Travel

Todos Santos: All you want — and less — in a Baja getaway

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Once upon a time, say about 1972, Cabo San Lucas was a sleepy little fishing town at the southern tip of Baja California. Then came the paved highway, the international airport, the marina, the golf courses, the raucous bars and well-heeled retreats. At the newest and perhaps fanciest, Capella Pedregal, suites this spring start at a cool $675 per night.

In Cabo, you just might score the spring break you'll never forget — or the one you won't remember.

And then there's Todos Santos, still small, still drowsy at most hours, wedged between the mountains and sea about 45 miles north of Cabo.

Its sugar mills, born amid a 19th century boom, died about 60 years ago. The paved highway didn't arrive until the mid-1980s, about the time the first American expat artist, Charles Stewart, moved in. With no airport, no marina, no golf and virtually no nightlife, downtown amounts to just a few blocks of newish galleries, inns and shops in oldish buildings. Outside town, cardón cactuses stipple the hills, and miles of lonely beaches roar under assault by waves so wicked that surfers and swimmers must pick their spots carefully.

Todos Santos, whose population might be as high as 15,000, depending on how many surrounding hamlets you include, is not where you come for action. But if you're after Mexican flavor, Pacific solitude, desert vistas, fresh food and a seriously slow spring break, this might be your place.

"We close down at Baja midnight, which is 9 o'clock," said Lisa Harper, former chief executive of Gymboree and now proprietor of the Rancho Pescadero hotel, about six miles south of town. "We're not up partying until all hours. We don't hang you upside down and give you shots of tequila from holsters. It's a very calm, relaxed area. Lots of surfers, lots of expats. Lots of Italians with great food. Lots of fantastic Mexican food, great galleries and artists."

Pat Cope, who arrived from Los Angeles to open a gallery with her husband, Michael, and infant son, Lane, remembers that "when we first moved here, all I heard was roosters." Sixteen years later, Lane is contemplating colleges, and the roosters still greet each morning, Cope said, but "I don't hear them."

Todos Santos, said Paula Colombo, co-owner of the Café Santa-Fé, "is real. Good and bad, it's real." Now that the recession has slowed the pace of coastal vacation-home building outside town, Colombo added, "maybe we can settle down and do what we have to do to keep this place as magnificent as it could be …an oasis in the desert."

My first stop was at Harper's Rancho Pescadero hotel (no warning given, full price paid). Billed as a different kind of "dude" ranch, it has been busy since it opened in November 2009 with 12 rooms, a restaurant, a bar and a pool. If things keep going this well, Harper said, the hotel could add 15 units by year's end.

To reach the 15-acre site, you turn off two-lane Highway 19 at a Pemex station, drive a mile on a dirt/sand road, and stop just past the green fields of basil. (The area sits on an aquifer that feeds many organic growing operations and keeps the place rich in chiles, mangoes, avocados and papayas.)

Once on the grounds, you can take refuge in your large room (the smallest is still more than 600 square feet) or your mostly private patio (but be sure to reconcile your curtains with the neighbors' sightlines). Before long, you'll be sipping your welcome drink, strolling past the fire pit, through the fledgling palm grove, to the dunes and the wide, lonely beach.

Don't jump in. Staffers warn guests not to swim at the hotel-adjacent beach because the tide is treacherous. But you can flop onto one of the Rancho Pescadero daybeds on the dunes. Or walk at water's edge, especially near dawn or dusk, where you'll get the full effect of near-empty beach coastline: pelicans gliding above the swells, offshore breezes blowing feathered foam off the whitecaps. As it happened, the waves were especially big and glassy when I showed up.

In fact, it's a wonder I turned away long enough to spot the handwritten signs for the San Pedrito Surf Hotel, a few hundred yards north of Rancho Pescadero. Beginning four years ago, manager Andy Keller told me, he and the other owners upgraded the beachfront site from a camping spot to a seven-unit hotel (rates are $55-$200, a kitchen in every room), but it remains rustic: tile floors, stray flippers, a few shelves of well-thumbed paperbacks, all at the end of another dirt road.

"I'm into the classic look," Keller said. "No red lights, no parking meters, no pavement....You have the dirt roads, you have the dogs with no collars … the proximity of the mountains, just beyond us here, and the ocean just behind me. It's the best of both worlds."

Out on the water — that is, the San Pedrito surf break, known up and down the West Coast — I spotted half a dozen euphoric young men carving waves with their short boards, their tents tucked away down at the rocky north end of the beach.

If you can't surf like those guys but want to get into the ocean, you drive a couple of miles south (more dirt roads) to Cerritos Beach, which has milder tides, beach gear for rent and the passable Cerritos Beach Club restaurant.

That beach, long empty, has been busy with development in the last few years. Just south of the restaurant, workers have completed about 10 Cerritos Surf Colony bungalows, which are being sold as time-shares and rented at $125 nightly. About 60 more are planned.

On the cliff top just north, meanwhile, looms the immense yellow-orange Hacienda Cerritos, a 30,000-square-foot walled mansion that's unfortunately visible for miles. Workers said it was built as a private home last year by Oregon developer Roger Pollock. Pollock's finances having become complicated in the recession, the hacienda has been recast as a hotel, renting 11 rooms for $295 and up nightly. The tour befuddled me. Even with multiple zero-horizon pools, a massive patio, handsome tiles and big ocean views, the place felt somehow iffy, more like a rental house than a hotel and costlier than anything else I saw.

Downtown Todos Santos is much more affordable and easy to understand: the 18th century mission on the plaza, the galleries, shops and eateries on narrow streets, mostly unpaved. I looked at paintings in Galeria Logan and Galeria Indigo, chatted with sculptor Benito Ortega as he worked in his studio, checked out the noble workers and triumphant teacher in the 1930s mural at the Cultural Center. I picked up a book in English at El Tecolote bookshop on the main drag, Juárez, and sipped some cool gazpacho on the patio of Los Adobes de Todos Santos.

Toward the middle of the day, when the day-trippers from Cabo showed up in the greatest numbers, I drove out to Punta Lobos Beach, where you can buy the fresh catch from the fishermen as they drag their boats ashore about 2:30 p.m. each day.

I have to admit this is no longer a town you can hold in the palm of your hand, which is what it seemed when I first visited in 1995. Todos Santos has probably doubled in population since.

In 2006, local boosters managed to win a "Pueblo Mágico" designation from national tourism officials, even though the label is usually reserved for towns with older buildings and more of them, more elaborately restored. If highway improvements proceed as promised in the next few years, the driving time to the Los Cabos airport could drop from one hour and 40 minutes to one hour.

But even so, there isn't a lodging here with more than 14 rooms. And though some have Wi-Fi and air-conditioning, most don't bother with guest phones or TVs. I'm guessing that if you put two tourists in every guest bed in town, the population would grow by 500, tops.

Though the first Stewart, the first expat, has closed his gallery, there are about a dozen others, including Michael and Pat Cope's enduring Galeria de Todos Santos.

Café Santa-Fé, the smart, tasty Italian restaurant that Ezio and Paula Colombo bravely started on the plaza in 1990, coexists with several other well-loved eateries, including the top-notch Asian fusion cuisine of Michael's at the Gallery, now 4 years old. I also got a fix of down-home Mexican cuisine at Miguel's, where since 2001 a local family has been serving widely admired chile rellenos in a dining room with dirt floors, a palapa roof and walls of woven twigs.

On the main drag, the Hotel California traded for years on the false idea that it had inspired the Eagles' 1976 song of the same name. It got new owners in 2001, and when they reopened the place a year later, 11 rooms, pool patio and restaurant were full of vibrant colors and festive atmosphere. In otherwise muted Todos Santos, the Hotel California sounds a brassy note (as does the unsubtle Tequila's Sunrise bar and restaurant across the street), but is a step up from the old days. And unlike many other lodgings, it doesn't ban children.

If you want grown-up gentility in the heart of town, go to the Todos Santos Inn, which has been open since 1997 on Calle Legaspi. It has eight rooms, a restaurant and a tiny pool at the converted residence of a 19th century sugar baron (rates are $125-$325, breakfast included). Or you cast your gaze across the street to the brick walls of the 14-suite Guaycura Hotel, expected to open in coming weeks, where management has put in elevators and is said to be contemplating 24-hour room service.

"We came for the first time in '96, and it was much sleepier than it is now," Juerg Wiesendanger, formerly a Swiss financier, told me one morning. "We went to look for a place to stay on the beach. Nothing. And we said, ‘This has to change.' "

He and his wife, Libusche, moved here and went to work. In 2002, they opened the eight-room Posada la Poza, which sits at the edge of a lagoon and the end of a long and winding dirt road. It has a popular rooftop lounge, a restaurant (El Gusto) and some of the town's quietest guest rooms, with glimpses of La Poza Beach. The walls display Libusche's paintings.

On yet another dirt road that leads to the sea, London-born designer Jenny Armit in 2007 opened the four-unit Hotelito. It sits about midway between town and La Cachora Beach, and its quartet of cottages ($90-$135 nightly) is done up in the minimalist-modern style of Mexican star architects Luis Barragán and Ricardo Legorreta. It has a dining patio, bar and pool, palm fronds here, hammocks there, carefully raked pebbles in between. I liked the privacy, simplicity and quiet … for a while.

But my night at the Hotelito was the wrong night. In the wee hours of the morning, a chorus of crowing roosters piped up — probably the offspring of the birds that serenaded Pat Cope back in 1994. They never quite settled down, and neither did I.

When I met Armit over coffee later, she brought up the roosters and told me how the farmer across the street had brought the caged birds in, hundreds of them, a few weeks ago. She sighed and said she was confident that problem would soon be solved, but she didn't yet know exactly how. If you run a business in Todos Santos, it seems, crises like these come and go.

"And if you haven't got a sense of humor," Armit said with a winning grin, "you shouldn't live in Mexico."

chris.reynolds@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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