YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Cancuning of Cabo

Some worry that the Baja resort's overdevelopment and high prices are driving away tourists.

March 02, 2003|Beverly Beyette | Times Staff Writer

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico — Here at land's end -- where, they say, the sun shines 350 days a year -- gallons of margaritas are poured, migrating whales spout in the Gulf of California, and bronzed and buff tourists lounge poolside at hotels that (for a price) offer every imaginable amenity, from massages under the stars to customized minibars.

But there are clouds on this sunny horizon.

Tourism is suffering. One hears it from the merchants in town, senses it by the empty restaurant tables. Some worry that Cabo San Lucas may be driving away tourists by offering too little for too much.

"People are trying to dress this place up like a ballroom queen and take her out dancing before she's learned to walk," says David Halliburton Jr., whose late father, David Sr., opened the Twin Dolphin in 1977. At the time it was one of a handful of resorts in Cabo and along the 20-mile oceanfront corridor between Cabo and San Jose del Cabo, together known as Los Cabos and dotted with luxury hotels. "They're just jacking their prices up and pretending there's nothing wrong."

Before a recent trip to Los Cabos, I contacted Halliburton, who is pinch-hitting as general manager of Twin Dolphin, and asked if he would show me around and introduce me to some longtime residents who could share the history of the area and discuss its growing pains.

I soon learned that environmentalists, concerned about depletion of game fish in what has been dubbed "God's fish tank," recently won a battle to restrict commercial fishing to 50 miles offshore. There is organized opposition from a group calling itself Defenders of the Bay to a proposal to build a dock at Cabo San Lucas marina so big that cruise ships, which now must anchor offshore, can come into the harbor to disgorge passengers. (More than 400,000 cruise takers were aboard ships calling last year at Cabo.)

Los Cabos makes a point of wanting to be Mexican, not Miami Beach or Waikiki, yet it is teetering perilously close to both. Wrapped in the arms of a $400-a-day hotel, you can easily forget that you're in Mexico -- and the desert at that.

The area's first hotel, the Palmilla, was built in 1956 on the corridor. Guests came by yacht or private plane, landing on a rudimentary airstrip. Where today four-lane Highway 1 takes visitors from Cabo San Lucas to San Jose del Cabo, in the '60s there was only a dirt road hugging this coast; the journey took four hours, dodging a cow or two.

The opening of the 1,000-mile transpeninsular highway from California to Cabo in 1973 brought the first wave of tourists, many in RVs. The tsunami came after the 1977 opening of the international airport near San Jose.

Today there are 8,200 hotel rooms, with 9,100 projected for next year -- up from 5,731 only five years ago. In-season rates at one boutique hotel begin at $250, and rates run as high as $5,000 a night for a three-bedroom suite.

Westin is here, as are Auberge and Rosewood. A Ritz-Carlton stands as a great gray hulk, abandoned when economic turmoil hit Mexico several years ago. As many golfers as fishermen now visit, lured by nine courses, including the oceanfront Jack Nicklaus-designed Cabo del Sol, where prime-time greens fees are $262. Increasingly, visitors come not to golf or fish but to be pampered at luxe spas.

To "old-timers" -- and that includes those who have lived here for 20 years -- there's something of a through-the-looking-glass quality to this. At Minerva's Bait and Tackle in Cabo, ex-Angeleno Bob Smith, who settled here with his wife, Minerva, in 1978, recalls, "This was just a small village. Everybody knew what time it was because they blew the whistle at the [now-defunct tuna] cannery. That was the only industry.

"We didn't make any money, but it was a fabulous community. Everybody was here to help everybody. You don't have that anymore."

Smith, who operates three charter boats, is among those fighting to restrict commercial fishing. "This used to be a great swordfish area. Now you're lucky if you ever see one."

Baja humbugs?

Time shares have become almost synonymous with Los Cabos. Having dodged the airport hawkers who pounce on arriving passengers, I felt victorious -- until at the Avis office my car keys came with a time-share pitch (car discount and free breakfast). "Time scares," some here call them, and the hard sell abounds.

In town, salesmen pop out of booths. At one, Javier offered us a discount on a booze cruise aboard a pretend pirate ship with mariachis and "all you can drink."

Even at the newish Pueblo Bonito Sunset Beach Hotel, about 10 minutes west of central Cabo San Lucas, where the small lobby is dominated by a gilded and silvered carving of an archangel and a painting of cherubs and saints in the manner of colonial Mexico, the desk clerk is pitching the hotel's time shares. (In Los Cabos, time shares piggyback at most hotels.)

Los Angeles Times Articles