East Cape's Rancho Leonero maintains old-style Baja feeling -

August 24, 2001 - Western Outdoor News
By Pete McDonnell

EAST CAPE - John Ireland sees some big changes coming to the East Cape. And while the owner of Rancho Leonero insists the region will never see the massive buildups of Cabo San Lucas, there's no question that this sleepy strip of Baja is enjoying slow and steady growth.

This reporter spent a week at Rancho Leonero after not having visited for nearly a decade. There was never a particular reason not to go in those years, just a great many other commitments of the job and family. The East Cape is one of the great fishing spots in the world. Dollar for dollar, you can't beat a fishing trip with family or friends to the hotels on the East Cape. The pace is slow and the East Cape world centers around fishermen, friends and families.

And while there is no guarantees on fishing, the East Cape's nearshore fishing is spectacular year-round for jack crevalle and roosters, with offshore action starting just a mile or two off where the shelf just drops off into deep, cobalt blue water where upwelling begins the chain of feeding that produces yellowfin tuna, wahoo, striped marlin, blue and black marlin, sailfish and dorado. In other words, while you can travel long distances for great fishing, usually it's just a short run to the fishing grounds from the East Cape.

Ireland and I have been friends for years. Ireland and this reporter both grew up near the beaches of Santa Monica, surfing and fishing. I like his laid-back style and the way he's kept the hotel small, slowly increasing the number of rooms and beachfront bungalows. A few months ago we had a casual conversation on the phone, and he again extended an invitation.

It was perfect timing. I had no plans for one of my remaining two weeks of family vacation I had to use by August, and the next thing I knew I was calling Rancho Leonero booking agent Richard Castaneda of Cass Tours to look for some cheap rates from San Diego to Cabo on Alaska Airlines.

Living in Carlsbad, a flight out of LAX is a miserable experience of traffic to and from the airport, custom snarls and endless waiting for an airport employee to open an elevator so I can get my rod case. Flying out of San Diego is the way to go, and Alaska Airlines with its modern terminal in Cabo is far more relaxing, although don't plan on eating at the Alaska terminal - a burger and Coke is $14. No kidding. There are no "cheap" fares from San Diego to Cabo unless it's offseason and there's no weekend day of travel involved, but the "Cassman" did a pretty amazing job finding four tickets in the $300 range through an Internet deal on the Alaska Airlines web site.

When we arrived at Cabo airport, Ireland was waiting, and all went smoothly as we all pushed the button, and got the "green" light at customs. I had to chuckle at John's vehicle. Back in 1991 he had a beat-up van without seats. I think he had cane chairs, a bench seat and a cooler of beers. This time around he had a new Ford Excursion.

"I feel as though after all these years I'm finally making it," said Ireland. The hotel is close to being filled year-round now, said Ireland, and is still the smallest on the East Cape at 35 rooms, and buildout for rooms and bungalows will be just over 50 rooms on the 350-acre site perched on a low bluff, with the white sand reached by going down a dozen or so stone steps.

The construction of the hotel is in keeping with its history, which dates back to when it was a tiny hacienda of flagstone walls, tiled floors and thatched roofs when owned by wildlife cinematographer Gil Powell who bought the 350 acres in 1950 and was constantly traveling to Africa to shoot movies. The locals called him "El Leonero," which roughly translates to "The one who knows lions," and the ranch was dubbed Rancho El Leonero.

Powell died in 1974 and went into disrepair before Ireland saw the property for the first time.

At that time, 1979, he was a diving instructor with L.A. County Lifeguards and was hired by Scripps Institute in La Jolla to study reefs on the East Cape, one of them Cabo Pulmo, one of the few remaining living coral reefs in North America. During his stay in Cabo he met Rolling Stones' Keith Richards, and Ireland came along on Richards' look-see at some property on the East Cape offered by an agent in Los Angeles. Richards wasn't interested, but Ireland was taken by the property, a thatched-roof rancho on a low bluff above an arroyo and two miles of pristine beachfront property. After two frustrating years trying to acquire the land, he finally bought it in 1981 for a mere $300,000, which Ireland didn't have, so he struck a deal for $70,000 cash down. the rest carried on paper.

"I thought my troubles were over then," said Ireland, "I was sure wrong about that." There is nothing easy about an American with limited resources starting a hotel in Mexico. Construction costs are insanely high because materials have to be brought in, and concrete is mixed one bag at a time. And there are the hurricanes, one of which directly hit the region in the late '80s and ripped off the hotel's roofs. Throughout the years, though, Ireland has received support and advice throughout the region.

"Bob and Cha Cha (Van Wormer of Palmas de Cortez, Playa Del Sol and Punta Colorada) and Mark Walters of Rancho Buena Vista were always very helpful," he said.

By 1984 Ireland had begun construction on the original five rooms and the original ranch house became the bar and office. Ireland's concept was to keep the hotel looking like a rancho, with high ceilings and thatched roofs in the oversized rooms, with tile floors, walkways and walls made of flagstone taken from a quarry on his property. He opened for business in 1986, and his "fleet" was an oar-powered shoreboat. He now has several cruisers and super pangas. Little by little, his master plan was pursued, financed by the hotel guests and the sale of homefront properties to the south.

Said Ireland, "I never wanted a big hotel, just the kind of spot that still feels like old Baja."

That was exactly the kind of location I wanted for a family vacation. I was even more impressed when Ireland pointed out that since my last visit, the television was removed from the bar. There are no phones or televisions in the room. Without the intrusion of phones, TVs and computers, you are thrust into another era, blissfully void of MTV and other mindless tripe.

"I noticed people weren't talking at the bar and if they were it was about what was on the television, not about themselves, so I had it pulled out," he said. Bravo!

At Rancho Leonero, you don't lack for activities. The hotel has a fleet of cruisers and top crews. You can rent a rod or bring your own and surf fish, rent snorkel equipment, sign up for scuba lessons and tours of living coral reefs, or you can just read and talk to other guests (even your kids!). If you get tired and need that midday siesta, settle into one of the patio hammocks near the pool, swim with your kids, take long walks on the beach at sunrise and sunset or rent one of the kayaks on the beach for some quality time alone with a fishing rod, reel and a lure - just in case something boils around you. After that, feel free to dine on the patio as the Sea of Cortez, just a few yards away, gently sifts the shoreline sand.

The tiny bar closes at 10 p.m. and it's a lively mix as adults converse in a background of low-volume music on a small CD player manned by the friendly bartenders, who honor requests. One evening, one of the two friendly bartenders agreed with good humor - and patience - to a request by my daughters Megan, 20, and Lauren, 16. to come behind the bar to mix margaritas and pina coladas to brave souls.

Primary games are the occasional card or checkers, with a favorite the most simple of all, a two-inch ring on a 10-foot string that swings from the high ceiling. The target is a nail on a wall 10 feet away. Kids line up for their turns to catch the nail with the ring. Video games, it ain't, and that's the beauty of it. Another item Ireland prefers to keep to a minimum is the rented four-wheeler, which are popular, fun, noisy and available at Los Barriles.

"I won't rent them here," said Ireland. "I like it quiet here, and having them here would change that. We can make arrangements for guests to rent them in town, though. Same with the horses."

Rancho Leonero is isolated from the rest of the East Cape and the town of Los Barriles to the north and the village of Santiago 20 minutes to the south. Taxies are quickly available, and while the food at Rancho Leonero is excellent, I would still suggest two side trips. One, take in Tio Pablo's Restaurant in Los Barriles and order the Belt Buster, a 22-ounce steak. Finish it if you can. Most can't. Fellow staffer Kit McNear, legendary for his eating habits even though he's 150 pounds soaking wet, once ate a Belt Buster - and a chocolate sundae on a dare. So did I that trip. I won't try it again, but you should.

The other East Cape side trip is to the town of Santiago, a 20-minute taxi ride south. It's a true Baja farming village, and houses the local high school for the East Cape. It lays claim to the La Paloma restaurant and hotel, an aging but historic eatery and bar that John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Bing Crosby and Dwight Eisenhower enjoyed many times after dove hunting the rich farmland of the valley.

La Paloma ("the dove") is known only by word of mouth, has maybe a dozen tables and offers old Baja-style patio dining and great margaritas. Ireland and his wife, Jennifer, the day after they celebrated their first anniversary, dines with us at La Paloma. Once again, 10 years after I first ate there, I ordered the chile relleno, the best I've ever had.

Another reason I love the old place is it's link to WON's history. On the wall of the La Paloma bar is an old Ray Cannon WON column, framed and yellowed. Cannon was an adventurer, writing less about fishing than the people and places of old Baja. Cannon wrote of the small restaurant, the tiny village and rowdy American celebrities who flew in by small plane in the 1940s and '50s to hunt, fish and drink far from the public eye.

Unlike most trips to the East Cape I've taken over the last 18 years working at WON, this trip was a nearshore adventure, both in fishing from a kayak in spare hours when I wasn't in a cruiser for three days of small-game action targeting small roosters on light line. The week I was there, mid-June, the fishing was on the outside of poor as a result of cold, green water, so it was just as well we didn't plan on the usual array of offshore yellowfin tuna, marlin and dorado that are now abundant in the late summer months.

Each of the three days I fished, one day by myself, another with my family, and another with just Ireland, the action on the 10-pound bonito two miles out was fantastic each morning, although the bullet tuna either weren't around as they had been, or the bonito were just too aggressive in the chum line of sardinas and hooked baits. I was soon sorry as I saw boils surround the boat that I hadn't brought my saltwater fly rod, which would have made for great fun.

As for the roosters, they were thick in some areas, the best just above Punta Colorada in about five feet of water. Knowing the fish were not big, I fished light line, 10- to 15-pound test, and had a ball. The roosters, 5 to 10 pounds, are great fighters at any weight, and by 1 p.m. I was back at the hotel relaxing with a cold cerveza, a little siesta, followed by kayaking or snorkeling. It was a tough schedule. The waters just 50 yards offshore were also s worries me. Marco and Jennifer are two Americans who moved to the East Cape several years ago and rather than sit around and be "retired," began Vista Sea Sport, which hosts East Cap scuba and snorkel tours, rents gear and trains divers for various levels of PADI certification. Our two-hour "resort" training the first day prepared us for the next day's dive at two coral reefs just north of Punta Pescadero. Such resort training and dive, including rental, costs $120 each. I highly recommend the experience.