This article is from the November 1995 The Mexico File newsletter.
Todos Santos, Don’t Wait Too Long
by David Simmonds
Don’t you kind of hate those people? They always remind you, “Boy, you shoulda been here twenty years ago. This place was really something. Real Mexico.” And you think to yourself, “Geez, why am I always the last one to know these things?” And you wonder why, just once, you can’t be the one who was there…back when. Well friends, it’s time to pack your bags. Well, in truth, a few years ago would have been better. But it’s not too late. Imagine Taos or Santa Fe, New Mexico, sixty years ago. I think it would be similar to Todos Santos today. It has to be described as a sleepy village. But, if that is so, why did I feel more excited as each day began? There is really nothing to do here. So how did I stay so busy and curious and…..relaxed, all at the same time? There are no museums, famous buildings, or pyramids. No marinas, golf courses, discos. There is one pool hall, but no cantinas. Hell, you have to drive a couple of miles just to get to the beach…and then you might drown!
So, of course, such a place will attract two types of Gringos who want to call it home. That’s right—artists and real estate speculators. Fortunately, at this time the artists are fitting in nicely, and the development seems to be limited to a few opulent homes fairly hidden away among the surprising vegetation of mango and palm groves north of town, an area the locals call “the Other Side.” This means across the arroyo, a fertile old river bed (I think), that now is farmed for vegetables and orchards.
Getting to Todos Santos is fairly simple. You really have just two rational choices: rent a car or take the bus. I’m going to assume you will fly into the international airport that services the Los Cabos area. Although you can fly to La Paz, Los Cabos has the most flights available. Besides, if you’re coming all this way, you might as well see what all the hoopla is about in Cabo San Lucas and Land’s End.
For the sake of independence, you should rent a car. I recently got a half priced rate on a VW bug convertible by enduring a time-share arm twister presentation for two hours. This serves a couple of purposes. It both reminds you how not to travel in Mexico (by enduring time-share resort presentations) and you save some pesos on your car rental.
Take a day or two to see the Cape area. San Jose del Cabo, once a quaint Mexican town, is fast becoming as Americanized as Cabo San Lucas. But it is noticeably more serene. I know of a great B&B to use as a home base for a couple of days (see “Where to Stay in Todos Santos”).
While in Cabo San Lucas you might want to take a boat ride out to the famous point, do some snorkeling or diving, lie in the sun, or go fishing. That pretty much covers the options of activities. The concept of culture seems to be limited to hanging by your feet and having your photo taken at The Giggling Marlin. Maybe catch a guitar rift from Sammy Hagar or Van Halen at Cabo Wabo if they are in town.
Actually, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t had a good time in Cabo, as when I recently attended a bachelor party there. But after a couple of days it was time to leave. This is the least Mexican town I have ever seen in Mexico and some cities this side of the border. An exception is my only hotel recommendation, Hotel Mar de Cortez. This is where everyone stayed before the airport, the transpeninsular highway and all the resorts were built.
TO TODOS SANTO
It’s only an hour’s drive up the Pacific side to Todos Santos, making you wonder why more people don’t do it. Too busy soaking up all that Cabo culture, I would guess.
The busiest time of the year in Todos Santos is November through February. Therefore, you should go in October, March or April. Summers can get very warm. Hurricane remnants may blow through and mosquitos can be abundant (actually that sounds more and more inviting). My recent trip was during the town’s celebration of its patron saint, the Virgin of Pilar, October 12. Very few Americans were in town, apart from the twenty or so I was told who live there full-time.
One’s first impression of the town can best be described as “Huh?” It has mostly dirt streets and measures about seven blocks by seven blocks. If you’re driving, you’re through town in two minutes wondering if maybe you took a wrong turn just outside Cabo. But hang in there. Go back to the main street of Juarez, park your car in front of the Hotel California, and get a room.
From there your first stop should be El Tecolote Bookstore, a couple of blocks up Juarez. The extremely helpful owner, Jane Perkins, is happy to share her thoughts and expertise and she carries a surprisingly complete range of books. One great resource is The Todos Santos Book, written by local resident Lee Moore. This is especially helpful if you have a limited time to spend in town and want to get a feel for the place in a hurry.
One block to the north is Calle Centenario. This area of town with the church and the plaza is where you will find most of the historic buildings, dating from the mid 1800’s. Ms. Moore’s book does an excellent job of describing the history and present uses of the various buildings in this area. The building on the corner of Centenario and Marquez de Leon, across from the plaza, houses what everyone assures me is the best restaurant in Baja, the Café Santa Fe. Unfortunately they were closed for the month of October, but they are reputed to have Italian food extraordinaire. Pack a few extra pesos in your wallet. The prices are similar to those in the States.
My best meal was had at El Pariente. This is an open air restaurant about the size of a walk-in closet, serving seafood and Mexican. My meals here were better than any I’ve ever had in Cabo, at any price. I can also recommend Las Fuentes and Santa Monica restaurants near the Pemex station; however, I was told that they each can be inconsistent in quality. For breakfast or lunch The Café Todos Santos is a good choice. The cappuccino, espresso, and fresh fruit plates are big favorites and it’s a good place to sit, watch and maybe chat it up with fellow travelers.
This town seems to be attracting some very agreeable folks with whom to converse. I was expecting to find at least a few self-indulgent jerks, but it just never happened. Must have been lucky.
Over on Colegio Militar, across from the park, a man (I think his name is Pedro or Paco) cooks mesquite- roasted chicken that I have to mention. Absolutely superb. How they accomplish so much with so little is the real mystery of this country. And you thought it was “What happened to the Mayans?”
There are really only three or four hotels to choose from. I describe them elsewhere in this issue. Keep in mind that Baja is generally more expensive than the mainland. A room you pay $20.00 for in Puerto Vallarta could cost almost double that price in Todos Santos.
The chances of a large resort- type property rising here seems fairly remote at this time, although there have been rumors. A fresh water supply is not always a certainty. The towns main spring dried up around 1950, then reappeared about 15 years ago. There is no natural harbor or a suitable marina site and the Pacific Ocean is anything but pacific along this coast. Hopefully the Mexican government has realized that every beautiful coastline doesn’t necessarily have to be built upon and in the process destroyed.
And make no mistake…the beaches of Todos Santos are breathtaking—assuming you’re partial to miles of long, white sand untouched by a footprint. To get to most of them you’re going to need that rental car I suggested. The closest beach to town is Las Pocitas and you can actually walk there if you want. But be real careful about swimming here. It can be dangerous, as is true of so many of the beaches in the Cape region. The tourist department doesn’t like to advertise it, but they lose a number of people each year to the strong currents and rip-tides. Unless you have lived near a lively ocean and understand how they work, swim only where you are told is safe and then still be cautious.
A dirt road leads about 15 miles north along the coast with various smaller dirt trails branching off to the beach. This is a terrific way to spend a day, exploring and communing with Ma Nature. Take some food and refreshments because you won’t be running into any vendors on this trip.
Probably the best known beach in the area is south of town about two miles down a signed, unpaved road that leads to Punta Lobos. Swimming was safe when I was there, but I’m sure there are some days when it’s not. This is the point where the local fishermen launch their pangas into the surf. You can arrange a fishing trip here, and I’m told that a good catch is a pretty sure bet. I saw 30-50 pound wahoo and grouper being unloaded and many, many yellowtail. Expect to pay about $20.00 per hour with a three-hour minimum.
A couple of miles further south is another turn-off to Palm Beach, locally known as Playa San Pedro. As you approach the palm grove fronting the beach, keep bearing to the left on the various trails to ensure your access to the beach. Otherwise you may end up no closer than 300 to 400 feet from the sand and will have to hike through a marsh to get to the water.
Still farther south is another dirt road turn-off to Playa San Pedrito, home of the San Pedrito RV Park. There you will find a nice little restaurant/cantina, and a grassy, tree-shaded swimming pool area. Four bungalows are available on the beach for $25.00. I spent an afternoon here and really liked it.
Separated from the RV section are some palapas for van and tent campers. This is one of the hot surf spots in the area and consistently draws a steady pilgrimage of board riders, mainly from California. You don’t see much of these guys in town, except for beer runs. They have made the trip this far south for one purpose…to surf.
There are a number of other spots as well and they will go to whichever beach is breaking best that day. So if you’re looking for other dirt roads that might lead to an unknown beach, ask the surfers. They will probably offer you a cerveza and tell you some interesting tales.
Another four miles south is yet another dirt road to Playa Los Cerritos. Here you’ll find another trailer park as well as one of the best and safest swimming beaches in the area. The point can kick up some huge waves, so the surf crowd is well represented here too.
There are numerous dirt roads leading to the coast all the way back to Cabo. Give yourself plenty of time on the return trip and explore a few. Just be careful about getting stuck in the sand. Most of these roads are hard packed so just avoid the loose stuff. One of the advantages to renting a VW bug convertible is that they go practically anywhere.
WHAT DO YOU DO IN TOWN?
That’s the question everyone asked me back home. “Sounds a little dull,” they say. “You were in bed at nine o’clock?” Well, yes. People here seem to make their own entertainment. I met Michael Cope one afternoon. On Calle Topete he and his wife have opened a beautiful fine-art gallery, the Galeria de Todos Santos, one of the most recent and celebrated additions to the local Baja scene. It is located in the front rooms of a high-ceilinged 1880’s renovated brick building. He displays his own work as well as that of others, both Mexican and American. The gallery shows only original works by artists of Baja. I’m no art critic, but I was mightily impressed.
“The only problem I have is keeping the dust off the art,” says Michael. In April Cope started exhibiting his own work, along with that of several other Mexican and American artists.
“The gallery has a broad range of art, so there is something for everyone. For contemporary Mexican art collectors we show Gabo’s large textured canvases along with the collage work of Nanette Hayles Coffman. Gloria Marie V.’s portraits in oils will leave you wondering how she did them. My dream was to have a gallery, and now my nightmare is trying to keep it filled with just the right pieces. I’m always looking for new artists who are finding different ways to express themselves,” says Michael. He reflects for a moment and adds, “I love every piece of art in the gallery. The morning light on the paintings is my favorite time.”
Around the corner from Michael’s studio is Estudio Caballo del Mar. This is the home and workplace of Charles Stewart, a well-known artist who moved here from Taos, New Mexico. Word has it you can ring his doorbell and if anyone’s home, and they aren’t too busy, you can come in and look around.
I met another artist, Raul. He’s a burned-out ex-contractor from Los Angeles who came to town three years ago to visit and never went back. He says the folks back in L.A. thinks he’s gone nuts, depressed about the building recession. Raul seemed to me to be about the happiest guy I’ve met in a while. I couldn’t help but notice the fixed smile as he told me how he goes back in the mountains and digs his own dirt for the pottery he produces. He doesn’t use a potter’s wheel or a kiln, but does it the way the Indians have for centuries. Raul covers the pieces in cow dung to oxygen-starve them, creating a black color. I don’t think he’s going to have to resume building houses any time soon: his pottery work is gorgeous. You can see it on display at Michael Cope’s gallery.
These people and the other handful of expats living here are on the ground floor of what is sure to be a significant change over the years. And if the people I met are any indication of what the future holds for this still hamlet-like town, all is well. The key, of course, is fitting in to the Mexican culture, leaving the baggage at home and respecting the ways of your new surroundings.
You might want to spend a day trekking in the mountains or visiting some even smaller villages. I’m going to refer you to Jane Perkins again at El Tecolote Bookstore. She seems to know everything about the area and she’s just such a pleasant lady. And since you’re going to be bedding down early, buy a book or two from her. She also does trade-ins on used books.
There is more to tell about this little oasis but you really need to go there, share the adventure. My goal is to hit your curiosity button. You make the trip and I will have succeeded. Simple. See you in Mexico!