todos santos baja california sur mexico
Todos Santos - Take A Trip Into ‘The Beyond of Baja,’
For Art, Music, Fine Restaurants and the Illusionary Hotel California

Article by David Mandich - December 01, 2003

Tourists who aren’t into the Cabo San Lucas scene of catching a big fish, playing golf or getting drunk and hanging upside down by their ankles on a fish scale in a bar are happy to discover the sleepy ‘Artists Colony’ of Todos Santos just one hour north of Cabo San Lucas on the Pacific side of the Baja California peninsula. What was once Santa Fe, New Mexico in the 1920´s, later Carmel and Big Sur in the 50´s & 60´s, is now becoming Todos Santos. Whatever that is … or whatever you want it to be.

To get there, rent a car, take the two-lane highway out of Cabo San Lucas, and get prepared to enjoy one of the most spectacular scenic drives to be found anywhere. You will cross over grand arroyos, look down on Pacific coast beaches, off which you may see migrating whales spouting or manta rays the size of baby grand pianos belly flopping. The road meanders up and down hills and across coastal plains covered with thorn tropical vegetation.

At the end of the fall rainy season the desert blooms with bougainvilleas, many varieties of flowering cacti, bushes, trees and millions of butterflies. On a recent trip I estimated one butterfly per cubic meter of airspace over the highway. Upon arrival in Todos Santos the front end of my vehicle looked like a psychedelic art piece. "What a waste", I thought, as I gazed at what appeared to be a butterfly salad tossed at my windshield and radiator grill.

In Todos Santos one can stroll paved (and dirt) colonial era streets of a peaceful village where one will find more art galleries and fine restaurants than cantinas or taco stands. Here you won’t have to fend off Time Share sales people, or ‘street peddlers’ who in Cabo San Lucas, seem to leap out at you from behind every bush and rock.

Missionaries settled Todos Santos during the colonial era, built a church, and began crop production to supply La Paz, fifty miles to the East. By ox-drawn wagon cart. A natural spring-fed river flows through the town center irrigating crops, supplying homes and businesses, and then into the sea, such is the abundance of the precious commodity here.

Todos Santos, is an oasis and microclimate, always ten to fifteen degrees cooler than the rest of Los Cabos. In recent times, it has become an escape for American and Canadian artists, writers and musicians seeking creative space and tranquility as well as art lovers from the world over seeking affordable fine art.

Over the past two centuries, the town slowly grew and even had a bit of a flowering in the early part of the last century when sugar production brought fortune to the town enabling it to build a regional stage theater, baseball and aquatic stadiums and a new church the size of a small cathedral. Imagine … all these big city amenities in a little village farm town of a few thousand souls!

In the middle of the last century as sugar prices fell, so did the fortune of Todos Santos. The town went to sleep (rolled over and nearly died is more apt …) for almost fifty years. The sugar mills became ruins, houses were abandoned and civic monuments like the theater and aquatic stadium began to crumble.

But the locals hung on; fishing, farming, going to church and praying. The truth, should it be told … is that mostly the women and children go to church, whilst the men generally spend their time from Friday to Monday - playing or watching sports. Or standing around under a tree and drinking.

With the completion of the two-lane highway, connecting the village with La Paz and Los Cabos, civilization was now only an hour away in either direction. Before the highway, it was a ten to twelve hour teeth rattling drive in an old farm truck on a frequently washed out dirt road. Five or six days by ox cart before that. Kinda puts things in perspective doesn’t it?

On the weird side - many folks in days prior to the highway, had lived their entire lives in Todos Santos without once visiting the big cities, a killer days drive away. Having lived without TV, radio or a newspaper, the locals "missed" WW1, WW2, the Vietnam War, and everything in between. Whether they missed anything worth missing is debatable, but any discussion of history with a local, is bound to be a bizarre, unrewarding one-sided exercise in futility.

One could surmise that little has appeared on the radar screens of the locals since Cortez set foot in La Paz nearly five hundred years ago looking for pearls and a mythical tribe of gorgeous Amazon-like warrior women. He found pearls and plenty of trouble with the local natives. Early on, in Todos Santos there were some skirmishes with the natives ending in the deaths of some of the missionaries who opposed their polygamy and ‘clothes optional’ way of life. A few hundred years later there was the Mexican revolution of 1910, which caused a bit of a stir. La Coronela, a woman Mexican revolutionary born in Todos Santos, lead armed soldiers into battle. A gallery located in her birthplace now shows contemporary art.

But overall, little changed until the completion of the Transpeninsular highway thirty years ago. Beginning in Tijuana it rolls almost one thousand miles all the way to Los Cabos. And it was on this long, lonesome, desert highway, that artist Charles Stewart and his Cherokee Indian wife Mary Ann, rolled into town some twenty years ago seeking peace and refuge from the exploding tourist art communities of Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico.

Stewart, now in his eighties, paints dreamy paintings loaded with American Indian symbology heavily influenced by the surrealist movement of the 40’s. You can visit the Charles Stewart gallery and residence a short block down the street behind the bank on Juarez Street. Their house is an interesting abode in "French Baja Colonial style." It’s basically a four-room box with a hall down the middle with a covered veranda on all four sides. Stewart hangs his paintings on the exterior walls all around the house and inside on the central hallway walls. Get Stewart talking and he’ll tell you stories of how he was one of General Patton’s tank boys in the ‘Big War.’

Other artists, writers, musicians, masseuses, surfers, yogis, vegans, psychologists, psychos, and assorted not-so-creative types but wanting-to-be, all followed the slow southerly whale migration to Baja California Sur (BCS) and Todos Santos. But lacking the instinct (or intelligence) of whales and returning north after a season, many stayed, seeing Baja California Sur and Todos Santos specifically, as a drift backwards in time … to San Diego two hundred years ago perhaps.

Five years ago, artist (and writer of this article) David Mandich arrived in BCS having left San Diego, California for a trip around the world on his sailboat with his then nineteen-year-old son Alex. The trip ended in La Paz where son swam ashore, abandoning ship and the trip of a lifetime. He hopped a bus to San Diego and then returned a year later. Having learned the ‘error of his ways.’ Both now share an artists loft in Todos Santos.

This past October 2003, both Mandich the Elder and Mandich the Younger, were honored by the State of Baja California Sur, which underwrote a father / son artist exposition at the State Cultural Center in La Paz.

Editor's Note - 2007: David Mandich is now living in San Jose del Cabo.

There are over a dozen art galleries in Todos Santos with offerings ranging from photography, stained glass, Plein Aire landscapes, streetscapes, seascapes, cowscapes and chicken crossings. There’s a faux Van Gogh impressionist landscape artist (will she ever cut off her ear?) and a score of painters who excel at painted copies of photographs of Mexicans standing in Chile fields leaning on a hoe or washing their laundry in a stream. Folks come to visit, dine and buy art here. Prices being better than in Los Angeles, New York or Santa Fe due to the low cost of living, studio and gallery rent here.

But Santa Fe is still Mecca for couch potatoes seeking Sofa Art. For where once upon a time Santa Fe was a village like Todos Santos, Santa Fe is now a town of sixty-two thousand souls with over four hundred galleries! Filled with enough faux Fauvists, Looney Tunes Impressionists, Indian, mountain, cowboy, horse, barn and chicken art to choke on. And it’s all coming soon to a gallery near you in Todos Santos as new galleries are opening here almost monthly.

Rents are increasing in direct proportion with the numbers of bored fifty year, old ex-pat Gringos opening T-shirt, trinket, massage and latte’ tiendas. One highly imaginative Gringo recently even opened a Mexican Restaurant. And local Mexicans say they’ve never tasted anything like it - local Mexicans generally dine at the taco carts or open air palapa restaurants on regional favorites such as tacos filled with freshly caught shrimp, chopped steak, cow’s brains (or eyes), goat, cactus and crickets. Tourists generally opt for more mundane fare from the few but incredibly good local restaurants that can be found in Todos Santos.

Some restaurant establishments have been given rave reviews by New York Times Food Critics further adding to the mystique of the town. Not-to-be-missed is the Los Adobes de Todos Santos Restaurant which features continental food with a Baja twist. The Cafe Santa Fe Restaurant is terrific for northern Italian cuisine, and the newly renovated Hotel California Restaurant offers a bit of both.

A favorite for local Gringo creative types (read old bald headed guys with gray haired pony tails and their New Age wives) is Santana’s palapa bar restaurant (Editor's Note - 2007: Santana's is now closed), featuring New York style pizzas, and huge Greek salads in a lush tropical setting with a sunset ocean view. The palapa overhead is lined with surfboards and half a dozen TV monitors silently running surfing videos.

On Fridays nights, a live (semi-live?) band, often plays, rock of the 60’s or reggae. It’s the perfect place to make a complete fool of oneself in front of the wife and kids as many of us children of the 60’s discover after a couple of beers.

Look for Santanas behind the Hotel Todos Santos and Tres Legaspi Art Gallery, across the street from the main ‘Cathedral Plaza.’ The Santa Fe Restaurant is across the plaza from Santanas. Los Adobes is a half block off Juarez – the main street.

Besides lots of fine and lots of not-so-fine art, great food and the mellow yellow of a Mexican town that time almost forgot, other reasons for visiting Todos Santos include: great surfing at nearby Pescadero and Cerritos beaches, horse back riding down dusty paths, past farms, cacti and casitas, fishing from the beach or from a panga, exploring the colonial brick town, and visiting the famous Cielo Spa located across and down the street from the Hotel California.

At Cielo Spa you can get facials, massages, chiropractic care and cosmetic dentistry at a third the cost of the States. You can dance to Banda music at La Canada del Diablo cantina (really, a decent place where the only lap dancing going on is between friends), attend a mass, yoga class, a concert in the ancient theater, visit the cultural center or Experimental Campo (botanical station) just south of town. Or you can fantasize over the Real Estate shop window photos of colorful Mexican haciendas (with Jacuzzis and palm trees) and ocean front lots for sale.

Years ago ocean front lots in Southern California were going for $25,000. Now you’re lucky to find one for less than 1.5 million dollars. I’m not going to tell you the prices lots are selling for down here, you’ll have to find that out yourself. But I do know some poor artists that own more than one. And many lots go for less than a ten year old used car. And can be traded for one. A good used pick-up truck may even command one with an ocean view.

People who visit Todos Santos generally come for a day in a rented car from Cabo San Lucas an hour to the South. If planning on a longer stay, one can camp free on the beach at Cerritos, stay in a palapa or motel room on the beach in San Pedrito or in one of several hotels ranging from the modern Mision Pilar ($25. for two) $80 at the Hotel Todos Santos, upwards to about $150 at the Hotel California or double that at the Posada La Poza boutique hotel located on the beach west of town.

The legendary Hotel California is known throughout the world as the hotel the Eagles Band song with the same name, made famous. It best exemplifies the dream and mystique of Todos Santos. The band never stayed there. But each year, thousands of tourists visit and pay their respects wanting to believe the band slept there - in room number fourteen, according to one Japanese guidebook. Never mind there are only eleven rooms. People pose for photos in front of the joint, buy T-shirts and other souvenirs all believing the famous song ‘Hotel California’ was about this place in far away Todos Santos, Baja California Sur. And then they plead to see room number fourteen.

To clear the air on the debate, I queried the hotel owner who assured me live and in person, in front of a witness, and looking me straight in the eye - "The Eagles NEVER STAYED at the Hotel California." Now, before you waste your money on that T-shirt, repeat after me: "The Eagles never stayed at the Hotel California." But I believe they did. And I believe they found Elvis there; and Janis Joplin. And I believe Jacko may have dangled his kid (or something else) out the balcony window there as well.

So, as Bob Dylan once sang: "You’ve got to believe in something. " I believe, " It’s getting too dark to see, " and I can’t take it anymore," so I’ll just walk down that lonesome road to Santanas, order drinks and watch the sunset with my wife. Then " I’ll take her home and paint her. And in what better place than Todos Santos."

By David Mandich - December 01, 2003

Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, Mexico - Last Revision - 30 April 2007 - jat