San José del Cabo, The “Real Cabo?”

Article by David Mandich – December 17, 2003

If you are unfamiliar with what constitutes ‘Los Cabos’ it goes like this: located on the most southern extremity of Baja California Sur, the rowdy raucous resort community of Cabo San Lucas is on the west end of the peninsula tip and approximately eighteen miles to the east, you will find the more laidback, peaceful, colonial town of San José del Cabo. Los Cabos (The Capes) includes both communities connected by a eighteen-mile stretch of waterfront hotels, celebrity designed golf courses and luxury home developments.

Cabo San Lucas is the generally agreed upon dividing line between the oceans of the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific. In fact, at the bay entrance where the famous ‘Land’s End’ arch rock formations are to be found – on one side of the arch are the relatively cooler waters of the Pacific and on the other, the always-warmer Sea of Cortez.

Cabo San Lucas was designed literally from ground-up by the Mexican government to be a tourist destination resort a couple of decades ago. Its sole purpose is to generate tourism, jobs, and to send 90% of the tax revenues back to Mexico. And it’s been wildly successful. It’s flashy and new. It rocks. It’s fun to visit, but like the Vegas Strip, would you want to live there?

For many tourists, after visiting fast and frenetic Cabo San Lucas the first time, San Jose del Cabo ends up being their destination of choice for future visits. Indeed most folks come to Mexico to get away, take it slow and appreciate the ambience as found in San Jose del Cabo, what I call the ‘Real Cabo’.

San Jose del Cabo was for hundreds of years, the only community here at the tip fo the Baja California Peninsula. With its natural fresh water oasis flowing into palm-lined lagoons at the oceans edge, the area supported Indian communities and hundreds of species of wildlife for thousands of years before colonization by the Spanish. During the pre-colonial period it was a watering and provisioning stop for Spanish galleons. The heavy ships laden with treasure, silks and spices from the east were the ‘big game fish’ then for pirates like Sir Francis Drake who came looking for ‘donations’ to his favorite charity (himself) and his majesty the “Virgin” Queen Elizabeth. San Jose del Cabo was finally settled in 1730 with a Jesuit mission and fort to help stabilize the region against these marauders. As the years went by, explorers like Cabrillo and Vizcaino, cannoned warships, whaling ships, and clipper traders running the West Coast all stopped and often left, leaving crew behind. Some of the old families in Todos Santos, La Paz and San Jose del Cabo have English and French derived surnames from ancestors who were buccaneers before jumping ship and becoming ranchers and fishermen.

San Jose del Cabo for hundreds of years has been an outpost on the tip of the Baja California peninsula. Up until twenty years ago Cabo San Lucas was just a few farmhouses, some scrawny cattle roaming the dirt roads and a fish cannery. There was only a twenty-mile dirt road connecting it to the only town nearby, San Jose del Cabo.

The quaint town of San Jose del Cabo has an almost fantasy land quality about it. Imagine main street Disneyland without that big rat walking about shaking hands. In city center one will find a gorgeous Spanish colonial styled city hall with murals of old Baja inside its corridors. Within, there’s a two-story courtyard shaded by a huge Mexican Laurel.

Often one can enjoy an art exhibit or concert here in the evenings. Out front on Mijares (the main street) is a block long fountain dividing traffic on the street lined with plastered and columned old colonial buildings and almost secret paseos or inner courtyards full of shops graced with bougainvilleas, palms and laurels. Adjacent is a one acre tiled plaza shaded with gigantic palms and century old trees surrounding a Victorian bandstand and a newer outdoor stage for larger performances.

Often in the evenings on the plaza in front of the cathedral, one can enjoy traditional Mexican bands, Latin dance and rock and roll music. One can literally dance under the stars here, or in one of the nearby clubs as in the Tropicana Inn (located across the street from the municipal palace). The Tropicana Inn often features fine Cuban or Mexican bands as well as romantic covered outside dining along the boulevard.

San Jose del Cabo exhibits the best of traditional Mexico with its blocks of unhurried streets and graceful tree covered sidewalks, its scores of shops, galleries, fine restaurants, boutiques and total absence of popular franchises such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and Hard Rock Café. It’s a place to explore, unwind, take-in and treasure.

San Jose del Cabo hosts many excellent restaurants, which are typically uncrowded, low keyed and elegant compared to the more tourist oriented Cabo San Lucas establishments. Good picks are El Chilar Restaurant for unique professionally prepared regional dishes, Morgan’s Restaurant for fine continental food with a local interpretation, Baan Thai for Asian cuisine in a sophisticated tropical setting, The Tulip Tree (El Tulipan) for good Latin and Gringo fare prepared by the Canadian chef owner, Local 8 for ‘International Fusion Cuisine, La Panga Antigua for Baja Seafood elegantly prepared, La Dolce an Italian Bistro adjacent to the plaza and Da Antonio’s for the finest Italian and continental food this side of the Old World located adjacent to the Hotel Presidente on the beach the end of Mijares boulevard opposite downtown.

Art exhibitions, fiestas and traveling shows from other regions of Mexico often appear at the plaza with little notice. Visit during a fiesta and you may be treated to fireworks, band performing on stages up and down the streets, carnivals, cockfights, a rodeo and thousands of locals from the barrios and ranchos from miles around crowding the streets.

Overlooking the San Jose del Cabo plaza is a cathedral with a ceramic tile mural above the doors, eternally reminding the locals of the Jesuits whom the Indians massacred centuries ago. The Indians had serious issues such as not wanting to wear pants, being allowed only one wife, and having to work for the church. The braves preferring instead to hunt, fish, party, get drunk, fight and play with their squaws. The Jesuits in their opinion, didn’t offer them much other than an austere life based on faith, subservience, work, and death by disease. The Jesuits, thought the Indians, just didn’t get it. After all, people come to Los Cabos to play and have fun.

San Jose del Cabo is home to some of the finest hotels and resorts to be found anywhere including the One & Only Palmilla hotel located a couple of miles west of town. Here one can enjoy drinks overlooking the surf below, the Palmilla sportfishing fleet beyond and excellent beaches for swimming and snorkeling in between. Adjacent are famous golf courses and million dollar homes of the rich and famous, and the legendary surfing spot of Costa Azul.

Other quality hotels worth checking out include the El Encanto Inn and Tropicana Inn both right in downtown. Casa Natalia is a wonderful boutique hotel with upscale dining and services, and for an all-inclusive hotel experience where food, drinks, and entertainment all come with the room – try the Presidente Inter-Continental Los Cabos Resort, Crown Plaza Los Cabos Beach Resort, The Grand Baja Resort & Spa or Royal Solaris Resort Los Cabos, all located on the Sea of Cortez beachfront.

San Jose del Cabo is a place where one can ride horses on uncrowded trails overlooking beaches where the turtles lay their eggs (the Presidente Inter-Continental Los Cabos Resort has a turtle nursery), a place where nature lovers can hike through the estuary, bird watch, ride mountain bikes, surf, fish, golf, snorkel, or just explore the neighborhood.

A good short trip is to the nearby community of La Playita. An old barrio of San Jose del Cabo, it’s a former fish camp of a few hundred homes and souls. On the beach one can see pangas lying about ready to take the adventurous tourist fisherman out to the nearby Gorda Banks for Marlin fishing. Tip – Gorda Banks is twenty miles closer from here than from Cabo San Lucas. On Sunday afternoons, the locals gather on the beach, children swim, young men toss circular nets over their heads into the water netting surf fish while the oldsters gossip, listen to banda music and drink until the sun sets over the mountains.

The little barrio of Playita is built on a small hill adjacent to the sea, and is slated for renovation and development of more hotels, two golf courses and a new marina where a soccer field exists at present. Lots are being sold at this time in what may ultimately be the most exclusive and done-right project on the West Coast of the Americas. The developers are doing their best to integrate the locals, and their needs with the project such as building a church, a new soccer field, a special area set-aside for the panga fleet and more.

For me, San Jose del Cabo is the ‘Real Cabo.’ Having been inhabited for centuries longer, it represents a real snapshot of the old Baja, a place where time goes by more slowly. Here, one can relax and stroll about, sometimes sharing the sidewalks with cows heading through town to munch on folks gardens. Just watch where you step.

Article by David Mandich – December 17, 2003