But the most successful art house, the Galer'a de Todos Santos, specializes in the work of several Baja-resident artists, along with world-class works by artists hailing from New York and Mexico City. Operated by Michael and Pat Cope, refugees of Los Angeles' speedy art-and-fashion scene, the gallery occupies a corner of the historic Todos Santos Inn. Michael's own brightly painted oils of local todosante-os are heavily favored by monied collectors in nearby Cabo San Lucas, where art as decor is much in demand.
Along with the creators and purveyors of the more traditional fine arts came representatives of what is America's most globally favored modern art: the movies. Film editor Eva Gardos, whose "An American Rhapsody" marked her directorial debut in 2001, chipped in with a few screenwriter friends to purchase one of the old sugar-mill offices. An imposing two-story brick edifice displaying rows of Gothic windows, the oft-shuttered house has been dubbed Casa Dracula by local children who believe it to be haunted.
After finishing up my book research in Cabo, I explored Todos Santos more thoroughly. I was smitten by the long beaches nearby, deserted but for the occasional fisherman castings handlines into the surf. There wasn't a single oceanfront hotel or condo to be found, an amazing condition given the town's proximity to two international airports. With my peripatetic lifestyle, those airports added further enticement to the fantasy already forming in my head. After long discussions about giving up California residence, my wife, Lynne, and I decided to sell our Walnut Creek home and put down roots in Baja.
About the same time we purchased a piece of land located five minutes by foot from the beach, special-effects makeup artist Pat Gerhardt and her hairdresser-to-the-stars husband Dennis Glass bought a chunk of acreage a stone's throw away. At first part-time residents, Pat and Dennis eventually built a couple of guest cottages in back of their home and became among the first expatriate residents in Todos Santos to develop a small vacation rental business. During the past eight years they've been spending considerably more time in Todos Santos managing Las Bougainvillas, and less time doing films.
I've noticed a similar pattern among local expats--perhaps 300 of them living here full or part time--several of whom have made this town of 3,500 an escape hatch from high-stress film and media jobs in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Robert Fleming, retired from the San Francisco Examiner, where he was foreign editor, had originally moved to Mulege, a town on the Gulf of California. A few years later, he and his wife, Barbara, found Todos Santos more to their tastes, and they commissioned an architect-designed house next door to the patch of land that eventually became my own home.
Todos Santos' artists, writers and Hollywood exiles are quirky and engaging. Yet I was just as drawn to a cast of other expats in town. Holding fast among them are a handful of building contractors who have left behind the permit-and-lawsuit-ridden world of California construction. Each boasts his own style, his own repertoire of materials and techniques and his own rapport with local artisans. When Lynne and I decided to take the plunge and build a house across the arroyo from town, our first and perhaps most crucial task was choosing a local contractor.
We chose Bruce Kramer, who grew up in San Diego in the beach house of his father, a city lifeguard and longtime Baja-naut. The envy of all his friends, Bruce had first crack at the San Diego surf every day of the year and was an avid surfer by the time he was 15. When he got fed up working days as a mason and surfing the crowded beaches of San Diego on weekends, he began packing his board south of the border.
In Todos Santos he found what he'd only dreamed about--surf breaks in practically every seasonal swell, with plenty of room to carve. He also found the love of a Mexican woman and, while still in his 20s, became part of her extended local family. Just as he'd enjoyed the inside surf track in San Diego as a boy, Kramer got to know the local construction scene at its most basic level--from the alba-iles, the local skilled workers. Kramer quickly learned to speak fluent Spanish--not just the standard Mexican tongue but the local patois--and formed his own building company.
I initially contracted Kramer to build a simple two-room cottage roofed in palm leaves, not wanting to get in too deep until we could see what he could do. When he finished that project on time and under budget--a feat we'd never seen in San Francisco--my wife and I invited him to build a garage, a patio and finally a 2,000-square-foot house of our own design. The latter came with a three-story whale-watching tower we penciled into the plan so that in winter we could see the spouting gray whales over the tall palms between us and the beach.
As with the earlier building projects, he earned our continued admiration by completing the house on time and under budget. (This isn't typical. Friends using other contractors around town complain about extended budgets and schedules, constant worker turnover and the seemingly endless red tape involved in getting building permits and hooking up to sewer, water and electricity. Most high-standard construction projects go for between $50 to $80 per square foot, depending on complexity.)
While he was building the second house, I was frankly puzzling over our good fortune. "What's the secret," I asked the 30-something Kramer one day over a cold Pac'fico, "of getting through the Mexican bureaucracy?"
"Family," he answered. "My family and the official's family. After talking familia, we deal with the problem. If you talk only about the problem, then that's all you have--a problem. You can't force it. You deal out of humor and respect. If they know you're losing patience, they'll make you wait longer." He smiled, as if the game pleased him as much as completing a fine work of masonry.
Take Kramer's story, turn it inside out, and you have Cuco Mayr-n. Born in La Paz, Mayr-n worked his way north to the United States to further his studies and earn dollars when he was just out of high school. There he crashed head-first into the American hippie movement, which among other things taught him to value the traditional Bajacaliforniano ways. Mayr-n eventually returned to Baja and began a new life on a thorn-forested hillside south of Todos Santos, within five minutes' walk of a long, deserted beach. Turning his back on the North American urban dream, he set about learning everything he could about the cape region's little-known interior. At 200-year-old ranchos scattered thinly among the mountains, he found fifth- and sixth-generation Bajacalifornianos who grow avocadoes, papayas and mangos using Spanish-built acequias (small irrigation canals) and who raise cattle and goats to produce cheese and machaca (shredded dried beef). This ranch culture encompasses an earlier Spanish lifestyle that has all but disappeared elsewhere in Mexico. From his fellow mountaineers he learned to make rustic furniture, hand-crafted sandals and shoes and simple dung-fired ceramics. Today Mayr-n divides his time between producing ranch crafts for local markets, introducing visitors to sierra life via mountain tours and hosting local ceramics workshops.
With its government-protected architecture and its artists, Todos Santos can easily pass itself off as an extension of the old Baja California. This is what attracted many of us to what is little more than a farming and fishing community. The town seems protected from the kind of mass tourism seen in Cabo San Lucas or Canc·n by the fortunate fact that the nearest beach is two miles away and the surf there is too strong for swimming most of the year. There are about a dozen places to stay, but all of them are small (with fewer than 15 rooms). It's the perfect anti-resort town--so far.
But there is another side to Todos Santos that tugs against our intended dream state, a huckster quality that persistently markets the town to real estate developers and tour bus operators. The real estate agencies--at last count there were at least four operating full time--make easy targets for such criticism. While most local real estate people share a vision of slow growth and cultural preservation, there are also those who seek large profits through such practices as building illegal access roads to the beach. One local developer went so far as to build a road right through the federally protected dunes to the north of Todos Santos.
The tour buses from Cabo San Lucas sell another Todos Santos, one based on its two star attractions: the "artists colony" and the Hotel California. One wonders how many package tourists leave town disappointed because they didn't see any artists at work. The artists, for their part, receive nothing from the bus invasion. Most visitors who have paid $10 for their day tour of Todos Santos have no intention of plunking down $6,000 for an oil painting by such talents as New York's Derek Buckner. So they make do with lining up in front of the Hotel California with their point-and-shoot cameras.
Here, their Mexican tour leaders faithfully intone, the Eagles once took up residence to write songs for their No. 1 hit album, "Hotel California." The fact that the hotel has been boarded up for nearly four years means there's no one inside who can refute the myth. But a myth it remains, as drummer Don Henley sternly reminded me when I faxed him in 1997. According to Henley, no Eagle has ever visited the Hotel California.
I'm back with my first love, Southeast Asia, sitting in a hotel room in smoggy, sweltering Bangkok as I write this. In my mind I imagine myself standing on the topmost floor of our whale-watching tower in Todos Santos. A slightly saline Pacific breeze, mango-perfumed by the hundreds of fruit trees dotting the landscape between our house and the beach, brushes past me.