By Matt Villano, on October 16, 2013

The milder Cabo of Baja

If Dickens had written about modern-day Los Cabos, he would have described the destination as a tale of two capes. The first, Cabo San Lucas, is the one everybody hears about most. It’s the one with legendary bars (Cabo Wabo, anyone?), epic all-inclusive resorts (hello, RIU Palace Cabo San Lucas), and, if you’re lucky, turtle hatchings right on the beach. The second, San Jose del Cabo, has bars and resorts and – from time to time – turtles, but it’s the quieter of the duo. As they say in these parts, San Lucas is wild; San Jose del Cabo is mild.


I’ve visited Cabo five times since 2000, and have ended up in SJDC on every one of those trips. Here are three of the main reasons why.


It feels more Mexican

With a bunch of North American tourists and bars that serve Coors Light and Budweiser, Cabo San Lucas always has struck me as more Las Vegas than Mexican beach town. SJDC, on the other hand, just seems more authentic.

Viewfinder Tip: Don’t be afraid of hole-in-the-wall tequila bars in San Jose del Cabo; these often are the best ones.

Maybe it’s the circa 1940-church that towers over the town’s main square. Maybe it’s all the parades (the city’s big bash, the Fiesta de San Jose, happens every March and celebrates the destination’s patron saint). Maybe it’s the plethora of hole-in-the-wall tequila bars where literally nobody speaks English (at all).

Or maybe it’s the fact that most of the restaurants aren’t designed for tourists. During one visit a few years back, two friends and I grabbed dinner at Cactus Taco, a tiny eatery on a back street off the main square. Between the three of us, we wolfed down a heaping order of fresh guacamole and 15 tacos (seriously; they were small). The price: let’s just say the whole meal was cheaper than a U.S. movie ticket. 


True story: In nine years of marriage, I have bought my wife more jewelry from SJDC than any other destination in the world. Artisans here work mostly in silver, her favorite metal. The pieces – especially the earrings – are affordable (compared to what many of them likely would cost in the U.S.). Most important: The stuff is downright beautiful, incorporating a mix of intricate handiwork, creative designs, and natural stones.


Just about every piece I’ve purchased has come from the Art District, a 12 square block area just off the main square of downtown. Many of the artisans operate tiny shops or counters in communal, flea-market-type structures. There also are a number of art galleries selling paintings, sculptures, and tile work in both modern and traditional motifs.


Few of the artisans use price tags here; most of the prices are established through a method somewhere between haggling and totally random. My advice: be prepared to walk away, and (unless it’s obnoxiously low) you’ll usually get the price you want.


Casa Natalia

Yes, I love romantic Los Cabos resorts such as Esperanza and Capella Pedregal. But especially when I want to assimilate into the local culture, my favorite place to stay is Casa Natalia, right off the square. This unpretentious boutique hotel is the perfect blend of luxurious and utilitarian. Rooms are modestly sized, but decorated with murals, paintings, and other forms of artwork by local artists. The on-site restaurant, Mi Cocina, offers inventive twists on local dishes (such as mole chicken with real chocolate). The palm-shaded pool is swanky and intimate – a fabulous place to laze away an afternoon.


Casa Natalia even offers access to a private beach club, just a short walk from the main courtyard of the hotel. The experience on this stretch of sand is quiet and uncrowded, the antithesis of what it’s like on the main beach of the cape to the north. Which is precisely why I keep coming back for more.

How do you seek out authentic cultural experiences when you travel?