LOS CABOS, Mexico — Much of what you need to know about Cabo San Lucas happens during the first weekend of October.
It's Sammy Hagar's birthday.
Yes, that Sammy Hagar, the second-best singer Van Halen ever had and the rock 'n' roll wordsmith responsible for sentiments such as "Your Love is Driving Me Crazy" and "I Can't Drive 55." When Sammy ages another year — he recently turned 66 — Cabo San Lucas celebrates. More accurately, Sammy Hagar celebrates with a concert at Cabo Wabo, his sprawling bar-restaurant at the heart of the Cabo San Lucas action, and the booze-swilling tourists celebrate with him.
"It's a big deal — a big, big, big deal," said Raymond Corral, 55, who has lived in Cabo San Lucas for eight years. "Other than spring break, Sammy Hagar's party is the thing."
When Sammy Hagar's birthday is one of your calendar's notable events, it says a lot. And what it says about Cabo San Lucas is true: it's a party place. It's where people go to forget their lives up north. The all-inclusive resorts, the waiters pouring tequila into the mouths of slim, bikinied women, those women dancing on the beach to electronic beats — it makes Cabo San Lucas 99 percent vacation and 1 percent traveling. Actually, no — it is 100 percent vacation.
But then there is the other Cabo: San Jose del Cabo, 20 miles east and a world away. If Cabo San Lucas is vacation, San Jose del Cabo is traveling: art galleries, cobblestone streets and a central square highlighted by a church dating to the 1700s.
Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo are too estranged to be siblings; they're more like distant cousins who rarely speak even though bound by a name, geography and an airport. As close as the Cabos sit, they also amount to a choose-your-own-adventure where the desert meets the sea. On a recent trip, I chose both.
Cabo San Lucas
My week began at Baja California's southern tip began in Cabo San Lucas, which any local will remind you was a sleepy fishing village 25 years ago. Though high-rise development has thankfully been kept in check, the town's leap into international tourism came without much of a master plan. Cabo's primary beach, which hosts the area's resorts and sand-top restaurants, sits a short disjointed walk from the heart of the entertainment — the bars, the marina, the (ample) strip clubs, the casino, the high-end shopping and the all-important Cabo Wabo. Unlike many Mexican towns, Cabo has no historic center: no central square and no towering cathedral.
With its slightly scattered persona, it feels like the free-for-all that it is. But it also is lovely; stand on the beach, where clear blue-green water meets the sand, and ahead sits a natural bay made by jagged rocks curling into the ocean. Behind the town stands sloping desert foothills studded with green.
But it's easy to suspect that natural wonder has less to do with drawing the American and Canadian hordes than the fact that Cabo San Lucas is an easy place to be; it is a land of beach, bars and bikinis, English, dollars and televisions lit with American sports. You do not need a word of Spanish to get by. (Most important, southern Baja is among the safest places in Mexico.)
Because tourism drives the economy, there also is an endless effort to separate visitors from their money. Offers of jewelry, tours and activities — snorkeling, diving, dune-buggy rides, camel rides, zip-lining, rides on water-propelled jet packs, boat rides to Cabo's famous El Arco stone arch (do it) and world-class fishing — are endless. Muttering "no, gracias" 50 times a day gets tiring, as is being the object of constant attention, even if generally good-natured. It's the tourists who aren't always so good-natured.
"Some people check in here and just go straight to getting trashed," said Jeff Layton, 60, who left Portland, Ore., 10 years ago to open Cabo Cush, an affordable, well-appointed hotel just outside downtown Cabo San Lucas. "Two tequila shots and a beer for five bucks, and you get a couple of those? You're on your way."
Cabo presents ample opportunity to indulge in hedonism and vice; offers of jewelry or cigars regularly veer into more salacious opportunities. I was practically mocked by the boat captain who took me to El Arco one afternoon for not bringing a woman with me. He offered to rent me some companionship.
"Happy ending," he said.
It was dark by the time we got back to the beach and, like every night, Cabo was twitching to life: seeping from restaurants lit by tiki torches was the smell of grilled seafood and the sound of music, be it a mariachi band taking on Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll" or Americans at bright tablecloths singing along to the few words of "La Bamba" that they knew. Dancing and shots soon followed, and believe me, you haven't truly shuddered until seeing women dressed in cultural Mexican garb do the "Y.M.C.A." dance for a bunch of tourists.
Wearing down on Cabo San Lucas, I took a leisurely hour walk the next day around the marina, landing at the beach across the bay (more common is getting there by a 10-minute boat ride). Because people tend to follow people, almost all the tourists baked themselves at a lovely spot hemmed in by dramatic rock shapes called Lover's Beach. But a mere couple hundred yards away, I found my own sliver of undisturbed Cabo and ran headlong into the Gulf of California to bob in the salty blue-green water, refreshed and alone.
Moments like that are why Cabo San Lucas has its devotees, such as Chic McSherry, a Scotsman who visits Cabo four or five times a year to fish.
"Best striped marlin fishing in the world," he said.