Disappearing Into Todos Santos
I first heard about Todos Santos more than a decade ago from my friend Rebecca. She had a gypsy soul and made her living peddling words to glossy travel magazines, a perfect mating of vocation and avocation. She once spent nine months driving the coastlines of Mexico in a beat-up Toyota Celica, a trip that yielded hundreds of pages of inspired writing about the “hidden” places she discovered. Rebecca mentioned Todos Santos to me only in passing as a place she might flee to when she was ready to write her novel. Her affection for Mexico, especially Baja, was obvious, but I wasn’t immediately tempted to copy her dash across the border.
Instead I remained enthralled with my first love, Southeast Asia, and my part-time home in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Hence, when a California publisher called in 1991 to ask whether I’d be interested in writing a Baja guidebook, I demurred. I suggested Rebecca, of course, but as it turned out, she was too busy. This time around, though, she made sure I got her message, bombarding my wine-addled brain one evening with glowing tales of deserted moonlighted beaches, halibut tacos and burro trips to prehistoric painted caves. I took the job, and not long after I found myself hurtling down the 1,000-mile-long peninsula south of San Diego for the first time.
Tijuana and Ensenada alternately depressed and disappointed me. The Pacific coast below these towns showed promise, but I knew I wasn’t in the “real Baja” until I took on the no-nonsense middle reaches of Mexico 1, the famous Carretera Transpeninsular (Transpeninsular Highway). Once past the hilly fishing-and-farming town of El Rosario, the classic Baja scenery kicked in, splashing a montage of cactus greens, arroyo reds and rocky grays across the windshield. I passed relatively few cars and saw almost no signs of animate life along the highway, a state of affairs that began to produce an eerie mental solitude. The sensation bordered on a fear of the unknown I know many Americans instinctively feel the first time they drive in Mexico.
About 400 miles from the U.S. border, something changed. It sounds like a travel cliche, but by the time the last rays of sunlight flickered over the tops of the Sierra de la Giganta near Loreto, my unease had faded, and I knew I’d entered a special space. Noting each loncher’a (Mexican diner), Pemex gas station and Spanish mission ruins along the way, I fell into a soft rhythm bordering on meditation.
By the time I’d crossed the Tropic of Cancer and come face to face with the wood-shuttered, pastel-colored houses ringing the quiet Bay of La Paz, I began to understand the attachment, if not the fanaticism, many Californians have for Baja. I felt peacefully far from the United States yet similarly distant from Mexico, as if I’d discovered a parallel universe that was neither one nor the other. People spoke Spanish but often knew English, and swirled the two languages together to produce words like yonque, for “junk.”
Near La Paz I made an excursion to Puerto Balandra, a large, clean, shallow bay hemmed in on three sides by steep desert cliffs, where I encountered a Mexican family of five and an American. When one lone countryman encounters another on a near-deserted beach in Mexico, a conversation is almost unavoidable. I don’t remember who spoke first, but I passed a pleasant half-hour taking in the warmth and experience of a man named John O’Neil, an artist who had spent the better part of two decades living in La Paz. He knew the best, and cheapest, places to eat and stay in Baja California Sur’s state capital, often cited as the most Mexican city in Baja because of its tighter cultural connection with the Mexican mainland (in part because ferries transport people back and forth across the Gulf of California daily).
When I told O’Neil my next stop was Todos Santos, his face lit up. It was a look I’d seen on Rebecca’s face when she’d talked of the town. O’Neil said it was one of his favorite places to paint, that the light--the angle or the quality? I can’t remember now--made him see in a different way. One or two expatriate artists lived in Todos Santos full time, he said, having bought historic buildings for a pittance. Then he said something I’ve since repeated to others who have asked about Todos Santos: It’s a world of the invisible, a place some people disappear to yet others don’t see. That two-lane highway takes visitors in at one end of town and spits them out at the other without revealing too much.
The flat, barren plains of la paz along the first third of the one-hour drive on Mexico 1 between La Paz and Todos Santos suggested a monotony that I decided might easily be mistaken for invisibility. After I made the turnoff onto Mexico 19, traffic thinned to a trickle, and the flats gave way to rolling hills and deep vados, or stream beds, that are dry most of the year. In the distance to my left, I could make out the dark, undulating outline of the Sierra de la Laguna, Baja’s most solitary mountain range. As Mexico 19 swooped southwest, the highway came closer to the sierra, and the desert along the highway erupted into a thick green curtain of mesquite, paloverde and tall columns of cardon and pitahaya cactus. This heavy foliage--technically not desert but rather “thorn forest,” as I later found out--flourishes on the abundant runoff from the mountains. Incongruous-looking ball moss, nourished by moist Pacific trade winds buffeting the Baja peninsula’s narrowest section, hangs from tall cacti here.
The curves in the road intensified as I approached Todos Santos. Off to my right I caught a glimpse of a roofless adobe ranch house and adjacent windmill, a landmark that has since become my favorite “welcome home” signal.
Shortly afterward my rental car descended a final hill, and I caught a first glance of thousands of fan palms filling a mile-wide arroyo to one side of the highway, cliffs and hills on the other. And in the distance, behind this desert oasis, an iridescent Pacific. O’Neil was right. No sooner had I entered the town than it seemed to fade away through my rear windshield, like a mirage. Was that really Todos Santos? My instant recall played back only dust and faded storefronts.
If I hadn’t had a writing assignment, I would have kept on driving, straight south to finisterra, “land’s end,” the much-photographed spot where the Sierra de la Laguna tumbles into the sea and Cabo San Lucas serves up coastal Mexico on a platter to planeloads of pasty-faced tourists. I knew how to deal with “gringolandia,” as expatriate North Americans like to call tourist resorts in Mexico. A ghost town was another matter. Once I’d parked the car and began moving around the tiny town on foot, however, I quickly found another Todos Santos.
The buildings along Avenida Juarez and Avenida Colegio Militar, the two parallel asphalt thoroughfares in town, had been plain boxes of modern cinder-block construction. Yet one block off Juarez, along cobbled streets near the simple town plaza, I came upon an Andalusian-inspired neighborhood of brick and adobe. One- and two-story affairs, they were built of hand-made Mexican brick laid in double or sometimes triple courses, or layers, and topped by flat parapet roofs, surrounding hidden courtyards. Tall windows and doors bounded by pilasters and molded lintels evoked the classic provincial Spanish style, reminding me of colonial neighborhoods I’d seen in Sonora or Sinaloa on the mainland.
Mexico’s National Institute of History and Anthropology recently declared this area of Todos Santos a national monument, enforcing restoration guidelines to preserve the lingering air of antiquity. But when I first arrived in 1991 the only inhabitants who seemed interested in the stately buildings were relatively new arrivals such as Ezio and Paula Colombo. Ezio, a burly, mustachioed Italian artist, and Paula, a lithe ex-New York model, had bought a cavernous 150-year-old adobe casona (mansion) just off the plaza and turned it into a restaurant. His flair for matching Mediterranean cooking with fresh seafood, locally grown produce and herbs from their garden, along with Paula’s tasteful interior design, gradually drew the attention of discerning palates in the surrounding cape region, from La Paz to Cabo San Lucas. Word spread internationally, and by the mid-1990s their Cafe Santa Fe had become a social pilgrimage point for anyone touching down in Todos Santos, particularly among the steadily increasing number of celebrity visitors.
But on my first visit the town was more bleak than chic. In the newer eastern half of Todos Santos I came upon a more typical architectural trend: small cottages of adobe brick or mud plastered over woven palo de arco (trumpetbush), often roofed with palm fronds. The plain cement walls of newer homes linked the historically grand to the recently humble. A survey of local market shelves turned up a few wrinkled tomatoes, moldy stalks of green onion and stale rolls. No wonder the Cafe Santa Fe was so popular with out-of-town visitors, I thought.
I took a room at the simple, two-story Hotel California on Avenida Juarez. I’d heard nothing of the legend that said the hotel inspired The Eagles’ 1976 album of the same name, but it wasn’t long before another guest, an American backpacking his way to Guatemala, filled me in. When I asked the Mexican manager about the story, he solemnly nodded his corroboration, and I filed the intriguing local myth away for later examination.
Todos Santos (not to be confused with the surfers’ island off the coast of Ensenada) scribbled itself onto several pages in my notebook as I explored more of the area than necessary for my Baja assignment. The history fascinated me. Attracted by the two substantial pozas (natural springs) fed by underground rivers that originated in the Sierra de la Laguna, Jesuit padres had established a farm community and chapel called Todos Santos (“All Saints”) here in 1724 to supply the mission community at La Paz with fruits, vegetables, wine and sugar cane. By 1731, Todos Santos was producing 200 burro-loads of panocha--raw brown sugar--annually, along with figs, pomegranates, citrus and grapes.
Two years later, Father Sigismundo Taraval founded Misi-n Santa Rosa de las Palmas at the upper end of the arroyo a bit more than a mile inland from the Pacific. By the mid-1700s, Todos Santos had outgrown La Paz. The town, renamed Nuestra Se-ora del Pilar de Todos Santos in 1749, remained an important mission settlement until secularization in 1840. Anglo whalers visiting Todos Santos in 1849 praised the town as “an oasis” with “friendly and intelligent people.” In the post-mission era, Todos Santos thrived as Baja’s sugar cane capital, supporting eight sugar mills by the late 1800s.
Sugar prices dropped precipitously after World War II, and all but one mill closed when the most abundant freshwater spring dried up in 1950. The remaining mill closed in 1965, though smaller household operations continued into the early 1970s. The town faded into near obscurity. Around 1981 the spring mysteriously came back to life, and the arroyo once again began producing a large variety and quantity of fruits and vegetables.
Tourists began arriving when the road between San Pedro and Cabo San Lucas was paved in the mid-1980s. The road also brought an influx of artists, starting with Charles Stewart. Stewart had run his own gallery in Taos, N.M., since 1949, but as the city became too “boutique-ized” for him and his wife, Mary Lou, they sought a new place to live and paint. They moved into an old French-built terrace home in the middle of Todos Santos in 1986, and for several years Charles was the only resident artist in town.
By the time I arrived in Todos Santos, Stewart’s abandonment of Taos had begun attracting the notice of various other artists. A sufficient quantity of them now work here either full or part time. I last counted a half-dozen art galleries in town, most of them showcasing the work of the owner and no one else.
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.
Not content with maintaining the most winning art stewardship in town, the Copes frequently host large, self-catered dinner parties for the socially mobile. To receive an invitation to the Cope house, a simple palm-frond-roofed adobe perched atop a desert ridge undistinguished save for a sweeping ocean view, is to earn a chair at Todos Santos’ unmovable feast.
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.
GUIDEBOOK: Kicking Back in Todos Santos
Telephone numbers and prices: The country code for Mexico is 52. The area code for Todos Santos is 612. All prices are approximate and computed at 9.1 pesos to the dollar. Room rates for accommodations in Todos Santos are usually quoted in dollars. Restaurant menus are priced in pesos, but dollars are usually accepted.
Getting there: The most convenient way to get to Todos Santos is to fly to La Paz, which is about an hour’s drive. AeroCalifornia, Mexicana and Aeromexico airlines have direct flights (involving one stop but no plane change) from Los Angeles International Airport.
Car rentals are available in La Paz for about $35 per day for a compact. (A taxi ride would cost about $200.) Another option is to fly to Los Cabos; Alaska, American, AeroCalifornia and Mexicana have nonstops flights from LAX, and America West has connecting service. Todos Santos is about 90 minutes by car from the international airport at Los Cabos (near San Jose del Cabo). From Tijuana, it takes about 24 hours to drive to Todos Santos. It’s best to plan on taking at least three days for the 800-mile-plus trip along Mexico 1 and Mexico 19. Driving at night isn’t recommended.
Where to stay: Todos Santos Inn, Calle Legaspi 33, telephone and fax 145-0040, www.mexonline.com/todossantosinn.htm, occupies a well-restored, 1880-vintage brick compound that previously served as a school, cantina and movie house. Large rooms with high adobe and palm-beam ceilings and private bath are simply but elegantly decorated with Mexican furniture, Saltillo tiles, Oriental rugs, mosquito nets and ceiling fans. Larger suites offer sitting areas, private patios and air-conditioning. Rates: $85, suites $125.
Off the road leading to Playa la Cachora is Las Puertas, telephone and fax 145-0373, www.mexonline.com/laspuertas.htm, features two guesthouses (one- and two-bedroom) and an ocean-view suite, all with thick adobe walls, palapa roofs, Baja-style furniture, and surrounded by mango and other fruit trees. The beach is a five-minute walk. Rates: $75 to $150.
Closer to the beach on the same road is Las Bougainvillas, telephone and fax 145-0106, www.mexonline.com/bougainvillas.htm, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, rents two semi-luxurious guesthouses with kitchenettes and private patios inside a large walled compound. One of the cottages encloses a sleeping loft overlooking a sitting room and kitchenette and affords a beach view, while the second casita features a round floor plan with a high roof. Guests have use of a good-size swimming pool and barbecue grill. Rate: $135.
The new Swiss-owned Posada La Poza, 145-0400, fax 145-0475, www.lapoza.com, is perched at the edge of a freshwater lagoon near Playa la Cachora, but only the restaurant and four suites are open; a pool and three more suites are under construction. Rates: $120 to $440. Las Casitas, Calle Rangel between Obreg-n and Hidalgo, telephone and fax 145-0255, www.mexonline.com/las casitas.htm, e-mail WendyFaith@pocket mail.com, offers a cluster of four charming, renovated adobe cottages plus a newer casita built of desert woods, all amid lush landscaping. Some rooms have private baths, others shared facilities. Rates: $45 to $65. Room rates include a full breakfast for one person or continental breakfasts for two. Where to eat: The Cafe Santa Fe, No. 4 on Calle Centenario off Calle Marquez de Le-n facing the plaza, 145-0340, offers a mostly Italian menu emphasizing fresh, local ingredients: wood-fired pizza, lobster ravioli, pasta primavera, seafood, octopus salad; $26, dinner for two, food only. Open Tuesdays through Sundays noon to 9 p.m. The restaurant closes each September and October during the town fiesta.
The Posada La Poza’s elegant El Gusto!, 145-0400, specializes in Mexican and European gourmet cuisine with a Swiss touch, plus vegetarian dishes. Indoor and outdoor seating, with views of the lagoon and ocean. The bar terrace and whale-watching deck are good spots for a sunset cocktail. On Sundays, a large brunch is served; Entrees, $11 to $20.
Nestled in an alley on Avenida Juarez between Topete and Hidalgo, the popular Fonda El Zaguan specializes in fish tacos, vegetarian tacos, seafood soups, and daily specials such as smoked marlin. Open Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Rustic Karla’s Loncher’a on Calle Colegio Militar serves inexpensive, delicious Mexican breakfasts and lunches. Open Mondays through Saturdays 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
What to see: Playa la Cachora is a broad swath of sand backed by verbena-trimmed dunes, a good spot for strolling and sunset-watching. If you walk south along Playa la Cachora, you’ll come to Las Pocitas, also known as La Poza de Lobos. Along the back edge of the beach is a freshwater lagoon, La Poza, and toward the south end a rocky ridge heads inland. La Cachora and Las Pocitas beaches are often marred by undertow and heavy shore break, dangerous for swimming, except during the summer, when there are occasional long periods of relative calm.
When to go: Todos Santos is typically 10 to 20 degrees cooler than Cabo San Lucas or La Paz in the summer and is warmer in winter, meaning temperatures are in the 80s during the day and 60s to 70s at night all year. The rainy season is July through September.
For more information: The locally produced El Calendario de Todos Santos, issued monthly, is an excellent source of current events and articles on regional culture. It’s distributed free at many establishments in town. A useful Web site full of up-to-date information can be found at www.todossantos-baja.com, or www.mexonline.com/todossantos.htm. Also the Mexican Government Tourism Office, Mexican Consulate, 2401 W. 6th St., 5th Floor, Los Angeles, 90057; (213) 351-2069, fax (213) 351-2074, www.visitmexico.com.
Joe Cummings has written more than 35 guidebooks. His most recent book is “Buddhist Stupas in Asia: The Shape of Perfection” (Lonely Planet).
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