Mexico Special Issue : Baja Bohemia : We'll tell you about Todos Santos--an artsy village that will remind old Baja hands of the way Mexico used to be--and we'll let you in on their secret if you swear not to ruin the place

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Day One: Browse bristling cacti. Assess crashing Pacific. Big dinner. Not much happens.

Day Two: Swim off a half-mile-long beach, utterly alone. Sight wildlife: a two-inch frog crossing the busiest street in town, inch by inch, untroubled by traffic, at 9 p.m.

Day Three: Day One, with a bigger dinner.

Day Four: Departure. Despair.

Todos Santos (all saints), a small miracle of peace, quiet and creeping bohemianism, lies about 50 miles north of lower Baja California's capital of American hell-raising, Cabo San Lucas. It is a town of mostly unpaved streets, of thatched roofs and sleeping dogs, and crumbling adobe walls and ruined old sugar mills, with farms set among the cactus and palms on its outskirts.

It is sustained by the farming and fishing of several thousand Mexicans, the crumpled dollars of wayward surfers, and the artsy aspirations of a few dozen international emigres. Though a sign outside town puts the population at 3,400, local estimates run from 5,000 to 8,000.

Visitors lie low, eat under palapa roofs, sleep cheap, ponder epic desert, possibly attempt watercolors. They probably don't go sportfishing (there's no marina) or hell-raising (there's one pool hall and no nightclubs, though a sports bar is rumored to be coming). They may not even lounge by the pool; only a couple of lodgings have them.

There is one traffic signal in Todos Santos, and one gas station. Once Mexico Highway 19 takes you out of town, unfenced cows are prone to wander across the two blacktop lanes. The nearest beach is about three miles from downtown, and the coastal waters can be perilously rough. The town hangs in a dangerously delicate state of mid-transformation: near enough to the international tourist path that its most popular restaurant has an all-Italian menu, yet far enough away that I couldn't find one Todos Santos hotel room that fetched more than $65 a night or featured air-conditioning.

"So who's the mayor of L.A. now?" asked one of the first locals I met, a wiry, pleasant fellow sipping his morning coffee in the Caffe Todos Santos. He looked to be in his 40s and thoroughly Anglo, but gave his name as Pablo Domingo. He moved to Todos Santos from Los Angeles 10 years ago, he said, and does pen-and-ink artwork.

"They're saying this will be the new Carmel," he said. "It'll be the new something. I don't know what."

You never know. It was in the late 1980s, locals recall, when some Mexican tourism officials started pitching Todos Santos as a burgeoning international artist's colony--a dubious claim since just about the only international artist here then was Charles Stewart, an exile from Taos, N.M., who arrived with his wife, Mary Lou, in about 1985. (They remain, and if a visitor rings the bell at their home-gallery at Centenario and Obregon streets, one of them will probably grant a tour, which includes the chance to browse a rack of watercolors priced at $150 and up.)

Yet the prophecy has gradually been fulfilled. Every year, it seems, a few more aesthetically inclined expats show up.

On Calle Topete stands one of the most recent and celebrated additions to the local boho scene, the Galeria de Todos Santos. In the front rooms of a high-ceilinged old brick building, gallery director Michael Cope in April began displaying his own work along with pieces by several accomplished Mexican and American artists. Two of them, potter Raul Cavazos (formerly of Texas) and painter Gloria Marie V. (of Los Angeles), have been in at least part-time residence around greater Todos Santos for several years.

Meanwhile, Cope and his wife, former Angelenos, are building a spacious home on "the other side," a breeze-cooled residential area on the western end of town that has become popular with Americans.

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They aren't alone. Stealthily, Americans are buying land and building homes for vacation, retirement and exile, and more outsiders are surely coming soon. The building that houses the Galeria de Todos Santos, in fact, is expected to add a high-end bed-and-breakfast operation in January. Though Baja California tourism officials say the government has no major projects in the works, rumors of big-money plans are heard among the regulars in the Caffe Todos Santos.

Soon, it seems likely, Todos Santos will be a place with more restaurants, fewer idle old buildings downtown, and higher prices. Sooner or later, a big hotel is likely to rise near the town's most popular stretch of shoreline known as Playa San Pedro, or Palm Beach.

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Right now, however, the beach lies unmarked at the end of a 1.5-mile-long dirt road that branches off from the highway about three miles south of town. The only structure in sight is a ruined old ranch building, moldering among the palms and cactus.

"My father was born here," restaurateur Carlos Amador told me one night, explaining how he came to start his open-air restaurant, El Pariente (The Relative). Amador worked in Ensenada for years, but moved south to Todos Santos last year, he said, "because it's like Ensenada 35 years ago."

A few blocks away, at the counter of the Caffe Todos Santos, owner Marc Spahr predicted that "it's going to be a long time before it gets too big." Spahr, a transplanted American who married an attorney from La Paz earlier this year, makes his smoothies from fruit raised on his nearby six-acre farm.

The tourist season in Todos Santos begins in October (the town's biggest party of the year is the Oct. 12 celebration of its patron saint, the Virgin of Pilar, and peaks in December, January (when there's an arts and crafts show) and February. Many businesses curtail their hours or close altogether during the hot, humid, mosquito-marred and occasionally hurricane-threatened months of July, August and September. (Map-browsers, take note: The town of Todos Santos is sometimes confused with Isla de Todos Santos, a better-known surf spot about 800 miles north in the Bay of Todos Santos off Ensenada.)

In human historic terms, this is Todos Santos' fourth life. First these lands were part of the territory hunted by the Baja Peninsula's Guaycura people. In the early 18th Century, despite strong local resistance, it became the site of a Spanish mission. In the late 19th Century, it became a sugar town, eventually sustaining five mills--all of which closed in the 1950s and '60s after the town's main freshwater spring dried up.

It was about 1980 when the spring water began to flow again. In the mid-1980s, highway crews completed the first (and only) paved road between Todos Santos and Los Cabos. By May, 1993, the new slant of Todos Santos was discernible, and a writer for Travel & Leisure magazine was forecasting "the treasure Todos Santos will become in the next five or 10 years," thus amplifying a round of real estate speculation that continues today. Yet to an outsider from a big city to the north, the small-town spell still seems unbroken.

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It takes about 15 minutes to learn your way around town. The highway from Los Cabos ends at Calle Juarez, where you turn right and find yourself on the main drag. It lasts seven blocks.

On Juarez near Degollado, you see the ruins of an old sugar-cane mill. Near Calle Marquez de Leon, there's a two-story Hotel California, which dates to 1928, and stands as the most prominent lodging in town, with 15 rooms, wood floors, ceiling fans, pool, restaurant and, lest anyone start living too highly, an 11 p.m. guest curfew. (People like to say that this is the hotel named in the famous Eagles song, but no one at the hotel could say why, and a spokesman for songwriter Don Henley said that the group had no literal Hotel California in mind.)

Farther along Juarez, at Calle Hidalgo, there's El Tecolote Bookstore, where proprietor Jane Perkins stocks a broad selection of English-language local guidebooks and volumes on Mexican geography and culture.

Parallel to Juarez and one block northwest, there's Calle Centenario and the town plaza, across which schoolchildren traipse each morning and afternoon. While I lazed on a bench one morning, city workmen hung banners in anticipation of the town's Independence Day celebration Sept. 16, and a notice at city hall outlined the town's need for a girl of beauty and charm to serve as queen of the town's upcoming fiesta.

Around the plaza stand a church, the city hall and the splendidly restored 1944 Teatro Manuel Marquez de Leon, which once housed productions from itinerant theater troupes. (It's now rarely used.) Facing the theater is the restaurant that many credit for leading the town on its bohemian renaissance, the Cafe Santa Fe.

Ezio and Paula Colombo, he a restaurateur and painter from Italy, she a designer and former model from New York, opened the cafe five years ago. Ezio Colombo, who has also lived in the United States and in Los Cabos, told me he came here "for the light and the quiet." I never got a look at Colombo's paintings, but in his restaurant, a stately and well-revived 19th-Century structure with a menu of Northern Italian fare, I had two excellent dinners, including a porcini mushroom pasta in broth.

(I'm one of those people who avoids stomach trouble by shying away from not only water, but street food and salads in Mexico. But one of Todos Santos' charms is that so many restaurants offer products from nearby farms, including bananas, mangoes, papayas, avocados and chili peppers. I ate freely and did not regret it.)

Next door to the restaurant, Paula Colombo recently opened the Gallery Santa Fe, which is full of high-quality furniture, crafts and artwork, including stylish hand-made chairs ($250 each) and a large copy of a Frida Kahlo portrait ($3,000).

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A block away, at Centenario and Topete near the Caffe Todos Santos, stand the brilliant blue walls of El Perico Azul, which was closed during my visit but in season sells boutique fashions and gourmet foods. A few steps farther one finds Michael Cope's gallery.

At Hosteria Las Casitas on Calle Rangel, Canadian emigre Wendy Faith serves breakfast and lunch, makes glass artworks in a studio a few paces from the kitchen, and rents out four rustic thatched-roof rooms, each painted in bold hues of saffron, fuchsia, aquamarine and yellow.

Faith, now in her third year as a Todos Santos regular, estimates that new arrivals from the north have started half a dozen new business ventures in the last two years. But she holds firm to the idea that rough seas and lack of a marina will protect Todos Santos from the head-over-heels overdevelopment that has afflicted the former fishing villages to the south.

"We're on the Pacific and no one's going to change that," Faith said. "We're not going to be inundated by big, pink fisherman. I have a friend who calls them that: the big pink people."

Let me say now that some of my best friends are big and pink. But it's true that I met no other travelers of that description during my Todos Santos days. There was the architect from L.A. and the contractor from Mammoth Lakes (hunting for vacation property), the genial retired couple who gave me a four-word capsule review of town ("beautiful children, ugly dogs"), and the young threesome I met one afternoon after downing one of Marc Spahr's smoothies: 20-year-old Cholla (female), 21-year-old Freedom (a male with blond dreadlocks), and Etienne, a male who gave his age as 25 million. He looked closer to 20. They had come from the state of Washington to sleep on the beach and revel in aimlessness.

"From here, it's just whatever we wanna do," Freedom said. "As soon as you wanna make a plan is when the universe will trip you."

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Once you've seen the urban core of Todos Santos--walk slowly and you can make it last a day--there are still a few other attractions, most of them having to do with raw nature or modest civilization: a surprisingly fancy and well-used baseball stadium on the south end of town; the socialist-flavored mural work in the Casa de Cultura on Juarez; the crags and slopes of the 7,000-foot Sierra de la Laguna, which backpackers can confront with a local guide reachable through the Hotel California; the tiny town of Pescadero, about six miles to the south; the billion outstretched cactus arms on hillsides and plains in all directions, and the long, windy beaches to the south and north.

At many of those beaches, the surf is so strong that it's dangerous for casual swimmers. The waters at Palm Beach tend to be the tamest (though still plenty big for body-surfing) and most popular. Surfers favor La Pastora Beach off a dirt road a few miles north of town, which Surfer magazine recently called a "good spot that is normally quite solitary," and the beach at Pescadero, which Surfer found "excellent and consistent. . . . Swells come out of deep water and break with juice very close to shore."

A break with juice very close to shore . Maybe this is asking for trouble from the rulers of Freedom's universe, but that sounds to me like an excellent plan for my next Day One in Todos Santos.

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GUIDEBOOK: Quiet Todos Santos

Getting there: Alaska and Aero California and Mexicana fly nonstop from Los Angeles to the Los Cabos International Airport (which neighbors San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas), a 90-minute drive south of Todos Santos; round-trip restricted coach fares begin at $196, taxes included. Also, Aero California offers one nonstop flight daily between LAX to the La Paz airport, which lies an hour's drive north of Todos Santos. Fare for round-trip restricted coach tickets begin at $186, taxes included. Most major rental car companies have representatives at the Los Cabos International Airport.

Where to stay: The Hotel California (Calle Juarez; tel. and fax 011-52-114-50-002) has 15 rooms, a pool, a restaurant, a location on the main drag and rents doubles for $42 nightly. Hosteria Las Casitas (Calle Rangel; local fax 50-288) has four brightly painted rooms in a restored old structure. Rates: $25-$45, including breakfast for one. Proprietor Wendy Faith also serves lunch. Santa Rosa Apartments (Calle Pedrajo; local tel. 50-394) offers eight units with kitchens and a pool. Doubles: $33.

RV camping is available at several sites, including El Molino Trailer Park near the south end of town, San Pedrito Trailer Park about four miles south of town, and Los Cerritos RV Park, about eight miles south of town. Fees vary.

Where to eat: Cafe Santa Fe (Calle Centenario on the plaza; local tel. or fax 50-340), the first dinner choice of every American with a few dollars in pocket, offers Italian fare featuring herbs from the cafe's own garden. Entrees run $8-$10. Closed Tuesday and the first half of October.

Caffe Todos Santos (Calle Centenario at Topete) is the leading breakfast and lunch spot for English speakers, and features fruits from owner Marc Spahr's nearby farm. Most meals under $7.

El Pariente (Colegio Militar; tel. 50-042) offers seafood and other fare with Mexican style. Entrees $3-$8.

For more information: Mexican Government Tourism Office, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 224, Los Angeles, CA 90067; tel. (310) 203-8191. Also, longtime local resident Lee Moore has written and published a highly useful guidebook called "The Todos Santos Book" (Todos Santos Press, P.O. Box 816, Watermill, NY 11976), which is available in El Tecolote Bookstore for about $11.

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