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By: Zdenko Kahlina
East Cape road – “The real Baja”
The East Cape of Baja is an area of white sand beaches with warm, crystal clear waters that make for excellent diving, some of the world’s best sport fishing, world class windsurfing and kite boarding. The area is home to some beautiful resorts, a living coral reef and mile after mile of exceptionally beautiful, and sometimes, well hidden beaches.
Beach at 9 Palms – East Cape
Many people ask where the East Cape starts and where it ends. For the locals, the Cape begins just northeast of the charming, historic town of San Jose del Cabo. Turn east at the traffic circle on Boulevard Mijares across from the fire station in San Jose del Cabo.
As you leave San Jose, the road crosses the lagoon south east of the town and will take you over the newly build East Cape bridge to the fisherman’s village of La Playita. Follow the road around the village of La Playita. This sleepy town has woken up to one of the most luxurious marinas and golf developments in Latin America called Puerto Los Cabos.
Shortly past this development you will come upon a circle with signs pointing to the El Encanto development. A right hand turn takes you back to the coast above Buzzard’s Bar and Grill. Continue straight and the paved road will turn into dirt road soon after. The following 75-80 kilometers of undeveloped land has the most pristine beaches in all of Los Cabos area. The East Cape comprises the entire eastern (Sea of Cortez) side of the Baja peninsula from Punta Pescadero (just north of Los Barriles), south to the eastern edge of the new marina in San Jose del Cabo.
Bahia Las Palmas
The East Cape Baja resorts are mostly in or near the Los Barriles/Buena Vista area, on the shores of Bahía Las Palmas. There are a few farther south along the coast and one to the north. The resorts of the East Cape tend to be somewhat small in size, as resorts go, but large on hospitality, which is a pleasant change that many vacationers are seeking out in Baja.
East Cape road – “The real Baja”
This terribly bumpy dirt road runs for about 80 kilometers along the Sea of Cortez coastline. The road is mostly washboard, often rocky, and deep soft sand where it crosses dry arroyos. The road is bad, but not so bad that a regular car will get stuck or have clearance problems. Just be really careful and be ready for a rough drive.
If a hurricane or tropical storm has visited the area recently check with someone locally before you get halfway and have to turn back. Make sure you have a usable spare tire and a good jack. A can of instant tire repair is highly recommended.
East Cape road
On this road one mostly sees rugged trucks, 4WD, and that sort of vehicles. Occasional camps are seen with tents and tarps alongside well equipped vehicles. The rental car companies will only allow you to take a 4WD or jeep on the road. It is a beautiful coast and a memorable drive. If you get stuck, you wait for help. One advantage is that there is only this one road which everyone must use. You must believe in the unbound kindness of strangers.
Here’s just one example of what results due to rain
This terrible road offers great rewards to those who are Baja explorers and choose to make the drive. Beautiful isolated beaches, fantastic shore fishing, great diving, snorkeling and many fine places to camp are always there, waiting for your enjoyment. This is a large area where you can kick back and really enjoy Baja. There are also some great surf breaks along the way if that is your interest.
Although most of this area is accessed by dirt or graded roads, the paved highway is working it’s way down from La Ribera, slowly but surely. Some day the entire East Cape will be accessible by paved road, allowing any type of vehicle to traverse the area. But for now the road is still an adventure, large RVs are scarce, and some of the best coastal scenery to be found in Baja awaits you at every turn. If you are looking for a deserted beach to find some well-deserved solitude, the East Cape is waiting for you.
I listed here approximate distances from downtown San Jose del Cabo to some interesting points along the East Cape route:
San Jose del Cabo 0 km
Los Zacatitos 17 km
Shipwrecks 22 km
9 Palms 32 km
Boca de la Vinorama 36 km
Boca del Salado 46 km
Rancho del Sol 53 km
Los Frailes 64 km
Cabo Pulmo 70 km
Las Barracas 75 km
El Rincon 80 km
Punta Colorada 85 km
La Ribera 96 km
Rancho Leonero 100 km
Buena Vista 105 km
Los Barriles 110 km
Remember these are approximate distances. Only locals really know the exact distance to all the places along the East Cape route.
Driving east from San Jose del Cabo: Drive over the new bridge to La Playa and Puerto Los Cabos, follow the directions to La Laguna, this route takes you around the marina project (on a paved road). You will then turn right when you see the sign that directs you to Buzzard’s Bar & Grill. Then turn left on to the East Cape road.
Or you can take the Palo Escopeta road: Watch for a sign (east side of highway 1) about 5 kilometers south of the Los Cabos airport. This is a fairly well maintained dirt road that takes you 35 kilometers to the beach at Boca de La Vinorama. Now you are about in the middle of the East Cape dirt road and you have to decide which way you want to go.
The East Cape road will soon be affected by some new mega resorts that are planned to be built soon. Enjoy this incredible area while there is still time!
Driving east from San Jose del Cabo
Beginning in San Jose del Cabo, the first stretch soon after leaving the town, from Buzzards Bar & Grill to ridge is the worst. There is a small curvy canyon to get through with large rocks embedded in the road. There is a bypass which avoids this section from the last roundabout before you get to Buzzards. There are a couple of areas the driver will have to watch for in the curvy parts where the road eroded down the hillside. Perhaps they’ve been repaired by now as large service trucks use these roads daily for construction & supplies.
The Buzzard’s Bar and Grill
After the estuary bridge from San Jose del Cabo and about 6-7 kilometers of driving, there are multi million dollar estate homes on the beach and a hole in the wall called Buzzards. Buzzards used to be at the very end of paved road headed out towards the East Cape. Now the road stretches out to Zacatitos but that doesn’t mean that Buzzards still isn’t a funky beach restaurant enjoyed by both locals coming in on ATVs or driving out from San Jose. The restaurant is on the beach, so the floor is sand.
Further up the road, and only about 25 minutes drive on East Cape washboard road is another place worthy of visiting. It’s called ‘Zac’s Bar & grill’. This marvelous establishment is much, much more than “super scrumptious, delectable food”, strong cocktails, and a classy, comfy, down to earth atmosphere graced with a gorgeous view (particularly during the sunsets). Zac’s has become a gathering place for locals, “townies” and vacationers alike (adventurous tourists).
This is also the point where the paved road ends and ‘real’ adventure begins. The exciting news for the East Cape area is the cutting in and paving of the first stage of the planned south to east main road, and arteries dropping down to beach road developments. The bad news is: from here it’s only dirt road… all the way to just south of La Ribera.
The new paved road going in near Los Zacatitos where it connects to the existing beach road.
It’s off the beaten path along the East Cape and perfect for those wanting seclusion. Shipwreck Beach was named after an actual offshore shipwreck that has since been removed. This uncrowded surf spot along the Sea of Cortés has a great right-hand point for surfers. It is about a 40-minute drive from San José del Cabo. There are few restaurants on the East Cape, so bring a cooler and shade. Vehicles with off-road capabilities are best for the rougher terrain. Shipwreck is just south of a small development named Rancho Rocas del Mar.
Beach at 9 Palms
Boca de la Vinorama
Boca de las Vinoramas is located at the crossroads of the Coast Road and the Palo Escopeta Road, which traverses the desert from San Bernabe near the San Jose International Airport out to the coast (I mentioned this road earlier). Vinorama is popular place for windsurfers. From Vinorama, it’s a little over 32 kilometers North, East, and South to the pavement. But that is no ordinary road — it’s a dusty, bone-jarring, filling-loosening, neck-wrenching stretch of road, no matter what direction you go.
Crossroads Country Club restaurant
This beachfront palapa restaurant bar sits on a private beach in one of the last remote areas of Baja California Sur. While it is located at the crossroads of the Coast and Palo Escopeta Roads, smack dab in the middle of the East Cape and about as far from “civilization” as you can get, it is by no means a country club. Don’t worry about donning your whites, ties or polo shirts, just come as you are and bring your appetite. They serve excellent food. Best fish and shrimp tacos around. Mexican specialties, pasta, salads, burgers. The only food and beer for more than 30 kilometers in either direction. You can spend the day, be served in the lounges, swim and collect shells.
Boca del Salado
Boca del Salado is located in Baja California Sur, Mexico, 46 kilometers north of San Jose del Cabo. This is protected, planned residential community on the East Cape of the south Baja Coast on the Sea of Cortez. The development’s many assets include a permanent, excellent water supply, installed to each residential lot, a sewer collection system and roadway surfaces. The developer has donated a two acre, centrally located parcel of land to be considered a green belt / recreation area for the use and enjoyment of the residents, as deemed fit by a future home owners association. A gated entry structure is near completion and will supply the residents with a protected entry.
Dusty road approaching Boca del Salado
Bahia Los Frailes
About 64 kilometers from San José del Cabo you will come to Playa Los Frailes. This is a very popular beach, with limited facilities. Lovely, gentle, Bahía Los Frailes attracts both campers and yachtsmen. The cove is one of the finest anchorages on the coast where you can swim or row to the beach. Swimming is excellent, snorkeling and fishing are very good.
Bahia Los Frailes is a large white sand bay 5 miles south of Cabo Pulmo. Here you will find a beautiful crescent shaped bay with a rocky point on the north end. This is a great place to camp and enjoy the warm, usually, calm waters of the bay. The bay is a great place to snorkel as the waters are teeming with tropical fish. A semi-permanent fish camp is based here and fresh fish can usually be bought from the fisherman when they return with the day’s catch.
Cabo Pulmo area – panoramic view
Fishing, sea kayaking, diving and snorkeling and just plain relaxing are the activities most often practiced at Bahia Los Frailes. This is a favorite protected anchorage for yachts and they will sometimes use their launches to water ski in the bay. There is a huge drop-off that goes quickly down to a depth of 1000 feet. This drop-off will produce some incredible fish stories to take back with you. You can catch dorado, tuna, grouper, wahoo, sierra and others within the bay. A mile or so further out will produce sailfish, marlin and some really big tuna. There is small hotel (very nice, but often closed) that can help with boat rentals.
There is a Sea Lion colony located within the rocks at the north end of the bay. You can climb over the rocks and find it, but the best way to see the Sea Lions is from the water. They are normally friendly (unless it’s mating season) and will be curious when they see you coming. Swimming with these wonderful creatures is a experience you will not soon forget.
Cabo Pulmo beach – panoramic view
Cabo Pulmo is a Mexican National Marine Park located 26 kilometers south of La Ribera. By the time you reach this place from the south you’ll have enough of grovel road already. Cabo Pulmo is home to a living coral reef and millions of tropical fish, which makes for some fantastic diving and snorkeling. Everything you could wish for, as a diver, is nearby – tropical fish, game fish, manta rays, sea lions and even the rare Golden Grouper. You may also get really lucky and see a visiting Whale Shark. This protected area has flourished and is an example of what the entire Sea of Cortez was like in the not so distance past.
The village of Cabo Pulmo (population 150) seems like it has not changed for years. Yes, there are now different classes of lodging available and there is a choice of pretty good restaurants, a cantina, some small stores and a few more activities providers, but it is still like taking a giant step back in time. The people who live in this area are rugged, helpful and extremely friendly. All of this is a really good thing; Cabo Pulmo is a part of “the Real Baja” just waiting to be enjoyed.
Cabo Pulmo is the Real Baja
There are a few first class accommodations if you plan on staying in the area for a few days. Most visitors come to Cabo Pulmo for one reason, to experience the incredible diving and snorkeling. I know of divers who have spent over three weeks in Cabo Pulmo and have gone diving almost every day. The diving is, simply put, incredible! A friend who just spent 10 days on the East Cape (his first visit) told me recently…”If you don’t fall in love with the East Cape there is something REALLY wrong with you.
From Cabo Pulmo until you reach to La Ribera the road is actually in pretty good shape (usually). Keep going north and the dirt road from Cabo Pulmo turns to paved road about 8 kilometers further north. At this point there is only 18 kilometers left before you reach La Ribera. Some sandy beaches nearby, but the big draw here are the coral reefs just offshore. They offer world class snorkeling and diving!
Punta Colorada just few km south of La Ribera
Next town up the road is La Ribera. This is a small town with a population of close to 2000 that is home to fishermen, workers from the nearby resorts and a small number of ranchers and farmers. A few supplies are available, but if you are going camping on the beaches to the south and need serious supplies you are better off taking the extra time to visit Los Barriles.
La Ribera is on paved road
A new mega size marina and golf course development has recently started construction right in front of La Ribera. This is a huge project that, when completed will eventually change the face of this small town, if not the whole area.
Following my route from the south to north on the East Cape road, La Ribera is also the starting point of paved road again towards highway 1 and Las Cuevas. The road is well marked.
Hotel Rancho Leonero
Rancho Leonero is a beautiful resort on the beach just south of Buena Vista that is a few steps off the beach. Built in the early 1980′s, it has really gained popularity in recent years. They cater to the fishing set as well as divers, snorkelers and sea kayakers. The reef right in front of the hotel is home to countless tropical fish and is a sort of pelican paradise, as the schools of sardines boil with regularity as bigger fish (usually rooster fish) chase them to the surface. It is a unique spot and the hotel specializes in clean rooms, incredible food and high quality service and hospitality which keeps their repeat business at a very high level.
When you reach Los Barriles you’ll be on major highway 1 which connects San Jose del Cabo and La Paz. This is a kicked back community of fishing resorts, some great restaurants, a few new upscale housing developments and also (at times – in the winter) some of México’s best wind surfing. The beaches are incredible with an average water temperature near 80 degrees all year. The whole area gives you the feeling of really being away from it all. The area likes to boast of being the more relaxing, alternative vacation destination, to Cabo San Lucas.
There are literally thousands of miles of beaches, dirt roads, mountain trails and rivers (both wet and dry) to explore in the area around Los Barriles. Off road buggies, ATV’s and home made sand rails are a common sight in around here. It is not at all hard to find someplace to explore. You can rent ATV’s at the entrance to Los Barriles on the highway.
All East Cape villages feature some of the most beautiful beaches in all the Baja, from Its rich soil perfect for organic farms; to incredible fishing opportunities, to pristine beaches and fresh breezes that set the conditions for water sports, and the tranquility of the areas that have turned the East Cape into one of the most desired hideaways anyone can ever imagine. Each town has its own characteristics, stories and flavors, but they all share their enjoyment of pure life.
Punta Pescadero beach
The Hotel Punta Pescadero sits on a beautiful point about nine miles north of Los Barriles. This incredible location makes for an interesting drive along a not so great road. The road can be especially tricky if it has rained recently. The hotel is nice and is flanked by some beautiful homes. The diving and snorkeling can be incredible and the views are breathtaking.
The tranquility of the East Cape
This whole trip from San Jose del Cabo to Los Barriles can take more than four hours, depending on road conditions (usually poor). I think I provided enough details about the road and places to visit on this stretch of the East Cape for everyone to decide if this is something they would like to do.
East Cape tourism got started in 1952 when the Rancho Buena Vista Hotel opened as a fly-in fishing resort. The remoteness was the appeal in the early days, as it remains (somewhat) to this day. The area is growing, but at a relatively slow pace and is perceived as being much more laid back than the glitzy nearby resorts of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. Much of the East Cape is like a different world than that of the Los Cabos resorts which are so near, yet seem so far away.
The abundant sport fishing is what started it all and remains the main tourism draw today. Marlin, sail fish, dorado, sierra, grouper, tuna, wahoo, snapper, yellowtail, cabrilla and the ever powerful rooster fish are all lurking in the waters of the East Cape. Fishing from shore can be just as rewarding as deep sea fishing around the East Cape. Most species (including marlin and sailfish) have been caught from shore in the waters around the East Cape. Kayak fishing has also become highly popular and is now very common. Some sizeable fish have been captured on kayaks. Many of the area hotels have kayaks available for guest use.
Colorful tropical fish inhabit the East Cape shoreline, rocks and reefs making the area a “must do” for scuba divers and snorkelers alike. This is especially true at the Cabo Pulmo Marine Reserve. In most cases the hotels offer packages that include fishing or diving days, along with your room. Many of the hotels along the East Cape include all meals in their pricing.
Other Driving Directions:
Driving south from La Paz: Just past San Pedro, stay on highway 1 (the hwy 19 turnoff goes to Todos Santos and Cabo San Lucas) for a pleasant drive through the mountains, eventually you will find yourself arriving in the more inhabited area of the East Cape, Los Barriles/Buena Vista. Cabo Pulmo, Bahia Frailes and the southern portion are accessed ten miles south, from the road into La Ribera, turn east at the big bridge at Los Cuevas.
Driving north from San Jose del Cabo: Highway 1 past the airport for approximately fifty miles. Cabo Pulmo, Bahia Frailes and the southern portion are accessed from the road into La Ribera, turn east at the big bridge at Los Cuevas. To get to Los Barriles/Buena Vista, continue straight on highway 1 for twelve more miles.
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