First thing’s first: this third grade teacher is going to give you all a bit of a geography lesson (mostly because I didn’t really know anything about this region, so there’s a chance that some of you may not either). At the tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, which is nearly 800 miles long, the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez. The resort area of Los Cabos stretches over 25 miles and joins the desert towns of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. Got it? Good. Before I started researching our trip to Cabo, I had no idea there were two distinct towns–I was only familiar with Cabo San Lucas–understanding the difference between the two is important in determining which area fits your travel needs. While these adjacent towns are obviously both geographically blessed with pristine beaches, dramatic desert landscapes, and warm weather year-round, they couldn’t be more different.
Cabo San Lucas is the more well-known destination and is popular for its world-class resorts, nightlife, water activities, and lively restaurant and bar scene. Because of its popularity, it can be very touristy, crowded and you can easily forget that you’re in Mexico. There are parts that reminded me of Cancun, and yes, there is a Senor Frog’s to boot (which of course was a favorite spring break locale during my senior year, but not somewhere I have any interest in going nearly twenty years later).
Beach vendors swarm the popular Medano Beach (it’s as hectic and crowded as it looks)
The colonial town of San Jose del Cabo, on the other hand, is much more relaxed, quiet, and traditional. It features a charming town square, old adobe homes, numerous art galleries, and a variety of lovely restaurants. Every Thursday night between 5:00-9:00 p.m. during the months of November and June, the town holds the San Jose del Cabo Art Walk, a popular event where art lovers and tourists stroll the colorful and quaint back streets of the Gallery District to visit the many beautiful art galleries while sipping on wine. There are also dance performances in the main square. The perfect way to kick off your Thursday night before heading to dinner. More information about this festive and soulful event here: http://www.artcabo.com/
Although only thirty minutes apart, these two towns seem worlds away. Both, of course, have their advantages and draw visitors for different reasons. We preferred San Jose del Cabo for its slower pace and more authentic vibe, however, because the majority of tours and activities are based in and around Cabo San Lucas, we spent a fair amount of time in each. What’s great is that you can have the best of both worlds: while we stayed in San Jose, most tours include hotel transfers, so drivers will typically drop you off (if you ask nicely, of course, and if your tour guide is accommodating), pretty much anywhere you want (within reason, of course). We took advantage of this a few times to reduce the amount of time we spent in taxis and to reduce costs (a typical taxi from Cabo San Lucas to San Jose del Cabo is about thirty minutes and will cost you $40 USD each way–something to keep in mind if you are traveling between the two). There is such a stark contrast between the two and each is wonderful in its own right–I highly recommend visiting both.
WHERE TO STAY
Casa Natalia: One of my main goals when planning our Cabo trip was to stay far and away from the all-inclusive resorts. It’s not that we hate all-inclusives (well, maybe a little bit), we just typically prefer more quaint and authentic accommodations. And to be honest, we have done the whole all-inclusive thing before and are pretty much over it. So it’s no surprise that we opted to stay in San Jose del Cabo and were so happy to not be near the hustle and bustle of Cabo San Lucas. We fell in love with Casa Natalia, a stylish, colorful, and enchanting boutique hotel that has only 19 rooms–so it’s a place where the staff gets to know you and is welcoming, helpful, and personable. Casa Natalia is by no means isolated–it is within walking distance of numerous cafes and restaurants, art galleries, shops, and a lovely plaza, but it is removed from the touristy areas. For us, it was absolutely perfect. Their restaurant, Mi Cocina, is equally as fantastic (more below). We truly loved staying here.
WHERE TO EAT: CABO SAN LUCAS
El Farallon: Nestled in the cliffs of the Resort at Pedragal, this jaw-dropping restaurant is spectacular. The view. The food. The service. Did I mention the view? Hands down one of the most gorgeous restaurant settings we’ve ever dined at. While it’s definitely not cheap, it’s not nearly as pricey as it looks–we were expecting a much higher bill based on the ambience and pre-set menu option (although maybe our typical dining choices in D.C. and other U.S. cities like New York have jaded us a bit?!). And I should clarify that the food here is very good–not amazing, but very good. But that view! So impressive and romantic. Highly recommend dining at this stunning establishment–my sad dark photos don’t do its beauty justice.
The Office: A great place to eat on Medano Beach for lunch (or dinner). This beachside restaurant offers a convivial vibe, excellent service, flavorful food, and strong margaritas. While it gets crowded and is front and center in the touristy area of Cabo, The Office is able to strike an adequate balance between being popular with tourists, and offering high-quality local cuisine. We didn’t make a reservation for lunch, but I would guess it’s very helpful to have one if you’re going for dinner. Because it’s centrally located, if you’re returning from a morning excursion, there’s a good chance your driver will drop you off and get you here just in time for lunch (that’s what we did and it worked out perfectly).
WHERE TO EAT: SAN JOSE DEL CABO
Acre: Los Cabos sure has some stunning restaurants. The atmosphere here is completely different than the striking El Farallon, but it is just as impressive. Set upon a 25-acre piece of farmland, the moment you arrive at this secluded complex, you feel as if you’ve been transported into another world. A lush, verdant, magnificent world at that. Much of the massive building’s framework is made from the land and local trees, including the walls and shade structures. A true farm-to-table restaurant, many of the ingredients derive from their farm and/or local surroundings. The food and cocktails were fabulous and I dare say that their roasted tomato soup was euphoric. I know, that’s some strong praise for your typical mundane tomato soup, but it was that good that I still think about it. Often. I know that this may sound weird, but considering that 97% of my daily thoughts are comprised of travel and food, it’s really not that unusual.
Mi Cocina: We ate at Mi Cocina multiple times, partly because it was located in our hotel, and partly because it’s a wonderful restaurant. Standouts include the smoked tuna, oysters, shrimp tacos, ceviche, and their margaritas. This restaurant boasts a warm and intimate ambience as well as attentive and kind service.
El Matador: This restaurant is so delightful. The food and service are both excellent and the inviting courtyard is an ideal place to enjoy a romantic dinner. The coziness of El Matador is a welcoming alternative to the larger-scaled restaurants, because sometimes you just need a quieter and warmer atmosphere.
WHERE NOT TO EAT IN SAN JOSE DEL CABO
We ate exceptionally well while in Los Cabos, so we were really surprised by how bad Lolita Cafe was. It is an adorable cafe and their outdoor courtyard is an ideal location to enjoy tacos and sip on tequila and mezcal. Our drinks were good but the food was bad–practically inedible. I’m not sure why this place has received such great reviews and the first time we tried to eat there, there was a two hour wait. Maybe it was an off night or maybe we ordered poorly, but every single thing we ordered (at least 5-6 different plates) was pretty horrible. We left the majority of our food uneaten and happily returned to Mi Cocina (see above).
I first sang my praises for Cabo’s variety of awesome excursions in my Favorite Travel Experiences of 2016 post. All three of our excursions were highlights of our Cabo trip and each included roundtrip hotel transfers in their tour prices.
Kayaking & Snorkeling
We used the wonderful Cabo Outfitters company and opted for the half-day Arch and Lover’s Beach Kayaking & Snorkeling tour, where we kayaked past a sea lion colony out into the Pacific, before arriving at Lover’s Beach, where we snorkeled. Kayaking to and around the Arch was outstanding and the rock formations that jut out from the Pacific are truly breathtaking. Once we arrived to Lover’s Beach, we had ample time to explore, relax and snorkel. The beach is beautiful, and not nearly as crowded as other Cabo San Lucas beaches. The snorkeling at Lover’s Beach is just okay–yes, you see a variety of fish, but compared to other places we’ve snorkeled like Belize, Bora Bora and Honduras, this just couldn’t compare. Excursion was about 3.5 hours and the company stands by their “small group” promise– only one other person joined us on our tour.
Off-Roading Sport Adventure
This. Was. So. Much. Fun. And also kinda terrifying. But in a good way, I promise. We opted for a private tour (worth the extra money) and followed our awesome guide Nacho (seriously, that’s what he goes by) while traversing sand dunes, cliffs, white sand beaches and desert trails all while surrounded by gorgeous views. Highly recommend using the company Cactus ATV Tours–they offer a wide assortment of off-road vehicles that will surely satisfy all you adrenaline junkies out there! Tour was approximately two hours.
All I can say is WOW. We had been whale-watching before in Maine, and while we saw some whales there (from far away aboard a huge ship), that experience was nothing like the one we had in Cabo. If you’re in Cabo during whale-watching season (between December 15th and late March) I cannot recommend booking a whale-watching tour enough. We used the company Cabo Expeditions, where we were two of eight passengers aboard a speed boat, so we had front row seats throughout the duration of our two-hour excursion. We saw so many whales that we honestly lost count. Such an amazing opportunity to be so close to nature–truly incredible.
Additional Things to Note:
*No need to exchange money as U.S. Dollars are accepted everywhere.
*As with many tourist destinations in Mexico, English is widely spoken–of course, knowing a bit of Spanish never hurts, but it’s really not necessary if you’re staying in the main areas.
*Casa Natalia (and the central plaza of San Jose del Cabo) is a 15 minute taxi ride from the airport and costs about $20 USD each way. In our experiences, taxis only take cash.
*While some people who do stay in San Jose del Cabo choose to rent a car, we opted not to and are happy with our decision. Taxis are readily available and we never had to worry about drinking and driving. It’s hard to say which option is more economical because we never even considered renting a car. The ease and peace of mind that taxis provided us was worth every penny.
*Even though we’re not typically fans of all-inclusive resorts, I completely understand their appeal. We have stayed at several great all-inclusives in both Mexico and the Caribbean and they certainly do have their advantages (particularly if you are traveling with a large group, with kids, and/or for a wedding/event). Safety, ease, beauty, and comfort are all valid reasons–I totally get it–and I’m not discounting or dismissing any of them. At the same time, if you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort in Cabo, there’s a good chance that you won’t be dining elsewhere, and to miss out on its world-renowned dining scene would be downright devastating if you ask me. Yes, I’m being a bit dramatic, but isn’t food one of the most important factors when traveling? It certainly is for us, anyway. And in terms of safety, Cabo is as safe an area as we’ve ever been. Of course, you always need to exercise responsible judgment and be aware of your surroundings wherever you go, but we often walked around at night and never felt unsafe nor uncomfortable. All I’m saying is that there are plenty of incredible accommodation choices that are not all-inclusive and will afford you the opportunity to really see and experience all that Cabo has to offer. Wherever you choose to visit in Los Cabos, this vibrantly beautiful area is certainly worth exploring and becoming well-acquainted with.