By: Yuki Hayashi

The Recession. Drug-cartel violence. H1N1. (And, since my visit, Hurricane Jimena.) Few tourist destinations were hit as hard in 2009 as Mexico. Between the overall drop in travel caused by the global financial crisis, the bad press border states have received in light of gangland violence (you know, the kind that hurts souvenir-buying, margarita-sipping tourists as well as the criminal element) and an ill-timed and virulent strain of influenza, Mexico saw its travel industry take a massive hit this year. Estimates put the damage at around $200-300 million. Yowza. It was in this context that we decided a few weeks ago: Hey, let’s hit Cabo this summer! As a family! Yeah!

The Baja California Peninsula is a long pointy, finger off the west coast of Mexico, bordered by the Pacific Ocean on one side, and the Sea of Cortez on the other. The very tip of this finger, where the ocean and sea meet, is Cabo San Lucas, about 1,000 miles south of San Diego.

About 20 miles northwest of Cabo San Lucas, further up the Sea of Cortez-side of the peninsula, is San Jose del Cabo (home to the Los Cabos International Airport).

Collectively, San Jose Del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas are known as the municipality of Los Cabos. One of the really fabulous things about Cabo is, although it’s got a rep as a Young Hollywood retreat (or, as you work your way down the resort food chain, party town), it’s also a top family-travel destination for bourgeois Mexicans. In fact, Spanish was the dominant language around our resort, which was pretty cool.

And while the drug violence in Mexico exists, it’s far removed from Cabo’s reality. Cabo is located within Mexico’s second-safest state, Baja California Sur, in fact. (The first safest, in case you’re wondering, is Yucatan.) The biggest threat you’ll face here is a panic attack when you realize how much you want to do, and how much of a challenge that may be given the parameters of a seven-day vacation!

As a family we had specific priorities. My husband and I wanted to scuba dive and snorkel. We wanted to continue our attempts to indoctrinate our 7-year-old into the ways of the ocean (she hates saltwater!) by hooking her on snorkeling.

I also wanted to load up on Day of the Dead skeleton-related art, as well as folk art-ish tin religious art and Milagros (“miracle” charms), and to come home with a volcano rock mortar and pestle. (Oh, and to eat as much as possible, research for future home-cooking projects!)

Esmé, our daughter, wanted to collect dolls, make new friends and hang out by the resort pool.

And if we could also meet friendly local dogs and try surfing, even better!

Some travelers insist the way to save in Los Cabos is to stay in San Jose Del Cabo, which is reportedly more budget-friendly than Cabo San Lucas. However, Cabo San Lucas’s oceanfront Playa Grande Resort & Spa is one of the choice properties occupying the southern tip of Cabo San Lucas, and certainly one of the most affordable right now. Good-through-December-2009 specials include deluxe ocean-view junior suites from $135 US per night!

The 260-suite resort is a hotel/timeshare development, offering seven swimming pools, four restaurants as well as a poolside snack bar and swim up bar. It’s got a well-stocked, if pricey, convenience store with everything you need to fill your fridge.

Upside: Meticulously groomed grounds, great location, spacious and well-kept suites with great balconies and full kitchens (very handy if you’re on a budget or have kids: why splurge on restaurant brekkie when you can eat cereal at “home”?), fab amenities, a beautiful oceanfront location and concierge service.

The Playa Grande also has the word’s greatest resort physician, Dr. Chon, who treated our daughter two days in a row, once for a painful urinary tract infection, then for a jellyfish sting. (“Girl, what happened now?!” was his puzzled greeting when he found her sobbing in our room the second day in a row).

Much as I love Canada’s socialized medical care, the $150 US we paid Dr. Chon per visit was priceless: instant medical attention, plus he even hand-delivered her prescription meds within a half hour!

Downside: Constant attempts to get you to attend a half-day timeshare tour and info-session! From check-in through mid-trip, expect to be assailed by charming but persistent Playa Grande salespeople promising free fishing charters, boat tours and/or car rental or meal discounts, in exchange for attendance.

Be forewarned: Off-resort, you will be approached by still more freelance timeshare recruiters, including moonlighting supermarket staff (at the Mega, we were harassed three times: on our way in, in the salsa aisle, and at the checkout!). Another foot-in-the-door tactic in Cabo includes flagging down your rental car just outside resort property, claiming to work with Hertz/Dollar/Budget and saying there’s a problem with your invoice that needs to be addressed. Just smile and drive on.

Renting a car gives you tremendous freedom to explore Baja California Sur. Day trips took us to the arts-oriented town of Todo Santos, Playa Los Cerritos in Pescadero, and back and forth between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose Del Cabo, and to the great snorkeling beaches Chileno Bay and Playa Santa Maria.

If you decide to rent a car, just head straight to your chosen agency’s kiosk at the airport, agree to your terms, and head out to catch your shuttle to the car-rental agency’s offsite parking lot.

Ignore, I repeat, ignore, anyone offering you a discount, a common tactic on the part of timeshare recruiters.

Pay full retail and get the hell out is my motto – both for car rentals and for any trip activities. “Two-hour property tours” have a way of turning into half-day commitments: Why waste a half day of your all-too-short vacation time doing anything but what you came here to do?!

In our case, that would be swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving.

Amigos Del Mar helped us hit the open seas for Baja California Sur’s world-class diving.

With a great location right by the marina (just a five-minute walk from Playa Grande), friendly crew and full-service operation, Amigos Del Mar is the best dive shop in Cabo. (It’s also next door to Cabo San Lucas’s best deal at Taco Fish taqueria, two fish or shrimp tacos and a beer for el cheapo $2 US. And man, were those fish tacos good!)

And, of course, deals abound: Web specials currently on offer include the $565 US Maximum Bottom Time Package of six days of two-tank diving. What a bargain! But a bit too much water time for us… so we opted for the $280 US “Slam Dunk Package” of three days of two-tank diving.

Owner Kevin Colter is a mellow and welcoming presence (which is good, since I’m a skittish new diver), and his crew are great to dive with, from the friendly boat captains to fantastic dive masters. (Try to head out with Jonathon, who’s a bit of a joker.)

Although your dives will vary by day, a must-dive is the Cabo Pulmo day trip, which includes a 60-mile, two-hour drive into the desert past mountain ranges, to the only hard coral reef in North America. The drive itself is hypnotic, passing through small roadside villages, along winding dirt roads through the desert and finally along the coast.

Set by the Sea of Cortez, Cabo Pulmo, the hamlet, is a sleepy, pop. 100, two-general-store, single-dirt-road kind of town.

Cabo Pulmo, the marine preserve, meanwhile, is a bustling National Marine Sanctuary, home to many of the 800 species that call the Sea of Cortez home. Your dive may include close encounters with sea turtles, dolphins, sea lions or whale sharks. Manta rays, stingrays, gigantic grouper, parrot fish, puffer fish, teeming clouds of schooling fish, and hundreds of garden eels peeking their heads out of their sandy bottom homes are business-as-usual here.

We went out in a tiny wooden fishing dingy (not the deluxe dive-boats Amigos Del Mar uses for its local dives in Cabo San Lucas). Our captain for the morning found a poisonous Portuguese Man ‘O’ War jelly in the water and scooped it up for us to examine. They’re toxic to the touch for us – but old news for him, he said, as he’s been stung a few times!

The dives were excellent. I’m obsessed with large groupers and saw several, as well as stingrays, plenty of puffers and hundreds upon thousands of other creatures, though none of the reef superstars (y’know: dolphins, whale sharks or hammerheads).

Après dive, enjoy the super-delish fish tacos (what else) at the onsite restaurant. (Kevin: “As far as I know, the restaurant has no name. It’s just ‘that restaurant at Cabo Pulmo’ “!) It’s modest: just a patio, really, but it’s right by the water. There’s a simple shower (read: hose and nozzle attached to a solar-heated cistern) hidden under a flowering tree behind the restaurant, with an old surfboard for privacy. Don’t trip on the humpback whale skeleton on your way over.

All told, one of the best dive locales ever.

Since getting my open-water certification this past March, I’ve dived in Montserrat, St. Kitts and now Los Cabos and each has had its charms, but for pure rustic charm, I don’t think Cabo Pulmo can be beat. (It’s also the cheapest of the three to visit, a nice recessionary bonus!)

John Steinbeck was enchanted by Cabo Pulmo in 1940, and while overfishing through the 1980s did considerable damage, biodiversity was greatly improved following the creation of the marine preserve in 1995, and the region probably looks not vastly unlike what he would have seen back in the day.

According to Kevin, the best diving of the year can be had in the months of October and November, so now’s the time to use up those vacation days and take advantage of some great travel deals.

From diving to souvenir hunting and surfing…

The arts-oriented town of Todos Santos is about a one-hour drive from Cabo San Lucas and offers plenty of ambiance (cobblestone streets, charming restaurants, galleries galore). The drive itself along Highway 19 is gorgeous: mountain and coastline, with intriguing stops along the way for food, souvenirs (including Pescadero’s Art + Beer, whose signs you can’t miss) and, of course, surf.

Don’t miss the exit to Playa Los Cerritos, also in Pescadero. It’s located at KM 65 on Highway 19. Cerritos Beach Club has a good racket going, being the only place to buy a beer or food on this remote, pastoral and clear water beach! Sip margaritas under one of their umbrellas or rent a surfboard from them or one of the two on-beach outfitters, Costa Azul Surf Shop or El Diablo Blanco. Both also offer lessons.

Our afternoon included a lot (a lot!) of wipeouts, but embarrassing yourself on the beach is a great way to build up an appetite and Cerritos Beach Club is certainly the place to enjoy an ice-cold Pacifico and more fish tacos, slow-cooked ribs, or in our daughter’s case, classic… Mexican-style spaghetti with meatballs.

Cabo San Lucas certainly has its loud attractions, and places like El Squid Roe and Cabo Wabo, ex-Van Halenite Sammy Hagar’s bar/club, are well known enough that I don’t need to cover them here.

But the best thing to do is just walk around downtown Cabo San Lucas and see what you can find. Lucky’s Cabo Grill has the best host ever, a friendly mutt, as well as yummy blender drinks and a laid back ambiance.

Restaurant Panchos & Tequila Bar (known as Pancho’s) can feel a bit touristy, but it’s popular for a reason: their food rocks. Probably the best pozole (a humble pork and hominy stew they elevate to pure deliciousness!) and tamales in town!

Also, Playa Grande itself has wonderful room service, which is a revelation, especially if you’re stuck in your suite with a jellyfish-stung or otherwise ill child. From gourmet Mexican salads to tart ‘n’ favourful fish ceviche, hearty tortilla soup on to meats and seafood, Playa Grande’s menu covers all the bases and has offerings for both the calorie conscious and the calorie obtuse.

Although my daughter says she’s not going back into the Sea of Cortez again “until all the jellyfish are gone!” I can see a lot of potential for annual Los Cabos pilgrimages: there’s just so damn much to do, from diving to shopping to learning to surf to horseback riding and exploring.

And the weather is mostly marvelous! Aside from the odd hurricane (June to late-September), it’s sunny and warm year round.

Best months for scuba diving, as mentioned earlier, are October and November – though it’s beautiful underwater year round.

December boasts a culinary festival. There’s an arts festival in Todos Santos in February. Carnival is February-March. (Let’s not even go into Spring Break, but hey: if it floats your boat!) And June has fishing tourneys galore.

As for us, the summer off-season suited us just fine: Scorching hot like as we like it (nice change from Toronto), unhurried and un-busy, with just the dedicated sun-and-sea lovers lounging about. Think: endless summer.

Yuki Hayashi is a Hamilton, Ont-based lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in the Globe & Mail, National Post, Flare, Chatelaine and various websites.

*Please tell us what you think of this week’s newsletter!

All information presented here is accurate at the time of publication but prices, dates and other details are all subject to change. Please confirm all information before making any travel arrangements.

Note: This trip was sponsored in part by Playa Grande Resort & Spa & Amigos Del Mar.


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