High-design hotels, galleries, and more are challenging preconceived notions and establishing the resort region as a stylish hotbed
– November 5, 2018
Courtesy of Los Cabos Tourism
1 of13Courtesy of Los Cabos Tourism
Los Cabos: Design Destination
If you feel like you’ve been hearing a lot about Los Cabos lately, it’s because there’s a lot going on on Baja’s craggy tip. It’s not just hype. After 2014’s Hurricane Odile, locals and far-flung investors pooled together to reimagine the region. Hoteliers and restaurateurs took to the task with a sense of responsibility that seemed to point toward one goal: Strip down to the reasons people fell in love with Los Cabos in the first place. Now the man-made lays low and shines the spotlight on the natural. Meanwhile more artists—from painters to chefs—are claiming the resort town as a year-round home base and paying respect to the region’s culture through their works. Guest rooms stand awash in hues that echo the desert and sea, dinner tables are set with earthy ceramics and fresh-caught ingredients, and shops and galleries display the vibrant spectrum of Mexican lore. The result, of course, is more dazzling than any gaudy scheme could ever offer.
Before we jump in, you should know Los Cabos is actually two—or, maybe three—places. One is Cabo San Lucas, the newer resort city and spring break funnel. (Though don’t think that means you can’t find pockets of authenticity and powerful design here.) To the east, there’s the 18th-century town of San José del Cabo. Due to its deep historical roots and half-mile distance from the ocean, it’s always managed to retain a local vibe. Combined they make Los Cabos—a blend of the two towns, where the soulfulness of one meets the solid tourist economy of the other to create one of the most dynamic beach regions around. For the aesthetically inclined, it’s the alchemy of high-and-low, authentic-and-pampered, Old World-and-Instagram World, desert-and-sea that creates the ideal scene.
Courtesy of Viceroy Los Cabos
2 of13Courtesy of Viceroy Los Cabos
Architects Have Redefined the Hotel Landscape
By the ‘90s, long-time Los Cabos fans who had been visiting since palapas were the norm were complaining that megaresorts were stripping the area of its charm with their package-deal uniformity. Nowadays, nearly every new construction and renovation is a world unto itself. Viceroy Los Cabos (pictured), designed by savant architect Miguel Angel Aragonés, starts every conversation about modern design in the area. Coconut-white towers erected like a mirage among shallow saltwater pools are stacked in descending height toward the ocean to make the most of the views. Meanwhile, lofty spaces with columns give the angular buildings a cloud-like lightness. The site is both a palate cleanser and an imagination-sparking labyrinth for the over-saturated creative.
JW Marriott Los Cabo Beach Resort & Spa—designed by Seattle’s Olson Kundig (Seattle Space Needle renovation, The Bob Dylan Center in Oklahoma, The Kirkland in Denver)—took a different approach in working with the elements. Where Viceroy looks up and out, the JW stays grounded. Clean lines and dusty shades frame picture-perfect scenes, and some walls are lined with travertine-marble camo to blend with the surrounding sand dunes. Spaces are purposefully expansive, so the multimillion-dollar art collection, custom furnishings, and organic backdrop can coexist, not compete. You’ll wish The Cape, a Thompson Hotel were shoppable when you spot its mid-century mod chairs, edgy light fixtures, sculptures done with driftwood found after Hurricane Odile, and woven textiles—all created by Mexican makers.
On the less upscale—though no less inspired—end of the spectrum, Drift San José was made for frequent flyers who scrimp on lodging in favor of splurging on market finds and farm-to-table dinners. Partnering with local craftspeople, the owner turned an old apartment building into an eight-room hangout, complete with a mezcal bar and a food cart. Acapulco chairs, hammocks, wooden writing desks, and collected curios warm up spartan rooms done with concrete bed frames, big rolling windows, and exposed piping. Open-air communal spaces and potted succulents pay due respect to the scenery. It’s a common thread that runs through this new-old Los Cabos. Despite differences in styles and budgets, all sensible hoteliers play up their strongest asset—location.
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Courtesy of Solaz, a Luxury Collection Resort
3 of13Courtesy of Solaz, a Luxury Collection Resort
Hotels Are Stocked with Collection-Worthy Art
Though high-dollar collectors have long recognized the gallery scene that started bubbling in the ‘90s, El Ganzo may have single-handedly lured the young creative set to Los Cabos. Built by an artist for artists, the 70-room inn on the San José marina hosts a score of painters, musicians, muralists, and writers who leave their mark. From scribbles on guest room walls to sessions recorded in the underground music studio, nothing is off-limits, but artists are asked to consider their Baja experience when dreaming up the in situ works.
Sense of place is also strong at the Solaz, a Luxury Collection Resort (pictured)—a 128-room love letter to the region. Mexican visual artist César López Negrete spent a year traveling around Baja gathering inspiration for the sculptures seen throughout the tow-colored walkways, rooms, and public spaces. “Gabinete del Barco,” a permanent exhibit, exalts the area’s nautical past with regional artifacts such as a fossilized whale skeleton, historical maps, and replicas of old fishing tools.
Before any of these new builds, there was Casa Natalia and its 19 punchy rooms in downtown San José. The stucco jewel box reflects its location steps away from San José’s art district with its folksy paintings and textiles, Talavera pottery, and refurbished antiques. Some of the rooms were designed by two local artists, who can meet up for a tour when you visit.
Gina & Ryan Photography, courtesy of Acre
4 of13Gina & Ryan Photography, courtesy of Acre
Local Farms Double as Design Hubs
It’s a bit surprising to find productive land with rows of human-size sunflowers and roaming peacocks in arid Baja—especially extremely photogenic farm acreage decked out with stylish farm tables, design-forward lodging, and low-key luxe shops. And yet, it’s happening. (You can thank the abundant sunshine, mineral-rich soils, smart irrigation systems, and visionary minds.) Three on-the-farm restaurants stand out along dusty roads about 15 minutes from Plaza Mijares. Flora Farms may seem all manicured and new—with its James Perse live workshop, loads of vines, hard-to-score tables, and a market outpost in downtown San José—but its Baja roots run deep. The owners, a California husband-wife duo, have been farming the land since 2000 and helped launch the Saturday San José farmers’ market. Entire weekends can be spent hopping between the clapboard cottage spa, watching songwriters strum guitars under fairy lights, and snacking on homegrown fruits from the grocery store.
Five bumpy minutes down the road, chef Enrique Silva (an influential Cabos restaurateur with a background in agricultural engineering) runs Los Tamarindos in an 1800s sugar cane ranch. Sign up for the cooking class and you’ll get your hands dirty picking various types of nightshades and herbs under pastel skies before prepping your own dinner of reinvented takes on passed-down recipes. It all goes down with steady pours of wines from Valle de Guadalupe in northern Baja.
Things progress from folksy to sultry at Acre (pictured), found down a no-name road between Flora and Los Tamarindos. Though the looks of this rustic compound would fit just-right in hipstery Tulum, the place can only exist in San José. A rammed-earth slab houses the restaurant, which only plates products grown on the surrounding 25 acres, while 12 overnight treehouses—screened in with local palo de arco twigs and outfitted with outdoor showers and Oaxacan linens—stand among towering palm trees. A roll-call of details for the Instagram-happy zeitgeist range from hand-painted, geometric tiles that trigger shoe snaps to an adorable rescue donkey.
Courtesy of The Cape, a Thompson Hotel/Nick Hall
5 of13Courtesy of The Cape, a Thompson Hotel/Nick Hall
Chefs Plate the Bounty in Inspired Locales
Led by an impressive slate of celebrity chefs and homegrown talent, dinnertime in Los Cabos is now an exercise in inspiration. Enrique Olvera, whom many credit with reigniting the food world’s love affair with Mexico, made a bold statement when he signed up to oversee a restaurant in the region. It makes sense when you learn he sources most of the fish for his celebrated Mexico City eatery, Pujol, from Baja. While the anthropologist-minded Olvera seems to stray at uber-sleek Manta (pictured; located in The Cape, a Thompson Hotel), upon closer inspection his commitment to place is evident. The lauded chef worked with the hotel’s architect and designer to conceive a glassed-in cube with unobstructed views of Los Cabos’ famous Arcos rock formation. Interiors come alive through copper accents and custom details that celebrate the country, like the textured dinnerware he co-designed with a ceramicist in Guadalajara.
A stone’s throw away, Richard Sandoval’s Toro Latin Kitchen & Bar is a sight to behold with its cuboid exterior, sunken bar, and floor-to-ceiling walls of ceramic pots. Located within the same posh community of Esperanza, Auberge Resorts’ open-air Cocina del Mar is completing a top-to-bottom renovation with a revered L.A. designer who gathered materials (stone quarried from a nearby mountain, dinnerware made in a village en route to Todos Santos, honeyed parota slabs) from within a 500-mile radius. In the middle of the hotel-filled corridor that connects Cabo San Lucas and San José, you’ll eat little masterpieces from one of Los Cabos’ few Michelin-starred chefs at the all-inclusive Grand Velas, a Mexican brand that applies exclusivity to the package-deal experience.
Cocina de Autor, helmed by Dutch chef Sidney Schutte, retains the gold-tinged elegance of the fine dining restaurants of yore (tasting menus, white-glove service, and lots of shiny glamour), but adds the mid-century shapes and playfulness preferred today. Back in downtown San José, H Restaurant runs under the radar and leaves a lasting impression. Intimate dining rooms are sandwiched between planked wood ceilings and traditional tiles. Brick walls, shelves full of books and curios, and a charismatic piano player fill the space between.
Another family-run outfit, CárbonCábron, achieves the same warm, underground-like atmosphere, except with a darker, highly stylized vibe. Brothers Alfonso and Ignacio Cadena (one a celebrated chef, the other a guns-blazing architect) came together on this brawny live-fire restaurant, where five communal tables stretch out between partitions of stacked logs, all pointing to a hefty custom charcoal grill and wood-burning oven.
Courtesy of Viceroy Los Cabos
6 of13Courtesy of Viceroy Los Cabos
Bars Could Live in a Design Magazine
Not lagging behind, Los Cabos’ cocktail culture is rising to meet the creativity flowing out of the kitchens. Hotel bars are certainly lookers. At the Viceroy (pictured) for example, the well-heeled sip fizzy cocktails under a web of twigs in two bars—aptly called Nido and Nidito, which mean “Nest” and “Little Nest.” Beyond hotel walls, you might find yourself sipping mezcal at La Lupita in downtown San José. Step through the restaurant’s narrow doorway to find a modern summary of Mexican culture—Barragán color scheme, sugar-skull murals, Talavera tiles, and all. The courtyard gets packed with imbibers who are keen on the lineup of about 30 small-batch agave sippers and live music; make reservations.
A block over, on the roof of a heritage-listed space, the newer Dalton Gin Bar tips its hat to a bygone era with its “Al Capone & Gang” mural, low-watt lighting, and steeple views. However, it doesn’t stay stuck in the past. International DJs and indie bands feature prominently on the events calendar and bartenders spin out gin remixes with names like “Gooptonic.” Cocktails don’t get more beautiful than what you’ll see and sip at Acre. Every glass carries the colors of the orchards and gardens and some benefit from the house distillery, but nothing is overloaded. The power of simplicity shines through as servers in leather-patched aprons deliver crystal coupes and tumblers of honeydew, marigold, and crimson drinks with the subtlest of frills (for example, house hibiscus syrup dribbled to form red frothy hearts on the Besos de Katrina, a curly citrus peel dropped in the Tamarind Old Fashioned).
Courtesy of Montage Los Cabos
7 of13Courtesy of Montage Los Cabos
Spas Are Easy on the Eyes and the Mind
An old-Mexico charm permeates the legendary One&Only Palmilla’s hacienda-style design. After the hurricane, the celeb-favorite resort reopened with a stunning multi-million dollar renovation, worth a gander while en route to your hot stone massage or soul-searching sweat lodge session at the spa. The space can easily pass for a mini resort itself with all the normal spa trappings, along with 13 stone-guarded villas (actually the treatment rooms), a traditional temezcal, and a dapper barber shop.
You can add "largest, most stunning spa" to the list of accolades for the Montage Los Cabos (pictured), opened in May 2018. (Other high points include a favorable position within a cove, one of the only swimmable beaches on Los Cabos’ famously tempestuous coastline, and never-want-to-leave rooms). As you cross the stepping-stone path at the entrance to the 40,000-square-foot spa, you’re enveloped in Zen. Blending Japanese minimalism and Baja-desert warmth, the Mexican designer created a wellness space that is brilliantly subdued.
8 of13wwing/Getty Images
The Art District Is Hopping
When the San José del Cabo Gallery District launched around 1999, there were three galleries in town and a handful of artists eager to draw the right kind of attention to the sleepy, historic enclave. Nowadays, walk around the cobblestoned streets that surround the recently revamped Plaza Mijares (the town square) and you’ll see a bajillion art spaces. No aesthete goes to Los Cabos without a visit to Patricia Mendoza Art Gallery. The chic curator, whose family history in Baja dates back to the 1700s, has a knack for spotting emerging painters from Mexico and beyond. She continues to be a driving force behind the the popular Thursday night Art Walk events that run from November through June.
Mendoza will likely point you to nearby peers, like Galeria Corsica, where collectors trust Edgar Villavicencio to source gems from renowned Mexican artists and bold, undiscovered talent. En route, you’ll hit a myriad of other well-curated stops, ranging from stores dedicated to Huichol beaded crafts and bull skulls to design studios scattered with works in progress.
Courtesy of Shima Shima
9 of13Courtesy of Shima Shima
There’s No Topping Mexican Makers
Considering Mexico’s long history of producing bright textiles, chiseled woodwork, and silversmithing, the modern artisan scene in the country has a lot to pull from. Design at Drift San José follows the boutique hotel’s sleek DIY mood in stocking high-quality, lo-fi goods ranging from locally-sourced natural soaps to wool blankets to canvas and leather duffels. Both Indira & Isidro—run by a husband-wife team—and Eduardo Sanchez Jewelry draw inspiration from time-honored lore and techniques to create standout baubles for far-reaching fan bases.
Shima Shima (pictured), housed in an aquamarine-striped lot in San José, offers all things quirky and small-batch with frilly details, poppy colors, and irreverence (the lucha libre coasters were a favorite). In Cabo San Lucas, waitress-turned-restaurateur Edith Jiménez made her two-story hacienda into an artisan trove, hidden from the Tequila-shooting droves. At La Coyota, every space is dedicated to a different theme: a bedroom belongs to Día de Los Muertos iconography, another has Frida portraits and huipil blouses, the kitchen is covered with terracotta pottery and hand-painted ceramics, and walls host a catalogue of decorative plates.
Courtesy of Visit Los Cabos
10 of13Courtesy of Visit Los Cabos
It’s a Succulent Paradise
The brawny plants that have taken over the decorating world find themselves perfectly at home in cacti-filled Cabos. While many hotels are replanting cacti and agaves (the dry jungle of 145 native and endemic species around Solaz was so well planned to mimic what has always existed, you might not even notice it), the largest ode to succulents is found at Wirikuta. The botanical garden stocks thousands of dry-climate perennials from around the world. At night, a circusy dinner show takes over the site. But by day, you can cruise the 12-acre garden, usually devoid of people, and snap pictures of fuzzy Old Man cactus, flowering Godzillas, and unusual Super Snow varieties.
Courtesy of Gala de Danza
11 of13Courtesy of Gala de Danza
Nightlife Has Grown Up
Spring break lives on in some bars near the Cabo San Lucas marina, but now the after-hours crowd sticks around for innovative soirées that rank high on the global radar. Gala de Danza is the crown jewel of Cabo’s social calendar. Every March, Newport Beach-born dancer Christina Lyon invites avant-garde dancers, choreographers, and musicians for a knockout show in the middle of the futuristic hotel. Picture fiery flamenco-ballet sequences projected on the snow-colored towers and a harpist playing 900-foot strings attached to a six-story building. Guests surround the stage and gawk from their balconies, while headliners (which in the past have included heavyweights like Misty Copeland and Derek Hough), do their best work. It’s a feast for the senses, and a different world from the one you’ll encounter at the Los Cabos International Film Festival, billed as the “Cannes of Latin America.” Floor-length gowns are swapped for breezy cocktail wear and A-listers turn out for handshake deals and screenings of thought-provoking indies from Mexico, the U.S., and Canada. Other artsy fêtes throughout the year, including several music events, intend to further introduce the world to Mexico’s ample creativity.
Courtesy of Los Cabos Tourism/Ben Horton Photography
12 of13Courtesy of Los Cabos Tourism/Ben Horton Photography
Every Scene Is a Postcard
If you stripped away all the stylish hotels, buzzy restaurants, and well-heeled residents, you’d still be left with that craggy shoreline, wavy dunes, and brush-filled lawns. It’s not surprising that pieces of Los Cabos find their way to fashion designers’ collections, paint companies’ swatches, famous novels, and patio furniture lines the world over. Everywhere you look, there’s inspiration. Whether sitting at lunch at the One&Only’s wall-less Agua by Larbi restaurant, hammocking on the palm-lined breakwater near El Ganzo’s private beach, or whale-watching off the coast of Cabo San Lucas, the setting sparks ideas with its saturated palette and varied views. Photographic fodder abounds on a stroll along the narrow streets of the Gallery District and trekking through oases like the 350-acre, wildlife-stocked San José del Cabo Estuary. The weather cooperates 99 percent of the time, so it’s always a good time to dip down south.
Courtesy of Hotel San Cristóbal
13 of13Courtesy of Hotel San Cristóbal
More Eye Candy Is Just a Day-Trip Away
Standing at the very end of Baja’s peninsula—with 1,000 miles of desert behind you and open waters ahead—you’re also only a 50-mile, saguaro-dotted drive from the state-recognized “Magical Town” of Todos Santos. The no-longer-secret surf village houses a population of sun-and-salt goldened Mexicans as well as expats with very good taste and a fierce commitment to keeping TS local. High-rises and billboards are non-existent. Instead, what you can expect is desert-cool boutique hotels, straw-roofed restaurants, and lots of handmade beauty. Texas hotelier Liz Lambert, whose projects have always embodied everything that is great about the Southwest’s Mexican roots, opened Hotel San Cristóbal (pictured) in 2017 on a nearly empty fishermen’s beach. That’s where you’ll want to stay. Meals should all be had outside—whether in a palapa (Alma y Many is a solid choice for authentic eats), on a farm (Hierbabuena’s pizzas won’t disappoint), or in a lush patio (La Copa Cocina’s is gorgeous). If you can peel yourself away from the blissfully quiet beaches, downtown Todos Santos will reward you with covetable home goods and Insta-ready vignettes. Don’t leave town without a surf session: La Sirena Eco Adventures runs classes for women, taught by women.
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