When many Americans visualize Cabo San Lucas, they see aging beach partiers whipped into a frenzy of body shots and conga lines by friendly hombres tooting on playground whistles. They see a breezy piece of would-be paradise so debauched, Sammy “I Can’t Drive 55” Hagar himself opened a nice little cantina there. They see an endearing shit-show.
And they’d be right – Cabo San Lucas is a lot like that. But the city constitutes only half of the Cabo equation. Not 20 miles down the coast sits San José del Cabo, a folksy town of 70,000 with a charming craft shopping district and an emerging culinary scene. Collectively, they form Los Cabos, a sunny, windswept citadel of leisure that hangs off the Baja peninsula, excitingly, like a drop of water on a melting icicle.
This is a story of those two Cabos, and the slip of luxury coastline that unites them.
The “Cabo Wabo” Cabo
For Arizonans, it needs to be stipulated: Cabo is nothing like Rocky Point, the Sonoran fishing town on the Sea of Cortez that informs many of our local impressions of coastal Mexico. Whereas Rocky Point has flat, somnambulant seas, the water in Cabo is constantly emoting, in perpetual churn.
But what else would one expect, rounding the iconic, natural stone arch where two great bodies of water – the mighty Pacific and the Sea of Cortez – physically meet? We’ve just embarked on a pleasure cruise of the Cabo coast via the Cabo Adventures (cabo-adventures.com) 40-foot catamaran, and are getting an eyeful of El Arco, one of the city’s best-known and most spectacular sights.
The captain points past a colony of lounging sea lions to the arch itself. “When the tide is right, you can raft in there... enter from the sea, and emerge into an ocean,” he says.
The two-hour cruise is a great way to break the ice with Cabo – see the coastline, have some A.M. cocktails (complimentary with the ticket), do a little light snorkeling – but hearty ocean lovers will want a more vigorous interface. A popular option is Cabo’s legendary deep-sea fishing, easy enough to facilitate through one of the umpteen charter services lining the Boulevard Paseo de la Marina in San Lucas’ busy marina district.
But me? I want to go back to El Arco and see what those sea lions look like underwater, so I call Dive Cabo (divecabo.com) and line up a two-tank scuba excursion ($129). The friendly and competent dive master, Harold, a German expat, tells me to keep an eye out for schools of stingrays in the water – not for safety, necessarily, but for viewing pleasure.
Getting into the water proves easier said than done – the sea is restless – and the rewards don’t immediately justify the hassle:
The water is kind of hazy, with a pedestrian population of coral fish. The sea lions keep their distance. But then Harold clicks his little underwater attention-getter and directs my eyes upward: dozens of rays, a whole armada of them, gliding over our heads like B-29s in a smoky German sky.
As any recreational scuba diver knows: one good money shot, however brief, a first-rate dive does make.
There are a handful of San Lucas institutions that warrant a visit: Cabo Wabo, the aforementioned Sammy Hagar bar, because it’s like the Eiffel Tower of Cabo (cabowabocantina.com); Tacos Gardenias (tacosgardenias.com), because it’s like the Pizzeria Bianco of Cabo; and the shopping in the marina district, where you’ll find Cuban cigars at J&J (jnjcabo.com) and cheap knicknacks aplenty in a dozen forgettable chintz shops. I bought a $3 fridge magnet of a guitar-playing frog for my 3-year-old, since he had just learned the French word for toad: crapaud.
Upon my return, my wife eyes it with distaste. “Wow, that is crap-o,” she says. Ouch.
The Bougie Cabo
“Is Sam Fox hiding out somewhere?”
That was my first thought stepping onto Flora Farms (flora-farms.com), a high-concept culinary compound draped over a pleasant estuary valley in the eastern outskirts of San José del Cabo, itself about a half-hour drive east from Cabo San Lucas. In addition to an excellent rustic-Med restaurant, there’s a cocktail bar, an ice cream stand, a produce market, a yoga studio and, yes, a working, 10-acre organic farm, which supplies more than 100 varieties of fruits and vegetables – in addition to humanely raised beef, pork and chicken – to the other constituent businesses.
In short, it’s precisely the kind of state-of-the-art craft contraption that bourgeois Westerners love, love, love. Launched by a pair of Silicon Valley émigrés in 2014, it’s also illustrative of San José’s transformation from a sleepy feeder community into Baja’s version of La Jolla. Don’t miss the restaurant, Flora’s Field Kitchen, for any reason, and give long thought to the house-raised, double-cut pork chop, roasted over mesquite and served with a tangy-sweet tomato chutney – it’s impossibly juicy and some of the purest meat you’ll ever taste.
San José has clearly seized the high-end culinary mantle from its sister city to the west. Acre, another farm-restaurant hyphenate, is making people talk, though mostly for its 12 luxury treehouse rooms that are due to open at the end of 2017 (acrebaja.com); and travelers rave about the Tropicana Inn Bar & Grill across the estuary (tropicanainn.com.mx).
San José’s centro area is exquisite – a hilly, labyrinthine patchwork of cobblestone streets and colonial buildings, clustered around a main square, Plaza Mijares. Art galleries, native gift shops and interesting restaurants are too numerous to itemize, but start at Alvaro Obregon, a street just behind the square, to find some of the best shopping possibilities. Look for a sign that reads “Native Art” to find cute, woven toy animals and beachy, hand-woven wraps to take back for the folks at home.
The In-Between Cabo: Corridor Resorts
You’ve met the two Cabos, but that’s not the whole story. There’s a third, connective part – the ego, if you will, to the appetite-driven energy of San Lucas and the high-mindedness of San José.
It’s the Los Cabos Corridor, a 20-kilometer portion of Baja’s Transpeninsular Highway that connects the two cities. But it’s no mere highway. The corridor plays nest to an ever-growing litter of beachfront luxury resorts, golf courses and vacation developments.
The benefits of staying in the Corridor, as opposed to a hotel in San Lucas or San José, are twofold. First, you’re more or less equidistant between the sibling cities, so visiting either is convenient. Second, you really are away from it all, if a classic, secluded beach vacation is your ambition.
The Marquis Los Cabos (marquisloscabos.com) hits it out of the park on both counts. Roughed up by Hurricane Odile in 2014 and reopened a year later with a $10 million facelift, the all-inclusive, adults-only AAA Four Diamond Resort is manifestly the kind of place where you could stash yourself for a week and not feel terribly unfulfilled.
Let us tick off the reasons. For starters, it’s all-inclusive, which means any time you feel the slightest itch or whimsy – like, “Hey, it’s 2 p.m. and I feel like pancakes and a vodka Collins, and I’m in the gym” – boom, somebody will take care of that. (Full disclosure: The gym does not actually have food service. But you get the point.)
The Marquis, a gorgeous, palatial property done in Grecian whites that somehow reminds me of the gangster Frank Lopez’s mansion in Scarface, is also fortuitously located next to one of the Corridor’s only swimmable beaches, a semi-protected inlet just west of the property. (The break is too violent on most of the coast for swimming.) It’s a soul-soothing five-minute walk to the inlet, where you can float in the balmy water to your heart’s content.
More reasons not to leave: six distinct, on-site dining concepts, so you’ll never have the same meal twice; the Spa Marquis, a 13,000-square-foot spa as sleek as any in the Valley; and politely insistent “associates” who are always trying to coax you into a game of water volleyball and the like.
Another gold star for the staff: They even helped a certain visitor retrieve his cellphone after he left it in a cab in San Lucas. See what happens when you leave?
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