"This National Marine Park, 90 minutes north of the
International Airport, is indeed a precious aquatic paradise."
After fueling up with a savory breakfast at the Cabo Surf Hotel, photographer Paul Papanek and I jump into his Vanagon and we’re on our way to a southern Baja destination with a distinctive literary connection. Like the beat-era writer, Jack Kerouac, we’re on the road, but we have set our sights on a location that was documented by another literary lion, John Steinbeck, famed Grapes of Wrath author. Steinbeck stopped at Cabo Pulmo during his epic voyage around Baja California and documented his findings in the landmark book, The Log from the Sea of Cortez.
Cabo Pulmo has a certain mystique to those who still appreciate remote areas and access to pristine water and a diverse selection of marine wildlife. Part of that mystique is the fact that the last 16 miles are unpaved, which keeps out those who tend to avoid the possibility of occasional washboarding or a surprise washout along the way. Another part is access to unspoiled natural resources and one of only three living coral reefs in North America.
Taking Mexico 1 toward the East Cape, we come into Miraflores surprisingly quickly, followed by Santiago and its charming home grown zoo. But we’re looking for a different kind of wildlife, and press on into La Ribera and the junction with the road to Cabo Pulmo. Not sure of the turn, Paul and I stop alongside a group of men who are sitting out the heat in their front yard. “Cabo Pulmo?” Paul asks, and we get waved on, connecting to the road and its 16-mile long dirt terminus.
We’re in the final stretch. We’re lucky enough to have an invitation from our friend out at the Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort, Cole Barrymore, whose father, ski movie pioneer Dick Barrymore, discovered the area in 1970 and decided to settle in. Building up the small resort literally by hand, the Barrymores created a small community of palapa-styled casitas that they furnished with their own hand made furniture and cabinetry. Cole settled in permanently in 1993, married a local girl, Maribel, and decided to make Cabo Pulmo his base of operations.
Cabo Pulmo’s offshore resources were designated a National Marine Park in 1995, meaning that things are pretty much the same as they have always been there, and the reef-building corals have produced the only living reef on the western shores of North America, a structure that fans out in eight distinct fingers just off the beach. It’s a refuge for an awe-inspiring collection of wildlife ranging from brightly-colored fish, turtles, moray eels, pelagic gamefish like tuna and marlin, and, if you’re lucky, schooling manta rays or the occasional whale shark. Another dive spot is the nearby wreck of the El Vencedor, a tuna boat that sank in1981, now a well-populated artificial reef. The area has become a Mecca for divers and water enthusiasts who want to spend time in a place that Jacques Cousteau has described as “the aquarium of the world.”
Once the area became a National Marine Park it attracted a lot of attention from enthusiasts who wanted to experience the reef and its natural aquarium environment. With the increasing interest, Cole decided to put up a website and offer tours of the area, and a friend, a buddy by the name of John Friday, suggested that they start a diving program. The rest is local history.
We pull up in front of the Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort, where a group of divers are cleaning up their gear, regaling each other with dive stories. One group is speaking French, Henri, a dive guide, is from Holland, several other divers are from England. It’s a diverse, multinational group, sitting around in the mid-morning heat, drinking cold cervezas, clearly enthused about what they’d seen offshore.
“It all started with ten tanks,” Cole says over a plate of fresh fish tacos on the terrace outside the resort’s Coral Reef restaurant. “Today we’re one of the most popular and professionally equipped dive facilities in Baja. We get them coming here from all over the world. That’s because of the numbers of fish and marine mammals that can be seen in the area. We have 60 to 70 feet of visibility here all the time, and it’s not unusual to see the bottom from the boat. Water temperatures are consistently 85 degrees until the end of October. It’s just a comfortable way to see an awful lot of wildlife in the water we have here.”
Time to gear up. Paul loads his Nikon into the protective waterproof housing, and we get fitted for fins, masks and snorkels. We head out to the beach, get in the panga, and then get launched by a pickup with a padded push bar.
As we approach the entry spot, Henri, our dive instructor, gives us some basic guidelines, and the scuba team is ready to hit the water. Paul and I are snorkeling, so we’ll hit the water after they’re in and follow the bubbles.
The first impression of the water at Cabo Pulmo is its transparency. Not only in the visual sense, but also because of its temperature. It’s almost as warm as the human body, close enough that you don’t really feel it. You just feel suspended in a neutral, liquid environment, and then you start to look around. Suddenly a group of brightly colored fish with bright yellow fins and tails, a school of gafftopsail pompano, appear next to us, then move away slowly, oblivious to our presence. They’ve seen this many times before.
Down below the divers are trailing bubbles, which come up like pulsating blobs of mercury, as they head for the fingers of the reef. I can hear the amplified click of the Nikon in the water. There are fish everywhere it seems, some stratified at a certain depth, suspended in their part of the park, while groups of schooling fish come and go at other levels of the aquatic playground.
Down below the divers are exploring the crevices and the coral reef close up. Here are the breeding grounds of the nurse shark, a group of moray eels, large triggerfish, schooling jacks, and an uncountable number of other fish, some curious, some quickly on their way to another part of the reef. A group of small, iridescent fish envelops one of the divers, leaving a perfect cavity in their midst as they move around him, and then they’re gone. It’s a small but miraculous moment of the kind that seems to happen here all the time.
After about forty-five minutes we’re back in the boat. A gasping diver pulls off his gear. “I’ve never seen as many moray eels as I just saw down there!” he says. He repeats it to himself, and you suspect it’s an experience he won’t soon forget.
In his book The Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck recounted a visit to Pulmo during a 1940 boat trip to collect biological specimens: “The complexity of the life pattern on Pulmo reef was even greater than at Cape San Lucas. Clinging to the coral, growing on it,burrowing into it was a teeming fauna. One small piece of coral might conceal 30 or 40 species, and the colors of the reef were electric.”
It may be hard to believe, as we live on a planet that sometimes verges on environmental catastrophe, but Cabo Pulmo may be one of the places where things are pretty much like they were described in 1940. The waters are still clear and clean a necessity for a living coral reef that can’t tolerate any clogging sediment in the water. The condition of the park is due, in large part, to the respect that Cole Barrymore and other water enthusiasts have for this area. With care and proper management, Cabo Pulmo and its spectacular sights will always be available to those willing to take the trip along the proverbial dirt road less traveled.
After the dive, we wander the streets of the town, a remarkably open place with a frontier-like atmosphere, where horses roam the streets and beaches unattended and nobody really locks their doors. “The honor system is still alive and well here,” Henri says. Local restaurants are also wide open, sometimes more occupied by sleeping cats than customers. We stop at Nancy’s, across from the resort, which has a reputation for good food, when you can find the proprietor, an American who moved here to be with her daughter, and ended up cooking for the entire town. Could be our timing today, but no one is there. When Nancy is on hand and at the stove, this is the place for fresh seafood, pizza and home cooked meals in a cozy palapa setting with a full bar.
It doesn’t take long to cover the town, and we make the rounds over to El Caballero, which is where Cole met his wife. Run by a local family, El Caballero offers traditional Mexican plates on a large outdoor patio and is the place to go for breakfast huevos rancheros. Another favorite stop is Tito’s, an unassuming place with a reputation for good fish and shrimp tacos, world class chile rellenos, and cold cervezas. Don’t ask for a menu, as they don’t have one, but the prices are a bargain and the service is friendly.
The sun is setting as we pull out of Cabo Pulmo. It’s been a good day full of new experiences, and a trip that both Paul and I had always wanted to make. Cabo Pulmo seems to be a world unto itself, a small sleepy Baja village, almost unchanged since Steinbeck made his stop, with friendly people, good food, cold beer, and one of the world’s most beautiful natural aquariums just offshore. You couldn’t ask for anything more.
For more information, please visit:http://www.cabopulmo.com