Running the Gauntlet: Strategies for Cabo San Lucas

© 1999 Shawn Vidmar

  Arriving in Cabo San Lucas--a small coastal town located at land's end of the Mexican Baja--was akin to molting. The doors opened, people began disembarking into the Mexican sun and a dry hot breeze wafted through the cabin.

   I vaguely wondered what the temperature was in Spokane, I had left in a snowstorm and had gradually peeled layer upon layer off while in the air. I finally took off the last long sleeve garment that I would see for eight glorious days. I found my sunglasses and stepped upon the landing of the moveable stairs.  

   Following the surge of people, I found myself at passport control. Everything was stamped and in order. Something was said and I was herded along through the glass door into the next stage. I was not prepared for the din.  

   For those of you who have never experienced this part of travel, it can be unsettling. All these people yelling at you, whistling, nodding, gesturing and so forth want to sell you something. Keep walking, don't make eye contact, don't look up, focus on the baggage claim straight ahead of you. Even if you hear about great transportation deals, don't hesitate or you're lost.  

   If they do get a hold of you--don't worry, happens to the best of us after a long plane ride--keep in mind, these truths: A van ride into town is $10 US., Cabo San Lucas (you just landed in San Juan) is about 70 km's from that spot; therefore, everything will take 45 minutes to get to your hotel. They will try to sell you on the "private cab" experience which is $45  (rip-off). Furthermore, if you are staying at one of the bigger resorts, they often have transport to their lobby; and, you can also rent a car.

   Car rental is about $60 a day and makes sense if you have a group coming in at different times. This way someone can meet the person at the airport (a welcome gesture after traveling) and bring them to the abode. Even if you are only traveling with two other people, at $10 a van ride you'd still be ahead to rent a car. You can even drop it in town instead of the airport. (Going back to the airport, you can usually find people to share the $40 flat rate van, thus the more you get the cheaper the transport). Also if you are one of the later deportees, it's real nice to avoid lines, check in early and get rid of those pesky extra pesos in one of the bars.    

   Once in your home for a week, open a frosty beverage and admire your view (hopefully you have one). Almost every "room" since they have been sold as time share units, has a refrigerator and some amenities for cooking like a microwave, coffee maker and toaster. Some have a full kitchenette, some barely have silverware. Prior to the trip, you would have stocked a cooler full of hard-to-get American items.  

   I always like to bring a case of Pepsi, breakfast items and snacks. Keep in mind you can't bring any fruit into the country and their milk is pasteurized. Tape up the cooler and send it as luggage. If you already fulfilled your luggage quota (2 items) then it may cost anywhere from $45-$60 to ship it as well, so try to plan it carefully, i.e. have one of your friends bring the SCUBA equipment bag or consolidate two of your own.

   If you are up for seeing the town, or are just hungry for a meal, put on your Teva's and start moving. Depending on where you are staying, you may want to take a cab (usually no more than $5). Granted you may still have the rental car, but since non-alcoholic drinks are equal if not more in price to a cerveza, it is difficult to establish a designated driver. I prefer walking, it is part of the adventure and everyone can imbibe.  

   Cabo is so overrun with tourists, it is relatively safe. You can't walk all the way into town on the beach (even though it looks like it) but you can take a water taxi (about $10) to take you to the heart of the town. If you stay on the roads paralleling the closest to the shore, you'll be considerably safe. I never felt uncomfortable off the beaten path, but it could unnerve some people.

   Once in town, especially if you've arrived on the weekend, there will probably be some sensory overload (unless you live in Las Vegas or something). The town has been Americanized and although you are tired and long for the familiar, try to get past Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Pizza Hut, Subway, Dairy Queen and KFC (they are by far the most expensive places in town!) A real good local "chain" is by the Seńior Frog people and they have Carlős & Charlies, El Squid Roe and El Shrimp Bucket.  

  These all offer a great meal, complete with two rounds of appetizers. Their black bean soup is some of the best I've ever tasted. Be forewarned, however, that by day they are somewhat gentile establishments, but by night they are raging clubs. El Squid Roe is known especially for its inadvertent table dancing. It's constructed of tin siding and some chain link fencing. There is no way to ever close it up completely (reinforcing the notion that Cabo only receives 2 inches of rain annually) and I've seen it being hosed out the day after.

   If it is later (after 8 p.m. or so) then either El Shrimp Bucket or Concéption would be a better bet. They are along the jetty and attract an older crowd. The later is known for its many kinds of Tequila (a Mexican tradition). The Nowhere Bar offers Tuesday night ladies night and other specials. In fact, if you keep your eyes out, you can figure out who has the best happy hour and when those are. For example from 3 PM on, The Office (right on the beach) offers two for one drinks. Music starts around 5 PM and food service 7ish Ż remember this is Mexican time.

   You can also scout for happy hours food specials, like free chips and salsa. Or find an activity which offers food as well. Most of the longer ocean activities will provide a meal. It is important not to be prone to sea sickness though, especially since they usually serve a lot of booze with the nourishment.

   These trips can be a day long SCUBA trip (where you will get lunch and usually not alcohol), a sunset diner cruise, or even a whale watching trip (if you are there in the right season). If you are not interested in a sloppy booze cruise, stay away from the simple "sunset cruises" they consist of loud music, bottomless beer bottles and many forced Tequila popper shots. This is a very popular activity for the college spring break crowd.

   Now, when buying the tickets there are some tricks. First, the ticket booth person will try to sell you something (usually under the guise of reimbursing you for the activity tickets). Unless you want to spend an entire morning being wooed by a bunch of slick salespeople (even better than used car sales) then go right ahead and commit. Even though they promise 90 minutes, count on 4-5 hours. Don't bring along your friends or family because they will just get bored. If you are interested in what they are selling, by all means subject yourself to the stroking procedures, they are good.

   Usually what you thought you saved ($100-150) by going to the "free breakfast" is counter-balanced by the $16,000 and up time share "room" you just purchased. True they give you a few things for 'free': a 500 ml bottle of average Tequila, a Mexican blanket, a bottle of cheap champagne, some two-for-one coupons for the activities (as promised) and a 30% discount on any others. If you, unfortunately, are at this point, choose the most expensive two-for-ones and then buy the others at the discount.

   The vendors are a lot more agreeable when you've just dumped some money into their employers pocket, but you can just purchase the tickets at the inflated price and go on about your way. Keeping that in mind, if a deal sounds too good to be true, it is. Some friends "scouted" the town for the best All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) rental to go play in the sand dunes on the Pacific side of the Baja. They are usually $45 per person, for 1/2 day, a guide and free cold soft drinks. These boys were elated to find some for $15 p/p, bought tickets for their whole group, and were actually surprised when they appeared on that spot the next day as told and no one was there.

   If you think you might want to do some sea kayaking (they are cheap to rent, fun and offer some exercise) bring a dry bag. All they have on the beach is a trash bag which isn't all that effective. The typical destination is Lover's Beach--a flat sand bar at the very tip of land's end where can dip your toes in the Gulf of Mexico and walk 50 feet to the Pacific side. This is also a great place to have your snorkeling gear because the fish in that area are colorful and tropical. Neptune's finger--a very popular dive site--is also real close and within swimming distance.

   In the dry bag, you should put your cameras as sea water never does them any good. If you are a free rock climber, throw in your shoes and prepare to have some fun!  Some snacks and definitely some fluids are also a good idea. You can buy a few things there from individuals, but it'll cost you. Going in the morning is the best because the current is lower, the traffic across the channel (going in and out of Cabo harbor) is less, it isn't as crowded nor hot.   

   You can go to Lover's Beach via water taxi, but be sure you agree on a time to return, or you may be stuck out there longer than you wanted.

   If you are looking for some good deals on silver, my advice would be to casually keep your eye out and save the bartering for the end of the trip. By then you hopefully have had time to see most of the stores, find the item you like the best and then (and only then) do you ask any questions about it. You do need to know if it is real silver. This is indicated by the .925  stamp on the piece. If you had time at home, it would be good to know the price of silver per ounce because the vendors determine price by weight and your sucker factor.

   I personally felt better in some of the hotel silver shops, they just felt more legitimate to me. Bartering is alive and well in Mexico and if you have any old watches or Oakley Sunglasses (especially the Zeros) that you're not all that attached to, you might be able to make some good trades.

   Also, if you feel sorry for the children (and I mean some were barely walking) selling Chicklets, don't buy the whole box or give them extra, for it all goes to the same Dickensonian ogre behind the children. Also with the walking vendors, learn "No, Gracias" and just say it over and over again; however, if you know a foreign language, that works too (even if you're not making any sense).

   Occasionally you can meet that guy who can "Get you anyting you need, muchacho" and if you trust him, by all means go for it. Those friends I talked about earlier all had a drive for good Cuban Cigars, so their Mexican friend produced some for them. It helps, in these instances, to speak fluent Spanish.

   If you can't think of what to do, try planning one activity a day. This allows for some movement from basking in the sun, and breaks up the monotony. The parasailing trip is fantastic and well worth the $30 per person. The ride lasts a good 15 minutes and the views are spectacular.

   The ATV's are better in the morning before it gets really dusty and hot. Plus then you can shower before thinking of going out. SCUBA diving is excellent in the area, but get your plans solidified early in the week so if something unforeseen happens, you have a few days to reschedule.

   The daily pool/beach life is quite pleasant as well. Most veterans know to send a scout down early (around 8 am) to find "the spot" and then spread stuff around on the desired chairs. You can get towels that early, so reserving the chair by throwing a towel on it is an acknowledged form of saving. Don't forget this helpful friend and try to relieve his/her watch within an hour.

   It is good to bring a stopwatch or alarm, because it is so easy to misjudge how long you've been out  in the sun. Hydrating is necessary for your body's well being and the skin you are altering. Sun screen is essential, especially when traveling during North American winter. Have a friend put it on in the hotel before you put on your suit (this illuminates weird lines when your suit moves with you). Don't just slap some on, you'll feel and see the results in the funky tie-dye sunburn design on your back; and everyone will point and laugh at you behind you.

    By now you will have (hopefully) figured out where the cheapest bottled beer is and bought some for your fridge--if that is a refreshing beverage for you. It's good to take breaks from the sun to go to your room and cool down, change books, fix a snack or shower.

   Overall, most of the amenities found in America are here as well. You can change your money into Peso's at the front desk (keep and eye out for the best exchange rate around town). The phone call to America starts at $5, so don't count on talking to anyone. You can buy stamps in the gift shop, as well as a few other things, but they may try to charge you a additional 10% if you try to use a credit card. There are ATM's if you run out of cash.

   Beware of the ATM amounts, it is in Pesos! Considering an out of state ATM usually costs the average Joe $3, just think of international; therefore take out the most you think you may need. My friend mistakenly requested $50, unaware it was in pesos, and ended up withdrawing the  equivalent to $6 US.

   Finally, if you have survived all of these monetary, minimal and mental obstacles and still managed to have a good time, then you are a true adventurer. Here's seeing you on the next one. 

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