This article was written by: Kitty Bean Yancey, USA TODAY, December 20, 2012
CABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico — Under the thatched roof of open-air Cabo Blue bar, sunburned tourists are pounding margaritas as if there’s no mañana — and it’s barely noon.
At the $500-a-night-and-up Capella Pedregal resort, guests get complimentary afternoon guacamole, chips and Corona beer while they lounge on balconies with private mini-infinity pools overlooking the Pacific and Cabo’s craggy in-water rock formations.
Next door at the less expensive Hotel Finisterra, a salsa teacher with the enthusiasm of a cruise director urges guests to “shake-ee, shake-ee.”
Los Cabos, a vacation destination at the southern tip of Baja California about 1,000 miles from San Diego, has a split personality. It encompasses the cantina-packed, raucous Cabo San Lucas, the quieter San José del Cabo and “The Corridor” — a 20-mile highway between them lined with value all-inclusives and luxury resorts, where a night’s lodging can cost $1,000 and skyward.
Ever since John Wayne and friends discovered the area as a chill-out fishing spot, Los Cabos has been a getaway for Hollywood, hosting stars such as Jennifer Aniston, George Clooney, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kim Kardashian. Justin Timberlake brought his golfing bachelor party here in September.
The area also got a boost this year from the G20 international economic summit, hosting President Obama and Hillary Clinton, and by being named a “Travelers’ Choice” destination by TripAdvisor.
Unlike some other parts of the country, Los Cabos is viewed as a safe destination and not included in the U.S. State Department’s Mexico travel warning. The summit meant that U.S. and Mexican authorities chased away “cockroach” criminals, making the area even more secure, says Alberto Coppola, president of the Los Cabos Convention & Visitors Bureau.
This morning he’s sipping coffee at Mama’s Royal Café on a side street in Cabo. Mama’s caters to tourists, but it lures locals for its pozole (a soupy stew said to ease hangovers) and egg dishes incorporating everything from avocado to potato and chile. Romantic Mexican pop hits play as servers circulate with coffeepots.
The party goes on
Coppola, lean and tan and unusually candid for a Mexican tourism promoter, acknowledges that tourism — the USA is Cabo’s No. 1 market — took a hit since the world financial meltdown, swine flu outbreak and Mexico’s war with drug cartels.
Discussing the aggressive timeshare touts who pester tourists at Los Cabos airport, he acknowledges that they draw “a lot of complaints” from visitors who mistake them for transportation agents and get caught up in a frenzied pitch to view a property.
The latest trend in Los Cabos: more all-inclusives for value-conscious visitors, which upsets restaurant owners and lowers the average daily hotel rate, he says (Riu and Barceló are two big brands here). At the same time, more upscale brands, such as a Ritz-Carlton Reserve villa/golf resort and a Montage property, are coming in.
After breakfast, as the temperature in this generally sunny spot climbs toward 80, Coppola leads a walking tour. Here’s the rowdy Cabo Wabo bar, from rocker Sammy Hagar of Van Halen fame, and three-story El Squid Roe, where servers pour shots down the throats of partiers.
“In the United States, if they drink like that, they go to jail,” says Cabo boatman Pedro Guadalupe Castillo, 28, who has lived in the USA.
Dusty streets of this former fishing village now teem with souvenir stalls whose vendors yell, “Yo, gringo!” or “Hola, amigo”; pharmacies selling Cipro and Viagra; and massage parlors where comely señoritas touch up their makeup while awaiting customers. A Carnival cruise ship is in, which makes cab drivers and menu-waving restaurant shills happy. Cruise traffic, however, is down in the wake of safety concerns in other ports on Pacific itineraries, such as Acapulco and Mazatlán.
Coppola points the way to the marina, where tourists can score a better deal on fishing and sightseeing by bargaining with boatmen. For those lacking the hundreds of dollars needed to cast for marlin, there are “booze cruises” on catamarans, whale-watching outings in winter when the giant mammals are migrating, or a glass-bottom boat tour of the coastline, including a sea lion colony and Cabo’s signature arch rock formation. Though the aquamarine waters are inviting, the area has only a few beaches without currents that make them unswimmable.
What Los Cabos does have, though, are outdoor adventures galore and resorts with spectacular pools and landscaping, including world-class lodgings dispensing over-the-top pampering. The Big Four, according to L.A.-based luxury vacation specialist Stacy Small, president of Elite Travel International: Capella, Esperanza, One&Only Palmilla and Las Ventanas al Paraíso.
How over-the-top? For one thing, VIP service at the airport, with staffers whisking guests through baggage check-in and security into a special lounge with a hostess and Wi-Fi.
Esperanza, An Auberge Resort, sheltered President Obama and secretary of state Clinton during the G20 summit. Actress Paltrow married rocker Chris Martin on one of its beaches. Staffers arrange creative proposals, such as one in which a ring was reeled down via fishing rod to a woman having cocktails with her beau, says general manager Marc Rodriguez. Esperanza also offers a popular al fresco dining area with waves crashing below that’s open to non-guests.
No detail left undone
Capella Pedregal, the new kid on the block near the heart of Cabo, boasts an entrance driveway blasted through a rocky hillside to form a dramatic tunnel. Violinists play My Heart Will Go On in its dimly lit Don Manuel’s restaurant, where menus are presented with reading lights attached.
One&Only Palmilla, which has a swimmable beach, offers custom cushioned beds for pets and a Market restaurant from Michelin-starred Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Families love it, and there is a high percentage of return guests, says managing director Peter Bowling. Cabo-lover Aniston stayed in Palmilla’s Villa Cortez, with screening room, spa and gym. It rents for $10,000-$25,000 nightly, Bowling says.
Las Ventanas al Paraíso, A Rosewood Resort, on The Corridor near San José del Cabo is considered by many insiders the best for romance. Every detail is perfection, down to in-room fireplaces, tequila-tasting sets, telescopes for whale-watching, butlers who pack and unpack — even sewing kits customized to the color of clothes hung in closets.
The idea is to offer “a discreet getaway” with consistently perfect service, says managing director Martein van Wagenberg.
In Spanish, the resort’s name means “windows on paradise.” And watching a rosy sunset from a tranquil terrace overlooking a long, near-deserted stretch of beach is indeed a slice of Eden — which might take the sting out of that $200 dinner or double-digit cocktail.
Meanwhile, the “wish you were beer” sign glows at Squid Roe, where bleary-eyed partiers from college kids to grandmas order six brews for $13, boogie to the oldie Brick House and call for yet another round.