Beyond the glitzy beachfront resorts, Cabo San Lucas and surrounding area offer an unbeaten path

A romantic scene on the beach at Cabo San Lucas.

View full sizeCABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico — Afternoon turned to night as we waited in frustration for our rental car, and the cow wandering obliviously through the Avis lot matched the why-hurry pace.

Passing the time, we watched Mexican cops nail drivers, one after the next, for speeding and other offenses along the airport perimeter road. Then we got our car, but that only led to a long, disorienting drive through a city bustling with traffic, dust and dingy dives — but no resorts or beaches as far as we could tell.

Where, oh where, was Cabo, the glorious beachfront playground for the rich, the famous and anyone looking for tequila-fueled idle time? I had expected a place where sun worshippers grab chaise lounges at pristine beachfront bars and make it a day watching other beautiful people. Our arrival seemed more like a bad day in Tijuana.

Alas, Cabo, as the southern tip of Baja informally is called, was hidden, and purposely so. It turns out that we had missed the turnoff for a tourist toll road that cuts through the Sonoran Desert to the sea, designed to bypass all that is declasse or local. From there, one dazzling resort after another preened like a strand of pearls along the cliff tops.

This, then, was the famous Los Cabos corridor: 17 magnificent miles of seaside highway leading from the artsy and quaint section of San Jose del Cabo to the glitzy, raucous town of Cabo San Lucas, nestled at the end of the peninsula.

No wonder so many luxury Gulfstream and Lear jets were parked on the airport tarmac.

A typical experience in the Los Cabos region involves a week at a posh oceanfront resort on the peninsula’s tip or western side, which fronts the Pacific Ocean, or on the eastern shore, which marks the Sea of Cortez.

This is the same Sea of Cortez that John Steinbeck sketched in his logbook of 1940, but Steinbeck’s explorations bear little resemblance to the developer-built, party-hearty Cabo of today.

Yet there’s a rich diversity of activity here, both in and away from the population centers. You’ve just got to become patient, and get a little dusty and lost, to find it.

Tequila, nightlife define one part of Cabo

The heart of a Cabo vacation centers around the southern terminus of Cabo San Lucas, whose small downtown makes for easy strolling, barhopping and shopping, from boutiques to make-me-an-offer tourist stalls. (A tip: Those "Ray Ban" sunglasses for $20 — you can talk them down to $12 — are knockoffs, even though the vendor swears they’re made with "real metal.")

Stores specialize in high-end tequila that’s as smooth as cognac, as flavorful as coffee and oranges, and shops invite on-site sampling. The timeshare hawkers and restaurateurs beckoning on the wharf can be annoying or amusing; we were offered not only meals, vacation rentals, cash vouchers, spa treatments and boat rides to El Arco, the granite arch at Land’s End, but also an adorable and very real dog.

And then there is late-night, crazy Cabo. Two words describe it fully, and they are the names of both a premium tequila brand and a rock ‘n’ roll cantina that’s popular with cruise-ship passengers. The bar and the brand are owned by former Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar, and, thus, have the same name: Cabo Wabo. Two gonzo-goofy words (make it three with, "Cabo Wabo, baby!") can say so much.

We weren’t here merely to party, however. My wife had a conference to attend, and I wanted to explore the seaside backcountry away from town. Although drug-and-gang-fueled violence prompted travel warnings much closer to the U.S. border, the peninsula’s far-away tip — roughly 1,000 miles below San Diego — seemed largely immune from the threat. Only once was I mildly unnerved, when seeing a police officer with an automatic weapon standing guard at a shopping plaza.

We split our week in two, starting at the pristine Pueblo Bonito Pacifica Resort and Spa about a mile up the Pacific coast and down a steep, dramatic hillside from Cabo San Lucas’ center.

I am not normally a resort kind of person. Yet I could surrender myself to the Pacifica without complaint, for its specialty is tranquility and relaxation. Credit the quietude (adults only); the staff (solicitous but not obsequious, and more than helpful with my abysmal Spanish); the herbal scents, and flower and cactus gardens; the pools and decks leading out to the isolated beach; and the gray whales. This was winter, and just as birds migrate south, so do Pacific whales, heading to Cabo’s warm waters to give birth.

It took no effort to find them. Look up from a book and there she blows, spouting water as close as 100 yards off shore. It was as thrilling the 20th time as the first.

Be forewarned: You can walk on the beach, play on the beach and rent a bed draped with white, billowy fabric for a romantic, torch-lit night on the beach. Yet swimming in the Pacific is not advised due to the undertow and strong waves. And if you’re looking for wild nightlife, you should consider staying closer to town.

The resort offered a shuttle and taxis into town, but we used our rental car instead, parking at a Swiss pastry shop for breakfast and the Puerto Paraiso Entertainment Plaza, which abuts a marina and boardwalk, for shopping and harbor watching. Few meals away from the resort were memorable, save for Mi Casa, an old adobe-fronted series of open-roof rooms that required a reservation. There we had a wonderful dinner of fresh scallops, shrimp and other seafood and large margaritas.

Cabo San Lucas makes a good departure point for a 45-mile day trip up the Pacific coast road to Todos Santos, a village that draws surfers for its waves and tourists for its art galleries. The attractions for us were the galleries and the fresh lobster rellenos — lobster meat cooked in a steamed poblano chile. By the time we stopped for lunch, however, Miguel’s, a thatched-roof bar and eatery, had run out of lobster. We settled for shrimp rellenos and beer. No complaints here.

The drive to Todos Santos and back can seem surreal; picture the Arizona desert, when all of a sudden the ocean is around the next curve. This makes sense on a map. Baja juts out southeast from the United States, putting the end of the peninsula due south of Arizona. Still, it’s weird to see a saguaro cactus and a whale in the same line of sight.

Up the road to new adventures

Our time at the Pacifica was up, and we headed back up the highway toward San Jose del Cabo, checking in about five miles south of the latter at the architecturally stunning, arc-shaped Westin Resort and Spa. The salmon-colored structure, appearing at first glance to be built into the cliffside, complements the region’s sandy landscape in a setting that’s striking. As with other resorts along the corridor, the location is rather isolated, especially for the many guests who arrive by airport shuttle and don’t rent cars. Even ours remained garaged more evenings than we’d planned — the result of potent happy-hour margaritas served gratis to guests at a terrace bar above the beach and the Sea of Cortez, with the whales every bit as entertaining as in the Pacific.

My wife’s conference started, so while she was convening in the mornings, I drove north to explore San Jose del Cabo. The town center was certifiably cute, with the sun-bleached Parroquia San Jose church forming the requisite picturesque landmark on the town plaza. Narrow back streets lined with art and pottery galleries provided an antidote to the party-town flavor of Cabo San Lucas.

Yet nearby was the bustle and grit of workaday San Jose del Cabo, with a mix of restaurants and markets that appeared to hold little allure for American tourists. This was the same area I found so jarring and junky the day I’d arrived in Baja. Now I parked and wandered about on foot, entranced by a local candy warehouse; the clothing, appliance and electronics stores; and the foodstuffs and menus.

But what I really wanted to see was the Sea of Cortez away from the population center. Guide books told me to head out from San Jose del Cabo to the East Cape road. This seemed like a good idea, except I couldn’t find the road to get out of town. Soon I realized: Forget the pavement. That unpaved, dusty, rutted byway that I had assumed was some sort of four-wheeling recreation path was, in fact, my avenue out.

Many people — arguably most people who go to Cabo — would not have taken that road. To which I say, good. I wound up on pavement before long, came to a small fishing village, Pueblo La Playa, then climbed the seaside hills and meandered past ranch land before hitting a dirt road along the Sea of Cortez without a person in sight. Miles of unspoiled beach unfolded, and the whales put on a private show.

A fish-taco lunch at Buzzards Bar and Grill, at the edge of this quasi-remote seaside, made the morning complete. The next day, I returned with my wife and another conference couple. While they appeared a little more concerned about the off-roading portion of our outing, they were totally enthused with our Buzzards lunch of grilled dorado tacos, coconut shrimp and Pacifico beer.

This leads to the ultimate lesson I took from Cabo: If you want to experience more than the glitzy resorts and party atmosphere, rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle. This is not because of the aforementioned trek, but because of one that followed on our last full day in Baja.

We drove north on Highway 1 (the Baja Highway) toward the state capital of La Paz, with a parade of weekend cowboys galloping alongside for several miles. Just beyond the road marker for the Tropic of Cancer, we turned east, following a mostly isolated but paved route through the desert toward the sea.

Maps showed that we would wind up on the northern portion of the East Cape road. We knew from guide books, however, that the road here would ultimately turn to dirt. It was rough, slow, rocky, dusty and tempting to turn back, yet the sight of the sea and the promise of Cabo Pulmo pushed us ahead.

Cabo Pulmo is a tiny, remote outpost for scuba divers, home of the largest living coral reef on North America’s West Coast. It is off the grid, getting most of its power from the sun. And here, in the middle of nowhere, is Nancy’s, a restaurant, inn and occasional cooking school where we took refuge from the strong winds — and could have binged all day on the lobster rellenos and fajitas. Another Pacifico would have gone down well, too, but there was the long, harsh drive back to consider.

Besides, margaritas would be waiting back at the resort. Because no matter how we chose to experience it — we were still in Cabo, baby.

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