Baja California is a land of many wonders, and adding to its charm are its many colorful characters, most of whom have come to regard the desert frontier as the ultimate escape from complicated life north of the border.
One of the most wonderful places is the East Cape region, on the Sea of Cortez about 75 miles north of Cabo San Lucas. One of the most charming East Cape resorts is Rancho Leonero, just south of Buena Vista, atop a bluff overlooking the strikingly beautiful sea.
The Ranch, as it is called, is fronted by a reef teeming with small fish and flanked on both sides by long, sandy beaches. Beyond the reef are larger, more powerful fish that lure anglers from all over the world.
But the Ranch, like any of the nearby resorts, wouldn't be the sleepy haven it is without its cast of characters, not all of whom are human.
There's Nick the dog, for example. His owner, a fighter pilot during the Vietnam war, is a semi-retired accountant from the Portland area. He and his wife spend a few months of the year unwinding at their home down the beach.
They always bring Nick, whose daily routine includes an evening swim, in front of guests on the patio, who watch in amazement as the furry black mixed-breed paws his way over and beyond the reef, often venturing more than 300 yards out, barking at nothing and everything as he goes.
Then there's Ranger the parrot, whose owner, Roy Baldwin, was an executive for a San Diego real estate development firm before coming here 10 years ago. He fell in love with the simplicity of Baja life and never went back.
To him, Ranger is man's best friend. The bird turned 29 recently. Baldwin treated him to a steak and French fries at a restaurant in nearby La Ribera.
"Ranger's not a bird. He's human, or at least he thinks he is," Baldwin says, adding that the parrot insists on actually walking into a restaurant, as people do, and that his favorite food is spicy chicken wings.
As for Baldwin, after his initial visit, he was hired as chief financial officer at the Ranch, and adopted the nickname, "Senior Divertido," or "Mr. Fun." He and Ranger moved into a trailer at the edge of a sprawling arroyo, with a glimpsing view of the emerald sea.
He had found paradise, but also an environment where peace and serenity should never be taken for granted. In the summer of 1998, Hurricane Isis roared up the gulf and flooded the arroyo. The furious current swept away the trailer and most of Baldwin's possessions.
In a bound diary of his ordeal, which he shares with guests at the bar, is the passage:
"There's pieces of my place strewn all over the beach from here to La Ribera. One of the homeowners found my safe on the beach. Thinking he had found buried treasure he carried it home on his ATV and broke it open. I'll bet he was surprised when the only thing he found inside was a picture of me."
Today, Baldwin, 49, lives on higher ground in La Ribera, a small town of mostly fishermen and their families. He spends his work days managing money, updating the hotel Web site (www.rancholeonero.com) and keeping a constant eye on the weather.
"I'll never go back to the States," he says. "All I need is a Friday night on a freeway up there to appreciate dodging cows on the roads down here."
Wayward livestock is a Baja trademark, but here at the Ranch the real cattle call is the one that takes place each morning at dawn, when guests finish breakfast and rush to the pier to catch their rides to the fishing grounds.
The East Cape, like Cabo San Lucas, offers some of the finest fishing in the world for a variety of offshore and inshore species, notably marlin, tuna, dorado and roosterfish. Unlike Cabo San Lucas, the East Cape has retained its Mexican flavor. It has not been over-developed, has no traffic, no unsightly high-rises. It boasts only a glimmer of nightlife, in the small town of Los Barriles.
Rather, its selling points remain, simply, the solitude (hotel rooms have neither phones nor TVs), a bountiful sea and some of the most dazzling sunrises imaginable.
"There are some bugs in our room, but other than that it's just perfect," says Jeff Ziegler, 47, visiting from Denver with his wife, Audrey. "We like it because it is so quiet."
The fleet at the Ranch includes cruisers and super pangas (center-console outboards with swivel seats), though kayaks are also available and their use is becoming increasingly popular.
Greeting the customers most mornings, either at breakfast or at the pier, is Rancho Leonero Resort owner John Ireland. Like Baldwin, Ireland fell in love with the place during his first visit, as a prospective buyer, in 1979. Previously, it had been the seasonal home of Gil Powell, a wildlife cinematographer and big-game hunter known for his movie shoots in Africa.
The locals called Powell "El Leonero," or "the one who knows lions."
During the late 1950s and '60s, long before the paved highway opened the floodgates for tourists, many of Hollywood's rich and famous would fly down in private planes, and return with tales of marathon battles with marlin and other game fish. Among the frequent visitors were John Wayne, Errol Flynn and Bing Crosby.
Powell died in 1974 and when Ireland came he found the home in shambles. But that hardly mattered. He saw the potential, both above and below the water. The home, and much of the surrounding property that was also for sale, was on a small point exposed to sea breezes that brought at least some relief during the blazing summer months. Behind it was a vast and spectacular desert.
Beyond the point was the long, rocky reef, which now offers tourists, especially those with children, an enjoyable alternative to fishing. Ireland, 54, says his first snorkeling trip over the reef, when he came face to face with a school of golden jacks, was what made him decide to follow through with the purchase.
"It was just a magical experience," he recalls. "The hair was literally standing on my arms and I really felt like this was a special spot, like a national park or something."
That it was, but the work that went into taking the raunch out of the Ranch was taxing. Ireland, a developer in San Diego and Arizona, did much of the work himself, using mules to haul rocks from inland quarries and hiring specialists to ensure there would be ample well water to sustain a hotel, which there was.
He turned Powell's home into a hotel with five rooms. His small cruiser became his sole sportfisher, which he anchored beyond the reef. He rowed clients out and personally took them fishing.
Eventually, he hired a Mexican captain and other locals to do work around the hotel. He had built his fleet to three boats before he had his first serious brush with Mother Nature. Hurricane Kiko raged over the region in 1989, severely damaging his boats, which had been hauled onto the beach, and ripping the thatched roofs off the hotel rooms.
"It looked like an atomic bomb went off," Ireland says with a sigh. "We got it right on the nose."
Like Baldwin, Ireland wasn't deterred. Today, the Ranch has 35 air-conditioned rooms, an immaculate courtyard, a small swimming pool, a bar and a restaurant with a patio that affords a panoramic view of the glimmering sea.
And of Nick the dog, paddling happily toward the horizon.