… and I wrote about it! And then I let the post sit for ummm… eight months. Yep. I really did. But it was already written and the whole point was that although I really dislike Cabo San Lucas (boo, hiss, throw the rotten tomatoes), we managed to somehow make our trip affordable, fun and educational. Now, how was that?! Let me tell you…
Our Trip to Cabo and How We Made it a Homeschooling Win
When Justan told me last fall that we’d be going to Cabo for a destination wedding, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. Cabo San Lucas isn’t exactly the type of destination we would choose for a family vacation – or a trip at all.
I had been there 13 years ago when I was 18 years old, right in the middle of spring break. Now, I was 18 and reasonably happy to just spend my two weeks in Cabo taking advantage of cheap and free drinks, but even at that point I found the pursuits of choice in Cabo a bit a) vapid or b) expensive. Justan first told me that he felt confident in my researching skills to find us more authentic attractions and a richer cultural experience. I was sorry to break it to him that these things are extremely hard to come by in Los Cabos.
But, he was asked to be the best man in the wedding, and it was important to us to be there for these friends, so we started planning. Here is how we made the best of it and had a great (and even educational!) family vacation in Cabo San Lucas.
We started by searching out an apartment. Resorts are really not our thing, especially resorts that are located along a tourist strip outside of town, like many of those in Los Cabos are. On the recommendations of friends, we first tried Air B’n’B, a website that matches up travellers with locals who have a room, bed or flat to rent out. We quickly found a one-bedroom apartment along the main roadway in Cabo, for $50 CAD per night. For one week, this little suite with a kitchenette and room to sleep four would cost us $400. Sign us up!
When we arrived, we were pleased to find that our flat was on the ground floor of the complex and opened directly onto the courtyard and pool deck. We discovered that the complex used to be a suite hotel, but in the economic downturn it had been sold off as condo apartments – there was a clover-shaped swimming pool with a defunct swim-up bar to prove it.
This suite turned out to be really great, as we could buy our own food at the local market and eat a lot of our meals at home, and Neko could play around the pool in the morning and at other times when we were busy, because it was right outside our door. There were also a couple of families with children living in the complex, and Neko spent some time playing with the kids, who didn’t speak much (if any) English.
To save money, we booked flights on the way down and back with one stopover each. This was a bummer, but not so bad. Neko is seven now so the wait times weren’t awful. She even did well getting up at 4 am for our trip down.
For amusement on the flights (and for downtime in our flat while we were there), we had a colour-by-numbers book from Melissa and Doug; a word search book and a book of mazes; several comics and thin chapter books; blank notebook paper and pens; and her LeapPad with a couple of new games (the Eye Spy game went over well, as did Finneus and Pherb). I also packed lots of snacks – Goldfish crackers, beef jerky, fruit bars, Larabars, and Emergen-C, powdered coconut water mix and tea bags to liven up some water along the way. We were very thankful to have all these snacks along the way.
While in Los Cabos, we traveled mainly by bus. Don’t be afraid to try the local transit – we actually found it nicer than the public transit back home (we mainly took the Subur Cabos buses and avoided the old school bus-style buses), and it was affordable and very convenient. The buses will stop if you flag them down, even anywhere along the highway, and they will let you off anywhere you want. This made it easy to hit out-of-the-way beaches along the InterPeninsular highway. We did have to take cabs a few times, such as home after the wedding, but it was a much nicer experience to be on a bus with locals and have to figure things out for ourselves.
Day One: The Improbable Sunset Dinner Cruise, Humpback Whales and Flying Manta Rays
Mostly a travel day, we were scheduled to land at the Los Cabos airport outside San Jose del Cabo at about 2:30 in the afternoon. We found out after we booked our flights that the bride and groom had booked a sunset dinner cruise for all their guests as a part of their wedding package – at 4 pm. We didn’t hold out hope that we would make it in time, but when everything went according to schedule, we decided to try. We dropped our luggage in our room and took off on foot for the marina, flagging down a bike taxi before long so we might just make it in time.
We did end up getting there just in time, and it was a good thing. This cruise would have cost us almost $200 for the three of us, though even at that price it might have been worth it. Mid-December to mid-March is whale calving and mating season in the Sea of Cortez, and it’s easy to spot humpback and grey whales breaching, even from many of the resorts along the coast. We followed one family of humpbacks (cow, bull and new calf) for about an hour, and they breached countless times – though we didn’t get to see them jump, nor see their tails. This was really neat, especially considering that we had only been in the country for a couple of hours and this was basically the first thing Neko saw.
She relished riding on the small boat on rough seas, although she made me nervous getting so close to the rails. This was her first real ocean experience.
Near the end of our cruise, someone mentioned that there were fish jumping. I looked just in time to see a couple of manta rays sail through the air, flapping, then splash back into the sea. This was something I had read about while researching our trip (have a look at my Pinterest board of pre-trip research if you’d like), but I hadn’t been able to find more information on how or when to view this show for ourselves. Scientists say they can find no reason for the rays to display this behaviour – not mating, nor evading predators – and have surmised that it’s purely for fun. We discovered on this trip that the reason you can’t find more information on how or when to see the rays “flying” is that it’s so common and easy to see. It might only be during a certain time, but when we were there in early March, they were visible from some beaches (we saw quite a few off Hotel Beach in San Jose) and in the sea near the shore (if you take a cruise, whale watching tour or fishing trip, for instance). This was definitely the highlight of my trip – so cool to see!
Day 2: Day at the Beach and a Sunset Wedding
Neko was itching to get to the beach, so after an unsuccessful attempt to get to a restaurant called Campestre Restaurante (18 blocks from the marina on Hidalgo – through some fairly “authentic” Mexican streetscapes) and a much more successful trip to Cabo Coffee (sorry, but we don’t travel outside of the country just to hit up a Starbucks), we headed for Robin and Jenni’s (the groom and bride) resort to check out their beach. Justan needed to be there early to prepare for his best man duties, so Neko and I dropped him off at Robin’s room and we went down to the small beach below the hotel. We took the bus to get to the resort and walked about half a kilometre past vacation villas and desert scrub to the entrance.
The beach was fairly nice (below the Sirena del Mar by Welk Resorts), and here we saw crabs scuttling over the rocks at each end. The water is quite rough (and not safe for swimming) at most beaches in Los Cabos, because of the merging of the Sea of Cortez with the Pacific Ocean, so I mostly asked Neko to stay back from the water. In my opinion, this is a major strike against Cabo as a family beach holiday destination, though there are beaches you can visit that boast calm, shallow waters. There are also not many shells here, because the Sea of Cortez doesn’t send much up onto the shore. There are lots of small pieces of white coral to be found though, thanks to the nearby coral reef. Neko didn’t mind too much, though she did hope to find more, and bigger shells.
We didn’t ever have a problem walking through resorts, so if you need to cut through one to get to a beach, don’t worry about it. No one ever questioned us.
We had fun at the wedding, and Neko had a ton of fun at the party, dancing with the other guests. Being one of two kids (the other was Robin and Jenni’s son, who is almost three) didn’t bother her as long as she had adults to talk to, joke around with, and dance with.
Day 3: Chileno Bay and Authentic Tacos
The two beaches I had seen recommended for families were Playa Santa Maria and Chileno Bay. The former supposedly has pink sand beaches, and calm waters perfect for snorkeling (we didn’t plan on snorkeling as Neko is afraid of swimming and of sticking her face in the water), while the latter is great for calm waters and tide pools. We took the Subur Cabo bus to Chileno Bay with no issues and walked down the road to the parking area. This beach is fairly nice, and at low tide I think the tidepools would be great. We were there halfway between low and high tide and saw lots of spiny sea urchins and crabs, as well as some other small creatures we couldn’t identify. There are beach umbrellas here for shade, as well as a bathroom. We brought our own snacks and drinks, though.
The gulls and pelicans were also amusing here, and we spent about half an hour watching children feed them before we left. It was pretty easy to get to Chileno Bay, so even though it’s not all that spectacular, it was still worth going. Neko had a good time while we were there and it was nicer than some of the main beaches.
That night we trekked across town to Gordo Lele’s for some authentic tacos, a recommendation I found on Trapper’s List. Trapper’s List is a list of eateries in Cabo, created and maintained by a longtime gringo resident. The tacos were very good, and the whole experience was worth it even just to see the proprietor serenade some other customers via karaoke. The prices were also much more reasonable than the tourist joints in town!
Day 4: Crashing the Resort
If you’re looking for a resort experience but don’t want to stay in (or pay for) a resort, I recommend crashing one for a day. We were there legitimately (to visit our friends), but no one blinked an eye at us walking in and using the pool. I was thinking that you could probably look up resorts online to find the one with the most spectacular pool, then just walk in like you’re staying there. Keep a friendly look on your face and act like you belong and chances are, no one will care. Oh, and remember that the resort supplies towels, so don’t bother stuffing your own in the backpack!
In the evening, we paid about $100 for an “all-you-can-eat” buffet and “authentic Mexican culture” entertainment. I recommend this less highly – the idea is to feel like you’re getting the resort experience without having to stay in one, not to feel like you’re paying out the butt for nacho chips.
Day 5: San Jose del Cabo
Word on the street was that nearby San Jose del Cabo was much more authentic and quiet than Cabo San Lucas. I had never visited, even on my previous trip, and a day in a different town (perhaps with less pushy/overpriced vendors) sounded like a nice change of pace.
We took the Subur Cabo again, which only cost us a few dollars even though it’s a 40 minute drive. Once in town we made our way toward historic town centre. It’s not the most spectacular historic town centre as far as such things go, but it was definitely a nice place to spend the afternoon. There were plenty of shops to check out, and the quality of the goods was better than in Cabo, and the vendors were less pushy (most things were still just as overpriced though). Even though online sources had suggested there might be a festival happening, they were only just setting up a stage in the town square. There is also supposed to be a good farmers market in San Jose but judging from the map, it looked like we would have to walk quite a ways to get to it and then we would be even further from the bus, so we decided not to attempt it.
We did, though, make our way from the town centre toward the estuary park. It’s a bird sanctuary, and we weren’t disappointed. The estuary itself was quite pretty, and there was an egret and tons of ducks and other birds hanging out. The estuary is right next to Hotel Beach, the main beach in San Jose (yep, you read that correctly – Hotel Beach). This beach is very long and not all that interesting, and the water is very rough. The one great thing about this beach was that we saw more Manta rays jumping – lots of them! They were very close to the shore and easy to see.
Day 6: A Tour of Land’s End and a Night Out
We started the day by walking down toward the marina with the goal of catching a water taxi to Lover’s Beach and Land’s End. We had aimed for low tide so that we could walk under the arch (El Arco). We had a price in mind – 30 pesos or $24, in a glass-bottomed boat, both ways for all three of us, including a tour before they dropped us off. Right away, someone stopped us, and Justan immediately said “No,” but I asked how much… and he was offering exactly what we wanted, at the price we wanted! This may be a sign that we should have haggled. It probably is. We don’t like to haggle much (though it is the way in Cabo, as in many other tourist locales).
This tour was definitely worth the money for all the things we got to see, more for Neko’s sake than ours. Before we had even left the marina, we saw funny pelicans hanging out on moored boats, a “pirate ship,” and sea lions following tour boats as their passengers threw fish. As we passed Pelican Beach, we moved in close to the shore and could see all sorts of colourful fish through the glass bottom of the boat. Neko loved this! Further out past the arch, we saw the colonies of sea lions basking in the sun both on the rocks and in the water, which was also neat. We toured around on the rough water on the Pacific side, and our captain pointed out different caves and beaches of note. After about half an hour or a bit longer, he dropped us off at Pelican Beach. We spent about two hours walking around between Pelican, Lovers’ Beach and Divorce Beach. In my opinion these weren’t the best beaches, unless you plan to snorkel (in which case Pelican is great), though Divorce Beach is worth seeing for the wild surf – just don’t get anywhere close! People are snatched by rogue waves and killed by the ocean here every year.
Also worth noting – you normally cannot walk under the Arch. In fact, the tide only goes low enough to allow access every four years. So don’t get your hopes up like I did.
This was the night that my best friend’s mom had offered to take Neko for a sleepover so that Justan and I could go out and do some adult things. We had a nice seafood dinner and then went out to a couple of dance clubs and were reminded of just how extremely disturbing spring break is.
Day 7: Swimming With the Dolphins
Finally, the day came that we could take Neko for our big surprise. She didn’t even know there was a surprise coming, and we walked to the marina without telling her that anything was up. We actually made it right inside the dolphin swim centre before she realized that we would be swimming with the dolphins ourselves.
The dolphin swim was pretty great, though very pricey. I would advise against booking the swim from home, and instead book at one of the tourist booths in town and haggle the price down. We paid nearly $500 for the three of us, which is way more than some other people in our group had paid. And then afterward, they want you to pay $25 per photo to get prints of your swim, which also sucked. It was still worth going, and we’re glad we did. Neko got over much of her fear of water after swimming with the dolphin in the deep tank.
Also, I feel that as an animal activist, I need to say that I feel really guilty about going. I don’t even have a good excuse. Between the price and the fact that they are captive dolphins, I personally wouldn’t have chosen to go. But, my husband was so excited to do it, and I didn’t really fight it.
Accommodations: I definitely recommend Air B’nB, and finding a place where you can cook some of your own meals. The eggs are great here, and so are the avocados – what more does one need, really?
Food: Look no further than Trapper’s List! I wish I had known about it sooner! I spent literally hours trying to find restaurant recommendations that went beyond overpriced American chains – and Costco.
Transportation: if you plan to tour around a lot (like, say, to check out Todos Santos), I’m sure a rental car would be worth it. But frankly, roads there terrify me. The public transportation was great, and super cheap! Just don’t expect them to speak a lick of English nor understand your attempts at flailing sign language.
Attractions: Honestly – there is just not a whole lot to do here besides sit on beaches where you can’t swim; shop at expensive stores you could find anywhere in the US; haggle over overpriced souvenir tchotchkes; or drink till you can’t see straight. My best advice is to not make the mistake of planning your trip to be too long. If you can be amused by simply wandering and exploring, or if you like water sports (or any of those things I just listed), you’ll be fine. Otherwise, at least you can look forward to napping!