The Hotel California made famous by the Eagles song.
Tourists done with the Cabo San Lucas scene of catching a big fish, golf or getting drunk and hanging upside down by their ankles on a fish scale in a bar are happy to discover the sleepy ‘Artists Colony’ of Todos Santos just one hour north of Cabo San Lucas. What was once Santa Fe, New Mexico in the 1920´s, later Carmel and Laguna Beach in the 50´s & 60´s, is now becoming Todos Santos. Whatever that is … or whatever you want it to be.
To get there, rent a car, take the two-lane highway out of Cabo San Lucas, and get prepared to enjoy one of the most spectacular scenic drives to be found anywhere. You will cross over grand arroyos, look down on Pacific coast beaches, off which you may see migrating whales spouting or manta rays the size of baby grand pianos belly flopping. The road meanders up and down hills and across coastal plains covered with thorn tropical vegetation.
In Todos Santos one can stroll paved (and dirt) colonial era streets of a peaceful village where one will find more art galleries and fine restaurants than cantinas or taco stands. Here you won’t have to fend off Time Share sales people, or ‘street peddlers’ who in Cabo San Lucas, seem to leap out at you from behind every bush and rock.
Missionaries settled Todos Santos during the colonial era, built a church, and began crop production to supply La Paz, fifty miles to the East. By ox-drawn wagon cart. A natural spring-fed river flows through the town center irrigating crops, supplying homes and businesses, and then into the sea, such is the abundance of the precious commodity here.
Todos Santos, is an oasis and micro climate, always ten to fifteen degrees cooler than the rest of Los Cabos. In recent times, it has become an escape for American and Canadian artists, writers and musicians seeking creative space and tranquility as well as art lovers from the world over seeking affordable fine art.
Over the past two centuries, the town slowly grew and even had a bit of a flowering in the early part of the last century when sugar production brought fortune to the town enabling it to build a regional stage theater, baseball and aquatic stadiums and a new church the size of a small cathedral.
Imagine … all these big city amenities in a little village farm town of a few thousand souls!
In the middle of the last century as sugar prices fell, so did the fortune of Todos Santos. The town went to sleep (rolled over and nearly died is more apt …) for almost fifty years. The sugar mills became ruins, houses were abandoned and civic monuments like the theater and aquatic stadium began to crumble.
But the locals hung on; fishing, farming, going to church and praying. The truth, should it be told … is that mostly the women and children go to church, while the men typically spend their time from Friday to Monday - watching sports or standing around under a tree and drinking beer.
Nuestra Senora del Pilar de Todos Santos Cathedral
With the completion of the two-lane highway, connecting the village with La Paz and Los Cabos, civilization was now only an hour away in either direction. Before the highway, it was a ten to twelve hour teeth rattling drive in an old farm truck on a frequently washed out dirt road. Five or six days by ox cart before that.
On the weird and fantastic side - many folks in days prior to the highway, had lived their entire lives in Todos Santos without once visiting the big cities, a killer days drive away. Having lived without TV, radio or a newspaper, the locals "missed" WW1, WW2, the Vietnam War, 911 the Gulf Wars and everything in between. Whether they missed anything worth missing is debatable, but any discussion of history with a local, is bound to be a bizarre, one-sided exercise in futility.
One could surmise that little has appeared on the radar screens of the locals since Cortez set foot in La Paz nearly five hundred years ago looking for pearls and a mythical tribe of gorgeous Amazon-like warrior women. He found pearls and plenty of trouble with the Baja natives. Early on, in Todos Santos there were some skirmishes with the natives ending in the deaths of some of the missionaries who opposed their polygamy and ‘clothes optional’ way of life. The native men also objected to the conquistadors taking their women leaving them with the old, too young and other less than desirable ones. I didn't make this up. This is what the missionaries recorded.
But overall, little changed until the completion of the Transpeninsular Highway forty years ago. Beginning in Tijuana it rolls almost one thousand miles all the way to Los Cabos. And it was on this long, lonesome, desert highway, that artist Charles Stewart and his Cherokee Indian wife Mary Ann, rolled into town some twenty years ago seeking peace and refuge from the exploding tourist art communities of Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico.
Stewart, (1922-2011) Made a name for himself painting dreamy paintings loaded with American Indian symbology heavily influenced by the surrealist movement of the 40’s. You can visit the Charles Stewart residence a short block down the street behind the bank on Juarez Street. The house is an interesting abode in "French Baja Colonial style." It’s basically a four-room box with a hall down the middle with a covered veranda on all four sides. Stewart hung his paintings on the exterior walls all around the house and inside on the central hallway walls.
Artist Charles Steward (1922-2011) founder of Todos Santos art scene
Other artists, writers, musicians, masseuses, surfers, yogis, vegans, psychologists, psychos assorted not-so-creative types but wanting-to-be - all followed the slow southerly whale migration to Baja and Todos Santos. But lacking the instinct (or intelligence) of whales and returning north after a season, many stayed, seeing Todos Santos as a drift backwards in time to the idealistic dreams of their youth.
There are over a dozen art galleries in Todos Santos with offerings ranging from photography, stained glass, Plein Aire landscapes, streetscapes, seascapes, surfer paintings, cowscapes, fighting cocks and chickens crossing a dusty road. Not to mention an equal number of silver jewelry, talavera pottery and other assorted artisan shops filled with blankets, sombreros etc brought in by truck and ferry from mainland Mexico.
There’s a popular artist with the sofa art set - a faux Van Gogh impressionist (will she ever cut off her ear?) and a score of painters who excel at painted copies of photographs of Mexicans standing in Chile fields leaning on a hoe or washing their laundry in a stream. Folks come to visit, dine and buy art here. Prices being more reasonable than in Los Angeles, New York or Santa Fe. Gabo - a former photographer from Tijuana turned artist built a cathedral to himself a block away from the one everyone prays in.
But Santa Fe is still a Mecca for art. For where once upon a time Santa Fe was a village like Todos Santos, Santa Fe is now a town of sixty-two thousand souls with over four hundred galleries. Filled with enough faux Fauvists, Baby Boomer Impressionists and rubber tomahawk, basket and blanket galleries to choke a cowboys horse. The art mix is enhanced by satellite galleries from NYC offering abstract impressionist works by American masters starting at a mere half million dollars.
Todos (as the locals call it) is catching up. Rents in Todos Santos are increasing in direct proportion with the numbers of bored fifty year-old ex-pat Gringos opening T-shirt, trinket, massage and latte’ tiendas. One highly imaginative Gringo recently opened a Mexican Restaurant. Local Mexicans say they’ve never tasted anything like it..
The locals generally dine at the taco carts or open air palapa restaurants on regional entrees such as tacos filled with freshly caught shrimp, chopped steak, cow’s brains (or eyes), goat, cactus and crickets. Tourists opt for less adventuresome fare from the few but amazingly good alta Mexicana cuisine and Baja/continental dining spots.
Some establishments have been given rave reviews by New York Times food critics further adding to the mystique of the town. Not-to-be-missed is the Los Adobes de Todos Santos Restaurant which features continental food with a Baja twist. The Cafe Santa Fe Restaurant is well known for northern Italian cuisine, and the Hotel California Restaurant offers a bit of both.
Besides lots of fine and lots of not-so-fine art, great food and the mellow yellow of a Mexican town that time almost forgot, other reasons for visiting Todos Santos include: great surfing at nearby Pescadero and Cerritos beaches, horse back riding along dusty palm shaded paths, fishing from the beach or pangas or just meandering about the colonial brick town contemplating the 'what eva' and what's-life-all-about of it all.
Don't miss the Prof. Nestor Agundez Martinez Cultural Center in the old brick school on the main drag up the hill a couple blocks from the Hotel California. There's galleries of old photos, Indian relics, and art orphaned by ex-pats who moved in, painted and moved on. Then there's the Experimental Campo (botanical station) just south of town for the hard core gardeners. Take a gander at the Real Estate office windows with their photos of colorful mini haciendas (with Jacuzzis) and ocean front lots at prices comparable to the 1940's in California.
Real estate shopping has been called one of America's favorite consumer sports next to garage sale picking. We all do it. Even here in laid back, semi-counter culture Pueblo Magico Todos Santos.
Years ago ocean front lots in Southern California were going for $25,000. Now you’re lucky to find one for less than 2 million dollars. I’m not going to tell you the prices lots are selling for down here, you’ll have to find that out yourself. But I do know some poor artists that own more than one. And many lots go for less than a ten year old used car. And can be traded for one. A good used pick-up truck may even command one with an ocean view.
The serene Hotel Posada La Poza overlooks a natural lagoon and the Pacific
People who visit Todos Santos generally come for a day in a rented car from Cabo San Lucas (or motor coach) an hour to the South. If planning on a longer stay, one can camp free on the beach at Cerritos, stay in a palapa or motel room on the beach in San Pedrito or in one of several hotels ranging from the modern Mision Pilar ($40. for two) $80 at the Hotel Todos Santos, upwards of $175 at the Hotel California or double that at the Posada La Poza boutique hotel located on the beach west of town.
The legendary Hotel California is known throughout the world as the hotel the Eagles Band song with the same name, made famous. It best exemplifies the dream and mystique of Todos Santos. The band never stayed there. But each year, thousands of tourists visit and pay their respects wanting to believe the band slept there - in room number fourteen, according to one Japanese guidebook. Never mind there are only eleven rooms.
People pose for photos in front of the hotel, buy T-shirts and other souvenirs all believing the famous song ‘Hotel California’ was written about this place - then they plead to see room number fourteen.
To clear the air on the debate, I queried the hotel owner who assured me live and in person, in front of a witness, and looking me straight in the eye - "The Eagles NEVER STAYED at the Hotel California." Now, before you waste your money on that T-shirt, repeat after me: "The Eagles never stayed at the Hotel California." But I want to believe they did. And I believe they found Elvis and Janis Joplin there. And I believe Jacko may have dangled his kid (or something else) out the balcony window there as well.
So, as Bob Dylan once sang: "You’ve got to believe in something. " I believe, " It’s getting too dark to see, " and I can’t take it anymore," so I’ll just walk down that lonesome road and watch the sunset with my wife. Then, I’ll take her home and paint her. And in what better place than Todos Santos.
Todos Santos is 1 hr. from Cabo San Lucas and La Paz to the north.
Some of the best Todos Santos Baja California hotels and restaurants:
Los Adobes Restaurant: Hidalgo 18, Centro, 23300 Todos Santos, BCS, Mexico