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By Eileen Hansen

Of course, there’s the Cabo of the clichés—the easy get-away, Spring break land, destination for sun and fun. But there’s another one.

To me, it's a quiet, crowd-free place that I visited with family friends as a teenager. Landing in the twin-engine plane on a dirt field was the entry into a foreign world. I snorkeled for the first time in Cabo San Lucas, dizzy with the colors swimming around me. I ate my first tortilla, still warm and wrapped in paper from the local tortillaria, and I learned first-hand not to drink the water. I was surrounded by Spanish, far from home, and completely entranced.

Some 20 years later when I returned, I was shocked. What had been quiet was now commercial. I was surrounded by the "comforts of home." Costco, Walmart, Home Depot. There were traffic jams, bars built by rock stars, and restaurants serving All-American specials. And while the water was just as blue and the sun just as warm, I couldn't help but feel that instead of getting it away from all, I was most disconcertingly right back in the middle.

So when my husband Jay suggested a Cabo get-away, I was dubious. Until he added that we’d be going, not to Cabo San Lucas, but to Cabo Pulmo.

El Encanto

An hour's drive north from the Los Cabos International Airport, Cabo Pulmo is a little fishing village on the Sea of Cortez that boasts absolutely no nightlife, no American chain stores, and no traffic. Instead, it has fresh tortillas from a small, local kitchen, outside restaurants where more than two parties constitutes a crowd, and one of only three living coral reefs in North America. Its waters are a national marine park, and look like it—no jet skies, no paragliders, just acres of sparkling blue water.

There are some sports fishermen who know about Cabo Pulmo (fishing is allowed two miles offshore), and a few particularly adventuresome divers have found it, but for the most part, the village remains undiscovered. It's the quiet Cabo, low on commercialism and high on scenery, sunsets, and sandy stretches of long, lonely beach. To sweeten the deal, Jay told me that we’d be staying at El Encanto, a vacation rental built by a couple of friends, Diane Varney and Rob Lerner. They’d been keeping Cabo Pulmo their secret for years.

As we headed north out of the airport, I wondered if we'd made the right decision. Cars and trucks, their hides as sun-worn as the surrounding landscape, zoomed past us, overtaking us on the two-lane highway and sending my heart into overdrive. Was this really a smart move? Wouldn't we be happier at an all-inclusive resort where the only stress was deciding which fruit juice to have with breakfast?

Not at all. Admittedly, the drive was long. And the ten miles of dirt road at the end of the journey seemed interminable. But as soon as we entered the gates of El Encanto, I knew we'd done the right thing.

Our home for the next week was an explosion of color. Deep oranges with touches of cool lilac and shots of pale green and yellow. Oriental rugs. Oaxacan art. And shelves filled with a fine selection of books and DVDs, from classics to comedies.

Not only is El Encanto out of this world when it comes to quixotic color and comfortable décor, it’s also off the grid. Solar panels provide all the power for the house, yet you'd never know it (save for a ban on hair dryers, which frankly aren't a big necessity in this decidedly casual part of Cabo!). El Encanto has wi-fi, the fridge is delightfully cold (good for beers), and the showers are warm.

Perhaps my favorite part of El Encanto is the front patio where you can sit and watch hummingbirds dance among Varney's spectacular garden of succulents. And sit I did. Most mornings we made coffee, read, watched the hummingbirds, traced the progress of a few lizards, and sat mesmerized as the sun moved across the sky, casting shadows and washing over the walls as the colors of El Encanto bloomed. We could have stayed there in contented reclusion all week... except that there are some tantalizing temptations in the surrounding area.

Several blissfully empty beaches just a short drive from Cabo Pulmo enticed us to snorkeling and beachcombing. We also took a daily hike or run on a network of trails that lace the surrounding hills and ate one meal out in "town" (which while delicious, seemed a little expensive at $30 for a shared entrée and two margaritas).

And the one day we ventured far, spurred by the need to get more groceries at the Mega Supermarket in San Jose del Cabo (there are no markets to speak of near Cabo Pulmo), turned out a highlight of our much hoped-for getaway. An informal survey of two locals convinced us that rather than taking the highway back, we should take the northern route along the coast. Both routes are about a three-hour roundtrip, but the northern route, we were told, was far more beautiful. 

Again, no disappointments! Leaving at dawn to avoid traffic, we wound our way up the coast, through hills, and past villages nestled in palm-filled arroyos. We watched the sun come up, dodged roadrunners, and drove through the tiny and picturesque town of El Triunfo (once a wealthy mining town and now home to a Music Museum housed in a refurbished hacienda).

El Encanto

In Todos Santos, where we stopped for an early lunch, a lucky turn took us on a winding dirt road that led to Posada La Poza, a boutique hotel on the beach. Run by a Swiss couple, this hidden gem has a gourmet restaurant and offers some of the best whale watching right from its own beachfront property. After fifteen minutes watching whales surface, blow, and breech, I knew we had to postpone our provisioning and stay for the night. Fortunately there was one room free. That evening we watched the sunset from the terrace bar, sipping margaritas and toasting our luck.

The next day we made our way to the super market and back to Cabo Pulmo, happy to return to our private retreat. As the moon rose, we climbed the spiral staircase of El Encanto to the upstairs terrace and watched as the sky became a blanket of stars. Save for the hoot of owls and the rise and fall of the waves, it was quiet, blissfully quiet – just like the Cabo I remembered.

Fact file:

See more photos of our trip to Cabo Pulmo, El Encanto, and Todos Santos.

Getting there: We flew roundtrip on Alaska Air from San Francisco to San Jose Del Cabo, a non-stop three-hour trip. Our airfare was approximately $270 each.

Car rental: There are plenty of car rental agencies at the San Jose del Cabo airport and it’s best to secure rental prior to arrival. We rented our car from Europa Car Rental for $331 for the week. Our car came complete with seatbelts, AC, and headlights but no gas! It was a compact Nissan with 57K miles, and while it wasn’t plush, it handled the dirt roads just fine.

Where to stay: For rental info on El Encanto, go here. For info on Posada Lo Poza, a wonderful boutique hotel in Todos Santos, go here.

What to do: Diving, snorkeling, kayaking, and big game fishing can all be done in Cabo Pulmo. There are a few operations in town that will gladly rent equipment and provide guided dives or fishing outings. Prices vary but are in line with what you would find in Cabo San Lucas.

Cabo Pulmo is home to about 150 residents, not all of whom live there year-round. A network of trails built by some of the more avid mountain bikers in the group, is ideal for walking and hiking.

Where to eat: There are a few restaurants in town, all of which serve excellent seafood. We found it more economical to make our own meals. It’s a good idea to stop at the Mega Supermarket (just twenty minutes from the airport) before driving to Cabo Pulmo.

What to bring: Cabo Pulmo is casual. Bring sunblock clothing for the hot days and pack a lightweight sweater or jacket for the evenings. For a review of the TravelSmith clothing I took along, go to Contourwear Goes to Cabo >.

Weather: Cabo Pulmo is locted on the Tropic of Cancer. The landscape is desert-like and the average year-round temperature is 78F. The rainiest months are Sept. and Oct. Water temperature is warmest July through December.

About the author

Eileen Hansen- Eileen Hansen travels the world with her husband, photographer Jay Graham. Their travel articles have been published in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Coastal Living magazine.

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