This article is from the November 2000 The Mexico File newsletter.
Cabo San Lucas, Better Known as Party Central
by David Simmonds
You know the old maxims about “making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” or “turning lemons into lemonade”? Well, they got it a little backward in Cabon – where the sow is now sucking on the lemon and the silk purse is in the hands of the developers. Although still quite quaint and provincial by Cancún standards, Cabo San Lucas, the onetime jewel at land’s end on the Baja peninsula, is becoming a cement and asphalt manufacturer’s messy dream. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve been known to have a helluva good time in the once dusty town. It’s the kind of place where a small town pharmacist from Des Moines can land and commence to party like a rock star. And isn’t that his librarian wife over there dancing on the table with the two surf-dudes from Malibu? It’s amazing what a couple of double-shot Cuervo brain erasers will do for you.Maybe it’s only because I first visited in 1974, shortly after the completion of the Transpeninsular Highway the year before, that I find the construction rate to be a little alarming. What I discovered back then, and what a few others had known for decades, was that this setting is one of the most remarkable on the planet. The convergence of the wild Pacific with the rich-fish Sea of Cortez, surrounded by a thriving desert, has produced a visual and ecological masterpiece.
I recently drove a Suzuki Samurai the length of the 1,000 mile road from San Diego to the tip of Baja to donate the car to Pepe Murrieta, director of Cabo Pulmo Preserve, home to the only coral reef in the Sea of Cortez. The car donation was presented by the Sea of Cortez International Preservation Foundation, which I founded three years ago, and this is one of the ways that we spend the money we are able to raise in helping various environmental concerns up and down the Sea.
Not much has changed on the long, winding drive over the past 26 years. The infrequent villages have grown a little, traffic is sparse, and you still have to pay very close attention on the two-lane road. Most of the peninsula is just around 50 miles wide with a spine of mountains bisecting the two distinct coastlines. It is a drive that I highly recommend and can comfortably be accomplished in three days. Park it at night.
One of the first things that you notice about Cabo, besides all of the Americans, is that there doesn’t seem to be much unemployment. If you are Mexican and can swing a hammer, you’re working. And although pay is low compared to U.S. wages, the standard of living is relatively high throughout the region. The people are friendly and helpful enough – but it just doesn’t feel a whole lot like Mexico. Well, a little Mexico with a lot of Newport Beach thrown in, with predictably high prices on most goods and services.
In the early 70’s the population hovered under 2,000, and most of this number were involved in the fishing business and the few resorts that had opened to cater to the sports fishermen. Now, there are over 25,000 permanent residents with the tourist population doubling that in high tourist season. A walk around the ever-expanding marina will reveal hundreds of expensive yachts and a huge sport-fishing fleet flanked by hotels, condos and shopping malls. Sound attractive? Well, evidently many people believe it is, but I kind of preferred it before. A few boats, lots of dirt and unobstructed views.
One thing they have done right is to keep the ocean pristine in and out of town. In 1973 the waters within the city limits were declared a preserve with very strict rules. The visibility is astounding, as are the number of fish species.
First inhabited by the Pericú Indians, the Spanish landed in 1542 with the English following shortly thereafter. It seems that the now famous lands-end rock formations made a superior blind for enterprising pirates who aimed to plunder boats going to and from the Philippines loaded with silver, gold, silks and spices. Rumors of sunken and buried treasure have been floating for years, although most explorers these days have other booty in mind. Just check out Squid Roe Bar or Cabo Wabo (rocker Sammy Hagar’s joint) and you’ll know what I mean.The area was finally settled on a more permanent basis twenty miles up the coast at San José del Cabo, which has retained a more typical, colonial ambience. San Jose was deemed a superior location due to a still vibrant fresh-water estuary. Good water is surprisingly abundant in large part because of the nearby Laguna Mountains which receive some 30 inches per year feeding into the underground Rio San José.However, with the building frenzy in full tilt, new resorts are required to install desalination plants and the very expensive golf courses use gray water for irrigation. What is commonly called East Cape extends for about 100 miles from Cabo going north. For the first twenty miles to San Jose the coast is being filled with development, but not wall to wall towers as it is in Cancún. Many of the resorts are actually, if not invisible, fairly unobtrusive in design. Beyond San Jose it is still pristine, requiring traversing a rough, dirt road if you want to stay right on the coast. This is the location of the aforementioned Cabo Pulmo, which is well worth a visit. It takes about two hours to drive there from Cabo.The coast drive going north along the Pacific Ocean towards the idyllic town of Todos Santos (see MF November 1995) is now being developed with upscale residential projects, although slowly. The 45-mile drive to Todos Santos is breathtakingly beautiful, some of Mexico’s finest coastline.
The reasons for making the trip to Cabo have become increasingly varied. For many, it’s the fishing. The charter captains claim the waters to be the best deep sea fishing in the world. And they may be right. San Lucas Bay is said to be the world’s third deepest. Many world fishing records have been achieved off the coast of Baja, especially in the Cape region. The variety of fish swimming these waters is legendary.
Prices vary depending upon your ride. A panga can be negotiated for about $30-$50 per person and a larger cruiser might cost you $600-$800 total for up to eight passengers. You can negotiate the amenities, like who’s paying for the bait, beer, etc.
Needless to say, scuba and skin diving are also world-class in the Sea of Cortez. Outfitters and gear rental shops are abundant and reasonable. It’s like diving in a large tropical aquarium, except this one has many sharks. The more ubiquitous land sharks can be found in town after sunset.
As elsewhere in Mexico, eco-tours and activities are proliferating at a steady clip. Surfing, kayaking, hiking, mountain biking, windsurfing, sailing and rock-climbing are all popular lures to all of Baja, and certainly in Los Cabos. It is a play-hard / party-hard kind of town, unless, of course, all you want to do is lie comatose in the sun, daring the UV rays to wreak havoc on your once youthful skin. In that case, you couldn’t pick a better spot where it is advertised to have 360 days of sunshine a year. Unfortunately, I saw the other five days on my recent trip, including a lightning storm that struck the airport tower delaying flights for a day. Try explaining that one to your spouse who is back home working hard.
The resorts along the coast offer full amenities and make it very easy do nothing but relax, if that is your quest. Although they differ in style and comfort, they all share the distinction of superb location and beaches comparable to the finest in the world. You do have to be careful not to drown, as the shore-break can be huge on some beaches. The most popular beach in Cabo, just north of the marina, is Playa Medano. The water is crystal-clear and calm, with the beach housing a few excellent outdoor restaurants that have a close view of the nearby lands-end rock formations. Many other more secluded coves can be reached by boat or vehicle.
LEAVE THE KIDS AT HOME?
In general, I consider Cabo to be more of an adult destination rather than designed for the family. First of all, the serene surrounding beauty and long empty beaches shout out romance. It’s a good place to get re-acquainted. Second, as I have said, many people go to celebrate life and meet members of the opposite sex. Bachelor and bachelorette parties are common occurrences and groups of guys liquored up after a day of chasing fish are probably not what you want your kids to see on their vacation. (Johnny, what would you like to share today?) And really, there are no historical icons or cultural lessons to be learned. And if you decide to head off into the hills or desert on a survival journey, well, its pretty rough. You don’t want to get lost out there.
You’re probably asking yourself at this point, “Does this guy like the place or not?” The answer is, “I’m not real crazy about the development surrounding the marina, but, yeah, I like Cabo.” It has that Key West feel to it, where you feel unusually close to falling off the end, but never more alive for it.