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OUTDOORS PETE THOMAS

The Ranch Has Animal Magnetism

June 21, 2002|PETE THOMAS

BUENA VISTA, Mexico — Baja California is a land of many wonders, and adding to its charm are its many colorful characters, most of whom have come to regard the desert frontier as the ultimate escape from complicated life north of the border.

One of the most wonderful places is the East Cape region, on the Sea of Cortez about 75 miles north of Cabo San Lucas. One of the most charming East Cape resorts is Rancho Leonero, just south of Buena Vista, atop a bluff overlooking the strikingly beautiful sea.

The Ranch, as it is called, is fronted by a reef teeming with small fish and flanked on both sides by long, sandy beaches. Beyond the reef are larger, more powerful fish that lure anglers from all over the world.

But the Ranch, like any of the nearby resorts, wouldn't be the sleepy haven it is without its cast of characters, not all of whom are human.

There's Nick the dog, for example. His owner, a fighter pilot during the Vietnam war, is a semi-retired accountant from the Portland area. He and his wife spend a few months of the year unwinding at their home down the beach.

They always bring Nick, whose daily routine includes an evening swim, in front of guests on the patio, who watch in amazement as the furry black mixed-breed paws his way over and beyond the reef, often venturing more than 300 yards out, barking at nothing and everything as he goes.

Then there's Ranger the parrot, whose owner, Roy Baldwin, was an executive for a San Diego real estate development firm before coming here 10 years ago. He fell in love with the simplicity of Baja life and never went back.

To him, Ranger is man's best friend. The bird turned 29 recently. Baldwin treated him to a steak and French fries at a restaurant in nearby La Ribera.

"Ranger's not a bird. He's human, or at least he thinks he is," Baldwin says, adding that the parrot insists on actually walking into a restaurant, as people do, and that his favorite food is spicy chicken wings.

As for Baldwin, after his initial visit, he was hired as chief financial officer at the Ranch, and adopted the nickname, "Senior Divertido," or "Mr. Fun." He and Ranger moved into a trailer at the edge of a sprawling arroyo, with a glimpsing view of the emerald sea.

He had found paradise, but also an environment where peace and serenity should never be taken for granted. In the summer of 1998, Hurricane Isis roared up the gulf and flooded the arroyo. The furious current swept away the trailer and most of Baldwin's possessions.

In a bound diary of his ordeal, which he shares with guests at the bar, is the passage:

"There's pieces of my place strewn all over the beach from here to La Ribera. One of the homeowners found my safe on the beach. Thinking he had found buried treasure he carried it home on his ATV and broke it open. I'll bet he was surprised when the only thing he found inside was a picture of me."

Today, Baldwin, 49, lives on higher ground in La Ribera, a small town of mostly fishermen and their families. He spends his work days managing money, updating the hotel Web site (www.rancholeonero.com) and keeping a constant eye on the weather.

"I'll never go back to the States," he says. "All I need is a Friday night on a freeway up there to appreciate dodging cows on the roads down here."

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Wayward livestock is a Baja trademark, but here at the Ranch the real cattle call is the one that takes place each morning at dawn, when guests finish breakfast and rush to the pier to catch their rides to the fishing grounds.

The East Cape, like Cabo San Lucas, offers some of the finest fishing in the world for a variety of offshore and inshore species, notably marlin, tuna, dorado and roosterfish. Unlike Cabo San Lucas, the East Cape has retained its Mexican flavor. It has not been over-developed, has no traffic, no unsightly high-rises. It boasts only a glimmer of nightlife, in the small town of Los Barriles.

Rather, its selling points remain, simply, the solitude (hotel rooms have neither phones nor TVs), a bountiful sea and some of the most dazzling sunrises imaginable.

"There are some bugs in our room, but other than that it's just perfect," says Jeff Ziegler, 47, visiting from Denver with his wife, Audrey. "We like it because it is so quiet."

The fleet at the Ranch includes cruisers and super pangas (center-console outboards with swivel seats), though kayaks are also available and their use is becoming increasingly popular.

Greeting the customers most mornings, either at breakfast or at the pier, is Rancho Leonero Resort owner John Ireland. Like Baldwin, Ireland fell in love with the place during his first visit, as a prospective buyer, in 1979. Previously, it had been the seasonal home of Gil Powell, a wildlife cinematographer and big-game hunter known for his movie shoots in Africa.

The locals called Powell "El Leonero," or "the one who knows lions."

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