Cabo San Lucas has a reputation.
Mention it by name and the first thing most think of is tequila and the bar where the shots are being served. I went to Cabo my senior year of college (that’s 1993 for anyone doing the math). It was a great place to play as a youngster. Now that I have youngsters of my own, though, it hasn’t been high on my travel list. It just didn’t scream family-friendly.
But the Cabo I knew as a college student is gone. It’s a different Cabo now. And though drinking tequila still reigns supreme, there are plenty of visitors drinking Shirley Temples these days. I was invited to come see the new Cabo San Lucas by Solmar Hotels & Resorts, and was impressed by the number of families I watched play by the pools that serve as the center of Playa Grande Resort.
Cabo San Lucas is an easy trip for West Coasters. Just a 3-hour flight from San Francisco, it’s located about 1,000 miles south of San Diego at the tip of Baja, where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean. Spanish is the official language, but I don’t speak a word of Spanish and didn’t have any trouble communicating. If you’re in town for more than a few days, you can head to a large assortment of ATMs to get Mexican pesos, but don’t stress about it. Dollars are welcome with a smile as well. I actually find it more convenient just to take lots of small bills to Mexico — it makes tipping and souvenir shopping simple.
Mexico has been in the headlines in recent years for all the wrong reasons. The U. S. Department of State has issued travel warnings for citizens considering a trip south. Resort areas on the Baja Peninsula are not mentioned as destinations of concern. The Department of State has a helpful guide to spring break in Mexico that offers tips on what to expect, as well as a reminder not to leave your common sense at home.
The ages of your kids will dictate the type of experience Cabo can offer. The younger the kids, the less active the vacation — think hanging out by the pool and taking naps in the sunshine. The older the kids get, the more options become available. Hotel kids’ clubs are widely available for school-age kids, offering fun activities like arts and crafts and Spanish lessons. Tweens and teens have more of what I like to call “brag about to friends when they get home” adventures.
You can’t truly explore Cabo without getting wet. With a beautiful marina that leads straight out to the Sea of Cortez, there are so many possibilities that deciding what to do can be difficult. Parasailing, scuba, and even snuba are all popular activities for visitors, but if you’re looking for something a little more mellow, consider a kayak tour that allows time to do some snorkeling.
The adventure I went on was run by Cabo Expeditions. A 5-minute boat ride takes passengers outside the busy marina, where you climb into a glass-bottom two-seat kayak. If you’ve never kayaked before, now is the time to learn. Numerous folks in my group had never been in kayaks before, but no one had any problems navigating the Sea of Cortez and the stretches of beaches that lead to the world famous arch.
The two-seat kayaks are very family-friendly, allowing younger children to hitch a ride with parents. Kids age 8 and older will love paddling through the water. If your kids are younger, but comfortable in the water, I could easily see adventuresome younger ones coming along for the ride, with mom or dad doing most of the paddling. Everyone wears life jackets at all times.
The scenery is stunning, but what I really liked about the adventure was what I learned about the area’s fauna and marine life. Our guides did a fabulous job pointing out a variety of native plants, rock, fish, pelicans and other birds. When we reached the arch, the sea lion colony was the focus of our conversation until a whale in the distance stole the spotlight. After tying our kayaks to the boat, we snorkeled for about 45 minutes at Pelican Rock — not so long that we got cold, but long enough to see the beauty of life under water.
Tour companies are plentiful in Cabo San Lucas. We passed several boats crowded with folks preparing to get wet in some way or another. But I was really impressed with the care Cabo Expeditions showed for the Sea of Cortez. More than once, I saw the guides go out of their way to pull trash out of the water. The company has also organized a series of cleanups in the area. Every Saturday through November, divers scoop up trash on the sea floor, while kayakers and others follow the coastline picking up all those picnic extras that got away. This commitment to both clients and the environment earns the group bonus points in my book. The company also encourages participants to use biodegradable sunscreen.
When you find you need a break from the water, head for the Mexican hillside. Tucked away about half an hour from the Los Cabos International Airport is the base camp for an outdoor adventure your family will be talking about for years to come. Think Tarzan meets Mexico: For two hours, you and your kids can explore the Boca de Sierra Biosphere Reserve while flying through the air on a series of ziplines, wire bridges, climbing walls and rappel lines.
I am by no means the brave outdoor extremist type, and will fully admit to feeling a bit nervous before my adventure began, but after the first zipline across the canyon I was hooked. I didn’t do an official count, but I think there were just as many safety-conscious guides as there were guests. They did a fabulous job of explaining what to do and when to do it.
Although I had to stop and take a deep breath before I threw myself over a cliff and started rappelling nearly 100 feet down to the canyon below, I never questioned my safety. This isn’t the type of activity for proud couch potatoes. That said, there were a variety of folks, all shapes, sizes and ages, in my group.
Cabo Adventures welcomes kids age 8 and up, but they must be 4 feet tall. There is also a 250-pound weight limit, and be forewarned, they don’t take your word for it. A shuttle bus will pick up at your hotel and take you to base camp. Before you are allowed to get on the shuttle, you have to step on the scale.
TIP: The shuttle is essential, because most visitors don’t rent a car and it takes a good hour from downtown Cabo to get to the reserve. But traveling by shuttle is also time consuming. Pickups at hotels take time, and if you’re the first one on, that means you’re also the last off. From pickup to dropoff, your kids could wind up spending three to four hours on the shuttle. Bring something like a book or iPod to help pass the time. One last tip, specifically for girls: Wear long shorts, or even capri-style leggings or running pants. The safety gear has a way of making short shorts even shorter.
The biggest strike against Cabo as a family destination is its beaches. They are beautiful, but they are also incredibly dangerous. Swimming on the Pacific side is not allowed due to swift currents and powerful waves. The majority of the beaches in Cabo have seas with severe undertows, riptides and deep dropoffs close to shore. Pay attention to the warning signs; there are no lifeguards. I grew up on the beach and love the water, but I also respect how dangerous it can be and would opt just to stay off of it with my kids.
When choosing where to stay, pick a hotel wisely if hitting the beach is on your list. Only a select few have swimmable beaches in their backyard. Many families gravitate toward resorts with kid-friendly pools. But it’s also important to know that most resorts do not have lifeguards; ask before you make your reservation.
We have a terrific list of family-friendly Mexico hotels and resorts on Ciao Bambino. Note, however, that not all hotel rooms are created equal, particularly if you’re trying to be budget-conscious and squeeze the entire family into one room.
I think it’s best to pay for the extra space and get a suite with a kitchen. On this trip, I stayed in a luxury suite at Playa Grande. With two full bathrooms and a full kitchen, the upgrade saves frustration and money. I talked with numerous families visiting Cabo on vacation, and having a kitchen was the common recommendation. Most said they typically ate breakfast and lunch in the room, and ventured out at dinner. It means a trip to the store when you arrive, but in the long run, in my experience, it’s worth the time and taxi fare. Just tell the driver where you want to go: Costco, Sam’s Club, Walmart — they’ve all found their way to paradise.
Editor’s Note: Dana received complimentary airfare, lodging and activities in Cabo San Lucas as part of a press trip sponsored by Solmar Hotels & Resorts. As always, all opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino.
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