Cabo San Lucas: The dichotomy of philanthropic travel

Cabo San Lucas: The dichotomy of philanthropic travel

The famous arch of Cabo San Lucas, or El Arco, is a distinctive rock formation at the southern tip of Cabo where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez. Photo by Rob Kelley

The sand and waves that come to mind when you close your eyes and take a few deep breaths to relax had been calling for more than a year.

After the winter holidays, my husband and I answered what seems like a primal need for mountain dwellers – an ocean getaway.

We chose Cabo San Lucas. Cabo, at the southernmost tip of the Baja California Peninsula, in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur, has transformed in recent decades from a small fishing village to a well-known tourist destination.

An estimated 2 million people visited Los Cabos last year. The municipality consists of the cities of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, and the 20 miles of beachfront between them.

But the trip wasn’t exactly as we had envisioned – lounging at a resort, pampered, enjoying some downtime and setting aside the worries of the world.

Like other coastal attractions, Cabo has a life beyond vacationers. Poverty abounds. A strong culture of family solidarity prevails. There’s evidence of the Mexican cartel and gangs.

A long line of children chose stuffed animals we brought with us at a barrio church run by Pastor Luis Benavides Varela. Photo by Rob Kelley

And that’s what we got to experience – the dichotomy of beautiful beaches, iridescent fish seen while snorkeling and majestic whales spouting off before heading to deeper waters, combined with a close-up look at the inner barrios, the way people take care of one another, and AK-47-armed PolicĂ­a Federal Mexicana on patrol.

We took our trip through The Travel Connection: Travel with a Purpose. The Manitou Springs-based program provides a chance to log sun time, shop, eat at local restaurants, and indulge in the nightlife. Group members also interact with children at an orphanage, preschoolers at a day-care center, clients of a senior center and residents of the poorest neighborhoods.

It’s an experience like no other, said participants in our 10-member group, headed by director Steve Shapiro and his wife, Sheilah. By profession, Steve owns a center in Colorado Springs that helps children and teens who have learning and physical disabilities. Sheilah is a reading specialist at the center.

Shapiro started the travel program in 2010 as a way to coordinate outreach for impoverished children and build community with the people of Cabo.

The trips – part of a worldwide trend of philanthropic travel – are popular, Shapiro said, because people want to “step outside their comfort zone to experience other cultures and contribute to social change.”

Members of our group played a parachute game with children from one of the barrios, Mision Caribe Bajo. Photo by Rob Kelley

Our group had a retired teacher, a corrections officer, a military veteran who had worked in the oil and gas industry, an attorney, a human resources specialist, a children’s health therapist, a photographer and a writer. We came from Denver, Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs and Woodland Park.

We started Day One as strangers and five days later left Mexico as friends with poignant, shared memories.

Our accommodations were at Mar de Cortez Hotel, a “traditional Mexican inn” downtown. Translation: no television and spotty internet service. But there’s a nice pool and courtyard, good food and drinks, impeccable service and free purified water. It’s also within walking distance of the Cabo marina and a beach.

Our suitcases were stuffed with gifts we brought for the children and adults we were going to meet, such as hair bands, chewing gum, granola bars, candy, plush animals, small toys, playing cards, toothbrushes and toothpaste, combs and glow sticks.

We found, however, that the best gift we had to share was our time. The heartfelt appreciation at each location let us know it was time well spent.

Traveling in a large van, we did community service in the mornings and typical tourist activities in the afternoons and evenings.

The 4- to 15-year-old children at Casa Hogar were removed from their homes because of abuse and neglect. The youngsters were shy at first but opened up to us as we played soccer, kickball and a parachute game on a new artificial turf field.

As the sun’s heat intensified, we moved indoors to assemble origami and create colorful, glittery signs of their names.

Children clamored for our attention. Our gringo Spanish and plenty of smiles helped form brief relationships that left long-lasting impressions.

The privately run orphanage is supported primarily by donations from people in the United States, said executive director Jayson Stirrup. Family foster care is an idea that’s coming into being in Mexico, he said, but has not yet been widely accepted.

Residents welcoming

We learned how to make tortillas at the San Miguel Senior Center in Cabo. Photo by Rob Kelley

The two barrio visits, to poor desert communities away from the “tourist corridor,” were done in cooperation with local pastors who operate street churches.

Crooked dirt roadways leading into the neighborhoods are as bumpy as airplane turbulence. Small houses, which would be considered uninhabitable shacks in the U.S., are built from sundry materials, such as wooden pallets, corrugated tin and 2-by-4s. Rusted bedsprings and sticks form privacy fences.

There’s little running water; residents rely on delivered purified water to drink, cook and bathe. Electricity comes via a complex matrix of wires, sometimes strewn on tall cactuses, other times dangling from poles or in mid-air. A few residences have satellite dishes.

Shapiro said the government gives residents small patches of land, on which they can construct whatever shelter they can fashion.

Some neighborhoods were destroyed by Tropical Storm Lidia, which hit Cabo in September 2017.

Mangy dogs root for scraps of food and swaths of shade, as children kick around a soccer ball, futbol in Spanish, and women do laundry in buckets.

One woman scattered the spent wash water on the dirt by her sheets hanging to dry, to reduce dust and keep the laundry clean.

As word got out that visitors had arrived, parents with babies, older children towing younger siblings and grandparents flocked to a three-sided church structure to see a magic show, play games with us, and receive toys, plush animals and gift bags with toiletries and treats.

Adults and children were polite, nicely groomed, grateful and seemingly happy that we were there.

It was the same story at the preschool for impoverished children, where we played games and did crafts, and at the senior center, where we received hearty applause upon entering, danced to Spanish music, and learned to make tortillas. Hint: Rapidly slap the dough between the palms to flatten before throwing it on a hot griddle. The tortillas became the base for pumpkin-cactus quesadillas, which were delicious.

At the second barrio, we brought traditional cake purchased from a street-corner table to celebrate El Dia de Reyes, or Three Kings Day, which falls on Jan. 6 and is when Mexican people open Christmas presents.

Whales surface in the waters near where the Sea of Cortez intersects te Pacific Ocean. Photo by Rob Kelley

Activities don’t disappoint

As tourists, we marveled at several whales that surfaced during a boating excursion in the Sea of Cortez where it meets the Pacific Ocean. Whale-watching season is mid-December to mid-May.

The waters are near a famous rock formation that juts out from the ocean in the shape of an arch, as well as Lovers Beach and Divorce Beach.

Beaches are well-used by locals and tourists. We went to one of the cleanest, Chileno Beach, where schools of fish surround swimmers just a few feet from shore. Another nice one is Medano Beach, which has swimming, jet skiing, parasailing, volleyball, bars and eateries.

Our group ate at a few roadside stands, including Rosies Taco Restaurant, where tacos filled with fried scallops were my favorite. An accoutrements bar with coleslaw, varying degrees of hot sauces, onions, guacamole and other toppings made the tacos even better.

We also enjoyed perhaps the best-ever broasted chicken at Cabo’s Super Chicken, with crispy skin and juicy meat.

Restaurants are open-air, as the weather is pleasant year-round but hotter and muggier in the summer.

Cabo nightlife is abundant. El Squid Roe, a giant establishment with five bars, is known for table-side salsa making, loud music, dancing on top of the tables and a friendly staff that gets into the party groove.

Cabo Wabo Cantina, started by Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar, is a rock ‘n’ roll paradise with live music to dance the night away and food that earns good reviews.

Most restaurants serve water from bottles, not a tap, and ice made from bottled water. No one in our group got sick on the trip. In some restaurants, toilets do not flush, tissue cannot be put into toilets, and buckets of water serve as sinks for washing hands.

In what can be seen as either comforting or disturbing, police carrying automatic weapons regularly patrol the streets in pickup trucks and along the sidewalks. Security has increased since the 2016 arrest of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, whose removal has led to infighting among cartel factions.

Notices about prosecution of illegal drug activity are posted. And the farther you get from the tourist hub, the more gang-related graffiti you see.

Cabo is not in the do-not-travel advisories that the U.S. State Department issued for Americans in January, due to escalating violence from drug cartel activity.

As always when traveling, we were reminded to keep an eye over your shoulder, hold money and your passport close to your body, carefully monitor credit card transactions, and don’t go anywhere alone.

Shapiro will take a group of teens on his philanthropic trip this spring and another group of adults after Christmas.

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