Los Cabos: A Mexican Success Story

Once isolated, two towns and 18-mile strip in between have been reinvented as a hot tourist destination

By: Arline Inge

The towns of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo and the 18-mile corridor of luxury beach and golf resorts between them are Mexico’s success story of the last decade.

The three vacation areas, which together make up Los Cabos, were not even blips on the tourist screen 15 years ago. But their visitor count was 745,000 in 2002 and it’s expected to be even higher this year.

It didn’t hurt the tourist numbers when the eyes of the world turned on Los Cabos last October for the prestigious Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC), attended by President George W. Bush and scores of other world leaders.

Streets and buildings were spruced up for the event and, even more important, long-term improvements were made to the area’s infrastructure. Local and long distance telephone service and Internet systems have been upgraded and a new road, built for the dignitaries’ limousines, now connects Los Cabos International Airport in San Jose and the corridor highway. The new road shaves drive time and bypasses the seedier outskirts of San Jose del Cabo.

Cabo San Lucas, now the fun capital of Baja, was an isolated dirt-street fishing and cannery village of a few hundred souls in the 50s and 60s, when American sport fishermen began flying down in their private planes to fish the marlin-rich Sea of Cortes.

They were followed by Hollywood celebrities, who brought their yachts down the coast to party on the beach, safe from public gaze.

The opening of the Transpeninsular Highway from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas in the early 70s brought the first wave of surfers and campers, and the airport opened at San Jose in 1977.

Fonatur, the tourism development arm of the Mexican government, put its support behind Los Cabos and in the 1980s, when Mexican real estate law was changed to allow foreign investment, builders moved in to fill the area with the hotels, condos and timeshares that now line the marina and stretch along the once deserted beaches.

Thanks to its busy 300-slip marina and numerous sport fishing charters, this town is the number one hotel choice for the serious fishing crowd. Bustling Medano beach, whose waters are safe from the undertow encountered along much of the coast, and a lineup of water sports rental shops and eateries attract families and the younger crowd.

There are accommodations in all price ranges, with lots of condos as well as hotels. Some, such as the cliffside Finisterra and the beachfront Hacienda and Solmar, were built during the early sport fishing days and now are much expanded and renovated. Among those joining them along Medano beach are the newer colonial-style Melia San Lucas, Cascadas, Villa del Estancia, Pueblo Bonito Blanco and Pueblo Bonito Rose. (The third and newest Pueblo Bonito is on nearby Sunset Beach.)

These and other popular hotels are convenient to San Lucas’ higgledy-piggledy downtown, crammed with craft and souvenir shops, taco stands and international gourmet restaurants, a new shopping and entertainment center and the town’s famous collection of rowdy watering holes with names such as Giggling Marlin and Squid Row.

In contrast, San Jose del Cabo at the other end of the corridor has been a bona fide town for the past 200 years. And it boasts all the amenities of an established community, including a central plaza with a traditional gazebo and an impressive church.

At its peak in the 1850s, this town was an important port for trading ships en route from Europe to the Philippines. The graceful old houses of seafaring and merchant families are now restaurants such as the gourmet Damiana and Mi Cocina or quality boutiques and galleries highlighting the growing artists’ colony. Window shopping on San Jose’s crooked streets can take hours.

Nightlife, on the other hand, is limited to a few bars with music on weekends. (Party animals can always run over to Cabo San Lucas in 40 minutes.)

San Jose’s historic district has only small hotels, such as the elegant Casa Natalia on the plaza. But its affordable beachfront hotel row includes the only three big all-inclusives in Los Cabos: the El Presidente-Intercontinental, the Royal Solaris and the new Faro del Cabo.