“Muchas ballenas”, Carlos said over his shoulder, pointing at the hazy, blue horizon as we bounced over jagged inclines and deep ruts. “Lots of whales,” I said, turning to Tor, who was hunched forward, peering out the windshield.
The truck gunned sharply up a hill and barreled around a curve. Below, there lay only rugged coast. No houses, yet, no towns or hotels. Only a craggy line of peaks in the distance that flared down into a blanket of desert. Desert that rolled into cliffs. Cliffs that rose, fortress-like above the jade hem of the Sea of Cortez.
As we slowly rolled down the hillside and into town, we observed the quiet streets with curiosity. This was the Mexico of my mind, dusty and sun-baked, cacti with bursts of bright flowers, rugged scrub land and mountains looming like moody warlords in the distance. Roosters strutted across the road and a pair of cows chewed sleepily. An elderly man sat in the partial shade of a hibiscus bush, smiling good-naturedly at passersby.
We climbed the steps of the bright, blue Dive Center. It was there, from the palapa-roofed restaurant that we again caught a glimpse of the sea. It was startlingly close, the water shimmering like peacock feathers in the bright sunlight. We found an empty table and sat, steeped in a distinct, satisfying silence. Already, I could feel the humid, salty air beginning to do its work, soaking my thirsty skin, falling like a healing mist in my hair, my eyes and at the nape of my neck.
With little over a hundred residents and square mileage of three by nine miles, the village of Cabo Pulmo is tiny. However, the area’s impact as a protected national park is enormous. It has been heralded as the most successful marine reserve in the world. This is thanks to the people who once made their living fishing its waters. Twenty years ago, when the fish began to dwindle due to damage inflicted on the reef, the local fishermen found it more important to try and undo the destruction than continue to fish. So, they lobbied the Mexican government to declare the reef a protected area. By doing this, they not only saved the reef, but committed to shifting their livelihood from fishing to eco-tourism. The town now exists completely off the grid with everything run on solar power. Only occasionally did we hear the whir of back-up generators rumbling in the deeply dark, nearly silent nights.
We quickly made ourselves at home in the garden casita at Encanto Pulmo, an artful, eco-friendly house that we stumbled upon during an internet search for lodging. Encanto is a colorful, airy compound where the eye of an artist clearly reigns—no post left unpainted, no wall unadorned, yet all of the decor unpretentious and tasteful, harmonious and bright. The garden is a cosmos all its own and home to a surprising assortment of colorful birds and butterflies.
Every facet of comfort is available at Encanto Pulmo. Our little house was stocked with a coffee maker, ceiling fan, fresh water dispenser, queen-sized bed, hot shower—even a chimenea, which we lit eagerly at night in the courtyard. Serenaded by the crackling flames, we moon-gazed from our loungers, sharing a packet of lemon Emperador cookies while we warmed our toes.
Without the distraction of television, the evenings take on a sort of sonic charm. There is the nightly call of geckoes, fluttering orioles and desert larks, the moo of the odd cow and temperamental whinnies of the horses next door. With this peaceful soundtrack, we sat up reading in the cozy four-poster bed as the night fell around us, often turning in as early as eight.
In the mornings, we strolled down the street to El Caballero for breakfast. El Caballero is one of five restaurants in Cabo Pulmo and serves delicious regional food, such as sopa de tortilla followed up with a healthy serving of flan. Tito’s Restaurant, near the town entrance, offers excellent tacos and carne asada and also has a small store featuring local art and souvenirs.
Our favorite place, however, quickly became La Palapa, mostly because of its breezy, seaside location—the perfect place to enjoy their delectable fish tacos on a daily basis. Needless to say, it became a regular stop on our way back from the beach.
Within a day of landing in Cabo Pulmo, we became Pro Idlers. While we reveled in this accomplishment, it left us oddly energized. Curious about the ever-stretching beach and the adjacent arroyo, one day we packed a lunch and hiked through the cliffs, exploring the crags and rifts, all leading down to one sparkling beach after another.
We climbed down a large gully and found ourselves on a pristine expanse of white sand, the crash of the ocean echoing in surround-sound off of the cliff walls. It was the perfect place to banish the last bastion of racing thoughts. Not another soul in sight.
It’s worth mentioning that Cabo Pulmo’s seemingly quiet and “nothing to it” appearance is quite deceiving. As leisurely as our days were, they were also strangely jam-packed with random exploits that tended to just sort of happen— examining tide pools, clambering over rock formations, spying on crab colonies, tracking a strange, hopping creature through the sand dunes, swimming off a deserted beach, floating in the surf, snorkeling on the reef.
In the late afternoons, we liked to sit on the beach to watch “The Show”, an adroit gang of pelicans that hunted relentlessly in the shallows, darting beneath the water and re-surfacing with their heads tilted back as they swallowed their prey in quick, stabbing movements. Soon after, our favorite part of the day arrived, the sun creeping inland toward the mountains, cooling our sunburned faces and signaling that it was once again time for—oh, yes—fish tacos.