|BAJA'S SEDUCTIVE SOUTHWEST
A laid-back haven for surfers and artistic-minded expats, Todos Santos is Cabo without the Wabo
Article in San Francisco Chronicle
By:Christine Delsol, Deputy Travel Editor - Sunday, November 4, 2001 - San Francisco Chronicle
Todos Santos, Mexico -- As soon as the plane's doors opened at San Jose del Cabo, it hit me - the iodine-tinged heat, weighted with moisture from the sea even in the Baja desert, that surprises me like a welcome-home hug every time I return to Mexico. Recently it felt sweeter than ever: After six weeks of trying to accept the new and nervous place my own country had become, Mexico was still Mexico. I'd come to the southern end of Baja California in search of something beyond tequila shooters and thumping, all-night discos - I was looking for Cabo without the Wabo.
Todos Santos, 47 miles north of Cabo San Lucas on the west cape, seemed a good bet. Although travel magazines have taken to calling it "the next Santa Fe" or even Carmel because of its thriving colony of expatriate and Mexican artists, it remains a traditional Mexican town. About 400 Americans and Canadians live here; rather than working on tans, trolling parties or looking for celebrities, they make their lives here, as artists, waiters, innkeepers, farmers and retirees, letting Todos Santos change them instead of trying to change it.
The hour-and-a-half drive from the airport stretched past two hours as I negotiated low spots in the road that Hurricane Juliette had chewed up and spit out in late September. As soon as the spires and balconies of Los Cabos fell behind, the road reverted to empty Baja highway with the occasional burro nibbling grass inches from the asphalt. The witch's-cap peaks of the Sierra de la Laguna melted into foothills carpeted by deep green scrub, and the Pacific's turquoise hues shifted with the highway's undulations. Countless dirt roads radiated westward, promising the long white beaches the cape is known for.
Todos Santos, lying in the sierra watershed, has the random lushness of palm groves springing up on dirt roads and flowering vines overtaking disintegrating walls.
Truth be told, the town itself doesn't look like much on first glance. Its center is two blocks from the highway, and only a few roads are paved. Many of the buildings are old, but few are picturesque from the outside.
The Todos Santos Inn, owned and restored by Boston expatriate Robert Whiting, is one of those few. The handsome brick building's high, arched entry,
lined with 80-year-old murals, leads to a terrace overlooking a leafy courtyard with a sundial. An art gallery leases a corner of the building, which was built in the 1880s by a sugar baron. It had just opened for the season, and Whiting apologized for the varnish fumes and some of the battle- weary plants in the courtyard: The hurricane had prolonged his chores this year.
I settled into an airy courtyard suite with high ceilings and a large, tile- lined bathroom. Cradled in deep shade and cooled by cross breezes, I never used the air conditioner, even in the 90-degree afternoons.
Around the corner, Fonda El Zagun is known for its fine touch with seafood,
but I ordered a vegetarian taco - which turned out to be a tortilla stuffed with potatoes and served with five sauces and condiments. It was delightful and satisfying, and I went back the next night for more.
In the morning, the tidy plaza was quiet except for men laboring with cement and rebar. The surrounding buildings were more interesting than beautiful: The renovated Teatro-Cine, built in 1944 for workers in nearby mines; the adobe Hotel Todos Santos next door, another former sugar baron's home. In a large adobe across the plaza, the Cafe Santa Fe has a reputation as the best Italian restaurant on the cape, and it draws a steady stream of day- trippers from Cabo San Lucas. It's the baby of Italian chef Ezio Colombo, who fled Cabo to start his own place with his U.S.-born wife, Paula. I was only mildly disappointed that the restaurant hadn't yet opened for the season. San Francisco has plenty of Italian restaurants; I was more interested in a good chile relleno, or carne asada, or even a sidewalk taco.
The butterscotch-colored Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de La Paz, built in 1747 and expanded over the years, takes up one side of the plaza. Its spare, abundantly yellow interior was pierced by a bright blue, stained-glass window above the altar. Jesuit padre Jaime Bravo, finding an oasis fed by an underground stream that supported the nomadic Guaicura Indians, set up a "visiting mission" here in 1724 to provide fruit, vegetables, wine and sugarcane for the parched La Paz mission. A native rebellion ended a brief period as an independent mission, but Nuestra Senora del Pilar de Todos Santos returned to visiting-chapel status and prospered until secularization in the early 1840s.
I had a tasty chicken Parmesan sandwich at Santanas, just off the plaza, and in the hour and a half I loitered under its palapa roof - with an ominous motif of surfboards alternating with shark jaws - I began to sort Todos Santos out. Four Americans on their first trip to Baja quizzed the waiter about the logistics of moving here. While tourists claimed the tables, residents marched in and began a rapid volley of Spanish with whoever was behind the bar to pass time while waiting for a friend, calculate the chances of finding a construction worker or offer to pick something up on a supply run to Cabo. More than one dark-skinned man or woman I'd have sworn was a native suddenly switched to perfectly unaccented English.
When I finally pulled away, hatted visitors with tote bags were popping in and out of galleries, boutiques and restaurants around the plaza. Todos Santos' galleries are among its most striking buildings, but the one that sparked the town's modern revival is amorphous and overgrown.
Post-mission Todos Santos became Baja's sugarcane capital, operating eight mills by the late 19th century. Their rusted machinery and old brick molinos, or tall chimneys, still stand among the newer buildings around town. But sugar prices plunged after World War II, the fresh water mysteriously (and, as it turned out, temporarily) dried up in 1950, and the last mill closed in 1965. The pueblo dozed until events conspired to rouse it again in the 1980s.
Charles Stewart, a refugee artist from Taos, N.M., arrived in 1986, around the time Highway 19 from Los Cabos was completed through Todos Santos and on to La Paz. He still produces watercolor and oil paintings, wooden sculptures and carvings here in his home studio - Todos Santos' only French-designed house, built of wood in 1810, with a wrap-around veranda.
Other artists followed, drawn by the unfiltered desert light and the local culture. Today, the town of about 5,000 has at least a dozen galleries. At Galeria de Todos Santos, Americans Michael Cope and his wife, Pat, display Baja artists such as Gloria Mari V., known for her haunting portraits. The colorful Galeria Logan features bold landscapes, still lifes and portraits by Jill Logan. Galeria Fidencio, in a historic building that once appeared in a Chris Isaak music video, has fanciful religious carvings by owner Fidencio Romero. Galeria Santa Fe offers arts and crafts from all over Mexico.
Still, it's not Santa Fe or Carmel quite yet. Todos Santos requires the time for purposeless wandering that the day-trippers who make up most of the tourist business don't have. And the town's perch on a meseta (low plateau) a quarter-mile inland precludes stepping straight from a bar stool to the surf, so it probably won't become Cabo soon, either.
Linger even a short while, though, and Todos Santos casts a dangerous spell.
Within a day, I lost count of the stories of people who came to visit and never went home again. And maybe that's what made the legend of the Hotel California. ("You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.")
Rounding the corner in front of the church, past a plaid-skirted schoolgirl necking with her boyfriend on a bench, I came to the hotel's pink, graffiti- covered walls and peeling green doors. Until it closed in 1999, the Hotel California was packed with first-time visitors, most of whom bought into the myth that the place inspired the hit Eagles song. (Travel writer Joe Cummings, author of numerous Moon Publishing guidebooks and now a Todos Santos resident, finally tracked down Don Henley to settle the matter: "Neither myself nor any of the other band members have had any sort of association - business or pleasure - with that establishment," Henley wrote back.)
There was no trace of mystique in the musty air wafting through the open windows on the ground floor. But across the street, Manuel Valdez, who once ran the hotel, has opened Exclusivos Hotel California, selling Eagles T-shirts and memorabilia, next door to his Tequila Sunrise Bar & Grill. A group of Canadians has expressed interest in the hotel, and the word "spa" has been bandied about, but nothing has been signed.
I devoted a day to ferreting out a few of the nearby beaches, which are tucked away a mile or two from the highway at the end of unmarked dirt roads. They are well worth the effort - especially if you avoid getting stuck in the sand.
I found the road to Playa Los Cerritos about 8 miles south of town. After helping a Canadian woman whose motorcycle had foundered in a patch of sand on the way, I reached a campsite at the end of the road and saw the gleaming sand beyond. The moderate waves that break along the long, white beach are popular with novice surfers, mostly Californians, and I could see boards bobbing on the waves. Unfortunately, a barricade of burning hurricane debris would have made it a major hike to reach the surf, so I moved on.
The roads are deeply rutted, and they tend to branch out incomprehensibly through fields of corn and other crops. But they eventually get you there. I found something approaching paradise at the beach popularly known as Las Palmas. The road, its ruts freshly filled, led through a palm grove at the base of one of two rocky points that cradle the powdery white sand. Because camping, fires and vehicles were prohibited, the beach sparkled. I saw only six people all afternoon, and two of those were surfers out on the water. Warm waves lapped at my knees, the water clear enough to reveal my toenails, and I realized that this was only one of dozens of such beaches around Todos Santos. It made me wonder how anyone ever mustered the will to go home.
My folly was trying to visit one last beach on the way back. Local fishermen launch their pangas at Punta Lobos, just south of town, and sometimes sell fish fresh off the boat. But I got lost in the most intricate web of branching roads yet and had just decided to turn back when the nose of my rental car sank up to its headlights in sand. The lonely roads no longer seemed picturesque as I spent half an hour digging with my bare hands. Finally a man with truck full of boys and a rope came along and, after three tries, pulled me back to semisolid ground. He wasn't shy about asking for 200 pesos ($24), and I wasn't hesitant about forking it over.
Showered, rested and hungry back at my inn, I remarked to Whiting, the owner, about the predominance of restaurants catering to gringo tastes. Agreeing that Todos Santos could use a really good Mexican restaurant, he said the problem is that the cape has no true regional cuisine. He did steer me to Las Fuentes, whose plump, fresh chiles rellenos made a perfect last dinner.
Driving back to the highway the next morning through streets that no longer guarded their secrets, I saw myself sitting against a cool stone wall in the shade, surrounded by bougainvillea, switching effortlessly between Spanish and English as I worked in a gallery or a bookshop - or maybe on that mystery novel. Cabo, the airport and even home refused to come into focus. I'd checked out, but I was having a lot of trouble leaving.
IF YOU GO
NOTE: Effective November 17, 2001, the area codes for all of Mexico have changed. The area code for the Los Cabos area of Baja California Sur will be (624).
GETTING THERE: La Paz and Los Cabos (San Jose del Cabo) both have international airports; fares to Los Cabos are usually considerably cheaper. Numerous airlines fly from San Francisco, but the only nonstop (2 hours, 40 minutes) I found was on Alaska Airlines.
WHERE TO STAY: Todos Santos Inn, Calle Legaspi No. 33, Todos Santos, BCS, Mexico 23300; phone/fax: 011-52-1-145-0040; e-mail: email@example.com. Two rooms ($85, including tax) and two suites ($125); two more are under construction. Hotel Todos Santos, Calle Legaspi No. 3, Todos Santos, BCS, Mexico 23305; phone 011-52-1-145-0009; e-mail: reservations@hoteltodossantos. com. $45 to $85 (depending on room and season). There is a wide variety of other lodging, from budget to luxury hotels, B&Bs, houses and even a hostel.
WHERE TO EAT: Restaurant Cafe Santa Fe (Calle Centenario, on the plaza) is the star here. Reservations advisable; local phone: 145-0340. Fonda El Zagun (Benito Juarez between Topete and Hidalgo). Vegetarian taco, rice, beans and a beer were 41 pesos ($5). Restaurante Santanas (behind Hotel Todos Santos on Marquez de Leon at Legaspi). Sandwich and drink, 65 pesos ($7.95). Las Fuentes (Degollado at Cuauhtemoc). Chile rellenos dinner and drink, 123 pesos ($15). Caffe Todos Santos (Topete and Obregon). Tucked into one of the loveliest old buildings in town, with excellent if pricey coffee drinks, fresh pastries and bread, sandwiches and breakfasts. Spanish omelet and large fresh orange juice, ($16).
WHAT TO DO:
Galleries: Charles Stewart Gallery & Studio, Centenario and Obregon; Galeria de Todos Santos, Topete and Legaspi (same building as Todos Santos Inn); Galeria Logan, Juarez and Morelos; Galeria Fidencio, Centenario and Hidalgo; Galeria Santa Fe, Calle Centenario on the plaza. Displays at Casa de Cultura (Juarez at Obregon) are devoted to the region's natural history, from the now-extinct Peric Indians to contemporary paintings by local artists. Beaches are generally a mile or two off the highway on unmarked dirt roads. Rip tides and undertows are common, and locals recommend only beaches Las Palmas and Los Cerritos for swimming. Others are fine for walking, fishing, surfing, whale-watching and sunbathing. Good directions and a little patience are essential. I found the guide in the widely available El Calendario de Todos Santos to be most helpful (see below).
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
El Libro Tecolote (Benito Juarez at Marquez de Leon) serves as an informal tourist information center. It also carries foreign and Mexican magazines, new and used paperbacks and books on local history and culture. Here and elsewhere,
Pick up the free, English-language El Calendario de Todos Santos, which lists local events and has a useful map and informative articles. Two useful Web sitesare www.todossantos-baja.com, produced by El Calendario, and www.mexonline.com/todossantos.htm, from the Mexican Tourist Office. Moon's Cabo Handbook is up to date and helpful.
Contact Deputy Travel Editor Christine Delsol at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Todos Santos - Article in San Francisco Chronicle
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Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, Mexico - Last Revision - 26 May 2007 - jat