As part of Los Cabos—a name bestowed by Mexican tourism officials upon the once-remote Baja California communities—San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas frequently are considered to be the same type of place. However, party-hearty Cabo San Lucas is strictly a resort, while 200-year-old San Jose del Cabo is a bona fide—although small—Mexican town with a shady plaza and pastel pink and blue houses.
Visitors from abroad often find San Jose del Cabo one of the most Americanized resorts in Mexico with English as common as Spanish on signs, many expatriates running businesses, and prices on restaurant menus, in shops and bars, and on tours given in U.S. dollars instead of Mexican pesos. You can get a sense of the natural beauty surrounding Los Cabos, though, from the lookout point above Costa Azul, a popular surfing beach just south of San Jose.
San Jose del Cabo stands apart from other resort destinations in Mexico such as Cancun or Puerto Vallarta because of its climate, geography, terrain and its former life as the last frontier on the Baja Peninsula. Visitors to San Jose del Cabo are lured by its deep-blue sea, coves and beaches, dramatic rock formations and desert landscapes; however, in addition to basking in the temperate climate, they also play golf, go deep-sea fishing, scuba diving and snorkeling, whale-watch and explore Baja off-road.
Known as Los Cabos, the region is made up of the towns of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, as well as a 20-mi/32-km stretch of shoreline called the Corredor Turistico (Tourist Corridor) that connects them.
The four-lane highway traversing the Corridor parallels the coast and is lined with upscale resort developments and golf courses. Cabo San Lucas lies at the extreme southern end of Mexico's Baja California Peninsula in the state of Baja California Sur. San Jose del Cabo lies to the north along the eastern seaboard, and the international airport is located nearby.
Boulevard Mijares, the main street through San Jose del Cabo, has been designated a tourist zone. It's lined with small shops and cafes that are interspersed with small grocery stores and private homes. A block east on Avenida Zaragoza is the pleasant zocalo (main plaza), with its tree-shaded gazebo and wrought-iron benches. Facing the square, La Iglesia de San Jose, the parish church on the zocalo, bears a tile mural depicting the death of Padre Nicolas Tamaral.
The center of San Jose is undergoing considerable change. Entrepreneurs have converted old adobe homes into classy shops and restaurants, beautifying the town and attracting tourists. Among the conversions are a series of art galleries that have remade San Jose into an art destination with collections of local and famous Mexican painters.
Most of San Jose's resort-style hotels are located along the beach south of town, where Boulevard Mijares intersects Paseo San Jose. The beaches around the resorts are great for walking or horseback riding, but the water isn't recommended for swimming because of its strong surf.
At the end of the hotel zone is the Estero San Jose, an estuary that used to shelter more than 200 species of birds until it was all but destroyed by Hurricane Juliette in 2001. Hikers can walk on the beach to the estuary. Construction on a marina and resort development is taking place on the north side of the lagoon, but developers promise that the remaining natural habitat will not be significantly disturbed.
Seafarers have long been attracted to the shores of what is now Los Cabos. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, legend has it that notorious English seafarers such as Sir Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish concealed themselves in the bays and coves along the southern coast of the Baja Peninsula, slipping out to ambush passing Spanish galleons traveling from Acapulco to the Philippines.
The first settlers in San Jose del Cabo were Jesuit missionaries sent from Spain, who built a mission in 1730 after being drawn to the area by an estuary, which produced the lush landscape still found today. The fresh water of the estuary tumbles down from the nearby sierra where heavy rainfalls are prevalent. At first, the evangelization of the Guaycura and Pericu natives went well, but eventually they rebelled and burned down the mission. (Padre Nicolas Tamaral, a Jesuit priest and founder of the town, was killed and dragged through the desert during an uprising against the missionaries in 1734.) By the early 1800s, however, European diseases had decimated the indigenous population.
Then came periods of mining and farming by new immigrants, who built a community and produced sugarcane and leather goods that they traded at the Mexican mainland across the Sea of Cortes. For a brief period during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, U.S. marines occupied San Jose. They left after peace was declared, and San Jose went pretty much unnoticed until after World War II. That's when private planes began flying in celebrities—Bing Crosby and John Wayne among them—to go deep-sea fishing.
Because the area was remote and difficult to reach, it remained the private hideaway of a few well-heeled travelers until the 1970s, when the Mexican government completed the Transpeninsular Highway. The highway gave Californians a straight, 1,060-mi-/1,705-km-long shot to the tip of Baja. This improved access and the area's beautiful setting made it a natural pick when the Mexican government went scouting for resort sites, and construction has been going on in earnest since 1976.
The first golf course in Los Cabos was a nine-hole green constructed in San Jose del Cabo, and it still attracts players although it's been eclipsed by newer and grander golf courses along the Tourist Corridor. Farming still plays a big part in the economy as tracts of land are being converted to organic farms producing avocados, oranges, tomatoes and other staples for the area hotels and restaurants.
Today, San Jose del Cabo is an internationally renowned tourist destination that, along with Cabo San Lucas, attracts more than a million visitors each year. All this growth, which has been slower in San Jose (for which city officials are grateful) has brought prosperity and a greater purpose in conserving the town's historic downtown.
San Jose del Cabo, which is quieter and less developed than party-loving Cabo San Lucas, has a real Mexican feeling about it with a traditional main square dominated by a twin-towered church that was rebuilt in 1940. It has a mural depicting mission founder Nicolas Tamaral that attracts quite a few visitors. Local festivals take place in the square throughout the year, and you might see live musicians, processions, parades and elaborate displays for the Christmas holidays.
Several of the luxury hotels, especially those along the Corridor, were designed by well-known Mexican architects and are worth visiting for their innovative and spectacular designs.
The Los Cabos area's biggest natural draws are the gray whales that arrive each winter from their Arctic feeding grounds. Tour operators in San Jose offer a variety of options for getting up close and personal with these giant marine mammals.
Those wishing to explore the Baja's history and culture will have to make side trips to towns such as Todos Santos and La Paz, which have historic areas, museums and more Mexican atmosphere.
For a look at what Los Cabos was like before the development, drive northeast of San Jose, past the new Puerto Los Cabos complex and up the Eastern Cape Road. You'll soon leave modernity behind and discover tiny, paradisial beaches and little towns such as Los Frailes, Cabo Pulmo and, after 60 mi/97 km, the town of La Ribera. Much of the road is dirt, but it's passable for passenger vehicles except after heavy rains.
Party central is definitely in Cabo San Lucas; bars there tend to close around 5 or 6 in the morning while those in San Jose del Cabo shut down at 2 am. Some partygoers in San Jose may grab a cab after the bars close and head for one of the Cabo San Lucas hot spots to finish off the evening. For everyone else, after-hours entertainment, usually music groups, is found at the hotel and restaurant bars. A good bet is to stroll the streets around Plaza Mijares after dinner and follow the music.
During the winter high season, there are trios and bands playing every night. The rest of the year, however, they only play on weekends. Families can usually find some sort of free entertainment at the main square where street musicians are welcome.
The dining scene in Los Cabos has expanded incredibly as chefs from the U.S. and Europe test their talents with the local seafood, fruits and herbs. Fresh fish—particularly dorado, tuna, wahoo and snapper—is definitely the area's specialty. If lobster or shrimp is on the menu, ask if it's been frozen. Those delicacies are usually imported.
Really experiencing Cabo's culinary diversity requires not only an evening of excess at an exclusive Corridor restaurant, but also a meal or two at the area's more modest eateries, where you'll dine with as many locals as visitors. Be sure to sample dishes from all regions of Mexico such as carnitas (slow roasted or deep-fried pork served with tortillas, pork cracklings and salsa), traditional mole (a dark Oaxacan sauce flavored with raisins, spices and chocolate) and tacos de birria (tacos made with beef or goat).
San Jose has inexpensive family-run restaurants, but some of the best—and most atmospheric—top-end restaurants are also found there. Many are inside little old colonial buildings with tables spread around traditional, open-air interior patios.
Along the Corridor, you'll find only high-end restaurants, most of them inside the resorts; most of these offer exquisite dining rooms or patios with stunning ocean views.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$25; $$ = US$25-$50; $$$ = US$51-$75; and $$$$ = more than US$75.
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