time till someone buys it and puts up a big hotel,” he says.
His wife tells me campers can buy food staples and water from trucks that supply the fishermen.
At Frailes, eyes dazzle with the sea’s color, aqua bordering on jade. “Smack, smack” goes the sound of pelicans divebombing for fish. Only half a dozen people dot the beach this sunny morning, including a few local fishermen mending gear. I walk five minutes to the cove inside the park boundary.
No coral here, but among sea-washed boulders at the base of the cape I snorkel through clouds of fish in a rainbow of colors. Rumored 500-pound groupers inhabit the reef a bay away. Many fish have made a healthy comeback since the park’s creation.
Back at Cabo Pulmo, I find dinner at La Palapa, a little open-air cafe on the beach. I watch the sea for whales while I dig into a platter of tacos filled with scallops, shrimp, fish and cheese, served with house-made roasted pepper sauce (about $7.50 U.S.). A blond Chihuahua trots from table to table like a congenial host.
Hike with a view
Next morning I’m up with the sun for a hike above the village.
“If you can still see the ocean, you’re fine,” Ruiz advises. “If not, you’ve gone too far.”
If you go
Driving back roads
If you plan to drive a rental car on back roads in Mexico, it’s wise to purchase full collision-damage waiver insurance, which can cost $30-$40 a day. It can double your rental bill but may save you much grief and red tape in the event of an accident or other damage. TripAdvisor has helpful advice on the topic: bit.ly/1PvcJBF.
Beyond lanes marked by homemade street signs (“Via Mariposa,” with a hand-painted butterfly), a rocky path lined with cardon cactus and mesquite heads up across a wide bowl surrounded by green hills. Shark-tooth peaks of the Sierra Santa Clara slash the horizon.
The morning is alive with butterflies, buzzing bees and hummingbirds. Somewhere a woodpecker thumps. A jack rabbit with donkey-like ears scurries into the brush.
The dive shop rents mountain bikes to ride here, but I’m alone, on foot. It would be hard work on a bike. After an hour of uphilling, a sighing breeze, miles of sapphire ocean far below and layered hills in every direction are a fitting reward as I finish the well-signed Coyote Loop.
Just as I’m wondering who built this excellent trail, I meet up with rake-toting Brian and Chrissy McGinnis, U.S. retirees who spend winters here and summers in Sun Valley.
The trail was a project of locals and newcomers alike. “The whole town would get together, and those were fun days,” Brian says.
There are 15 miles of trails, built over 15 years. Look for bobcats, coyotes, foxes and rattlesnakes, Barrymore tells me. Besides the rabbit, I see some regal-looking raptors called caracaras, and — darting pell-mell just as if in a Warner Bros. cartoon — a long-tailed roadrunner. “Meep, meep,” I say quietly to myself.
I’ll have to return another time to snorkel the reef. If anybody tries to pave the Cabo Pulmo road in the meantime? Get Wile E. Coyote to drop an anvil on it.