Once you’ve traveled a bit, people may stop telling you about all the places you’ve got to see and start imparting their wisdom, instead, about the ones you should avoid.
It’s ironic, then, that the badge of a well-traveled person eventually becomes one of travel’s most tired clichés—that you’re a “traveler and not a tourist”—seemingly making it shameful that you would travel anywhere the masses (particularly those from your own country) go.
But travelers and tourists are both just people getting out there in the world—whether that’s exploring your back yard on a road trip, sleeping in a yurt with an eagle huntress in Mongolia, or dipping your feet into international travel for the first time with your kids at a Club Med.
And as much as I love traveling to the intrepid destinations on the planet, I also appreciate making up my own mind about places that other people deem “ruined,” for one reason or another.
Not too long ago—after I’d already seen much of Mexico while strategically bypassing Cancún for years (it had been sold to me by some “travelers” as one giant open-air Señor Frogs)—I found myself loving a place I was told I’d detest on a trip with my family.
Walking the markets downtown and eating tacos al pastor with Cuban friends who’d moved to Cancún from Havana for a better life between dipping in the gorgeous Gulf of Mexico and hidden cenotes to the south had me loving the stretch of Mexico I’d been warned was “ruined by spring breakers.”
So recently, when a Canadian influencer criticized me for a travel choice, telling me that Cabo San Lucas is “void of authentic culture” and “only for Americans,” I had to see for myself.
My stay was short—three quick nights at the Pueblo Bonito Pacifica Golf & Spa Resort—and I hardly claim to be an expert on Cabo San Lucas now.
But, what I wanted to know was this: could all those pesky American tourists (myself among them), mass hotels, and the inevitable Señor Frog’s really “ruin” this place of such sublime natural beauty, where the desert crumbles into the Pacific Ocean?
NOTETravel to Mexico is currently allowed for U.S. travelers, with no COVID-19 test required, although the CDC has issued an advisory against it due to rising case numbers. At Los Cabos International Airport, travelers are required to fill in a health screening form and have their temperatures taken before exiting.
Cabo San Lucas Is Not Void of Authentic Sea Lions
Scuba diving in the Baja California Sur is legendary, especially in the waters of the Sea of Cortez near Cabo Pulmo National Park and the town of La Paz (two hours north of Cabo San Lucas), where the winter months are peak season for snorkeling with the whale sharks that migrate through.
I didn’t originally have scuba diving on my radar in Cabo San Lucas, wrongly assuming it was too busy with pleasure boats and jet skis full of rowdy American “tourists” to be any good. But when I texted an underwater photographer friend living in La Paz if I should head out to dive near the famous Arch of Cabo San Lucas formation (a 10-minute boat ride from the marina) on a trip with Cabo Adventures, he was quick to say “Siiiiii.” And I’m glad I listened. Because along with a friendly American diver from Tennessee on the boat who ended up being my buddy and a crew of scuba-loving Mexicans, I found myself diving with about 15 sea lions in waters as clear as a swimming pool just 30 feet below the busy boat-crossed surface.
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At one point, after finning through schooling clouds of silvery snapper and nosing around a shipwreck where giant lobsters and a moray eel peeked from rusting metal, I wondered how anyone could claim that the place Jacques Cousteau once called the “world’s aquarium” could be ruined by travelers, tourists or vacationers of any type, for that matter.
You Can Golf While Whale Watching and Sipping Mezcal at Course Comfort Stations
I may be a diver but I am definitely not a golfer. Still, I jumped at the chance to drive a cart around with a friend who was playing what’s arguably the most scenic Pacific-facing course on the continent. At Quivira Los Cabos—a Jack Nicklaus signature oceanfront course—you can pause at “Comfort Stations” carved into the cliffs proffering complimentary treats like tacos and mezcal shots between holes—a perk that tourists, golfers and, dare I say travelers, would clearly love. But that’s not the highlight.
The 13th hole overlooks the roaring Pacific Ocean, which provides quite the distraction when humpbacks and gray whales migrating within mere yards of the shore break the surface with their blowholes and breaching.
After I made myself swing a club for probably only my fifth time ever (a very poor swing, just to see what it’s like to connect with the ball at one of golf’s most beautiful holes), I realized I had spent the better part of the day breathing the same air as cetaceans.
Beach Bliss, Even if Swimming Isn’t Advised
With the exception of just a few beaches in Cabo San Lucas designated for swimming (including Medano Beach, right downtown—no longer quite as busy with tourists as usual thanks to the absence of cruise ships due to COVID-19), the coast at the tip of Baja is wild and inherently dangerous.
Rogue waves can rise from the depths without warning. Sports fishing charters needn’t even venture far offshore here to hook pelagic species like mahi mahi and tuna because the waters close to the beach are deep enough already.
One morning, I woke up early to walk from the Pueblo Bonito Pacifica along the beach to a rugged headland, crossing only three other people along the way as I plodded through sands the color of cumin that coax your feet in deep (it’s a workout just to stroll).
Brown pelicans skimmed the swells just offshore and I couldn’t walk more than a few minutes without seeing a whale’s spout or a dolphin’s dorsal. Indeed, there were far more of them than any humans to be seen.
There was something primordial about the thunder of the pounding surf, the danger of the shore break that broke small but lapped far up the dunes as I scurried from it like a sandpiper and the idea that I—a tourist, a traveler, whatever I was—was strolling in tandem with migrating whales.
The Conversations I’ve Missed Most
Here’s the thing about travel now for those of us who haven’t done much of it lately, and for seasoned travelers, too—it all feels new again, with the pandemic having upended the world.
Everything from conversations with your taxi driver on the way to your local airport to chatting up a server in a restaurant or a local on the beach wherever you travel are things most of us haven’t done for a while. And they all feel familiar yet entirely novel.
“We missed the Americans, we’re so happy they’re coming back now,” was something I heard versions of on refrain in Cabo, albeit mostly from people who make their living showing us a good time in a town that was not “only for Americans,” it turned out, but for Mexicans and other people, too.
But is that such a bad thing, to miss the source of your livelihood in a place that depends on it?
I thought of the Canadian influencer and how she warned me against going to Cabo San Lucas.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” she’d said, “But it’s too American.”
But saying things like that only hurts the people working in the places frequented by travelers and tourists alike.