An unpaved road leads to a Baja of the past.
In 1947, silent-era actor, screenwriter, and Hollywood movie director Ray Cannon embarked on a lifelong love affair with the wilderness of Mexico’s southern Baja California peninsula. An avid fisherman, Cannon explored the secluded shores and uninhabited islands of the Sea of Cortez and wrote articles for outdoor magazines about the area. Soon, fellow sport fishermen (and big-name celebrities) Bing Crosby, John Wayne, and Dwight Eisenhower started to frequent the abundant waters, which were only accessible by private plane. Baja grew more popular in the 1950s when a few small resorts opened, but today, an unassuming dirt road still leads into a Baja California of the past. Tucked along the coast, the East Cape is a less-traveled paradise that hints at the region during its golden age.
Bordering the Sea of Cortez, the East Cape begins in the 18th-century Spanish colonial town of San José del Cabo, approximately 30 minutes northeast of glitzy Cabo San Lucas. The coastal road, which continues north for nearly 60 isolated miles to the town of Los Barriles, is unpaved, yet passable for most cars—although signposts are few and far between. It only takes a day to drive, passing generations-old ranches and occasionally pausing for herds of cattle straddling the road in the shade of tall cardón cacti, but it’s well worth it to tack on a few extra days to explore the desert trails that lead through canyons and down to secluded swimming beaches along a calm, glittering sea.
It takes a little courage and a taste for adventure to explore the area, best tackled in a cuatro por cuatro, or 4-wheel-drive vehicle. Be sure to check for a spare tire before leaving or risk a hot, midday tire change as large trucks rattle past. Also, take plenty of water and sunblock; there are few facilities between the following major stops along the way.
For many years, only anglers frequented the fish-rich waters of Cabo Pulmo—about 40 miles north of San José del Cabo—lured there by Ray Cannon’s descriptions of the place. The living coral reef system is one of only three in North America, and in 1995, more than 17,000 acres encompassing desert trails, mountains, five pristine beaches, and the emerald waters surrounding the Cabo Pulmo reef were declared a National Park.
Since the designation, the diversity of the area has increased substantially making it a veritable playground for visitors. Divers and snorkelers can view a spectacular array of sea life, including sea turtles, whales, sharks, rays, and over 200 species of fish. There is even an opportunity to swim with a colony of sea lions—just a 20-minute boat ride to a rocky headland will have you frolicking in the water with the curious creatures. (Marine park tours are booked through several regulated dive operators located in the town of Cabo Pulmo.) To make the most of this natural beauty, spend a few days at Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort, and take the time to explore the reef and hike the mountain trails throughout the park.
Heading north from Cabo Pulmo, the gravel road continues past rolling desert pastures and sweeping views of the Sea of Cortez to the east and palatial estates perched in the foothills of the Sierra La Laguna mountain range to the west. In less than one hour, road signs and vehicle traffic start to increase, and the road becomes paved near La Ribera, a local town with all the restaurants, shopping, and tires you may need. Here, the paved road turns into a highway and leads away from the coast. Instead, make a sharp right turn into the main plaza, and signposts will guide you back to the dirt road leading to the area’s iconic first fishing resorts in Bahía las Palmas just south of Los Barriles.
In 1952, the first guesthouse to open on the East Cape was Rancho Buena Vista, with only 12 rooms. In 1959, Bahía Las Palmas Lodge opened with seven rooms (the now-expanded property is known as Hotel Palmas de Cortez). Roads were much worse than the current gravel path, and guests had to fly into designated arroyos nearby. The first hotels and resorts remain but have been updated to keep pace with contemporary developments nearby. The early ranch-style single-story buildings are constructed with stone walls, Mexican tiles, and exposed wooden beams. Spacious rooms, crisp white linens, and patio views of the surrounding mountains leading into the sea make these famous spots feel more like old-school beachfront lodges than hotels.
Baja California blossomed from a well-kept secret into a tourism destination in 1966, after Ray Cannon published his first guidebook, The Sea of Cortez. While today the East Cape is known as a sport fishers’ paradise, the area remains uncrowded, and there are plenty of activities throughout the region for any intrepid traveler. For most of the year, the waters are calm; swimming and kayaking in the cerulean water are generally safe while snorkeling from shore is spectacular. From late summer into fall, the area becomes a surfer’s dream when tropical storms send perfect waves to several uncrowded surf breaks. And on any of the plentiful remote beaches, chances are the only footsteps left in the sand will be your own, or maybe those of a wandering cow. All you need to do to find this glimpse of a golden age is brave a dirt road.