I Traveled to Cabo Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic — Here's What It Was Really Like

"If there's something to be said about the people working in Cabo, it's how resilient we are. Not a storm, hurricane, or now, even a pandemic can stop us. We are standing up faster than we thought, and we'll be completely up soon enough," said María del Pilar Buendía, a training and quality manager at the Viceroy Los Cabos.

Daytime view of San José del Cabo’s Hotel zone on the beach front.
Photo: Getty Images

With the United States now over six months into the coronavirus pandemic, we've grown accustomed to the new normal. We're adapting how we work and learn, socialize with friends and family, and yes, even travel.

According to research conducted by tourism marketing company MMGY Global, this fall is expected to see a bit of a travel boom, given the increasing popularity of remote jobs and schooling, as well as a long pent-up desire to hit the road after months in quarantine. Approximately 64 percent of travelers currently expect to take a leisure trip within the next six months. This is unsurprising when considering credit card expert LendingTree's research that 72 percent of Americans did not take a summer vacation this year, and that 44 percent of working Americans have yet to use any of their annual paid time off.

As the list of destinations allowing entry to American visitors continues to change, many travelers have their eyes set south of the border, where U.S. citizens have been permitted since June. In particular, many are heading to Los Cabos. The west coast destination is wildly popular among Americans, who make up a whopping 90 percent of their more than 3 million annual tourists. Cabo's visitors are loyal, too: 70 percent of tourists are repeat guests, and 20 percent visit four or more times a year.

Beach at Cabos San Lucas, Mexico
Christopher Kimmel/Getty Images

So, who is visiting now? And what is it like there during a global pandemic? Here's what you need to know about planning a trip to Los Cabos right now.

What is the COVID-19 situation like right now in Los Cabos?

At the time of publication, Los Cabos has 183 active COVID-19 cases. And according the The New York Times, the Mexican state of Baja California Sur, where Los Cabos is located, has had 9,033 total cases since the start of the pandemic. (As a point of comparison, Florida has had a total number of 665,722 cases.) COVID is clearly still a risk in Cabo, but the destination is being careful and steadfast to keep that number low.

On March 15, the local chamber of commerce, comprised of hoteliers, developers, architects, engineers, transportation professionals, and more, gathered to analyze the situation. At that point, there were fewer than 100 confirmed cases in all of Mexico. Los Cabos decided then as a destination, separate from the state or country's rulings, that they would go into complete lockdown on April 1. It remained shut down until June 15. For a destination whose primary industry is tourism (it makes up 80 percent of the local economy), this had a heavy impact. Though Baja California Sur has the second-smallest population among Mexico's states, it suffered the second-largest employment loss during the pandemic, beat only by Quintana Roo, home to Cancun and the Riviera Maya.

"Having our destination totally closed for the first time with no known reopening date was horrible," said María del Pilar Buendía, a training and quality manager at the Viceroy Los Cabos. "Aside from grocery stores and health care, nothing was open for over two months."

During that time, many hotels did their best to support their workers.

Gabriel Ibarra Macias, the sales and marketing director for Mexico Grand Hotels in Los Cabos, said he and other executive level employees took salary cuts to help offset the number of lower level employees whose jobs would be impacted. "We wanted them to be able to stay and come back," he said.

Meanwhile, the private sector was working fast and hard to come up with a viable reopening solution. "Normally, the government authorities are the ones to gather and put together health and safety protocols, and local businesses need to comply in order to reopen," explained Rodrigo Esponda, managing director of the Los Cabos Tourism Board. "Here, it was the opposite. Companies like Marriott, IHG, Hilton, and others researched what was needed for the hotels to safely reopen. The restaurants did the same. They then went to the authorities, and the authorities made it mandatory to comply with what the private sector was regulating."

They came up with a five-phase strategic plan, in contrast to the federal government's three-phase plan. Los Cabos has remained in the first phase since June, meaning it can operate up to a maximum of 30 percent — in hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses. A health committee evaluates their standing weekly, and starting next week, they will transition to phase 2, which bumps that number up to 40 percent. Some might say — namely, some businesses desperately yearning to reopen — that the destination is being overly cautious, but the general consensus is that they will do whatever it takes to keep as many people as safe as possible and ensure their future and livelihood, rather than rush into reopening too quickly. "The worst thing would be needing to shut down again," said Esponda.

"If there's something to be said about the people working in Cabo, it's how resilient we are," said Buendía. "Not a storm, hurricane, or now, even a pandemic can stop us. We are standing up faster than we thought, and we'll be completely up soon enough."

What is it like right now in Cabo San Lucas?

Inside the bay at Cabo San Lucas, a small tourboat is dwarfed by rock formations including the famous "El Arco."
Getty Images

Before COVID-19, a sunny weekend afternoon in the spring break hot spot would likely see streets bustling with people and music. Now, the desert town appears to be deserted, as if it were the one (rather than its patrons) nursing a hangover from one too many tequila shots.

Over two-thirds of the storefronts are closed, and those open are hosting just a handful at most. A soccer match plays on the television sets in every open bar we pass. Some have small groups of tourists watching at the bar, or enjoying a drink on the tables outside. Others have only a local fan or two.

On the recommendation of our taxi driver, we stop at Tacos Guss, a local hole-in-the-wall favorite, for a snack and cold beer. The cash-only menu offers mouthwatering tacos starting at $25 MXN (around $1 USD). Even the smallest orders are met with a large tray of toppings and six bowls of salsa, all covered with plastic wrap.

We then poke our heads into Cabo Wabo Cantina, an establishment owned by Van Halen's Sammy Hagar and easily one of the most well-known places in downtown Cabo San Lucas. One couple sits in the upstairs, open-air bar; four couples in the downstairs, outdoor bar; and no one inside the restaurant. After we decline to sit, the restaurant's host eagerly invites us to come back that evening, when there would be live music on the famous stage. Although tempting, I don't feel comfortable enough with the idea of visiting a popular bar at night.

Instead, we head to El Farallon, a cliffside restaurant in Pedregal, an exclusive sector of Cabo San Lucas, to watch the sunset over the water. A private Champagne tasting and expertly prepared catch of the day is a luxurious palate cleanser from the dusty depression of a closed party town.

What is it like right now in San José del Cabo?

From street level, the gazebo and church in the Central Plaza (zocalo) in San Jose del Cabo.
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Although there seems to be the same number of businesses closed, San José del Cabo has a completely different vibe from its sister city. Locals and tourists alike enjoy the warm evening weather, with children playing gleefully in the town square and couples strolling hand-in-hand down the narrow streets.

The Art Walk, a weekly outdoor exploration of San José del Cabo's art galleries and one of the town's main attractions, is unfortunately closed this time of year, but enough galleries and artisanal shops are still open to quench a creative's thirst. I enjoy checking out Spanish artist Enrique Bascón's gallery and chatting about his oil portraits and comedic drawings, as well as admiring the handmade Turkish-Mexican light fixtures at Olympos.

Dinner at Don Sanchez is an absolute must, where under the twinkling lights of their socially distanced outdoor courtyard, you can sample a variety of dishes all made from fresh, seasonal, and local ingredients. There is a specific nod to vegetarians, with a wide variety of creative meat-free options. Be sure to take a look at their extensive wine list for local bottles they're currently carrying; Los Cabos offers the world's largest selection of small-production Mexican wines.

What’s the best way to get to Los Cabos right now?

The coastline of Los Cabos, Mexico.
Franklin Levert/Getty Images

Road trips are all the rage right now, and driving to Los Cabos is possible. It's a bit of a trek, however — nearly 1,000 miles from Tijuana, and a roughly 24-hour drive from San Diego. If you're up for it, Baja California Sur has some incredible surfing destinations that you can stop at on your way down Federal Highway 1, which connects to the United States' Interstate 5.

If you'd rather fly, rest assured that there are several options. Since August, there have been daily direct flights into Los Cabos International Airport on American, Alaska, Delta, Southwest, and United from Los Angeles, Dallas, Phoenix, San Diego, San Jose (CA), San Francisco, and Houston, as well as weekly flights from Chicago and Charlotte. Starting Nov. 14, the east coast is slated to become better connected, with a twice-weekly direct flight from New York on Eastern Airlines.

I flew from the northeast U.S., which typically has horrid options to get to Mexico's west coast during the off-peak season. Despite playing with dates and times, and booking fairly well in advance, any flight with connections under 10 hours was charging around $800. Instead, I booked two separate tickets on Aeromexico: New York to Mexico City, then Mexico City to Los Cabos, and ended up paying just over half of the originally quoted cost. Eastern Airlines is advertising that their introductory fare rate will be $200 round-trip for the aforementioned flight.

There's also the option to fly private, for those in Cabo's high luxury market seeking an extra level of safety when traveling during a pandemic. Both the principal international airport in San José del Cabo and the smaller Cabo San Lucas International Airport accept private or charter planes. The latter has seen very little interruption in service, even during the pandemic. This past June, while flights into San José del Cabo's airport (where all commercial planes arrive) were down 80 percent from last year, Cabo San Lucas' numbers were down just four percent. Some luxury hotels are now even offering deals with partner airlines, like the Waldorf Astoria Los Cabos Pedregal's Private Passport to Pedregal special with SoCal's Schubach Aviation, which can pick up groups of four to eight people from anywhere in the U.S.

For everyone else, plane spotting can be a fun activity, as locals sometimes become familiar with the private jets of repeat celebrity visitors. As I was getting picked up from my arrival, for example, my driver pointed to a sleek black jet parked on the tarmac, noting that it belonged to boxing champ Floyd Mayweather.

What’s the best way to get around Los Cabos right now?

A majority of hotels and tour operators in Los Cabos readily offer public and private transfers to and from the airport, your hotel, and downtown, and it's the easiest (and often cheaper) option. Hacienda Encantada Resort & Residences, for example, offers a shuttle for guests every two hours from its property to the heart of Cabo San Lucas for $5/ride (or free, for those with an all-inclusive plan). A taxi ride that distance cost me $40 USD in cash.

Though a pricier option, I recommend sticking with private transfers at this time: The one public transfer I took with a tour operator did not require (or enforce) mask usage, and I was uncomfortable being in close proximity to others in an enclosed van. I often relied on Transcabo for getting from place to place. Every ride was comfortable, secure, and offered excellent service.

Ride-share apps like Uber and Lyft have a presence in Cabo, but are not recommended. You cannot take them from the airport (the drivers lack a permit required to pick up passengers from the area). Your best bet is to arrange a ride in advance, though if you're going to use a local cab, be sure to clarify the amount before getting in, as there are no meters.

Where are the best places to stay in Los Cabos right now?

When it comes to accommodations in Los Cabos, you can choose between a resort and private rental. A blend of the two — exclusive, private accommodations nestled among regular guest rooms, with access to all resort amenities — has been a growing trend in Los Cabos, and is an especially valuable option now. Cautious travelers might agree that the upcharge is worth the safety and peace of mind that comes with having your own sanitized space.

The Residences at Hacienda Encantada, located on a hilltop overlooking the sea, Land's End rock formations, and surrounding towns, offer two-bedroom villas and three- to four-bedroom private houses in an adorable gated area of the property. Backyards of the residences are decked out with private infinity pools (complete with a swim up bar), hot tubs, lounge chairs, fire pits, and grills. A personal butler is on call to satisfy your every whim, from coordinating transfers to making dinner reservations.

Guests also have access to the rest of the resort, including the rooftop infinity pool at neighboring Vista Encantada Spa Resort & Residences. Additional activities, like private cooking classes and tequila tastings, and in-suite meals prepared personally for you by the chef, offer more socially distanced fun.

Those wanting the same level of privacy, but closer to the action, should check out the multi-bedroom casitas, villas, and private homes at the Waldorf Astoria Los Cabos Pedregal in Cabo San Lucas. Due to demand from guests (they're regularly hitting the 30-percent capacity limit, and have even had to turn away would-be guests during peak times, like July 4), the resort recently created extended stay packages. Guests can get 30 percent off when staying at least seven days, or a full week free when staying a month. They're also offering a Spanish Baja Cultural Immersion remote learning program for children, which includes Spanish language classes, wellness classes with activities like tennis and yoga, and local cultural explorations.

Those without children or seeking a shorter stay can still indulge in the luxurious privacy: Every room comes with an outdoor terrace and private plunge pool, and personal concierges are available to assist you around the clock.

What are the best all-inclusive resorts to stay at right now?

Le Blanc Spa Resort in Los Cabos
Courtesy of Le Blanc Spa Resort

Marquis Los Cabos, an adults-only all-inclusive, features three infinity pools, plus fun music and yard games like horseshoes and cornhole. One friendly server, Arturo, learned my name and drink preferences quickly, and continued to refresh my glass throughout the day without my needing to order. And at night, live music from a skilled saxophonist accompanied a delightful dinner under the stars.

At a slightly higher price point is the luxurious Le Blanc Spa Resort Los Cabos. Perhaps the most impressive element of the property is its excellent dining and beverage service. Eight restaurants remain open on-site, all requiring advance reservations (which can be made easily by your personal concierge) to keep the number of people dining at the same time low.

It soon became clear that Le Blanc has a very loyal fan base. "Guests started booking their stays the moment we reopened," one employee mentioned. At the lobby bar, I overheard one woman tell another, "This is my 12th day here." And at the spa, when shown the location of the jacuzzi, I heard a man say, "I've got it! I was here five weeks ago."

What’s it like to go to a spa right now?

Damp, humid environments are potential breeding grounds for the virus, so if you're keen on visiting a spa, it's important to do your research about the cleaning and hygiene policies.

One of the best, according to Travel + Leisure's World's Best Awards, is the Waldorf Astoria Spa. They are currently open for treatments, as well as providing their signature welcome foot cleansing ritual that uses special herbs.

Therapists wear masks, and clients are provided with airy and lightweight disposable masks to wear during their treatments. Outside of the treatment rooms, the only additional amenity currently open is the private outdoor pool. For the 40 minutes I sat out in the sun, I had the entire place to myself.

I had a similar experience at the Milagro Spa. I was told that masks were optional (for me, not the staff), so I decided to take mine off. I spent quite a bit of time in the jacuzzi (other hydrotherapy elements, like the sauna and steam room, were closed) and the majestic open-air pool, where I was completely alone.

Things were different at Blanc Spa, though highly regulated. The spa is only open to resort guests, and everyone gets complimentary access to the hydrotherapy facilities, regardless of whether they purchase a treatment. Advance reservations are required, however, and each guest is assigned a personal concierge to guide them through the steps. This is to manage the flow of people and ensure only two to three people are using a facility at once. The facilities felt clean and well-attended, although the lack of masks among guests (which is not required anywhere in the resort) in the fully indoor locker rooms and relaxation rooms was noteworthy.

What are the best activities to do in Los Cabos right now?

Plenty of places remain closed in Los Cabos, but there are a few open and available options to choose from.

The Cabo Luxury Sunset Sailing tour with Cabo Adventures brings you up close and personal with Land's End, a bucket-list attraction for many, and provides an excellent sunset view from the Sea of Cortez. Pairs of guests are given specific spots to sit on the sailboat to ensure distance, although they weren't always six feet apart. Because of the open bar and supplied snacks, mask usage was also not enforced.

Los Tamarindos is a gorgeous organic farm and restaurant just outside of San José del Cabo. Their artisanal cooking classes will have you harvesting your own vegetables and herbs from the farm, then lead you in preparing your own four-course meal. If you're dining in, try any dish or cocktail prepared with fresh mangoes.

French explorer Jacques Cousteau once referred to the Sea of Cortez as "the world's aquarium," due to the spectacular variety of marine life that can found below the surface. See it for yourself by taking a dive trip or snorkeling tour with Cabo Pulmo Diving. Our dive instructor, Pilu, took us to an incredible dive site called El Vencedor, home to about a dozen friendly sharks.

Gary Jeffrey from Denver and Michael Obrochta from Chicago have been friends since childhood and travel every few months together to scuba dive. Los Cabos was their first trip — they went to Cabo Pulmo specifically to see the sharks — since the pandemic began. Both said that they were "excited and relieved" to finally be back in the water, and that they chose to come to Cabo because it was a destination they had visited before and loved, and because it was the first place that was open to them. They said they were two of six total tourists staying in town that week, and the only two at their accommodations. "We've had the entire reef to ourselves," said Jeffrey.

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