Leave raucous Cabo behind for easy-going Zona Turistica

There are spots in Cabo where golden tequila comes in glasses and cuisine is served on plates.

  • Aug. 25, 2012 6:00 p.m.
Billygan’s Medano Beach Club on Medano beach in Cabo San Lucas

Billygan’s Medano Beach Club on Medano beach in Cabo San Lucas

There’s another side to Cabo San Lucas, where tequila is gold and not white and comes in short fluted glasses, not poured into your gullet by a funnel stuck in your mouth. A place where the food doesn’t come on the edge of a stick or wrapped in a tortilla. Behind the guard-shack-rimmed gates, the resorts north of Cabo San Lucas create their own little worlds, where you are encouraged never to leave—except perhaps for a round of golf.

This is all by design. Modern Cabo’s midwife can be found in a squat building next to the traffic circle, where arriving visitors make a right turn to head down the coast to Cabo San Lucas from the airport access road. Few who are going to the resorts along the Sea of Cortez know that it’s FONATUR, the Mexican development agency that dreamed up Cabo (and Cancun, Ixtapa, Loreto and Huatulco).

The idea at Cabo was to create a gringo playground at the southern tip of Baja California, far from the cities whose problems of pollution, poverty, congestion and sometimes crime discouraged less-adventurous travelers from considering traditional resorts like Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta.

Everything is master planned, from the international airport away from the beaches to the four-lane highway that speeds motorists from the Mexican town of San Jose del Cabo to the full-blown Americano party town that Cabo San Lucas has become.

In between is a strip of luxury resorts, where I decided to start my trip to Cabo with Orange County Register photographer Leonard Ortiz. In a more commercially minded country, the area would be called “The Gold Coast” or “The Baja Riviera.” But FONATUR’s creation goes by the functional if not very romantic moniker of “Zona Turistica”—the tourist zone. The result shows that bureaucracy can be beautiful.

For my first two nights, I booked into the Westin. I’ve looked in wonder at pictures of this massive resort for years. The arc-shaped main building with the huge “window” cut out of the bottom that allows views to the beach looked like some kind of alien architecture. With its clay-red colour, I dubbed it “the Mars Hotel.”

The fine sand beach is perfect for sunbathing or strolling, but the choppy waves and somewhat rocky shoreline make swimming a no-no here. A black flag that needs no translation flaps in the stiff, warm breeze at the shoreline. No matter. There are two pools—one adults-only, with a swim-up bar. The rooms are strongly air-conditioned, and every room has an ocean view from angled balconies that look out at the Sea of Cortez.

We stayed a Sunday and Monday night, and the resort was strangely empty. No problem getting tables for dinner or a chair at the beach. The one time I went swimming, I had the pool to myself. In search of life, we headed out on the road the first day. Lower Baja California has a rocky, brown-gray landscape with the occasional Saguaro cactus. The desert runs down to a brilliant blue sea, like Arizona with an ocean. The dark monochrome of the landscape would be upset every few miles by a string of green patches signaling another golf course.

We swung off the highway to Chileno Beach, one of the best sand strands that still keeps a somewhat natural look. It has just one rather sedate, low-slung development at the far north end of the crescent. A security guard looked after cars in the free lot, while new thatched palapas lined the beach, giving welcome shade from the blazing sun hitting the white sand. The sand gave the water a psychedelic green tinge. I was disappointed when we arrived to find a party boat at anchor off the beach, a disc jockey blasting Thriller by Michael Jackson while another member of the crew used a loudspeaker to bellow “come on everybody, party!”

Another boat appeared, apparently to rendezvous with a fleet of yellow sea kayaks that came around the point. But in 10 minutes the party boat and the kayaker boat were gone, and all I could hear was the lapping of the waves. The June water was a bit brisk, but fine once you got used to it. The small waves were enough for some fun bodysurfing, and the mix of locals, tourists, kids and lovers made for a nice scene. Saguaro cactuses that took a century to grow their limbs sat near palm trees planted the past five years to give the spot a little tropical-desert flavor. It was my favourite spot from the trip and one where I would like to spend more time.

We finished the night at the One & Only Palmilla, a secluded, sedate luxury spot. I couldn’t afford to spend the night, but dinner was a splurge worth getting, to see the place close-up. We were walked from our car to the restaurant by a staffer—more to protect guests from us, it seemed, than to protect us from whatever might be out there in the night.

Lanterns everywhere gave a golden glow to the leafy grounds. At the restaurant, the bar’s ceiling was hung with a collection of large lamps of red, brown, green and yellow glass that gave a soft brilliance to the room. We sat outside overlooking the ocean as it disappeared into the inky black night. Waiters brought blankets to drape over the bare shoulders of guests in evening dresses. I ordered a Chilean salmon that was medium rare in the middle but with a crunchy skin on the top. The seafood enchiladas were an eclectic take on the local roadside favourite. Finally, came a tiny cup with the best espresso I had on the trip.

The next afternoon we hiked out of the Westin to the parking lot and drove off for an early lunch at another legendary luxury outpost, the sun-bleached white stucco world of Las Ventanas al Paraiso. My pupils were dilating rapidly as I shifted my eyes from the shady patio to eat my calamari and then looked out at the white sand beach and blue ocean. While I preferred the cool, leafy Palmilla, it’s easy to see why sun lovers would want to head to Las Ventanas.

Going from the lulling world of the Zona Turistica straight into the maelstrom of partytown Cabo would likely strip my mental gears. As a halfway house, I booked a night at The Bungalows, a lovely, large B&B in the hills above town.

On the way, we stopped at Gardenias, a legendary taco shop on a side street off the harbor. The battered fish and shrimp tacos are the specialties, with eight containers of sauces, guacamole and garnishes to make your own concoction. Marlins hung on the wall, along with pictures of fishermen and an ancient sun-faded cover of Sports Illustrated signed by San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame wide receiver Lance Alworth.

The Bungalows’ two-bedroom unit had a small kitchen and refrigerator. Outside was a pretty, tract-house-size swimming pool.

Down the hill, on the edge of downtown near the plaza, I discovered Cabo Coffee. The sign says “Death Before Decaf.” It becomes my boost spot for the rest of the trip, a spot to get a strong, thick espresso in a town with more than its share of watered-down coffee.

In the end, The Bungalows was my favourite place to stay: comfortable but relatively inexpensive, close but not within the Cabo party zone, an oasis of Mexican hospitality in a town built on stacks of timeshares.

Gary A. Warner is a travel reporter for The Orange County Register.

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