Once the domain of European pirates and Mexican fishermen, Cabo San Lucas and the greater Los Cabos Corridor have evolved in modern times into a full-scale tourist destination. The infrastructure includes luxury resorts, beachfront vacation rentals, world-class golf courses, sportfishing charters, scuba diving operations, trendy clubs, fine dining, and even a glitzy, three-story shopping mall. Travelers can choose relaxation or adventure, browse handicraft markets or fine art galleries, and eat street food or five-star cuisine. The challenge is choosing from among the options and planning the trip that works best for you.
Located at the southernmost tip of the Baja California Peninsula, Cabo San Lucas is situated along the Bay of San Lucas, where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean. A famed rock arch marks Finisterra, or Land’s End. A long, sandy and swimmable beach along the bay attracts snowbirds from the United States and Canada, families on holiday, and water enthusiasts of all kinds. Cruise ships also anchor in the bay and send visitors to shore by the thousands.
They had never seen men such as these, carrying thunder-throwing harquebusses and bucklers, armored with breastplates, greaves, gorgets, and heavy steel helmets.
The Pericu Indians lived in and around Cabo San Lucas for nearly 10,000 years before their first contact with European explorers. They were considered part of the Guaycura peoples, nomadic hunting and gathering tribes that roamed throughout Baja California Sur. Recent DNA evidence has suggested the Pericues and Guaycuras originally migrated from the Pacific Rim, and were among the New World’s first colonizers.
They were “tall, straight, and well-formed,” according to George Shelvocke, who visited the area in the early 18th century, and whose writings and drawings provide much of our knowledge about the daily life of the Pericues. We know that they were one of the few coastal tribes to possess watercraft of any sophistication, and they were undoubtedly the first, if certainly not the last, to take advantage of the abundance of fish, shellfish, and other marine life teeming in the waters off Los Cabos.
Hernando Cortez, whose name would later be given to these waters, was the acknowledged Spanish discoverer of Lower California in 1534, although Fortun Jimenez had set foot on the peninsula a year earlier. The Spanish colonization of Mexico was underway, and soon to become linked to imperialist designs in other parts of the world via the lucrative Manila Galleon trade, which began in earnest in the late 16th century.
This trade route extended from Luzon in the Philippines to Acapulco on Mexico’s Pacific coast, with plundered silver and gold headed one way, and silks and spices the other. The galleons used The Arch, the rock formation at Land’s End, as a navigational aid, and would put into Cabo San Lucas Bay for repairs, taking on fresh water at San Jose del Cabo before continuing on to Acapulco, where the goods were taken off and carried overland, bound for Spain. The presence of these treasure laden galleons had a magnetic effect on English and Dutch pirates, who were soon cruising the coast, lying in wait for Spanish ships.
Sir Francis Drake himself was sailing the waters off San Lucas by 1578, and the English privateers scored their greatest victory in 1587, when Thomas Cavendish and crew sacked the reputedly invincible Santa Ana, seizing a fortune in gold and other valuable goods. Legend had it that freebooting privateers like Cavendish hid their treasure in coves and inlets up and down the coast, and locals have been looking for these stores of buried booty ever since.
The presence of English and Dutch privateers was a source of continual consternation to the Spanish, who decided to found a permanent settlement in the Capes region before the idea occurred to their European competitors, who had been accorded a friendly reception by the Pericues. The Spanish were not as well received, and sent in troops to quell Indian uprisings throughout the 1720s.
The first Jesuit mission was founded at San Jose del Cabo in 1730, with conversion efforts spearheaded by Nicolas Tamaral. Tamaral was ultimately unsuccessful, and was killed during an uprising in 1734, instigated by the punishment of Pericu shaman who had violated the Jesuits ban on polygamy. This rebellion turned out to be the last hurrah of the Pericues, who were extinct, at least as a culture, by 1768. As was the case with most North American Indians, the Pericues contact with European “civilizers” had led to widespread disease and devastation.
Evidence suggests Cabo San Lucas was sparsely populated throughout the 19th and early 20th century. The Pericues and the Jesuits were both long gone. So too was the Manila Galleon trade, and the pirates who preyed on it. Mexico had declared independence from Spain, and what settlement that remained was of little consequence, and far removed from the days of sea battles and spirited insurrections.
San Lucas did not begin growing again until after the first world war, when a tuna cannery operation arrived, and unwittingly participated in Cabo’s slow yet inexorable rise as an international tourist destination. As with the Pericu Indians, it was all about the fish
Places of Interest
El Arco/Land’s End
If you are a first time visitor to the beaches of Los Cabos, venturing out to Lover’s Beach, or Playa del Amor, is a must. Lover’s Beach is home to the famous El Arco, which sits at the end of the rocks enclosing Medano Beach. A great workout is to paddle a kayak or SUP board to the Arch and back. It is also the place where the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez meet – making it a very romantic spot. Lover’s Beach is located on the Sea of Cortez side of the rocks, and the arch is the official marker for Land’s End
Iglesia Catolica de San Lucas
Cabo San Lucas is not known for its architectural monuments. The city does not boast a rich colonial legacy, and there are few buildings of any historical consequence, certainly nothing to compare with sister city San Jose del Cabo’s lovely colonial-style cathedral Misión de San José del Cabo Anuiti, or her 19th century City Hall with its murals depicting important events in the area’s development. However, the city does have a few notable buildings: the old cannery, the Casa de la Cultura, and, most importantly, the Iglesia Catolica de San Lucas.
Originally built in 1730, Iglesia de San Lucas dates to the earliest period of the Jesuit missions in Baja California Sur, when missionaries like Padre Nicolas Tamaral were seeking to convert the native inhabitants of the area, the Pericu Indians. Tamaral wasn’t terribly successful in his conversion efforts. The natives unceremoniously killed him in 1734, apparently unwilling to accept his ban against polygamy. But despite Tamaral’s untimely end, the Catholic churches in both Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo are testaments to the priest’s deep devotion and single-minded sense of purpose.
The Jesuits were gone from Baja by 1768, and the Pericues were culturally extinct not long afterward. The church, however, has stood the test of time, and remains the best attended house of worship in the city. It has a place of honor near the main square, Plaza Amelia Wilkes, and perhaps more than other tourist attraction in Cabo San Lucas, offers a window into the religious and cultural life of the city’s inhabitants. Mexico remains a very Catholic country, and the church is the headquarters for the local parish.
The Iglesia de San Lucas is open to visitors on a daily basis, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with masses held every Saturday (7 p.m.) and Sunday (8:30 a.m., noon, and 7 p.m.). The noon mass on Sunday is performed in both English and Spanish. In addition to services, the church also plays an important role during festivals and religious holidays. The Iglesia is alternatively known as the Santuario de Guadalupe, and the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, held annually on December 12th, is an event of significant cultural importance locally, and indeed throughout Mexico.
Where To Go – Iglesia Catolica de San Lucas is on Calle Cabo San Lucas, between Emiliano Zapata and Francisco Madero. It sits just off Cabo’s main square, Plaza Amelia Wilkes.
What to Bring – A healthy sense of respect, particularly in matters of dress. Casual clothing items such as t-shirts, shorts, and sandals are not considered appropriate.
Cost – The church is open to visitors daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. There is no admission fee.
Contact Information – For additional information, contact the church at (624) 143-2666.
Playa Coral Negro
There is a beach in Cabo San Lucas that goes by many names – Playa Coral Negro, Playa Escondida, Cannery Beach, Playa El Balcon, and Old Peoples’ Beach, to name just a few – yet seems to be little known by any of them. Playa Coral Negro is the name I have heard most often, although Playa Escondida is perhaps more accurate: Hidden Beach. Hidden in plain sight.
I have never seen this beach mentioned in guidebooks or articles about Los Cabos, although it has more tradition than most, and is often thronged with people on weekends. The sandy stretch offers safe swimming and good snorkeling, enjoys a privileged location between the Cabo San Lucas Marina and Lover’s Beach, and looks out across the restaurants and resorts that line Playa El Medano.
Why isn’t Playa Coral Negro better known, or written about in travel guides and round-ups of the best local beaches? Perhaps because it is the traditional Mexican beach, the beach that hasn’t been given over to tourists. There aren’t a lot of white faces to be seen here, particularly on weekends, and the beach lacks the amenities associated with the more popular seaside tourist haunts.
Every Sunday, Playa Coral Negro draws huge crowds of Choyeros (the name comes from the cholla cactus, and is used to describe natives of Baja Sur), with umbrella-shaded vendors selling food and drinks, and families sitting together near the shore. A wooden deck winds around the walls of the old cannery, and serves as a sort of makeshift pathway from the vendor carts towards the rocks rimming the far side of the beach.
If you look out towards the rocks guarding Lover’s Beach on a Sunday afternoon, you’ll see enterprising youths carefully climbing around them, making a fairly difficult if not very dangerous traverse to Playa del Amor. There is a reason guidebooks often claim that Lover’s Beach is only accessible by boat or water-based transportation. Local officials don’t want tourists hurting themselves. But this climb is something of a rite of passage for many who live here, and falling into the calm waters of the bay isn’t the worst thing that could happen (unless you’re run over by a rogue wave runner).
For many years, the cannery was the center of commerce in Cabo San Lucas. In fact, as recently as fifty years ago – when the population numbered about 300 people – it was about the town’s only industry. Playa Coral Negro was the town’s most important beach. Visitors may notice that the entrances to two of Cabo’s earliest hotels, Finisterra and Solmar Suites, are only a hundred yards or so from Coral Negro beach. The early developments moved incrementally inland, slowly edging away – both commercially and geographically – from the old cannery and its beach.
Nowadays, the cannery is in ruins, and the beach is virtually deserted for most of every week. Still, it’s a pretty place, and a strategic spot to watch all the boats motor in and out of the bay. It’s within easy walking distance of Pedregal and the Marina, and well worth a visit for those who like hidden treasures.
Medano Beach Center for Sun, Seafood, and Party Scene
It is the center of the city’s beach scene, a long stretch of golden sand that rims Cabo San Lucas Bay, and is lined with luxury resorts featuring Land’s End views. Medano Beach is ground zero during the Spring Break months in Cabo, when college students throng cantinas like Mango Deck and The Office, but the area remains busy year round, and even during the dog days of summer is a vast sandy expanse of umbrella-shaded lounge chairs and canopied sunbeds, bikinis and beach towels.
Despite its reputation for Spring Break craziness, Medano Beach is also a popular gathering spot for families, and offers calm waters and safe swimming conditions, as well as plenty of fun activities choices. Although most of the fishing, sailing, and whale watching charters are based in the Marina neighborhood, Medano Beach is the best place in Cabo to find kayaks, jet skis, and other water-based rentals. Snorkel equipment is also available, as are stand up paddle surfboard rentals and lessons, and adventurous sorts can take parasailing trips on the bay, or fly high over the beach in a motorized hang glider. Water taxis often idle just offshore, and round trip tours to Land’s End and Lover’s Beach can easily be arranged.
Many large resorts border Medano Beach, with hotel guests treated to palapa-shaded swimming pools, easy beach access, and myriad onsite dining options. The beach is is also home to numerous cafes and cantinas, most with menus featuring American-style burgers and comfort food, as well as an array of fresh local seafood platters and combinations. Mango Deck and The Office are the most perennially popular of these seaside hangouts, although The Nikki Beach Club at ME Cabo Resort & Hotel remains the top stop for the hip set, with DJs spinning poolside, and a festive party atmosphere that continues well into the night.
Where to Go:
Me Cabo Hotel: Nikki Beach Club and the Passion Lounge are the hippest hangouts on the beach. Medano Beach, (624) 145-7800, www.me-cabo.com.
Mango Deck: Spring Break headquarters. Medano Beach, (624) 143-6767, www.mangodeckcabo.com
The Office: Home of the Fiesta Mexicana. Medano Beach, (624) 143-3464, www.theofficeonthebeach.com.
Baja Cantina: Hosts the best Ladies’ Night on the beach, Saturday nights at 9 p.m.
Medano Beach, (624) 143-1591, www.bajacantina.com.mx.
Tio Water Sports: One of the top stops for kayaks, jet skis, and other water-based rentals.
Medano Beach, (624) 143-3399, www.tiosports.com.
Puerto Paraiso Shopping Mall
It is the city’s signature structure, and an essential landmark for visitors, who will never be lost as long as they orient themselves to the colonial-style tower, which is not only visible along the entire stretch of the marina boardwalk, but throughout the downtown tourist district.
Puerto Paraiso is the most ambitious and important of all the commercial spaces in Cabo San Lucas, an enormous shopping center with two distinct faces. The first, its sleek lines suggesting a bell curve, looks out upon the city streets and the long stretch of bars and clubs along Lazaro Cardenas. The second, the inward arching face, its features guarded by swaying palms and a cascading fountain, peers out over the pleasure craft crowding the marina’s succession of numbered docks.
The mall itself is a mixture of shopping and dining, air-conditioned emporiums and open-air terraces, as well as an outdoor entertainment plaza that occupies a privileged corner of the Malecon. Along with the ultra-premium boutiques of Luxury Avenue, this portion of the boardwalk is known as the Marina Golden Zone, and is considered the most prestigious and sought after stretch of retail space in all of Los Cabos.
The indoor shopping area features stores catering to virtually every vacation need, from resort clothing and hats to swimwear and sunglasses. Popular local boutiques like Cabo Style and Tropica Calipso have shops at Puerto Paraiso, and there are plenty of well-known chain stores represented, including Tommy Bahama, Hugo Boss, Kenneth Cole, and Lacoste.
Several of the city’s best restaurants, such as Senor Sweets and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, are located at Puerto Paraiso, with terrace seating a popular option for people watchers, sun worshipers, and those who want to watch the fishing boats bringing in the day’s catch. Beer lovers may want to sample the draft selections at Baja Brewing Company, while burger aficionados keep cool by the soda fountain at Johnny Rockets.
In addition to fashionable boutiques and an array of excellent restaurant options, the mall offers an eclectic mix of goods and services, ranging from coffee and ice cream shops to jewelry stores and art galleries. Visitors can enjoy movies in either English or Spanish at the 10-screen cinema, or get a bet down on the latest sporting event at the onsite casino.
There truly is something for everyone at this expansive shopping complex, which reaches across three levels, with over 50,000 square feet of commercial sprawl. The marina-side entertainment plaza even hosts activities and events, from concerts and wine tastings to larger gatherings like the annual Cabo Marine Show, which showcases all the latest maritime gadgets and nautical toys.
Where To Go – Puerto Paraiso is on Av. Lazaro Cardenas, across from Leona Vicario. The shopping center is also accessible from the Cabo San Lucas Marina. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., although individual store hours may vary.