“Make sure your rental car has an inflated spare tire and a working jack,” said the email from the owner of our rented casa, “and be sure you get to Cabo Pulmo before dark.” I was thinking about these words as we raced the sunset, the little Nissan’s air conditioning struggling to keep up in the 90-degree heat. Mexico’s Transpeninsular Highway slices north from Cabo San Lucas to La Paz and beyond, much of it through a desert landscape that is both beautiful and ominous. About an hour outside of San Jose, a road sign caught my eye — Tropico de Cancer. Even though my Spanish is limited to Mexican restaurant menus, I immediately knew we were crossing the northernmost latitude where the sun travels directly overhead on the summer solstice. June 21 was still a month away but it was still damn hot. I swerved to avoid a roadrunner and mashed the gas pedal.
The Sea of Cortez was formed five million years ago when tectonic plates tore apart, allowing the Pacific Ocean to flood in some 700 miles. The resulting Baja Peninsula is a land of contrasts. Rugged mountains and cactus-studded desert sands drop right into the ocean. Hermit crabs skitter along fossilized coral below towering sand dunes that hide scorpions, and huge turkey vultures compete for air space with pelicans and frigates. Just offshore, humpback whales and manta rays cruise by on annual migration routes and sea lions hunt the shoals of jacks and mackerel. An hour and a half north of the tourist mecca of Cabo San Lucas, at the end of a 10-mile washboard dirt road on a quiet bay ringed by rocky peaks, lies Cabo Pulmo.
The two Cabos couldn’t be more different. Cabo Pulmo is a tiny town with a population of 250, give or take a gringo expat, and there isn’t a condo to be found there. Or air conditioning. That’s not to say you couldn’t have air conditioning, but since all electricity comes from solar panels, most residents there choose to use it for more important things, like lights. At night, the sand streets of town are inky dark and we used headlamps to navigate, watching out for scorpions and tarantulas. Despite the heat of midday, at night, the dry desert air cools quickly, aided by a sea breeze, and made for comfortable sleeping. But during the day, the best way to stay cool was to go underwater, which was perfect since we were there to scuba dive.
IF YOU GO
Fly into San Jose del Cabo (SJD) and rent a car for the one-and-a-half-hour drive to Cabo Pulmo. There’s no need for a 4×4 but make sure your car is in good condition and has an inflated spare and working jack. North on Transpeninsular Highway 1 gets you to the turn off to La Ribera and Cabo Pulmo and from there on, expect potholes, washouts and washboard dirt roads for the last 15 miles or so.
Get groceries before you head out of town, because there are no stores within 15 miles of Cabo Pulmo. The huge Soriana market is near the airport and will have everything you need, including plenty of beer. Though the well water in Cabo Pulmo is safe to drink, it doesn’t taste great, so grab a couple jugs of agua as well.
There are a handful of accommodations in Cabo Pulmo, all of them rental casas. We stayed in one from Cabo Pulmo Casas and got a large thatched-roof house with patio and outdoor shower and full kitchen for less than $100 per night. Don’t expect air conditioning. Everything in town is walkable, but bring a headlamp or flashlight to scope out scorpions after the sun sets.
A few small cafes in town serve excellent local fare. We sampled Palapas, which is right on the beach and has excellent fajitas, but El Caballero is the local favorite and is open seven days a week and makes killer margaritas.
Diving is the main draw in Cabo Pulmo, and though all the operators running charters are reputable, we chose Mar y Sierra, run by French expat Thierry Lannoy. Thierry takes a maximum of four divers per day so you won’t be stuck with a big group of tourist day trippers up from Cabo San Lucas. Diving here is easy and shallow though can be cold if you’re used to the Caribbean. Thierry also offers trips to the mountain hot springs near town and can point you to the well-maintained hiking and mountain biking trails, which are worth trying at least once.
“Cabo Pulmo” means roughly “Cape of the Lungs” in Spanish, and it comes from the town’s history of breath-holding pearl divers; this is the region that inspired John Steinbeck to write his famous novel, The Pearl. The Sea of Cortez was once rich in marine life until overfishing severely depleted fish stocks and it became a case study for ecological destruction. But in the 1990s, the Mexican government declared the waters off of Cabo Pulmo a marine reserve and outlawed fishing. By the mid-2000s, marine life began to flourish again and UNESCO added the region to its World Heritage Marine Program site list. Recent studies have determined that marine life has grown by over 400 percent since the mid-’90s, proving that if you leave nature alone, it will rebound — and quickly. Fishermen became boat captains and dive guides and Cabo Pulmo transformed from a fishing village into a diving destination, albeit one off the beaten path.
Mornings on the beach followed a well-choreographed routine. A half dozen 1970s-era American pickup trucks hooked up to a small fleet of open-top panga boats and backed them on trailers into the surf, saltwater lapping over their rear wheels. We jumped on board with our dive gear and held on as the trucks pushed us into the sea as far as they dared, upon which the boat driver gunned the outboard to propel us out of the shallows. Dive sites were rarely more than a 10-minute ride away, so we shimmied into wetsuits (making certain no scorpions had taken up residence in a sleeve overnight) and assembled tanks and regulators. Then, two by two, we back-rolled into the cool Pacific.
Cabo Pulmo boasts the oldest of the only three coral reefs on the west coast of North America. This is not the Caribbean; the coral is hard and jagged, not flowing and colorful like its warmer-water counterparts. Still, it is the bedrock of an abundant ecosystem: tiny nudibranchs, parrotfish and moray eels hide among the crevices while out on the sandy bottom, stingrays bury themselves up to their eyes, in wait of prey. Cabo Pulmo is best known for its massive schools of fish and Thierry Lannoy, our French dive guide who has called Cabo Pulmo home for 15 years, told us to look up if we suddenly found ourselves in a dark shadow. Sure enough, on one dive a slowly rotating vortex of silver amber jacks, numbering in the thousands, blotted out the sun above us.
Days were primitively simple: dive, eat, sleep, go for a walk, sleep, repeat.
The beauty of a healthy ecosystem is watching the food chain at work from bottom to top, and one day we visited the resident sea lion colony, a smelly, loud crew that sunned itself on a rock at the south end of the marine reserve. We rolled into the water nearby, eyed by the curious creatures and soon enough, they couldn’t resist and slid in to investigate. The sea lions, clumsy topside, transform into graceful athletes underwater and they put on a show for us, darting among our small group, coming up to eyeball us before dashing off behind a rock, only to return again and again.
But the sea lions are not truly at the top of the food chain. With Cabo Pulmo’s return to marine health, the sharks have returned. On our first dive at a rock pinnacle called Islote, we hovered over the sand and soon a familiar shape materialized out of the gloom: a seven-foot bull shark. We waited there as it circled in and out of view and soon it was joined by a second one, and then a third, always wary, always watching us before vanishing again. Thierry told us that in addition to the numerous jacks and mackerel, the bull sharks also occasionally hunt sea lions. On another dive at Islote, we watched a solitary sea lion, somehow separated from the colony across the bay, warily scanning the distance as if looking for its mortal enemy.
Each day by noon, as we finished our dives, our lowered core temperatures would keep us cool for a couple of hours, but it was too hot to do much else after lunch besides take a siesta or read a book, and this became our schedule all week. When the sun started to dip around six o’clock, we would venture out again and walk the endless empty beaches before heading back to town by headlamp to seek out a margarita and bowl of guacamole at one of Cabo Pulmo’s four cafes. Days were primitively simple — dive, eat, sleep, go for a walk, sleep, repeat — and by the end of the week, I had finished two books, answered zero e-mails and changed t-shirts twice.
Thierry had told us about a series of hiking trails about a mile inland from town and on our last day, we drove up a rocky road to a dead end and parked. The sandy trail ascended through sagebrush, cactus and other forbidding thorny plants, then dropped into a valley with a dry river bed at the bottom and then up the other side. It looked like it went on forever, but we had to turn back as the sun dipped behind the mountains. We wished we had set out earlier, or had another week there. This is a bewitching place, one that could tempt a man to sell it all and move there to write a novel, or become a dive guide.
Returning from trips like the one to Cabo Pulmo, I always wonder why I surround myself with so much stuff and so many complications when my happiest moments are the exact opposite: living out of a backpack, following the rhythms of climate and culture, and turning off the phone. It turns out we never had to use the rental car’s jack, I never even saw a scorpion and I didn’t miss air conditioning. As the dirt road turned back into pavement, I switched off the Nissan’s A/C and lowered the windows to let the desert air in.
PHOTO GEAR FOR BAJA
Baja is a photographer’s dream. There is just something about the light in the desert that is different from anywhere else, especially when juxtaposed against the blue Sea of Cortez. We burned through memory cards and rolls of film trying to capture it, both hiking topside and underwater. Here’s how we carried our gear.
To schlep our gear through airports, onto dive boats and into the desert foothills, we took along F-Stop’s newly redesigned Tilopa pack ($259). F-Stop has made its name building packs for mountain sports photographers, with internal frames, mounting points for climbing tools and modular storage configurations. With the new Mountain Series packs like the Tilopa come a tougher, more water-resistant fabric, metal D-rings, additional outside pockets that add cubic inches of storage without bulk and better zippers. It easily swallowed up multiple SLR bodies and lenses, as well as an underwater housing and enough clothes for a minimalist week. We also liked the new Nasturtium colorway, which we prefer to call “coral”, especially in Baja.
Peak Designs Slide Camera Strap
For shorter outings, we went really spare, using only the Peak Designs Slide ($59), a smart camera strap that can be used as either a neck strap or a cross-body sling strap. The Slide is made from the same nylon webbing as car seatbelts, padded and grippy on one side, smooth on the other. Its metal adjustment hardware can be manipulated with one hand, thanks to a clever pivoting bar that you lift to adjust and push down to keep in place. The strap attaches to the camera with small locking connectors and a tripod-compatible plate that screws into the camera’s mounting hole. The Slide was a breeze to use and perfect for short hikes where we wanted the camera at the ready. We’ll never go back to a conventional neck strap.