As The Palapa Turns

 As The Palapa Turns

A salt-rimmed version of the P.F.S.A.

BY LARRY LITVINOFF

So, move back in time about a decade and a half, and the little town of San Lucas is fast turning into what everybody else in the USA is now referring to as “Cabo”, or, as the developers would have you say, “Los Cabos” (which doesn’t make any sense). The long-awaited marina has finally opened, and all the dirt land around it has turned into fancy shops and restaurants, a shipyard, and even a shopping mall. More importantly, insurance companies now recognize the marina as a safe port in a storm and began issuing year-round insurance to the yachts that came down to fish and party. The boys (and girls) of October (who were given this nickname by Latitude Mike as a parody of the baseball teams in the World Series), no longer had to wait until Oct. 1 to cross the line between U.S. and Mexican waters or return to the United States before June 1st, as there was no insurance available during the hurricane season. 

In those early years, the Cape was almost a secret place, discovered by some people by accident or word of mouth. There were no phone lines, way before cell phones or the internet, and the only way to communicate up north was by expensive single side band radio (KMI Point Reyes), or thru the ever helpful J.D at Bisbee’s Tackle in Newport Beach., who always stayed in touch via SSB radio, and sent down needed parts or supplies on southbound yachts, along with news from homebound friends, family, and (the very necessary) Boss. 

Nothing lasts forever, and this unique group of captains and crew slowly gave up their mooring lines and 24/7 running generators and moved into available slips of the Cabo Marina, complete with electricity, cable TV, water, (and in time) WiFi internet. These captains and crew members soon realized that living in the marina was like living in a goldfish bowl, with little privacy, and some of them started to set up places in town to call their own. 

A surfer from Laguna Beach, we’ll call him Ramon, along with his Mexican business partner Mamoya, decided to open a trailer park outside of town. They leased the land from the ejido, graded and installed basic electricity, water, and sewage, setting up day spaces for trailers and RVs. He also started leasing lots to his surfer buddies back in Orange County, his main selling point being that it is ‘so far out of town that the federales will never come out to bother people’ and is across the highway from Monuments surf spot. The park was 2.2 miles from the marina. The land was just northeast of Cabo, with a million-dollar view of the outer bay and Sea of Cortez, the arch, and the night lights of a growing town. For a small investment, you could lease a lot, pour a cement pad, build a palapa, park a trailer under it, and create an instant beach pad. You had all the privacy you wanted, and your boat was safe in the marina. This was the start of El Arco Trailer Park, a sunny place for shady people. The boat crowd learned of this opportunity, and started their own funky hobbit houses, bringing down trailers and cars that were never meant to be brought back up to California. One captain, named John, brought down a silver Airstream trailer, and that became known as the ‘iron lung’ on Channel 65 of the VHF radios that everybody used for communication, as telephone poles and lines were just beginning to be installed. (For $240 USD, you could get a telephone pole and line installed in front of your house.) Casapila was a roundhouse on top of a huge water tank. Casa Tin Man was owned by a guy with an aluminum boat. Nicknames for these houses took the place of boat names when referring to someone. Soon, pirate satellite TV antennas started to pop up, bringing world news to the community.

The town itself was adjusting to being a tourist destination. They were just starting to name the roads, but it was still easy to get around without street signs. There was the ‘main road’ into town (the end of Baja 1 highway). At the stoplight, which used to be a stop sign, you could turn right onto the ‘Up’ road, which took you through town up to Todos Santos (Hwy 19), and a few blocks over was the ‘down’ road, bringing you back to the main road into town. Going straight past the stoplight, you came to a fork in the road. Going left (the Marina road) took you past the Caliente Sports Book, where you turned into the driveway, past Greenberg’s Mexicatessen, to the parking lot by K Dock, where the carwash convicts hung out. If you went right at the fork, you passed Aramburo’s market and the Mar De Cortez Hotel, which was next door to the little phone tienda where you could place a call to home and then wait at the bar in the Mardi while the call went through. (It took some time to get connected.) Surrounding the town was the new ‘Ring Road’ which bypassed the town and took you to Hwy 19.

The town itself was growing very fast. Hollywood celebrities had discovered its charms. Keith Richards got married at the Finisterra, Karen Carpenter built a house up in gringo gulch (Pedregal), and Sammy Hagar built himself a bar and concert hall for himself and his friends to jam in and allowed the public to be part of it. Since the bar (CaboWabo) had the best air conditioning in town, it soon became a favorite watering hole. You never knew who would walk out of the private rooms upstairs and get on stage. One time, I went over to Taco Chef on the up road, only to find the whole Van Halen Band inside, drinking cold Coronas and Pacificos, eating tacos, flirting with the chef’s pretty daughters who were the servers, and just having a ball. They appeared like everyone else in T-shirts, board shorts, and the cheap flip-flops (Flojos) that you bought at the small tiendas for a buck. Everyone pretty much hung up their egos at the airport, and this dusty town became the great equalizer. Everybody turned into a Jimmy Buffett character. As mentioned, the town even had its own gambling Sportsbook, named ‘Caliente’. Of interest was the life-sized bronze statue of a lady dancer on the roof of Caliente. It was an oddity for sure, but, when you saw it every day, soon became just another landmark to give directions by (the parking lot by the Lady of Caliente statue is where the Dairy Queen is).

Cabo even had its own English newspaper run by an outspoken Gringa named Carrie. It was printed twice weekly along the lines of the National Enquirer and was called The Gringo Gazette. Filled with local gossip and advertising, it wasn’t unusual to see a headline stating, “Cabo Gets a New Whore House, And It’s About Time!” Although this headline got everybody’s attention, it was actually about a group of do-gooders who wanted to move all the gentleman’s clubs (like 20/20, Splash, and Lord Black’s) to the other side of the ring road, out in the boondocks. The movement didn’t work out too well.

During this time of rapid growth, Mike opened his bar, the original Latitude 22. As advertised, it was located a block and a half upwind from the sewage treatment plant and soon became a hangout for the locals. Any junk that pertained to fishing/boating was hung on the walls or ceiling instead of being thrown out. Lots of dead fish pictures. Even though there had not been a hurricane or tropical storm, Mike realized that when that big storm arrived, there would be a need for a place to gather and drink and exchange information, so he invested in generators, freezers, and water storage pilas, along with a huge supply of beer and rum. If ever there was a Margaritaville, Latitude 22 was it.

During the boomtown development days of Cabo, there was a lot of unsupervised construction of condos, houses, and buildings with little attention paid to building codes, natural drainage, or other infrastructure. The airport was expanding to accommodate the increase in tourist traffic. Internet was still nonexistent, and computers were very crude. By now many captains and crew were living down here full-time, even though everyone was on a 180-day tourist visa. Immigration was not really enforced, but you needed a valid visa to fly back to the States. There was one captain, a very clever guy (we’ll call him Vince the Dawg), who noticed that the eagle on the visa stamp was the same as the eagle on the old one peso silver coin (about the size of a silver dollar). So he got himself the coin, an ink pad, and a stack of blank visas, and started his own little cottage industry. He never really sold them for money, but somehow, his house up at El Arco (the infamous Casa Perro) was always stocked with the finest wines, meats, lobsters, and Alaska crab legs. Vincente also started talking about forming an organization along the lines of the Teamsters and Longshoremen. It was a humorous way to talk about low pay, long hours, never weekends or holidays off, and hazard pay (caught offshore in a storm), while at the same time avoiding the fact that it was by far the best job on earth. He named the organization the P.F.S.A. and the idea stuck. He even made T-shirts. Another captain, Mouse (a transplant from Hawaii where he was the captain of the Manasas, Steven Stills’ yacht in Lahaina) came up with the slogan ‘First To Go, Last To Know.” This was every captain’s worst nightmare, to be the last one on the dock to find out that the Boss had pulled the plug, either selling the boat or bringing it back to the States. The P.F.S.A was all fun and games, but one of the rules was that no boat owners were allowed to join except for Lou, who was more of a deckhand on his own yacht, El Vato, as he helped wash the boat, did basic maintenance, and even let the captain have the master stateroom. Lou even had his own booth at Latitude, marked by an old prop off his yacht. Actually, most of the boat owners wanted to do what they were paying their captain and crew for but had to stay up in the States and work to make the ridiculous amount of money needed to support a program like this. This friendly rivalry grew over time, with new chapters popping up in Manzanillo, Costa Rica, Hawaii, Southern California, and Hawaii. Life was good, the fish were biting, the beer was cold, the little town of San Lucas kept growing, and the economy kept the operating expenses flowing. What could go wrong? That answer came suddenly, on Sept. 21, 2001, ten days after 9-11, in the form of Hurricane Juliette, a category 4 storm that just about leveled Cabo.

To Be Continued…….

Up next, ” Going Into Arm’s Way: the rise of the P.F.S.A.”