Cabo San Lucas, located on the tip of Mexico's Baja Peninsula and a marquee stop on Mexican Riviera itineraries, is surely a party central kind of town. At Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo, folks start doing tequila shots around 10 a.m., or whenever the first cruise ship arrives. A short time later, dancing on tabletops is likely to ensue. But Cabo San Lucas is also a naturally beautiful destination and offers an excellent chance for visitors to experience Mexican culture -- beyond tequila shots.
That's not to say first-timers should not miss a boat or kayak tour to see the otherworldly El Arco rock formation protruding from the Sea of Cortez at Land's End, wide and pristine Lover's Beach, the rock and roll shrine that is Cabo Wabo, and the indoor souvenir market near the pier. And if you really need to unwind, party boat expeditions abound.
But what about next-timers or intrepid cruisers who want to venture away from the barrage of touristy restaurants and shops and vendors to see another side of Cabo? Well, there is more to the place than first meets the eye including quiet beaches, unique shops and the kind of food your Mexican grandmother would prepare (if you had one). Here are our favorite offbeat experiences in Cabo whether you are a repeat visitor, or coming for a unique first-time experience.
Sample real Mexican food. Dive into local delicacies including tortillas prepared in front of your eyes at Mi Casa Restaurant & Cantina (Avenida Cabo San Lucas, 624-143-1933, open for lunch except Sundays and dinner daily). Located in the center of the city, this cheerful, vibrantly colored place -- think red and turquoise -- thankfully does not attract the crazy tourist crowds of the beachfront establishments. The margaritas are massive and you can sip them on the patio; half the dining room is open-air. Try chicken with mole (a thick chocolate/chili sauce), carnitas (braised pork) and other favorites, all mouthwatering and reasonably priced.
For an even more authentic experience, head to the very casual Mariscos Mocambo (Leona Vicario y 20 de Novembre, 624-143-6070, open for lunch and dinner). This restaurant is a favorite among locals, known for fresh seafood that won't break the bank. The menu includes seafood soup, fresh fish in a variety of sauces, and even empanadas stuffed with shrimp or crab. There's also a children's menu and a few selections for land lovers.
Have a cigar. A bench at the plaza is a good place to sit and enjoy a Cuban or other premium cigar purchased at J & J Habanos (on Madero St., off Boulevard Marina, 624-143-6160). Though it is located in Mexico, this place sells stogies from around the world and is well known by cigar aficionados, locals and tourists. In addition to an extensive cigar stock, owner Pepe offers accessories and even a cigar-themed casual clothing line. The shop also sells rare tequilas. It's a connoisseur's must-do. Remember, though, you can't bring Cuban cigars back into the U.S. (if you try you could face major fines).
Get your church on. While the main attractions in Cabo are parties, beaches and watersports, history lovers should pay a visit to the Inglesia de San Lucas (Avenida Cabo San Lucas and Zapata Street, 624-143-2666). This stone church was established in 1730 (construction was completed in 1746) by a Spanish missionary who was later killed by local Indians who did not like his teachings on monogamy. Still, Catholicism took and this simple church -- little changed since its beginnings -- is still the main Catholic Church in town with services on Saturdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at noon an 8 p.m.
Soak up the ambience. The church is in an area of town where the architecture and ambience makes you feel like you're in real, sleepy Mexico. On a recent visit, we almost expected to see someone wearing a sombrero ride by on a donkey. What we did see are shops, art galleries and restaurants surrounding a traditional main square, Plaza Amelia Wilkes -- also known as Plaza San Lucas -- with a little garden and wrought-iron gazebo. The renovated adobe buildings facing the plaza are among the prettiest in town.
Shop 'til you drop (we mean it!). Okay, shopping may not seem offbeat; after all, much of the purchasing power in town centers on international brands, T-shirts and swimwear. But we're always on the look out for real Mexican goods that go beyond the tacky stuff near the pier. You'll get the idea when you view the colorful Mexican masks and crafts at the ethnic art gallery Faces of Mexico (Calle Hidalgo, next to Pancho's Restaurant). The nearby Taxco Silver (also on Calle Hidalgo) is a family business selling good quality silver jewelry by artists from Taxco (a town about 100 miles from Mexico City known to produce the best silver in Mexico). El Callejon (Vicente Guerrero, across from Cabo Wabo, 624-143-3188) offers good quality (but not inexpensive) Mexican furniture, ceramics, tableware and religious art.
Go fishing. Most of the seafood served in town comes right out of the sea here in the "marlin capital of the world." Catch-and-release sport fishing is also a major activity, and a great option for cruisers visiting Cabo. Though there are private operators you may want to book an excursion through your cruise ship to assure you get back in time for departure. Carnival, for example, offers a new four-hour search for marlin, mahi mahi, wahoo and tuna.
But even if you don't do an excursion you can feel part of the action if you hit the marina between 3 and 4 p.m. when the sport fishing boats come in. Some 50,000 bullfish -- marlin, sailfish and swordfish -- are caught here each year. It's easy to spot boats with a bullfish catch since they fly a blue flag signaling a catch is onboard (have your camera ready).
Hit the beach. Almost all roads on Cabo's Pacific side lead to pretty beaches. If it is solitude and rays you are seeking, a favorite spot with locals is Widows' Beach (Playa Las Viedas) which is about 15 minutes from town on the Transpeninsular Highway, Km 12, near the Twin Dolphin Hotel. You will have to rent a car to get there, and will have to drive or walk a dirt road of about 3/4 of a mile to get to the beach, where quiet coves and volcanic rock formations await. Bring food and drink (there is none available there) and only get in the water if it's really calm. Another sunny spot away from the crowds is Divorce Beach, near Lover's Beach at Land's End (accessible by water taxi from Cabo for about $5 per person, each way).
Editor's note: Unfortunately, most of these beaches are for sunning and picnicking only -- rip tides make swimming dangerous.
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em... Crowds, water sports, pushy vendors, popular bars and restaurants, and general beach craziness can be found at Playa El Medano (Dune Beach), the main beach, the closest one to the marina (you can walk or take a water taxi there), and the one with generally safe swimming. Yet despite the touristy scene, we have to admit a fondness for sitting with a cold Pacifico beer at The Office (Medano Beach, 624-143-3464, open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.), because we're not at "the office" -- we're in Cabo.
--by Fran Golden. Boston-based Golden, whose contributions to Cruise Critic include features, ship reviews and destination-oriented port profiles, is also co-author of Cruise Vacations for Dummies.