Take a Trip Back in Time at Rancho Leonero -

By Alison DaRosa for Creators Syndicate, January 2009

The Sea of Cortez shone like high-gloss linoleum as we motored away from the dock at Rancho Leonero. A cool, salty breeze softened the heat of the sun - a neon orange beach ball — that glistened above the eastern horizon. We wondered what the day would hold - and basked in the excitement of not knowing.

Mornings are a glorious time at Rancho Leonero in Baja California, Mexico.

"It's the anticipation," said Cindi Lambert, of San Diego. "Given where we are, we're pretty sure we can't miss; we're going to catch fish. We're just dreaming about how many — and how big they'll be. We're pumped. "

Rancho Leonero is one of a dying breed, an old-style Mexican fishing resort nestled between the Sierra de la Laguna and the Sea of Cortez on the sun-drenched southern Baja California peninsula. Its 34 air-conditioned units — many with "palapa," or thatch, roofs — are situated on a 350-acre coconut palm-studded oasis about 70 miles north of Cabo San Lucas. The resort has a swimming pool, a dining room and bar, a small gym and massage room. It boasts a fleet of about 20 fishing boats — and nearly two miles of pristine sandy beach. Its natural well provides pure, sweet drinking water, making this one of the few places in all of Mexico where guests can drink the water without worry.

There are plenty of reasons to visit "The Ranch," as regulars call it: great snorkeling in the bath-warm bay out front, or a short distance away at Pulmo Reef, one of the only living coral reefs on the Pacific side of North America; hearty family-style meals, included in the cost of a stay, served three times daily in the palapa-roofed dining room or outside on the seafront patio; the kayaking, horseback riding or simply vegetating in hammocks strung throughout the property.

But most people come for the fishing. More than 800 species of game fish - including 1,000-pound marlin, sailfish, yellowfin tuna, dorado, wahoo, grouper and roosterfish prowl the waters off The Ranch's shores.

"The fishing isn't as good as it used to be; now you might be surrounded by 30 or more other boats out there," groused Don Kee from Charleston, S.C. He was at the resort with 22 other men convened for the 20th annual East Cape fishing trip sponsored by Seattle-based Stevedore Services of America. "Other things have changed too. Ten years ago when we came here, it was just a bunch of stinking, smelly guys, telling jokes, smoking stogies, jumping in the pool after a day of fishing. We never saw a lady here — and never a family. It's not as good as it used to be — but we still love it."

The women and families who've crashed the scene aren't apologetic: "Now there are women around to trash these stinkers away," said Lambert as she pitched a half-smoked cigar someone left on a patio pillar.

One tradition at the resort hasn't changed. When cruisers and "pangas," motorized skiffs, return to the dock in the afternoon, tuckered fishers gather for chips and guacamole on the flagstone patio. As the easy sound of surf laps the shore, adults surrender to a balmy plumeria-scented nirvana that envelops the place. They nurse a frosty Pacifico or sip one of the resort's killer margaritas, made with no mixer other than a squeeze or two of lime. Kids sip Cokes and splash in the pool. Then fishers of all ages savor fish tales:

"I caught five trigger fish today," boasted 6-year-old Mahlon Thatcher Everhart from Las Cruces, N.M. "Tomorrow, I might catch 100." Later that evening, the boy offered tastes of "ceviche," a raw seafood salad, made from his catch by the kitchen staff.

"Last year, my son caught a 400-pound blue marlin and a sailfish," bragged Dan Knellinger, who fished with his son, Bart, from Palm Harbor, Fla. "We caught tuna till our arms gave out.

"Today we used trout tackle and came in with 13 tuna — 15-to-20 pounders," Knellinger said. "It was pretty slow. I guess that's why they call it fishing, not catching."

Knellinger and his son had their tuna cleaned and filleted. They bagged and stored it in the resort's communal freezer to take home. (After recurring incidents of frozen fish gone missing, the resort has instituted a checkout system for the freezer.)

Frank Patalano from Sacramento, Calif., another SSA party hound, drew a gaggle of guests to the big outdoor grill: "Come and get it," he said, offering paper cups filled with barbecued dorado. "I caught three dorado and a yellowfin tuna today. We're eatin' 'em now. An appetizer. Tonight's ribs night — can't miss that."

Huge platters of barbecued baby back pork ribs on Saturday nights — another inviolate Ranch tradition.

"I love this place; it's old Baja," said Lance Alworth, the pro football Hall of Famer and wide receiver for the San Diego Chargers back in the '60s. "This is how Cabo used to be."

Alworth has owned a condo in Cabo San Lucas since 1980. "For years, I'd run into John Ireland on the plane coming down here. He'd always invite me to drop by," said Alworth. "When I finally did visit, I fell in love," Alworth said. "It's a fabulous spot — and nobody knows it's here."

Alworth was so smitten by The Ranch's old Baja feel that he and his wife, Laura, purchased a lot a few hundred yards down the beach and are building a home on the spot. It'll be finished soon, but the Alworths expect they'll stay Ranch regulars anyway — especially when they have an early morning craving for huevos rancheros.

"We're the place you come when you want to get away from the likes of Cabo — away from TVs, discos, room service," said Ranch manager Gary Barnes-Webb. "You're never going to break a nail in Cabo. We're for more hands-on people — people who like to have sand on their feet."

IF YOU GO Get there: Alaska, Continental and Delta are among major U.S. airlines that fly into Los Cabos International Airport. Rancho Leonero can arrange ground transportation to and from the airport. Costs range from about $60 each way per person, to $15 per person when eight people occupy a van.

Stay there: Rooms for two range from $150 to $250 per night and include three meals per day. Add 12 percent tax and a 10 percent service charge.

Fish: Resort cruisers, which accommodate up to five fishers, charter for $385 per day. Motorized pangas, for up to three fishers, go for $250 per day. Rental rods run $10 and fishing licenses are $23 per week.

Snorkel: Vista Sea Sport (www.vistaseasport.com) offers three-quarter-day trips from Rancho Leonero to Cabo Pulmo Marine Park for $65 per person. Add $10 to rent snorkel gear.

Kayak: Ranch rentals run $10 per hour, $40 per day.

Etcetera: Check for discounts and package deals. For example, the summer value package (which must be booked between mid-January and March) offers rooms for two for as little at $75 per day, including meals. There's a three-night minimum and the deal requires a least one day of paid charter fishing. Go to www.rancholeonero.com.

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Alison DaRosa is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.