Deep in the archives of the TripAdvisor website, you can still find evidence of the immediate impact of the Laguna Beach episode “What Happens in Cabo.” “Does anyone know the name of the hotel where the kids from the laguna beach mtc [sic] reality show stayed at,” user hjpp21 asked on October 27, 2004, the day after the episode premiered. “It looked really nice?”
Created as a (seemingly scripted) reality TV response to Fox’s The O.C., Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County advertised itself and functioned as an in-depth, intimate window into a world most viewers—namely the young viewers, who made up a disproportionate amount of the audience—had never been able to see. The show opened the gates of the gated communities, invited teens to endless sushi lunches on South Coast Highway, and welcomed everyone to pool parties situated on a bluff on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. It was also a show about the fickle nature of adolescent romance, friendship, and the way that every moment feels like a matter of life or death in high school. But underneath all of the manufactured drama, love triangles, and prom proposals, Laguna Beach was a tourism video: Robin Leach’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, only with teenage quarreling. And when the cast made a pilgrimage south of the border for spring break in “What Happens in Cabo,” the show peaked as a lifestyle guide, and mythologized an obscure resort town for a generation.
“What Happens in Cabo” is a crucial checkpoint in the Kristin Cavallari–Stephen Colletti–Lauren Conrad triangle that defined Laguna Beach’s first season. Kristin flirting with a guy named Sam, and then dancing on the bar of a now-closed club called Kaboo, deepens a rift between her and Stephen that had already been growing. Scorned, Stephen then turns to his friend Lauren for comfort and, as the episode’s editing intimates, more than that. But the most important thing about “What Happens in Cabo”—why it’s so strangely mystical and enticing—is that no one ever explains what Cabo is.
“Just ’cause, like, it’s Cabo, y’know?” Kristin says in the first minute of the episode, never quite unpacking the statement. And it goes like that for a full episode, with people referring to this place as though it has an otherworldly control over them; as though the laws of man do not apply within the town’s boundaries. (Indeed, the episode’s title comes from the characters’ oft-repeated declaration that “What happens in Cabo, stays in Cabo.”) No one ever even explains where Cabo is. It could be in the South China Sea; it could be on the moon.
In hindsight, that the characters of Laguna Beach don’t need or seek further information on the place makes sense. Cabo San Lucas is a Mexican resort town nestled into the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, about a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Los Angeles, making it a popular destination for those who live comfortably on the West Coast—but the effect that had on a young, impressionable, much less informed viewer is almost magical. When the only things you know about Cabo are drawn from a quasi-reality show about rich teenagers on MTV, Cabo resembles a sort of Neverland—a place without parents or rules, packed with beautiful people, purchasable alcohol, and emotional narratives.
MTV had been in the business of mythologizing destination towns (and ignoring real-life problems) long before Laguna Beach. The network hosted its first spring break concert in 1986 in Daytona Beach, Florida, broadcasting a horde of young, tan partygoers to an envious audience, while also turning “spring break” into a corporate event to run ads against. From there the network expanded: MTV Spring Break became an annual week-long block of programming, filled with performances from groups like TLC and debauched live shows like the gloriously seedy, Jerry Springer–led Springer Break. Peaking in the late ’90s, MTV Spring Break has not aged well. Clips that can be found on YouTube make the week look like a roided-up white power orgy with too much hair gel involved, but at the time it was the coolest depiction of young adult life available—a sexy, mildly dangerous diversion from real-life responsibility. In turn, the places MTV broadcast from—Fort Lauderdale, Panama City Beach, Cancun—took on reputations as meccas; glamorous destinations where teens could be free, even if the “glamorous” part was, at best, up for debate.
Laguna Beach was merely following in the footsteps of its network with “What Happens in Cabo,” though importantly, doing so on the opposite coast, in a place unmarred by the stench of Spring Break. Laguna simply upgraded the formula, trading in eastern Mexico for western Mexico, grainy talk-show cinematography for high resolution, and hypersexual antics for carefully plotted out, teen soap opera drama. With one episode of TV, Cabo was transformed into teen heaven. There were places to surf—or in Stephen’s case, skimboard. There were giant pools with swim-up bars that kept piña coladas and shots of tequila flowing. And there were nightclubs that (didn’t card and) could serve as ground zero for an earthshaking argument. In “What Happens in Cabo,” the green lights of Kaboo perfectly frame Stephen’s face as he hurls insults across the room at Kristin, and somehow a display of ghastly behavior feels aspirational—at least when seeing the episode as a like-minded teenager, because if only your romantic experiences at the time could have been filled with such pain and such passion.
Cabo has since become ingrained in pop and celebrity culture. Laguna would return two more times in its three-season run; a majority of Ben Stiller’s The Heartbreak Kid takes place at a Cabo resort; and in 2017, Bravo aired a reality show called Invite Only Cabo. Moreover, Cabo has become a go-to destination for celebrities, the four-letter word transforming into a synonym for “lavish vacation” in the pages of Us Weekly. Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez spent New Year’s Eve there this past year; Adam Levine got married there; it’s practically a second home to Jennifer Aniston. But before all that, Lauren and Kristin and Stephen did spring break.
Thus is the power of “What Happens in Cabo,” an episode of TV that turned a town in Mexico into Eden in the minds of its viewers and cemented Laguna Beach’s reputation as a forefather of aspirational, fly-on-the-wall-of-the-million-dollar-mansion TV. Just ’cause, like, it’s Cabo, y’know? Many of us will never really know, but being briefly allowed to guess is what made “What Happens in Cabo” feel so important in 2004.