Postcards from Cabo San Lucas
The private cove where I’m sunbathing, alone, restricts my view to one carefully framed panorama. Rocky cliffs go straight up behind me; to my sides, they curve to contain the lazy swells of an azure sea. On half-submerged rocks near the shore, a squad of crabs faces bravely into the surf. That’s the only sound I hear – the surf – and the effect of its white noise is to suspend time, to create my own sunny eternity, to maintain paradise intact until the party boat comes.
The party boat. Of course.Welcome to Cabo, the new home of gross excess both sublime and vulgar; this is the site of the documentary “Drunken Jackasses: The Quest,” and also the place where Martha Stewart spent her fateful Christmas vacation. “Cabo,” as it’s casually known in the States, begins at the tip of the Baja peninsula, in Cabo San Lucas. It extends 20 miles northeast to another town, San Jose del Cabo, and the strip of developed beach between them is known as “The Corridor.” Cabo San Lucas is a spring-break kind of place, with bars like “El Squid Roe” and “The Giggling Marlin” (house drink: “Skip and Go Naked”) and a brisk business in Jell-O shots. But The Corridor supports an increasing number of chic resorts, including my own, Esperanza. (At Esperanza, my beach towel cost more than anything in my suitcase – and I’m not kidding.) These parallel worlds occasionally collide, as they did for me on the beach: First the thudding strains of Mexican dance music caused me to look up from my Very Expensive Towel, then a boat packed with tequila-swilling tourists scrolled across the horizon from left to right. “Terry Gilliam animation” were the first words that sprang to mind.
Yet Cabo is more than a study in high and low culture: It’s also a Mecca for sportfishers, a slum for surf bums, and, at bottom, an indigenous and semi-indigenous population determining how to cope with the American invasion. And I’m conflicted about the place. When I visited for a week a few years ago, I fell in love with it. I was captivated by the rugged desert mountains, which recalled my favorite ranges on the Mexico-New Mexico border. I loved their striking contrast with the Sea of Cortez. I adored the restaurant Damiana in San Jose del Cabo and the posole in that town’s market, and I was mightily impressed by the profusion of cheap, good mangoes.At the same time, I also felt acutely self-conscious, a marauding American who – despite four years of high school Spanish – could in no passable way speak it. I was harangued by vendors, on the beach and in the street. The only time I really relaxed was when my husband and I took the bus to La Paz, a beautiful and authentic city where we sat on the pier and watched teenagers trick-dive into heartbreakingly beautiful water. In La Paz, the anxiety of navigating unfamiliar neighborhoods with nonexistent Spanish was palliated by the feeling that no one cared.And then last summer I returned to Cabo on a press trip. (The press trip: that remarkable mechanism by which I have become the most exacting traveler I know.) Suddenly, the angst had disappeared, because in the sheltered confines of Esperanza I didn’t have to think about, well, anything. Certainly not the excruciating contrast between my own circumstances and those of the people who served me. I didn’t even have to try to speak Spanish. It’s a lousy way to experience another country, I know, and a friend who spent years living down there made me feel terrible for it. In an e-mail to me about Cabo, she fairly spat, “This whole golf resort cultural invasion sickens me.”
Er, yeah, but did I mention the fabulous spa?If all of this sounds familiar, it should. After all, what else is Aspen but a case of massive wealth squeezing out real people and local culture – with the notable fringe benefits that implies? Perhaps it’s not surprising to find a Roaring Fork Valley company at work in Esperanza: namely, the Carbondale-based Timbers Company, developers of The Timbers Club in Snowmass. Timbers has created a similar residence club at Esperanza, a fractionally owned retreat that exists in seamless companionship with Auberge Resorts’ boutique hotel. The residence club was what I was down there to visit (and in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I subsequently did some copywriting for its parent. Can you tell?).A decade ago, my aforementioned friend worked in luxury real estate in Cabo, but in luxury real estate that was still, so to speak, grounded. “The million-dollar villas these people were buying didn’t have phone service back then, and I honestly think that was part of the charm for them,” she says. How quickly times have changed. Because I had some actual work to do during my press trip, I had my laptop computer with me, and with my digital camera and my villa’s high-speed Internet connection, I was able to relay my husband a kind of visual diary: pictures of the terrific walk-in shower, or of the view over the water, or of me smirking on my way to another bang-up meal. Esperanza’s executive chef, Flynt Payne, is a vegetarian who dresses up meat in bright, meatless sauces. Tellingly, he can also produce a raw menu.”We think of it as California South,” Timbers Company president David Burden told me. “It’s just putting your toe in the water of going out of the country.”
I’m having lunch at The Office, an institution of sorts on the beach in Cabo San Lucas. The white sand between my toes is grimy and studded with cigarette butts. The fish is fresh and the drinks are good. At the neighboring bar – differentiated on the beach by the color of its tables – an emcee puts contestants through the sequential acts of slamming a Corona; spinning around a baseball bat that is touched to the ground and to their foreheads; and doing push-ups with a bikini-clad woman sprawled across their backs. The youngest contestant is about 14.
I catch a glimpse of a family who flew in, first class, on my plane from Phoenix. The teenage daughter is in a bikini. She’s carrying a Louis Vuitton tote.What seems clear is that Cabo has reached a tourism tipping point – somehow, it has become solidly established as an A-list destination. Enrique Silva, co-owner of the excellent Tequila restaurant in San Jose del Cabo, traces the advent of that status to the opening of Las Ventanas al Paraiso (“Windows to Paradise,” a Rosewood Resort favored by celebrities including Stewart). Cabo was established as a high-end tourist destination in the 1950s. In the years that followed, it built up infrastructure, but the tone of the place slipped.”In 1997, something different happened, Las Ventanas came into the picture,” Silva e-mailed me. “These guys came to take care of the people who were not very happy with the high-end resorts. So, new celebrities started to arrive in Cabo, it was really good to the area, lots of press. With the opening of Las Ventanas, Los Cabos came back the way it started.” Though Sept. 11 was a blow to its tourist economy, the area seems to have recovered. According to Silva, the upscale resorts in particular have thrived.
You know you’re on a press trip in Cabo when an excursion for hard drinking is not something slipped in after hours, but an integral part of the agenda. Before hitting the bars, my group takes in dinner at Nick San, a sushi place in Cabo San Lucas. Now here is something on which my friend and I can completely agree. As she puts it, “the head chef Angel is like a god.” Indeed. Nick San is nontraditional but extraordinary – a surprise, although it shouldn’t be. The seafood in Cabo is incredible and abundant. What better use for it than sashimi?The bars that night are loud and crowded, but not merely with American tourists. Watching and listening to the locals, I sense that there is a savvy community here – one that, like all communities, is happily absorbed in its own dramas. As a casual tourist, I can’t really parse the dynamics of the place. But I get the impression that they’re a lot more complicated than my liberal guilt would have me predict.
It’s the morning after, and although I came home early – midnight – I’m still feeling less than well. But I’m flying back to Phoenix today, and before I do, I want to swim.The hotel pool is an elegant rectangle. Like most swank pools, it has a negative edge, and it appears to spill water into the sea. I pull myself up to the side and watch the surf. At 7 o’clock, the grounds are very quiet, and this time there are no intrusions.I’m not leaving for another three hours. Already, I can’t wait to come back.Elan Head is a freelance writer based in Phoenix. She has family in Aspen and her margarita limit appears to be three.
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