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The good news is that Baja California Sur, thanks in part to its isolated peninsular geography, is safer than most North American cities. (Avoiding it is like avoiding Salt Spring for fear of gang violence in Montreal.) The bad news is that this Mexican state is so safe it attracts planeloads of sun-seeking gringos on spring break (destination: Cabo Wabo, where conversation revolves around whether David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar is the better frontman-Sammy owns this joint, so decide accordingly). But if you know where to look, there is some serious culture behind the tourist façade.
First up, decide where you’re going to decamp, since Los Cabos is all about a tale of two cities. It stretches from Cabo San Lucas on the southernmost tip (wealthy time-share homes, world-class fishing, the occasional jackass) to San José del Cabo 20 minutes north (artsy, historic, real locals) with the cities connected by a hotel-and-golf-course-choked corridor.
The historic district in San José del Cabo is all about Spanish colonial history but the ‘hood’s new Drift hotel ($75/night, Hidalgo 613, Colonia Centro, San José del Cabo) is anything but. Opened by former Vancouverite Stu Waddell, this tiny but retrofitted space isn’t a hostel or a boutique hotel, but something uniquely in between. It’s just the spot for independent, cool types who don’t require a mini bar or the usual all-inclusive frills. Modern industrial, loft-like rooms meet Baja ranch architecture, while a tiny cantina offers beer, tequilas, and hand-picked Oaxacan mezcals for fire-pit contemplation. Drift’s soft opening gives way to its official launch in January; also soon to launch: a small retail store carrying hand-crafted outdoor gear (like amazing bamboo bicycles by Diego Cárdenas of Mexico City) from young urban designers.
Art in Los Cabos typically consists of folksy and folksier, but off the beaten path just outside of San José in the Puerto Los Cabos Marina, the new hotel El Ganzo (from $179/night, Tiburón Sin Número
San José del Cabo) trades in the über-contemporary (like a wall-hung refrigerator door piece by artist Benjamin Torres). Think of it as a giant 72-room urban salon with an artist-in-residence program and underground recording studio. Live music (Slash has rocked out on the roof, Damien Rice in the lobby), modern art, and curated movie screenings all make for a cool beatnik-meets-jetset vibe.
Los Cabos owns the high end with some of the highest-rated hotels anywhere in North or South America-but the One & Only Palmilla (from $595/night, Carretera Transpeninsular Km 7.5, San José del Cabo) nails it best. In an area where most hotels were built in the ’80s (and peach stucco reigned supreme), Palmilla’s Old Mexico red-tiled roof and whitewashed walls date back to 1956, effectively giving it granddaddy bragging rights. In its original 15-room iteration, celeb guests included John Wayne, Bing Crosby, and a few presidents. Today, luxury hasn’t changed, only the scope: set on 250 acres of meandering oceanfront seclusion, there are now 173 rooms, suites, and a villa. (Tip: book Room 1619, an oceanfront one-bedroom with an oversize corner ground-level terrace; we also like 2318, a luxe casita with pool and jacuzzi overlooking the ocean.)
In the chock-a-block corridor between the two cities sits Esperanza (from $595/night, Carretera Transpeninsular Km 7, Manzana 10, Punta Ballena, Cabo San Lucas), cradled in a tiny bay. Charming rooms start at 925 square feet and include a terrace with hammock as well as breakfast in Cocina del Mar (where postcard-perfect views come standard). Walk to the hotel’s coastal desert spa, where alcoholic debauchery comes in the form of the Margarita Medley: you’re down for the count after a lime facial compress and massage with Baja Lime moisturizer.
To reach the sexy new Capella San Pedregal (from $675/night, Camino del Mar 1, Cabo San Lucas), you must first enter through Mexico’s only private tunnel-a 300-metre-long shaft carved through the centre of a mountain then laid with cobblestone and hung with wrought-iron chandeliers. Effectively cut off from the bustling town of Cabo San Lucas, the resort can get down to business offering standard luxury services like check-in/check-out times whenever they suit and a custom-crafted spa treatment using all-natural and organic ingredients.
Arguably the most remarkable restaurant in all of Los Cabos is Capella’s open-air El Farallón (Camino del Mar 1, Cabo San Lucas). On a cliffside perch where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean, its tables rim a long ribbon of real estate that hugs the mountainside while crashing waves just below (there are blankets to fend off the inevitable spray) provide nightly aquatic shows. After you’ve picked from the market-style fresh catch of the day, it’s promptly weighed and sent to the chef to be inventively prepped on an open char grill.
Organic arrived late here, but it’s hell-bent on making up the stagger with spots like the Napa-esque Flora Farms, whose farm, restaurant, bar, and new residential development channel the back-to-the-earth movement in a Pinterest-slick package. More authentic is Los Tamarindos (Animas Bajas, San José del Cabo), where they keep it real with their version of organic farm tours and onsite cooking classes. Owner and chef Enrique Silva often serves as passionate guide and helps students gather ingredients in the fields before leading his four-hour cooking classes ($85, four courses).
At newly minted Mariskeria La No. 1 (Avenida Centenario, Colonia Central, San José del Cabo, 23400) chef Joaquín Camacho, who hails from Guadalajara, throws down his tasty version of the famed torta bañado. This tiny roadside cevichería and tortería (with straw bale seating and walls clad in recycled pallets) offers a seafood interpretation of the classic Mexican meat sandwich.
At the tricky-to-find Penny Lane Café (Camino del Colegio 225, Cabo San Lucas), a farm-to-table ethos informs the menu thanks to the Los Cabos Organic Farmers Market, which sets up shop a metre away three times a week. Fresh ingredients figure heavily (where a chopped salad with organic grains, local cheese, and jalapeño vinaigrette sets you back only $7). Come dinner, the space morphs into alter ego Casiano’s, where the mantra “no menu, no rules, and spontaneous cuisine” rules. Prices are high-this is in the swank Pedregal neighbourhood near Capella; opt for breakfast or lunch at Penny Lane instead.
Mexico is all about harnessing the casual, so when The Drunken Sailor (Playita) bills its address as “on the dirt road next to Jansen’s Bait and Tackle,” you’ve hit roadside-meets-seaside paydirt. In a two-storey palapa, locals order randomly since it’s always going to be good. To wit: the shrimp burger with chili-lime fries.
Cabo without golf courses is like Hall without Oates. Set against the sand dunes on the Baja coastline, The Davis Love III course at Daimante serves tamales and Ritz crackers (with peanut butter and honey) at the comfort stations, while the driving range pipes in rock and roll.
Every Thursday night from November to June, the San José historic district art walk fills with crowds intent on scoring the next Damián Ortega. Find contemporary art at the Casa Dahlia Gallery, then go for wood-fired pizza at the quaint Casa Dahlia Garden Café tucked secretly through the back door.
Artist Rodrigo Rubin riffs on Mexican art for fresh interpretations at Arte de Origen. We like the sterling silver Coyita II.
Los Cabos is the marlin capital of the world, and swordfish, wahoo, and roosterfish all chill in the fertile waters. Fishing’s not cheap, but it’s the best in the world. For a more affordable option, hire a guide and surf-cast-you can still land some relative monsters without shelling out.
Thanks to last year’s G20 summit, Los Cabos has a new highway, a swanky new international airport, and a convention centre. And foreigners will soon be able to own land outright-all good reasons to take up residence
$99,000: Just under a half-acre Los Zacatitos is where it’s at. Buy this lot 20 km east of San José, hire Vancouver’s Campos Leckie firm (which has already created a few off-grid modernist masterpieces here, see top), and you’re laughing. Snellrealestate.com
$395,000: 3 beds, 3 baths, 1,506 sq. ft.In between San José and the beach, this spot gets you close to sand and close to culture. And it’s not too pricey. Bajaproperties.com
$4,475,000: 4 beds, 4.5 baths, 3,424 sq. ft.This two-storey villa in Cabo San Lucas-naming rights if you scoop it-comes furnished in Old Mexico style. Add to this an onsite spa and restaurant as well as the option to rent out your “unit,” and it’s a bargain. Haciendacabosanlucas.com