It was supposed to be a relaxing, romantic getaway, an escape from work and school and bills and, most especially, ice storms. It was supposed to be a vacation filled with sun, turquoise water, white powdery sand, and fruity drinks with umbrellas. It was supposed to be a chance for my husband to fish, for me to watch whales frolic in the warm waters off of Mexico’s Baja California, where thousands of wrinkled gray, blue, and humpbacked giants migrate each year, finding refuge from the frigid Alaska winter. Not so different than us, I thought, not realizing that an altogether different surprise waited in Cabo San Lucas.
“I can’t wait,” I told John, my husband, on the plane, oblivious to the large numbers of college students on our flight, my only concern whether the airline would lose our luggage for two days again, like it had on our first trip to Cabo. “I went whale watching off the coast of Maine when I was in middle school and it was amazing. And cold. Cabo won’t be cold.”
“I can’t wait for the fishing,” he grinned, patting my thigh while I rolled my eyes. (John is an obsessive fisherman and I am – well – not.)
We landed at the Los Cabos Mexico International Airport, and collected our suitcases with deep sighs of relief before making our way past the locals hawking timeshares, tours and slightly dubious taxi rides, and into the gloriously warm sunshine, to look for the shuttle to our resort. Our stop was last and we crowded into the corner, leaving two older couples and two young women to sit by the doors. The girls must have been 21 or 22, one a bubbly bleach blonde sporting a black fedora, teal scarf, and gray sweater. Monochrome in black and white, her friend wore her sunglasses as a headband in her streaked brown hair, never actually using them to block out the strong Mexican sun as we bounced, shockless, along the Corridor.
The Corridor is the 18-mile stretch of Mexico Federal Highway 1 that runs along the southern tip of Baja California, connecting Cabo San Lucas with the airport, 17 beaches, some of the most expensive resorts in Mexico, and Cabo’s “sister” city of San Juan del Cabo, a smaller, quieter town that shows traces of its Spanish colonial past in its mission-style churches. The Corridor is bordered by magnificent, sweeping vistas of rocks and outcroppings, white sand, and frothy, foaming sea on one side, and the barren, brown desert and distant, scrubby mountains on the other.
“We can get up really early and go to the gym, and then lay out all day before going clubbing,” the blonde gushed to her friend as dull olive, many-armed cacti and bright scarlet and fuchsia bougainvillea flowers flashed outside the window. A desert cross between azaleas and poinsettias, bougainvilleas have leaf-shaped petals tightly clumped together on bushes and vines, with tiny white blossoms like baby’s breath in the center.
“That sounds really good,” the friend said, adding that they should find a grocery store and stock up on alcohol.
“Yes!” the blonde answered before returning to her monologue: She hoped she would manage to have a good time even though she hadn’t gotten the Spring Break she wanted. (The friend she really liked couldn’t come.) Then she described her upcoming semester in Europe, including all the places she would travel that her parents would “find the money for.”
“What resort are you staying at, dear?” one of the older ladies on the shuttle asked, holding her wide-brimmed hat out of the way as she turned to look at the girls. I could practically feel her sigh of relief that it wasn’t hers and, blissfully ignorant of the orgy that awaited us, I couldn’t blame her.
When the driver pulled the shuttle under the large, airy portico of the Me Cabo and began unloading our suitcases, my first thought was that he must have made a mistake. Or maybe we had boarded the wrong flight, because there was no way this scene of chaos was the site of our relaxation vacation. Our ultra-modern, peaceful Cabo resort could not possibly be mobbed with hundreds of loud, drunk college students in swim trunks and bikinis. We didn’t really have to fight our way through a mosh pit to get to the front desk or wait for 20 minutes before a clerk noticed us among three stoned American boys and a British lordling in lime green swim trunks, who demanded Me Cabo let a non-guest stay in his room.
John and I stared at each other, speechless and wide-eyed, thinking the same thing: We could not possibly be on Spring Break, could we? And then a van load of girls arrived toting piles of luggage, 24-packs of Diet Sprite and more liquor than John and I could go through in a decade. It was true. I was 29, John was 27, we were married, we had full time jobs, and we were on Spring Break. We had stupidly, foolishly assumed that the drunken insanity of Spring Break was reserved for Cancun and Puerta Vallarta and Florida, that Cabo was somehow too remote, too upscale for the annual college homage to Bacchus and Voluptas.
We were wrong.
John spent the afternoons napping, for sleeping through the raucous, all-night parties was impossible. Meanwhile, I would sit out on the balcony, staring at the postcard view of Cabo’s Medano beach and the turquoise-to-cobalt water of the Sea of Cortez. Palm trees swayed in sea breezes that brought whiffs of salt and coconut suntan lotion, while glass-bottom boats, parasailers, cruise ships and the occasional yacht floated past in the distance. If I craned my neck to the right, I could even glimpse the natural stone arch known as El Arco, Cabo’s most famous landmark. I had a trashy romance novel for company, but instead of reading, I wondered how John could block out the techno music that blared and thumped from the swimming pool below. Perhaps a hundred college students squealed as they gyrated to the beat and ground against each other. I sat open-mouthed for hours, watching the live soap opera unfold before me, studying the students’ behavior so closely I could have been researching some previously undiscovered Amazonian tribe for my own college anthropology class.
In Spring Breakland, men old enough to go to war pair board shorts with feathered Indian chief bonnets, Rocky bandanas and knee-high socks, and they walk – barefoot – down back streets, which, in sharp contrast to Cabo’s glittering, gleaming façade, were quite dirty with trash that smelled of rotting meat. John and I joked that they would go home with hepatitis, but, in all fairness, I heard someone yell “Does anyone have my shoes?” out in the hall, so maybe a shoe bandit lurked in the hotel. Two or three of them jumped on a giant, floating, pleather pillow, capsizing themselves and the nearly naked girls who had been using it as a tanning bed. Then one jumped back on, threw his arms in the air and screamed “Yes!” before falling overboard again as another girl yelled “I love the cock! I love the cock!” at the top of her lungs.
Was I ever that young? I don’t think so. I know I’ve never been that thin or that toned or that tan. The college girls pranced around in a rainbow of bikinis, showing off the sort of bodies only the very young can have, before real jobs and commutes eat into the hours they spend at the gym. Before they simply give up, deciding that life and a few pounds are worth existing on more than beer and salad.
As I sat in the shade in a one-piece that was about five pounds too tight, sporting blindingly white skin and a few newly discovered gray hairs, I smugly congratulated myself: I didn’t need to look pin-thin and perfect so some flip-flopless guy in Indian feathers would want to hook up with me for a night or two. I was married. My husband already thought I was beautiful, intelligent, engaging. And if he didn’t? Well, he was stuck with me anyway. That’s what I told myself, at least, not wanting to admit that I was secretly a bit jealous.
I wasn’t old, but they were free, free to do anything, free to go anywhere. Like the blonde from my shuttle, I had once wanted to live in London or Quebec or Hawaii, but I was trapped in a townhouse that was $80,000 underwater and knew it would probably never happen. As 30 approached, I felt as though my window to have the children I wasn’t quite ready for was shrinking by the day, and, at the same time, as though I could have been the college students’ mother. Then the Mexican paramedics came for a tall thin girl with waist-length brunette hair. She was doubled over with what was almost-certainly alcohol poisoning, and my first thought was that if she was my daughter, I would kill her. My mother, who sent me to relatives during Spring Break, would certainly have killed me.
“If that’s our daughter someday,” John said later, after I told him the story as we dined on absurdly expensive mahi mahi (called dorado in Spanish) and shrimp at a quiet five-star resort across town. We sat on a terrace overlooking the vast Pacific, ebony black in the dark, listening to the soothing, low roar of the surf instead of pounding music and drunken laughter. “I’d be on the first flight and all hell would break loose,” he added. I laughed, sipped my Chardonnay, and thought that maybe the good judgment that came with – gulp – age wasn’t a bad thing to have. It meant I wouldn’t wake up in the morning with the mother of all hangovers and a throat raw from having my stomach pumped. I could afford a nice, romantic dinner like this and I would see more of Cabo than the pool and the nightclubs.
The next day, we crowded onto a catamaran with a hundred other tourists – families, other couples, young children and bored, too-cool-for-this teenagers – and bobbed and swayed out of Cabo’s manmade harbor. Like any Cabo cruise (including the sunset cruise we would later take), the boat’s speakers blared a combination of Latin and American nightclub music, and its staff served cocktails – lots and lots of cocktails – at ten in the morning. John and I looked at each other and shrugged. “We’re on vacation,” he said, so we sipped margaritas and piña coladas, leaning against the rails and staring at the beige granite arch, now only 15 feet away. Carved by millennia of waves crashing and roiling at the intersection of the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific, El Arco is La Finisterra, Land’s End, the last dot of solid earth between this part of North America and China to the east, or Antarctica to the south. It’s appropriately massive – 200 feet tall – and solid, unmovable, sun-drenched and water-darkened, dotted with pelican and sea gull guano.
Later, on our sunset cruise, as the sun became a ball of fire and turned the water gold before sinking in a purple sky, we would get an impromptu show: dozens of dolphins leaping and dancing amid the waves. But for now, we headed about a mile beyond the rocks, into deep, open water. The intercom switched to the keening, pitched, zither-like language of whales and we scanned the endless water ahead, squinting in the glaring sun, searching, searching for whales.
“Do you see anything?” I whispered to John after about 20 minutes.
Just then, cries of “Look!” Wow!” “Over there!” echoed throughout the catamaran and everyone rushed to the starboard side where a fountain of water sprayed five feet in the air and cascaded back down in showers of glinting blue foam. Three humpback whales – mother, father and calf – frolicked and played in the sea, first vaulting from the water and then slapping it with their forked, curving tails as they dove back in in a dance the tour guide called breaching. Individually they were ugly, barnacled, charcoal, hulking giants, but together they were overwhelmingly beautiful. “Oh my God. Oh my God,” we all murmured, willing our camera shutters to move fast enough to catch them in their glory. I noticed that the calf never strayed from its parents and I smiled at the innocent, natural scene, thinking how different it was from our hotel pool. Here, at last, was the vacation I had wanted, the Cabo that had captured my heart.
We left after six days, exhausted and bemused, feeling rather like anthropologists or naturalists who had returned to civilization after spending years immersed in studying some foreign culture. Not only had we vacationed among Spring Breakers, we had lived to tell the tale, and would be back to the land of rocks and whales some year soon, although perhaps not in March. In the meantime, though, I could look toward my 30th birthday with, if not excitement, or even equanimity, then with a little less dread, with the knowledge that I while I might not want to turn 30, I wanted to be 21 again even less.
Elizabeth M. Collins lives in suburban Maryland with her husband and their very spoiled yellow Lab, Belle. By day she’s an award-winning feature writer for a defense magazine, by evening she’s a graduate student and by night she dreams of warm, sunny beaches someplace far, far away.