Cabo San Lucas, on the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico, is a destination that has been on my bucket list for years, but I just never made the time to go.
As I get older, traveling gets harder. It’s not like I have familial obligations to prevent me – well, we do have pets and finding the right pet sitters can sometimes be problematic – work has always been the self-imposed obstacle. Even on holiday, I tend to drag along my work computer to log in and out as needed. The joy of traveling to another country is that, without official reason to be in a foreign country, I can’t take my work computer with me.
Cabo appealed to us for two reasons. It checked the boxes on a tropical(ish) beach destination and affordability, but knowing that we were going so late in the year (early September), we also needed to find a destination that was not often prone to hurricanes.
After spending dozens of hours comparing locations and hotels, we eventually chose Cabo and the Hotel Riu Palace Baja California. This place met two of our key considerations (and two I didn’t know we had) when we were planning: it’s all-inclusive, it’s close to downtown Cabo, it’s an adults-only establishment, and it is brand new–the hotel opened in late 2018.
Additionally, the Hotel Riu Palace Baja California is situated on a Riu compound with two other Riu properties (Sante Fe and Cabo San Lucas) that provides guests of the Hotel Riu Palace Baja California access to the amenities of the other two properties while keeping its own amenities exclusive to its own guests.
Hotel amenities were important to us because we decided to alternate excursion days with rest days around the pool. While this hotel has four pools that all overlook the Sea of Cortez, we primarily lounged around the quietest pool. Staff work incredibly hard to keep the main pool engaged and the smaller pool with a swim-up bar is always packed. This quieter third pool is the perfect mix of people watching while enjoying the amenities of poolside beverage and ice cream service.
“The feeling of swimming up to one of the hotel’s two pool bars for one of your favorite drinks and take it enjoying the views from the infinity pool out to the Pacific Ocean… it’s an indescribable feeling,” Riu Palace Baja California General Manager César Mastache said.
Nestled in this pool area is also a sit-down bar and a hot grill that serves traditional camp fare as well as delicious tacos. Contrary to what many reviews have said – the drinks are not watered down. Plus, poolside day drinking is a marathon, not a sprint. If you’re still concerned about your drink not being strong enough, the in-room mini-bar has four large bottles of liquor, there is a self-serve liquor bar in the hotel lounge sitting area and you can always ask for “doubles” or “extra alcohol.”
Mastache said he understands guests’ concerns, but the hotel spares no expense when it comes to guest comfort.
“For us, the use of the best brands and the hand of professional bartenders are the most important points to satisfy our client,” Mastache said. “It is true that the need of ice due to the high temperature can make the drink feel waterier. For this reason, we are always happy to add an extra half an ounce of liquor even before the client has to request it.”
Hotel tip: It should go without saying, but being polite and tipping goes a long way. From the onset, we tipped every time we dined and sporadically as we ordered drinks and received phenomenal service. For instance, by befriending our breakfast waitress, she guided us away from loud patrons when we would sit in the morning (thanks, Cesilia!). I will not go so far as to say that our consistent tipping impacted the service or the strength of our drinks, but we never felt at a loss for anything.
Hotel Tip: Cabo businesses pride themselves on being as green as possible with most hotels serving drinks in 16 oz semi-reusable plastic cups and 10 oz glasses. If you bring your tumbler from home (or buying one as a souvenir), you can get larger drinks while also supporting their green initiative. Plus, it’s always easy to know which drink is yours.
This hotel also contains four restaurants and a buffet that is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The food served at the restaurants seems to be similar to what can be found on the buffet, but the restaurants provide a quieter ambiance. However, each restaurant is only open for dinner service on specific days, so not all dining options are available daily. But for yet even more dining options, guests of the Riu Palace Baja California can eat at the sister resorts’ pool bars, the sports bar in the Riu Sante Fe and their buffets; guests are not allowed to dine in the other resorts’ restaurants, though.
Guests with food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances can also have the peace of mind. The hotel takes food preparation seriously, ensuring that food is separated during preparation to help ensure there wasn’t cross-contamination for people with food sensitivities. The hotel was also upfront about the process, giving interested guests with allergens a tour of the kitchen and preparation areas to demonstrate food safety.
Football fans – if you go during football season, the Baja California resort plays the games on the massive movie theater-sized screen overlooking the water. The bar makes for easy access getting a beer and servers come around regularly to offer drinks. If that screen isn’t showing the game you want to watch, there’s a sports bar at Hotel Riu Santa Fe that will try to accommodate your football needs. On Sunday, the sports bar is a great place to make temporary friends.
You’re on vacation, if you need a middle of the night junk (COUdrunkGH) food fix, the hotel has 24-hour room service. It’s not a full menu – it’s limited to sandwiches and desserts – but there is a 24-hour lounge that has snacks available all the time. The one thing I will say about lounge food is that the burgers are a bit dry and bland, so buyer beware.
Like most hotels in Cabo, the Hotel Riu Palace Baja California is situated directly on the El Médano beach, northeast of downtown Cabo in the hotel district. Despite being on the southernmost tip of the Baja California peninsula, the beach itself is not on the Pacific Ocean, but rather the Sea of Cortez, “Mar de Cortes” in Spanish, which is also known as the Gulf of California. However, to get a Pacific Ocean fix, it’s a reasonable drive from the city to the western coast or, for a modest fee, you can take a boat tour hitting several key tourist stops.
Hotel Riu’s view of the Arch and Lands End
We opted to book an excursion through the same service that we used for hotel transportation – Gray Line Los Cabos. The representative at our hotel, Diego, wasn’t pushy and seemed upfront and honest. We bounced the prices he quoted to us off the website and Travelocity and they matched up.
The Cabo marina has two sides, a private boat dockside with newer restaurants and shops and the older, working side with public tours and classic mercados where one can haggle for goods. While the men with signs can be intimidating as they get in your way and shove signs at you, they are also incredibly helpful. Everyone in this city is trying to hustle and they don’t want to burn their reputation. If you tell them that you’re looking for a specific excursion company, they’re more than willing to back down on their sales and point you in the right direction.
If you get to check-in early, spend a little time browsing the mercados. However, wait to make any purchases until after you get back from your excursion – you don’t want to be lugging around a lot of trinkets and souvenirs on your cruise.
Tip on haggling: You can haggle down about 30-35% of the initial offering price, but you have to be assertive and willing to walk away – there’s always another person selling the same item. Start lower, about 50% off the asking price, and waffle a little. It helps if you know what price you’re willing to pay before negotiating. Because haggling requires compromise if there are other items you would also like to purchase, haggle them into the deal as well. For instance, by spending $2 more on a chessboard than I wanted to pay ($22 instead of $20), I was able to talk the seller down $12 (from $25 to $13) on a woven backpack and also get him to throw in two sugar skulls for free.
Marina Tip: The public restroom in the Marina costs 20 pesos ($1) to use. If you don’t feel like fussing with small bills and crowded bathrooms, drop into Senor Frogs or any of the restaurants and use their restroom. It also helps if you’re willing to buy a beer or two. The marina has a fairly liberal open-container policy, so you’re not obligated to drink in the establishments.
Everyone in Cabo is trying to sell you something. The marina is no different, but the locals are predominantly friendly and willing to help point you in the right direction if you know the name of the excursion company you are looking for. Cabo Blue is run by Amanda, a friendly and energetic Canadian ex-pat. If you opt to go with Cabo Blue, they do not have a dedicated shop in the Marina, but instead, meet outside of Agave (stylized as A9AVE). Because the Sea of Cortez is designated as a national park, there is a $1 park use fee that you will pay at the dock, a white gate located 100 feet east of the restaurant and a meeting point. After everyone arrives, the group as a whole is led to the Cabo Blue catamaran, whereby the friendly staff will offer you bottled water and beer as you board.
This is an open bar booze cruise, so the alcohol flows. The cruise takes you by El Arco de Cabo San Lucas and parks for 15-20 minutes so everyone can get photos. Don’t feel obligated to rush to one part of the catamaran for photos, the boat turns 360 degrees at least twice, so you will eventually be able to photos of the view. As with all cruises, the staff and other participants are always willing to help take photos of you.
Following the stop by the Arch, you’ll cruise north for about an hour to the snorkeling location. The water in the snorkeling area is 35-feet deep and, for safety reasons, life vests are required for snorkeling. While the fish are fantastic, something that was overlooked by many was the coral reef located a few hundred feet from the anchor point. It’s awesome to see, but should only be undertaken by strong swimmers. Tours typically allot 45-60 minutes for snorkeling and open-water swimming, with lunch being served during this time. For our cruise, lunch comprised sandwiches, tuna spread, chips & salsa and watermelon. And, of course, plenty of alcohol.
The return trip is a fairly straight forward ride with the same views as the outgoing (minus stopping at El Arco). At this point, there has been a lot more alcohol consumed, so don’t be surprised by the increased social atmosphere. I’m not saying there was dancing, but I’m willing to pay handsomely for a specific video.
Before we left for Cabo, we decided we wanted to take an evening taco and tequila tasting cruise. While talking excursions and options with Diego and Jorge from Gray Line, it came up that during this time of year (hurricane season), the waters at dinnertime can be choppy and we might be more comfortable and stable on a larger vessel. This was fantastic advice. The early evening ride back from snorkeling was rough at times and we wanted something smoother and more stable for a dinner cruise. We booked through them for the Sunrider Dinner Cruise, who offered door-to-door service, picking us up at the hotel, dropping us off feet from the boat and taking us back to the hotel.
The Sunrider 100′ is a large, multi-level boat with nine restrooms and capable of hosting hundreds of partiers; however, there were approximately 40 diners in our party, which made for a nice comfortable cruise. For a frame of reference, it was clear that other dinner cruises on the water at the same time were packed to the brim, so we lucked out with ample space to maneuver and take photos without falling all over each other.
The 2.5-hour cruise is definitely a booze cruise. Boarding the boat, the incredibly friendly staff shakes everyone’s hands and offers a mixed drink or beer. While dinner is included (fajitas, chicken skewers, rice, beans, chips, and salsa), there’s an option to upgrade to a lobster for market price ($14 that day). I really can’t say enough about the staff – they were jovial and on-point with ensuring everyone had full cups and wanted for nothing. Additionally, for $6/drink, you can upgrade from free well beverages to premium liquors, such as Crown Royal or Jack Daniels.
Whereas the snorkeling cruise took us up the Sea of Cortez to snorkeling hideaway, this cruise took us past El Arco and into the Pacific for a majority of the trip. The views were incredible: awe-inspiring displays of water crashing on the rocks; sea lions sunbathing near and around El Arco and Pelican Rock; multi-million dollar Pedregal houses built into the side of the cliffs; breathtaking sunset views and an open ocean with boats dotted throughout. Plus, being on the more stable boat
Tip: keep your phones in a secure case you can strap to your wrist. I dropped my phone trying to juggle it and a drink, catching it only by sheer luck and fingertip grip strength. After that, my phone stayed put away.
Growing up, I was a big Van Halen fan, so I’m not going to say if Sammy Hagar’s ownership of the Cabo Wabo Cantina had any influence in our decision to choose Cabo, but…If you’re going to Cabo, Cabo Wabo is a must-see. Be aware there are two areas, an outdoor cantina, and an indoor stage and a connected restaurant. The establishment is full of Sammy Hagar-related memorabilia, which is great if you’re a Van Halen fan. Expect loud music. The signature beverage is the Waborita, a blue margarita featuring the eponymous Cabo Wabo tequila. Do yourself a favor and try their newest signature drink – Can’t Drive 55. A bit like a hurricane, it goes down faster than you would like it to on a hot day.
Ask anyone where Captain Tony’s is and they’ll tell you it’s by the giant Marlin. This marina staple specializes in “you catch it and we’ll TRY to cook it” cuisine. Not to mention, the restaurant keeps track of daily records and fish hauls, offering much of the daily catches as menu options. While their beer is a little pricier than neighboring options (there are tiny bars that dot the area), it does deliver on food. Try the popcorn shrimp – they’re tempura-breaded and not popcorn-sized.
Next to Captain Tony’s is a semi-outdoor mercado that reminds me of a shantytown. Unlike the completely indoor mercado by A9AVE, this one doesn’t feel as nice but does have better deals, provided that you’re willing to haggle. Set up in stalls down a long hallway, the stall owners are a bit more aggressive here (being somewhat tucked away, I don’t imagine they see as many tourists as the other one we visited), but they are also willing to negotiate quicker. If you plan on doing any negotiating for souvenirs bring a bigger suitcase – I regret not bringing a bigger suitcase to haul back chessboards and Aztec bone sculptures.
Things to do
- Quick tip! Hit three tourist stops at once – take a water taxi to Lover’s Beach (Playa del Amor) and walk across the beach to Divorce Beach. You can also see El Arco while there. This small cape is right on the cusp between the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean, however, if you’re looking to see the sunset over the Pacific you will either have to take a sunset cruise or visit Solmar Beach.
- Take a water taxi to the marina. While the beach is full of people trying to hawk goods and excursions, there are a few offering water taxi services. For a less than the price of a cab ($10 for two people), we were able to take a water taxi (boat) from the beach in front of a neighboring hotel to the marina with plenty of time to spare to shop.
- Before calling an Uber to pick you up at a hotel, check to see if the hotel will allow Uber drivers on-premise. More often than not, they’ll allow taxis, but not Ubers. However, Uber’s are exponentially less expensive than cabs and hotels will allow them on-premises to drop off guests.
- Safety tip! Cabo is not ideal for swimmers! Most of the beaches along the Sea of Cortez are rock beaches that are uncomfortable to walk in – sturdy water shoes are strongly advised. Additionally, the undertow and currents of both the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Cortez can be incredibly strong, especially late in the season. Even strong swimmers are discouraged from wading more than a few feet into the water. However, there are a few beaches near Cabo San Lucas and north near San Jose del Cabo for swimming and surfing.
Being tourists for only a week, we were unable to fully grasp all that Cabo has to offer.
“If you have the opportunity of visiting the destination any time between the start of December and mid-April, you will be able to witness the incredible show provided by the friendly and playful ‘grey whales’ or ‘humpback whales.’ These animals demonstrate the magic of their communication method with a musical sound that can be heard above water from the depths of the ocean,” Mastache advised. “I also recommend a trip to Todos Santos, a town where you can marvel at the majestic colonial architecture or else San José del Cabo, an attractive city that is quiet and relaxed. For the guests more adventurous, we recommend the paradise that is Boca la Sierra, which doesn’t appear on the list of more conventional tours, or else the stunning coral reef at Cabo Pulmo. Something really worth seeing!”
I have a rule about never traveling to the same place twice – there’s too much of the world to see. But I’m fairly certain that we’ll be back.
Airport Info and Tips
We strongly recommend you pre-arrange transportation. If you arrive without a plan, you’re going to fall victim to a lot of people who want to push you into overpriced excursions.
When you arrive at the airport in Cabo, be aware: there’s a massive scam around tourism. After you get your luggage, you’re going to have to turn in a “head of household” card that also asks questions about customs. Immediately after that, there is an exit into a room full of people with signs yelling at you – no matter what anyone says, do not talk to them and just pass through them all. We were stopped for 10 minutes when a guy randomly said, “Hey, amigo – you looking for Grayline?” Which was the transportation company we had pre-paid for. Do not stop. Go immediately to the exit to a second room with a similar setup and also just walk through that room without talking to anyone – that will take you directly outside to the staging area for transportation. Here you will also be bombarded with people trying to get you to take their excursion, bus line or listen to a timeshare, but if you have pre-arranged travel, just walk through them to the designated area.
Hot Tip: The bars right outside of the Cabo airport (photo) take cash only. Beers are $6 each or 85 Pesos (in September 2019).
When traveling back to the US, you could have some issues bringing duty-free alcohol through customs. Bottles with extra-thick glass at the bottom or metal inlays, such as Beluga vodka, may come up as non-scannable by TSA (despite being in a sealed TSA and Duty-free approved bag). If that happens, the options are to either throw away the bottle of alcohol or return to the airline desk to check it in for transport.