todos santos baja california sur mexico

Hotel California: Heaven or hype as a flophouse goes upscale

USA TODAY article about Hotel California, located in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur

2/24/2003 - USA TODAY - article about Hotel California, located in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur. By Laura Bly, USA TODAY

TODOS SANTOS, Mexico — "A dream hangs over the whole region, a brooding kind of hallucination," wrote John Steinbeck about the desert that gnaws at the edges of this scruffy but rapidly gentrifying oasis near the tip of Mexico's Baja California peninsula. "The very air here is miraculous, and outlines of reality change by the moment."

Six decades later, reality remains an ephemeral quality in Todos Santos, home to the celebrated — and reopening — Hotel California. Or not.

Legions of rock 'n' roll fans know the urban legend: Down a dark desert highway, cool wind in his hair, the song's character heard a mission bell and checked into the "lovely place" that inspired The Eagles' 1976 hit.

No matter that the Hotel California was a $2.50-a-night dive where intrepid backpackers would be lucky to find a working toilet, let alone mirrors on the ceiling and pink champagne on ice.

Or that Eagles' spokesman Larry Solters says, "It's pure fabrication and a total scam" that the band ever visited the hotel.

Shuttered for the past four years, the Hotel California still attracted vanloads of gullible daytrippers from nearby Cabo San Lucas. They drank in tall tales of colitas (marijuana)-fueled antics with the owner's daughter, or with a nubile beauty in Room 5 (or was it Room 14?) who turned out to be a ghost.

Now, a pair of aging Canadian hippies are hoping to recast the story yet again — with dorado burgers, paintings from local artists and $225-a-night rooms designed to draw refugees from the raucous timeshares and tequila crowd down the Pacific Coast.

"There's a place where legend becomes reality, and this one has taken on a life of its own," says Hotel California's co-owner John Stewart.

Stewart and partner Witold Twardowski bought the place a year ago for the locally tongue-wagging sum of $950,000. They're sinking another $500,000 into renovations and plan to run their own tours from Cabo in a renovated 1960s bus dubbed "The Hotel California Express."

"It's perfectly conceivable" that the song and hotel are connected, argues Twardowski. "But there's a magic and an energy in this town that goes way beyond whether it was written here or not."

Founded by Jesuit missionaries in 1724 and blessed with pozas (natural springs) fed by runoff from the nearby Sierra de la Laguna mountains, Todos Santos thrived for more than a century as a fishing, farming and sugar-cane center.

But it didn't earn a spot on the gringo map until the early 1980s. Then, the paving of Highway 19 between La Paz and Cabo San Lucas began to draw what has become an eclectic cadre of artists, Hollywood creative types and surfers willing to drive a mile or more on unmarked, teeth-rattling roads to reach beaches where pelicans often outnumber boards — and where fierce riptides and steep dropoffs discourage all but the strongest swimmers.

Today, expats make up about 10% of the community's 5,000 residents. They've opened fine-art galleries (13 at last count), stylish restaurants and retreats like the six-room Todos Santos Inn, swaddled by thick walls and exuberant foliage (no phones or televisions allowed).

And they're proud that rosemary focaccia, weekly dharma talks and $6,000 canvases coexist with unpaved streets, mangy dogs and a wake-up call of trucks grinding gears as they wind through town.

"A lot of people think 'artist community' and come here expecting to find poster shops and easels on the sidewalks," says Michael Cope, a portrait artist and gallery owner who represents nearly 20 Mexican and expat painters and sculptors. "We don't have that ... yet."

For now, Todos Santos' untrammeled sands remain the haunt of aficionados like 57-year-old Greg Mitchell, a surfer who is spending the winter in a pup tent a few yards from the impressive breaks at La Pastora beach, and his neighbor Pickle, a tiny blonde who earned her nickname "because she spends so much time in the water."

But changes, and the rumors of change, rustle like the afternoon breeze in Todos Santos' thatch-roofed cafes.

Most of the local souvenir shops hawking silver jewelry, pottery and blankets are owned by Mexicans from outside Baja California, and the cost of living for those born and raised here is rising sharply, says 32-year-old Todos Santos native Juan Nuñoz, a waiter at El Zaguan restaurant.

Though crime — and the walled compounds that characterize so many other expatriate enclaves in Mexico — remain rare here, the recent disappearance and suspected murder of an elderly American retiree has rattled nerves.

Demand for real estate is so strong, particularly since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, that resident wags say Todos Santos could be renamed "Todos Se Vende" ("everything for sale.") And just south of town, a Mexico City developer recently paid nearly $4 million for an oceanfront stretch that will host the area's first golf course, resort hotel and timeshares — or so the scuttlebutt goes.

Of all the rumors and shifting realities in Todos Santos, the Hotel California-Eagles connection has remained the most persistent.

The hotel restaurant opened two months ago, but because of plumbing and electrical problems that have repeatedly delayed room renovations, guests can't yet check in, let alone check out any time they like.

Though the new owners will play the famous tune on request, it no longer blares repeatedly from the bar (which has been relocated and yuppified, with handmade tin and glass light fixtures and lush, Frida Kahlo-esque colors).

But the hotel's candle-filled courtyard still draws pilgrims like "Captain Ron" Brough, who recently dropped by for a cerveza with a group of Harley-Davidson riders on their way from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas.

Does it bother him that Todos Santos' version of the Hotel California has absolutely nothing to do with the song?

That's a reality he's happy to debate.

"This is laid-back, secluded and in the middle of nowhere," says Brough. "It has to be the place."

Local gallery owner and master of illusion Cope ("as in, 'I can't' ") can sympathize.

"When people ask me, 'Is that really the Hotel California?' I tell them, 'Do you want it to be?' " he says.

"If their answer is 'yes' ... then it is."

Six decades later, reality remains an ephemeral quality in Todos Santos, home to the celebrated - and reopening - Hotel California. - By Bob Riha, Jr., USA TODAY

By Bob Riha, Jr., USA Today
Such a lovely place: The cobblestone streets of Todos Santos.


If you go...
Getting there: Todos Santos, 50 miles north of Cabo San Lucas at the southern end of Baja California, is about 90 minutes by car from Los Cabos International Airport (near San Jose del Cabo) and an hour from La Paz.

Where to stay: When it reopens next month, the 11-room Hotel California will charge $125-$225 per night. The secluded, seven-suite Posada la Poza overlooks a seaside lagoon two miles from town via one of Todos Santos' gut-wrenching dirt roads ($120-$500 per night, including breakfast), while the centrally located Todos Santos Inn ($95-$135 per night) is housed in a 19th-century sugar baron's estate whose other incarnations included a school, cantina and movie theater.

Where to eat: Seafood is the star attraction, and you might see your dinner that afternoon when fishermen in pangas (small open boats) bring in their catch to a local cove called Punta Lobos. Lobster ravioli and wood-fired pizza are among the specialties at the Mediterranean Café Santa Fe, said to be one of the best restaurants in Baja (dinner entrees $13-$27), while the terrace above Posada La Poza's El Gusto!, which offers gourmet Mexican and European fare (dinner entrees $11-$20), is a terrific place to ogle the sunset and keep an eye out for migrating gray whales during the winter. The Hotel California's La Coronela (entrees $12-$22) is set in a romantic courtyard.

02/24/2003 - USA TODAY - article about Hotel California, located in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur.

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