Three Faces of Cabo

This article is from the Dec 2003-Jan 2004 and Feb 2004 issues of The Mexico File newsletter.

Three Faces of Cabo

by Robert B. Simmonds

Robert Simmonds, Ph.D., is a psychologist practicing in San Diego, the publisher of Mexico File, and the brother of Dave Simmonds, the editor. He muses on his first trip to Cabo.  This is the first part of a two-part series.

“You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave….”
– The Eagles, from The Hotel California
This was my first trip down to Cabo. My brother, Dave, had warned me, clucking his tongue like all of his Mexico afficionado friends do when they talk about Cabo, that it’s the most expensive place in all of Mexico and that they’re spoiling both the land and Mexican culture down there. I kept hearing that it’s just like Southern California in Cabo. I may as well go to Newport Beach. On the other hand, Dave said that he has a wonderful time every time he goes to Cabo – and he never fails to mention that he used to go camping on the beach, back in the old days, decades ago, on the very spot where they now have a big luxury resort. And there was also the chorus of alarms that I heard, both before I flew down there and during my trip, about the new Costco that just opened in Cabo San Lucas – proof that there is no way that Mexican culture could possibly survive the always-encroaching American onslaught. I mean, they make it sound like the Huichol vases are going to get crushed under the oversized jars of marinated artichoke hearts. Fortunately, culture isn’t an either/or proposition. It just is what it is.

Still, there was no way I was going to miss seeing Carmel.

I laugh better with Carmel than with any other person on the planet – gutsplitting laughter, the kind where you know you shouldn’t behave like this in public. I’ve known Carmel for over thirty years, but hadn’t seen her in 18 years. She used to live in my apartment and gave my life a very happy tone. We were the best of friends. We both left Ithaca, New York, in time. She ended up a nurse living in Staten Island, and I came to San Diego and opened a psychology practice. She emailed me that she had to use her miles up before the end of 2003 and that she had booked a room at the Plaza las Glorias in Cabo San Lucas – and why don’t Cheryl and I come down to see her there. Cheryl opted out – she needed to work and dogsit. I called Dave to find me a room and he got me one at the Pueblo Bonito Blanco.

I flew on Aeromexico from San Diego to Cabo. I had always heard that this was a superb airline, but didn’t really understand the concept until this flight. And what makes it special is, well, Mexican culture. There is a friendly and gentle mood among the airline staff. The frenetic tension I usually experience on an airplane was missing. The flight was filled with US citizens set to have a good time and Mexican nationals, for whom a good time is a given. Breakfast was served on our two-hour flight, and the food was fairly good. Interestingly, they served drinks with alcohol for free. I had a window seat and sat mesmerized by the blank and empty land below me as we flew straight down the Baja peninsula. There were very few roads cutting across the brown land below. We flew over Tijuana and saw the playas and the bullring, then the bustle of Rosarito Beach. I saw the enormity of Magdalena Bay but couldn’t see any gray whales, although this is the time of year they would be there. I could see Loreto after we sliced across the peninsula and ended up flying over the Sea of Cortez. And before I knew it we landed at San Jose del Cabo and the pilot announced, on December 3, that it was 93 degrees on the ground. (Note that the average temperature in Cabo this time of the year is normally about 75 degrees, so these were heat-wave conditions.)

First Face: Paradise (Cabo San Lucas)

Despite Cabo’s reputation for being expensive, I rented a VW Beetle, the old kind, white and clean and funky looking, from National for $133 for the week. Had I gotten a convertible I would have paid over three times that amount. From the airport I drove south down Route 1 (yes, the same highway that goes in the other direction up the nearly thousand mile peninsula to the border crossing at San Ysidro), bypassing the main part of San Jose del Cabo. It’s really the only highway in Baja. There, to my left, was the deep blue hue of the Sea of Cortez as I traveled along what is called the Corridor, the 18-mile four-lane highway between San Jose and San Lucas. The Corridor is lined with resort hotels and condo complexes, some of them among the finest in Mexico. This is what people complain about when they say that Cabo is overbuilt and Americanized. The hotels are nicely spaced apart now, but in years to come the Corridor might well become more congested, lined with one building after the next. The road is not very safe by disciplined American standards. There is construction in places, it’s poorly marked, and cars race by at American freeway speeds – especially from my perspective in my little chugging along Beetle. Surprises hit you frequently. Finding the Pueblo Bonito Blanco was a breeze once I got near Cabo San Lucas.

And there is was – Paradise. From my hotel I would look out onto the blue waters of the Sea of Cortez and right in front of me (and maybe a mile away), so close, it seemed, that I could reach out and touch it, was Land’s End, the famous large rock at the very tip of the Baja Peninsula. On my side was the Sea of Cortez. On the other side of Land’s End was the Pacific Ocean. This is one of the most beautiful spots on the planet. I had a ground floor room (I somehow got upgraded from a junior suite to an executive suite) with a beautiful patio overlooking palm trees, immaculately groomed grounds, a rambling swimming pool with an island in the middle of it and waterfalls – and, get this, just a couple of feet in front of me on the green lawn were pink flamingos. Real live flamingos. I spent hours in reverie watching these birds. (I won’t go into how my wife, Cheryl, is a flamingo freak and how our house is filled with flamingo everything – she should have been on this trip.) Yes, Pueblo Bonito Blanco is artificially created, but it’s perhaps the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed at. They have created Paradise and I loved being there.

I met Carmel at six o’clock that night, a very happy reunion, at her hotel, Plaza las Glorias, the oldest of the resort hotels in San Lucas, an enormous building and located on the marina. Incidentally, San Lucas is a small town, but it took me an embarrassing forty-five minutes of driving to find her hotel the first time, even though it’s only a mile from Pueblo Bonito Blanco. Things just aren’t marked that well in Mexico.

Our first dinner, and maybe the best of the whole trip, was at Mi Casa, a short two blocks from her hotel . I had a mole poblano which was just heaven, and Carmel had a fruit plate. Mi Casa is located adjacent to the central plaza on Calle Cabo San Lucas (624-143-1933). The open-air interior is beautifully designed to resemble a Mexican village with murals and authentic decorations. They say that Mi Casa has the most authentic Mexican food in Cabo, specializing in regional Mexican cuisine from different parts of Mexico.

Everyone in Cabo, it seems, sells time-shares. Conversations with the Mexicans are easy to come by and are usually interesting. In terms of cultural markers, I noticed that they talked frequently about their families and where they grew up. Their education or their business experiences also came up often in conversation. Almost everyone I talked to came from the mainland of Mexico, many from Mexico City. They came to Cabo to make money – and that’s where the time-shares come in. The conversation would inevitably lead to the questions, “What do you plan to do while you’re in Cabo? What would you like to do?” I would answer with something like, “Trying different foods, maybe going horseback riding on the beach, going out to Land’s End in a glass-bottomed boat, snorkeling.” That’s where you get hooked. “Oh, I can get you a boat ride for free.” Or, “I can get you an extra night at your hotel for free.” And when you agree to the freebie, you find out that you’ve got to sit through one of these hour and a half breakfast sales pitches for a time-share. One morning I walked past perhaps twenty tables of sales pitches going on at the restaurant at my hotel. (Fortunately, I had the perspicacity to avoid falling for these deals – but not Carmel: she was psyched to buy a time-share by the time I met up with her.)

Cabo, they say, is Mexico gone wrong. They say it’s where Mexican culture breaks down in the face of the American encroachment. If it weren’t there, Mexico could be Mexico. I prefer to interpret it as one of the places where Mexico’s cultural change is most apparent. Mexico is changing rapidly as it moves from third-world to a modern country. There are cell phones, PDA’s, and laptops all over the place. Mexicans have been watching US television for years, and they emulate the stars and their lifestyles. One young woman I talked to (who stood in a time-share booth) had no problem with being thirty and unmarried – and she talked about the ticking of her biological clock. In fact, she had a rebelliousness in her tone of voice and she was proud of it. She said her family, on the mainland, believed in the old ways, but she could never do that. We gringos lament the loss of the innocence and gentility that we see in our idealized vision of Mexico and we point to Cabo and say, “There, there’s the problem; that’s why we’re losing beautiful old Mexico.” But, in truth, Mexico is going to change, and is changing, Cabo or no Cabo.

Carmel could almost cry at the beauty of the Mexican people. I saw much more of what I call Mexican culture in Cabo than I have ever seen in the Baja Norte cities of Tijuana and Ensenada. And this is what appealed to Carmel. She saw a gentleness, a purity of soul in the Mexicans she talked to – and she trusted in that. Carmel is a believer in good in the world. Mexicans would invite her to their house on her next trip down to Cabo, and she would seriously accept their invitation. Carmel is a love child of the sixties. She would buy trinkets from little barefoot girls, examining the handcrafted beauty of each one before making her final selection. And her attention would focus not so much on what she was buying as on whom she was buying it from – and their simplicity and calmness. “If you buy from me, good. If not, that’ll be OK too.” What is, is.

One day I had a call from Carmel. Let’s meet up. I said I would walk over to her hotel, along the beach. I would be there in half an hour. I thought the sand on the beach would be hard and easy to traverse. Not so. The grains of sand in Cabo are large, round and smooth. You don’t walk along the beach, even in the wet part near the water. You trudge. I go to a gym in San Diego, but I had to rest numerous times on my walk down the beach to the marina in front of Carmel’s hotel. And then the dock meandered around so that the walk turned out to take an hour and a half. I was delayed by a group of young men who shouted, “Hey, meester, you want some weed?” When I declined, they said, “You want some blow?” Not today, thank you. From that time on I drove over to her hotel.

We took a glass-bottomed boat ride out to Land’s End, one of the nicest experiences of the trip. We wanted to see the colorful tropical fish in the waters of Cabo, but we didn’t want to snorkel in order to do it. So, we met up with Jorge, who, for ten dollars each, took us out (I also tipped him five dollars at the end of the trip). We saw parrotfish, trumpetfish – and my memory fails me in naming the several other species we saw. Sea lions basked on the rocks. The pelicans had their own pelican rock which they had whitened over the years. We traveled in the boat past Land’s End from the warm, greenish waters of the Sea of Cortez to the colder and clearer water of the Pacific Ocean. On the way back, Jorge, an expert with his boat, guided us through the narrow opening at the base of El Arco. Jorge dropped us off at El Melía (the beautiful, calmer, more Mexican resort right next to Pueblo Bonito Blanco) and picked up another party for the same trip. Jorge is becoming a wealthy man.

The spa at Pueblo Bonito is world-class. Pueblo Bonito Blanco (which is also called Pueblo Bonito Los Cabos) actually has a sister hotel, Pueblo Bonito Rosé, right next door – and guests can cross back and forth between the two. Rosé seems to be more of a time-share building. It, too, is a paradise, and perhaps more magnificent than Blanco. There is a black swan in one of the pools. The spa is part of the Rosé complex. My room at the Blanco got me daily spa passes with full use of the facilities (otherwise, the cost is $12 per day). This is pure luxury with an emphasis on relaxation. In fact, they have a relaxation room with bubbles traveling up the wall and calming new age music in the background. I enjoyed the steam room, Swedish showers (where rows of showerheads are aimed at the length of your body coming from three different directions) and the jacuzzis (which had ten foot waterfalls pouring into the pools). Massages and treatments of various kinds cost extra and the prices are comparable to those in the U.S. (In the interest of telling the complete story here about Pueblo Bonito, there is actually a newer third hotel on the Pacific side, Pueblo Bonito Sunset Beach. See the short article by Ann Hazard in this issue.)

I had more shrimp in Cabo than I’ve ever had anywhere. The shrimp houses are right on the street, open without windows, with tables of drinkers and shrimp-eaters, and mariachi bands playing to your soul’s content. I recommend the Shrimp Factory across the street from Plaza las Glorias and El Shrimp Bucket on the marina. You buy a kilo or half a kilo of shrimp and peel away to your heart’s content. (But the very best shrimp I had was not in Cabo San Lucas, but in San Jose del Cabo at the Tropicana. Their shrimp cocktail is a masterpiece – clean, fresh and tasty and, for $9.00, contains about 30 shrimp.)

Three Faces of Cabo, Part II by Robert B. SimmondsRobert Simmonds, Ph.D., is a psychologist practicing in San Diego, the publisher of Mexico File, and the brother of Dave Simmonds, the editor. He muses on his first trip to Cabo.  This is the second part of a two-part series.

“You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave….”
– The Eagles, from The Hotel California
Second Face: TraditionMy original intention in going down to Cabo, other than visiting with my friend, Carmel, was to do an article on San Jose del Cabo. Somehow, we at the Mexico File had failed to do anything on San Jose in the past, and I didn’t know why. After all, the city is 300 years old and actually has some history and culture associated with it. And then I found out why – there’s not all that much to write about. So, my article had to focus on three different places in the Cabo region, San Lucas, Todos Santos, and San Jose – three faces of Cabo, each one quite different from the other two.

San Jose del Cabo is a thriving, small Mexican city (population about 25, 000). While San Lucas caters to a younger and partying crowd, a more sedate, perhaps more experienced, tourist presence is felt in San Jose. The Jesuits in the 18th century who founded San Jose located it a couple of kilometers away from the Sea of Cortez, up on a mesa and closer to the fresh water that flows down from the nearby mountains – which turned out to be fortuitous since now the hotels near the water don’t block the view of the sea from the town (little did the Jesuits know!). Today you can see century-old buildings throughout the town and the lush greenery makes the town feel tropical (which is it, actually – it’s below the Tropic of Cancer by several miles). Employment is provided in the public service and tourism sectors, and it lures people from all over Baja California. A good contingent of the population is composed of foreigners. The lands surrounding San Jose are spotted with orchards of mangoes, citrus, avocados and bananas. As you get down nearer to the sea, the architecture turns modern (the houses look like they belong in very nice parts of California). And the hotels and time-shares are on the water. Some very impressive condominium buildings are going up on the hill just south of town. It has the feel of a laid-back town that’s experiencing a busy period. And it has a quality feel about it. Things are well built and look nice (except on the road up to the airport, where you see lots of concrete blocks, corrugated steel, and dusty streets). There are many people out on the streets of the central district near the iglesia and the plaza.

Carmel got an urge to look at some condos while she was in San Jose, especially since I had been lukewarm on her idea of getting a time-share. And, coincidentally, as we got out of the car and headed toward the plaza, there was a Century 21 office. We looked at some pictures of properties for sale they had posted on the walls. And out came Paul Geisler to help us. Paul, a diver, has been living in Cabo for eight years, and he’s now married to a Mexican and fully established in Mexico. He dives and makes a good living selling real estate.  Paul showed Carmel one condo while I wandered by myself up to the plaza, but she didn’t seem very excited about it, claiming that it was too dark. The plaza is surrounded by beautiful old buildings, many of them now converted to jewelry shops, a few food establishments and artisan shops. Several of the shops on the plaza have an impressive selection of high end crafts from Mexican artists – and true to Cabo’s reputation, the prices are also on the high end. There’s not much bargaining in San Jose, and to try is somewhat insulting. After Carmel and I met up again, we had lunch at the Tropicana, a palapa covered restaurant on Boulevard Mijares, just a block from the plaza.. I had fish tacos (very good) and she had a shrimp cocktail (the very best).The estuary (or Estero San Jose) is a large lagoon fed by the freshwater Rio San Jose and kept in place by a sandbar, in normal times. Unfortunately, Cabo was hit by two hurricanes this past autumn and the sandbar was washed away…and there went the lagoon, into the Sea of Cortez. We had hoped to rent a kayak but the water wasn’t deep enough, so we had to resort to renting horses instead. We found the perfect stable just across the street (Paseo San José) from the Presidente Inter-Continental Los Cabos, a very impressive resort hotel. Juan guided us on horseback up the river and through groves of palms, bamboo, and marsh grasses. There are about 200 species of birds at the estuary and we saw birds unlike anything we had seen before (not that we’re birders, although we both said we’d like to be).

One morning back in San Lucas I met up with Carmel at Plaza Las Glorias, her hotel, and she said that she had bought a framed photograph and … uh … a condo. She had spent the early morning with a realtor who took her to the condominiums, Vista Encanto, in San Jose. This is an edifice of fabulous condos, brand new, on the hill south of San Jose. Up top is a pool with a panoramic view of the Sea of Cortez, as well as a restaurant and a holistic health center. Down below the pool is a mini-deli. Each condo has a patio with a jacuzzi. Carmel met Francisco Cedano, the architect, and was so taken with his Mexican honesty, trustworthiness, and goodness that she signed a contract for a small condo. (In all fairness, when she got back to New York, she was advised not to follow through with this…and since the contract had never been notarized, she was able to get out of it – and she did, although she still thinks about how happy she would have been there, a case of nonbuyer’s remorse.)  When we went to see her condo on a separate trip to San Jose, I met Francisco and he made sure that I had a sample contract to take back to the States. Francisco is a shrewd businessman.

Third Face: Bliss Todos Santos is one of those places on the planet that glows with spiritual energy, and I guess that’s why so many artistic types make their home there. It’s an old Mexican town founded in 1724 that is surrounded by orchards of avocados, citrus, mangoes, papayas, guavas and coconuts that are irrigated by the fresh water that comes in an underground stream from the Sierra de la Laguna to the east. It was originally established by the Jesuits as a farming community to supply the mission in La Paz with vegetables, fruits, sugarcane and wine. As is the case with San Jose, the town was built inland by a few miles, not directly on the ocean, to be closer, I assume, to the fresh water and for protection against storms that come off of the Pacific. Todos Santos is cooled by the Pacific breezes, so it’s about ten degrees F cooler than other spots in Cabo that are influenced by the warmer Sea of Cortez.

Most of the older buildings in town have been there for the past 100 to 150 years and the population today numbers about 6,000. A good number of those are norteamericanos who comprise the artist’s colony – artists, surfers, organic farmers, and a seasonal contingent of Californians from the media world who come down for the winter. Joe Cummings, the author of the Moon Handbooks on Mexico and the American who knows more about Mexico than almost anyone, made his home in Todos Santos before relocating to Australia – a testament to the special ambience of this small Mexican town.

The Hotel California in Todos Santos has reopened, and it’s spectacular. They say it’s a myth that the Eagles song was based on the hotel in Todos Santos – but I choose to believe it’s not myth, mainly because the ambience of the hotel is so reflective of the mood of the song. We went into the lobby and explored. Just as I was opening a door to the rooms, garden and pool area, thinking we were alone in the lobby, I heard a serene voice asking if I needed help. This was Debbie Stewart, a Canadian who recently bought and renovated the hotel with her husband, John. The hotel has a bar and La Coronela Restaurant and there are eleven recently renovated rooms for rent, ranging in price from $75 to $125 in the summer season and from $125 to $175 during the winter.  During my conversation with Debbie and John, they described how at the Hotel California, you can check in but you can’t check out, referring to a line from the Hotel California song by the Eagles, and that really stuck with me, even though that wasn’t quite the line from the song. Once I got back to San Diego, I heard the song on the clock radio in a half-dreamlike state as I waking up…but by the time I was fully awake, I had forgotten it. So I wrote to my good friend, Maryanne Wilson, a MF contributor living in Manhattan, and she sent me the real last lines from the song – “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” And that’s my true feeling about Todos Santos – a part of my spiritual being resides there and it won’t leave. “Welcome to the Hotel California, such a lovely place, such a lovely place.” It’s amazing to find a world-class Italian restaurant in a small, isolated Mexican village. That’s the Café Santa Fé located across from the plaza on Calle Centenario. Its eighteen inch adobe walls surround the indoor seating area – and the outdoor patio in the middle courtyard is a place to see and be seen. I opted for pizza with anchovies and Carmel had penne with a meat sauce. The cuisine lives up to its reputation. The ambience is quiet and dignified and the service is peerless. Reservations at (612) 14-503-40. Carmel and I took a walk through the streets of Todos Santos, gawking at views and talking with some of the Mexican and norteamericano residents of the village. The in-town scenery suggests an archetype of domesticity, laid back living and good times. We had a nice chat with Michael Cope, who, with his wife, Pat, own the Galeria de Todos Santos. Michael showed us some of his huge portraits themed in white, as well as the paintings of other town residents, and he talked about some of his experiences living in Todos Santos for the past eight years.  We took a tour of the Todos Santos Inn, just up the street from Michael’s gallery. Craig Sinel and his partner, John Stoltzfus, have transformed the former hacienda of a sugar baron into a sensitively-restored village inn. Their care with detail in exquisite rooms, in the pool and patio area in the courtyard, and in the wine bar has created an oasis for the traveler who appreciates quiet luxury. I met a young Mexican man, Ricardo, who has recently married and built a shop on Calle Juarez. He was studying his English lesson when I came across him. He told me all about moving from the mainland, meeting up with family members in Todos Santos, and talked about his aspirations for the future. I liked him so much – his gentility, his integrity – that I bought a blanket from him, even though we must have ten of these things at home.On the plaza at Calle Legaspi #3 is the Hotel Todos Santos, home to a small hotel, a gallery and the Restaurante Santanas. All of this has been created by Brad Baer, who has lived in Todos Santos for the past three years (he moved up from Cabo San Lucas). Brad is related to Max Baer (the boxer, and also to the actor from the Beverly Hillbillies). Brad is starting a nonprofit corporation to promote the town, and he also wants to start bringing music festivals to Todos Santos. The hotel rooms are on the plaza with a view of the Iglesia del Pilar, the huge church on the plaza. The rooms are light and breezy and furnished with colonial pieces. The hotel retains the old adobe walls of a sugar mill owner’s hacienda and its vaulted ceilings with black palm beams. Prices are excellent, starting at $55 in the off season and at $65 during the November – May high season.  We had been told not to drive in Baja after dark. It’s just too dangerous. We made a point to leave Todos Santos well before dark. Carmel, however, did see a little shrine to St. Jude by the side of the highway on the drive up and wanted to stop there on the drive back to San Lucas. This was a magical little place, hot from the hundreds of candles lit within the small shrine – and she spent some prayer time in there while I explored the trail through the brush out back. Back driving again, it was getting dark – and darker. Screeeeecchhhh….there was a cow ambling lazily across the road, in the dark, and I didn’t see it until we were almost right on top of it. We veered a bit to the right in the car, off the road, and we missed the cow. Carmel said that we were being watched over by St. Jude. And after our blissful day in Todos Santos, I wasn’t inclined to disagree.