Weekend Escape: Cabo San Lucas : Econo-Dive : This Scuba Aficionado Took Advantage of a Baja California Dive Package for a Three-Day Vacation That Didn’t Cost Much More Than Some Local Trips


The fact that I was in for a decidedly different experience first struck me 90 feet beneath the surface of the Sea of Cortez.

Sucking air from my regulator, I was hovering over the Sandfall, a place much favored by divers visiting this gem of a town on the southern tip of Baja California. Jacques Cousteau discovered this phenomenon in the early 1960s--a natural trough in a sheer vertical wall plunging some 3,000 feet into the ocean’s inky depths. And cascading down its face--fed, Cousteau theorized, by a constant circular current--flowed a steady stream of sand .

My mind did a somersault.

Like thousands of others, I had been to Yosemite, where some of the world’s most breathtaking waterfalls cascade in wild abandon over rock. Here, in an exact reversal of terrestrial reality, earth flowed through water. The scene’s wackiness came to symbolize my feelings about Mexico: a parched desert of cactus and dust above ground, underwater a tropical forest teeming with colorful flora and fauna.

Undersea wonders have been a part of my life since I took up scuba diving as a teen-ager. For the past several years, the hobby has taken me on annual vacations to tropical dive destinations around the world--the Florida Keys, Grand Cayman, Hawaii, Fiji, Honduras, Cozumel, Akumal and Eleuthera in the Bahamas--spots where the water is warm, the visibility endless and the fruit drinks plentiful.


This year I was planning a trip to Belize, a supposed diver’s paradise in northern Central America. Like many Californians, however, I have experienced recent economic reversals--in my case a divorce--that made me balk at the notion of spending nearly $3,000 for a seven-day vacation. Reluctant to give up my annual dive trip altogether, I searched for a more economical alternative. I found it in Cabo San Lucas, where you can experience world-class diving at middle-class prices--just $396 for the package I found, which included round-trip air fare, three nights at a quiet, modest hotel in the center of town, and two days of guided diving with boat, dive master and all equipment.

For the less thrift-minded, other packages range up to $771 for a suite at Hotel Palmilla, a luxury facility with a golf course and fishing fleet. Add $500 for first-class flying.

My own trip got off to a shaky start when, after arriving at LAX on a Friday for the 7 a.m. Aero California flight to Cabo, our departure was delayed 3 1/2 hours due to a malfunctioning air-conditioning system. The delay lasted longer than the 2-hour-10-minute flight. I can’t even describe the feeling of relief I felt when the plane finally took off.

It was early October, a full five weeks before a series of devastating thunderstorms was to close the Cabo airport. But friends tell me that conditions have since returned to normal.

My package didn’t include hotel transfers, so after strolling into the airport lobby, I walked up to the first official-looking person I saw and asked for an $8 ticket for the 45-minute van trip into town. He turned out to be a time-share salesman, but he sold me the ticket anyway.

Hotel Mar de Cortez has a completely nondescript entryway on a side street near downtown. The lobby is actually on an outdoor patio, as is the hotel restaurant. Above all, the place is utilitarian. Because it had no alarm clock, telephone, television or radio, I had to rely on the early light to coax me awake the next morning, which it obligingly did.


By 8:45 a.m., after a quick hotel restaurant breakfast of coffee, Mexican-style scrambled eggs and tortillas with beans, I was ready for the four-block stroll through the humid heat of town to the marina where the dive boat was moored. The town wraps itself around the water like a glove, and its cobblestone streets slope gently down toward the ocean. Like most Mexican towns, this one first presents itself by its smells: the whiff of corn tortillas from the open-air restaurants mingled with the fumes of petroleum from passing cars.

After a briefing at Pacific Coast Adventures dive shop, one of six dive shops in town and the one through which I’d booked my package, we were ready to go. The shop is in a building next to the marina, just a few hundred yards from where the dive boat Pegasus is moored. Throwing our dive bags over our shoulders, the day’s paying customers--myself and a newly certified couple from Santa Monica--walked out to the 26-foot fiberglass skiff with its outboard motor and cramped deck.

“In Cabo everything is close,” Juan Beltran, our 20-year-old Mexican dive master, told us on the first day out.

He couldn’t have been more right; within half an hour we were staring bug-eyed at the Sandfall’s trickling underwater wonders. Later we motored over to a nearby strand called Lover’s Beach, a place to rest in the sun and drink Cokes while our bodies accumulated enough surface time to dissipate unwanted nitrogen and avoid getting the bends. Then it was back on board for the short trip to the Pinnacle, a magical place of contrasting temperatures, strange optical illusions and abundant sea life.

It was about 2 p.m. when we got back to shore. Not wanting to make a major production of lunch, I shelled out $4 for a couple of tacos from one of the numerous open stands near the water. Then, drinking in the view of ships in the harbor beneath an ink-blue sky, I began walking up the path toward town, taking in the shops along the way.

There was a place selling marionettes that dangled on tangled strings. Another shop specialized in miniature guitars painted bright blue and red.


Dinner that night was a whole new adventure.

On the advice of a young Mexican tourist guide sitting at a table in the hotel lobby, I walked a few blocks to Mi Casa, a romantic restaurant next to the town square on Calle de Cabo San Lucas. There I paid $27 to sit in a cheerful courtyard eating enchiladas suissas and drinking margaritas while a gigantic brown moth fluttered daintily overhead. The most memorable thing about the meal was the cactus salad (my first), which tasted vaguely like a nutty version of shredded avocado.

Pretty much the only thing to do after dinner in Cabo, especially if you’re alone, is check out the clubs. I started with Cabo Wabo, a live rock club owned by guitarist Van Halen a few doors down from my hotel on Vicente Guerrero Street. At 10 on a Saturday night, the place had only 15 patrons--it was definitely dead. Later I hiked across town to El Squid Roe, where an overflow crowd of patrons in their 20s danced frantically to “Hang on Snoopy” while a waiter dressed as Pancho Villa poured shots of tequila down people’s throats before ceremoniously wiping their chins with a towel.

Frankly, not quite my scene.

Contrary to its reputation, in fact, I found the Cabo night scene not particularly hospitable to singles traveling alone; most tourists seemed to move in groups or pairs. Still, I managed to make some friends. Hanging out at the Rio Grill, a neighborhood bar on the Boulevard Marina, I met 60-year-old Jud Millard, who said that he’d come down six months earlier from Northern California to work on a friend’s house and decided to stay. One night on a sunset cruise, I befriended an interesting couple from Phoenix with whom I later shared dinner and ice cream cones.

But the center of the experience for me was the diving, always the diving.

The best day, I think, was that first one when the couple from Santa Monica and I went from the Sandfall to the Pinnacle, a rock formation a few hundred yards from the famous arched rocks of Cabo where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez.

It was the kind of day divers pray for, with 90-foot visibility and gently rolling swells. At one point, having dropped off a sheer rock cliff into 70 feet of water surrounded by a host of colorful trigger fish, king angels, trumpets and clarions, we were suddenly joined underwater by a group of curious and playful sea lions.

There is a myriad of exotic marine life inhabiting these waters: from the sluggish porcupine puffers that inflate to football size when squeezed gently in the middle, to the giant bat rays gliding through the water like huge flying saucers.


Indeed, something strange happens here where the 75-degree waters of the Pacific mingle with the 85-degree waters of the Sea of Cortez, making underwater explorers feel, alternately, as if they are in a Jacuzzi and an unheated pool. The effect is not unlike the mixing of oil and vinegar, a sort of underwater fuzziness that envelopes divers in dreams.

The place is not a dream, of course, any more than Cabo itself is a dream. It is the lush marine forest next to the scalding Mexican desert, where the sand granules of an underwater sandfall mark slowly the passage of time. My hope is that not too much more of it passes before I return.

Budget for One

Round-trip air fare, departure tax;

three nights at Mar de Cortez

Hotel; two days’ (4 air tanks)

scuba diving: $396.00

Airport transfers: 16.00

Food: 77.30

Drinks, entertainment: 52.06

Sunset cruise aboard Pez Gago: 26.50

FINAL TAB: $551.86

Trip booked through Pacific Coast Adventures, 1323 Lincoln Blvd., Suite 101, Santa Monica, Calif. 90401; tel. (800) 491-DIVE