Monday, November 15, 2010
Earth, Sun, Water and Art on the Southern Tip of Baja California
Recently I was on assignment for Peter Greenberg to Cabo San Lucas to test drive the 2011 Mitzubishi Outlander Family and Sports models. That road trip was only one part of an action packed, long weekend that included a lot of eating and a trip to nearby San Jose del Cabo.
With summer a fond memory and colder weather approaching, now is a good time to think about a trip to warmer climes. While some might happily settle for the familiarity of Hawaii, Florida or Puerto Rico, Mexico is a great destination with its vast, natural beauty, rich cultural history, amazing archaeological sites and wonderfully flavorful cuisine.
Mexico's well-publicized difficulties with crime have caused travelers to steer clear of the DMZ border regions. Tragically, it was those regions that were once the perfect places to experience the melding of two great cultures and peoples.
Luckily there are safe places to visit in Mexico far from the border, a fact that Peter has chronicled in many posts. A recent trip to the southern-most tip of Baja California showed me what warm-weather fun awaits in Mexico.
Mitsubishi invited several dozen travel and automotive writers to visit Cabo San Lucas so we could test drive two of their new vehicles, the 2011 Outlander Family and Outlander Sport. With Baja so close and since Los Angeles had been cold and rainy all week, I couldn't resist a long weekend of 90 degree weather.
Normally a visit to Cabo for me would center around a frosty Pina Colada enjoyed at poolside. The second focus of my attention would be the spa. When I arrived, I indulged in both.
Given the afternoon heat, the Pina Colada was cooly refreshing. For a massage, the YHI Spa in our hotel, ME Cabo, offered a dozen different treatments, from skin-challenging exfoliations, antioxidant body wraps, waxes of various body parts, to more gentle therapies that emphasized peace, renewal, and beauty.
Not wanting to be abraded, distressed or defoliated, I chose the Desert Air Massage, which, I discovered happily was administered by two masseuses--Lobita and Theresa--whose four hands meant that both sides of my body could enjoy the benefits of the massage simultaneously. The result was a semi-hallucinatory state of complete relaxation.
Most visitors to Cabo divide their time between relaxing and partying, the ratio of one to the other depending on personal proclivities. It's not by accident that Sammy Hagar ("The Red Rocker") celebrates his birthday October 13th every year at his nightclub, Cabo Wabo. Cabo is party-central.
There are a great many hotels bordering the Cabo San Lucas harbor with very different price points and qualities. The ME Cabo resort, where we stayed, had a typical layout with a grouping of pools, restaurants and bars in a center courtyard lined with tall, wispy palm trees, fronting the beach with an expansive view of the harbor.
The resort was comfortable and could be recommended except for several unforgivable failings. First and foremost, the disco music playing during the day at poolside and at night from the Passions nightclub was unrelentingly loud. In your room, sealing doors and windows provided no relief, even well after midnight. Another curious choice was what the hotel billed as their AWOL Club. During the day registered guests were excluded from the main pool, bar, restaurant and beach front area. The area was available only for those willing to pay a high entrance fee.
Also in the same area and a complete contrast with ME Cabo, the Hacienda Beach Club offers a gated setting with magnificent views of the harbor. The spa and restaurant are first rate.
Sitting on the veranda of the Hacienda Restaurant and Bar, enjoying an afternoon Mojito, plates of tacos with handmade tortillas, quesadillas, tostadas, tortas, ceviches, and inventive starters like the salad of avocado, shrimp, and hearts of palm escabeche in a vinaigrette is a refreshingly pleasant way to enjoy Mexican hospitality. Lunch lasted longer than expected because we had to sample the Four Milk Cake, a riff on the classic Tres Leches cake, served with a compote of strawberries and blackberries and a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a sprinkling of crushed walnuts.
Just outside Cabo, Las Ventanas and One and Only Palmille offer luxury and great service in impossibly beautiful settings. Also nearby, the Sheraton and Hilton chains have large resort complexes. The Sheraton takes an Old World approach. The expansive property promotes quiet and relaxation in an elegant setting.
Interestingly, while all the resorts publicize their beach fronts with photographs of clear blue water and large, sandy expanses, swimming is not advised. The tidal undercurrent and surf are quite dangerous. Which makes the infinity pools at the hotels all the more inviting.
Cabo San Lucas commands a view of the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California) where cruise ships stop during the day. With an iconic rock outcropping and happily basking sea lions adjacent to Lovers' Beach, visitors enjoy the water in the noisy, busy Marina or by taking glass bottomed skiffs or day-tripping boats that travel to secluded areas like Santa Maria Bay or Chileno Beach where snorkeling and swimming among schools of colorful fish is possible in the calm, protected waters.
For the adventuresome traveler who wants more than just creature comforts, there are opportunities in Cabo to test one's skill battling with nature and good sense. And that is exactly what Mitsubishi had in mind.
Like so many automobile companies, Mitsubishi saw their sales pummeled during the economic down-turn. Biding their time, they chose 2011 to re-invigorate their brand with a cross-over line of low-price point/high value vehicles that, as we were told, are "practical, affordable, fun-to-drive, and deliver great miles per gallon."
If you're a foodie, the proof is in the pudding. If you're a gear-head, you have to put the rubber to the road.
We began the test drive in groups of two writers plus one Mitsubishi representative. Each team would drive one of the cars up the coast and the other model on the return trip. We paired up as navigators and drivers and hit the road.
There are other parts of Mexico where driving a car is risky, but Highway 1, which stretches north-east from the southern tip of Cabo San Lucas to the area above the fishing village of Los Barriles, feels completely safe, although it's important to keep an eye out for the occasional cow ambling across the highway. I don't know if the drive is as easy as at night, but during the day, the well-paved highway is a convenient way to explore the area.
Starting in Cabo San Lucas, we drove an hour and a half north to Buena Visa on the coast. During the trip we were given details about the 2011 Outlander Family model we were driving: the MIVEC motor, the Sportronic CVT, the use of plastic polymer components in the fenders, a 710 watt Rockford Fosgate Audio system, the AWC with its active front differential, and the brake energy rejuvenation system.
I vaguely understood what those features were supposed to do, but but they did translate into a car that had plenty of power, good handling (although a bit loose in turning), a quiet interior, a great sound system and comfortable seats. We agreed that the Outlander Family was a very pleasant way to make the drive and take in the passing scenery.
Unlike the Mayan Riviera, which receives upwards of five feet of rain through out the year, the arid, southern tip of the Baja peninsula averages a mere six inches. And when it rains it pours. That six inches comes all at once when hurricanes cut across the peninsula at the end of summer.
What we saw as we sped north on Highway 1 was the result of that extreme weather. A lush expanse of green covered the hills to the horizon. We took the greenery for granted, but locals pointed out that just a few weeks before, the landscape had been brown and forlorn.
Besides the test drive experience, our Mitsubishi hosts, together with Terramar Destinations, a tour guide service, offered us a smorgasbord of activities, from snorkeling in the protected waters of Santa Maria Bay, ziplining between high canyon walls where you put your trust in the tensile strength of rope and metal, and kayaking in the crystal clear waters where you as often as not battle high winds and a challenging surf.
In addition to the planned activities, we could also venture off on our own to pursue jet skiing, parasailing, kitesurfing where you can combine two dangerous sports, taking a safari into the expansive desert, trying off-roading on bone-chattering "Baja Buggies" or, abandoning all good sense, going sky diving.
For those who wanted a less adventuresome path, but one that still took them away from the confines of the resort property, we could go whale watching, swim with dolphins, sail on what are billed as "Party Booze Cruises" which deliver partying and booze as advertised, or sail around the harbor to enjoy spectacular sunsets, dinner and ice cold Margaritas.
For myself, I thoroughly enjoyed snorkeling in Santa Maria Bay, although the four hour trip on a catamaran was longer than expected. Many people whiled away the time taking in the scenery, singing along with rock classics like "Sweet Home Alabama," Stayin' Alive," "We Are Family," and "Respect," all the while drinking a great many Tequila sunrises, rum and cokes, and ice cold bottles of Pacifico.
As a child I had an unfortunate experience on a motorcycle with a stuck accelerator that scarred my psyche and forearm. While an ATV has four wheels and could be considered "safer," those four wheels do not necessarily provide additional control.
After a minute of instruction, our guide led us onto the beach. Controlling the ATV took some getting used to, but, with the clear, turquoise ocean on our right as we headed north on the gravelly beach, it seemed the experience would be worth the risk. Our guide apparently thought the beach wasn't adventuresome enough because he quickly changed course and took us up a rocky hillside.
Since I was still learning the ropes, I fell to dead-last in the pack. That made me the beneficiary of my fellow journalists' road dust. The road was barely a "road," so the ATV had to be steered with considerable care, dodging holes and large rocks.
With my face hammered by dust and gravel, struggling to stay on the miserable excuse for a road, the vibrations of the engine violently rolfing my body, I released all the pent up emotion of the moment by screaming for no one's benefit but my own, "Ohmygod, I hate this!"
The tricky part on this twisty-turning dirt trail was steering the corners. One misjudged turn could send my ATV tumbling down the cliff onto the pristine beach and crystal-clear water below.
After what seemed like hours, our guide pulled over to the side of a promontory so we could enjoy the view of the coastline. I dismounted my ATV, happy to enjoy a non-vibrating moment only to be embraced by one of our group who smiled broadly as he said, "Tell me that wasn't the most fun ever!"
We spent another hour on our ATV's, traveling further up the coast and then back to the beach. We watched two surfers propelled by "kites" that at times lifted them off their boards, suspending them midair in what appeared to be a magical sleight of hand. We saw a school of a dozen dolphins following the coastline as they searched for food. We passed campers who were homesteading a beautiful stretch of beach. We stopped for water at a small resort of no more than a dozen cabanas with a fresh water swimming pool perched only a few feet above the surf pounding against jagged rocks.
Our ATV's took us places we would never have otherwise seen. This was definitely fun after all.
The town surrounds the Plaza Mijares, anchored by the Mission San Jose del Cabo, built on the foundation of the original, 1799 Mision San Jose del Cabo de Anuiti. The small church is charming, as are the narrow streets lined with stores selling a variety of goods. Evenings, through out the year, there are art performances in the plaza, free to the public, which feature a variety of music, from hip hop to traditional Mexican ballads.
Tourists from the cruise ships travel to San Jose del Cabo for a taste of authentic, local culture, something difficult to find in modern, noisy Cabo. Allowing themselves several hours or the entire day, visitors enjoy a quiet walk around the historical center of town, with its many art galleries, jewelry stores and restaurants.
Walk west on Calle Zaragoza on the southern side of the church, and sample the paletas, juices, and fresh fruit shakes at La Michoacana. Mexican taste treats, paletas are the wonderfully delicious ice creams on a stick flavored with a variety of fruits and vegetables. An insider's tip: paletas are sold in stores always called La Michoacana, no matter who owns them.
On Boulevard Antonio Mijares, adjacent to the plaza, small stores sell beautifully crafted jewelry, clothing, and art.
Definitely worth a visit is Veryka: Art Gallery and Boutique (with a sister store in the Cabo marina). The work of talented Mexican artists are for sale. Of particular interest are paintings by Jorge Salazar and Guillermo Olguin Mitchell and the work of Jose Luis Serrano Carrillo, who appropriates traditional folk art objects like Day of the Dead figures and the Tree of Life, turning them into exquisitely detailed sculptures.
Across the square, Antigua Los Cabos (Boulevard Mijares No. 5) sells art, handmade silver jewelry and a selection of artisanal tequilas. Around the corner, the small shop La Pinata carries toys, jewelry, handmade art, and curios from all over Mexico.
A few blocks from Plaza Mijares, Indian Hands (Calle Alvaro Obregon 15 Col. Centro, 011 52 624 1052236, Lacalenda.firstname.lastname@example.org) curates jewelry by local artists and exhibits large scale work by the talented painter, Adriana Quero Martinez.
In the central historical district, liquor stores like Los Barriles de Don Malaquias (Blvd. Mijares and Benito Juarez) exclusively sell tequila. With almost a hundred brands to choose from, there are blends, some flavored with herbs and spices, as well as premium, aged, 100% agave brands. For the tequila aficionado, a tasting is offered at no cost.
While Cabo San Lucas is proud of the many luxury hotels that line its beaches, San Jose del Cabo offers more intimate accommodations. The affordable and elegant, El Encanto Suites on the western side of the historical district, is a two-story hotel with 28 rooms, each one adjacent to a garden, small courtyard or pool. You won't find tennis courts, a golf course, or big noisy discos here. But you will find relaxation and quiet in your room, on the compact grounds, or in the Ixchel spa.
The even smaller Hotel Casa Natalia, with just 16 rooms, is, according to the web site, "like staying in an authentic Mexican home." At a fraction of the cost of the Cabo San Lucas resorts, Hotel Casa Natalia and El Encanto Suites give the visitor an up close and personal experience with Mexican art and culture.
So if you're looking for an escape to a sunny landscape, the southern tip of Baja California offers pleasures any way you like them: big, brassy, and boisterous in Cabo San Lucas or quietly intimate in San Jose del Cabo, with plenty of raw adventure and interaction with the beautiful landscape in between.