Todos Santos, Señorita of Baja Sur
Article by Ann Hazard, November 2004, Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, México.
Todos Santos is growing up, I say to myself as I wander the streets on a balmy afternoon in early February of last year. Like a señorita who has just celebrated her quinceañera (fifteenth birthday), Baja’s hippest town is blossoming into womanhood. Her eclectic expatriate population of artists, writers, musicians and spiritual adventurers number over 600 now. Toss a few world-class surfers into the mix and things get even livelier. Because she’s more than half Mexican, Todos Santos is joyous, colorful, exotic and more than a little unpredictable. This is patently obvious to me as I tour artists’ booths, cruise in an out of galleries, chatting with the artist/owners, watch Mexican folklórico dancers perform in the square and stop in at the Caffé Todos Santos for a Pacífico and a huge serving of their 10th Anniversary Salad. Afterward I meet my husband Terry at the local sports bar, Shut Up Frank’s for a Super Bowl party.
It’s my first visit to the Todos Santos Festival of the Arts and I’m instantly aware that this is more than just a place to buy paintings, jewelry and handcrafts. A weeklong celebration of Mexican culture that marks its eighth year February 5 to 12, 2005, it offers an in-depth look at Mexican culture and performing arts. Guest speakers host conferences on environmental issues such as sea turtle conservation, family relations, poetry appreciation and Baja history. There are workshops teaching Latin music and folk dancing, along with piano and poetry recitals in the town’s historic theater.
Todos Santos is nestled above a large huerta, or palm grove, on Baja’s Pacific coast, midway between Cabo San Lucas and La Paz, but it’s as different from both of these cities as they are from each other. Founded in 1724, it was a remote, inaccessible outpost until the late 1800s when its vast aquifer was discovered. Sugarcane farmers rushed in and it grew into a booming agricultural community overnight. Today, all kinds of tropical fruits and vegetables are grown in and around Todos Santos. Not only has it retained its colonial charm; it’s become a bi-cultural oasis—a tropical paradise with a diverse selection of art galleries, shops, a few boutique hotels and several astonishingly good restaurants. You won’t find mega-resorts or cruise ships here, and you won’t find Burger King or McDonald’s either.
Highway 19, which runs from La Paz to Cabo and passes through Todos Santos, was built in 1986, about the time a pair of well-known artists from New Mexico—Charles Stewart and Ezio Columbo—moved to town. This duo played an integral part in perpetrating the American and Canadian artist migration to the area. The surfers came on their own, lured by tales of never-ending, pristine beaches and perfect waves—Endless Summer Baja style. Avid surfer-rocker Chris Isaak recorded a CD (Baja Sessions) here. The Eagles supposedly sang about the town’s landmark hotel—the Hotel California—back in the ‘70s, but Don Henley vehemently denied any connection. That’s a shame. He should stop by next time he’s in Cabo. Once he tours the grounds and samples the gourmet fare served in La Coronela Restaurant, I bet he’ll change his tune. Hotel California’s new owners John and Debbie Stewart have recreated this former eyesore into a one-of-a-kind, one-in-a million architectural, culinary and artistic masterpiece.
What is it about Todos Santos that makes it such a magnet for creativity? According to local painter and gallery owner, Michael Cope, “… the light has the same vortex energy as Santa Fe or the Bermuda Triangle. People talk about the muted colors of the desert. But when you’ve lived in it, and watched what the light creates, you begin to see in Technicolor.” Author Jeanne Córdoba claims it’s the air, “which is infinitely lighter than the atmosphere in La Paz and seems to melt in your mouth like a fine Parisian pastry.” She also maintains that the ground itself speaks in Todos Santos. And that time takes on an ethereal quality. Native Mexicans claim it’s in el corazón de la gente—the heart of the people. Others say that the erotic whisper of its tropical breezes attracts those who are “more curious about than afraid of nature’s harsh challenges and sensual pleasures.”
I fell in love with Todos Santos on my first visit—as a day-tripper from Cabo—back in 1995. I come back as often as I can, each time delighting in the changes. I honeymooned here. Since Terry and I moved to the East Cape, directly east of Todos Santos on the Sea of Cortez in 2003, we’ve made several trips—indulging our mutual passions for beach camping and art, food and culture. It’s our home away from home.
Mark your calendar and come to the Festival of the Arts this year. Also on February 5th is the third annual Reggae Festival on the beach. March 3 – 6 mark the dates of the second annual Film Festival—an emerging Mexican version of the Sundance. Stay at least a week. Or a month.
If you’re in an RV, camp with the surfers and snowbirds at Playa San Pedrito or Playa Cerritos. If you’re flying, you can reach Los Cabos from most western gateway cities, rent a car and head up Highway 19. If you’re more adventurous, fly into La Paz and rent a car there. Baja California Sur’s capital city is an elegant señora—a cultured Mexican metropolis built around a spectacular blue bay.
When you get here, spend a few days at the Hotel California. It’s located in the central historical district within walking distance of almost everything. Pick up a copy of El Calendario—the guide to everything Todos Santos. Give yourself a few days to explore the historic district and the galleries. Eat at every restaurant. Go to Las Palmas beach for a picnic. Take long walks on deserted beaches. Swim in water so clear you can see the fish dart across the tops of the waves. Watch the surfers, the shrimp boats, the whale spouts. Indulge yourself in perfect Pacific sunsets that bounce off the jagged mountains behind you. Paint, even if you’ve never painted before. The scenery begs to be captured and transported onto paper. Get to know the people.
Drive two kilometers northwest of town on a very bad dirt road and spend a few more days at the luxurious Posada La Poza Resort. Created by former Swiss banker, Juerg Wiesendanger and his artist wife, Libusche, you can spend your days by the saltwater pool in a chaise lounge and watching the 70 species of birds as they frolic in the lagoon. Gaze at pelicans soaring by, riding the warm air currents and prehistoric-looking frigate birds as they glide along the surface, touch down like seaplanes, snatch up a shrimp, fish or crab and sail off. The cries of the birds blending with the pounding of the surf, the steady splash of the pool’s waterfall and the hum of dragonfly wings are guaranteed to lull you into siesta-land. After a drink on the sunset deck, dine at the hotel’s El Gusto! Restaurant, where you’ll be treated to gourmet European-Mexican cuisine.
You’ll love it, and you’ll be back….
Ann Hazard — Author and Travel Writer – is author of the books, Cooking With Baja Magic, Cartwheels in the Sand and Agave Sunsets, is a writer who is passionate about all things Mexican.
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