Landing the Big One

D.T. Max discovers that "landing the Big One" has many different meanings at the tip of Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

Topics: Mexico, Latin America,

Cabo San Lucas is at the tip of Baja California, where the Sea of Cortes and the Pacific Ocean meet. On the drive in from the airport, it looks like a construction site. The crane, the joke goes, is the national bird. But this dusty town in fact has a storied history. It has long been known as the center of Baja sport fishing, the place to go to catch the Big One. The marlin are enormous and the tuna and sailfish plentiful.

More recently the town embraced a different kind of visitor. In the early ’90s the 800-mile-long trans-Baja highway was completed. With the new road and enlarged airport, southern Baja was suddenly a day trip away. Cabo became Daytona Beach west, a place to go to party, to get high with other American college students.

Now a third twist has entered the picture. In the last couple of years the flying wedge of the post-Cold War cult of the dollar has reached Baja. With trade barriers down, luxury builders have moved in with their hotel and real estate money. Cabo wants to compete with the Mauis and St. Maartens of the world, to become the place upscale travelers go to get away.

When you visit, you sense these three Cabos rubbing up against each other continuously. I take them in reverse chronological order.

Cabo No. 3: My girlfriend and I live it up

Mexico is a land of nostalgia. That may be why the brand-new $30 million luxury resort Las Ventanas was built to look old. It has the look of a village on a beach. The copper urns that give the walkways visual texture could have been pulled off the set of “All the Pretty Horses.” The furniture is stone and handmade and beautiful. The vast rooms have jacuzzis whose faucets are green with patina. There are a lot of wrought-iron gates. Everything hums here, hiding a lot of hard work and careful planning.

Las Ventanas has four staff members for every guest. “The situation here is almost Indonesian,” Edward Steiner, the general manager, explained to me. He had managed Washington’s Watergate Hotel for years, and now he was teaching 250 people from an intimate culture how not to be. He had put the employees in sage and khaki uniforms, which the hotel took back to wash every night. A network of staff tunnels had been built underneath the public areas. Each week he posted a lesson on the walls. Shortly before we got there the lesson had been: “Own your perimeter.” Anything that happened within 10 feet of a staff member was his or hers to deal with. The lesson was already taking. Our towels were refolded each time we left the room.



Las Ventanas was enormously seductive. The sky was deep blue with puffy El Greco clouds. The water was light green, the cerulean swells marked by the splash of putty-colored pelicans. The cuisine was Mexican-Mediterranean, full of cilantro and tuna paillard. My girlfriend and I agreed this was the most relaxing place we’d ever been to, on a par with the womb. Better, in fact, because of that waveless pool. When you swam, the displaced water overflowed into a kind of outer moat, which recycled it silently into the main tank. Doing laps was as tranquil as reading. There was the sea, then the waveless pool, then the Texan women reading Vogue.

I took up a post on a stone barstool in the pool and started reading a book about travel writer Bruce Chatwin. Chatwin chucked his job and went to Patagonia in the middle of winter. He wanted to get away from dour England, but what kind of person went to Baja out of season? It was hot, if pleasant by the water. I asked, but most guests were not eager to talk.

You could talk to the staff though. They were young and educated. They came from everywhere but Baja: Mexico City, Guadalajara, Acapulco. Under Steiner they had developed the esprit of actors with day jobs. They seemed in the deepest sense un-Mexican, because they had a less brutal idea of what work had to be. My girlfriend had noted something else. One of the hotel’s drivers introduced her to a new word: Seqa. It was an alternative to Seqorita and Seqora: “Ms.” We were delighted. We started to try it out. The results weren’t promising. The women laughed. The male staff started hanging out by our bungalow.

I know luxury is something people go a good distance out of their way for, but although the resort was doing what it did wonderfully, for us it began to feel a bit weird. Being waited on is uncomfortable, especially being waited on by people you relate to so well. We began to subvert the group-think in small ways. We made our bed, putting the previous night’s gift of a ceramic starfish back on the covers. My girlfriend started keeping food in the room, so no one would have to walk down those long tunnels just to bring us breakfast rolls. The maids found it and threw it out, owning their perimeter. It was time to break out.

It was nearly nightfall, Saturday night, and tiny
Xapoteca children in Cabo’s tourist center shoved little
dolls and candy hearts at us. Men stood in plywood booths
shouting, “Information? Información? Auskunft?” They had
brochures for hotels, snorkel trips, charter boats, craft
stores. The college students were pouring in. What was here
for them? Why had they come? Perhaps because of the 10
restaurants in town with “shrimp” in their names: The
Drunken Shrimp, The Crazy Shrimp, The Happy Shrimp, Shrimp
Bowl and Shrimp Platter and Shrimp Factory, Shrimp
Connection and Shrimp Store and Shrimps ‘R’ Us and Shrimp-O-Rama. There is also a Planet Hollywood and a Hard Rock
Cafe. For this, and other things, the new Cabo makes no
apologies.
The students move through a well-insulated little
circuit of bars beginning with Cabo Wabo, then Cocomo, then
moving on to the Giggling Marlin and ending at Squid Roe,
which doesn’t close until 3 a.m. “What you see in Mexico
stays in Mexico,” one Squid Roe sign read. Port towns –
Provincetown, Key West — tend to make that promise. People
will do things they won’t do at home. House tequila slingers
climbed on tables, placed a greasy hat on a patron’s head
and forced them to down huge shots sprayed from a bota. The
girls on the dance floor looked ready to take their shirts
off. Money moved quickly. Pesos, dollars, credit cards. On
our way home, we passed groups of teenage American girls
trying to talk their way into Planet Hollywood. They were
turned away.

That shocked me. I had never seen the
law enforced in Mexico before. There are a million
regulations on the books in Mexico — zoning, anti-pollution
laws, electoral safeguards — a mirror of our own legalistic
system. But they are routinely ignored. In a country with a
multibillion-dollar drug industry and an infant mortality rate so
much above ours, who’s going to worry about water
conservation? Was a new attitude creeping in with American
money? Perhaps not. I watched two traffic cops in Cub Scout-blue uniforms pulling over cars. Some got tickets. Some
didn’t. A skinny man in a button shirt approached me (I’ll
call him Armando). He had family in Brooklyn. I spoke
Spanish so well. My girlfriend was so beautiful. Were we
Italian?

Armando was a hustler. He worked out of a sidewalk
booth, and his job was to offer tourists a rental car
discount in return for their having breakfast at his
employer’s hotel. I still don’t quite see how it worked.
Much of Cabo is under construction, and you learn to accept
works in progress. He gestured at the cops and rubbed a
finger in his palm. I asked him how this all had come to be.
He rubbed his hands together again. “Drug money? NAFTA
money?” I asked. He laughed. He pointed to the illuminated
globe of the Planet Hollywood sign, one of Cabo’s tallest
buildings. Planet Hollywood money. Hard Rock Money.

What interested me about fishing wasn’t the killing.
Fishing for marlin is like prospecting for gold anyway: You
generally come up empty. There are days when the entire Cabo
fleet of 100 boats doesn’t catch anything. Remember
Hemingway’s Santiago, his endlessly patient Old Man,
waiting, waiting, waiting for a marlin?

A year to the week before our visit to Cabo, a man
named Ed Kilwien of Kirkland, Wash., had landed a 910-pound
blue marlin. It took him three hours. In his picture in the
Los Cabos News, he looked slightly stoned, the fish hanging
from a contraption far above his head like it was about to
be dropped on him. I didn’t want to remove a magnificent
fish like Ed’s from the sea, but that wasn’t a problem. As I
understood it, except in tournaments, the boats in Cabo San
Lucas practice what’s called catch-and-release. Once you
hook a fish, you haul it in, snap a picture and either pull
the hook or cut the line. That I could deal with.

The concierge at Las Ventanas, a man named Marco, had a
gift for conjuring things — discount phone certificates,
rental cars, perfectly packed picnic lunches. We had been
unable to get space on a boat ourselves, but he had already
gotten us a boat from one of the best fleets in the harbor:
Picante. They had carried Ed Kilwien to glory. Our captain,
Capitá Hugo, was clearly a comer. He had a gold marlin
charm around his neck and wrap-around shades and was only 30
or so. He had caught 230 marlin last year and 240 already
this year. I told him when I’d gone fishing in 1974, I’d
hooked a sailfish off Mazatlán on the western coast of the
mainland. Jumping and tail-walking on the line, it might
have been the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen. The
captain and mate had fought over it. “Fuck,” Capitá Hugo
said, “in Mazatlán they’ll eat anything. Here we let them
go.”

We sailed past El Arco, the rocks at the end of Baja.
The Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortes join here. From the
water you see a different Baja. Because, of course, Cabo San
Lucas is not much like the rest of Baja. North of it and its
sister town of San Jose del Cabo, known collectively as Los
Cabos, things thin out quickly. There are the starkly
beautiful coasts where surfers hang out in their beat-up VW
Beetles. There are long sierras of burned grass and lush
mountains where rain clouds pile overhead. Everywhere runty
horses graze and steer meander down the road, trailing visitors as if they might be edible grass. Everywhere, the beaches and
sierras are empty.

We were a half mile offshore when suddenly the
continental shelf plunged away. The water was 1,000
feet deep. The mate put bright red plastic squid lures in
the water to catch the roving marlin’s eye. He pulled out
our picnic hamper from the hotel. Mostly he and Capitá Hugo
ignored us, steering their powerful boat in long arcs,
listening to CDs. We had a lot of technology on that boat.
We had a Robertson AP300X autopilot to help us steer, a Furono FCU 582 sounder to
spot the fish and a Furono 2681
display radar to make sure we didn’t hit anything else. We
were 35 feet long, weighed 18 tons and had dual inboard 750
horsepower engines capable of 31 knots. The boat had cost
$350,000.

That afternoon, we didn’t catch anything. Three hours
of trawling, the diesel smoke floating back into our faces,
and the marlins pitched a shutout. In fact we gave something
back. My girlfriend got sick and threw up the tuna steak
from Las Ventanas over the side. She used a deck rag
to clean up, and she admitted that just that little act of
retaking her perimeter had given her pleasure. When we got
back to port, I tried to tip Capitá Hugo. “For what?” he
asked, and walked away.

Our last day in Los Cabos we went back for another try.
It was 7 in the morning. The waiters at Cocomo were
cleaning up, but they were still dancing. A man was working
out on a treadmill in a harborside athletic club. Capitá
Hector took us out this time. “Hector,” he said, “King of
the Trojans.” He was heavier and older than Capitá Hugo. He
worked for Leo’s, one of the smaller fleets. We steamed out
of the harbor on his 25-foot trawler. On his marine radio
Capitá Hector gossipped with other captains. We bought a
bait fish the Mexicans call lisa from a little boat that
pulled up at our side. We caught some skipjack in case we
sighted a marlin. The lisa was the appetizer, the skipjack
would be the meal.

We trawled and we circled. Capitá Hector
opened a beer and scanned the horizon. He and his mate,
Gregory, sang old fishing songs with us. We had not had time
to get food, so they nicely shared their sandwiches. Capitá
Hector did a little marlin dance. After an hour, a line
popped. At last, a fish — hooked, I was sure, not by
technology but by our good karma.

I got into the fighting chair and dug in. The rod bent
almost to the stern gunwale. My muscles tightened. I
bent over the rod to keep it close to my chest, where my
strength is. The captain and mate watched as I began reeling
in. The fish rolled and tugged, but immediately I knew it
could not be a marlin. There was too little fight. Still, it
was a significant fish. I slowly began taking in line. I
would pull the rod back, then reel in as I lowered it. There
were times when I thought it had gone to sleep on me, other
times when I nearly lost my arms tugging. It was confusing
work.

Finally I dragged up a huge mahi-mahi. It was splendid
looking, a cascade of gold and green. I felt some sort of
charge, taking this iridescent thing out of the deep. It
was almost a psychological moment, like an old nightmare. I
looked forward, for the same reason, to throwing it back,
returning it. My girlfriend drew near to take a photograph.
I would call it “Picture of My Id.” Just then, Capitá Hugo
brought out a wooden club and whacked the fish on the head.
“Makes buen seviche,” he said. He threw it in the bin. He
was, it turned out, from Mazatlán.

My girlfriend was green. I was greener. As we sailed
on, we could see rigor mortis settling in, in the huge curved
tail sticking out of the stowing bin. A kind of guilt
settled between us, like we’d slain the albatross. I knew
this was ridiculous. Mahi-mahi are food fish, and I knew that
it was wrong to waste food. They had caught a fish and then
they had killed it. What could be more natural? These men
had no use for bourgeois squeamishness. We sailed on, and
caught nothing else. No barracuda, no sailfish, no marlin.
Capitá Hector drank his last beer, Gregory reeled in the
lines, the tiny trawler pointed its bow to port. We were
heading back, back to the post-industrial proving ground, to
that mix of dust and dollars that is Baja at century’s end.

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