In 1940, John Steinbeck ventured on a marine collecting expedition to Baja California, a peninsula off Mexico's west coast; he found more signs of life in the tidal pools than on land. His Log from the Sea of Cortez speaks of an ocean's edge inhabited by crabs, prickly urchins, and white periwinkles. Borrowing a fisherman's term, Steinbeck called this patch of the Pacific "tuna water—life water." He wasn't kidding. A congress of gulls and dolphins—and men—negotiate over schools of tuna. The first time I watched the ocean turn a deep purple off the Gorda Banks, I was hooked too.
These days, locals still refer to Baja as La Frontera, the frontier, because it still remains largely undeveloped, except for the desert peninsula's tip, where Los Cabos (the Capes) is booming. New hotels and restaurants are crowding the shoreline, nonstop flights were recently inaugurated from the East Coast, and half of Hollywood is sneaking down here on breaks. But for me, Los Cabos is about homegrown banda (Latin polka) concerts, impromptu horse races, or kicking back with a chilly Pacifico beer and a succulent shrimp taco. And there's always a fish nibbling at the end of your trolling jig. That's tuna water for you.
LAY OF THE LAND
Baja California is bordered by the Pacific and the Sea of Cortés, which was praisedby Jacques Cousteau for its coral reef. It's divided into two states, Baja Sur and Baja Norte, and traversed by the Transpeninsular Highway (High-way 1), which winds a thousand miles south from Tijuana. The road rumbles with tractor trailers and battered pickups; at night, unlit stretches can turn hazardous when free-ranging longhorns snooze on the asphalt.
Baja Sur The arid home to Los Cabos balances cattle ranching with tourism on a coastline dotted with deserted beaches and sheltered bays. Inland, the Sierra de Laguna mountain range funnels rainfall down sandy arroyos.
Baja Norte A region of fertile vineyards and commercial fishing towns.
Los Cabos Talk about contrasts. Once the harbor of a solitary tuna cannery, the port town of Cabo San Lucas has become a nonstop fiesta machine packed with souvenir stalls, cigar shops, and theme bars. Off the coast, the remarkable rock formation of El Arco marks Land's End. Twenty miles away, colonial San José del Cabo clings tenaciously to its Mexican heart and soul; narrow side streets reveal sleepy cantinas and folk-art boutiques.
The Tourist Corridor A 20-mile four-lane highway between the two major cape towns is lined with sandy beaches, golf courses, and a heavy concentration of glitzy resorts.
East Cape An undeveloped region of dirt roads, dive shacks, and surf camps that is some 50 miles north of Los Cabos, on Bahía de Palmas in the Sea of Cortés. The two main fishing villages are Los Barriles and Buena Vista.
Farther Afield Todos Santos, one of Baja's colonial towns, is an hour north of Los Cabos—and a world apart. If you're willing to endure a grueling drive or a bumpy twin-prop flight, it's worth the detour 250 miles north on the peninsula to Bahía Magdalena, a saltwater breeding lagoon near the cannery town of Puerto López Mateos where gray whales migrate annually.
FISHING More than a half a century ago, legendary anglers like John Wayne and Ernest Hemingway were lured to Cabo for wrestling matches with the Big Three: black marlin, blue marlin, and sailfish. Today, the big-game fishing is still considered some of the world's best, with several professional contests held annually. Captain Tony Berkowitz of San Lucas Yachts (52-624/147-5679; from $500 for four people) can arrange charters. Picante Bluewater Sportsfishing (52-624/143-2474; day charter from $955 for five people) and Pisces Sportfishing & Luxury Yacht Charters (52-624/143-1288 or 619/819-7983; day charter from $320 for four people) also have English-speaking captains and tournament-caliber gear.
DIVING About 1 1/2 hours northeast of San José, Cabo Pulmo shelters the only coral reef system in the Sea of Cortés. Stretching a mile offshore, this national marine park teems with parrot fish, moray eels, manta rays, and giant coral heads. Vista Sea Sport (Buena Vista; 52-624/141-0031; two-hour trips $35 per person) takes you snorkeling among sea turtles or diving under the reef of El Bajo de los Morros.
SURFING The nomadic surf tribes from SoCal and Hawaii love the long barrels, cheap combo platters, and even cheaper digs at casual trailer parks scattered up and down the coast. Look for great wave action at Playa Costa Azul, which fronts San José, and the expansive beaches of Los Cerritos and San Pedrito, 33 miles north of Los Cabos. On San Pedrito, expat surfer Patricia Baum's eco-friendly Teampaty Surf Camp (www.todossantos.cc/ecosurfcamp.html; lessons $20 an hour) has the best rental gear and instructors on the peninsula. BajaWild (San José; 52-624/142-5300; www.bajawild.com; lessons from $65 per person) runs daylong classes on both the East Cape and Pacific shores.
WHALE-WATCHING From January to March, thousands of gray whales migrate from the Bering Sea to protected lagoons along the Pacific Coast. The best place for close encounters of the Moby kind is Bahía Magdalena. Aéreo Calafia (Plazas Las Glorias hotel, Cabo San Lucas; 52-624/143-4302; day trips from $381 per person) provides certified guides, boats, lunch, and round-trip flights. A naturalist for Tofino Expeditions (800/677-0877; www.tofino.com; from $1,050 per person, including all meals) leads weeklong sea kayaking trips to observe grays and birdlife in Mag Bay. Sleep in safari tents pitched on fawn-colored dunes, paddle calm bayside waters, and watch white ibis scour the mangroves.
BEACHING IT Powerful riptides and brisk Pacific waters prohibit swimming on many of Los Cabos' 20 beaches, but the sunbathing makes up for it. Here, the best strands:
Playa Palmilla, San José Sheltered by a cove, this mile-long beach has calm waters for swimming.
Playa Costa Azul, near San José Huge surf kicks up here in winter. A favorite for board-riders.
Santa María, the Corridor Horseshoe bay with pink sand. Great snorkeling before 11 a.m. (when noisy catamarans of snorkelers arrive).
Playa Las Viudas, the Corridor Also known as Twin Dolphin Beach. Perfect for picnicking and prowling tidal pools. Wear rubber surf mocs.
El Médano, Cabo San Lucas Fronted by barefoot bars and restaurants, this two-mile beach is water sports central: Jet Ski rentals, parasailing.
Playa del Amor, Cabo San Lucas A smooth stretch of sand close to Land's End. Reachable from the marina by water taxi.
Playa San Pedro (Las Palmas), Todos Santos Shallow water protected by promontories. Look for a sandy road next to a palm grove at Km 57 off Highway 19.
Before the Transpeninsular Highway was completed in 1973, Los Cabos remained the backwater that Steinbeck encountered. It wasn't until the mid-1990's that the Mexican government began developing the region for tourism. Since then, resort hotels, golf courses, and condo complexes have quickly brought the 21st century to La Frontera. Sadly, some of the new architecture along the shoreline is less than considered. However, a few havens of style have kept the neighborhood from going to the coyotes.
TOP RESORTS Esperanza The Technicolor sunsets look digitally enhanced at this lavish 56-room resort on Punta Ballena, or Whale Point, which lives up to its name when the humpbacks arrive for the winter season. What Esperanza lacks in shoreline—it has two tiny coves—the resort compensates for with rare tequila tastings, Baja lime-scented bath products, and a spa where garden paths are illuminated by candles after dusk. Esperanza's huge, airy rooms blend folksy (woven Guadalajara carpets, paintings by emerging Mexican artists) and modern necessities (wide-screen TV's). Ask for a top-floor room: the private terraces have infinity-edge hot tubs and unobstructed views of Land's End. Km 3.5 Carretera Transpeninsular; 52-624/145-6400 or 866/311-2226; www.esperanzaresort.com; doubles from $550.
Hotel Twin Dolphin Even after 26 years, this white-on-white retreat remains the most unpretentious in Cabo San Lucas. Isolated on 135 acres of the Sonoran Desert, the hotel has an angular Frank Lloyd Wright starkness to its open-air lobby, lounge, and 50 one-story casitas. Despite some cracked walkways and tattered slipcovers—the hotel will soon be undergoing a renovation—such icons of cool as Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and designer Kate Spade are regulars. Km 12 Carretera Transpeninsular; 800/421-8925 or 52-624/145-8191; www.twindolphin.com; doubles from $250.
Las Ventanas al Paraíso The 61-suite "window to paradise" has a muted Mex-Med vibe. A Zen-inspired raked-sand entrance opens to beach views from the restaurant, private rooftop patios, and infinity-edge pools, where butlers clean SPF smudges off your Silhouettes. Suites have pebble-inlaid headboards, hand-carved cedar doors, wood-burning fireplaces, and telescopes for stargazing. At night, waiters set up tables in the alfresco restaurant with embroidered Otomí cloths from Guadalajara. (Order pastry chef Steven Lindsay's silky Baja lime pie—it's worth every calorie.) Km 19.5 Carretera Transpeninsular; 52-624/144-0300 or 888/525-0483; www.lasventanas.com; doubles from $575.
NATIVE CHARMER Casa Natalia Nathalie and Loïc Tenoux have fashioned a contemporary enclave facing a quiet square in historic San José that's for people who don't require ocean views or 24-hour butler service. What you get instead is a courtyard shaded by palms, with cascading waterfalls and terraces swathed in bougainvillea. The 16 rooms have regional flair, with embroidered pillows, Talavera pottery, and hand-hewn beams. 4 Blvd. Mijares, San José; 888/277-3814; www.casanatalia.com; doubles from $240.
THE NEW PLAYER One & Only Palmilla Things will change radically when the Palmilla reopens this coming February as the 172-room One & Only Palmilla. So what does an $80 million makeover from legendary hotelier Sol Kerzner get you?Adam Tihany designing a sea-foam fantasy for Charlie Trotter's C Restaurant, which will have an ambitious Caribbean-Mexican fusion menu. Kerzner has also tempted away Edward Steiner, the managing director who helped put Las Ventanas on every Hollywood Palm Pilot. Expect greatness. Km 7.5 Carretera Transpeninsular, San José; 52-624/146-7000 or 800/637-2226; www.oneandonlypalmilla.com; doubles from $425.
The only Spanish word you need to learn to dine well in Baja is mariscos (seafood). With fish straight from the bountiful Gorda Banks, most Los Cabos restaurants resist Food Network flourishes: tortillas are hot off the griddle, the mole is ground by hand, and the salsa contains locally grown chiles. Look for outstanding chiles rellenos at trailer-park palapas (thatched-roof huts); snack on fried pork rinds from a street cart in San José; or sip cold coconut milk at a roadside Cocos Fríos truck. Of course, if your napkins have to be Frette rather than paper, Los Cabos has a parallel culinary universe, in which a coterie of New Mex chefs are already sharpening their knives for the day Charlie Trotter comes to town.
TACO BELLES Taquería Rossy The chairs are plastic; so are the blue-and-white-checked tablecloths. Both locals and snowbirds perch here for succulent, lightly battered shrimp and scallops folded inside handmade flour or corn tortillas. The salad bar is loaded with a multitude of salsas, roasted chiles, lime wedges, and other fixin's, but all you really need is a bottle of hot sauce and a Corona. Manuel Doblado and Hwy. 1, San José; 52-624/142-6755; lunch for two $10.
Carnitas El Michoacáno Around the corner from Rossy's, this humble taquería specializes in juicy pork tacos. Atkins dieters ask for puro carne; others go whole hog with gorgeously greasy costillas (ribs). Calle Pescador y Panga, San José; 52-624/146-9848; lunch for two $12.
GRANDE CUISINE The Restaurant at Esperanza Carved into bluffs above the surf line, the hotel's terraced outdoor restaurant provides a scene-stealing backdrop for chef Flynt Payne's subtle citrus-marinated parrot fish. A vegetarian from North Carolina, he still scores with grilled tenderloin of beef with papaya-mint salsa. 52-624/145-6400; dinner for two $100.
Mi Cocina Chef Loïc Tenouxopened his first Mexican restaurant in Provence. That went over like a lead brioche. But at his restaurant at Casa Natalia, the brilliant chef has won an appreciative audience for his charred poblanos with crispy lamb and tequila-cured salmon. The courtyard lit by torches gets extra points, too, for its romantic ambience. 4 Blvd. Mijares, San José; 52-624/142-5100; dinner for two $100.
El Canto del Mar Another Frenchman, Thierry Dufour, brings Michelin star-worthy flair to the 25-seat El Canto del Mar at Marquis Los Cabos, the newest hotel on the Corridor. Don't miss his smoked duck tartare with truffles or the carrot-and-saffron pie with chocolate sauce. Km 21.5 Carretera Transpeninsular; 52-624/144-2000; dinner for two $120.
Nick-San Sushi in Baja?With all the fish leaping off the Gorda Banks, it's a no-brainer. Insiders know to order the Indonesian-inspired lobster soup. Blvd. Marina, Plaza de la Danza, Cabo San Lucas; 52-624/143-4484; dinner for two $80.
After dark, Cabo goes loco. Marina Boulevard is lined with harmlessly rowdy joints. At El Squid Roe (Blvd. Lázaro Cárdenas at Zaragoza; 52-624/143-0655), the beer is cold, the music deafening, and the bar stages mock bullfights. Try Nowhere Bar (52-624/143-4493) and Margarita Villa (52-624/143-1740). Or be the only norteño waltzing to banda at El Parthenon (4.5 Km Carretera Transpeninsular; 52-624/144-4475), a dance club resembling the original in Greece, Doric columns and all. Friday-night concerts by unplugged-guitar groups in San José's town square are a mellow alternative.
EAST CAPE When cruise ships swarm Cabo, it's time to hit the dirt road. Rent a soft-top Jeep for a day to explore the East Cape.
Just north of San José, Highway 1 rises in altitude as it enters the Sierra de Laguna foothills. Off the peninsula tip, the Sonoran Desert gets serious—you're leaving irrigated golf course greens behind for sandy arroyos and fragrant sagebrush. Caracara hawks circle stands of ocotillo and mesquite. Buzzards colonize giant cardon cacti. Water seeps down from the mountains through San Jorge Canyon, surfacing at streams and waterfalls outside the ranching town of Santiago. Desert guide Marco Hernández of Nómadas de Baja (52-624/146-9612; www.nomadasdebaja.com) has access to the private Santa Rita cattle ranch's hot sulfur springs, which cascade into pools around smooth granite boulders.
Stop at Palomar Restaurant (Misioneros de 1930; no phone; lunch for two $20) for specialties like garlicky octopus and chicken tostadas. On Saturdays, detour through the flyspeck village of Caduaño to see if there's an impromptu horse race on the main drag. When you turn east toward La Ribera and Punta Colorado, the terrain suddenly becomes elemental: blue water, sandy scrub. A herd of cattle blocking the road is a major event. Beyond lie the fishing villages of Buena Vista and Los Barriles, as well as Cabo Pulmo and Los Frailes, remote bays on the Sea of Cortés where BajaWild (52-624/142-5300; www.bajawild.com; from $95 for a daylong trip) conducts guided kayaking trips.
The place to stay is Rancho Leonero (Buena Vista; 800/646-2252; www.rancholeonero.com; doubles from $115, including all meals). Think macho at John and Jennifer Ireland's 350-acre ranch. This low-key hideout once attracted the likes of Errol Flynn and Bing Crosby, who landed on the private airstrip ready to fish, drink, and dabble in R&R not endorsed by Hollywood's then prudish production code. World-class fishing in the Sea of Cortés remains the focus here, although downing tequila shots in the bar runs a close second. The 18 thatched-roof bungalows are boot-camp basic—fans, stall showers, zero-thread-count sheets. There are also 16 simple guest rooms. What else?A wide-open sea out front and ceviche at dinner that was swimming in it just hours ago.
TODOS SANTOS Here's proof that time warps do exist. Straddling the Tropic of Cancer, this colonial-era burg remains blissfully free of franchises—a wide spot in the road where the siesta is still taken seriously. Todos Santos's unpaved streets are lined with 19th-century brick-and-adobe haciendas, some adapted as galleries by Anglo artists who gravitated here for the tropical climate and low rent. The plaza is anchored by the humble Misión del Pilar church and Teatro Marqués de León, a movie hall straight out of Cinema Paradiso. Share carne asada and papas rellenas with the surf crowd at Tacos Chilako's, a six-stool stand at the corner of Calle Benito Juárez and Calle Hidalgo.
Todos Santos has thriving design and food scenes. Angelina Cimono sells her stylish raku-fired clay sculptures at Galería de Todos Santos (Corner of Calles Topete and Legaspi; 52-612/145-0500). Barbara Fleming has amassed an extensive collection of hand-embroidered Guatemalan and Mexican textiles and antiques at her boutique, Mangos (Calle Centenario; no phone).
Chiles get top billing at the restaurant Los Adobes de Todos Santos (Calle Hidalgo; 52-612/145-0203; dinner for two $50). Oaxacan specialties—like mole poblano chicken—are served on a rustic garden terrace. For a refried-bean hiatus, locals flock to Café Santa-Fe (4 Calle Centenario; 52-612/145-0340; dinner for two $50), Ezio and Paula Colombo's candlelit, whitewashed dining room in a historic adobe. The restaurant's northern Italian cooking (fresh shrimp-and-octopus frito mixto with arugula and lime) adapts nicely to the tropical setting.
At the playful 11-room Hotel California (Calle Benito Juárez; 52-612/145-0525; firstname.lastname@example.org; doubles from $125) the décor crosses gypsy caravan style with desert "sheik." At the hotel's La Coronela Restaurante, the chef may be Belgian but the margaritas are pure Baja. The Todos Santos Inn (33 Calle Legaspi; 52-612/145-0040; www.todossantosinn.com; doubles from $95), in a converted sugar baron's hacienda, evokes the era of señoritas in lace mantillas—and gun-toting banditos. (Check out the bullet holes in the lobby's faded frescoes.) Six rooms have a spartan aesthetic: thick plaster walls, net-draped four-posters, whirling fans, a cool courtyard garden of hibiscus and bubbling fountains. Ask for an air-conditioned garden suite near the new pool. An artsy crowd gathers in La Copa Wine Bar.
Another hotel option is Posada la Poza (52-612/145-0400; www.lapoza.com; doubles from $125, dinner for two $50), located just outside town. Those who brave the rutted dirt track are rewarded with a surprising, high-concept oasis next to a palm grove. Former banker Juerg Wiesendanger and his artist wife, Libusche, bring Swiss precision to their orange inn, which faces a dazzling freshwater lagoon and bird sanctuary; all seven suites are within earshot of the massive surf that hammers Playa Punta Lobos.
At the hotel's restaurant, El Gusto!, the host may be Swiss, but the ladies in the kitchen are local. This low-key spot serves terrific cheese-stuffed fried jalapeños, coffee-infused pork loin, and tuna adobo in chipotle cream sauce. Baja Norte's nascent vineyard region dominates the wine list. The fiery tortilla soup is the best on the peninsula. The unheated saltwater swimming pool is bone-chilling, but the rooftop-terrace bar provides a warm roost for watching outrageous Pacific sunsets.
World-class stores are not Los Cabos' strong point. Shops selling finely crafted Mexican silver are the exception—but skip the plated trinkets hawked by street vendors. Sculptor Sergio Bustamente (27B Blvd. Marina, Plaza Bonita, Cabo San Lucas; 52-624/143-2708) creates wacky armadillo pins and zodiac charms. Mexico City's Tane has an outpost at Las Ventanas (Km 19.5 Carretera Transpeninsular; 52-624/144-0300); the sterling cutlery is used in the hotel's La Cava wine cellar. Joyería Brilanti (8 Calle Centenario, Todos Santos; 52-612/145-0726) is owned by José Brilanti, whose mother, Ana, created a fan-shaped necklace for Eleanor Roosevelt. His hand-wrought necklaces and bracelets are based on her designs. Grandsons José and Rafael create their own Aztec-influenced bangles in a satellite shop across the street (Calle Centenario, Todos Santos; 52-612/145-0799). Another of the clan's enterprises is found on a San José side street: Ofelia's Fine Silver (8 Calle Hidalgo; 52-624/142-4717), which carries turquoise-studded pitchers and intricately tooled jewelry by major metalsmiths.
According to legend, the margarita was invented in Tijuana, but Los Cabos has its own potent version. According to David Halliburton Jr., owner of the Hotel Twin Dolphin, the key ingredient is Damiana, a liqueur made from a Sonoran Desert herb that is an aphrodisiac (the distinctive Venus-shaped Damiana bottle adorns many a Cabo cantina). Dolphin bartenders Roberto and Chino rim their margaritas with finely ground sea salt. Hand over your car keys to the front desk—you won't be driving after drinking these Jacuzzi-sized beverages. Find a more classic version of the Los Cabos margarita at the Todos Santos Inn's La Copa Wine Bar (33 Calle Legaspi, Todos Santos; 52-612/145-0040) and at the inventive San José restaurant El Chilar (1400 Calle Benito Juarez; 52-624/142-2544).
SECRET ADDRESS FOR GOLFERS
Los Cabos has eight courses. The best is the private, Tom Fazio-designed Querencia; guests at Las Ventanas have exclusive rights to play there.
SECRET ADDRESS FOR NATURALISTS
In San José, the cactus museum Cacti Mundo (3 Blvd. Antonio Mijares; 52-624/146-9191) brings the desert a little closer. This botanical garden is filled with rare succulents. Just don't hug the prickly Queen of the Night.