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Once a rough and rustic outpost, Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, has morphed into one of Mexico’s most elite resort destinations and a thriving port of call on Pacific Coast cruise itineraries. With its large marina and gleaming bay, Cabo combines spectacular scenery with great weather, top-rate beaches, lots of adventure-oriented activities and a pulsing nightlife.
Cabo started its tourism career as a sport fishing haven promoted by Hollywood types, including John Wayne, Desi Arnaz and Bing Crosby. Today, it sports gorgeous resorts, thickets of time-share properties, a sizable population of American ex-pats and a very lively party atmosphere stoked in part by cruise passengers who alight for a few rowdy hours almost every day. It also still draws celebrities, from Sammy Hagar, Demi Lovato and Kevin Klein to Jennifer Aniston and Sofia Vergara.
Part of Cabo's appeal comes from its photo-worthy setting at the very point where the stark desert landscape meets the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. The town has long been known for big-game fishing, including marlin, sailfish, swordfish, dorado, tuna and wahoo. It continues to offer anglers fabulous sport fishing from private charters to huge party boats, though golf has become just as popular.
Stopping here on a shore excursion? With most cruise lines, know before you go that you’ll probably have only four to six hours ashore, so plan accordingly.
You can walk for miles along Cabo's main stretch of sand, Médano Beach, which in turn is walking distance or a short taxi ride from the marina where cruise-ship launches drop their passengers. It’s all here, from palapa beach bars and restaurants to elegant resort hotels, fresh-air massage studios, wandering hair braiders, water sports concessionaires, souvenir stalls, time-share sales booths and strolling vendors selling a huge variety of jewelry, bikini cover-ups and trinkets. The people-watching is top notch.
If you’re the active type, this is the shore excursion for you. Paddle tours get up close and personal with Los Arcos (the iconic rock arches at Land’s End) and make a snorkel stop at Pelican Rock or Playa del Amor (Lover’s Beach), perhaps the most photographed spot at Cabo.
Take note: Sometimes the water in the bay is glassy-smooth, and sometimes it’s rough enough to pose a significant challenge for novice paddlers and children. Feel free to wait and see. You can easily assess conditions and book a trip at the marina upon arrival. Experienced paddlers may prefer to rent a kayak and go on their own from Médano Beach — but check tide tables first. If you get stuck on an outlying strand during a rising tide, you could be trouble.
Every fall, thousands of gray whales make their 6,000-mile trek from the summer feeding grounds of Alaska to the calving grounds of Baja. If you visit Cabo between December and March, you'll likely be treated to gray whales spouting close to shore, along with some humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins.
Many types available, from party-boat catamarans to diminutive launches with glass panels in their flooring. Trips range from around 45 minutes to several hours, and all provide good photo ops of Los Arcos. Longer excursions include stops at Lover’s Beach and continue into open waters for whale-watching during the November to March migration season.
The temptations start right at the marina and continue at in-town boutiques. Credit cards accepted? You bet! Look for distinctive apparel and beachwear; gorgeous housewares, works of art, leather goods — and, of course, the silver jewelry for which Mexico is so well known.
This is one of few destinations in Mexico where a moderately adventuresome American visitor will feel comfortable renting a car. Spend your day exploring beaches and other attractions along the 30-mile “Corridor” between Cabo San Lucas and the quieter town of San Jose del Cabo (together referred to as “Los Cabos”). A modern highway connects the two.
Tip: Spend a few dollars extra and take out full insurance. If anything happens, you’ll want to be able to board your ship and sail away, not be detained or involved in a bureaucratic tangle. Know, too, that rates for standard-shift vehicles are substantially lower than rates for cars with automatic transmission.
Fish tacos! Some say this is where they were invented. Look for a taco truck or a side-of-the-road food stall and join the locals in chowing down at locals’ prices. Of course, you can always order them in restaurants, too.
High season: November to May. December to April are primo months when rain is scarce, highs are in the mid-80s and whale watching is at its peak. January and February can be chilly.
Shoulder season: June, September, October
Low season: July through September is hot, humid and the time when stormy weather is most likely to occur.
Make like Hemingway and treat yourself to a deep-sea fishing excursion in the “Marlin Capital of the World.” Los Cabos Fishing and Pisces Sportfishing are two of several operators that cater to cruise-ship passengers. Best time for billfish is October-November, but few boats come up empty no matter what the season.
All cruise ships anchor out in the bay and tender their passengers ashore, a process that can be quite time consuming on larger vessels. Passengers who have booked shore excursions through their cruise line usually get priority privileges. Tenders (i.e., lifeboats) dock at the marina, an easy walk to town or to the Médano Beach district. Taxis, excursion boats, activity concessionaires and shopping opportunities also are available at the marina.
Foot, taxi, rental car, public bus — they'll all do the job. Be aware that taxis are pretty expensive.
Documents: U.S. and Canadian citizens need a valid passport.
Language: You’ll hear as much English as Spanish spoken in Los Cabos.
Currency: You don’t have to change money if you stick to the tourist areas, although you’ll get better exchange rates on almost everything if you go to an ATM machine and withdraw pesos before starting out.
Store hours: In general, businesses are open between 9 am and 7 pm – sometimes even until 8 or 10 pm. Be prepared that stores are only open in the mornings on Sunday.
Tipping: Most service employees in Mexico count on tips to make up the majority of their income. Waiters get 10% to 15% of the bill, depending on the level of service. In Mexico, it is not customary to tip taxi drivers.
Safety: The U.S. Department of State has long been warning Americans about travel in Mexico due to the country's crime level. All travelers are advised to be careful in Mexico and stick to the tourist areas. Please check http://travel.state.gov for the latest and see Cruiseable's safety tips for cruise passengers.
ShoreFox contributed to this guide.
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“If you order the fish taco (from Tacos Gardenias), you will be given a flat filet of flounder fried crunchy in a light batter and served on a homemade tortilla. It’s up to you how many condiments you pile on top.”
“Little has changed at Esperanza's signature restaurant, Cocina del Mar, perched atop a cliff jutting out into the Sea of Cortez. You can see all the way down to the Arch. The resort has added Pesca Ceviche Bar, a casual, circular space where you can sample fresh local fish like tuna and dorado, caught that very morning.”
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