LOS CABOS, Mexico — Much of what you need to know about Cabo San Lucas happens during the first weekend of October.
It’s Sammy Hagar’s birthday.
Yes, that Sammy Hagar, the second-best singer Van Halen ever had and the rock ‘n’ roll wordsmith responsible for sentiments such as “Your Love is Driving Me Crazy” and “I Can’t Drive 55.” When Sammy ages another year — he recently turned 66 — Cabo San Lucas celebrates. More accurately, Sammy Hagar celebrates with a concert at Cabo Wabo, his sprawling bar-restaurant at the heart of the Cabo San Lucas action, and the booze-swilling tourists celebrate with him.
When Sammy Hagar’s birthday is one of your calendar’s notable events, it says a lot. And what it says about Cabo San Lucas is true: It’s a party place. It’s where people go to forget their lives up north.
But then there is the other Cabo: San Jose del Cabo, 20 miles east and a world away. If Cabo San Lucas is vacation, San Jose del Cabo is traveling: art galleries, cobblestone streets and a central square highlighted by a church dating to the 1700s.
Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo are too estranged to be siblings; they’re more like distant cousins who rarely speak even though bound by a name, geography and an airport. On a recent trip, I chose both.
CABO SAN LUCAS
My week at Baja California’s southern tip began in Cabo San Lucas, which any local will remind you was a sleepy fishing village 25 years ago. Though high-rise development has thankfully been kept in check, the town’s leap into international tourism came without much of a master plan. Cabo’s primary beach, which hosts the area’s resorts and sand-top restaurants, sits a short disjointed walk from the heart of the entertainment — the bars, the marina, the (ample) strip clubs, the casino, the high-end shopping and the all-important Cabo Wabo.
With its slightly scattered persona, it feels like the free-for-all that it is. But it also is lovely; stand on the beach, where clear blue-green water meets the sand, and ahead sits a natural bay made by jagged rocks curling into the ocean. Behind the town stands sloping desert foothills studded with green.
Because tourism drives the economy, there also is an endless effort to separate visitors from their money. Offers of jewelry, tours and activities — snorkeling, diving, dune-buggy rides, camel rides, zip-lining, rides on water-propelled jet packs, boat rides to Cabo’s famous El Arco stone arch (do it) and world-class fishing — are endless.
“Some people check in here and just go straight to getting trashed,” said Jeff Layton, 60, who left Portland 10 years ago to open Cabo Cush, an affordable, well-appointed hotel just outside downtown Cabo San Lucas. “Two tequila shots and a beer for five bucks, and you get a couple of those? You’re on your way.”
It was dark by the time we got back to the beach and, like every night, Cabo was twitching to life: seeping from restaurants lit by tiki torches was the smell of grilled seafood and the sound of music, be it a mariachi band taking on Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” or Americans at bright tablecloths singing along to the few words of “La Bamba” that they knew. Dancing and shots soon followed.
Wearing down on Cabo San Lucas, I took a leisurely hour walk the next day around the marina, landing at the beach across the bay. Because people tend to follow people, almost all the tourists baked themselves at a lovely spot hemmed in by dramatic rock shapes called Lover’s Beach. But a mere couple hundred yards away, I found my own sliver of undisturbed Cabo and ran headlong into the Gulf of California to bob in the salty blue-green water, refreshed and alone.
Moments like that are why Cabo San Lucas has its devotees, such as Chic McSherry, a Scotsman who visits Cabo four or five times a year to fish.
“Best striped marlin fishing in the world,” he said.
McSherry said he generally opts for the lower-key side of Cabo San Lucas by eating and sleeping at local joints (such as the charming boutique hotel Los Milagros).
“You know, it’s not just all-you-can-eat and two-for-one down here,” McSherry said. “Go 15 or 20 minutes and you’re in proper Mexico.”
SAN JOSE DEL CABO
There’s a reason San Jose del Cabo is fundamentally different from its rowdier cousin: It is about 250 years older.
San Jose took root with the construction of a Spanish mission in 1730. Though the town wasn’t always a tourist destination, about the same time that Cabo San Lucas was fashioning itself as party central, San Jose experienced a rebirth of its own that has become art galleries, restaurants serving authentic Mexican fare and cobblestone streets.
I started my San Jose experience away from its Old World charm, in the beachfront neighborhood of La Playita, a couple miles outside the town center. For years La Playita was a quiet fishing village on the Gulf of California that went relatively unvisited by tourists. But with its miles of pristine beach, the people who build things decided that made no sense.
Voila: A marina was dug into a longtime beach and soccer field. Built on its shore was Hotel El Ganzo, which opened in late 2012. El Ganzo is a hip, stylish resort that embraces both the arts (there’s a recording studio in the basement) and the fact that it is not Cabo San Lucas. What you will find at El Ganzo: friendly service, a stunning rooftop infinity pool and a quiet, private beach. What you will not get at El Ganzo: waiters pouring tequila down anyone’s throat.
Though a sedate little town, San Jose quietly is a sensory feast. The art is much of the reason, and on Thursdays during the high season (late October through May), the galleries stay open late into the night.
But even on a Sunday and Monday it was an interesting place to be. I’d explored town all of 15 minutes before coming across a 1995 Nissan Pathfinder painted in a chaotic splatter of blue, red, yellow, black, white and pink. As I looked deeply into the pattern — clearly they were meticulous brush strokes — the man responsible for Baja’s most vibrant SUV appeared before me.
“I decided to create something unusual for in front of my gallery,” said Metin Bereketli, a bandanna covering his head and a faint beard on his face. “I want to help the kids with a smile.”
Bereketli, who was born in Turkey, invited me inside to look at his paintings, which were largely in the same exacting style as his truck but as city centers of the world rendered on canvas. He offered a glass of red wine and explained why he prefers San Jose del Cabo to Cabo San Lucas.
“In San Lucas, to me, everyone is trying to sell something,” Bereketli said. “This is a special environment — peaceful and relaxing. Here, people choose to enjoy art and food and wine.”
It was no surprise that I met the most interesting people of my trip in San Jose. On my last night in town, some new friends (an American, a Mexican and a Spaniard) took me to Chileno Beach, along the ocean-hugging corridor between the Cabos, where we crawled over the rocks with an eight-pack of Pacifico to reach a private sliver of sand. After 30 minutes of snorkeling above luminous blue fish darting in and out of reefs, we sat on the beach until the sun went down and Venus rose, sparkling in the quiet dusk.
We were about 10 miles from Cabo San Lucas but couldn’t have felt farther.
Locavores set up shop at Mexican resort
SAN JOSE DEL CABO, Mexico — My dinner at the thick, green oasis in the hills above Baja California’s southern tip, known as Flora Farms, didn’t begin with a meal. It began with a tour.
Cocktails at the bar at Flora’s Field Kitchen in Baja California, Mexico, include farm ingredients such as heirloom carrot juice. The open-air bar makes the most of the mild climate.
Late every afternoon, Flora staffers guide visitors through bushy rows of rosemary, radishes (three kinds), basil, asparagus, lemon grass, baby arugula, turnips (two kinds), eggplant, hibiscus and, well, more than can possibly be recounted here because nearly every ingredient employed by Flora’s Field Kitchen — the restaurant that is the farm’s engine — is raised in its fields.
Never mind that Flora Farms is surrounded by beige hills and cactus. After buying the land in 1996, owners Gloria and Patrick Greene, of Northern California, spent 10 years enriching the sandy soil with compost and cover crops.
Once it became viable, Flora Farms carved a growing season out of the nine months of the year that aren’t the oppressively hot Mexican summer. Its bounty is now wide and robust, which is a point of pride at the farm. So are its 90-plus heirloom vegetables, many of which are pulled from the ground the day they are served.
“It means we serve the same radishes people were eating before the era of pesticides and genetic modification,” my tour guide said. “It’s like eating out of your grandmother’s garden.”
IF YOU GO
CABO SAN LUCAS
STAY: A block from the beach, Bahia Hotel (bahiacabo.mx) is elegant but unfussy; rates begin around $120. Near the action but not in it is Los Milagros (losmilagros.mx), a quaint, charming escape from the Cabo madness; rates start at $85. Cabo Cush (reservations available at eurobookings.com) is a quality inexpensive option, with welcome touches such as Mexican tile floors and rooms starting around $40 per night.
EAT: Mariscos Mazatlan (corner of Narciso Mendoza and 20 de Noviembre) is a seafood favorite of locals and for good reason; the portions are hearty and fresh. Los Tres Gallos (20 de Noviembre, near Leona Vicario) serves classic Mexican food (“No Tex-Mex,” a waiter proudly informed me). Bar Esquina at the Bahia Hotel serves creative, fresh food all day long. Gordo Lele’s (Mariano Matamoros, near Lazaro Cardenas) is worth a visit to see owner Javier Reynoso Ramos sing Beatles songs, but the tacos are even better than his pipes. Rumari is a brew pub with quality takes on classic beer styles offers high-end meat and fish.
SAN JOSE DEL CABO
STAY: Casa Natalia (casanatalia.com) calls itself “chic boutique” and justifiably; it hits the intersection of elegance, charm and comfort and has one of the better restaurants in town. Room rates start at $165, but cheaper deals are common on the hotel website. El Ganzo (elganzo.com) is a luxurious, artistically oriented resort with a remarkable rooftop infinity pool. Rates start at $179 per night through Dec. 20, when they climb to $315 for high season. Drift Hotel (driftsanjose.com) is a spare, contemporary and affordable hotel at $75 per night.
EAT: Run by a woman who owned a coffee shop in Santa Barbara, Calif., Drunken Sailor (ohnicnic.wix.com/the-drunken-sailor) offers cheap, fresh and interesting Mexican seafood, including a wonderful shrimp-and-heart-of-palm quesadilla, fresh ceviche and shrimp-stuffed falafel. Lolita Cafe (on Manuel Doblado) is fresh and delicious three meals a day. Mi Casa (Obregon 19) caters to tourists but does it well, executing legitimate Mexican fare such as mole and chiles en nogada.
Flora Farms: Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day but Monday (closed) and Sunday (brunch only; the mango French toast is a stunner). Reservations are suggested for dinner. Situated in the hills above San Jose del Cabo, getting to Flora Farm (flora-farms.com) is possible only by rental car or taxi (which will cost about $20 from San Jose and $100 from Cabo San Lucas). Tuesday is the well-regarded fried chicken night. Baked on homemade crust, the pizzas are world class; I was thrilled with my half arugula, half bacon-and-tomato pizza. Entrees are generally in the $20 to $40 range.
The farm also has a grocery open Tuesday through Sunday that sells house-made breads, meat and produce, jams, dressings and food to go.
Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune