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Weekend Escape: Cabo San Lucas : Econo-Dive : This Scuba Aficionado Took Advantage of a Baja California Dive Package for a Three-Day Vacation That Didn't Cost Much More Than Some Local Trips

January 02, 1994|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Haldane writes for The Times' Orange County Edition Metro section. and

CABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico — The fact that I was in for a decidedly different experience first struck me 90 feet beneath the surface of the Sea of Cortez.

Sucking air from my regulator, I was hovering over the Sandfall, a place much favored by divers visiting this gem of a town on the southern tip of Baja California. Jacques Cousteau discovered this phenomenon in the early 1960s--a natural trough in a sheer vertical wall plunging some 3,000 feet into the ocean's inky depths. And cascading down its face--fed, Cousteau theorized, by a constant circular current--flowed a steady stream of sand .

My mind did a somersault.

Like thousands of others, I had been to Yosemite, where some of the world's most breathtaking waterfalls cascade in wild abandon over rock. Here, in an exact reversal of terrestrial reality, earth flowed through water. The scene's wackiness came to symbolize my feelings about Mexico: a parched desert of cactus and dust above ground, underwater a tropical forest teeming with colorful flora and fauna.

Undersea wonders have been a part of my life since I took up scuba diving as a teen-ager. For the past several years, the hobby has taken me on annual vacations to tropical dive destinations around the world--the Florida Keys, Grand Cayman, Hawaii, Fiji, Honduras, Cozumel, Akumal and Eleuthera in the Bahamas--spots where the water is warm, the visibility endless and the fruit drinks plentiful.

This year I was planning a trip to Belize, a supposed diver's paradise in northern Central America. Like many Californians, however, I have experienced recent economic reversals--in my case a divorce--that made me balk at the notion of spending nearly $3,000 for a seven-day vacation. Reluctant to give up my annual dive trip altogether, I searched for a more economical alternative. I found it in Cabo San Lucas, where you can experience world-class diving at middle-class prices--just $396 for the package I found, which included round-trip air fare, three nights at a quiet, modest hotel in the center of town, and two days of guided diving with boat, dive master and all equipment.

For the less thrift-minded, other packages range up to $771 for a suite at Hotel Palmilla, a luxury facility with a golf course and fishing fleet. Add $500 for first-class flying.

My own trip got off to a shaky start when, after arriving at LAX on a Friday for the 7 a.m. Aero California flight to Cabo, our departure was delayed 3 1/2 hours due to a malfunctioning air-conditioning system. The delay lasted longer than the 2-hour-10-minute flight. I can't even describe the feeling of relief I felt when the plane finally took off.

It was early October, a full five weeks before a series of devastating thunderstorms was to close the Cabo airport. But friends tell me that conditions have since returned to normal.

My package didn't include hotel transfers, so after strolling into the airport lobby, I walked up to the first official-looking person I saw and asked for an $8 ticket for the 45-minute van trip into town. He turned out to be a time-share salesman, but he sold me the ticket anyway.

Hotel Mar de Cortez has a completely nondescript entryway on a side street near downtown. The lobby is actually on an outdoor patio, as is the hotel restaurant. Above all, the place is utilitarian. Because it had no alarm clock, telephone, television or radio, I had to rely on the early light to coax me awake the next morning, which it obligingly did.

By 8:45 a.m., after a quick hotel restaurant breakfast of coffee, Mexican-style scrambled eggs and tortillas with beans, I was ready for the four-block stroll through the humid heat of town to the marina where the dive boat was moored. The town wraps itself around the water like a glove, and its cobblestone streets slope gently down toward the ocean. Like most Mexican towns, this one first presents itself by its smells: the whiff of corn tortillas from the open-air restaurants mingled with the fumes of petroleum from passing cars.

After a briefing at Pacific Coast Adventures dive shop, one of six dive shops in town and the one through which I'd booked my package, we were ready to go. The shop is in a building next to the marina, just a few hundred yards from where the dive boat Pegasus is moored. Throwing our dive bags over our shoulders, the day's paying customers--myself and a newly certified couple from Santa Monica--walked out to the 26-foot fiberglass skiff with its outboard motor and cramped deck.

"In Cabo everything is close," Juan Beltran, our 20-year-old Mexican dive master, told us on the first day out.

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