I think it’s natural that when you enter another country, particularly for the first time, you immediately look for both the familiar and the strange. Driving into Cabo San Lucas from the airport, I was struck by the scattered groups and solitary sentinels of Cardón cactus, the spindly beasts that are the world’s largest cactus, and that can live over 300 years. These pricklies have been witness to the remarkable changes that have taken place at Baja’s tip over that time, and as my trip would tell, that profound pace is accelerating all the more.
For me, the familiar and the strange is that compelling contrast between desert and sea—primary entities here—and seeing that their Los Cabos melding is the capstone of what makes the region special. Desert and sea, desert and sea, desert and sea—coming in, I repeatedly looked from one to another, the dry, dun-colored scrub and the sharp, shimmering blues, a miracle merger. Less miraculous are the clusters of commercialization seen coming through as well, the Costco, the Blockbuster, the Hummer dealership. Every beautiful cactus has its thorns.
Since I was in Los Cabos as part of a three-day travel-industry event, I was both beholden to a schedule and blissfully free—I essentially got a comped ride—of most of the economic constraints a resort area can impose on a traveler’s wallet. The programs for the event were tightly scheduled, but that didn’t prove too much of a burden, since most of them involved drinking and eating in sociable company—a dirty job, but I rose to the challenge.
The Glass Is Never Empty
I was tempted to title this piece “The Glass Is Never Empty” because my relative blood alcohol levels in Los Cabos remained fairly constant. Cabo San Lucas in particular is known as a site of pretty liberal tippling (if not tilting), and if tequila is your thing, you’ll need no detective skills at all to sniff out a bottle or two. Or perhaps two hundred, near the number of different brands I saw that first night in a San José del Cabo store devoted to the heady product. But I didn’t have to buy a drop, since one of the servers at our welcoming event (where fabulous food also abounded) essentially chased me around with a flowing bottle of Don Julio, insisting that, “Señor Bentley, an empty glass is a waste of space.” Don Julio and I had such a pleasant resonance together that it made me wonder if earlier inhabitants—perhaps when those cactuses were sassy teens—of the area declared Mescal a benevolent deity.
San José is the calm and collected counterpart to its crazy sibling, Cabo, it being a traditional, colonial town of narrow streets, older buildings and people sitting in doorways chatting. I walked around enjoying the relaxed, settled feeling of the place, on a warm night where it would have taken an effort to find anything disagreeable. Los Cabos makes it easy in many ways to retain that mood; even the next day’s “Educational Seminar,” which offered three travel-industry speakers, was a pleasant row through informational waters, hosted at the lovely Fiesta Americana resort on one of those signature days in Los Cabos: bright sun, soft breeze, alluring ocean below. For me, those elemental combinations of crisp light and sultry air mellow all moods.
Taking that evening’s sunset cocktail cruise on the leviathan ferryboat Cabo Rey didn’t mess with that righteous rhythm (particularly since The Glass Continued To Never Be Empty). We cruised the famed El Arco, the area’s iconic arched-rock formation, as soothing light played on all the rock ridges at lovely Land’s End. Bobbing and weaving over wobbly waters was a decidedly good thing. Not bad either was that night’s sushi at stylish Nik-San in downtown Cabo, where the streets, though moderately dense with walkers and revelers alike, never rang the madness gong (rumored to ring with some frequency) that is said to resonate all the way through the next day’s hangover.
The Glass-Bottom Boat of Development
On the next day’s snorkeling tour, the underwater world was as welcoming as that one above it. We were taken again up close to El Arco, but this time we added the much more personal. We parked the small glass-bottom boat in a cozy cove and popped into the blue. Even as a surface-positioned snorkeler, the marvelous quiet of the underwater world is such a pocket of respite, where the fishy business going on all about me felt calm and considerate. Even the little jellyfish that stung my wrist seemed to just be a polite nip of nature, almost like a cup of coffee meant to wake me up, not warn me of nature’s wrath. There was lots of aquatic action, many colorful reef fish, like darting points of light, as well as puffers, Moorish idols, wrasse and parrotfish, plus many unknowns, and a medium-sized octopus scooting down a channel of rock.
After we returned to the boat, our captain took us up the coasts of both the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez sides, pointing out the rash of splotchy construction development (and “rash” seems an apt word) throughout the desert hills. It was interesting to hear this man, who spoke so warmly of the beauties of the area, also speak so warmly about something that threatens the beauty. He said that with all the new building, it meant another 20 or 25 years of good business. Of course, that prompts the question—and then what? The burgeoning growth is an obvious indicator of some kind of prosperity, but pipers must be paid at some point. However, if you look around at the vast service industry in Los Cabos, and see the visibly industrious work of construction laborers, gardeners, drivers, waiters, bellboys (and you hear that the wages here are so much better than in much of Mexico), you might keep at least one ear open to the notion that there’s some good in the growth. But the other ear, well…
The center of the day focused on site inspections of selected hotels. I chose the Hilton, Fiesta Americana and The One and Only Palmilla. All three have much to thump their vibrant chests about: they all sport sensational views from the rooms, plush amenities, stylish restaurants and bars (some of those the swim-up style in the pools) and other eye-catching adornments; however, the Palmilla seemed exceptionally exceptional, with its remarkably lush grounds (dense shrubs and flowers, sprays of bougainvillea and bamboo, fragrant plumeria), the ultra-modern restaurant and bar, the pleasingly traditional rooms. Of course, I had to buck the adage, “If you have to ask,” by reviewing the heady room prices. I had a sadly stereotypical fizzle of jealousy about not being flush enough to afford such a place, with its bold expressions of luxury, and its hive of service workers fluttering about its compound, but that passed, and I could simply enjoy the rare atmosphere of loveliness that permeates the place.
Elvis Swivels to the Chili Peppers
The night’s event was the closing one, on the Hilton’s wide beach, and again, Los Cabos blithely tossed off another perfect evening, warm and enveloping, a time where the night feels full of possibilities. This night was full of old and semi-new rock and roll, courtesy of a four-piece band going from Elvis to the Sex Pistols to the Chili Peppers. They did their business with no uncertain aplomb, particularly since their competition was an impressive fireworks display that was the apex of a small round of speeches from event organizers during the dinner break. The food, as at the other events, had seafood as its centerpiece, and was again excellent, and thankfully, The Glass Was Never Empty. We pushed around the sands in a semblance of dance, and left late and happy.
Happy wouldn’t be the word that first comes to mind when I got up for my plane three hours later. Actually, not much at all came to my mind, except that I’d never seen my eyes so tomato-red. But I was comforted in the thought that the faces of a number of the summit participants had over the course of the three days (and nights) crumpled much worse than mine. Mine was merely warped.
Dawn had barely opened its own eyes when I was shuttled back to the airport, but I was able to catch a salute from those serried soldiers of Cordón cactus on the way in. If only cactuses could talk, would they issue a harsh bark of environmental complaint, or would they take the long view, and just see that the new face of Los Cabos is just another look, to be followed by a look unlike the current one, and followed yet by more blurry faces into the unpredictable future? But that was too much to think about at that point—I was just hoping that the guy with the Don Julio bottle wasn’t at the airport.