Mexico: 8 Days in Cabo Pulmo with Children
Traveling outside the big resort town of Cabo San Lucas takes a little extra effort and planning but is well worth the trouble: imagine miles of uncrowded beaches, stellar desert hiking, and night skies untouched by city lights. This loop itinerary includes accommodation suggestions in Cabo Pulmo, a hidden waterfall hike, beach recommendations, and finishes with a spectacular coastal drive on well-maintained dirt roads back to the airport.
This is Baja as its finest!
Several airlines have direct flights to Los Cabos International Airport (SJD). Although sleek and modern, the airport suffered extensive damage by Hurricane Odile in September 2014. It’ll take awhile before flight status screens, ceiling tiles, and windows are fully replaced and functional. Before leaving the airport, hit up the ATM machine. These are hard to find outside of the tourist centers and many local merchants (especially in the small towns) don’t take credit cards. Cash is king. Rent a car from Cactus Rental Agency, a local company without any hidden fees. They can send you a quote via email before your departure and have a shuttle to ferry your party to an off-site location.
Many folks are worried about driving in a foreign country and while there are plenty of cities in Mexico in which we’ve been glad of the local taxi service (looking at you, Puerto Vallerta!), we found Baja to be easy to navigate in a private vehicle, especially outside of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. Just be on the lookout for the ever-present topes (speed bumps).
Your next stop should be a nearby gas station to top off your tank. Dollars are accepted (credit cards are not) but the exchange rate is usually unfavorable. Spend some of your freshly obtained pesos here. The folks at Cactus can also point you in the direction of a nearby supermercado (grocery store). There is a large Costco-owned Mega in San Jose del Cabo but getting there (and back) will add an extra 45 minutes to your drive. Small tiendas in Cabo Pulmo will have the basics (fruit, tortillas, milk, eggs) but items such as alcohol, drinking water, cheese, meat, and condiments are best purchased at the larger supermarket near the airport. Don’t forget to the little iodine drops to wash your veggies.
Fully gassed up and loaded down with food, point your car north on Highway 1 for approximately 50km. Take the right-hand turn at Las Cuevas toward La Ribera/Cabo Pulmo. Bear right to CP in La Ribera for another 16 miles on paved, and then dirt roads. We had a small VW Vento sedan and it handled the track here, and the slightly tougher road south of Cabo Pulmo without any problems. Here is a complete route map of our trip.
Cabo Pulmo Accommodations
There are several housing options available in Cabo Pulmo. We spent a week holed up in the magical El Encanto rental house near the center of town. Constructed and furnished by an artistic owner, the home is ideal for larger families or groups of friends. Our family of two adults and two children occupied the main house while grandparents slept in a separate upstairs suite and a friend set up residence in the on-site casita. The house and suites can also also be rented piecemeal. The house was very kid-friendly (following the temporary removal of a glass coffee table) and bird watchers will delight in the enclosed gardens. Our children spent their time chasing frogs, rinsing off in the outdoor shower, and building fires in the fire pit. The beach is a two-minute walk away, as are several restaurants and dive centers. Those looking for a game of tennis or hiking in the nearby hills can also leave directly from the house. There is no pool but visitors, should they patronize the dive shop/restaurant across the street, can often be granted access to the Cabo Pulmo Dive Center pool. At the time of this writing, the house came equipped with snorkel gear, sand toys, and beach chairs, in addition to a nice selection of books and movies. The wifi was a bit temperamental but best in the living room. A crib and spare bed can be set up for an additional fee. The only down-side was nightly noise: we stayed over the Christmas holiday and several nearby restaurants had live bands that played until the wee hours.
Those wanting a quieter experience should look for rentals in the nearby Los Frailes community as Cabo Pulmo activities are only a short drive away. Looking for a little more luxury in the middle of the desert? We’d spring for Villa del Faro.
Cabo Pulmo Activities
Most folks head to Cabo Pulmo for the diving as this is one of Mexico’s only coral reefs. The area was officially protected in 2005 after being named a national marine park following a successful grass-roots campaign by the community. Fishing in prohibited within the area and dive boats can only remain within the park boundary for a few hours before returning to shore. The reef took a beating in 2014 thanks to Hurricane Odile (again!) but the massive schools of jacks that congregate in the area, which subsequently draw bull and tiger sharks, are worth seeing. In the Spring months, whales, manta rays, and whale sharks add to the biodiversity of the area. Prepare for chilly water (we geared up in 5ml hooded wetsuits) and big fish.
Cabo Pulmo will be enjoyed most by active families. Horseback riding, mountain biking, and fishing can also be found. Our family spent a delightful few hours hiking the extensive trail network in back of the house. Windsurfing and kite sailing are popular an hour north in Los Barriles. Looking to park yourself by the pool, eat at fancy restaurants and indulge in a bit of shopping? Then Cabo Pulmo is most definitely not for you.
Winter in Cabo Pulmo can often be windy. If your beach umbrella refuses to stay put, pack up and head 20 minutes south to Los Frailes. Here you’ll find the intrepid overlanders camped out on the beach amongst the fishing boats. The northern bluff protects this beach from the winds and the seas are calmer, making this an ideal spot for a spot of swimming and snorkeling. It’s about a ten minute walk from the parking area north to the bottom of the bluff. On the way home, stop in at the wooden shack and purchase fresh fish for dinner. Prices vary but many fish can be purchased for a few bucks. You’ll pay extra to have it cleaned, or you can perform the task yourself at the nearby cleaning table. The waiting sea gulls and pelicans will thank you.
A nice day trip is to the Sol De Mayo waterfall, about an hour and half away near the town of Santiago. Head south on Highway 1 until you see signs for Santiago (a few kms from the main road). Bear right just before entering the main square and follow the signs for the Sol De Mayo Cascada. The final ten miles includes dusty, but well-mainted dirt tracks. Bring water and food as the entrance station is often low on supplies. The waterfall is a delicate and surprising oasis amongst the desert vegetation. Done your swimmers for a brisk swim in the natural pool below the falls; the more adventurous folk can brave a leap from the top of the rocks. But for a nice secluded time, take the right-hand path at the junction and head upriver past the waterfall. Here you’ll find fewer people and lazy stretches of river, perfect for a picnic lunch and refreshing swim.
Returning to the Airport
If you have a flight that leaves in the late afternoon, consider an alternate route back to civilization. Two and a half hours, not including stops, should be sufficient but extra time for picnicking and beaching is a must. From Cabo Pulmo, head south on the coast road through Los Frailes. The road is entirely dirt and heavily washboarded in places but the vistas are spectacular and the beaches unpopulated. Bring plenty of food and water as there are no services between CP and San Jose del Cabo. A few detours near San Jose del Cabo requires some creative routing (look for signs) but gives you an opportunity to ogle some of the Coast’s most expensive homes.
Money: There are no cash machines in Cabo Pulmo. The nearest one is 40 minutes north in Los Barriles. No one, with the exception of one dive shop, accepts credit cards so come prepared with plenty of pesos. Some vendors accept dollars but you’ll find the exchange rate to be unfavorable. Most rooms have safes although crime in Cabo Pulmo (at the time of this writing) was virtually unheard of. We didn’t even get a house key at El Encanto and were quite comfortable walking around after dark.
Los Cabos International Airport
Cactus Rental Car. As of Dec 2014, the fee for an 8 day rental was $350 USD. Ask for Antonio.
Sol de Mayo Waterfall, $8USD, near Santiago
Cabo Pulmo Diving, $75 USD/two tank dive. Ask for Pilu.
Cabo Pulmo Hiking, free. Extensive trail system in back of the town.
Los Frailes Beach, free. Head toward the northern bluff for protected swimming and snorkeling. Don’t forget to purchase fresh fish for a pittance from the fishermen on the way out.
Restaurants in Cabo Pulmo:
La Palapa: Great for lunch as it has an excellent seafood menu and superb view of the water. Gets a bit windy in the afternoon and after dark you can enjoy the seaside location.
La Caballero: Poor ambiance but decent and fairly inexpensive food. We had a nice chicken mole but wished they had more seafood on the menu.
Our Pick: Alicia (of Alicia’s Restaurant) will bring meals to your rental home for about $10USD/person. Her shrimp chile rellenos were spectacular. Also good: the enchiladas.
Our Second Pick: Purchase a fish from the fishermen at Los Frailes. We got an ‘expensive’ one for 100 pesos ($6.5 bucks). Others could be had for about 50 pesos. Just be sure to google ‘how to clean a fish’ as it’ll have guts, head and tail still attached. We filleted ours, ground on a bit of salt and pepper, and stuck it in the oven for ten minutes. It emerged flakey and delicious.