In 1940, John Steinbeck ventured on a marine collecting expedition to Baja California, a peninsula off Mexico's west coast; he found more signs of life in the tidal pools than on land. His Log from the Sea of Cortez speaks of an ocean's edge inhabited by crabs, prickly urchins, and white periwinkles. Borrowing a fisherman's term, Steinbeck called this patch of the Pacific "tuna water—life water." He wasn't kidding. A congress of gulls and dolphins—and men—negotiate over schools of tuna. The first time I watched the ocean turn a deep purple off the Gorda Banks, I was hooked too.
These days, locals still refer to Baja as La Frontera, the frontier, because it still remains largely undeveloped, except for the desert peninsula's tip, where Los Cabos (the Capes) is booming. New hotels and restaurants are crowding the shoreline, nonstop flights were recently inaugurated from the East Coast, and half of Hollywood is sneaking down here on breaks. But for me, Los Cabos is about homegrown banda (Latin polka) concerts, impromptu horse races, or kicking back with a chilly Pacifico beer and a succulent shrimp taco. And there's always a fish nibbling at the end of your trolling jig. That's tuna water for you.
LAY OF THE LAND
Baja California is bordered by the Pacific and the Sea of Cortés, which was praisedby Jacques Cousteau for its coral reef. It's divided into two states, Baja Sur and Baja Norte, and traversed by the Transpeninsular Highway (High-way 1), which winds a thousand miles south from Tijuana. The road rumbles with tractor trailers and battered pickups; at night, unlit stretches can turn hazardous when free-ranging longhorns snooze on the asphalt.
Baja Sur The arid home to Los Cabos balances cattle ranching with tourism on a coastline dotted with deserted beaches and sheltered bays. Inland, the Sierra de Laguna mountain range funnels rainfall down sandy arroyos.
Baja Norte A region of fertile vineyards and commercial fishing towns.
Los Cabos Talk about contrasts. Once the harbor of a solitary tuna cannery, the port town of Cabo San Lucas has become a nonstop fiesta machine packed with souvenir stalls, cigar shops, and theme bars. Off the coast, the remarkable rock formation of El Arco marks Land's End. Twenty miles away, colonial San José del Cabo clings tenaciously to its Mexican heart and soul; narrow side streets reveal sleepy cantinas and folk-art boutiques.
The Tourist Corridor A 20-mile four-lane highway between the two major cape towns is lined with sandy beaches, golf courses, and a heavy concentration of glitzy resorts.
East Cape An undeveloped region of dirt roads, dive shacks, and surf camps that is some 50 miles north of Los Cabos, on Bahía de Palmas in the Sea of Cortés. The two main fishing villages are Los Barriles and Buena Vista.
Farther Afield Todos Santos, one of Baja's colonial towns, is an hour north of Los Cabos—and a world apart. If you're willing to endure a grueling drive or a bumpy twin-prop flight, it's worth the detour 250 miles north on the peninsula to Bahía Magdalena, a saltwater breeding lagoon near the cannery town of Puerto López Mateos where gray whales migrate annually.
FISHING More than a half a century ago, legendary anglers like John Wayne and Ernest Hemingway were lured to Cabo for wrestling matches with the Big Three: black marlin, blue marlin, and sailfish. Today, the big-game fishing is still considered some of the world's best, with several professional contests held annually. Captain Tony Berkowitz of San Lucas Yachts (52-624/147-5679; from $500 for four people) can arrange charters. Picante Bluewater Sportsfishing (52-624/143-2474; day charter from $955 for five people) and Pisces Sportfishing & Luxury Yacht Charters (52-624/143-1288 or 619/819-7983; day charter from $320 for four people) also have English-speaking captains and tournament-caliber gear.
DIVING About 1 1/2 hours northeast of San José, Cabo Pulmo shelters the only coral reef system in the Sea of Cortés. Stretching a mile offshore, this national marine park teems with parrot fish, moray eels, manta rays, and giant coral heads. Vista Sea Sport (Buena Vista; 52-624/141-0031; two-hour trips $35 per person) takes you snorkeling among sea turtles or diving under the reef of El Bajo de los Morros.
SURFING The nomadic surf tribes from SoCal and Hawaii love the long barrels, cheap combo platters, and even cheaper digs at casual trailer parks scattered up and down the coast. Look for great wave action at Playa Costa Azul, which fronts San José, and the expansive beaches of Los Cerritos and San Pedrito, 33 miles north of Los Cabos. On San Pedrito, expat surfer Patricia Baum's eco-friendly Teampaty Surf Camp (www.todossantos.cc/ecosurfcamp.html; lessons $20 an hour) has the best rental gear and instructors on the peninsula. BajaWild (San José; 52-624/142-5300; www.bajawild.com; lessons from $65 per person) runs daylong classes on both the East Cape and Pacific shores.