Updated: Oct 3, 2020
On our last visit to Cabo San Lucas I decided to pay particular attention to things a first time traveler might find beneficial to know. If your plan is to arrive, taxi to your all-inclusive hotel and never leave (certainly a great way to travel!), then most of these won't apply. If you're the more adventurous type, then read on! (Get quick answers to your questions, here!)
Before you go
Call your credit card companies and advise them you will be traveling to Mexico. Failure to do this can get your credit card instantly placed on hold. If you can, bring a debit and a credit card. The debit card is the easiest way to get cash from an ATM if you need it. As noted below, order pesos from your bank so that you arrive with Mexican cash in-hand. See my blog on Travel Tips for packing suggestions and other noteworthy information!.
Arrival Into Cabo San Lucas
On the plane, you will be given two forms: An Entry Immigration Form (FMM) one per person and Declaration of Goods, one per family (bring a pen). It is written in Spanish with English translation. Note that dates are Day/Month/Year (12/09/2020 is September 12, 2020). Once you deplane, follow the crowd to Customs. Depending on the number of planes landing at the same time, your wait could be as little as 15 minutes or up to an hour or more. They will stamp your Passport and the FMM Form and return the lower portion to you. DO NOT LOSE THIS FORM, as you will need to present it at the airport on departure. If you lose it, you can get another, but it will cost you a visit to the immigration office (can be up to an hour or more) and about $40 US.
Once exiting Customs, you will claim your luggage and proceed to an area where they will collect the Declaration of Goods form and you will be asked to push a button; green you're good to go; red gets your luggage a second look. This is also where you will turn in your Declaration of Goods form.
Airport Sales Room
Next, the Shark Pit. You have two doors to exit and it doesn't matter which one you choose. Timeshare people will descend on you like flies to honey. They will ask you, "Do you need a car?" "Do you need a Taxi?" "What hotel are you going to?" Basically they will say anything to get you to stop and talk to them. You now have two options:
Option 1) Allow yourself to be guided to a counter where an engaging salesman will offer all manner of free and discounted items. All you have to do is attend a 90 minute timeshare briefing. If you don't mind spending 90 minutes (or more) of your time, you can get all manner of things, e.g. sunset sails, ATVs, sport fishing trips, cash, etc. They will ask for a small deposit and arrange a time to meet you, usually the next morning. If you haven't arranged a way to get to your hotel, now is a great time to negotiate free transfers, (a one-way trip to Cabo San Lucas can run $60 per person.) They will advise you that if you are not there, they will be waiting outside in vain and lose their commission.
When you get to your hotel, you will be asked if anyone tried to get you to attend a timeshare presentation. Often they will offer to give you everything you were promised, refund your deposit and offer something additional to entice you to attend their presentation instead. Go with your conscious. Remember your promise to the airport vendor, especially if you have no intention of buying.
Option 2) Ignore the salespeople, keep you eyes fixed on the door and don't look back.
You will encounter timeshare salespeople everywhere, your hotel, the grocery store, the rental car agency, along the marina, etc. It is pointless to get angry. This is how they make their living. A polite "no, gracias" or just ignoring them is the best way to go.
A Word about the Timeshare Presentation: It's rarely 90 minutes, plus if you were picked up by van with other people, you are stuck until everyone is ready to go or you can take a taxi back at your own expense.
Rental Cars and Driving in Cabo
Be wary of prices quoted on the internet. A quick check of Orbitz found prices as low as $7 per day and a claim they include 750,000 MX in liability coverage, which is only $35,000 US and extremely limited. It's another $11 US per day to add a Collision Damage Waiver, plus taxes and fees. A reasonable amount is closer to $35 per day or $250 US for 7 days for the smallest, most-basic model. A roundtrip shuttle from airport to downtown Cabo can run $240 for two people. Mexican law requires liability Insurance to be sold with the rental. Many credit cards offer insurance, but don't assume your credit card will cover you without checking with them directly about their policy for Mexico.
Driving in Cabo San Lucas
It's great to have a car if you plan to explore, or if your hotel is not walking distance (i.e., along the corridor) to restaurants or stores. The main highway (Federal Hwy. 1) from the airport to Cabo San Lucas is a beautiful, well-paved toll road and will take you about 25 minutes. The toll fare is 70 MX or about $3 US. You can also take the old highway through San Jose del Cabo and along the corridor. That route is about 45 minutes and affords beautiful views of the coastline along the way.
Topes (Speed Bumps)
Speed Bumps are not like anything you are familiar with here in the US. You will generally find them as you enter a town or within the town limits as incentive to slow traffic down. They don't always have a sign so watch the cars ahead and if you see braking or slowing, follow suit. Hitting one of these at full speed can seriously ruin your suspension or crack an oil pan. In lieu of topes, more and more roads have a series of smaller bumps that indicate you should slow for a curve or an upcoming intersection.
Stop Signs: Within town they are treated more like a 'suggestion' by the locals. Just use caution and watch for cross traffic even if you think you have the right-of-way. A good rule of thumb: The largest vehicle gets his way. Try not to stop abruptly or someone behind might rear-end you.
Traffic Signals: They use the same color scheme, green, yellow, and red, but as they are about to change, the green will start to flicker and yellow is just a blink of an eye before red. When you see the green flicker, prepare to stop. When your green light appears, hesitate and watch cross traffic, before proceeding, just to be safe.
One Way Streets and Traffic Circles
In town, pay attention to the direction of traffic on the smaller, side streets or note which way cars are parked. Some are one-way and not always well-marked. There are two traffic circles that are not for the feint of heart. One is just outside of Cabo San Lucas heading north on Calle Miguel Hidalgo to connect with Hwy. 19 and the other is in San Jose del Cabo. They work just like a traffic circle does in the US, if no one really knows what to do and it's every man for himself. You can avoid the Cabo intersection by heading down the main drag, Lazaro Cardenas, to connect to Hwy. 19. In San Jose del Cabo, just watch carefully, jump in and follow the rule, "let the largest vehicle go first!"
Left Turns: Often, along the highway and close to downtown Cabo San Lucas, left turns are performed by exiting the main highway to a frontage road to the right, going down or up a ramp and then crossing under or over the highway you were just on. It's not difficult; you just need to watch for it.
Note: You still need to pay attention and obey the traffic laws because you can get a ticket. If you are pulled over, they will likely take your drivers license or license plate (yep) and you will have to go to the station to retrieve it when paying your fine. It is not advisable to argue with the local constabulary!
After All That, Should I Still Get a Rental Car??
If you are a terribly timid driver, then maybe not, but nothing here is as hard as it sounds. We've been driving in Cabo for 16 years, before the roads were remotely as nice as they are today, downtown Cabo streets were dirt and traffic signs were few. We have never encountered a problem. Cabo actually has fewer accidents because everyone is watching everyone else and expecting them to do something unexpected. Unless you want to stay put at your hotel or pay for tours, a rental car is great for sightseeing. An hour north on Federal Hwy.19 is the charming town of Todos Santos, where local and expat artists display their handiwork. 45 minutes north of Todos Santos is La Paz where you can swim with whale sharks (in season) and seal lions out at Isla Espiritu Santo. Near La Paz is the historic, El Triunfo, an old mining town established in the late 1700s. You can also purchase tours to do these things, but a car affords you greater flexibility with your time and is certainly cheaper. Closer to town are the beautiful beaches of Chileno Bay and Playa Santa Maria; both excellent locations for snorkeling and swimming in calm waters.
Safety Tip: While the main roads are well-paved and in most cases, four-lane highways, it is not advisable to drive at night. There are no lights and you wouldn't want to hit the occasional cow or get a flat.
Will your GPS work?
Within Los Cabos, yes and for the most part, on the main highways to La Paz. Before leaving the resort, it doesn't hurt to download a map onto your phone, just in case. Recently, we've noticed all manner of cell towers going up throughout the state and few problems with cell signals.
Other Good Things To Know
Gasoline - Since federal deregulation we've seen a few Chevron stations, but Pemex is still the main local gas distributor. You do not pump your own gas. An attendant will fill your car and wash your windshield (or they will if asked). A tip is appreciated. As of 2020, gasoline is about $.72/liter (1/4 Gallon). A dollar (or 22 pesos) is an appropriate tip.
Tipping: Yes, please! Tip everyone, your room attendant, the servers at the pool, gas station attendants, water taxis, tour hosts, etc. They make very little money and are very dependent on tips to subsidize their income. Cash (pesos) is welcome even when you are paying by credit card. This ensures the server gets the full value of your tip. If you pay or tip in US dollars, they will have to go to the bank to exchange it, so MX is preferred.
Naranjada (Nar-en-ha-tha) - This is a non-alcoholic beverage made of orange juice and either flat or mineral water. The reason it's so great is that usually, the orange juice is fresh-squeezed. They will generally ask you, "Con aqua or con mineral?" You want 'Con mineral!' Really refreshing after a hot day in the sun when you want to drink something quickly without getting toasted.
Can You Drink the Water?
The ice served in hotels and the major restaurants in the tourist areas is generally purified. Still I would not advise drinking water from the tap and ask for bottled water in restaurants. It doesn't hurt to take this simple precaution. I've had my share of margaritas served with ice in many establishments and have never been sick. The hotels, especially, are very careful. They want you to come back and a sick tourist is an unhappy tourist.
Spanish or English?
Without exception, all employees in public positions (bellmen, front desk, concierge, activity directors, vendors, timeshare salespeople, etc.) will speak English. Exceptions may be the room attendants, grounds keepers, etc. Many hotels have English language training for their staff so that when they become proficient they can move into higher paying jobs. On the main drag in Cabo San Lucas, most of the restaurant waiters, store vendors etc., will speak English. The farther away you venture from downtown tourism, the less English you will encounter.
Dollars or Pesos?
We recommend you arrive into Cabo San Lucas with some pesos. You can order them in advance from you local bank. The hotels and most shops will accept your credit card but you will need cash for smaller vendors and tips at the very least. Do not exchange US to MX at the airport or at the exchange kiosks in town as you will not get the best exchange rate. In town, if you use US currency you will get your change in pesos. We always travel with a debit card which makes it easy to get pesos from the Bank ATMs. It will cost you a small exchange fee but it's very nominal. Be sure to get what you need to avoid multiple withdrawals (and multiple fees). 1000 pesos (currently) is only $44. When shopping it's handy to carry a 'cheat' sheet so you know how much you are paying for items:
$1 - 22 pesos
$10 - 223 pesos
$100 - 2234 pesos
Should You Bargain With the Vendors?
It does depend on where you go. In the hotel stores or Puerto Paraiso Mall, which houses Luxury Avenue, no one will likely bargain. Once, inquiring about a bracelet for my husband, I was told rudely, "This is not a Sears outlet, lady." OK! Out on the street and in the Mercado, which is close to where the cruise ships dock, bargaining is expected. Personally, I don't bargain on small items because I know they need the money more than I do. However, it's perfectly fine to ask for a reduced price for multiple purchases. Often, if you start to walk out, the price will come down.
If you want to save some money on food and beverage and your room has a kitchenette or full kitchen, buying groceries is a great way to go. Just a short distance from downtown are a variety of large super mercados; Chedraui, La Comer and even a Walmart with a full grocery section. If you don't have a car, you can easily taxi there and back. Get a bottle of tequila, mixer, chips and salsa and have drinks and snacks handy whenever you want without paying hotel rates. Note: Taking booze, coolers and food to the pool is prohibited at most hotels.
Finally, Is it Really Safe to Travel to Cabo? Yes. And not just because of their careful precautions with Covid-19. No tourist destination is crime-free but Cabo San Lucas is heavily protected by both the local and federal authorities. Cabo cannot sustain itself without tourism and to that end, everything possible is done to protect tourists from crime. Additionally, given its location at the tip of California Baja Sur, there is no place for drug traffickers to go. Two main highways, Hwy. 1 and Hwy. 19 are the only routes in and out and they are heavily patrolled. Occasionally, there will be a news story of gang activity but they are few and far between and rarely involve tourists. Los Angeles, Chicago or any major US city for that matter, has far more crime on a daily basis than Cabo San Lucas. Tourists tend to get into trouble when they drink too much or venture late at night or in dark alleyways looking for illicit activities.* Crime in tourist areas (like anywhere in the world) tends to be mostly robberies and pick pockets so don't carry a lot of cash or flash fancy jewelry. Take the same precautions you would in any city and you should have a safe, uneventful, crime-free vacation.
*Getting caught with drugs in Cabo San Lucas is a serious crime that can land you in jail for months awaiting a court hearing.
Did I miss something you would like to know about Cabo San Lucas? Let me know, here. I can take you there!