Thursday, June 4, 2009

The REST of the Cabo Story

Please see my first post on this blog (from November, 2008) for the first part of this story and photos from the resort.

For those geographically-challenged amongst us, Cabo San Lucas is located on the southernmost tip of Baja California Sur. From San Diego, you would continue driving south until you couldn’t go any further; then, you’d be in Cabo. It’s also the place where the Pacific Ocean–to the west–sweeps around the tip of Baja California and meets the slightly warmer waters of the Gulf Of California to the east, otherwise known as The Sea Of Cortez.

Arriving at Los Cabos International Airport is a bit daunting; when our friends, Bob and Doris, first started visiting, there wasn’t even a permanent building on the site. Now, they’ve erected a modern air-conditioned terminal but you still exit the plane down a ramp of steps that they roll over to the door of the plane, and must walk across the tarmac to get to the terminal and customs.

The Los Cabos International Airport... no, really!
(Click on any photo to enlarge it.)

I decided to rent a car so we would be able to have the freedom to go wherever we wanted whenever we wanted; otherwise, there are car services and cabs to take you around. I got a great low rate through for a car from National. But the car rental companies in Mexico are privately owned, so you’ve got to be very careful about what they try to sell you in the way of insurance or other extras. Your U.S. auto insurance does NOT cover you for more than a few miles inside Mexico and it is illegal to drive without insurance. I purchased collision insurance online for $83 before leaving. The woman at the rental car desk told me I
still needed some other mandatory insurance and wouldn’t rent me the car without it; all together, it somehow totaled $247, for seven days. Then, she said, “I will give you the car for free if you all agree to take a tour of a timeshare property.”

Well, this seemed too good to be true. In addition, she was giving us a voucher for $300 if all four of us took the ninety-minute tour; of course, we knew that someone was going to try to pressure us into buying a timeshare which we knew we didn’t want. However, even if we didn’t buy a timeshare, as long as we got our papers signed that we took the tour, she said she would get a commission for sending us and we would get the car for free and the $300 voucher. Bob and I decided it was worth the time invested and agreed.
(As mentioned in my first post, we eventually took a time share tour at the property where we stayed instead and received a voucher from them to pay for the rental car.)

The first car they offered us was an older Nissan that looked like it had been painted with a spray can; we couldn’t even fit three pieces of luggage in the trunk. After complaining to the manager, we got a new Dodge Attitude (made by Hyundai) which was also quite small, but at least we were able to put most of our stuff in the trunk; one large suitcase stood upright between Doris and Ro in the back seat.

It turned out our resort was located right on The Sea Of Cortez, about fifteen miles north of the actual “old town” of Cabo San Lucas. The Fiesta American is described in detail in my first post of this blog so I’ll dispense with those details here. After checking in, the first order of business was stocking our “apartment” with food and drink that we’d be using while there; we figured on making breakfast and lunch for ourselves a few days to help save money. Of course, we needed to stock up on wine and snacks. We got our car back from the valet and drove into the town of Cabo San Lucas where Bob and Doris knew of some stores from previous visits.

We stopped in a grocery store where we picked up eggs, ham, and other food stuffs, plus a case of bottled water. Then, a visit to a wine store where we selected an assortment of various types from names we were familiar with. I was surprised that none of the stores we shopped in had pretzels... you could find any type of chips–potato, corn or nachos, flavored or regular, from numerous companies–but
no pretzels! We returned to our resort and spent the rest of the day relaxing at the infinity pool and spa closest to our rooms.

Barrel cactus on the resort property,
shot with telephoto lens since it was in an unaccessible area.

We drove back into Cabo San Lucas that first evening and did a little exploring. We wound up at Poncho’s Cantina for dinner and drinks before walking around the marina area. Like similar waterfront areas in Baltimore and San Francisco, the marina had recently been renovated and now boasts such trendy clubs as a Hard Rock Café and Harley Davidson, along with eateries like Domino’s Pizza, Ruth’s Crist Steakhouse and Haagen Dazs–all in stark contrast to the older buildings and streets comprising the majority of this town. There are actually some wooden sidewalks still in use, reminding me of a scene from an old western movie.

Dinner at Poncho's Cantina... just what you'd expect from Cabo San Lucas.

The following morning, we stopped at the timeshare rental office and met our host/salesman: Walt. He’s a US native with a great personality and a colorful past; his resumé includes the fact that he was once run over by a truck while protecting a woman he was the bodyguard for. He escorted us to the restaurant for our free buffet breakfast. There was literally anything available–including a chef, making fresh omelettes or eggs any style–and easily the best, most filling breakfast you could ask for.

Afterward, we began our tour with Walt. He walked us through the entire complex, explaining all its features. It’s a beautiful place and I can’t imagine anyone needing more; there’s even a golf course adjourning the resort. Bob told Walt that he was only interested in buying additional points if he could add them to his other account. That was not a problem so Walt was able to make a sale and everyone was happy. After the paperwork was completed, Walt invited us all to a second free buffet breakfast the following day.

During the course of our tour, I mentioned to Walt that I would love to swim in the Sea of Cortez but the rocks on the resort’s beach seemed dangerous. He told me of a better beach about a mile or so down the road.

“Meet me by the main entrance at one o’clock, when I get off work, and I’ll show you all a great out-of-the-way beach with safe swimming.”

We spent the rest of the morning at the pool, enjoying the warm water, the beautiful views and sampling the Margueritas. At one point, I felt asleep on the recliner by poolside. I was awakened by the feeling of something on my right ear; I sensed it was a large bug of some kind so I instinctively swatted at it with my hand as I awoke. Some people at the other recliners on my right side were pointing at me; a couple were concerned while others laughed.

“The lizard was on your chair... did he bite you?” they asked.

I looked around and saw a large lizard–at least twenty inches long, from his head to the end of his tail–on the rock wall directly behind my chair. I touched my ear and looked at my fingers; there was no blood. “No,” I answered, “but I thought it was a bug or something. It woke me up.”

Well, I guess I was just
kissed by a lizard; maybe he stuck that tongue of his out and touched my ear with it, but it sure felt like he nipped me. If nothing else, it gave us something to talk about for the rest of the trip and I got some good photos of that critter.

My friend, the Lizard.

By noon, we returned to our rooms and made sandwiches with the bread and ham we had bought at the grocery store the previous day. We packed some drinks into a cooler and headed on down to the main entrance by one o’clock. Walt was waiting for us in a big Dodge Ram pickup truck with Colorado plates on it.

We got our car from the valet and headed out of the resort, following Walt. Upon reaching the main highway, he turned north and we trailed along behind him for a short distance. Presently, he turned onto a dirt road and headed toward the water; we soon arrived at a nearly deserted but lovely beach on a cove, parked the Attitude and set our stuff down near the water’s edge.

A tall-masted tourist ship sails by some rocks,
down the beach from where we were swimming.

Walt told us it was safe to swim here and proceeded to put on his wet suit and snorkeling gear. We placed some large towels that we took from poolside on the sand and admired the boats offshore; a fisherman was casting his line from a large group of rocks where the waves were breaking nearby. I felt the water and found it to be a bit cool but still warmer than Long Island beaches on most summer days. The sand was a bit course but very clean; the bottom dropped off sharply as I walked further from the shore and the water was soon over my head.

Bob came in the water and the two of us swam a bit before Walt jumped in and disappeared under the waves with his gear, the large black flippers on his feet occasionally visible as he dove from time to time, getting a good look at the fish, I imagined. Bob soon went back to sit on the beach but I remained in the water for another fifteen minutes or so. The waves were breaking a bit too close to shore for body surfing but I stayed out past the breakers, enjoying the clean, clear water; I was surprised to find no seaweed, jellyfish or debris. We ate our lunch and enjoyed the sun, working on our tans long after Walt packed his gear up and headed home. We thanked him for showing us this little stretch of Mexican paradise.

We eventually headed back to our resort and relaxed around the pool before getting dressed for dinner at the onsite Italian restaurant, Rosario. Part of the timeshare tour deal was getting a 30 % discount at this place and it was certainly a worthwhile offer. The food was sumptuous (I had Ossa Bucca lasagna), the decor elegant, and a piano player serenaded us while we ate; his selections were beautiful and not so loud as to distract from our table conversation.

Pelican on the rocks, just outside the harbor, from our whale watch boat.

The next evening, we headed back into town where Bob had previously made reservations for us on a whale-watch dinner cruise.
( Eduardo Padilla, cell 044-624147-70-37, 044-624-147-53-59
phone# 624 143 30 48)
He and Doris had enjoyed this event during another of their visits and highly recommended it to us. The boat was pretty crowed as we headed out of the harbor and the captain pointed out the various sights to us all: Lovers Beach, the rocks separating the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez, and–eventually–the whales!

The famous rocks separating the Pacific Ocean on the far side
and the Sea of Cortez on the near side (from our whale watch boat).

View between the rocks near Lovers Beach; Pacific ocean toward the horizon.

The water was pretty choppy so I was glad I had taken my new camera with the Optical Image Stabilization. I managed to get a few shots of several whales and even took some video footage, but because you never know where these beasts are going to surface, it’s difficult to catch just the right moment.

Dinner, prepared on the boat, consisted of barbecued spare ribs, roasted chicken, and various side dishes–all quite tasty but difficult to eat while seated on a chair, with no table, on a boat that’s bouncing all over the place.
Now, where did I put my drink?

Unretouched photo of sunset from the Whale Watch Cruise boat.

Sunset across the ocean was beautiful as the sky turned a deep orange before the fiery-red ball sank below the horizon. In the afterglow of dusk, we headed back into the harbor and left the boat by the time darkness had enveloped the marina.

On one of our trips into town, I spotted some animals made out of metal; it seems to be a specialty of the area artisans. It looks like they take heavy-gauge sheet metal and cut out a design that looks like a frog, a parrot–even an octopus or lizard. Well, I just had to have one of those lizards to remind me of my poolside encounter at our resort so I found a cool one, painted green, with dimples in the metal to resemble lizard skin. After checking out a few different shops, I wound up back in the first place I looked and got the best deal there. I later found a frog I also liked and bought that too; I thought it would look good out by our hot tub at home.

At some point of each day or evening, we could be found relaxing in or about one of the pools or spas, sipping Margueritas and rubbing on sunblock. During one afternoon, I was walking along one of the paths near the pools and saw a low-flying pelican gliding past me, only several feet above my head. I turned and watched as he made a graceful landing right in the middle of the largest infinity pool on the property. Luckily, I had my camera with me and quickly made it to the edge of the pool so I could grab a few shots. The other bathers and folks lounging around the pool gradually caught sight of the bird and began to run over with cameras as well. A few minutes later, the pelican took flight and left without even saying “good-bye.”

On another day, we drove north, back toward the airport and visited the town of San José del Cabo. It was a bit smaller than Cabo San Lucas but had some typical touristy shops and some very nice eateries. After stopping by the historic Catholic church, we found La Panga restaurant offering a three-course lunch for just $19.95. We were seated in a cozy outdoor courtyard with much native flora growing about and discovered the food was really great! After checking out a few more shops and buying some goodies to bring home for our grandkids, we headed back to our car and made the return trip to our resort.

Old Catholic church in San Jose del Cabo.

Interior of church, photographed with available light.

Ken and Bob enjoy lunch at La Panga, in San Jose del Cabo.

Another round of Margeritas for Doris and Ro.

While hanging out at one of the pools after we returned from San José del Cabo, we asked our poolside waiter Adolfo if he could recommend someplace really authentic for us to go for Mexican food. “Where do the locals go?” we wondered.

“Oh, you’ve got to go to Las Guacamayas for the ‘dollar tacos’,” Adolfo told us. He grabbed one of the visitors guides from a nearby table and proceeded to find the page with the street map of town. After studying it a minute or two, he said, “Here!” as he put a small dot on the map with a ball point pen.

Since we had a big meal around lunchtime, we decided to take Adolfo’s suggestion and drove into town and what we figured would be lighter fare for dinner: dollar tacos. We weren’t sure exactly where it was; the dot on the map was pretty vague. We parked in the general vicinity of the dot and started walking. This was a very residential area with many small shops that the locals frequented. We saw several people wandering about so we asked if anyone knew where Las Guacamayas was. They knew exactly where we wanted to go and pointed us in the right direction, about a block further up the street, on the east side of José Ma. Morelos street, near where Avenida de la Juventud crosses... I think.

When we arrived at the place, we found what looked like a giant tree house, elevated above street level, with outside stairs leading to a deck with a thatched roof. From that vantage point, you could look down on the street and a small adjourning yard where someone was cooking and preparing everything–outdoors! “What does he do when it rains?” I wondered.

We could see that this was a local place. We were shown to a large table and given menus; a single laminated sheet with choices in Spanish on one side, and English on the other. Our waiter spoke no English so we found what we wanted on the “English” side and then pointed to the same thing on the reverse side for the waiter to take our order.

On the table were various condiments like sliced cucumbers, grilled onions, hot peppers, some kind of delicious chopped tomato salsa, plus a kind of guacamole/salsa verde... all things to put on your tacos or whatever else you ordered. The menu was quite extensive in that you could get tacos (soft shell, not the hard shell like Taco Bell serves), quesadillas, burritos, soups, gorditas, and standard fare like beans and rice. You could order your taco with a wide selection of fillings like marinated pork, shredded pork, different kinds of chicken or beef, and then add any of the extras that were on the table.

I ordered three tacos with assorted fillings, a chicken and cheese quesadilla, and a bowl of bean soup. Bob also ordered some kind of sausage which sounded good, so I ordered one too. Everything was really tasty and much more filling than I expected. Sure enough, the tacos were 1.3 pesos, which–with the exchange rate–worked out to a dollar each; quesadillas were a dollar-thirty, the soup was two-twenty. Including the beer I ordered, my whole meal came to less than ten bucks... and it was much more filling than I’d expected.

After we left the restaurant, we found the car and headed back to the main road. We had only gone a few blocks when I spotted a bakery; I parked the car and walked back to check it out. It was another little local shop with some good-looking items so Bob and I bought the two remaining chocolate muffins in their case and took them back to our resort for dessert.

On another trip into town one evening, we visited Cabo Wabo, owned by Sammy Hagar of Van Halen fame. This place is huge, located in an older building near the main strip, and spreads out over several floors including a courtyard where some vendors sell souvenirs and tee-shirts. There didn’t seem to be any cover charge or minimum; we just wandered around, caught a live trio on one of the stages doing some American rock, and grabbed a nearby table. I didn’t see any waiter or waitresses so Bob and I got up, went to the bar, and ordered four drinks which we brought back to have with Ro and Doris while we listened to the performers on stage. Down some stairs there was more of a nightclub atmosphere with a fancier stage and a dance floor; there was nothing much going on when we looked in so it may have been too early yet for this area to come alive.

One of the places on our “must-see” list in Cabos San Lucas was The Office, a restaurant right on the beach, on the bay side of town. Doris and Bob told us we had to go there. As one story on the internet tells it:
“...once upon a time, in the decade of the 70’s, when the Baja peninsula was still a remote and isolated place and few visitors came to the region, the first–and at that time the only–palapa on the beach was built on the médano beach of Cabo San Lucas...

...on the virgin beach this palapa, with its small kitchen and unpretentious bar tended to the needs of locals and the few tourists of the time, offering simple fare such as ceviches, fried fish, burritos or hamburgers, and the always wanted margaritas, cuba libres and beers, besides the traditional water or coffee...

...a local character–a gringo viejo, as the writer Carlos Fuentes would say–rented wind-surf equipment on the beach and entertained his clients and friends in this same palapa, which was referred to–by him and others–as the office, the office on the beach...

...the name stuck, and shortly after a blue sign with yellow lettering somehow popped up identifying the place officially as an office... the Office on the beach...”

The best thing about The Office is that–being right on the beach–you can go there in your swim suit, carrying a towel, and swim before, during, or after your meal. You sit at a patio furniture-type table and chair set, with a big blue umbrella protecting you from the hot sun; of course, the tables are close together so most of the umbrellas touch each other, giving the illusion of a large indoor room... but
you’re in the sand! Another reason to like The Office is that the food is great! A four-piece marriacci band also walks between the sea of tables taking requests; they happen to be quite good as well.

The Marriacchi band entertains us at The Office.

Naturally, the area along the beach has built up tremendously over the years and numerous other eateries now flank The Office. In addition, the water’s edge is now neatly partitioned with ropes and floating buoys dividing public swimming areas, water taxis, and glass-bottom tour boat operators. There are also many vendors hawking tee-shirts, jewelry and other goods along the beach that disturb the beauty of the setting but offer their own unique charm. Regardless of the busy scene, I still enjoyed swimming right in front of The Office and the water was still amazingly clean in spite of all the activity around it.

Looking north along the beach in front of The Office.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. Before too long, we were packing for our return trip to New York. We decided to splurge for one more fabulous breakfast at the resort on the morning before our flight. Upon leaving the breakfast area, Bob and I smuggled some sandwiches out so that we’d have something to eat on our plane that afternoon; you know, those peanuts and Oreo cookies the airline gives you are a pretty poor substitute for lunch.

We arrived at Kennedy and found our luggage, then headed over to the Air Train back to Jamaica to pick up Bob’s car. The first train that came into the station was going to the Howard Beach shuttle station so we had to wait for another. Just as the train pulled out of the station, I saw a young couple with a small child on the platform, and the guy was obviously upset. It seems his wife got on the train with one of their kids, then got off to get a piece of luggage but they took too long getting back on. The doors of the train closed and their five year-old son was whisked off without them. Luckily, a transit cop came along and called ahead to the next station where someone else could hopefully retrieve the child.

It was 9 PM New York time when we landed but it was still 7 PM as far as our stomachs were concerned. We decided to stop in East Meadow on our way home to get some Chinese food “to go.” The perfect ending to a perfect trip, I guess you could say.

Do you know how few drivers actually stop at stop signs in New York? Granted, many drivers will slow down and
almost stop, but only a handful come to a complete stop. Well, in Los Cabos, nobody even slows down at stop signs. It’s like the signs aren’t even there. Of course, if there’s another vehicle or line of traffic already in their way, they’ll slow down and maybe even have to stop. Otherwise, it’s a game of “chicken” driving with those bozos.

In the weeks following our return from Los Cabos, I emailed the online insurance company that I had bought the car insurance from before leaving for Mexico. I explained that I was told the insurance I bought was all I needed and yet couldn’t rent the National car without buying additional insurance. My latest credit card statement included a full refund of the $83 that I paid for the online insurance.