Baja California Dreamin'
Blame it on Sammy Hagar. The sometimes lead singer of Van Halen discovered Cabo years ago, when it was still a low-key fishing village. But the 1990 celebrity opening of Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Cantina, a restaurant and concert space, was a spectacle covered by MTV that put the town on the map with a whole new audience. In the years since, Cabo has become a full-on resort area and one of Mexico’s most popular destinations.
Situated on the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, Los Cabos is comprised of two towns: San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas. The onetime home of Percu Indians, Spanish pirates and Jesuit missionaries, Los Cabos draws American visitors for dozens of reasons—daytime temperatures hover in the 80° to 90° range year-round, English is widely spoken, U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere and activities include luxury shopping and every conceivable water sport. You’ll also find delicious things to eat—from fresh fish tacos at roadside stands to sophisticated meals at world-class restaurants.
The wealth of options is due, in part, to the region’s two drastically different personas. San José del Cabo is a 300-year-old settlement about 28 miles northeast of Cabo San Lucas (the two are connected by the “corridor highway,” a four-lane beachfront road lined with hotels and residential developments). San José has retained the look and feel of an old Mexican town, with cobblestone streets and cozy, family-run restaurants. Cabo San Lucas, on the other hand, has been built with tourists in mind. Most of the activity centers on the marina, which is chock-full of yachts, cruise ships and other pleasure boats, and lined with restaurants, bars and cafés.
Those who have visited other parts of Mexico might be surprised at how expensive Cabo can be. Prices at the more upscale restaurants rival those in New York City. A cab from the corridor into downtown Cabo San Lucas is a nonnegotiable $25* one way, but the regularly scheduled buses cost $2 for the same ride. If you want to whale-watch, fish for marlin, kayak or hike the hidden canyons, expect to pay top dollar.
As tempting as it might be to check into a gorgeous resort and never leave, exploring picturesque southern Baja is a must. And while the options can seem overwhelming—high-end versus low, land versus sea, Michelada versus tequila—the easiest way to navigate the area is to divide (your time between the two towns) and conquer, starting with San José del Cabo.
KNOW THE WAY TO SAN JOSÉ
Laid-back San José can easily be explored in a few hours. During the Art Walk, held every Thursday night from November to June, stores and galleries on and around Alvaro Obregon, a cobblestone street just beyond the town square, stay open until 9 p.m. Visitors stroll past the old adobe buildings, glasses of wine in hand, taking in both the art (photography, sculpture, painting, high-end crafts) and the outdoor musical acts.
The arts district is directly behind the historic one, which, as in most Mexican towns, is built around a town square lined with shops and restaurants. One of the better places for dinner is Mi Cocina at Casa Natalia, a stylish boutique hotel. Ridiculously tall palm trees line the courtyard restaurant; the menu lists traditional Mexican fare along with Italian and Thai dishes. Or head where the locals do: Las Guacamayas, a taqueria with an outdoor kitchen and courtyard seating beneath two big grapefruit trees.
MIDDLE OF THE ROAD
On the drive from San José del Cabo to Cabo San Lucas, you might find yourself gazing wistfully at the gates of exclusive resorts. Access can easily be gained by booking a spa treatment or a lunch or dinner reservation—both Esperanza and Las Ventanas al Paraíso welcome nonguests for spa treatments and meals. You can while away an afternoon getting a massage in a cabana (many with outdoor showers and/or Jacuzzis) or a spa suite and checking out the resort shops—the ones at Las Ventanas are especially good.
On the rare day when no cruise ships are docked in Cabo San Lucas, it can be a relatively calm and restful place. Start at the off-the-beaten-path Blown Glass Factory, where you can watch artisans make margarita glasses, pitchers, vases and animal figurines—all for sale. Stroll around the marina, pop into the Luxury Avenue mall (many recognizable brands, no deals, but it’s worth a look) and check out the multitude of expedition companies offering both land and sea activities. For a cold beer and oysters, stop by Lorenzillo’s Oyster Bar.
Area concierges and guides often direct visitors to Edith’s, one of Cabo’s oldest restaurants. It specializes in fresh fish and meats a la plancha. The decor is old-school charming, and the courtyard romantically lit. Have a drink here, try the tasty tuna tartare and then head to a nearby taco stand, such as Los Claros. What this place lacks in charm, it makes up for with its fresh, inexpensive and delicious tacos and aguachile (a spicy ceviche).
COMMUNE WITH NATURE
When on a peninsula, it’s easy to forget that some activities don’t take place on the water. In fact, the Baja peninsula is home to seven canyons tucked within the Sierra de Laguna mountain range. Most are easily reached on guided hikes with Baja Outback. You’ll be rewarded with towering waterfalls and bubbling pools fed by hot springs.
Baja Outback offers another glimpse of the area’s natural riches, this time down on the beach. Leatherback and Olive Ridley sea turtles lay their nests on these shores, but predators abound, so the eggs are gathered by trained volunteers and moved to protected areas where they can hatch. Supervised releases of the hatchlings often occur at sunset on secluded beaches in the area, and can be both an uplifting and melancholy experience. (Only a small percentage of these tiny turtles survive.) But watching a hundred of them inch toward the waves against the backdrop of a Baja sunset is pretty spectacular.
Or maybe you just want to get out on the water. Baja Outback runs kayak trips to El Arco de Cabo San Lucas, an iconic 200-foot granite arch that’s home to a colony of sea lions. The water is choppy but navigable in two-person kayaks, and if you get tired you can take a break on Lover’s Beach, where the Sea of Cortes meets the Pacific Ocean. It’s only a short walk through towering rock formations from Lover’s Beach to Divorce Beach.
ROAD TRIP: TODOS SANTOS
Just 45 miles north of Cabo San Lucas is Todos Santos, a small, one-stoplight town that’s a longtime favorite of surfers. For decades they’ve flocked here to ride the world-class breaks at Cerritos and San Pedrito. Over the years Todos Santos has also become an artist’s colony of sorts and a refuge for those escaping corporate life.
Surprisingly good food is found here as well. For tasty tacos and sinful chicharrones (deep-fried pork rinds), head to Barajas Tacos, and for fish, Taqueria El Parguito. For fantastic non-Mexican fare, try Ristorante Tre Galline, where chef/owner Angelo Dal Bon’s menu stays true to his northern Italian roots—he cures his own meats and makes pasta on site. And for a taste of local wine, stop by La Bodega de Todos Santos, where a young Californian named Mac Sutton is working to draw attention to wines from Baja.
Mi Cocina: 4 Blvd. Mijares; 52.624.146.7100
Las Ventanas al Paraíso: www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/las-ventanas-los-cabos; 52.624.144.2800
Blown Glass Factory: Blvd. Lazaro Cardenas, Edificio Posada Local 6-A; 52.624.143.0120; glassfactory.com.mx
Luxury Avenue mall: luxuryavenue.com
Lorenzillo’s Oyster Bar: Blvd. Lazaro Cardenas at the Malecon, Marina Area; 52.6126.96.36.199
Edith’s: Camino a Playa El Medano; 52.624.143.0801
Los Claros: Zaragoza Fte. Ala Terminal Vieja Col Centro; 52.624.355.8278
Baja Outback: 314.754.8808; bajaoutback.com
Barajas Tacos: Corner of Degollado and Cuauhtemoc
Taqueria El Parguito: Corner of Santos Degollado and Del. Huerto
Ristorante Tre Galline: Calle Juarez and Calle Topete; 52.612.145.0274
La Bodega de Todos Santos: Calle Hidalgo, between Juarez and Militar; 52.612.152.0181