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When astronaut Ed "Buzz" Aldrin was in space waiting to land on the moon, he fantasized about walking the long, silent stretch of beach fronting the Hotel Solmar in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

After returning to Earth, Mr. Aldrin came to the modest old hotel, put his bags down on its cool tile floor, and, without uttering a word to the astonished innkeeper, walked the beach from one end to the other.

Shaking with laughter, Luis Bulnes, the hotel's owner, finishes the story just in time for us to watch a fierce red sun plunge noiselessly into the ocean.

A Spaniard by birth, Mr. Bulnes has lived in Cabo San Lucas for 35 years. He's seen a lot of Buzz Aldrins come, go and return, though never from such a distance.

Years ago, Hollywood stars like the Duke (John Wayne), Roy Rogers, Broderick Crawford, Bing Crosby and Errol Flynn would moor their yachts at this sleepy fishing village at the southern tip of Mexico's Baja Peninsula to stalk marlin and sailfish by day and tequila shooters by night.

They've since been replaced by the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Lee Majors, Racquel Welch and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards (the latter two chose to get married in Cabo San Lucas, though not to each other), who seek the comfort of luxury hotels and resorts never dreamed of during the days of the Duke.

Locals say that "Los Cabos" (encompassing San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas) is today what resorts like Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, were about 15 years ago, before the tides of development eroded much of the serenity and character of these former villages.

Los Cabos ("The Cape") sits in isolated contentment at the tip of the Baja Peninsula 1,000 miles south of San Diego. A short, two-hour plane ride from Los Angeles makes Los Cabos closer to the United States than either Puerto Vallarta or Mazatlan.

In 1978, FONATUR, Mexico's national trust fund for tourism development, noticed the proximity of Los Cabos to the West Coast travel market, did a double take over its sinewy desert contours and designated Los Cabos for development as one of Mexico's top tourist destinations.

A 20-year development plan was drawn, a paved highway linking the two towns of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas appeared, and Los Cabos International Airport was built on the edge of an arid desert, which dips to meet a sparkling blue sea eight miles away.

Representatives of FONATUR say they've learned from the mistakes of Acapulco and other overdeveloped Mexican tourist spots and are taking a slow, low-density approach to developing the southernmost segment of the Baja.

Luxury hotels are sprouting

For the moment, at least, this appears to be true. But chains like Aston, Atlas, Calinda, Clarion and the five-star luxury resort Melia hotels have begun to sprout like desert flowers after a good rain, so our advice is to go to Los Cabos before the bloom is off the rose.

San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas are separated by 20-odd miles of compelling coastline. Several judiciously spaced beachfront hotels line that corridor, which features a sinuous continuum of sun-swept sand and sea to the left of the narrow highway and a haunting desert landscape to the right.

Founded in 1730 as a Jesuit mission, San Jose del Cabo, the older of the two towns, is the closer of the two towns to the airport. A tasteful, contemporary Moorish-style Aston Cabo Regis Hotel with unobstructed ocean views sits behind an 18-hole golf course (visitor green fees are about $30) two blocks from the shoreline. A strip of four or five hotels line unblemished beaches. Condo construction litters the hills behind.

Farther inland, the old town of San Jose del Cabo features a central plaza, a faded church and a yellow colonial-style municipal "palace"-turned-office building, built in 1730. The few restaurants, bars and discos that line the sedate, unpaved streets feel less tourist-driven than the more sprightly Cabo San Lucas.

By contrast, the newly widened streets of modern Cabo San Lucas trace the curve of the coastline and cluster around a newly constructed marina. The yawning gaps of land between hotels are slowly but steadily filling up with newcomers featuring hotel-chain names. Freshly painted shops and restaurants bustle with anticipation of the coming tourist boon.

To a great extent, perhaps, it is already here. According to Birnbaum's "Mexico 1991 Guide," Los Cabos already ranks fourth (after Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco) among Mexico's leading beach destinations. As a result, during peak season, trendy hangouts like the Giggling Marlin, Squid Roe and Senor Sushi's swarm with U.S. tourists willing to pay stateside prices for their margaritas and cervezas (beer). Close your eyes a tad, and you'll swear you've stumbled into Fort Lauderdale, Fla., during spring vacation.

But tourists looking for something less antiseptic can still easily discover the real Cabo San Lucas by venturing down the unpaved side streets that branch off Marina Boulevard, Cabo's main drag.

Taqueria Sonora, an outdoor taco stand (reached by walking past Squid Roe and then taking a right and then a left), makes scrumptious tacos for less than $3 each. Asadero La Casita is another popular restaurant, where you'll eat well without feeling bilked.

Water from the mountains

If fears about incurring intestinal ills make this Mexican destination appear less appetizing, reconsider. Unlike tropical Mexican resorts that gather rain in cisterns for their drinking water, Los Cabos gets its water from the mountains. As a result, few visitors appear to suffer the "turista" syndrome that ruins so many Mexican vacations. Begging, another blight on tourism in Mexico, also is absent.

Fishing prospects continue to haul in a considerable number of visitors from all over. Each year, fishermen hook countless blue, black and

striped marlin. The largest catch, a 1,056-pound marlin, was snagged about 10 years ago.

But while Los Cabo continues to lure sport fishermen, today's visitors often are as interested in catching a few good rays as they are in pursuing "the big one."

Los Cabos offers other distractions as well. December through February attracts whale-watchers who spot hundreds of these mammals a mere 20 yards from the edge of the beach. Snorkeling, wind-sailing and water skiing also are offered by local hotels and sporting outfits, although in the middle of winter the water is chilly. Horseback riding along the beach is another favorite way to explore Los Cabos.

But most of us are apt to agree with former astronaut Buzz Aldrin: Los Cabos' greatest attribute is the mesmerizing series of sea arches marking "Land's End," that portion of the peninsula where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez.

Tour boats regularly leave Cabo San Lucas' municipal dock for a closer look at "Los Arcos" and at sea-carved sculptures with fanciful names like "Neptune's Finger" and the "Window." But the best way to experience the overpowering beauty of these rugged monoliths is to rent a jet ski from the Melia Hotel and beach it on Playa del Amor ("Lovers Beach").

Playa del Amor faces the far gentler Sea of Cortez on one side and the fierce Pacific Ocean on the other. Revealing its treacherous, almost primordial side, the Pacific pounds the sand with a force that practically rocks the earth beneath your feet. Swimming from this side of the beach is suicidal, and you should check the schedule of the tides before jet skiing over for an extended period of time.

Though tantalizing, the huge stretch of beach between San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas known as Buenas Aires Beach also is unswimmable because of a strong undertow. Safe swimming areas include the beach at the Melia Hotel, adjacent to the town of Cabo San Lucas; Santa Maria Beach, next to the desert-landscaped Twin Dolphin Hotel, about seven and a half miles from Cabo San Lucas along the corridor to San Jose del Cabo; Chileno Beach, near the cliff-top Cabo San Lucas Hotel, about eight miles from Cabo San Lucas on the corridor; and Palmilla Beach, next to the romantic and secluded Palmilla Hotel.

As a warm vacation destination, Los Cabos receives high marks. And for most folks, it remains a lot more accessible than the moon.

If you go . . .

For information on Los Cabos, contact the Mexican Tourist Office, 1911 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W. Washington, D.C. 20006; call (202) 728-1750.

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