The southern tip of the Baja California peninsula looks good and lively these days, but let me remind you how bad it was.
Hurricane Odile struck Los Cabos on Sept. 14, howling at 125 mph. It killed at least five people and forced the evacuation of about 30,000. It tore off the roof of one airport terminal, shattered countless windows, flooded the desert with rain and high tides and scattered red roof tiles along the 18-mile tourist hotel corridor between the population centers of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo.
The entire region was crippled, with looting for days and power and water outages for weeks. International flights didn’t resume until Oct. 8. Many of the area’s most luxurious hotels are still closed, including Esperanza, One & Only Palmilla and Las Ventanas al Paraiso.
Yet today, if you wander the Los Cabos area (population 238,000), you see gorgeous beaches, stark desert and business as usual – the bathers and vendors on Medano Beach, the creamy sand and fresh-scrubbed rock formations at Land’s End, the cruise ships looming in the deeper water, the water taxis puttering in the shallows, the marina touts hawking fishing expeditions, the mariachi struggling to be heard above Mick Jagger on the sound system.
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At the far quieter Bungalows Hotel in Cabo San Lucas, a family business where I stayed in early February, all 16 guest rooms are in service after many repairs, the pool is full, the bougainvillea is in place, and general manager Erik Alonso is once again hugging guests each morning as they arrive for breakfast. Alonso said that since he reopened, business is running ahead of the previous year.
On the peninsular highway to San Jose, I saw more reconstruction and boarded-up doors as well as dozens of workers swarming the walls and roofs of the Hilton, the Hyatt Place and the Dreams Los Cabos Suites, all expected to reopen in coming months.
As February began, about 20 percent of the 14,000 hotel rooms in Los Cabos were still out of commission, most of them in and near San Jose. With some exceptions, such as the Resort at Pedregal, which reopened Jan. 31, the fanciest hotels seem to be reopening at the slowest pace.
“It was the fishermen who came back first,” said Tracy Ehrenberg, owner of Pisces Sportfishing in the Cabo San Lucas marina. Even though the company’s boats have been forced to launch from a different dock since Odile, “we are very, very close to last year’s numbers.”
Pisces’ luxury yacht rental income so far in 2015 is down 20 percent from last year, Ehrenberg said, but its sport-fishing income is ahead 8 percent.
If you’re accustomed to spending less than $400 per night, you need not delay your Los Cabos plans. The sand, surf and desert scenery are as enticing as ever – fish jumping, zip-lines singing, restaurants serving, airport operating. Two new golf courses opened in December: Quivira Golf Club (designed by Jack Nicklaus) and El Cardonal at Diamante (designed by Tiger Woods).
If you’re accustomed to spending more than $400 a night on lodging, however, you may have a harder time finding an available room before June.
Overall, Los Cabos Tourism’s commercial director, Julieta Hernandez, estimated, hotel rates are largely unchanged from last year’s average rate of $225 a night. With 20 percent of the hotel rooms out of action, beaches and sidewalks are less crowded, and vendors are competing for fewer customers.
A tip: Whatever you’re paying, be sure to call the hotel’s front desk in advance for a detailed facilities report, not a call-center representative two time zones away.
And just because you see rubble or rebar doesn’t mean it’s hurricane damage. For all the area’s natural wonders, most city blocks of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo have never been particularly lovely.
Thanks to galloping growth and lax government regulation since the peninsular highway was built in the 1970s, the area has always had plenty of potholes, half-completed buildings and improvised infrastructure.
Of course, you’ll find charm and grandeur too. In the exclusive Pedregal neighborhood of Cabo San Lucas, I arrived at the recently reopened Resort at Pedregal through a torch-lighted tunnel, then stepped out to its El Farallon restaurant, which clings to a cliff side and offers jaw-dropping Pacific views. A chef showed off the day’s catch while a violinist played.
At the end of a dirt road outside San Jose, Flora’s Field Kitchen serves organic meals on an idyllic patio with dangling blown glass and “the amazing Alba, world famous typewriter poet” ready to versify on request.
Meanwhile, in Wild Canyon, an adventure park at the end of the dirt road between San Jose and Cabo San Lucas, eight zip-lines, a bungee-jumping rig and other attractions are back in use after frenetic reconstruction. Apparently, the fast work gave Wild Canyon an edge over competing attractions. So far this year, owner Leon Robles said, his business is up 30 percent from 2014.
Times seem to be tougher among the water taxis. Capt. Armando Ramirez, a 10-year veteran who came to Baja from Sinaloa, Mexico, estimated the business is down 30 percent from last year. Arturo, another veteran water taxi worker who declined to give his last name, thought his shortfall was more like 50 percent.
But Cabo is still Cabo. As Arturo’s boat neared Lovers Beach, an amorous couple in the bow mixed a batch of Cognac-and-Red Bull cocktails and handed out plastic cups so all aboard could drink a toast to nothing in particular.
Check the destination-specific links at www.visitbajasur.travel/en.