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Cabo: Baja’s popular beachfront destination isn’t exactly what you think it is

Get under the radar with the best things to do in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

things to do in cabo san lucas, Mexico Resorts and Condos
Image used with permission by copyright holder
We’re hesitant to describe any destination in terms of “tourist versus non-tourist” because it’s a silly distinction. But Cabo San Lucas has always been an unabashed tourist-centric town full of all-inclusive, budget beach resorts, never-ending 3-for-1 happy hours at bars (and gas stations and a surprising number of other places), and garish dive bars like Cabo Wabo where tequila is (almost) cheaper than water and the neon daiquiris flow every day from 8 a.m.

However, the city boasts a strange charm that most hardcore Mexican tourist centers lack. So, if none of this is your cup of horchata — if you’re looking to dig a little deeper — here are a few of our favorite places to play, eat, and stay in Baja California’s most well-known waterfront playground.

Know your geography

Aerial view of the peninsula in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The geography of the Baja California Peninsula often confuses tourists, and with good reason. Just so we know exactly where we’re talking about:

  • The Baja California Peninsula is the narrow north-south peninsula that makes up the westernmost land in Mexico. It separates the Gulf of California in the east from the Pacific Ocean to the west.
  • Baja California Sur is a sovereign state within Mexico that occupies the southern half of the Baja California Peninsula.
  • Los Cabos is the southernmost municipality within Baja California Sur.
  • The cities of San Jose del Cabo (the seat of Los Cabos) and Cabo San Lucas (the southernmost city in Los Cabos) are the two largest in Los Cabos. The latter is what most Americans are referring to when they say “Cabo.”

What to do

Boats and snorkelers at Santa Maria Bay in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Santa Maria Bay in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico Image used with permission by copyright holder

The beauty of the Baja California Peninsula is surreal. From the iconic Arch at Land’s End in Cabo San Lucas to cruising the Sea of Cortez to endless cactus-laden arroyos, visitors here could spend a month and barely scratch the surface.

Even if you’re prepared to dodge the heavy-handed tourist experiences in the heart of the city, it’s inevitable that you’ll want an escape. When that day comes, it’s worth renting a car (dirt-cheap in this part of Mexico) and heading out of town. Just 10 minutes north of downtown Cabo San Lucas lies an impossibly barren, but beautiful landscape of arroyos (an arid or semi-arid creek bed); towering, 30-foot cardón cacti; and tropical birds and wildlife found nowhere else in Mexico. There are plenty of hiking and mountain biking opportunities in this part of the state, too, and you’re often guaranteed to have the trails all to yourself.

Of course, sometimes the best way to see a destination is to escape to the surrounding water. As Cabo San Lucas straddles the southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula, there’s no shortage of adventurous opportunities. Jacques Cousteau once dubbed the Sea of Cortez “the aquarium of the world” because of its immense biodiversity. There are more species of marine life here than anywhere else on earth. On a single boat trip, visitors can see giant manta rays, sea lions, humpback whales breaching, massive schools of endemic reef fish, and flying mobulas (rays that actually leap out of the water). This all translates to some of the best diving and snorkeling in North America.

If you’re just looking to tool around for a few hours on the water rather than in it, Cabo Outfitters is a one-stop eco-shop for water excursions. They offer everything from hourly equipment rentals to multi-day kayaking tours of Santa Maria Bay and Chileno Bay. The shallow waters of Los Chopitos are another great launch point. Here, the glass-like surface all but guarantees up-close fish encounters that’ll make you feel like you’re snorkeling.

What to skip in Cabo

Mas Tequila façade on a bar in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Cabo San Lucas’ roots as a hard-partying tourist destination are still evident in its downtown core. Most resort-goers fancy a night out at the likes of Cabo Wabo (with the hopes of seeing founder Sammy Hagar take the stage) or Happy Ending Cantina (the T-shirts are practically required souvenirs for visitors). From there, the nightlife radiates outward in concentric circles of lesser-known, but just as tequila-soaked dive bars. If endless happy hours are your thing, you’ll find them, and an all-night pub crawl is likely to be measured in feet rather than city blocks. If not, the quieter — dare we say more responsible — section of town starts outside this radius, so you’ll know where to go and where to avoid.

Where to eat and drink

Bucket of Coronas at Tiki Sushi Bar in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Tiki Sushi Bar/Facebook Image used with permission by copyright holder

Cabo’s culinary scene is, of course, heavily inspired by traditional Mexican cuisine. However, the Baja California Peninsula also leans on fresh, Pacific seafood to color its dishes. Sushi is an integral part of not just the food, but of the culture as a whole.

Tiki Sushi Bar is a unique, if curious, blend of waterfront tiki hut and legit sushi joint. To create the menu, the Mexican/Californian owner duo pulled inspiration from their respective hometowns, and the result is much cooler than the sum of its parts. The relaxed vibe, great sushi selection (the Thai Mango Roll is out of this world), cool marina breezes, and boardwalk people-watching make it the ideal spot to while away an afternoon with a bucket of Pacificos.

For one of the area’s swankiest lounge experiences, head to Glass Box. Attached to the lobby of The Cape hotel (more on this later), the name aptly describes the space’s modern, glass-and-steel architecture. It’s a relaxed, yet sophisticated cocktail lounge with a well-stocked humidor and bespoke themed cocktail tasting events. The sweeping ocean views of the hotel’s private beach only add to the experience.

The craft beer scene is still in its infancy in Los Cabos. But, if you’re more interested in saison than sashimi, hit up Baja Brewing Company. Overlook the 90s-era, Miami Beach-style Cabo Villas Beach Resort where the rooftop brewpub resides. It’s still a worthwhile spot to sample locally-made beer with stunning panoramic water views to match.

Where to stay in Cabo San Lucas

Luxury villa at The Cape hotel in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Image Courtesy of The Cape Image used with permission by copyright holder

There is a litany of amazing resorts in Cabo San Lucas. If you have the desire and disposable income, by all means, splash out on the extravagant lodging at a five-star, honeymoon-worthy resort like Grand Solmar Land’s End or The Resort at Pedregal. But, if it’s a one-of-a-kind boutique hotel you’re after, you’ll have to dig deeper.

Most area resorts are awash in a cookie-cutter decor that feels plucked from a catalog, as though the designers believed ample stucco, Spanish tile work, and bold Caribbean colors were enough to seal their design. However, The Cape, A Thompson Hotel is altogether different. The modern industrial design — copious use of concrete, steel, and glass mixed with warm natural elements like leather and wood — feels pulled straight from the pages of Architectural Digest (oh, wait, it was). The onsite Manta restaurant blends diverse tastes from around the Pacific, including Mexico, Peru, and Japan, and it has amazing ocean views to boot. Rooms are masculine and sophisticated, with leather headboards, teak furnishings, and oversized, all-glass rain showers. Check out the Surfer Villa — a sprawling two-floor suite with its own sauna, plunge pool, and a private beach entrance where Cape staff will lay out your day’s surf gear for you.

If you’re cool with staying just outside of town, head a half-hour north to San Jose del Cabo. It’s the sleepier, more laid back, more responsible older brother to Cabo San Lucas, with unique hotels to match.

When to go

Aerial view of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Aerial view of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Image used with permission by copyright holder

Weather-wise, there isn’t a bad season to visit Cabo San Lucas. The persistent Pacific breeze ensures it rarely sees the stifling heat of Mexico’s interior cities. May is an all-around ideal time to go — the peak winter crowds have thinned out, and the height of the summer heat hasn’t yet arrived. Daily springtime temps hover in the 80s, and hotel and tour prices are often lower, too. It’s also just ahead of the potentially stormy summer season.

If you’re angling to follow some of Cabo San Lucas’ best events, these are worth noting:

Mid-March/April

Spring Break throughout all of North America means Cabo hotels are packed to the gills, and most of the city parties accordingly. Depending on what you’re into, this is either the best or worst time to go. Be sure to plan well in advance and consider your wallet, because hotels fill up fast and rates are the highest of almost any other time of year.

Semana Santa (Holy Week in Mexico, or Easter Week to other North Americans) also falls around this time. The dates vary from year to year, but it officially begins on Palm Sunday and culminates on Easter Sunday. Whether or not you’re an observing Catholic, know that this is one of the holiest and most festive times on the Mexican calendar. Although the country is nearly 90 percent Catholic, much of the holiday’s religious meaning has fallen away in recent years. It’s now simply a time for families to escape to the coasts and spend time outdoors.

May

Believe it or not, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated far more in the U.S. than in Mexico. In fact, few Mexicans outside of Puebla even acknowledge its passing. But, if you’re looking for an extra reason to party, this isn’t a bad one, especially if you’re already planning to be in tourist- and expat-heavy Cabo. (Just don’t congratulate the locals on their “Independence Day” because that’s not actually what it’s about.)

October/November

Sportfishing is big game (literally) off the Baja California coast. October sees the annual Los Cabos Billfish Tournament and the Bisbee’s massive Black & Blue TournamentNovember also brings the Los Cabos Tuna Jackpot, where anglers compete for up to $850,000 in cash and prizes. While it often gets overshadowed by these other tourneys, the annual Baja Sur Tequila and Mariachi Festival in October is one of the area’s most authentic Mexican events.

Know before you go

Sandy road in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

It’s worth noting that the U.S. State Department has an ongoing Mexico Travel Advisory that covers large swaths of the country. This includes Baja California Sur specifically:

Exercise increased caution due to crime. Criminal activity and violence may occur throughout the state.”

Although it’s worth noting that the government is not restricting its own:

“There are no restrictions on travel for U.S. government employees in Baja California Sur state, which includes tourist areas in: Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo, and La Paz.”

So take that for what it’s worth.

Mike Richard
Mike Richard has traveled the world since 2008. He's kayaked in Antarctica, tracked endangered African wild dogs in South…
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