So I recently went on a much-needed vacation to Cabo San Lucas with a motley assortment of friends. Cabo San Lucas was chosen because it was a friend’s birthday, a friend whose father owns a bar, Happy Ending Cantina.
To be completely forthcoming, Cabo San Lucas has never been high on my list of desired vacation destinations, placing somewhere between Gilbert, Arizona and Hutchinson, Kansas. Admittedly, my ignorance on the subject of Cabo San Lucas was vast… I only knew that Sammy “The Red Rocker” Hagar (Montrose, Van Hagar and now, Chickenfoot) owns a bar there… and that it’s frequently referred to simply as “Cabo” by people who I’m guessing neither know what “cabo” means or that there are many other “Cabos.”
However, despite my well of cynicism, reservations and the somewhat awkward circumstances, I can honestly say that I had a great vacation. My opinions of Cabo San Lucas might come off as sarcastic and snide but I honestly don’t mean in any way to insult or discourage the tourist for whom Cabo San Lucas might be Heaven on Earth. I am merely not the typical “Caboholic.” I’ve also little interest in visiting Acapulco, Cancún or taking a Disney cruise. On the other hand, if you, dear reader, are in the position — or know anyone who can — get me a free vacation to Mexico I’m very, very interested in visiting and blogging about Oaxaca, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Guadalajara, Mexico City or Monterrey. I’m pretty sure I’ll love any of them.
Pendersleigh & Sons’ Cartography‘s map of Cabo San Lucas
For many, Cabo San Lucas’s history begins around 1974, when when the Mexican government developed Cabo San Lucas’s infrastructure with the hope of transforming it into a major tourist destination. The area’s anthropological history, however, began much earlier. For the past 10,000 years, the southern tip of Baja California was home to the Pericú. Contact between the Pericú and Spanish began in the 1530s when a group of mutineers led by Fortún Ximénez (from an expedition of conquistador Hernán Cortés). A group of Jesuits established the first permanent mission on the peninsula at Loreto in 1697. More missions and forcible conversion to Catholicism followed. By 1734, the Pericú had had enough of the Spaniards’ Papist Snake Cult and revolted. First, the aboriginal Californians killed two missionaries. Their efforts were futile and by 1768, the Pericú were driven into extinction by a toxic combo of Christianity-fueled genocide and European diseases.
Histories of ages passed, unenlightened shadows cast and then, in 1917, an American company built a tuna hunting structure. A decade later, the fish hunters founded Compañía de Productos Marinos S.A. I’m pretty sure the ruins of that place are still standing… near Pelican Beach or Bay, right?
A century later, Cabo San Lucas is a very small tourist enclave. Approximately 80% of the residents are immigrants from the USA. The relatively small percentage of Mexican-born Mexicans work almost entirely in the service industry, bussed in daily from the north to work in kitchens, clean hotel rooms, sell trinkets and offer “massages.”
In 1990, Sammy Hagar opened the Cabo Wabo Cantina with three other members of Van Halen. A few years later he bought out his former bandmates, finishing what he started. On his birthday (October 13), he and one of his many bands, in this case, “The Wabos“, traditionally treat patrons of his bar to a live performance. A local said that this is what officially kicks off tourist season.
As far as the Cabo San Lucas music scene goes, it’s a uniquely tourist-oriented variety. The sort of house and trance that one hears on The Jersey Shore is popular, only Cabo San Lucas is fairly guido-less and instead of being popular with fist-pumping bros with six-pack abs, it’s popular with fist-pumping bros with pony keg bellies. At other spots, a mix of Hat Country and Classic Rock predominate for the chain-smoking Parrothead retirees. And everywhere, that sort of generic, epic bourgeois pop-rap plays everywhere, enthusiastically sung along to by former Real Housewives of Santa Barbara County.
Meanwhile, it seems like most of the local acts consist of small acoustic ensembles wandering from table to table in restaurants and drawing from a small repertoire of Ranchera songs.
On November 3rd, we flew down the coast Pacific coast. From the air, I caught a glimpse of San Felipe, nestled on the Golfo de California. San Felipe is my kind of Baja town in that it has relatively few tourists and actually feels like Mexico. I first went there years ago. Locals introduced themselves and we hung out near the beach, watching fish jump out of the water and the sun set.
When we landed in San José del Cabo we were accosted by a flock of buzzards fighting over tourist scraps pretending that they were anyone and everyone’s designated driver… but we had a shuttle already awaiting us, thanks to our fearless leader, Scott. In the back of a large van, we bounced and flew down the Los Cabos Corridor (aka Corredor Turistico) for roughly 30 km past retirement communities and sun-baked box stores.
Our final destination was Siesta Suites, a rather nice hotel that we would call home for the next few days. Not long after arriving at our hotel, the owner asked if I was married. I said “no” and, with that information he recommended a particular masseuse at the studio next door. Later, some in our party would be on the receiving end of her massages but I was not one of them because I reckoned that “massage” was a code word for “rub and tug.”
Baja Dockside Cantina – the best calamari in the world (photo by Scott Stegenga)
A short time later we ventured over to Baja Cantina (Dockside) and ordered ice-filled buckets of Mexican macrobrews and a meal that I can’t seem to remember much about. A couple of federales patrolled the marina’s boardwalk, looking uncomfortable in the heat in their all-black uniforms and armor. After a nap, we returned to the waterfront for more of the same, this time the sun had gone down though. Before heading back to the hotel we bought some necessities (and more booze) at El Gallo Mercado. Later we popped into Pancho’s (after Pancho Villa) for a second dinner. It was a fairly low-key day, the sort I prefer when on vacation somewhere that doesn’t have many sites to see.
Cabo San Lucas Marina (photo by Scott Stegenga)
On the second day, I woke up at sunrise, as is my wont. Anna woke up a bit later and together we walked around the boardwalk, constantly harangued and harassed by more vultures pushing timeshare lectures on us and desperately attempted to create business friendships based on her undeniable pregnancy. After considerable effort, we made our way to Playa El Médano. Although there didn’t seem to be much in the way of wildlife or scenery underwater, the water was surely beautiful as well as salty and fairly clear.
On the way back from the beach we had a decent, if unremarkable and surprisingly pricey breakfast at a place that turned out to be a front for a timeshare. They told us that the meal would be free if we would only consent to sit through a 45-minute presentation. We decided to pay for our overpriced meal and skip the lecture.
I was wearing a long sleeve shirt because that’s what I had. For me, forgetting something on a trip is mandatory and on this one, I forgot to pack any shirts besides a tennis shirt and a button-down dress shirt… so I bought a guayabera.
Medano Beach (photo by Scott Stegenga)
Later, the rest of the group returned to the beach. By that hour, the air was almost unbreathable; filled with the exhaust of Jet Skis, cruise ships, WaveRunners, glass-bottom boats, parasailers, ultralights, water taxis and an enormous Disney cruise ship that belched a steady stream of thick, noxious, black smoke.
For some reason, Nikki Beach was all dudes (photo by Scott Stegenga)
A portion of the party headed in the direction of blaring megaphones, brosephs, cabanas and luxury hotels. A smaller group kept their distance and enjoyed the warm, gentle waves of the sea. We met a real-life Cabo San Lucas-born Mexican named Felix. Felix offered to let us use his snorkeling equipment although admitted there wasn’t much to see — so I passed. We eventually all reunited in front of Casa Dorada Los Cabos, Resort & Spa. To get there we braved a toxic fog of body spray and cigarette smoke — Go back to the Shadow!
Hanging at Casa Dorada for 2-for-1 drinks and 2-for-1 fajitas (photo by Scott Steganga)
At our cabana, though near the fray, it was surprisingly peaceful. The menu was Tex-Mex — two-for-one fajitas were the special. They were washed down with staple beverages Baja California, strawberry margs and the like.
Happy Ending Cantina (photo by Scott Stegenga)
Afterward, we popped over to Happy Ending before having dinner at Salvatore’s. The food was good and – to me – painfully filling. Our water, Oscar, was from Dallas. Although he assured us that he had a girlfriend in Seattle, he seemed very interested in plying Kerrie with various libations. Ultimately, he provided copious amounts of free hooch composed of vodka, grenadine and something blue for the lot of us.
The signature round of “Rainbow Shots” at Slavatore’s (photo by Scott Stegenga)
We met a humorous, old couple of Wisconsonites who met in high school. When I told them where I grew up they both expressed their LOVE of Missouri — largely because one can buy liquor, ammo, and fireworks all under one roof. They expressed dismay that “our friend in the White House is trying to take away our fun.” Since I personally didn’t vote for Obama because he’s (in my view) a two-faced, lying, spineless, hawkish, almost-right-winger I decided not to talk politics further with my new friends.
The penthouse at Siesta Suites (photo by Scott Stegenga)
After dinner, we retired to the penthouse, which Scott had upgraded to. The view and weather were absolutely perfect although the dark hillsides of vacant timeshares put me in the mood for some suburban exploration… but that was not to be.
On our third day, I woke up around 6:00 and decided to head north. The view from the previous night on the hotel’s roof suggested that as the town stretched north is became lest touristy and more… Mexican. As I made my way away from the tourist area, timeshares, condos, hotels and novelty shops faded away and were gradually replaced by homes with front yards inhabited by dogs, roosters, squash, tomatoes and other living things. I crossed paths with a rather rough-looking woman sitting on a sidewalk whom I at first assumed was a drug-addled prostitute. She mumbled something incomprehensible and I simply smiled. Then she threw her head back and howled (intelligibly this time) “Cabo rules!~”
I popped into a coffee bar and ordered a juice and coffee. I read yesterday’s newspaper and most of the articles seemed to be about Felipe Calderón promoting Cabo San Lucas as the ultimate global tourist destination (comparing it to Cannes, but with more sun and better weather). While I was reading it, a news courier showed up and gave me today’s issue and the articles were practically the same. The message that everywhere has some crime and Cabo San Lucas isn’t especially dangerous — that sort of thing.
Finally, a decent shot of El Arco (photo by Scott Stegenga)
After breakfast, I returned to the hotel and joined the friends and we had breakfast (elevenses in my case) at Pancho’s. After finishing we took a water taxi to Playa del Amor. Before we disembarked, our tour guide showed us some of the sights and cracked some jokes, which although assuredly the same jokes that he and every other tour guide make on each trip, nonetheless made us laugh. Example: “There’s Lover’s Cave. Two go in, three come out.” When we actually entered Lover’s Cave we found out that any number of people go in to make a number two.
Divorce Beach (photo by Scott Stegenga)
Later, Scott and I walked over to the Pacific, to a beach which our tour guide had joked was called “Divorce Beach.” It was stunningly beautiful but the water was rough and the sand burned my feet. We walked along Playa Pelícano and encountered a friendly couple of time-sharers from Torrance who were with their baby.
After a few hours at the beach, our water taxi driver returned and, after much effort expended, we got back in the boat and returned once again to the cabanas in front of Casa Dorada. This time we ordered several bowls of nachos and I positively inhaled more than my share.
It was also James‘s birthday so we had a special dinner at Mariscos Mazatlán. While my friends treated themselves to “cockroaches of the sea,” I contented myself with wine and discontented myself watching Chivas inexplicably blow what should’ve been a sure win in extra time (on TV).
There was a group of Ranchera musicians who’d already played “Guantanamera” (probably a thousand times that day). Harry wanted to request a song. I expressly forbade him to request either “La Bamba” or “La Cucaracha” so what does the scamp do but request “Cielito Lindo.” Shockingly, it would not be the last time they’d play it while we were there. It must be said, however, that they managed to put more heart into than most rock bands touring in support of their greatest hits. There was also a rather sad-looking, sweaty clown with runny make-up making balloon animals. Katie attempted to get him to make a balloon cacahuete for James and Anna, who’ve nicknamed their fetus “Peanut.” The balloon legume didn’t happen though.
When we left, Scott wanted to track down Oscar, our waiter from the other night. It turned out he’d been fired for giving a group of gabachos too many free drinks the night before — just kidding. They said he’d be at Cabo Blue. We went there and saw the British woman whose breasts had been talked to by one of the elderly Wisconsinites from the other night. Oscar wasn’t there though either. After returning to the penthouse, we contented ourselves by watching the fireworks and (mostly me) drank tequila.
On our final day, we ate together at Pancho’s one last time. With the exception of Harry, who was staying another day, we packed up and departed for Aeropuerto Internacional de Los Cabos. Waiting in the terminal was an obvious silicon cyborg who I was informed is known as “Dr. 90210.” Apparently, he’s the star of some horror-themed reality program about sad, rich people who seek to cure their insecurity with stomach-churning elective surgery provided by this freakish, modern-day sadistic member of the Cormanchicos.
The small airport, like the rest of the Cabos, isn’t blessed with any great Mexican food options. Nonetheless, as always I was famished so I ate at a restaurant called Wings. The food tasted rather like something Chef Boyardee would make if he were attempting Mexican food. Not satisfied, I subsequently ordered some papas fritas from Boston Dogs.
When our party landed in Los Angeles, the weather was a nice change; wet, chilly and wonderful — sweater weather — a lovely 11 degrees. I was in the mood for more authentic Mexican food, having spent a few days in Mexico but having mostly been exposed to Cal-Mex, Tex-Mex, and Italian-American cuisine. Unfortunately for me, the Mideast Side (with the exception of Little Central America) is surprisingly lacking of great Mexican food, despite its majority Latino population. Mideastsiders content themselves with mediocre joints within walking distance or head across the river to Northeast LA or the Eastside. I was tired and car-less anyway. And even though I’m a vegetarian, it comforted me to be in a neighborhood where people sell bacon-wrapped hot dogs on the corner instead of massages and fruity blue drinks. Lest I sound like I’m complaining, it was a lovely and much-needed vacation with a wonderful group of people, I was just glad to be back in LA.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft Contemporary, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, CurbedLA, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Duolingo, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, and Twitter.