While the term "town and country" is best known for the bustling city of Honolulu as opposed to the undeveloped North Shore on Oahu, that dichotomy exists all over the surf world – San Francisco to Northern California's Lost Coast, Kitty Hawk to Hatteras Island, and quite specifically Cabo San Lucas to the rest of Baja Sur.
Developing Mexico has long been synonymous with adventure. Ever since the first VW Vans navigated the temptations of Tijuana and bounced down the rutted paths south of Ensenada, the Baja Peninsula has held the promise of wave and wonder for those willing to pack up and live without shade for a few weeks, or months - or decades. Today however, within the tip of the Southern Baja Peninsula exists two vastly different worlds for both locals and viajeros. Anyone whose idea of rugged adventure is a 30-minute ride in a glass-bottom boat with a mango margarita between siesta and happy hour will love Cabo San Lucas. It's long been a favorite getaway for the Southern California silicone set (or sets, as the case may be.) But just a short drive into the dust, away from the $2,000-a-night penthouse suites and obnoxious hawkers is a familiar Baja that hasn't change much in decades.
"There's no doubt about it. These are world-class surf breaks here," says Bobby Cain, a Virginian who has lived in Florida and Hawaii and finally settled on Baja, "it fires on the West Coast from November to March. And then the Southern Hemis kick in. Storms that form off New Zealand push south swell. Places like Nine Palms get so epic in May and June. There are pointbreaks with heavy barrel sections that will take you two football fields and drop you off right at the shore."
The Cape Region is as open to swell as anywhere on the US West Coast. And because it is a peninsula, it offers even more potential as Southern Hemi swells can reach well into the east-facing Sea of Cortez. The heavy Pacific swells that have graced California all season have reached all the way down this stretch of Mexican Coast. Summer souths can funnel right past the donkey fiesta that is Cabo San Lucas to both of Baja's shorelines.
Any way you slice the cactus, this is desert country - even more so than Southern California. Baja Sur gets only 10 inches of rain a year, and most of that comes in September when the occasional Pacific hurricane meanders into the coast. A comforting lack of humidity prevents the air from retaining heat, so while daytime highs are in the 80s year round, evenings cool off to flannel weather.
Los Cabos is the municipality comprised of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, twin towns connected by a corridor of exclusive resorts, strip malls, and golf courses on the most southern coast. "Cabo" when rolled of the tequila-tinged lips of vacationers from LA, generally refers to Cabo San Lucas proper – the tourist city erected around a marina that caters to luxury yachts and sportfishing operations. For what they are, many of the resorts are impressive feats of architecture that fit the environment. Even if overpriced, the restaurants are world class and there are certainly fish in these waters. On the very tip of the Pacific Coast, its famed rock formations create the placid Bahia de Cabo San Lucas.
Playa Medano, facing due east, is lined shoulder to shoulder with upscale resort accommodations. It's a place where boardshorts are accented with tribal tattoos, cowboy hats, and sunglasses that don't come off when the sun goes down. Dinners of grilled filet and giant shrimp can easily run $50. The town exists to fulfill American desires - restaurants to get full, bars to get wasted, pharmacies to get medicated, clubs to get stimulated, and entire underground of less legitimate businesses to empty tourist wallets. If you're idea of travel is drugs, sex, and Sammy Hagar, this is your place.
"It's like a big frat party. As long as you're in the confines of a resort, you could be in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, or Mexico. They're all the same. Do you know how quick you can go broke at $5 for a bottle of water?" jokes ex-patriot Bobby Cain.
What Cain, who builds houses and owns the Tropical Casitas rental units in the quiet town of Pecadero, has observed in his twelve years on the Baja, is a "culture of corruption," that works for the local population. He accepts the open graft, citing that much of American government work the same way, under a guise of honesty. But he recognizes Cabo as a laundromat for the powers that be – a resort cleaning money from less legitimate enterprises. Tourists come down assuming that anything goes, but are easily set
"The police work for the jefes (drug dealing organized crime.) You don't sell drugs to tourists without permission. Guys go down to the strip club and drop $100. Then the girl tells them 'meet me at 2 a.m.' Two hours later, they're waiting in the car, maybe snorting some stuff, and the next thing they know there's 25 cops on them."
When tourists find themselves in this situation, overpriced water, snorkeling excursions, and lap dances seem cheap in comparison. But you can't discount that there are Mexican bartenders waitresses, and other service industry workers who make an honest living, and Cain knows the tourism draw is the reason for that.
And even the backpacking purist can't deny the wave potential here from May to November. Prevailing winds are offshore, with different spots handling different angles. The most coveted break is Zippers, a mellow right takeoff that can turn into a hollow zipping inside line from two to twelve foot. Next door is Old Mans, a loggers version of Zippers. And though it's twenty minutes outside of Cabo proper, it still offers the same garish amenities.
The pride of San Jose del Cabo is the Estuary, a right and left beachbreak that can go off its head on the right day. More than one take off zone generally means more waves compared to Zippers. San Jose is a bit more of a "Mexican" town. It's where many of the well-off Cabo business owners live and therefore a bit cleaner atmosphere.
Visitors come into Cabo straight from Los Cabos Mexican International Airport. If any of them headed north, they would find a short stretch of industrial area built to service the businesses of Cabo and tight cinder block boxes to house the workforce – but few of them ever do.
Highway 19 opens up to coastal desert with the occasional Mexican craft shop or taco stand. Some 60 kilometers north of Cabo San Lucas exists a series of points and beachbreaks, the most notable of which are Cerritos, and La Padrita. Three fish tacos will run you less than $5. The majority of surfers here are over 30, as the region lacks is a high-performance Lowers/D-Bah/Off the Wall-type set up.
Interspersed in the dessert are communal farms and a few vacation homes. Cain's casitas are situated among palms that he planted, and face up the point at La Padrita. He doesn't know a single Mexican here who commutes to Cabo.
"This is a good place for the guy who just wants to relax and maybe spend time with his girl. If you're creative -- not someone who needs to eat from a silver spoon when they go away -- there are ways to do it very inexpensively," explains Cain, who is in the process of building campsites adjacent to the casitas.
There are three main breaks in this area. The furthest south is a beachbreak that sits just inside of a headland called Cerritos. Not usually anywhere close to epic, it is the most consistent break in the region, offering that sand-bottom punch that most reefs don't. Off the headland is a slow right. Inside of that is a protected area where beginners ride the whitewater. Just to the south is a peak that has A-frame potential depending on the sand.
Cerritos has some of the Cabo trappings - a few vendors, massage tables right on the beach, and a bar/restaurant. The recently opened Cerritos Surf Colony offers little freestanding villas right on the sand and Costa Azul has a satellite surf shop in a trailer. But all in all, it's still a mostly mellow place.
The next break to the north is in Pescadero, a funky cobblestone point break called La Pedrita. The north end is a heavy section. It becomes more of a peeling point, but the two rarely connect. A little bit of energy can turn mushburger into a world-class meal of well-overhead running rights.
The third in this Cape Region triumvirate is La Pastura, the defacto big wave spot. A day after the Todos Santos event at Killers last week, this spot served up 12-foot faces and reeling rights. At most tides, this wave is still pretty user-friendly, with a big-drop feel for the average surfer. Onshore winds are a problem at all three breaks, though less at Cerritos. The surface gets chewed up by 11 a.m. -- and that can be it for the day. But they are still Baja classics.
In the midst of it all is Todos Santos (not to be confused with the monster wave in Northern Baja.) It's a traditional Mexican town that has become a favorite for artists, ex-pats, and surfers. Brimming with eateries and culture, the hair-product crowd doesn't make it to this more subdued pueblo.
"Really, you could get off the plane and get on a bus that would bring you right here. You can walk to the market, cook your own meals and just surf hard. There's fishing, mountain biking, and hiking here if you're willing to do it by the seat of your pants," says Cain.
This is in sharp contrast to the "herd" mentality tourism of Cabo San Lucas where activities are booked at the hotel, customers are shuttled to a destination where they kayak, snorkel, or ride ATV's in a controlled environment with 3 other groups. But whether you're into having a flaming desert served to your table or cooking over a campfire, it all right there on the Baja.