Cabo: Confessions of a Budget Traveler

Forget pesos, amigos, the secret currency in Cabo is bartering your precious hours for instagramable vacation dreams. We turned "no thanks" into "bottomless margaritas" faster than you can say "fiesta!"
see-through boat

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We have failed the very first commandment of travel: Thou shalt triple-check thine plastic lest it betrays thee at the first coffer of coin. Landing in Cabo, we hit the airport ATM but instead of crisp pesos, the machine spat out an “invalid card” message. My debit card had expired. With a sinking feeling in our stomachs, we realized we were stranded in paradise with wallets thin as a tortilla chip. But hey, maybe this was the nudge we need to discover the free (and fabulous) side of Cabo!

“Let me travel, then see you again, with eyes that shine full of strange days.”

– attributed to Mary Oliver

Armed with my questionable Spanish, a few US dollars (and a credit card, thank god) in our pockets, and a healthy dose of “what the heck”, we set off.

Escaping International Terminal 2 felt like being tossed into a human pinball machine. Men waving pamphlets like battle flags, every step was a negotiation with a chorus of “Taxi? Tours? Shuttle? Hotel?” We finally broke free, blinking in the sun, and began the 10 minute trek to the bus stop at Domestic Terminal 1, leaving the cacophony behind. Once there, a helpful lady led us to a sun-weathered, portly señor who sat on a bench of a bus stop waving small pieces of paper. 12 USD got us 2 bus tickets.

We got on the nice, airconditioned bus, and a few of the locals broke the ice with a warm “Welcome!” The Cabo landscape whizzed past the bus windows and so far, this area wasn’t the airbrushed paradise I’d envisioned.

Buildings showed their age, a patchwork of faded paint and weathered concrete. Sun-bleached stucco mansions stood shoulder-to-shoulder with skeletal steel frames, unclear if they were in the process of being build or torn down. Empty lots laid scattered between structures, untamed potential with stretches of neglect. The best part (as it so often is) were the local people.

A slender hippie with silver curls falling down his back stood up, guitar in hand, and started serenading. He introduced each soulful melody, tracing its roots to the area of Spain or Mexico from which it came. Applause and cheer erupted after each song. This went on for a good part of the 40 minutes that the trip to Hyatt Place took. The hippie then thanked us all for being such a gracious audience, collected tips with a grateful smile and hopped off, his melodies fading into the hum of the engine.

Spotting our bus stop was simple, marked by the huge Selecto supermarket. Later that day we would discover it’s amazing bakery. Limited to just credit cards, Selecto was a godsend. The sun was blazing and the humidity hung in the air, you could taste the seaweed and sunscreen on the breeze.

From the overpass, we spotted our Hyatt Place hotel (3500 – 6500 points a night, if you’re considering). The whole walk took less than 15 minutes and it’s about the same to all the hotels in the Playa Hotelera area, from the all-inclusive Ziva to the sleek modern fortress that is Viceroy. They all stand within a stone’s throw (or 10-15 min walk) from the bus stop.

We sank into the plush armchairs of the airy lobby, our room wouldn’t be ready for another hour. But hey, free, icy strawberry-lime water and wifi? We’re not complaining. Just as we were about to doze off (we set off on this trip at midnight), a concierge struck up a conversation. He regaled us with tales of his childhood in Mexico City, his lucky divorce, his unruly children, and the horrors of living through the big Mexico City earthquake. An hour melted away and we were becoming best buddies.

Then, with a magician’s flourish (and a bulging ring binder), he revealed his true calling. Jose not only wasn’t a friend, he wasn’t even a concierge. He turned out to be a salesman extraordinaire, the banter being but a prelude to his sales pitch. Tours and events poured out of his binder, with price tags that would make Hawaii blush. We politely declined.

But Jose, the ever-resourceful optimist, had an ace up his sleeve. If we attend a short, “definitely-not-a-time-share” presentation, he’d give us one of these amazing, pricey tours for free. We looked at each other, intrigue battling with suspicion in a Mexican standoff. Game on, amigo, game on.

Playing hard to get, we again said no. Saved by the bell (or the receptionist), we grabbed our keys and made a strategic retreat to our room. The first move in our Cabo chess game. See you tomorrow, Jose!

After our stays at numerous Hyatt Place locations, the room felt like an old pair of slippers with its comfy bed, L-shaped couch, spacious bathroom, and the promise of free breakfast. Plus, this one had an ocean view.

We napped, then made our way to the beach, 5 minutes walk away. The water was not suitable for swimming, we were being warned by the signs. The still surface churns underneath with riptides. Still, a lovely place to walk, lounge, picnic and play.

Dreams of candlelit dinners with ocean views faded as we surveyed the Cabo restaurant scene. Prices in California paled in comparison to these menus. We opted for an expedition to Selecto instead. The supermarket was a mixed bag, some things pricier than home, others a pleasant surprise. The bakery isle was pure magic – crusty baguettes, melt-in-your-mouth croissants, and a bounty of fragrant pastries. Needless to say, our humble feast was far from low-carb.

Sunset painted the sky pink as we sat on the sand eating, while local kids played in the twilight. Our first day in Cabo ended with the last buttery flake of a pain au raisin.

We went to sleep with a view of the moonlit ocean shimmering through our window. When morning light broke over the Baja horizon, we found ourselves lingering over the surprisingly decent breakfast buffet. Jose’s presence at the Concierge desk was impossible to ignore, but we managed to avoid his gaze… for a while. Finally, he sauntered past with a gleaming smile. “Buenos dias, amigos! Still no adventure chosen? How about I sweeten the deal? Two tours, any two, just for you.”

Tempting, but we held firm. “We’ll text you if we change our minds,” we said.

The historic center of San Jose del Cabo beckoned. We opted for the quieter stroll down the hotel street. The main road and the beach will also take you there, each about a 50-minute walk.

The town was cute, sprinkled with touristy trinkets and restaurants sporting extravagant price tags. Boys kicked a soccer ball across the expansive Plaza Mujeres, a newlywed couple were striking poses for a photographer, and metal clanked as a crew of men with a crane wrestled with a humongous Christmas tree.

La Lupita, a hip orange-hued taco joint was splashed across every travel blog as the holy grail of tacos, the taco mecca, a must-visit nirvana for anyone with any self-respect. We squeezed in, our culinary anticipation turned up to 11. The air hung heavy with the scent of charred pineapple and spices.

The place was filled with a sea of tourists, phones poised over Instagram-worthy plates. Then came the sticker shock: each palm-sized taco cost from 50 to 380 pesos (3 to 22 USD) and a bottle of beer 190 ($11)! If you’re not familiar with tacos, they are like small tapas, you’d have to get three to five to call it a meal. I had two of the cheapest ones, El Pastor and La Gringa. Honestly? They were pretty damn good.

After a couple more days (which we spent on the beach), Jose finally gave in and offered us 3 excursions for the price of a 90-minute presentation with breakfast and taxis included. “Fine,” we muttered. “Show us the binder.” We signed the papers and picked an open-bar sunset dinner cruise, a glass-bottom boat trip, and a snorkeling tour at Lovers’ Beach. Three tours, one day, enough sunburn to warm us through the rest of winter.

The next day, an 8am van picked us up and spat us out 40 minutes later at the all-inclusive Dreams resort. A young woman with giant lashes blinked a welcome, followed by yet more forms to sign. Then, a breakfast with another employee, a charming lady, chit-chatting about travel. She encouraged us to leave a tip on the table which we refused (on principle, as well as due to our aforementioned ATM fiasco). We were already paying with our time, the most precious currency of all.

A property tour showcased manicured palm trees, sun-kissed pools, and the pristine beach, and culminated in a conference room – round tables, unsuspecting tourists, and an army of grinning timeshare sharks.

The premise? A paltry $20,000 for the dubious privilege of slightly discounted hotel rooms for the next three decades. The supposed 90-minute presentation turned into a four hour (!) game of resistance. Us, calculator clutched like a shield, parrying the charm-offensive of “vacation consultants” trying to sell snow to Eskimos. Tourists fell, one by one, marked by triumphant champagne corks popping, sales people cheering, and glazed expressions on the faces of the victims. We watched, aghast, as their vacation dreams morphed into financial nightmares.

But not us. We emerged victorious, three free tours tucked snugly in our pockets and our wallets intact.

Noontime sun beat down as we bartered with reality. We had to drop either the snorkel or the glass bottom tour to make it back in time for the dinner cruise. The taxi was already waiting, instructed to take us to the marina where we found Kike, Jose’s designated skipper, smiling from his big, straw hat. He said there were not many fish to be seen today so we skipped the snorkel tour.

Kike’s glass bottom boat turned out to be a porthole-in-the-floor boat, as we noted with raised eyebrows. Soon other passengers joined us, tired expressions on their faces, as if they’ve also endured a morning of sales pitches. We were handed orange neon vests, the engine sputtered to life, and we were off, skimming across turquoise waves.

An energetic guide, barely old enough to shave but radiating enthusiasm, narrated our adventure. Picture-perfect beaches around each corner, rock formations jutted out of the ocean, and islands drifted beside us. Pelicans skimmed the water at arms length, and, at a nearby boat, a daredevil seal, with a flash of silver fangs, snatched a fish out of a man’s mouth. Gasps, laughter, and frantic camera clicks ensued.

We took turns at the front of the boat, posing for photos. I handed my phone to a kindly stranger next to me. Bless his soul, he captured twenty glorious shots of hubby and me, each one lovingly bookended by his ever-present thumb. This made for even better a souvenir.

We strolled the marina, waiting for our dinner cruise. Vendors weathered from the sun hawking souvenirs and hats. Every ten meters, a gruff “Cigars, señor?” was followed by a conspiratorial whisper: “Weed? Cocaine?”

At four, the CaboRey yacht shimmered into view, a majestic beast promising endless feast and libations. Stepping aboard, we were met by the gracious staff, a buffet table full of delightful local food, and offers of drinks. I wanted “whatever that lady is having”, pointing to a sunset-colored glass. A mango margarita! Just what the doctor ordered. Mark stuck to the basics.

As we all dug in, whispers turned into chatter and laughter. The yacht slid through blue waters near Land’s End at the very tip of the Baja Peninsula. It was the same rock formation we’d seen on our “glass bottom” trip.

The sun melted into the horizon and the sky’s lava hues mirrored the sweet cocktail in my hand. The boat became a floating party – everyone made their way to the upper deck where a live band hammered out old classics, turning even the stiffest gringos into twirling kids.

This one lady in a flowy dress, clinging to her youth with the tenacity of a barnacle, got her feathers ruffled when her partner wouldn’t dance with her. She was sulking for an hour when he stood up and slipped a bill to the guitarist with a song request. The first notes of “Hotel California” sounded. With one leap, she was on the dance floor, leaving her relieved husband to enjoy his tequila in peace.

I stood at the bow watching the sunset, hubby’s arms wrapped around me. Sailboats bobbed on the horizon and everything was just perfect. There are times in life when you just know that no picture or words can capture the beauty of an experience. That dinner cruise might just have become one of those moments for me.

That was our last full day in Cabo. We thanked Jose and told him that the damn presentation devoured one of our excursions. “I’ll catch you next time,” he said.

Were free margaritas worth four hours of “investment” pitches? Jury’s still out, Cabo, but my sunburn and singalong-induced sore throat say maybe, just maybe.

The next day we flew to Mexico City, and the Earth itself moved. Read the full story here: How We Got Rattled by a Mexico City Earthquake. We also got some alone time with the iconic Teotihuacan pyramids.

2 thoughts on “Cabo: Confessions of a Budget Traveler”

  1. Štavnaté, slnečné, voňavé, a nekonečne zábavné, napísané ľahkým perom.
    Jedine, čo mi je ľúto,.že ten palec na.mobile nebol.môj 🙂

    Čakám na ďalšie príbehy!

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