Forget everything you think you know about Cabo. The Baja Mexico beach destination is on the rise, with a slew of new and indie hotels and restaurants attracting a new breed of traveler. Watch your back, Tulum. Cabo is on the rise.
LOS CABOS, Mexico – I first visited Los Cabos, Mexico in 1980. Translated, "Los Cabos" means "the capes," and refers to the towns of San José del Cabo ("San Jose") on the Sea of Cortez (where the international airport is), and Cabo San Lucas ("Cabo"), the mega-resort thirty minutes south on the tip of Baja where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean. My parents purchased a condo in Cabo San Lucas because it was the only place in Mexico that my mother had not gotten sick.
Back then, coming from Seattle, we would overnight in Los Angeles before flying to the thatched-roof airport in San Jose. We would walk off the plane and hop into a taxi for the drive down the windy, dilapidated road that linked San Jose with Cabo. There was no highway back then, and I always got carsick. Our small condo development, one of the first in the area, was built by an American family who had ditched the United States in search of the slow life in paradise.
At that time, Cabo was tranquil. No marina, no stoplight, no pavement, few tourists, and definitely no Domino's Pizza. It was a village fringed by empty beaches leading to the deep blue sea, populated by fishermen bronzed by endless sunshine. Over the 20 years that my family visited, Cabo tourism grew faster than infrastructure could support it. In what felt like no time at all, the village I had known as a child became a mecca for tourists. The marina was dug, hotels were raised, and direct flights brought people en masse. My parents sold their spot in 1999, during the height of the boom.
In spite of that, Baja remains in my blood, which is why I return year after year. If I feel like I need to be taken care of, I take refuge at Las Ventanas al Paraiso, the fabulous Rosewood Resort halfway between San Jose and Cabo. Las Ventanas is my idea of paradise. The serene, white-washed rooms make me never want to leave, and the incredible service makes me always long to come back.
If I am looking for a little more adventure, I rent a car and drive down and around the tip of Baja and up the Pacific Coast to the towns of Pescadero and Todos Santos. I go to Rancho Pescadero, a relaxed, friendly, and intimate, adults-only boutique hotel with a California-meets-Mexico vibe, when I want to escape the glitz and glamour of the five-star resorts without sacrificing any of the comfort. (Read more about it on Fathom.)
This winter, I decided to stay put in San Jose. Formerly the more commercial of the two Cabos, in the past few years San Jose has become a haven for artists, foodies, and travelers looking for something a little more authentic than the all-inclusive resorts that Cabo is typically known for. Thoughtfully designed accommodations and incredible restaurants have quietly started drawing sophisticated travelers to San Jose. Yes, the main road is still cluttered with resorts and cheesy tourist restaurants, but a short stroll into town takes you to the quaint center square, where colorful shops, galleries, and restaurants populate the streets. It is as lovely as it sounds. San Jose del Cabo's time is now.
WHERE TO STAY
In September 2014, Hurricane Odile slammed into the Baja Peninsula, inflicting widespread damage to the tourism infrastructure of Los Cabos and the surrounding areas. A portion of the airport was destroyed, stranding some 4,000 tourists. Roads, bridges, and communication services were severely impacted, and many damaged hotels didn't survive. Most of the five-star luxury resorts between San Jose and Cabo closed for renovation, and several used the opportunity to further expand their properties, including Esperanza, an Auberge Resort, One&Only Palmilla, and Las Ventanas al Paraiso. The latest entry is Chileno Bay, another Auberge Resort, which opened this past winter.
This period of lull made the Los Cabos area ripe for development, with new properties opening up and down the corridor. Most are three- and four-star all-inclusive mega resorts that were quickly constructed and brought nothing new to the market. (I'm looking at you, JW Marriott, Breathless Resort, and Hacienda Encantada, to name a few.)
However, there are a few standouts that have opened in Los Cabos following Odile, like The Cape, a Thompson Hotel, designed by architect Javier Sánchez, which opened in late 2015 just outside Cabo.
In San Jose (which rarely receives the press that Cabo gets), a few eye-catching new hotels have quietly opened, bringing options for the discerning traveler to the quieter side of Los Cabos. These are two that I love.
This new hotel brings a touch of high design and architecture to San Jose del Cabo. Designed by Mexican architect Miguel Ángel Aragonés, Mar Adentro's hypermodern white structures are built amid a landscape of huge reflecting pools and water features, all with an endless view of the horizon hanging over the Sea of Cortez. At night, the buildings are lit up in different colors, and the pools shimmer with an infinity of reflections. The rooms at Mar Adentro are spacious, contemporary, and luxurious. While the hotel is open for occupancy, the property has not yet been completed. Not that I heard any construction noises or noticed any work being done on the villas and suites lining the beach. In the morning, the Nest serves coffee and a full Mexican breakfast — chilaquiles, breakfast burritos, extra bacon. In the afternoon, once the breakfast food coma wears off, it's time for a light lunch by the pool — unbelievable ceviche and organic salads. The day ends lounging in the fading sun with a few Pacificos and a swim. When the breeze carries the scent of coconut and pineapple from a piña colada across the pool, it's easy to consider never going home.
Drift San Jose
Located in the town center of San Jose, Drift is the perfect accommodation for independent travelers seeking peace, quiet, and comfort in a tranquil and private setting. The contemporary, industrial-style rooms are comfortable and beautifully furnished with minimalist décor, and surround a courtyard with a small pool in the center. Guests are encouraged to make themselves at home and get to know one another. I'm so glad I made time for the hotel's food cart and mezcal bar that opens to the public on Thursday and Saturday evenings. Live music is on the ticket regularly — just another reason to never leave the little urban oasis.
WHERE TO EAT
Flora Farms is the magical place that brought organic farming to the foothills of the Sierra de Laguna Mountains just outside of San Jose. The drive from San Jose leads into the desert and down a dirt road, ending at the oasis of palms that is Flora Farms. The farm community includes a farm stand, the restaurant, and privately owned culinary cottages. Arriving at the farm, visitors encounter a series of concrete buildings shaded by palm trees include a small art gallery and boutiques selling everything from Mexican crafts and locally made soaps to Flora Farms-branded James Perse T-shirts. Just beyond the boutiques, a sign post and a path announce a self-guided tour of the gardens, past ten cottages discretely scattered about the private portion of the property. Finished a few years ago, the cottages are individually owned and come with exclusive access to the farm.
Eventually, the path leads into the beautiful and expansive outdoor restaurant surrounded by abundant fields of organic produce. Those who visit during the day for lunch and brunch can really see interaction between the farm and the restaurant. In the evening, twinkling lights and lanterns illuminate the restaurant, and the smell of the fields is a pleasant reminder that dinner is grown on-site. Flora is a farm-to-table restaurant like no other. The landscape is otherworldly. The food is exceptional. And the cocktails are made from juice pressed from their own fruit and vegetables. The extensive menu showcases the daily bounty, with proteins focused on the catch of the day, pork, and house-made charcuterie. (The pork chop is incredible.) Should you visit and decide you never want to leave, one cottage may still available for purchase, and rumor has it that a beach community is in the works.
Just opened this winter, Acre is a 25-acre property outside San Jose. If Flora Farms is the mature older brother in the local farm and food community, Acre is the adventurous younger brother. The first phase of Acre's development was just completed, and the impression I got was less farm and more hip culinary destination. A beautiful bar, restaurant, pool deck, and event space unfold in tiers throughout the property. The focal point of the decor is extensive use of colorful concrete tiles as a substitute for flagstone, grass, and dirt. Beyond the restaurant, in an adjacent palm forest, is the second phase of Acre's development, a dozen individual tree houses with open-air accommodations, poised to launch in the coming months. I happened to catch executive chef Kevin Luzande preparing for a large fiesta on the tiled patio. He happily told me that he dropped everything in Los Angeles to take the job at Acre and has never looked back. (He's also good for insider tips on where else to eat in San Jose.) Meals at Acre are beautifully prepared and bent towards refined, contemporary Mexican fare. The fish is fresh, the ingredients are vibrant, and the blend of flavors makes each dish memorable.
La Revolución Comedor
The new restaurant in a beautifully restored and striking building in the heart of San Jose serves some of the best food in town. The menu focuses on meats roasted in the brick oven, reminiscent of a steakhouse, with oysters, ceviche, salads, and rice to accompany the richness of the locally raised beef and chicken. The signature cocktails are an inventive mix of local ingredients and amazing mezcal and tequila.
When chef Kevin from Acre wants tacos, he goes to the backyard bar at La Lupita. The tiny kitchen turns out incredible tacos made of handmade tortillas filled with fresh, local ingredients. The menu doesn't lock diners into entrees of three of the same tacos: Pick and choose, and keep them coming. (They're small, after all.) And don't shy away from the deep list of mezcal to wash them down.
The sweet little bakery in the back of a strip mall serves one of the best al fresco breakfasts in San Jose. Minimal design. Beautiful pastries. Amazing breakfast. Think avocado toast, eggs with chorizo, fresh squeezed juice, and French press coffee.
WHAT TO DO
Hit the Beaches
Unlike Medano Beach in Cabo, the one packed with revelers on never-ending spring break, the beaches in San Jose are quiet, save for the occasional fisherman and local family enjoying a day at the beach. While you have to be careful of the undertow, swimming and bodysurfing are allowed on the beach in San Jose.
If the beach in San Jose isn't quiet enough, head north to Shipwrecks Beach to bask in the sun in the sand dunes or comb the shoreline for shells.
If you are want to put miles on your rental car, continue north to the wilds of Cabo Pulmo Marine Park, a hotspot for snorkeling and diving.
If it's calm waters away from the surf that you seek, take a taxi 20 minutes south to Santa Maria beach, a beautiful white-sand cove with excellent snorkeling. This is a timely tip because the property behind Santa Maria beach that was previously undeveloped is now part of a large scale, multi-stage development that will, unfortunately, destroy the serenity of this cove and likely the marine life that lives there.
Explore San Jose
Take a bicycle for a spin through old town San Jose (if you are staying at Mar Adentro, bicycles are there for the taking). The streets are full of wonderful shops stocking Mexican textiles and ceramics, and galleries showcasing impressive local art. For beach cover-ups, brightly colored handbags, and pom-pom necklaces, stop in at Shima Shima. Pull over at Paleteria Tropical for the best popsicle you'll ever have. And if you missed the boutiques at Flora Farms, you can hit their outpost in downtown San Jose, where fresh produce, organic breads, and farm-raised poultry and pork are sold alongside handcrafted bath products from Santo Cabo. Before you head back to the hotel, stop for a beer across the street at Baja Brewing Company.
If you are feeling adventurous, an evening horseback ride is a wonderful way to take in the sunset, surf, and peacefulness of Baja. The easiest way to ride is to hire a horse on the beach from one of the guides who cruise up and down the sand. The going rate is $40 per hour. Just north of Mar Adentro on the beach is a corral with horses for hire. Alternatively, ask the hotel concierge for help scheduling a ride.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Los Cabos International Airport (SJD) is served by major airlines like Aeromexico, Alaska, American, Delta, and United, often with connections through other major cities.
If you are planning to explore Baja, renting a car is a good idea. All the major agencies have offices at the airport. Be prepared to sign up for supplemental insurance because it's required in Mexico. If you aren't planning to leave San Jose del Cabo, taxis are plentiful.
Hold onto the bottom portion of your immigration card after you go through customs: The Mexican government won't let you leave the country without it and will require you to pay a cash fine at the time of departure if you lose it.