Cabo San Lucas is an anchor port for all cruises sailing on Mexico's Riviera and Sea of Cortez itineraries, but passengers are a small minority of the tourists who flock there. The heavily Americanized party town serves as one of the most popular beach escapes for Californians and other West Coasters who come here to let loose (spring break festivities are intense and not a proposition for the faint of heart). One of Cabo's major attractions is Cabo Wabo, a cantina owned by rocker Sammy Hagar. Rocks of a different sort -- El Arco, with its jagged points protruding from the Sea of Cortez, make more impressive photos.
Yet for those passing on the beer-pong tournaments and temporary tattoos, Cabo has a lot to offer. Located at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, Cabo San Lucas -- together with its more elegant and much quieter sister town of San Jose del Cabo -- is an ideal spot for adventure-oriented pursuits. If conditions are right, the clear waters make for great snorkeling kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, parasailing, sailing and jet skiing. The Sea of Cortez is among the biologically richest areas in the world, with pods of whales that winter offshore; if you're here in season (late December through late March), a whale-watching trip is a must.
Cabo also has some of the best sportfishing in the world, and it is the quest for marlin that put the town on the map. After World War II and the advent of private planes, Hollywood royalty such as Bing Crosby and John Wayne arrived to fish. In the 1970s, a highway was built to connect California to Baja, and the travel industry began in earnest. Now, it's hard to open a celebrity magazine without seeing photos of A-listers lounging at the six-star resorts that have sprung up in "The Corridor," as the coastal stretch between the two cities is known.
One of the downsides for most cruise travelers: There's no cruise pier, so all ships must anchor and tender passengers to the port. That means you'll need to factor in extra time getting to and from your ship. Even odder is the fact that some ships only stop for half-day visits, which means that actual on-land time can be extremely limited (although excursion providers usually time their tours to meet the needs of cruisers). However, other ships spend two days in Cabo, allowing passengers to stay out until 9 p.m. before the ship maneuvers offshore to open casinos. If you're one of the lucky ones with a longer port time, greater Baja, including daytrips to Todos Santos, are within reach.
Ships tender in Cabo San Lucas Bay, near El Arco, or Land's End. At the cruise pier end of the marina, you'll find excursion operators, water taxis, Senor Frogs, ATMs, souvenir stands and a Starbucks. Not shy about pursuing cruise ship business, the town is usually wide open at 8 a.m. (you can have breakfast at the marina or even go parasailing that early). The pelicans already are out and about, too.
Start by admiring El Arco, Cabo's premier site. It's one of the last two rocks that mark "land's end" between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. The centerpiece of most Baja California photos, El Arco is a big rock with a wide arch cut through it by generations of tides and sea activity. While you can see it from the marina or Medano Beach, it's much more fun to get up close - and you might glimpse sea lions. Try a glass-bottom boat tour, catamaran sail or kayaking tour with a provider such as Baja Outback ($74 for a four-hour tour). Standup paddleboarding is also popular; and scuba divers won't be able to resist the manta rays, parrotfish and other marine life at Lands End. For a bird's-eye view, go parasailing with an operator such as Cabo Expeditions ($53 single/$106 tandem).
The beaches just before El Arco attract dozens of tourists each day, even though the area, a protected marine preserve, has no facilities. Among the most famous are Lovers Beach, a deserted stretch of sand on the bay and its companion Divorce Beach, on the much wilder Pacific (if the crashing surf isn't enough a warning, we'll tell you that swimming is not recommended there). Far calmer is Pelican Bay, where excursion operators flock daily. You can swim there and snorkel around the rock where the birds rest.
From mid-December to mid-April, whales, including humpbacks, grays and blues, visit Cabo. You get close on a 15-person Zodiac, and the experience is amazing. Nearly every tour operator offers a whale-watching tour of some sort; expect to pay about $89 for a several-hour trip.
Cabo San Lucas considers itself the "marlin capital of the world," and regardless of which fish are running, there are numerous sportfishing operators that take individuals and groups on half- and full-day excursions. Some restaurants in town will even cook your catch.
Cabo San Lucas has loads of party restaurants to choose from, including El Squid Roe (Av. Lazaro Cardenas; 624-143-0655; open 11 a.m. to 3 a.m.) and the Giggling Marlin (Calle Mariano Matamoros S/N; 624-143-0606; open 9 a.m. to 1 a.m.), where drinkers are hoisted upside down like a trophy fish so waitresses can pour tequila shots down their throats. The most well-known is Cabo Wabo Cantina (Calle Vicente Guerrero S/N; 624-143-1188; open 9 a.m.), which is owned by rocker Sammy Hagar.
Numerous party-boat-style expeditions (mostly half-day) are available. Charter operators have booths at the marina where you can sign up. If you prefer your drinking with your feet in the sand, the beach bars at Medano Beach such as the Mango Deck (Playa El Medano S/N; 624-143-0901; open 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.) hold legendary spring break bashes, when half of southern California descends. The Tabasco Beach Club (Playa El Medano; 624-122-1401; open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.), located farther down the beach on a quieter stretch of Medano, is a Cruise Critic favorite.
As with any tourist mecca, Cabo excursion operators do their best to keep up with the latest crazes, such as flyboarding, as well as offer more traditional choices such as ATV rides, dolphin discoveries and horseback-riding tours. One excursion we haven't seen elsewhere (at least in North America): an outback camel safari through the nearby Baja Desert. Cabo Adventures imported camels from Texas in 2011, stationing them at a private ranch about 30 minutes outside town. The three-hour excursion, which includes a nature walk, lunch, tequila tasting and a 10-minute camel ride on the beach, complete with a Bedouin-style safety helmet, is the company's biggest seller ($109 adults, $79 kids).
Rent a car and drive to San Jose del Cabo. A 20-minute drive from Cabo San Lucas along a winding highway that rings the Sea of Cortez, San Jose is charming, historic and peaceful (in other words, everything Cabo is not). Its adobe storefronts are centered around Plaza Mijares, with its green grass and shading trees. There's a historic mission, but the real diversion is boutique shopping for handmade jewelry, sporty cotton fashions, artwork and high-end household gifts. You won't find many tourist trinkets there.
Shops worth checking out in San Jose include La Paloma Boutique (Plaza Catedral, Calle Zaragoza) for easy-fitting yet sophisticated cotton casual wear made in Mexico, Arte, Diseno y Decoracion, or ADD, (Zaragoza, Centro) for gorgeous handmade picture frames, candlesticks and other home accessories, and La Mina (Hidalgo 33) for one-of-a-kind gold and silver jewelry. San Jose is also a great lunching spot.. Tropicana Inn Bar & Grill (Blvd. Mijares 30; 114-21580; open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.) has a great people-watching sidewalk cafe and is a locals' favorite. While in San Jose, stop by Cactimundo, a botanical garden featuring hundreds of types of live, growing cacti. (Blvd. Mijares; 624-146-9191; open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily; adults $3, younger than 5 free)
Todos Santos is another popular day trip if you have time. A government-designated "Magical Town," so-called because of its historic preservation, the colonial village is full of art galleries, restaurants and tourist sites, including the so-called Hotel California made famous in the Eagles' classic song. While tourists flock to take pictures at the hotel, built in 1947, the owners make clear on their website that there is no proven connection to the band. Still, there's no harm in stopping in the hotel's restaurant, La Coronela, for a drink (Calle Juarez S/N; 612-145-0525; open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., 11 p.m. if there's a band). The town's beach, Playa Cerritos, also makes Todos Santos a draw for surfers.
At Vitrofusion Y Arte (otherwise known as the Fabrica de Vidrio Soplado or Blown Glass Factory) on Cabo's outskirts, you can watch artisans create and design glass the old-fashioned way; there's also an on-site gift shop where they sell their reasonably priced merchandise (such as pitchers, decorative items and glassware). Glassware made there is also available from a number of stores in town. (Lazaro Cardenas S/N Edificio Posada Local 6-A; 624-143-0120)
Golf is huge in Cabo, with at least a half-dozen courses welcoming day visitors. The most famous is the Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol, designed by Jack Nicklaus, boasting ocean and desert views and rated as one of the world's top 100 by Golf Magazine. (866-231-5677; fees $75 to $365, depending on course, tee time and season)
By Foot: It's an easy 15-minute walk from the cruise ship pier to the main drag via the pleasant and well-marked marina.
By Water Taxi: At the cruise pier, you can get a water taxi to take you to Medano Beach for about $10. If you want an up-close view of El Arco,a glass-bottom boat will take you out there, as well as to Pelican Bay, for about $20 for a party of four. Always negotiate your fee in advance.
By Taxi: Although the center of town is reachable by foot, the heat might make a taxi ride easier. Taxis, mostly of the sedan type (as opposed to safari cabs), line up at the marina.
By Car: For explorations beyond the city limits, your best bet is to rent a car; among the agencies with offices in town: National (877-567-3572 or 624-142-2424), Budget (U.S. 800-801-0365 or Mexico 800-002-8343) and Alamo (U.S. 866-365-3530, Mexico 800-821-6522 or 624-143-6060).
Best for Partiers: Medano Beach, fronting the resort Bahia de Cabo and extending to Villa del Palmar, is a quick water taxi ride from the marina. Plenty of activities, including swimming, jet-ski rentals, kayaking, water skiing, banana boating, parasailing and volleyball, are available. Not exactly a retreat, this beach is a destination for fun-loving tourists, as well ashawkers of hair braiding, silver jewelry, blankets and more.
If you want to take in the action while maintaining some peace of mind -- if not your dignity -- buy a beach pass from one of the hotels. For those who enjoy Miami-style beach parties, Nikki Beach has an outpost at ME Cabo. ($30 day pass, with some money applied to your food and drink; open 9 a.m. to midnight). If your tastes run more toward Jimmy Buffett, Tabasco Beach Club has a following on Cruise Critic message boards (loungers free with food and drink purchase).
Best for Families: The "corridor" between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, which rings the Sea of Cortez, has plenty of calm stretches. The most popular is Chileno Beach, which offers calm waters and snorkeling. There are also restrooms and shade palapas available on a first-come, first-served basis (although no restaurants, so bring your own food and drink). You can reach it by rental car, cruise ship excursion or from several independent tour operators. (If you decide to go by taxi, make sure you have a way to get back.)
Best for Purists: Closer to Cabo's port, Playa del Amor (Lovers Beach) is snuggled between rock formations near El Arco and fronts both the bay and the Sea of Cortez. You need to hire a water taxi to drop you off and pick you up (they are easily accessible at the marina). There are no facilities, so bring a picnic and wear water shoes that can handle the sometimes sharp stretches of rock. Don't swim in the water off Divorce Beach, located on the wild and wooly Pacific side.
As befits its status as Cozumel of the West, Cabo features plenty of restaurants serving up Mexican food that appeals to American palates such as tacos, burritos and enchiladas. Take advantage of the city's seafood and go for the ceviche, grilled wahoo or whatever else the waiter says is fresh. Perhaps not surprising given the number of health-conscious Angelinos it attracts, Cabo has a reasonable number of places to grab smoothies, and several beach restaurants have sushi on the menu.
In the Marina, Solomon's Landing makes a pleasant stop for breakfast (try the chilaquiles roja), lunch or a snack, with a covered patio that allows perfect people-watching without vendor hassles. It's also been featured on Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. (Blvd. Marina S/N lots 9/10; 624-143-3050; open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
At The Crazy Lobster happy hour runs 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Its menu features lobster tacos, shrimp, ribs, burgers and more. There's a jukebox playing oldies, pool tables, karaoke machine and dancing waiters. (Hidalgo Street at Zapata; 624-143-6535; open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Pancho's Restaurant & Tequila Bar is owned by ex-pats from California. A large mesquite grill in the center of the restaurant provides dishes of the regional states of Mexico, such as chicken mole, carne asada and fresh seafood. Los Pancho's Trio plays Mexican music each evening, and there's a long list of specialty tequilas. (Hidalgo and Emiliano Zapata S/N; 624-143-2891; open noon to 11 p.m.)
Medano Beach is full of restaurants and bars where you can rent a chair and umbrella while you eat, drink and sun till your heart's content. Among these, the Mango Deck (open 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.) is legendary for its rowdy atmosphere (wet T-shirt contests and staff dancing occurs on a regular basis); it also has a sushi bar. The Sand Bar has a covered deck where beach massages are available daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; $32 for 50 minutes.
Up to four ships can anchor offshore and tender passengers (about a 10-minute ride) to the marina, which is a pleasant 15-minute waterfront walk to the heart of Cabo San Lucas.
Vendors aren't shy in Cabo, and you'll find yourself repeatedly telling people "no" as you stroll the marina or sit on Medano Beach (to avoid vendors on this packed stretch of sand, ask for a table or lounge chair farther back from the beach or buy a hotel beach pass). We also had to make sure that waiters wouldn't bring us drinks we hadn't ordered; check your bill closely before paying.
ATMs are widely accessible if you want to get Mexican pesos or U.S. dollars, which are accepted everywhere. If you are making an expensive purchase in a shop, you are best off paying with a credit card. Having dollar bills to pay for cab fares and trinkets is helpful.
Locals speak Spanish but English is also widely spoken, particularly in shops and tourist venues. There's a sizable American expat population, too.
A number of Mexican trinkets and souvenirs can be found in Cabo, ranging from Mexican blankets to vanilla beans to tequila.
It's hard not to notice the numerous pharmacies hawking prescription drugs such as Viagra, Cialis and Retin-A, among others. While the ethics of buying such items is debatable, we recommend you don't, as the quality and legitimacy of the medicine is not guaranteed.
In the land of tequila, the margarita is queen. Several stores along Cabo's main drag offer tequila tastings or dare you to try mescal -- the drink with the worm in the bottom of the bottle (it's better than it sounds, with a smoky flavor reminiscent of barbecue).