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February 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 25, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Vista Sea Sports, Baja California, Mexico

as fishy as it gets this close to home

from the February, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

The East Cape of Mexicos Baja California sits about halfway between La Paz and Cabo San Lucas (about an hour drive from the Cabo airport), with little seaside towns in between. While the area has long been known to sport fishermen, 90s money brought $2 million, five-bedroom waterfront estates. The little towns of Los Barriles and Buena Vista still have a tad of Mexican character -- well, just a tad. Having been here a decade ago, I find todays pockets of conspicuous wealth disconcerting, especially when I watched a bandy-legged, emaciated, pregnant beach dog digging for scraps at the gates of an estate. But if suffering dogs bother you, then you really cant visit Mexico (though Americans seem to create animal shelters wherever they immigrate).

Vista Sea Sports, Baja California, MexicoVista Sea Sports operates out of Mark and Jennifer Rayors beachfront compound in Buena Vista, from where they send covered pangas south to Cabo Pulmo Marine Park if the sea is flat and two paid divers are aboard. In November, I expected to dive at least four days but ended up in the water only two days; insufficient for a comprehensive review though Im no stranger to Baja diving. I know there are plenty of fish, unique species, often surprises, and a bottom dominated by rocks and boulders without much in the way of colorful coral. Its a great switch from the Caribbean.

On my first day, we drove north to the Bay of Dreams. Mark told me over the phone that it was the only site they could dive because the brisk wind made other sites too difficult to dive or even to reach in their little boats. I and three other divers who were staying at the Rancho Leonero were picked up just before 8 a.m. for a 90-minute ride in an SUV. Simon, an English expat and the instructor in charge, is a witty fellow who kept his wits about him underwater. He provided a good pre-dive briefing, and we had plenty of time to get organized as he and the driver hooked up gear and loaded it into a 20-foot, leased fishing panga sitting at the surf line. Callo, the boat owner, motored us 15 minutes along Punta Perrico to the site (we dived it twice after returning to the beach for lunch, which each of us had ordered in advance from the hotel). Below, we cruised between barren boulders dotted with occasional chunks of coral and sea fans, a typical Sea of Cortez bottom. Visibility was a murky 45 feet but as one can expect, fish were prolific -- a free-swimming green moray, hawkfish, bumphead parrotfish, schools of grunts (burrito, Cortez), snapper, graceful Moorish idols, guineafowl puffers, in fact, more puffers than youll see in a lifetime diving the Caribbean. Scattered about were snatches of fishing nets and strands of nylon line. A conch was entangled in one line, limiting its radius to six feet, so I pulled it free. One could spend weeks here cleaning up the decades of fishing detritus.

With the wind whipping up whitecaps, the next days dive was to be at the same site but to me it wasnt worth the three-hour, round-trip drive, especially when I learned the other divers would be a group of Czechs learning to dive. I was happy to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and roam Los Barriles. The next day, the seas flattened and we headed for Cabo Pulmo Marine Park, a common goal on calm days. On the first dive, among boulders reminiscent of a tumbled building, pinnacles spotted with gorgonia provided interesting relief to the landscape. Two stone fish were wedged in a narrow groove; a pair of jacks flitted by; there were plenty of spadefish, grunts, Moorish idols, butterfly fish and an endless array of white spotted, guineafowl and sharp-nose puffers. Simon gently lifted my foot off of a gorgonian as I was concentrating too hard on a balloonfish in a crevice. More of the same on the second dive, with two green turtles, a large green moray free-swimming and a patch of garden eels. The water temps were in the mid-80s but by the end of the dive, my old, three-mil, shorty wetsuit didnt keep the chill away. The dives were good, by Sea of Cortez standards, but in my short stay, none of the bigger guys -- schools of rays, mantas and sharks - - visited. But I know theyre here, and Vista Sea Sports has a pretty honest Web site, with a decent description in its Dive Report section of what to expect.

Rancho Leonero is a very nice yet isolated property, about four miles off the main highway down a sand road. My bungalow -- half a duplex, actually -- was basic, clean and roomy, with a large tiled shower, a comfortable king bed, a large dresser and a second door opening onto a tiled patio with a table, chaise lounge and partial ocean view. The restaurant overlooks the sea but doesnt take advantage of the view. While the bar was lively at night, most everyone was here to fish. Big-game fishermen seem to me wealthier, more glitzy and better dressed then us divers -- and certainly drunker because they dont have to stop fishing after their first drink of the day. On the two buffet nights I ate here, the food was good, hearty, uncomplicated -- a barbecue one night, Mexican on the other. In Los Barriles, a 15-minute drive from Rancho Leonero, there are several restaurants. One night, I sat at Baja Papas East Cape Smokehouses streetside bar and had a great smoked seafood plate. There are also several small Mexican spots and Tio Pablos, a larger quasi-sports bar. Plenty of places with dinners in the $10-$15 range. Beers run about $3, margaritas average $6. Last time here, I rented an ORV to cruise the miles of beach but when I learned I needed to depart a couple of days earlier than expected, I let that pass.

Truth is, I like the East Cape a lot. Yeah, the gringos are here, creating a Barrio Americano, but its off the beaten path. To dive Cabo Pulmo, its certainly easier to stay at Cabo Pulmo itself, but if you dont mind an hour-long ride in Vista Sea Sports small panga -- essentially the equivalent of a Boston Whaler -- youll find more to do here. For West Coasters, its a perfect very-long-weekend destination.

-- Ben Davison

Vista Sea Sports, Baja California, MexicoDivers Compass: A two-tank dive at Cabo Pulmo was a pricey $125; Vistas Web site (www.vistaseasport.com) has links to the local hotels, and its boat picks you up at the hotel docks at 7:30 a.m. . . . Rancho Leonero rates run from $150 to $250 a night, double occupancy, and include all meals (www.rancholeonero.com). . . Hotel Palmas de Cortez, on the beach along the main drag in Los Barriles, is recently renovated, with a large swimming pool, bar and restaurant; a good choice if you want to walk to restaurants or have a long beach to stroll (www.palmasdecortez.com.) . . . Driving is no sweat, roads are good but winding at times; you can find major car-rental agencies at the Cabo airport, or your hotel can arrange transportation to and from the airport . . . The dollar seemed to be the main currency at the local restaurants; English is spoken everywhere . . . Winter water temperatures fall below 70 degrees but are in the mid-80s in September and October.

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