By: Jordan Simon
Few destinations are as iconic as Los Cabos, located at the southernmost tip of Mexico's Baja Peninsula where the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortés (Gulf of California) meet. The very name conjures images of Hemingway and John Wayne duking it out with marlins and Jimmy Buffett downing margaritas. Though Cabo wasn't really developed for tourism until the 1980s, Hollywood's A-List has made a beeline here since the 1940s. Today, the Who's Who ABC starts with Aniston, Berry, and Clooney. They're no longer roughing it: Los Cabos has become one of the world's premier golf and spa destinations, with sumptuous resorts and restaurants to match, in addition to the sportfishing that made it famous.
No other place offers a mosaic that's quite as unique: ravishing desert woven with startling ribbons of green, the jagged Sierra de la Laguna peaks cleaving the peninsula, and sapphire sea lined with boulders evoking abstract sculptures. That rugged eco-friendly terrain is a magnet for adrenaline junkies, who attack any incline with consummate abandon, from A (ATVs) to Z (ziplines through thick forest). Of course, the surrounding waters offer their own recreational delights, from whale-watching between November and March to surfing and scuba diving in crystalline water – although the most X-treme aquatic activity might be drinking in the tidal wave of watering holes. Los Cabos offers wildlife and wild life in abundance.
Los Cabos encompasses two main towns and a connecting 19-mile Tourist Corridor rimmed with posh resorts between them. Mellow historic San José del Cabo offers superb shopping and dining around the picture-postcard Spanish colonial town square, Plaza Mijares. Cabo San Lucas is the formerly drowsy fishing village turned brash, rambunctious sibling. The closer you get to the latter, the more gringo-fied the flavor (stateside visitors comprise 95% of guests); fast-food outlets and mini-malls litter the landscape, though even the Mickey D's and Saab dealerships are done up in faux-adobe style. Fortunately, the region is determined to balance development with environmental stewardship, and its proximity to the US means the dollar is accepted almost anywhere.
Given the wealth of recreational activities – day and night, winter, summer, spring or fall – where should you stay and play? If you have a three-day weekend we recommend restricting activities to your resort (especially if it offers golf and/or spa options), with a half-day snorkel trip and night out in hedonistic Cabo San Lucas. With five days, you can expand your horizons to venture offroad via ATV or horseback. A week permits taking trips to unspoiled colonial towns like Todos Santos, and even a multi-day adventure tour to the East Cape.
Los Cabos is divided into three distinct main areas, making it a dynamically versatile destination. Colonial San José del Cabo (often referred to simply as San José), founded in 1723, and its tranquil adjacent estuary (a mecca for birdwatchers and kayakers); rowdier Cabo San Lucas (usually shortened to just Cabo) to the west, home to the world-famous Land's End arch, one of planet's most photographed spots; and the 19-mile Tourist Corridor (aka Carretera Transpeninsular highway) linking them, and a slew of upscale beachfront resorts, championship golf courses, and several beaches, in one straight 30-minute shot. Two outlying destinations make great day/overnight trips: the colonial town/eco-friendly bohemian artists' colony of Todos Santos, and the relatively undeveloped fishing/diving/kayaking/windsurfing mecca called East Cape.
If you don't have your own wheels, you can get around on one of the hop on/hop off bus tours offered by Terramar Destinations (9am-9pm; departures every 10–20 mins; www.terramardestinations.com), whose stops include downtown San José, the Estuary, the Glass-Blowing Factory, Puerto Paraiso mega-mall, and the Marina. Gray Line (www.graylineloscabos.com; 624/146-9410) also offers several sightseeing options; the most popular heads directly to Médano Beach and gets you aboard their boat for a tour of El Arco and Lover's Beach complete with snorkeling, sunning, and walking around the rock formations.
The tourist offices are primarily bureaucratic, so you'll have to rely on hotel concierges and a wealth of glossy, mostly free publications and websites for local information. The Los Cabos Tourism Board (www.visitloscabos.org) and related Greater Los Cabos Convention & Visitors Association (www.loscabosguide.com) sites are the best sources; the former publishes the excellent, comprehensive, free Visit Los Cabos magazine; much of its content can be found online at Experience Los Cabos (www.experienceloscabos.com). We also recommend Cabo's Best (www.cabosbest.com) and the free English Gringo Gazette for updated entertainment and event listings.
Main Attractions & Beaches
Since you're really here to indulge yourself, we recommend skipping the area's few museums in favor of walking San José's charming historic downtown, beachcombing (remember that many strands feature fierce swells and powerful undertow), snorkeling, shopping, partying, and taking an adventure tour (or five).
San José del Cabo
San Jose's narrow twisting streets are lined with 18th-century colonial-era buildings that open into broad plazas. Plaza Mijares, overseen by a twin-spire cathedral, is the focal point, with its Jacaranda trees and ornate gazebo that plays host to bands on weekends. The surrounding streets offer upscale galleries, artisan shops, and fine restaurants.
Halfway between downtown and the main beach (see Playa Hotelera, below) along Boulevard Mijares, the open-air Cactimundo Botanical Garden (hours vary; 624/146-9191; $6) offers one of the world's most extensive collections of thorny succulents, 850 species and nearly 12,000 plants spanning several geographic regions from Montana to Patagonia. From here to the beach spreads the tranquil wildlife reserve Estero San José (open dawn to dusk; free), once a pirate ship hideout and today home to 250 species of tropical birds and plants; it's a rich area for kayaking, birdwatching, and wildlife sightings.
San José's main beach, Playa Hotelera, is fine for strolling and sunning but the surf is quite rough. To the east, be on the lookout for Puerto Los Cabos, a master-planned marina complex that's due to be completed in 2008, when it will host restaurants, shops, La Playita sportfishing fleet, complete yacht services, two 18-hole championship golf courses (designed by Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus), an eco-cultural park with museum, several beach resort hotels, and more.
The next beach traveling west, Costa Azul is renowned for its big swells. Surfer dudes hang ten and hang out at several bars and casual eateries. Neighboring Playa Palmilla is popular with families as it offers calmer water, restaurants and beach bars, and watersports concessions.
From here, the next several miles embrace some of Mexico's toniest resorts; keep an eye out for El Chileno, another long protected strand that offers activities and dining, and the golden crescent of Bahia Santa Maria ($1 to park), which remains relatively untrammeled (save for a few luxury villas) – this is the snorkeling beach but, while you can rent gear (including kayaks), do bring your own snacks and refreshments.
Away from the beach, the San José Art District – roughly two square blocks bordered by Calles Zaragoza, Guerrero, Hidalgo, and Obregón – holds several galleries worth browsing: Ida Victoria (Guerrero 1128; 624/142-5772; www.idavictoriaarts.com); Old Town Gallery (Obregón 20; 624/142-3662; www.oldtowngallery.net); Pez Gordo (Obregón 19; 624/142-5788; www.pezgordogallery.com); Amber Gallery (Obregón 18; 624/105-2332) – a fabulous source for Chiapas textiles and jewelry; Casa Don Pablo (Guerrero between Obregón & Zaragoza; 624/142-2539) for antiques; La Dolce (Plaza Mijares inside La Dolce Restaurant; 624/142-6621); and Arte Julian García (Morelos & Comonfort; 624/142-3566; www.juliangarciaf.com) for the owner's striking metal sculptures. You can also join a Thursday evening Art Walk, in season.
Cabo San Lucas
Cabo has fewer attractions, per se – the town is better known for its nightlife than its culture. But, the main town beach, El Médano hugs Bahia San Lucas for several miles. Always hopping and happening, it buzzes with hotels, thatched eateries shelling out divine seafood, bars from chic to raucous, and watersports concessions providing everything from parasailing to windsurfing. Vendors patrol the sand with sombreros and ceramics, and the anything-goes ambience can lead to some wild specials (e.g., a typical sign advertises Get Hammered While You Get Nailed – for $30, you'll get a pitcher of margaritas or a bucket of beers and a 40-minute reflexology or pedicure).
From Médano, grab a water taxi (usually $15 round trip; haggle if they quote too much) to Lovers Beach in the shadow of the famous El Arco (arched rock) and the other fanciful outcropping of Land's End that mark Baja's southernmost tip, dividing the Pacific from the Sea of Cortés. Bring plenty of water and your own snacks and gear and don't forget the camera – this is one of the Western Hemisphere's ultimate photo ops, with sea lions sunning themselves on the whimsically shaped rocks and pelicans divebombing for lunch. Snorkeling is superb here as well, but stick to the gentler Gulf side, with superior visibility and less surge.
Back on land, the Cabo Dolphin Center (Paseo de la Marina; 624/173-9500; www.cabodolphins.com), combines an educational orientation with a half hour of swimming with frisky bottlenose dolphins (each of which is named for a famous artist, like Frida, Dalí, Monet, etc).
Its combination of distinct ecosystems (desert, sea, and mountain) makes Los Cabos an unparalleled destination for sports, extreme and otherwise. You can also content yourself to be a spectator, however, and watch gray or humpback whales, dolphins, and sea lions court and cavort in the Gulf. Whether diving in underwater canyons or scaling cliffs, catching marlin or teeing off, there’s an activity for everyone.
Guides provide fascinating insight into geology, fossils, botany, and traditional culture on the way to mountain ranches and mission towns frozen in time. Many expeditions zoom into the mountains filigreed with dirt roads then down to the East Cape beaches.
Terramar Destinations (624/142-3155; www.terramardestinations.com) offers 4x4 Jeep tours through the dusty, backcountry roads, as well as ATV Outback Hummer tours via their sister company, Baja Outback (624/142-9215; $165–$220; www.bajaoutback.com) with lunch or snacks included. NaturAdventure (624/105-2050; www.naturadventure.com) specializes in all things mountain bike, including top-notch rentals like Gary Fischer and Trek; tours often incorporate hiking through a craggy labyrinth of Henry Moore-like rock formations in the Sierra de la Laguna Biosphere. Wide Open Baja (624/143-4170; $250+; www.wideopenbaja.com), which mounts the grueling Baja 1000 race every November, provides free-wheeling thrills in the same speedy, low-slung Chenowith off-road racecars on its 1500-acre ranch filled with bumps, jumps, and sand washes.
If you don't want to put pedal to the metal (or mettle to the pedal), Francisco Barrena, owner of Cuadra San Francisco (624/144-0160; www.loscaboshorses.com) and equestrian stuntman on Troy, has more than 40 impeccabe horses and offers two-hour beach and mountain rides, but believes that sunsets are even more spectacular when viewed from the lunarscape of off-the-beaten-path arroyos and canyons inaccessible by foot or even ATV. If you'd rather rock out than horse around, Baja Wild (Playa Costa Azul; 624/172-6300; www.bajawild.com) takes you beachfront bouldering and rappelling down sheer granite cliffs, and can also arrange surfing (with board and lessons), kayaking, snorkeling, ATV tours, whale-watching, and fun combinations of all the above.
Cabo ranks well above par among the world's golf destinations, thanks to such design heavy hitters as Jack Nicklaus, Robert Trent Jones II, Tom Fazio, Greg Norman, and Tom Weiskopf. Courses are brilliantly contoured to the terrain, encompassing arroyos, canyons, crags, sandy washes, landscaping running from cacti to palms, and distracting ocean views that themselves qualify as water hazards. The scenic grandeur is a blend of what you'd expect of fabled Scottsdale desert courses and Monterey's surf-lashed Pebble Beach. No surprise, then, that the area has has hosted many a PGA tourney. Top resorts offer discounted greens fees and/or packages. Otherwise, expect to pay $200-$300 for high-season morning tee times; twilight rates reduce greens fees by 20-40 percent.
Three courses in particular stand out here. Cabo del Sol (KM10.3 Carretera Transpeninsular; 624/145-8200; www.cabodelsol.com) offers the Ocean and Desert courses, both 18-hole par-72s designed by Nicklaus and Weiskopf, respectively; the former has been ranked among the world's top 100 courses for the last decade by Golf Magazine while the latter features scenically rugged desert terrain and azure ocean vistas from every hole. The Nicklaus-designed Palmilla Golf Resort (KM7.5 Carretera Transpeninsular; 624/144-5250 or 800/637-2226; www.oneandonlyresorts.com) put Cabo on the golf map, offering 27 holes divided into Arroyo, Mountain, and Ocean nines that can be combined any way for an endlessly challenging par-72. Cabo Real (KM19.5 Carretera Transpeninsular; 624/144-1200; www.caboreal.com) is a par-72 Robert Trent Jones II classic, with sea views at every twisting turn (though only one oceanfront hole); despite the wide fairways Jones's use of arroyos and ridges as natural bunkers results in perhaps Cabo's toughest front nine.
Many outfitters provide not only snorkeling cruises but unique combinations of aquatic activities, as well as rental equipment and craft. Prices start around $35 for sunset sails, $45 for half-day tours (children often ride free, though the booze cruise atmosphere is fairly raucous). This includes lunch, open bar, snorkeling gear, noodles, and lessons where necessary. Most follow the same three-to-four hour itinerary (two hours for sunset cruises) past El Arco, on to Bahia Santa Maria, arguably Cabo's finest snorkeling spot, then back to El Arco for another splash and walk along Lover's Beach. Divers have their own playgrounds, especially along the East Cape coast or formations of Lands End (described by Jacques Cousteau as the "World's Aquarium"). Whale-watching tours are generally family-friendlier.
There are dozens of operators in Cabo, but you'll do best to book an outing with our top picks. Tio Sports (Médano Beach; 624/143-3399; San Jose Estuary, 624/142-4599; www.tiosports.com), for one, is the premier option for aquatic adventures, including scuba and glass-bottom snorkeling trips; they also rent kayaks and Wave Runners. Baja Xplorer (624/142-4082; www.bajaxplorer.com) likewise offers a wide range of sea activities, from Wave Runner to whale-watching trips ($40 with lunch), scuba, kayaking, and parasailing ($35).
Pez Gato (Blvd. Marina, Dock 4; 624/143-3797; www.pezgatocabo.com) blasts a super sound system on its catamaran that has everyone dancing during unique "Jazz and Wine" sunset tour on its new 65-foot cat, Tropicat. SunRider Tours (624/143-2252; www.sunridertours.com) boasts Cabo's only actual onboard restaurant, for all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet cruises including snorkeling, whale-watching, and sunset tours that sweep right past Lands End to the wild windswept Pacific side, chasing the fire-balling sun across the horizon. The tri-masted, 96-feet-tall Buccaneer Queen (624/144-4217; www.buccaneerloscabos.com) offers whale watching, snorkeling, moonlight, and sunset tours.
The canyons around CSL's harbor and warmer Sea of Cortés waters have rightfully earned Cabo the soubriquet, Marlin Capital of the World. More of the giant battlers (1000+ pounders common) are caught here than any place on earth. You'll also encounter tuna, wahoo, barracuda – just about any sport fish imaginable. Even on rare days when you don't catch anything, the smashing views of the cape (and often, whales and dolphins) compensate. Figure on spending at least $120 for a half-day on the smallest skiff, $450 and up for a larger day-long charter.
Cabo Magic Sportfishing (624/105-0403 or 888/475-5337; www.cabomagic.com) offers a wide choice of vessels and run inland ATV tours. Picante! Sportfishing (624/143-2474; www.picantesportfishing.com) is a highly regarded yacht broker, offering a fleet from Shamrock 27s to Hatteras Flybridges. Pisces Fleet Sportfishing (624/143-1288; www.piscessportfishing.com) runs the gamut from 26-86 footers; owner Tracy Ehrenberg regularly chats on radio sports shows and is a fishing expert for the L.A. Times. Solmar Sportfishing (624/143-0646 or 800/344-3349; www.solmar.com) may boast Cabo's largest fleet; this ecologically aware company also started the Bill Foundation that promotes catch-and-release and launched the 112-foot Solmar V for scuba trips to the Socorro Islands marine sanctuary 250 miles south of Cabo, where divers hitch rides with giant mantas.
Prefer getting pummeled on massage tables rather than waves or trails? Spas are a major attraction in their own right in Cabo, with the Corridor's resorts competing to offer the most serene surroundings and unique therapies. Decor lovingly reflects the culture and surroundings, while treatments often utilize indigenous foodstuffs to nourish body and soul – coffee to coconut, sea salt to sesame. Each spa boasts its own specialties, ambiance, and celebrity following.
The Spa at Las Ventanas (624/144-0300; www.lasventanas.com) has treated the likes of Jessica Simpson, Nick Lachey, Halle Berry, Paris Hilton, Courteney Cox, and Giorgio Armani; its product line, Essential Baja Desert Collection, is a restorative botanical blend of such native plants as chaparral, wild yam, tumeric, and desert lavender, often blended with mineral-rich volcanic clay. Esperanza Spa (624/145-6400; www.esperanzaresort.com) similarly draws on the desert's warm hues and traditional textures; follow in the footsteps of Usher, Brooke Shields, Nicky Hilton, and Gwyneth Paltrow and visit the Pasaje de Agua (the water passage) – a grotto with cleansing hot spring pools, cool waterfalls, and steam caves. Another celeb see-and-be-scene, One&Only Palmilla (624/146-7000; www.oneandonlypalmilla.com) offers an enormous spa/fitness center; favorite treatments utilize local ingredients – try the Aztec Aromatic Ritual wrap with clove and ginger in a private suite that opens onto lush flowering gardens. Casa del Mar Beach, Golf & Spa Resort (624/145-7700; www.casadelmarmexico.com) just introduced a Spa Chakra, affiliated with Guerlain, and their signature imperial orchid facial and massage redefines hedonism; you can choose your own music in the palapa treatment hut, but the most soothing sound may be that of the sea itself. Marquis Los Cabos (624/144-2000; www.marquisloscabos.com) boasts the region's only member of Leading Spas of the World; the Asian-influenced, oceanview, full-service, 15,000-square-foot holistic spa/fitness center detoxes with indigenous ingredients such as agave, cactus oils, sea salt, and seaweed from the Sea of Cortés.
Most day/overnight jaunts access the so-called East Cape (running north up the Sea of Cortés, noted for its diving and marine preserves) and up the west coast to the artists' commune and colonial town of Todos Santos. You can hop a public bus, take an organized tour, or rent a car (preferably a four-wheeler to avoid getting stuck in sand or ruts on flooded side roads).
The unspoiled East Cape, an unofficial term that applies to series of sensational sportfishing spots along the unspoiled coast just 50 minutes' drive northeast from the airport, encompasses the stretch from Boca del Alamo in the north to La Playita just east of San José. The towns of Los Barriles, Buenavista, and the aptly named Las Ventanas are Cabo's windsurfing center in winter, while exquisite Cabo Pulmo Marine Park lures divers to the only living coral reefs in the Sea of Cortés. There are also underwater caves and shipwrecks like El Vencedor to explore, often accompanied by a colony of sea lions and frisky dolphin pods. Some of the best sites are further north, around the islands off the coast by La Paz, Baja Sur's capital; if you have time contact Baja Adventure Company (La Paz; 612/124-6629 or 877/560-2252; www.bajaecotours.com), which also offers wonderful whale-watching and kayaking. Surfers will find swell waves at Shipwrecks and Los Frailes beaches. And while East Cape bills itself as the "World's Greatest Fishtrap," trekking inland via ATV, mountain bike, or horse is increasingly popular, with hidden arroyos and canyons stippled with cacti. Despite the wealth of new asphalt being laid from Los Cabos, the area still possesses a frontier feel (no golf, litlle nightlife, often no phones in rooms). If you have time to stay overnight, book yourself into the Hotel Buena Vista Beach Resort (624/141-0033 or 800/752-3555; www.hotelbuenavista.com); formerly a general's 1950s hacienda, the estate now boasts 60 Mediterranean-style bungalows terraced on a tropically landscaped embankment with a pool, palapa swim-up bar, and its own stretch of beach. Hotel activities include naturalist-guided ATV tours, deep-sea and fly fishing, horseback riding, kayaking and diving, hiking to thermal mountain springs, tennis, and spa treatments.
An hour's drive (47 miles) north of Cabo on Highway 19 lies sleepy Todos Santos, founded in 1723. Still very colonial, it's a great place getting a feel for the "real" Mexico. TS (as it's commonly referred to in shorthand) has become an artists' commune, where creative expats exult about the quality of light, much as they do in Taos and Carmel. It's the kind of place where you can join Tai Chi classes, find a meditation group, take a ceramics or creative writing workshop, or sip a chai latte in a setting that's neither too precious nor pretentious. Glorious adobe-and-brick thatched structures in traditional colors hold boutique shops and galleries galore, mixed with remnants of chimneys and machinery from the old sugar mills. You can visit yourself, or book outings with Todos Santos Eco Adventures (612/145-0780; www.tosea.net).
In town, stop by the ocher-colored Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de La Paz, built in 1747, and also don't miss the Cultural Center (Juárez & Obregón; 612/142-0044), the passion, almost obsession of town historian Professor Néstor Agúndez Martinez. Its treasures include three murals celebrating the leftist power of the people, painted in August 1933, with modern figures interacting with Columbus and missionaries, a photo exhibit that traces local history (cattle ranches, old family portraits, old sugar mill chimneys), and a replica of a typical adobe Baja ranch (kitchen with fireplace, grinding stone, old huaraches as examples of hand-made leatherwork, santos, handmade crib) in the courtyard.
Otherwise, peek into the galleries. Charles Stewart Gallery & Studio (Centenario & Obregón; 612/145-0265; www.charlescstewart.com) jumpstarted the movement two decades ago with Taos refugee Stewart, a noted American abstract artist whose multimedia works are infused with spirituality from Mayan to Judeo-Christian images. Gabriel Rodriguez, or Gabo (Centenario & Topete; 612/145-0505), is another multi-talented/faceted artist who's exhibited around the globe; if you can't afford his whimsical, witty paintings, his prints, silkscreen T-shirts, and tapestries come very close to duplicating his almost-hallucinogenic colors. Galeria Jill Logan (612/145-0151; wwww.jilllogan.com) features the American expat's multimedia works, many of them incandescent lambent landscapes with heightened color for naturalistic settings. Todos Santos Inn & Galeria (Legaspi 33; 612/145-0040 or 612/145-0500 gallery; www.todossantosinn.com) is a lovingly renovated 1870s brick edifice built by a sugar baron; rooms in the original building and courtyard annex are an amalgam of classic hacienda and vineyard, for a look that's almost New England. Other musts include Galería N. E. Hayles (Cuauhtémoc Final; 612/145-0183; www.nehayles.com); Eli Alexander Fine Arts/Ezra Katz Gallery (Juárez & Topete; 612/145-0084); and the splendid craft boutiques of Fénix (Juárez between Hildalgo & Topete; 145-0808) and Manos Mexicanas (Topete & Centenario; 612/145-0538), gorgeous handpainted ceramics, quirky elegant jewelry by Rubén Gutiérrez.
The town isn't without its beaches – head to the stretch of Highway 19 that skirts the coast to find four sandy outposts. San Pedro, also known as Playa Las Palmas (Palm Beach), off KM57, offers powdery sand and a freshwater lagoon teeming with a variety of plants, birds, and wildlife. Local fishermen launch their pangas at Punta Lobos (Point of the Wolves – a nickname for sea lions, which have a colony here) at KM59, and sometimes sell fish fresh off the boat (fending off dive-bombing pelicans). Ecru sands stretch several kilometers, blowholes erupt as if answering the spouting whales, and you can rent kayaks and dune buggies, visit a fisherman's chapel, or hike to ruins of an old fort on the other side of the cliff. Playa San Pedrito is a super surfing beach around KM60, with an RV Park for camping at a coconut palm-fringed freshwater lagoon, as is long, glistening Playa Los Cerritos at KM64.
For lunch, make a pilgrimage to Hotel California (Juárez between Morelos & Marques de Léon; 612/125-0525; www.hotelcaliforniabaja.com), known for its fun funky art-full sensibility and style and cool courtyard; you can also sample their branded tequila in the wildly decorated, urban-hip lounge. For dinner and a secluded, stylish overnight, head for magical mystical Posada La Poza (Las Playitas; 612/145-0400; www.lapoza.com), the only inn on the ocean; congenial owners Juerg and Libusche Wiesendanger are consummate hosts; Libusch's paintings and murals animate every nook and cranny, and she designed the lavish gardens as well. Other dining and drinking options include Santa Fe (Centenario & Márquez de León; 612/145-0304), just catty corner on the main plaza, a dinner essential that arguably serves the finest Italian food in Baja Sur, and La Copa Wine Bar (Topeti & Legaspi; 612/145-0040; www.todossantosinn.com), in the Todos Santos Inn, is a lovely place for a glass in arty surroundings: Michael and Pat Cope exhibit 20 regional artists in the adjacent gallery (and a second building a block away).
Choose from historic inns, luxurious oceanfront spa and golf resorts, reliable mid-priced chains, charming B&Bs, fully-equipped condo-hotels, basic motels, even stylish boutique properties. You'll find plentiful luxury, moderate, and budget options (though the latter are generally found outside the tourist loop or in downtown Cabo, a few blocks from the action). Beachfront resorts are often stratospheric thanks to the increasing emphasis on such deluxe activities as deep-sea fishing, golfing, and spas, but the ambience and amenities generally compensate. To help you choose the right overnight address convenient to most attractions, we've outlined our favorites in each category.
For the ultimate luxury, we recommend the big four along the Corridor, all legendary for incomparable style, service, and celebrity clientele: Las Ventanas al Paraiso (624/144-2800; www.lasventanas.com) offers 61 enormous, exquisitely appointed suites with such deluxe extras as private patio Jacuzzis, telescopes for viewing the whale- and star-gazing, turndown aromatherapy service, and a personalized sewing kit based on your wardrobe's predominant colors; DVD players and iPods are available at the glorious infinity pool, and the restaurant, tequila/ceviche bar, and spa are sublime. One&Only Palmilla (624/146-7000 or 800/637-2226; www.oneandonlypalmilla.com) is larger but just as posh and pampering, a golf and gourmet paradise with huge ocean-facing rooms, 24-hour butler service, splendid upscale shopping and dining (including the renowned Charlie Trotter's "C"), brilliant 27-hole Nicklaus-designed course, and equally starry clientele over its existence, from Lucille Ball and President Eisenhower to Tom Cruise, Robin Williams, and Oprah Winfrey. Esperanza (624/145-6400 or 866-311-2226; www.esperanzaresort.com), a member of the very exclusive Auberge Resorts portfolio, also offers world-class amenities, 56 luxurious lodgings with stunning sea views, and celebrity following. Comparatively affordable Marquis Los Cabos (624/144-2000 or 877/238-9399; www.marquisloscabos.com) may be the most art-full resort in a destination celebrated for unique design; even the the fanciful furnishings in the spectacular public spaces look museum-worthy; the spa and restaurants are as hedonistic as any in Cabo.
Most top moderate selections are along Cabo's Médano Beach or in and around San José. Casa Natalia (San José; 624/146-7100 or 888/277-3814; www.casanatalia.com), right off San José's Plaza Mijares is a gorgeous, intimate, wonderfully textured (brick, stucco, adobe, bamboo, basketry) restored townhouse with exemplary service, exquisite decor, exceptional food, and all modern conveniences. Best Western Posada Real (San José Beach; 624/142-0155 or 800/528-1234; www.posadareal.com.mx) offers handsome traditional decor, oceanview rooms, abundant amenities (from tennis to nine-hole putting green), and a limited all-inclusive program that make it excellent value. Cabo Surf Hotel (624/142-2676; www.cabosurfhotel.com) sits on Costa Azul beach; excellent food, the Mike Doyle Surf School, and 19 tastefully appointed oceanfront rooms make it a great value at the price. Meliá Cabo San Lucas (Médano Beach; 624/145-7800 or 866/43-MELIA; www.meliasanlucas.com) has sexy, delectably silly rooms – most with glorious views onto El Arco – incorporating hearts, stylish B&W photos and vivid artworks into the decor, plus ultra-contemporary, cosmopolitan conveniences.
The best budget bets, all in Cabo, starting with the Bungalows Hotel (Miguel A. Herrera & Lienzo Charro, CSL; 624/143-5035 or 888/424-CABO; www.cabobungalows.com), an oasis just five blocks from downtown; superb breakfast, true Mexican warmth, sizable traditionally decorated rooms with all the necessities do justice to the concept of mi casa su casa. Los Milagros (Matamoros 116, CSL; 624/143-4566; www.losmilagros.com.mx) is where Sammy Hagar puts extra guests up; expect handsomely folk-arty decor, smiling service, candles and incense, and classical music by the pool. Cabo Inn (20 de Noviembre & Leona Vicario, CSL; 624/143-0819 or 619/819-2727; www.caboinnhotel.com) occupies a former bordello and retains a sensual atmosphere thanks to glorious gardens, top floor pool and jacuzzi with ocean views, and cool young international clientele.
You'll find all the old Mexican (and American pub) standbys, naturally. But you really should make a point of trying truly authentic fare such as birria (goat stew), tacos de cabeza (cow's brain and tongue), menudo (tripe soup), and machaca (dried shredded beef or fish). The cosmopolitan area embraces a smorgasbord of gastronomic traditions, from Italian to Thai, and you'll find seafood so fresh it leaps off the plate – sushi is predictably sublime as are the simplest fish tacos (preferably served beachside). Ambience ranges from ultra-upscale to dress-downhome, and some of the best bets offer sweeping water views.
Expensive options in Cabo include the refined Casa Rafael's (Calle Médano & Camino Pescador; 624/143-0739), a boutique hotel with three colorful dining rooms and a folk-art-filled courtyard with splendid Land's End views; add strolling Mexican quartets, walk-in humidor/cigar lounge, piano bar, stellar service, and superior continental cuisine. Edith Jiménez-Smith of Edith's (Médano Beach; 624/143-0801; www.edithscabo.com) wrote "Cuisine of the Baja Peninsula," and her lovely palapa restaurant strung with starry lights offers authentic cuisine and superlative surf 'n' turf. La Golondrina (Paseo del Pescador; 624/143-0542; www.lagolondrinarestaurant.com) means "trailer park," but there's nothing dusty or disreputable at this classic mariachi and margarita spot that serves leviathan lobster combo dinners in an exquisite garden patio and vaulted, arcaded interior of Cabo's oldest renovated landmark building.
The Corridor chimes in with French Riviera Restaurant & Bakery (Plaza del Rey, Km. 6.5 Transp. Hwy.; 624/104-3125; www.frenchrivieraloscabos.com), whose owner/chef, Jacques Chretien opened Maxim's of Paris in Mexico City and essentially catered the entire production of the Pitt pic Troy; as you might expect, this gala Gallic affair is très sumptuous from the Second Empire décor to such dishes as pan-seared loupon (a flaky white fish) in mint tea-hazelnut vinaigrette. The mega-award-winning Canto del Mar in the Marquis Los Cabos (21.5KM Transp. Hwy.; 624/144-2000; www.marquisloscabos.com) has only 21 seats – all the better to appreciate the exquisite décor (lots of Murano masks, sconces, and glass art) and Thierry Dufour's splendid cuisine, including a twice-weekly "surprise" six-course menu with no changes or substitutions. The Restaurant at Las Ventanas (Cabo Real, Km. 19.5, Transp. Hwy.; 624/144-2800; www.lasventanas.com) is another spot for outstanding wine-pairing menus, sea views, innovative and traditional cuisine utilizing organic ingredients whenever possible. There's even a "water cart" dispensing an international selection. Charlie Trotter’s "C" in One&Only Palmilla (624/146-7000; www.oneandonlypalmilla.com) is ultra-contemporary (glowing frosted glass, stainless steel, all curves and angles) but not cold; Trotter's signature multi-course tasting menu paired with wines, often brilliantly counterpoints unorthodox tastes and textures.
In San José, Mi Cocina at Casa Natalia (Blvd. Mijares 4; 612/142-5100) continues that cosmopolitan hotel's creativity and style, from romantic setting and decor to exciting nouvelle Mexican/Pacific Rim/French cuisine utilizing the freshest ingredients. Tequila (Doblado between Mijares & Hidalgo; 612/142-1155; www.tequilarestaurant.com) enchants with inventive Pacific Rim-Mediterranean fare culled from its own certified-organic farm (a purveyor for Cabo's top resorts); afterward smoke a Cubano with a fine tequila (ask for a tasting tour) in the Agave Lounge.
Moderate Cabo recommendations include La Casa del Pozo (El Pescador, Médano Beach; 612/143-6569; www.lacasadelpozo.com), whose warm brick garden courtyard with a 150-year-old water well is a sweet setting to enjoy regional fare like cazuela Guadalajara (beef, bacon, bean, green chiles, and more in a clay pot) or fresh fish, perhaps prepared with mango salsa, lime juice and butter, mesquite-grilled with tamarind sauce, or borracho (drunk) simmered in beer of your choice. Nick-San (Plaza de la Danza, Blvd. Marina; 624/143-4484; www.nicksan.com) is Zen for sushi lovers (try the sashimi in coriander sauce); owners Masayuk Niikura and Angel Carbajal just opened a new, equally striking if spare branch at Las Tiendas de Palmilla.
Along the Corridor, laidback Latitude 22+ (KM4.5 Transp. Hwy.; 624/143-1516; www.lat22nobaddays.com) is garlanded with nutty nautical memorabilia; locals and regulars exchange fish tales, tall or otherwise, and cheer favorite teams on the TVs at the long plank bar, while savoring killer views and glorified pub grub at terrific prices. Villa Serena (Km. 7.5, Transp. Hwy; 145-8244) features equally sweeping panoramas from its palapa and pool, mellow vibe, live music most nights, and heaping helpings of fine Mexican fare (the $9.95 lobster special is amazing).
In San José, Damiana (Blvd. Mijares 8; 612/142-0499; www.damiana.com.mx) occupies an 18th-century hacienda with a romantic bougainvillea-draped patio overlooking the cathedral. Damiana, a liqueur distilled from a shrub that's reputed to cure everything from impotence to impetigo, features strongly in several entrees. La Panga Antigua (Zaragoza 20; 612/142-4041; www.lapanga.com) is set in another restored colonial mansion where chef/co-owner Jacobo Turquie, a Culinary Institute of America grad, prepares wildly creative dishes like double-rib pork chops with date compote and wild mushroom ragout or grilled tamarind-glazed sea scallops over risotto and ratatouille. Morgan MacLeod, a respected interior designer originally from Vancouver, is the driving force (abetted by partner Peter McGeown) behind Morgan's Restaurant & Cellar (Doblado & Hidalgo; 612/143-3825) and Morgan's Encore (Morelos & Obregón; 612/142-4737), two gorgeous restaurants crafted from the ground up including antique wood accents, open fireplaces, and provocative artworks. Both offer live bands and sunny Provençal/Tuscan cuisine.
Adventuresome diners should sample the budget taquerias found all over the region. Each stand operates on a different schedule (most open for breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner) and specialize in just a few types, but Cabo's El Palacio del Taco (16 de Septiembre between Morelos & Vicario; 624/147-6894) is open nearly 24/7, dispensing a wide variety of homemade tacos, tortas, and quesadillas. If you prefer more conventional seating, nearby El Méson de Zapata (16 de Septiembre & Mendoza; 624/144-3982) fills you up with tacos, chips, six different salsas, frosty cervezas, yummy guacamole, burritos, and even steak for well under $20; there's often a live band on weekends. The boisterous beachfront Zipper's (Costa Azul, KM28.5, Transp. Hwy.; 624/172-6162), along the Corridor, is a thatch hut draped with fishing nets; expect Gringo-Mex comfort food like mesquite-grilled steaks, ribs, burgers, beer-battered shrimp, as well as sports on large screen TVs, and live salsa, C&W, or "baby boomer rock" on weekends.
Cabo San Lucas nights sizzles like fajitas on the grill, offering everything from strip joints to wine bars, salsa clubs to sports pubs, hookah lounges to a Hard Rock outpost – all within a compact 10-block radius. Happy hours often last from 7am to 7pm. Anything goes no matter what the time of year (or day), though Mexico's Party Central is particularly in/famous for rowdy Spring Break shenanigans. Bar-hopping along the Tourist Corridor requires a taxi, while quieter, sophisticated San José is less about copping body shots off strangers than getting jazzed over music, wine, and perhaps a cigar.
Bars & Clubs
The evening starts early in Cabo – with happy-hour specials at three popular spots. The indoor-outdoor Nowhere Bar (Blvd. Marina 17 at Plaza Bonita; 624/143-4493; www.nowherebar.com) enjoys a marvelous marina setting that's perfect for people-watching and is the place to warm up before clubbing (the 5-9pm Happy Hour is joyous indeed) or cool off later after working up a sweat (though the mix and dance floor here remain packed all night). For the best sunset views, head for the western-facing bars on Médano Beach and on the Pacific side of El Arco; The Office (Médano Beach; 624/143-3464; www.theofficeonthebeach.com), like Médano's other bars, offers solid gringo-Mex fare, but adds good jazz several nights and a sunset fiesta on Thursdays. Crowning the craggy cliff above Solmar Beach, the Hotel Finisterra's Whale Watcher Bar (624/143-3333; www.finisterra.com) provides kick-ass margaritas, appetizers, the occasional mariachi trio, and sublime views of the sun's pyrotechnics.
Cabo Wabo (Cardenas & Guerrero; 624/143-1188; www.cabowabo.com) – motto "Face Down in Cabo" – is Sammy Hagar's cantina and adorned with Mexican kitsch, rock 'n' roll memorabilia, and dangling undergarments. Sammy and famous pals make impromptu appearances to jam with the house band, and his branded tequila flows freely, keeping patrons "Waboed" (and wobbling). El Squid Roe (Cardenas & Blvd. Marina; 624/143-0655; www.elsquidroe.com) has a "beachier" look, but the vibe is just as spring break (for all ages); the collection of silly signs and graffiti on the hallucinogenically-hued walls are worth the visit alone. You can't miss the third of Cabo's traditional trouble troika: A leviathan fish in sunglasses and golf visor adorns the façade of The Giggling Marlin (Blvd. Marina & Matamoros; 624/143-1182; www.gigglingmarlin.com); this club reels partiers in earlier than its cohorts, thanks to legendary audience-participation dirty-dancing floorshows that start at 8pm – beware the legendary Skip and Go Naked cocktail (drink it all and it's free). Zoo Bar & Dance (Blvd. Marina & Lazaro Cárdenas; 624/143-5500; www.zoobardance.com) has a trendier mix and vibe than the big three and anytime 2-for-1 national drinks (including tequilas). Mango Deck (Médano Beach; 624/143-0901; www.mangodeckcabo.com) is always rocking and rollicking – imagine Real World meets Girls Gone Wild, complete with regular steamy dance contests on the raised alfresco stage. Nikki Beach/Passion Lounge & Nightclub (Meliá San Lucas, Médano Beach; 624/144-3253; www.nikkibeach.com) puts the sin in scintillating, offering the chic chain's model (in both senses) waitstaff and clientele, superb sushi, and wild entertainment (Argentine dancers in leather working up a sweat during the day).
Expect cover charges and lines on weekends at the wildly popular Mambocafé (next to Hotel Tesoro, Blvd. Marina; 624/143-1484; www.mambocafe.com.mx), the hottest venue for live Latin music, with Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Colombian, and Caribbean bands playing mambo, salsa, merengue, cumbia, bachata, and Latin pop. High-energy Las Varitas (Gomez Farias behind Puerto Paraiso; 624/143-9999; www.lasvaritas.com) showcases local acts and occasional leading Latin rock and cumbia bands like Los Enanitos Verdes, El Tri, Jaguares, Café Tacuba, Maldita Vencidad, Molotov, and Mana.
When you tire of the overgrown frat boy-sterous vibe, the cleverly named Barometro (Blvd. Marina next to Puerto Paraiso; 624/143-1466) is a hip, minimalist lounge with cozy outdoor couches with smashing marina (and people) views and live acts ranging from multi-genre guitarists to belly dancers to tango instruction to fire swallowers. Sancho Panza Wine Bistro & Nightclub (Hotel Tesoro behind lighthouse, Marina Blvd.; 624/143-3212; www.sanchopanza.com) is always jammed and jamming with Boomers and Gen X-Cellers thanks to wonderful jazz and blues singers, a cool Dalí/Miró-inspired décor, and an extensive wine list.
San José counters with two luxe lounges. Los Amigos Smokeshop and Cigar Bar (Calle Hidalgo 11; 612/142-1138) is where la gente guapa (beautiful people), including many a celeb, puff stogies and sip single malts in the plush living room of a century-old house. The equally civilized La Santa Wine Bar (Obregón & Hildalgo, San José; 612/142-6767), serves up top-flight flights of tequila and vino, plus guest DJs and slinky live bands.
Unfortunately, southern Baja lacks indigenous craft traditions. Stores sell handiwork from other Mexican regions such as Taxco silver, Talavera pottery, Huichol beaded masks, fire opals (look for certification in the window), and furnishings from Guadalajara and Michoacan. San José has the best galleries and "artesania" curio shops (Todos Santos is worth the trip for serious collectors). Abundant souvenir stalls in downtown Cabo sell virtually identical merchandise (so compare and haggle).
For boutique shopping, attack the gleaming modern mall Puerto Paraíso (Cabo Marina; 624/144-0000; www.puertoparaiso.com) where after working up an appetite vigorously shopping at Sergio Bustamente, Kenneth Cole, Naútica, Moschino, and Lacoste, you can go whole hog at Harley Davidson Bar & Grill or Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. Even more ultra-upscale is Las Tiendas de Palmilla (Palmilla Beach; 624/144-6999; www.lastiendasdepalmilla.com) by the ritzy My One&Only, where shops sell exquisite hand-painted furnishings to Lalique and Baccarat table accessories.
In San José, stroll the maze of streets around Plaza Mijares; several "artesania" shops sell everything from hammered tin mirrors to hammocks. Favorite stores include Necri (Mijares 10; 612/130-7500) for amazing hand-painted pottery; Sol Dorado (Mijares 16; 612/142-1950) for works by renowned artisans in various media including sculpture, ceramics, papier mâché, woodwork, and blown glass; and Antigua Los Cabos (Mijares 33-A; 146-9933), the only authorized source for Museum of Anthropology-certified pre-Columbian reproductions, as well as antique collectibles, jewelry, local preserves, linen, leather – and free tequila tastings.
When To Go
High season runs November 15 to May 31; the highest rates are Christmas week, February-March (when Carnival is usually held), and Spring Break (capped the first week in April by the International Bikini Open and Cabo San Lucas Off-Road Race). Among the lures: early December's Culinary Festival, February's Todos Santos Art Festival, and whale-watching November through March. Low season is June through mid-November, corresponding to Pacific hurricane season, though dry heat generally prevails (with typical desert cool down at night). You'll get the best bang for your buck in June (before the hurricane season really heats up), when there are several fishing tournaments around the East Cape; late October/early November, which reels anglers in for such Bisbee's competitions as the Los Cabos Billfish and Black & Blue Marlin Tournaments (www.bisbees.com), the latter offering a whopping $1 million grand prize; and the first half of December (often the "low high" season).
Mid-November through May
June through mid-November
Best bang for your buckJune and late October/early November
Los Cabos International Airport (SJD), located 8 miles north of San José del Cabo and 29 miles northeast of Cabo San Lucas, is easily accessible from most major U.S. cities. Aeromexico (www.aeromexico.com), Alaska Airlines (www.alaskaair.com), America West/US Airways (www.usair.com), American (www.aa.com), Continental (www.continental.com), Delta (www.delta.com), Mexicana (www.mexicana.com), and United (www.united.com) are among the preferred carriers offering nonstop and direct flights from their hubs. The municipality hopes to ease airport congestion by renovating and constructing a new terminal by early 2009.
Several package providers offer worthy air/land deals, including most airlines as well as online discounters like Orbitz (www.orbitz.com), Expedia (www.expedia.com), and Travelocity (www.travelocity.com). You can also try such specialists like All About Cabo (www.allaboutcabo.com), Cabo Golf Tours (www.worldgolf.com), Pleasant Holidays (www.pleasantholidays.com), and even Cheap Caribbean (www.cheapcaribbean.com), which promises “luxury for less” throughout Mexico as well.
Getting into and around Los Cabos
Taxis, shuttles, buses, and collective vans are available at the airport and downtown Cabo and San José. Collective taxis (nine-passenger vans) and larger buses cost roughly $12, making several stops. Most hotels also offer free or discounted shuttle service, both to the airport or, if they're along the Corridor, into one of the towns. Los Cabos Airport Shuttle (142-3238; $20–$36 round-trip; www.loscabosairportshuttle.com) accepts reservations for its buses, and offers private transportation in vans, suburbans, and limos.
Public bus service runs daily between Cabo and San Jose, generally every 20 minutes from 5am to 9.30pm. The CSL terminal is at the juncture of Highway 19 and Ave. Miguel Hidalgo, and there are official stops with seats and shade, but most passengers flag the buses down from any spot along the main highway. The fare is around 16 pesos ($1.50) between the two towns, less if you're going part way.
We recommend looking for the best rental car rate. Major agencies at the airport (often with offices in the towns and at some resorts) include Avis (800/331-1212, 800/331-1084; www.avis.com), Budget (800/527-0700; www.budget.com, www.budgetbaja.com), Dollar (800/800-3665; www.dollarcar.com, www.dollarloscabos.com), Hertz (800/654-3131, 800/654-3001; www.hertz.com), National (800/227-7368; www.nationalcar.com), and Thrifty (800/847-4389; www.thrifty.com). If you plan on exploring get a 4WD vehicle or minivan with A/C for the greatest flexibility. Bargaining sometimes nets discounts, especially on weekly rentals.