“If you capsize, just listen to the sailors. They’ll tell you what to do!” This was the last instruction from the smiley girl back at the onshore prep station. At the time, I was busy taking selfies of my Extreme Sailing Series ensemble: a neon helmet, a bright red life vest, and a pair of black waterproof overalls, all oddly aligned with my personal aesthetic. But 15 minutes later, once it’s too late to ask questions, her words come ringing right back.

Now, I’m plopped onto a net strung across a 32-foot catamaran called the Lupe Tortilla. Over my head, sails flap wildly as Adonis-like sailors in tight black wetsuits bound back and forth, pulling ropes and shouting words that mean nothing to me. Then, a few that do:

“Four… three… two… one!”

Suddenly the boat tilts to one side. My once cozy perch goes near vertical and a conch-like siren sound fills the air. We’re airborne, the boat completely up and out of the water but for two thin pairs of hydrofoils. As we soar toward shore, I cling to the thin handles and try to keep all of my limbs inside the little square that’s painted on the net. That’s my only job: Stay in the square. Don’t fall off. Don’t get stepped on. Don’t shit your pants in front of the very hot sailors.

A late afternoon sun illuminates the other boats careening around the markers: Oman, Switzerland, New Zealand—eight vessels in all. Beyond, natural rock formations jut out of the blue like fists. I’m in Los Cabos, Mexico, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez, smack-dab in the middle of the second to last race of the year-long Extreme Sailing Series. A very prestigious event, I’m told, bringing together some of the very best sailors in the world to compete in a sport I didn’t know existed until a few weeks ago. It’s called Extreme because of how the boats lift out of the water, traveling up to 48 mph using nothing but the wind.

The fact that a know-nothing random like me is allowed to not only ride one of these boats but to ride one of these boats while it’s racing, seems kind of weird. But during this series, every sailboat in every race holds one guest. Some are sailors’ family members, some journalists like me, some rich folks out for a thrill. I get a few different vague answers re: why, something about fan engagement, something else about weight distribution. Team sponsor Judson Holt tells me it’s mainly just a fun way to scare the shit out of people.

His boat, named after the Tex-Mex restaurant his parents started in Houston, is sailed by the American team. As one of the Series wildcards, they’re new to the series and the boat. They’ve been ranked dead last for most of the weekend, but with yours truly onboard they come in fourth. “You’re our good luck charm!” say the hot sailors. I feel very proud.

Located at the tip of the Baja California Sur peninsula, that long and narrow stretch of land that extends south across the border from the state of California, Los Cabos seems a natural choice for racing luxury sailboats. Here, you’ll find all the trappings of paradise: the white sand beaches, the swaying palm trees, the aquamarine waves. Of course, with these trappings come the tourists—millions of them every year. And they’ve left their mark, on both the landscape and the once-sleepy fishing community’s international reputation. While I’d never been to Cabo before this trip, the word alone conjures disturbing mental images of a sunburned Sammy Hagar screaming “SPRING BREEAAAAAKK!” and puking over the side of a boat. Which, to be fair, is probably something that has happened here at least once.

But although hotel employees still shudder visibly at the mere mention of March, there’s a lot more to Los Cabos than the stereotypes suggest. First off, the name refers to two separate cities: San Jose del Cabo is the quiet sister, with a charming city square and weekly art walks through the gallery district; Cabo San Lucas is where most tourists go, all rowdy bars and white sand beaches lined with resorts.

My own expectations start to shift the moment I pull up to the Bahia Hotel & Beach House in San Lucas, where two other journalists and I will stay for the long weekend. Once the home of Oscar Montaño Herrera, a local fishing legend better known as Don Yoka, the hotel now belongs to a couple from New York. A sleek lobby opens out to the stylish Bar Esquina, where a mix of tourists and locals sip mezcal cocktails, and munch ceviche on an open-air dining terrace hung with pendant lights.

We spend the first day of the Sailing Series at Breathless Cabo San Lucas, the last resort on Medano Beach, sipping tequila and watching the boats cruise around the bay. That night it’s over to another resort, Pueblo Bonito, for a swanky party to kick off the Series. There are Greco-Roman statues in the lobby and black swans swimming in a fountain out front. “Sailing is a metaphor for business,” says a blonde guy with glasses who looks very rich. “The boat is the shop floor, and the sailors are managers.”

“Indeed,” I say, heading over to the buffet table to load my plate with free sushi.

The next day begins as I wish every day could—with breakfast on the beach. SUR Beach House serves fresh takes on Mexican cuisine: sweet baked conchas dipped in dulce de leche, chilaquiles doused in cheese and three types of salsa, eggs scrambled with machaca, a traditional sun-dried and rehydrated beef originating in the north of Mexico.

After breakfast, we drive out along the coast. The landscape grows arid and giant cardon cacti spring up beside the roads like witch fingers. Our guide tells us they can grow over 40 feet tall and live up to 500 years, even on bare rock, with psychoactive properties to boot.

I’m sure there’s a metaphor here, but I’m lulled into a stupor as I gaze out at the passing coastline. The beaches here are stunning but unswimmable, which keeps them pristine—no resorts, no tourists, just stretches of sand and the great blue beyond.

Eventually, we pull up to a white tower with a long curly slide, stark against the desert backdrop like something out of Mad Max. Beside it sits the outpost for Cabo Adventures, a hut stacked with helmets and gear, which serves as the starting post for off-roading trips through the southernmost reaches of the Sonoran Desert.

I’m a little nervous. The last time I went ATVing, I almost flew off a cliff. But the Polaris UTVs Cabo Adventures provides are far more agile than the lawnmower-like clunker that nearly killed me last February. I quickly grow comfortable behind the wheel, and before long, I’m Cruella De Viling my way through dry brush, bouncing over sandy wheel tracks and trying not to whack my passenger in the face with passing branches. The desert is a soothing place, wild and unfamiliar enough to hollow out your soul, at least for a few moments. It gives you a break from yourself.

We drive past a waterfall, then out to a vacant stretch of beach. Well, not entirely vacant. Locals have marked sea turtle nests with sticks; come hatching time, tourists will pay to help the baby turtles journey from their nests to the water.

After our ride, we head back to camp caked in desert dust for a hard-earned lunch of sopes, circles of fried masa topped with beans, chorizo, stewed chicken, and veggies served out of steaming clay pots. We’re feasting under a thatched palapa on the beach when suddenly: “Look! Out there in the ocean!” A pair of whales are spouting on the horizon—some early arrivals down from the Bering Sea, ready to spend the winter months breeding and feeding in the warm waters around the peninsula. It’s impossible not to fall in love, even from such a distance.

After a shower and a quick rest, we head to El Merkado, a trendy, modern food hall packed with upscale bars and restaurants. At La Carreta, we snack on tlayudas, a kind of crunchy Mexican flatbread made from toasted tortilla, refried bean spread, and Oaxaca cheese, washing it down with flights of locally brewed beer from La Querida and cocktails from The Office made with damiana, my new favorite ingredient. Made from an herb that grows wild in the Baja, it has a sweet, floral flavor and is said to treat depression, bedwetting, headaches, and constipation, while also acting as a serious aphrodisiac. The bartender mixes it with tequila, Cointreau, OJ, and lemon juice and calls the drink La Nalguita Feliz, which translates to something along the lines of “happy butt cheeks.” Seems apt.

Dinner takes place at CarbónCabrón, the shared brainchild of brothers Alfonso and Ignacio Cadena. A dark sister to their two all-white concepts, La Leche (which means “milk”) in Puerto Vallarta and Hueso (which means “bone”) in Guadalajara, CarbónCabrón (which means something along the lines of “charred bastard”), brings a similar symbiosis of flavor and design. Architect Ignacio has painted the walls black, with floor-to-ceiling stacks of smoked wood logs—more than 6,000 in all—sectioning off shared dining tables. Chef Alfonso mans an enormous grill spitting flames and stacked with caveman-sized bones of sizzling marrow he’ll sprinkle with parmesan to form a brulee-like crust. “When people think grills, they think meat,” says the chef, who resembles an aging rock star (which, in fact, he is) with his shaggy gray hair and goatee. “But you should see what I can do with vegetables.”

He’s not lying. The elote is to die for, corn cobs charred smoky, their creaminess defying the light mustard and garlic vinaigrette that dresses them. There’s grilled melon and asparagus and a carrot that tastes like it was grown on a superior planet. Margaritas are blackened with activated charcoal. I leave smelling like a campfire, and I don’t even mind.

We spend the next morning at Wild Canyon Adventures, 300 feet high and 2,673 feet across on the longest run. The initial plan was bungee jumping, but I nixed that the moment I got the email. As a 30-year-old woman, I have become unabashedly intimate with my own limits, and rag-dolling off a glass-bottomed gondola is one of them. I opt for zip-lining, instead. Flying, not falling. We go in tandem, a fellow journalist’s shoes tucked into my armpits—once all four of us at the same time, like a family of lemmings wearing stupid helmets. The metal cables whine as we soar over the chasm. Most of the time I try not to look down, but when I do, it’s tall skinny palms and cacti poking up over a layer of scrub brush and, likely, a sandy basin studded with sharp rocks. The zip-line operators dub me rebel girl for reasons unknown. I accept the nickname, opting to omit the part about how I ruined bungee jumping for the whole group.

In the afternoon, I use a few hours of solitude to explore Medano Beach, though solitude is not exactly the name of this game. It’s a populous stretch, resorts offering roped-off stretches of sand lined with reserved loungers. I head past souvenir hawkers and white kids in vacation cornrows to submerge myself in the water—and suddenly, there’s nothing to hear but the snake-like hiss of distant boat engines. This is how you find peace on a packed beach. I could float here for hours.

But soon, it’s time for dinner. As the sun dips, we drive out toward San Jose to Flora Farms, a green oasis snuggled up against the sandy foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains. What began more than two decades ago as a simple yurt and a few parched acres is today a luxurious ode to self-sufficiency, with tidy rows of dinosaur kale and edible cacti, lush foliage and fairy lights. Americans expats Gloria and Patrick Greene (she a farmer, he an architect) maintain 10 acres of organic farmland, 10 luxurious “culinary cottages”, an open-air bar, and a restaurant dubbed Flora’s Field Kitchen. Here, James Beard Award-winning chef Guillermo Tellez and his team spend their days bringing new meaning to the phrase “farm-to-table.”

“The Baja cuisine is mainly focused on Mexican flavors with seafood,” says Tellez. “What we do here is very, very different. We’re doing something more like a farm cuisine. We raise our own animals. We try to do everything from scratch. I would say we’re about 95 percent sustainable.”

Tellez’s menus change with the seasons, growing and shrinking based on the harvest. Nearly every ingredient comes directly from the farm and the Greenes’ 150-acre ranch down the road. Bread, ice cream, even a special house lager is produced onsite. We sip hibiscus martinis and margaritas made with carrot juice, feasting on charcuteries and Tellez’s famous pork chop—which can easily satisfy two. A local band does Lou Reed justice, the shush-shush of “Walk on the Wild Side” mingling with the scent of smoked meat in the warm air. It’s something special, being here; verdant magic sprouting from desert soil.

Last day in paradise.

I wake early, before the sun, and rather than the usual rotation of anxiety and dread, I feel bright and alive, like a lady in a yogurt commercial. Dressing quickly in the creamy gray light, I slip out of the hotel with nothing but my phone (some pathologies cannot die) and walk the two short blocks to the beach. The sun is rising, but it’s still cool. Pelicans nose-dive into the quiet surf, made iridescent by the brightening sky. A local jogging group runs laps over the sand, passing batons. A pair of fisherman—living vestiges of a bygone era—walk out of the water, emptying their tangled nets into a plastic bucket. A man on a horse passes without comment. I skirt the water’s edge, watching my footprints vanish with each wave. This, I think. This is what I came for.

At 8am on the dot, a tropical-sounding cover of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” from a nearby resort will break the silence. A few hours later, I’ll head to the YHI Spa at ME Cabo (where Justin Bieber recently stayed and allegedly was not an asshole), for a deep tissue massage capped off with strawberries dipped in chocolate. I’ll win a coin toss and thus that coveted square of space in the Lupe Tortilla, where I’ll learn to fly. Then dinner at a cliff-side restaurant called Sunset MonaLisa, where a trio of operatic singers will serenade my fellow journalists and I as we dine on gnocchi and pasta with truffles.

Suddenly, I hear a slapping sound behind me and turn around. After a beat, it happens again: a stingray shoots out of the water right in front of me, for a second suspended and gleaming like a tiny jet (or an extreme sailboat) in the golden light—flat and aerodynamic, tail like a dagger, strong enough to vault its entire body several feet over the waves. A lump form in my throat, though I know it’s silly. This is a common occurrence in Cabo. It would’ve happened even if I wasn’t here to see it.

But I am. I’m here. And I saw it.

BY HILARY CADIGAN · FEBRUARY 20, 2018
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