“Breathe in!” exclaims our guide, David Alba of Cabo Adventures, puffing his chest up with a long, deep breath. “Breathe out!” he says, blowing out a stream of air. No, it’s not a warm up for yoga, but preparation for a round of tequila shots. This is Los Cabos, a popular getaway for many American groups to create their own Cinco de Mayo celebration any day of the year.
And while there’s plenty of bars and clubs for cutting loose in the town of Cabo San Lucas, the expansive area of Los Cabos itself has a surprising number of high-end attractions, from art galleries to polo fields, and it’s a popular destination for the rich and famous. Los Cabos also offers a range of activities and accommodations that take advantage of the region’s wild landscape and breathtaking ocean vistas. Whether that includes relaxing in a serene poolside setting, shopping in San Jose del Cabo or sampling one of 900 brands of tequila, the choices are endless.
For me, I’ve worked up a thirst. This after an interactive nature trek through the desert outback here at the southern tip of Baja, followed by a camel ride on the beach. Fortunately our group has made its way to a rustic outpost, and gathered round a table set with salt, lime and tequila bottles.
“This is the part of my job that is most difficult,” jokes guide David Alba, as he holds up a shot of white tequila. With a pinch of salt at the base of his thumb and a lime wedge at the ready, Alba offers details on the proper way to drink Mexico’s national spirit. “Never bite or suck the lime; it creates bitterness,” he says. “Only squeeze the juice into your mouth.”
Before sampling the next selection, an amber-colored anejo tequila (aged in oak barrels for two years), Alba vigorously shakes the bottle. “Do you see the tiny air bubbles?” he asks. “If they are still here after 45 seconds, that tells you the tequila does not contain impurities.” Sure enough, the bubbles are still floating after 90 seconds, while the tequila is smooth and dangerously drinkable, needing no salt or lime to help it go down. To complete my research, I also taste the Gusano Rojo mezcal from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Alba explains that the “worm” floating in the bottom is actually a moth larva, added more for effect than flavor. The mezcal has a strong smoky flavor that lingers even after a squirt of lime.
Tequila is paired best with traditional Mexican fare, and I dive into a hearty lunch of regional Baja dishes, including hand-made, stone-ground tortillas. Cabo’s plentiful nopal cactus is the main ingredient for a fresh, succulent salad—ensalada de nopal—which has a mild, green been flavor and consistency, and goes well in a scrambled egg dish as well—huevos con nopal. Seafood is also a local staple and makes up the Machaca de Pescado, or shredded smoked fish, in a lightly spiced tomato base.
But Los Cabos offers far more than just tacos and tequila. At the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar Golf & Spa Resort, new executive chef Manuel De Luca incorporates aspects of French, Japanese, Argentinian and Mexican cuisine into the resort’s four restaurants. The 270-room hotel—a classic colonial-style resort with 18,000 sf of function space—is located along the beach several miles from the main tourist district of Cabo San Lucas.
For our introductory dinner, I’m welcomed into a darkened conference hall as details of each course are displayed in lighting on the black tablecloth in front of me, projected down from above. All is dark, except for a spotlight on each plate, creating a dramatic effect and putting the focus on the cuisine—an overall theme of my visit. But the high-concept and well-executed food deserves the attention.
The meal starts with a foie gras terrine accompanied by confit figs and gingerbread, and continues with braised lobster cannelloni with champagne foam. More suprising than the full, complex flavors are the excellent Mexican wine each course is paired with. I’m astonished, pleasantly so, by the quality of the crisp, green apple Sauvignon Blanc from Roganto winery. I mistake it for a California vintage, but it’s true terroir is the Northern Baja wine region near Ensenada.
In fact, many of Mexico’s finer wines hail from this region, known as Guadalupe Valley, and are proudly represented by the hotel’s restaurants. They’re also found in a large wine cellar I’m led to below the hotel’s Pitahayas restaurant. L.A. Cetto winery features two wines I sample: An elegant Sierra Blanca Sauvignon Blanc with fruit and tropical flavors and a lean and oaky Reserva Privada Chardonnay. A Kerubiel from Adobe Guadalupe winery, a blend of mostly Syrah grapes, is medium-bodied with pleasant blackberry and clove notes.
After ascending into the golden light of early evening, I’m carried by horseback through the expansive pool lounge to the other end of the resort and dinner at 5-star De Cortez Grill & Restaurant. Besides more outstanding Mexican wines, the meal is a foodie’s dream, highlighted by the second course of orange risotto atop golden brie cheese, steamed salmon in dill essence, stuffed squids and winkle soufflé, topped with red crustacean butter.
Next day I move a few miles up the coast to the iconic and stunning 243-room Westin Resort & Spa, Los Cabos, which has 11,900 sf of function space. Host to celebrities and dignataries, such as Jennifer Aniston and Michael Jordan, as well as George W. Bush for the annual APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting in 2002, the Westin is a star in its own right. Designed by famed Mexican architect Javier Sordo Madaleno, the shape of the resort mimics the famous natural stone arch just offshore from Cabo San Lucas, with earth tones and bright pastels that match the colors of the area’s landscape.
SAN JOSE DEL CABO
From there, I take a short ride to the old town of San Jose del Cabo as a guest of Terramar Destinations, a local DMC. It offers a charming and relaxed alternative to the party scene of Cabo San Lucas. Stopping first on the outskirts, I walk the grounds of the Wirikuta Desert Botanical Garden, an elaborate cactus garden and group event facility. Home to over 1,500 desert plants from around the world, the spacious gardens contain over 1 million plants and include three massive stone and garden pyrimads topped by a palapa.
Continuing on to San Jose del Cabo, we drive through narrow streets past 300-year-old buildings that hail from the town’s colonial past. What were once homes are now galleries and restaurants, and I step into an alleyway of shops displaying large canvases of brightly rendered folk art, elaborate pottery and ceramics, finely wrought silver jewelry and colorful handicrafts.
Across the street is art of a different sort at Galeria Corsica. Featuring contemporary paintings, sculpture and installations from top Mexican artists, the many fine art galleries like Corsica in the town serve prominent Americans, such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Sylvester Stallone, seeking to adorn their Cabo homes.
Though most of Los Cabos’ resorts offer fine dining, the town has many excellent restaurants and cafes. Included is La Panga Antigua, which caters to groups and who’s award-winning chef/co-owner Jacobo Turquie is a graduate of New York’s Culinary Institute of America. I enjoy a lunch of grilled chicken in dark, rich mole sauce seated in a centuries-old courtyard resplendant with indigenous tropical plants and hanging lanterns. And as a fitting end, I wash down my meal, and my Los Cabos visit, with a final jigger of smooth anejo tequila.