LOS CABOS: A MEXICAN FIESTA OF FOOD, FUN AND UNIQUE EXPERIENCES
Los Cabos oozes exotic imagery like a romance novel set under vivid pink sunsets.
From the sultry summer heat beading one’s brow to the azure waves cresting and spilling onto pebbly beaches or splashing against the Easter egg turquoise water of infinity pools, this Mexican paradise on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula defies typecasting. Most assuredly there are the expected iced margaritas, thrumming salsa music and platters of tacos and guacamole, but you won’t see men sporting sombreros or women swishing colorful peasant skirts.
Los Cabos is the Mexico of today’s visionary businessmen. Magazine cover-worthy resplendent resorts rise or are renovated at a dizzying pace. Stylized cuisine reflects the recent emphasis on organic farm and sea-to-table ingredients, and there’s an innate savvy response to what leisure and corporate business visitors find appealing, whether it’s Sea of Cortez water adventures, walking through the galleries crowding the narrow cobbled streets of San José del Cabo, or studying the hundreds of indigenous plants that form its landscape.
Many visitors flock to Los Cabos’ two main cities, Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo, in the hottest months of August through mid-October to take advantage of the lower rates, to fry by the pool, slurp frothy tequila or rum concoctions, and if on an inclusive plan, eat whenever they’re hungry. With the Resort Corridor an easy connecting road between the two cities, a night of clubbing or a day of shopping or snorkeling is never more than an hour away.
I was in Los Cabos in early October for a press familiarization trip sponsored by the Los Cabos Tourism Board. As much as I am accustomed to the hot, sunny and humid weather we encountered, I think next time I’d prefer from November to April when I’m told whales swim and frolick just offshore.
While the appeal for corporate and incentive groups may include some of the same elements that lure tourists, there are four factors that predicate group bookings.
- 1. Hoteliers say groups account for 50 to 80% of their business. Of that, roughly 70 to 80% are from California and Texas. The reason? Easy maneuverability through the San José del Cabo and an increasing number of direct flights from the U.S. Dollars are accepted currency. No need to worry about exchange rates.
- 2. Most resort hotels that cater to groups are boutique properties whose attentive service and exceptional safety considerations are notable. One such exclusive property is Esperanza, a 57-room Auberge Resort.During the recent G20 Summit in Los Cabos, President Obama was their honored guest.
- 3. Los Cabos temperatures average mid-70s all year and about 10 inches of rainfall, so inclement weather rarely disrupts events. Outdoor venues with the beach, sky or sea as stellar backdrops equal saved dollars on décor.
From the time I was picked up from the airport and through all of our adventures, we were escorted and given guided commentary by Tony Kayser, customer care manager for Epic Group, DMC/DCO, and her capable, amiable crew. Here’s what I liked most about them: they were always prompt and courteous. When each of us was to return to the airport, we were individually handed a card spelling out our name, pick up time and flight info. There was no fear that a driver would fail to greet me, as has happened on two other trips (but that’s a discussion for another day).
Anyone who has ever read my blog posts knows how passionate I am about cooking, baking, and taking classes from chefs sharing their culinary recipes, so it should come as no surprise that my favorite adventure was at the 17-acre Huerta Los Tamarindos organic farm/restaurant and cooking school in San José Del Cabo.
Before we set about chopping, dicing, mixing and marinating our four course meal from just-picked produce and locally-sourced fish, Chef Enrique Silva gave us a rundown of how he converted a sugar cane plantation kitchen built in 1888 into this sought-after school. He described his role as co-founder of the Organic Market and member of the co-op Del Cabo, the first Mexican organic farm to export herbs and vegetables to the U.S. Tired of the myriad of rules and regulations needed for exporting, Silva now just sells locally.
His college degree was in agricultural engineering but his passion for cooking was learned from his mother. He follows culinary styles (Peruvian cuisine is trending) and refreshes his skills with visits to Oaxaca, considered the center of Mexican regional cooking. Staples of Oaxacan dishes include corn, beans and chile peppers, but local standouts include stylized tamales and varieties of mole sauce.
The farm is situated off twisting, narrow dirt roads. Dining is al fresco on a wide porch overlooking the fields of more than 100 vegetables and herbs and an event space for 250 under a canopy of cissus and passion fruit vines which act as a natural cooling shield. Next to one of the two kitchens is a small gift shop selling artisan goods, spices and canned goods prepared onsite. The restaurant menu changes every two months or with the harvest.
Los Tamarindos specializes in group cooking classes. The upper level outdoor kitchen we used, with a traditional pizza oven and a long community table for splicing and dicing, could hold 18. The kitchen in the grove can hold 85. In his typical team building challenges for about 10, recipes are assigned and teams then have to harvest and clean what they’re going to prepare. “One of our most popular quick team building challenges is making fresh salsa,” says Silva. “They have to pick, chop and plate the salsa for a blind tasting.” 100 max.
A toast of the house special lemongrass tea formally began our cooking lesson. Over the next two hours we prepared a spiced herb oil to marinate five different types of eggplants that we roasted (amazing the varied tastes and textures), an arugula and mango salad, a mahi al achiote and green rice entrée, and dessert of boiled and sweetened fresh pumpkin called dulce de calabaza. We refreshed our palette with the tea and tamarind margaritas rimmed in chile pepper. Do I need to tell you how delicious this meal and drinks were?
While you’re envisioning that, here are two of Silva’s cooking tips:
1. To add a smoky flavor to your food, bake whole peppercorns for 15 minutes in a 250-300 degree oven. Then grind the peppercorns as coarsely as desired. They rimmed the margarita glass and were sprinkled over our meal.
2. Mexican rice is fried first on a medium-hi heat for three to four minutes so it’s not sticky. The grains whiten and make a hissing sound to signal when to add water. Steam it, don’t drown it.
My second favorite adventure was speeding across the Sea of Cortez on a zodiac, heading to a rock-strewn area known for great snorkeling. Along the way, we took a brief side trip to view El Arco (The Arch), Cabo San Lucas’ iconic rock formation at the tip of the Baja Peninsula. One side is the Pacific Ocean and a section of beach known as Playa Divorcio (Divorce Beach) due to rough currents. Zip around the arch and you’re in the calmer Sea of Cortez. Nestled up to the base of the rocks is Playa del Amour (Lover’s Beach). Our host group, Cabo Adventures, prepped us on what our boundaries were for safety and what activities were available: snorkeling, kayaking, canoeing and paddle boarding.
This was only the 2nd time I have successfully snorkeled and only the first in open waters. (The other time was at SeaWorld’s Discovery Cove.) The salty water teared my eyes and I can’t name the colorful fish I spotted, but I loved it until our Cabo Adventures guide chummed the water so we’d see even more fish. I loved spotting them… just not having them literally on top of me! Did some kayaking, but the push of the waves battled my arms more than I was willing to endure for long, so I re-boarded the zodiac, drank lots of water and nibbled on the wafers and oranges Cabo Adventures provided.
One afternoon, a Terramar (DMC) guide led us around San José, a quaint town crowded with art galleries. We took a quick walkthrough Casa Natalia Hotel and Cocina Restaurant, a favorite venue of travel magazines like Conde Nast. A tiled walkway lined with dining tables elegantly clothed split the hotel’s overhanging balconies. Each bore baskets of colorful flowers and greens.
We passed by the famed Wirikuta Garden, home to over 1500 varieties of desert plants from around the world, but didn’t have time to stop this trip. The botanical garden has more than a million plants and three pyramids built from gigantic granite boulders.
Over the span of five days, I stayed at two resorts and visited two others. At each we dined and checked out the amenities. Each property’s uniqueness would appease particular tastes. In each case, privately-owned residences form an upper ring around the edges of the hotel. Those residences often handle overflow registrations.
PUEBLO BONITO SUNSET BEACH
The host hotel was Pueblo Bonito Sunset Beach, a sprawling mammoth complex that required calling for a cart to shuttle from one location to another when in a hurry. The carts were in perpetual motion, so waiting was never long. Sidewalks are only located near the lobby. Vacationers would love this complex. Seven beautiful landscaped pool areas, including their Sky Pool with a rain wall plummeting into the curved structure. Guests can choose inclusive or European plans. The latter means you’re paying for room only. As you should with any resort offering an inclusive plan, be aware of which restaurants are actual participants. Not all are. Also, there are only two free WiFi hot spots. Internet and cell service were almost non-existent.
Do try their upscale La Frida Restaurant, which is $20 a person extra if you are on the inclusive plan. The margaritas were terrific and the food great. The 80-seat restaurant resembles a traditional hacienda with heavy carved furniture in dark tones, an abundance of flowers, and live music. Oh, and check out their spa, Armonia. Unlike most resort spas in light, breezy colors, this one is low-lit with darker colors and stained glass sunbursts in the waiting area. They make their own toiletries under the Armonia brand.
ESPERANZA, AN AUBERGE RESORT
It doesn’t get much more exclusive and intimate than Esperanza Resort. The stunning 57-room boutique hotel’s most recent claim to fame is hosting President Obama when he attended the 2012 G20 summit in Las Cabos. That security level has attracted many world leaders and celebrities such as Jennifer Anniston. Even with the small number of rooms, there are seven outdoor venues. Each can hold up to 150 and small boardrooms can accommodate 40. Sales & Events Manager Hector Hernandez says, “Eighty percent of our group business hails from California. The two-hour flight from Los Angeles, our exclusivity and security are strong attractions.”
Every room comes equipped with binoculars during whale season.
You know those romantic foreign romantic movies where the loving couple is always dining al fresco on some tiled patio overlooking exquisite scenery? That’s just how I felt dining at Esperanza’s signature restaurant, Cocina del Mar. The patio area could likely accommodate a couple hundred, but niches were created to make small groups feel like they were alone under twinkling lights, overlooking the sea. We sat on the second curved tier of one section of the patio. There were a couple of larger areas with intimate dining to our left and then around the bend, a section for a larger group to have privacy. That night a bridal party had decorated everything in that latter area in pink, from the lights to their tablecloths.
We toasted the dinner to come with Sala Vivé, a sparkling wine made in Querétaro (central Mexico). From a menu created just for us and paired with appropriate adult beverages, I first chose Seafood Tortilla Soup with poached lobster, scallop shrimp, little neck clams, crispy tortillas and avocado. It was a delicate broth unlike any Tortilla Soup I’ve ever had. That choice was paired with the Sala Vivé. My entrée was called Inspiration, and it was. The chef’s grilled creation was served with D.O Valle de San Antonio of Chile, my preference over a Chardonnay. I was sure I was much too full for dessert until I saw the chocolate lava cake with cardamom ice cream and hibiscus-plum sauce. That arrived with a glass of Cream of Tequila from Oro Azul. I meant to just take a bite or two…
EL GANZO HOTEL
The next day’s visit to El Ganzo Hotel in the Puerto Los Cabos area was filled with firsts. It was the first hotel I’d ever seen painted completely white. It was the first time I ever sat next to a rooftop concert stage to hear a Grammy-nominated singer perform, and it was the first time I I’ve ever visited a recording studio built inside the lower level of a hotel. Oh, it was also the time I ever tasted Tajín Clásico with lime, a popular Mexican seasoning that we liberally sprinkled in our margaritas and on fresh pineapple and coconut. (I was so impressed with the seasoning that I immediately sought a Mexican grocery on my return home to purchase it.) As I said: a day of firsts.
El Ganzo (meaning goose) is a living ode to art. The hotel opened in the Puerto Los Cabos area in December as the newest in the Grupo Questro Hotels family. El Ganzo caters to groups of about 150, with a clientele generally in the 30s to 60s and who are creative and appreciate art. (No one under 18 is allowed to stay there.) Creating a living monument to art is the motivation behind their artist and musician-in-residence programs.
“Think of El Ganzo as a blank white canvas,” says Ines Munoz, PR and business development director. “Each month we host two or three artists in residence. In exchange for their stay, the artists leave a piece of their artwork on a wall, door or furniture.” As each of the 72-guestrooms is imprinted with art, that artist’s name replaces the room number.
The musician-in-residence program swaps a stay and the opportunity to use the hotel’s underground, state-of-the-art private recording studio for a one-night concert. That’s how our group landed rooftop, stage-front seats for Mexican actress-singer Ximena Sariñana’s concert. I didn’t know what she sang as all but one song was in Spanish, but her warmth, congeniality, and tender ballads didn’t need interpreting.
Cleverly, the hotel records the concert for El Ganzo Sessions and then airs it on the Ganzo Channel, an in-house station available on each guest’s room television. Up next is a filmmaker and videographer-in-residence program to document the artists and musicians as they develop their work.
Many features about El Ganzo Hotel struck me as smart planning. When you step inside, you notice immediately the reclaimed wood and white walls, with occasional splashes of color from the artwork already finished. Each first floor guestroom has both a Jacuzzi tub in the bathroom and one on the balcony, overlooking the ocean. There are three restaurants, one of which is across the marina at the hotel’s Beach Club and accessible by a boat that shuttles back and forth all day.
Also across the marina and opposite the beach club, the hotel built a fisherman’s wharf. The fishermen have a nice place to hang out, clean and filet their fish says Rafael Sanchez-Navarro, director of sales & marketing for Grupo Questro. “They supply us with fresh fish for our restaurants.” The public has access to fishermen’s wharf and boats are frequently chartered for deep sea fishing. “We believe it’s very important to preserve the traditions of our community, not impose our ways on them,” says Sanchez-Navarro.
He says their beach area is one of the spots along the Sea of Cortez that is entirely swimmable, thanks to jetties that form a natural barrier. The hotel offers paddle boarding, kayaks, bikes and outrigger canoes. “Nothing noisy, like jet skis. We encourage a more natural environment.”
Note: Right now there are discounted pre-opening prices. Those rise in February, 2014.
WHAT’S COMING NEXT?
Before the end of 2014, Grupo Questro expects to build a recreated Mexican village with multiple restaurants, nightclubs and a museum around the marina. With the vision to attract larger conferences than the area has ever been able to support, Grupo Questro is also developing at least four new hotels around their marina, totaling more than 2,000 rooms, according to Sanchez-Navarro. Here’s what’s expected:
Secrets opens December, 2013, with 500 suites, a convention center and a ballroom with up to 8,000 sf that will be able to hold up to 800 people, theater style. Secrets will have ocean view restaurants and a golf course. The building resembles a modern hacienda.
JW Marriott opens the end of 2014 with up to 270 rooms.
Ritz Carlton Reserve opens in early 2015 across the marina from El Ganzo with 100 suites. The Reserve is a new brand for the Ritz Carlton family.
Grupo Questro also plans to open three more luxury boutique hotels, totaling about 400 rooms, on another section of the marina and if all goes well, a 500-room Fairmont will rise by 2016.
FIESTA AMERICANA GRAND LOS CABOS GOLF & SPA RESORT
Luxurious decadence was the 24 hours I spent at Fiesta Americana Grand Los Cabos Golf & Spa Resort. Never have I felt so pampered. Never have I had my favorite three tangible “loves”—amazing culinary creations, full-bodied yet silky-smooth red wines, and a massage that leaves one euphorically stupified, all come together in one glorious experience.
Fiesta Americana is 10 minutes from Cabo San Lucas and 15 from San Jose del Cabo. I didn’t come there to wallow in “me time” though. The property has a solid reputation for impeccable amenities that has make it popular for corporate and incentive gatherings.
Fiesta Americana is just one of 110 Grupo Posada properties, Mexico’s largest property investment group. “A planner once described us as having a leisure property with group amenities. It’s a perfect combination that will make our attendees feel like they’re on vacation,” says Mauricio Moncada, associate director of group sales.” The oceanfront resort caters to groups who book 150 to 200 rooms of the 249 available in both the main hotel and in the upper scale Grand Club section. I stayed in the Grand Clulb section, in one of 13 suites. Mine had two bathrooms, large bedroom and full living room. Most groups who come bring spouses, so extended stays are frequent. He says, “We don’t sell rooms. We sell experiences.”
Indeed they do. Take for instance their three-hour Barefoot Experience theme party. Moncada explains that a past GM created a unique party by combining the great wines of the Baja Peninsula region, treatments from Somma Wine Spa and their private, swimmable beach (a rarity on that coast, don’t forget). After guests remove their shoes, they are led to half-barrels filled with grapes… which they then stomp. Twenty minutes of foot reflexology is followed by a tasting of regional wines and dinner on the beach, with the chef centered in the midst of the group.
Of course, if you’re not one who likes getting sand in your toes, maybe you would prefer dining on the Whales Terrace at the Peninsula Restaurant, so named because “From November to the beginning of April you can have lunch and watch them swim by,” says Moncada. 150 max, banquet style.
Wine pairings are de rigueur for group events, but how about ice tea pairings, an invention of Chef Gerardo Rivera to spice up luncheons. While Moncada and I sat on the Peninsula Restaurant terrace, gazing at the waves breaking against the shore, we dined on a customized four course meal, each paired with tea. We began with peach tea and cerviche, simply the best I’ve ever had. That was followed by the lightly breaded, delicate flavors of pirate fish and shrimp taco served with Bugambilia (bougainvillea) tea. Third course was seabass with beans, cactua and chilo ancho accompanied by green tea with ginger. Vanilla tea, cardamom ice cream, chocolate and strawberries finished the meal (and me) off.
The group experience at Fiesta Americana actually begins with registration at a private reception area, an automatic amenity earned with a confirmed booking. The area is an open expanse of marble tile in soft earth tones. Moncada says they shiatsu massage chairs and hospitality tables can be brought in for the welcome. Occasionally the golf concierge will be provided. “We’re in the Cabo del Sol development with two golf courses: ocean and desert courses. Both are designed by Jack Nicklaus. Golf can be charged to the master account for convenience to planners so they only have to pay one bill and not many.”
Fiesta Americana has two boardrooms, one with desks in a u-shaped setup that remain fixed and one room that is bare. Two ballrooms totaling 10,900 sf have 21’ ceilings. Both have natural lighting, beautiful woods and overlook the Sea of Cortez. One of the cleverest ideas I’ve ever seen a resort do is that Fiesta Americana keeps one ballroom set up with tables and décor highlighting their various themes, such as Oaxaca night, mystic night, a night under the stars, or the popular barefoot experience . On the wall, holographic video footage screens teasers of the fun that could be had with each theme. Outside The Grand Slam ballroom is the Fairway Terrace, a favorite location of group breakfasts and luncheons of up to 300. One level below, the smaller Star Terrace overlooks both the ocean course and the ocean. 120max.
Fiesta Americana is horseshoe shaped. All the rooms have balconies with a view and include both a tub and a shower. The palette is done in contemporary shades of sand and earth. There are three restaurants and three bars, each with ocean views.
One of the perks of my job is to experience spa experiences and write about them. (I you’re your whispers of “Poor you,” but someone has to do it.) Somma Wine Spa is my idea of the perfect spa. They use grapes from the Guadalupe Valley and Santo Tomas area of Baja California to fuse into their oils and lotions. I had the 80-minute Le Vin, the resort’s signature massage. Chardonnay grapes were used in the oils that were generously applied to my body using a combination of Swedish, mio-intensive and lomi-lomi techniques. When the treatment ended, my legs felt as rubbery as if I’d just walked off a speeding boat. My therapist rang a sweet gong to reawaken my chi and then escorted me to the lounge, placed a warm coiled towel beneath my neck, and asked whether I’d like a glass of red or white wine. It arrived with a creamy cheese ball and frozen green grapes.
If I had my way, I’d spend days in Somma Wine Spa trying out exotic treatments such as the Choco-Coco Wrap (from the cacao seed) that begins with a mint-white chocolate and coconut granule exfoliation, followed by a cocoa mask and moisturizer. Or maybe I’d want to do the coffee extract and seaweed wrap, or maybe the Chardonnay Clay Wrap or the Lambrusco Red Wine Wrap.
Fiesta Americana was a treat… one I’d love to repeat.
Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. email@example.com; www.ThePsychicLady.com. @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.