11:38 PM EDT, October 29, 2013
LOS CABOS, Mexico — "Cabo" generally is thought of as one destination at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, but in truth, there is no single "Cabo."
What sits at the rocky, sun-baked meeting of the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California is Los Cabos, a region that incorporates two towns that couldn't be more different — Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo — and a 20-mile ocean-hugging corridor between.
Its bounty of options makes Los Cabos a choose-your-own-adventure destination where the desert meets the beach.
Want to lounge on the sand by day and dance to "YMCA" at night while waiters pour cheap tequila down your throat? That happens on the crowded beaches of Cabo San Lucas. Prefer a classic Mexican meal followed by a stroll through art galleries amid Old World charm? There's that too — in San Jose del Cabo.
A luxury beachfront stay for $2,000 a night can be had at resorts in the corridor, and then there is my favorite: a bounty of charming, $100-per-night stays with days spent tasting inexpensive, just-out-of-the-ocean ceviche and exploring undisturbed beaches.
In Los Cabos, widely considered to be one of the safest places in Mexico, it's all within a 20-mile drive.
Cabo San Lucas
Any local will remind you that Cabo San Lucas was a sleepy fishing village 25 years ago. Today it is a land of beach, bars and bikinis, English, dollars and televisions lit with American sports. It is vacation personified.
Because tourism drives the economy, there also is an endless effort to separate tourists from their money. The offers of jewelry, tours and activities — snorkeling, diving, dune-buggy rides, camel rides, zip-lining, rides on water-propelled jet packs, boat rides to Cabo's famous stone arch (do it) and world-class fishing — are endless and exhausting.
If you want to avoid the party, however, it can be done. I spent my last day in Cabo walking for nearly an hour in its marina area (other than the beach, it's the center of the action) and out to a rocky outcropping jutting into the ocean across Cabo San Lucas Bay at the southern edge of the city. (Visitors usually take a 10-minute boat across the bay.)
People tend to follow people, so tourists gravitated toward a lovely strand there called Lover's Beach. I found my own sliver of empty Cabo beach a couple of hundred yards away, where I ran headlong into the Gulf of California and was soon bobbing in the clear blue-green salt water, refreshed and alone.
After a boat ride back across the bay, I was amid the resorts and restaurants. The sun was setting, and the beach began to smell of grilled seafood as music seeped out from every restaurant, be it Frank Sinatra or a mariachi band taking on Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll." The party was about to begin anew.
San Jose del Cabo
Twenty miles and a world away, there is a reason that San Jose is fundamentally different from its rowdier cousin: It is about 250 years older.
Modern San Jose took root in 1730, with construction of a Spanish mission. Though it had some hard years, about the time Cabo San Lucas became party central in the 1980s, San Jose experienced a rebirth of its own, albeit on an opposite track: art galleries, restaurants serving authentic dishes (like moles and chiles en nogada) and turning its one-way streets into charming cobblestone.
It's a quiet town, but something interesting always seems to be happening. On a Monday night, it was a small drum circle gathered in the central square as a woman set up shop to sell tamales to a trickle of customers. The big draw comes Thursday nights during tourist season, when all the art galleries stay open deep into the night for the town's weekly art walk.
Though not a classic beach destination, it is becoming more of one. In recent years, a marina was dug out of an old park in the beachfront La Playita neighborhood for tourism development. The first new hotel to open is El Ganzo (elganzo.com; rooms start at $179 per night until high season begins Dec. 20, then climb to $315 per night), a hip, stylish hotel embracing both the arts and the fact that it is not Cabo San Lucas. What you will get at El Ganzo: friendly service, a stunning rooftop infinity pool and a quiet, private beach. What you will not get at El Ganzo: waiters pouring tequila down anyone's throat.
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