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The Los Cabos dichotomy: The southern tip of Baja California has been transformed from desert to luxury destination



In 1521 Hernan Cortez and his army of Spanish conquistadors vanquished the last of the Aztec emperors and began their systematic looting of New World treasures. But the lust for even more riches was fired by rumours of a "golden land" beyond the shores of western Mexico. The fabled Island of California was said to be ruled by a tribe of beautiful dark-skinned and lonely women adorned with gold. Determined to get his hands on both the girls and their gold, Cortez dispatched an expedition to find the Island in 1532. But alas, the rumours proved to be flawed. To begin with, the island turned out to be a peninsula, and far from being welcomed into a lush golden land the conquistadors found a parched and barren place inhabited by very unfriendly stone age folks who killed as many of them as they could and sent the rest packing back to where they came from. And so began the Spaniard's long and largely futile struggle to incorporate Baja California into their New World Empire.

Bounded on the east by the Sea of Cortez and on the west by the open Pacific the narrow sliver of land that forms Baja California extends for 1,250 km, from the U.S. border south to Land's End where the two oceans meet. It's a five hour direct flight from YVR to San Jose airport near the southern end of the peninsula and as I watch the brown, brush-covered mountains slip past I wonder why the Spanish, or anyone else, would want this place. But, surprisingly, Los Cabos, the strip of coastal desert near Land's End, has become one of the most rapidly expanding tourist destinations in all of Mexico.

The key to this transformation is water but the annual rainfall of about three centimetres is barely enough to keep the native cactus alive. For decades the resorts have relied on well water to fill their swimming pools and water their golf courses but the aquifers are being sucked dry and new resorts continue to be built. "We need another hurricane to recharge the wells," says Luis. "We're still using water from hurricane Juliette that brought the big rain of 2001." But hurricanes are both destructive and unpredictable and the resorts are becoming increasingly dependent on desalinated seawater. No matter where they get it, water is all that keeps the artificial world of Los Cabos from reverting back to desert.

It was deep sea fishing that brought the first wave of tourists to the area back in the 1960s. The fishermen were followed by golfers and along with the golfers came thousands of sun-seekers who are content to just lounge at pool-side and absorb margaritas. The "Corredor Los Cabos," a 20-mile strip of coast between the towns of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo caters to them all. The marina at San Lucas is crowded with charter boats for the marlin fishermen, golfers can choose from a dozen different courses totalling 144 holes, and sun-seekers can find an artistically landscaped pool with a swim-up bar at any one of the multitude of luxury hotels along the strip.