By ELAINE J. MASTERS
The sea hugs a thumb-shaped cape between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. Its aquamarine hues call you to wade, or swim, or dive; to sail, cruise, or work on your tan line.
However, there is no one experience in Baja California Sur. Choosing the right fit for a vacation escape demands more than glancing at social media posts. Pick what resonates best for you and who you’re traveling with when planning a Baja Sur vacation. To kick off your research, I’ll analyze Cabo San Lucas and Todos Santos, two towns close in proximity but different in key ways.
Over several years I explored the area’s fine resorts and boutique hotels, refined dining and taco shops. My first trip to Cabo started with a short walk across the CBX cross-border bridge between San Diego and the Tijuana airport. After a 90-minute direct flight and navigating the sixth busiest airport in Mexico, I took a taxi to a friend’s condo. It was relaxing and fun in a beautiful setting, but the gated community sat between the colonial village of San Jose del Cabo and the flashy allure of Cabo San Lucas. I hardly felt like I was in Mexico and wanted more. We soon wandered several of the swanky resorts and then rode up to the magical village of Todos Santos.
Cabo At A Glance
Some of Mexico’s most glamorous resorts line the beaches, and anyone can feel like a celebrity in these luxurious settings. Families find diversions with kid’s clubs, ATV rentals, and horseback riding on the beach. Most resorts have multiple pools that are adult-only or kid-friendly. The main street is lined with trinket shops and designer galleries; taco joints next to classy dining spots.
Not much is left of the fishing town where fishermen dragged their pangas in and out of the sea then delivered their catches to the tuna cannery. By the 1970s, architects and developers transformed it; eventually carving a thousand-foot tunnel to the Waldorf Astoria del Pedregal Resort on the Pacific side. The resort dining and bars are open to non-guests by reservation. Witnessing a luminous sunset as it sparks the sea with gold from a patio carved out of a rocky cliff is unforgettable.
Todos Santos, Un Pueblo Magico
There are wonderful sunsets in Todos Santos, too, but a bit more feral. The Green Room is just north of the La Pastora surf break. Toast the end of the day with your toes in the sand and no dress code. The best restaurant sunset view prize goes to the giant, palapa-sheltered El Mirador. It’s located just west of town. From a spot high above the Pacific, pivot 180 degrees to savor the views north and south. Both restaurants are down dirt roads.
Todos Santos offers more immersion than diversion. To quote veteran traveler John Gregor, “If the only place you have been in Mexico is one of the couple dozen Playa de Plásticos on the coast, please do not tell me you have been to Mexico … If you want to experience the Mexican culture and hospitality, you really need to go to one of the so-called ‘Pueblo Mágicos,’ which were built in the 16th to 18th century. These towns are the treasure of Mexico, and their beauty is unmatched.”
Here’s a breakdown between the two vacation destinations, Los Cabos and Todos Santos.
I will say, Cabo San Lucas is much more than luxury hotels and fine dining. The marina is still full of fishing boats, but most provide day trips and sit next to shimmering yachts. Dive and snorkel boats shuttle in and out of the harbor daily. From the marina, small lanes reach up and over the hillside. The main highway wends north or east from town.
Todos Santos, by contrast, overflows with remnants of historic, Spanish style overlayed with a bohemian vibe. In the oldest area, pastel-tinted colonial homes face a narrow street. Bright murals splash across inns and along streets. Small hotels hide behind garden walls or rise above the street throughout the mostly flat, walkable downtown. Art galleries, silversmiths, and patio restaurants tempt. Storefront shops overflow with crafts and not all are mass-produced. It’s a world away from the Cabo San Lucas style.
Longing to stroll into the surf? Whether it’s Cabo or Todos Santos, carefully choose a “safe” beach away from rip tides. Check with locals first.
Los Cabos has easily accessible public and private beaches. A long strand east of the Arcos formation links various resorts between Los Cabos and San Jose del Cabo. Medano Beach is the safest, most popular swim spot. I was impressed by the raised walkways and maintained restrooms.
Todos Santos is renowned for the Playa Cerritos surf break. Playa Pescadero, la Pastora, or Playa los Cerritos are other local favorites. Pura Playa is a popular, modest beach club with music most weekends and a great spot to watch the surfers slicing through the waves. All are accessible down bumpy dirt roads where GPS directions may be incomplete.
In Cabo, the Grand Velas looms tall above the beach, curling around gardens and a variety of pools. The design is typical along the strand and pricey. There are smaller and more affordable hotels in the downtown area within walking distance of the action. Consider a room in the affordable Bungalows Hotel, or rent a villa for a larger group. There are options on Airbnb and established rentals like Antigua de Cabo.
Todos Santos accommodations echo its roots, but renovations have swept amenities and rooms into the 21st century. Stay in a renovated hacienda, an oasis-style, boutique Quinta Santa Rosa on the edge of town, or rent a casita at The Hotelito. Looking for something edgier? Consider a curated, all-inclusive, experienced-based sojourn at the Paradero Todos Santos.
The peninsula is home to amazing fresh seafood and some delicacies not available in the U.S. I ordered the immense chocolate clams (named for the color of their shells) ceviche style or baked. If you trust your server, sample farm-raised totoaba fillets — a firm, white fish. (Controversies swirl around wild-caught totoaba, whose bladders the Chinese prize and cartels provide.) Even steakhouse menus offer fish tacos, succulent shrimp, and lobster.
Start with a tortilla or quesadilla at La Raiz. And when you’re feeling flush? Reserve a table at the Waldorf Astoria’s El Farallon for the setting and the mixed grill menu that changes daily with the catch.
For a creative take on local ingredients, sample Enrique Olvera’s menu at Manta and soak up the view.
There’s a lot of fusion cooking in Cabo, but Los Tres Gallos serves mainstay Mexican cuisine like pozole, mole enchiladas, and Chile Rellenos. Leave room for dessert — the custard, flan, churros, or tres leches cake.
It’s not in Cabo central, but buses and shuttles make Flora Farms a must when in the area. The farm has spacious, patio dining and an open-air bar, runs cooking classes, and humanely raises livestock.
Todos Santos Dining
Start the day at Taller 17, lauded for their coffees and pastries. Later, head to Jazamango, an indoor-outdoor arrangement between the desert and vegetable garden. Celebrity chef Javier Plascencia demands only locally sourced ingredients from cocktails to seasonal menus.
Looking for an authentic Latin American meal and artisanal mescal? Reserve a table at La Refugio and ask the neighbors to find the entrance!
I had to try the Damiana cocktail in Hotel California before lunch on the patio. The cocktail is one of celebrity chef Rick Bayless’ favorites. It was slightly flowery and sweet but small-batch distillers bottle a woodier and mellow brew.
5. Adventure Options North and South
The varied cape topography lends itself well to hiking trails. Mountain roads offer vistas whether you get there on foot or three or four wheels. Rent surfboards in Todos Santos and paddleboards in Cabo.
I loved watching horses trotting down the beach east of Cabo in the afternoons. There’s something primal about watching horses trotting through the surf. That dreamy vision and all there is to enjoy here makes the Cape an everlasting destination. Whether Cabo or Todos Santos, a Baja Sur vacation won’t disappoint.
Planning a multi-generational trip and want to ensure no one is bored or feels left out? Try an all-inclusive reservation. During the last few years of travel restrictions, it makes sense to stay in one spot where you know the staff will take care of you consistently. However, be forewarned that some hotel pool bars and beach clubs are packed with jostling beauties and bellowing drinkers at 3 in the afternoon — no one masked or socially distanced. Unfortunately, the staff is left masked to juggle demands. Stay vigilant — the virus doesn’t go on vacation.
If you plan to pick up a car at the Los Cabos Airport, reserve it online and check your credit card and car insurance coverage before arriving in Mexico. Expect upsell mania at the rental counter. Negotiate and quote your own coverage. Pay a little extra and smile. Also, having a low-slung chassis is perfect for the Cabo/San Jose area but can be a problem on other unpaved roads especially in the Todos Santos area. We traveled in a shiny sedan, ended up with leaking tires, and wished for the confidence of driving an SUV or Jeep.
Once you have transportation, the paved roads are well maintained and a pleasure to ride. If driving in a foreign country sounds too challenging, arrange a ride with your hotel or hire a driver. There are many to choose from outside of customs.