In Search of Margaritaville -

February 18, 2001 - San Francisco Chronicle
By David Peevers

About 70 dusty, cactus-strewn miles up the Sea of Cortez coast from the fleshpots of Condo San Lucas - er, make that Cabo San Lucas - lies a Mexican "Brigadoon."

The signpost for Rancho Leonero is a weathered board nailed to a tree stump. The place isn't mapped very well, other than in the psyche of every fisherman who ever wet a line. But turn right here and follow the tang of brine and fresh fish to the sea. The promise of big and plentiful fish got John Ireland and Keith Richards to start kicking around the idea of a resort here some 20 years ago. Richards left to resume his job as guitarist for some obscure English rock band; Ireland stayed. His payoff - in the midst of Baja's East Cape solitude - is a place that stays in the mind.

Oh, you'll find the fish here. And the crusty and prosperous types who find a taut line singing over the rail a far better connection with life forces than anything delivered via modem. But you'll also find local families fishing off the dock, regularly skunking the Hemingway wannabes who've gone 40 miles out to sea. The people of Leonero are its greatest draw.

The resort manager is one of the greatest hunters to ply that dangerous trade in Africa. There are lions in his eyes, still. "Desert Rat" Steve Chisholm can march you a hundred yards down the beach to an Indian midden where generations of tribes hunkered to crack open their shellfish. You might well bump into an aging walrus of a man called the "Flying Fool of Baja," who has piloted to, or otherwise sniffed out, every legendary spot worth mention in the peninsula's raucous history. You'll witness an expat Seattle hausfrau unburdening herself from the surfeit of her day's catch. She lays a 10-pound platter of tuna sashimi at the table of four starving fishermen and discovers that "Hoover" is a verb.

The best scuba and snorkeling in Baja are scant sandy footsteps out your front door. Dinner companions might be oceanographers or bronco busters from Wyoming. You can windsurf, trot up the local canyons on horseback or just drink in the silence. But the best of all Leonero time is spent conversing with fellow travelers at the resort's fabled bar.

Tennessee Williams, George Bush (senior, of course), Bette Midler and a carpenter from Dubuque would all be at home here. The scarred rail has been lovingly polished by the elbows of legions of raconteurs, and the air smells of a mixture of alcohol, briny breezes and harmless lies.

It's on this curve of coast - above this very bar - where the notoriously stiff elbow of John Ireland floats while the Commemorativo tequila splashes into a wicked citrus brew that bites like a fierce love. These are the margaritas that - after the third - are much like the 1960s: If you can remember them, you just weren't really there. Rancho Leonero is located on the Sea of Cortez, about 70 miles from Cabo San Lucas. From the Los Cabos airport, a shuttle arranged through the resort ranges in cost from $50 for a single person to $14 each for a van of eight.