Todos Santos is growing up, I commented to myself as I wandered the streets on a balmy afternoon in early February 2015. Like a señorita who has just celebrated her quincinera (fifteenth birthday), Baja’s hippest town is coming into womanhood. Her eclectic expatriate population of artists, writers, musicians, hippies, yoga aficionados and spiritual adventurers number well over 500 now. Toss some transient surfers and adventurous travelers into the mix and things get even livelier. But, because she’s essentially Mexican, Todos Santos is joyous, colorful, exotic and more than a little unpredictable. This was patently obvious to me that day as I toured artists’ booths, cruised in and out of galleries, chatting with the artist/owners, and watched Mexican folklórico dancers perform in the square in front of the town’s mission.
Sandwiched between the annual music festival hosted by Hotel California and the Festival de Cine (movies), the Todos Santos Festival of the Arts was the first event in this town’s booming cultural scene. Visitors will be instantly aware that this is more than just a place to buy paintings, jewelry and handcrafts. A weeklong celebration of Mexican culture that marked its eighteenth year in 2015, it offers an in-depth look at Mexican culture. Guest speakers host conferences on environmental issues such as sea turtle conservation, family relations, poetry appreciation, strip mining and Baja history. There are workshops teaching Latin music and folk dancing, along with piano and poetry recitals in the town’s historic theater, Teatro Marquez de Leon. Later in the season there is an artists’ studio tour and Gastrovino, a wine and food festival. Every year there are new events added. Colorado State University is building a campus there, and a new housing community alongside it. Yes, things are changing.
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 organic fruits and vegetables are grown in Todos Santos and Pescadero, its neighbor to the south. Not only has it retained its colonial charm, but it was designated a Pueblo Magico by the Mexican government in 2010. Funds have been allocated to improve the town and restore many crumbling historic buildings. In the summer of 2015, all electric and phone lines were moved underground, enhancing the town’s beauty. It truly has become a bi-cultural oasis—a tropical paradise with a diverse collection of art galleries, shops, boutique hotels and astonishingly good restaurants featuring world-class chefs serving fresh, locally sourced food.
Highway 19, a new four-lane freeway which runs from La Paz to Cabo and skirts around Todos Santos, was originally 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 has repeatedly 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 used to be an old eyesore. Now it is a one-of-a-kind, one-in-a million architectural, culinary and artistic masterpiece. It has to be seen to be believed.
What is it about Todos Santos that makes it such a magnet for creativity? According to local painter and gallery/restaurant 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 ’95. I visited frequently when I lived on the East Cape, directly across the peninsula on the Sea of Cortez from 2003 to 2009. In 2014 I bought a home in Todos Santos and began exploring the area more intensely.
Back In 2006 I discovered an unlikely place called Art & Beer on the far end of Cerritos Beach, a long stretch of beach known for its mellow surf break about 20 minutes south of Todos Santos. I say unlikely because I was expecting a hippie art gallery serving beer. I got the art gallery right. I got the hippie part right. I was charmed by the rustic décor and all the living, breathing art and sculptures. It was magical. But the surprise was their signature—and my first—exotic Margarita. It was called a Citrus Margarita. Served in a frosty glass beer mug, it was made of fresh—as in squeezed in front of my eyes—orange, grapefruit, tangerine and limon juices, tequila, Controy, an array of sliced fruit garnishes and a paper umbrella. It was incredible. I came back to Buena Vista after that trip and made them for all my friends.
That gets me to the exotic Margaritas—which came into existence after yet another cloud of fairy dust was sprinkled on Baja’s South Pacific coast. Over the last year, I began noticing a trend. Every restaurant had at least one signature, exotic Margarita. During this year’s Art Festival, I came up with my plan. I talked (it didn’t take much talking) two friends into joining me on a three day quest to search out exotic Margaritas. I limited the area to the South Pacific coast—Cerritos, Pescadero and Todos Santos. Obviously there are designer Margaritas all over Los Cabos, but I wasn’t looking for mega resort fare. I wanted to search out the cool, offbeat places. We took three days and we visited six restaurants. We weren’t just there for the drinking. We were there for the ambience—and as always on Baja’s South Pacific Coast—the amazing food.
We started on a Thursday, and our first stop of the day was Tequila Sunrise, across the street from Hotel California on the main drag in town. It’s a favorite place to do lunch. Deb always orders the Shrimp Chile Rellenos. I rarely order anything but the Beef Chimichangas. The food is organic, beautifully prepared and ridiculously addicting. Owner Manuel Valdez is charming. He welcomes every guest at every table. His traditional Margaritas are spectacular and he will show you how they’re made when you visit. But we fell in love with the mango version. Garnished with a slice of limon and sprig of mint, these are the best we‘ve found. The recipes for both versions are on the wall, so bring a camera or cell phone.
Colleen met up with us at our second stop, the Hotel California. Deb and I had recently discovered the Jamaica-Jalapeño Margarita. Juan, the bartender showed me how it was made this time, and I took notes. I love the edginess of the jalapeño, complementing the tang of the jamaica. Colleen hadn’t ever tried one before, but her eyes lit up as she took her first sip. Another winner.
Next door, Chef Dany Lamote, Hotel California’s executive chef, has a boutique restaurant called Santo Vino. His most divine, decadent Margarita is a White Chocolate Margarita, made with Mezcal. As a dessert drink it’s unbeatable.
Friday it rained early on, so we got a late start, stopping in for lunch at Hierbabuena Hortaliza, a farm to table restaurant I adore. Located in Pescadero just down the road by the Pemex Station, the dining area is an open air pavilion in the middle of an organic farm. To the east are the towering Sierra de la Laguna. To the west glitters the Pacific. Sitting there, we were surrounded by fields, palm groves and the farm. I am always in awe when I go there. The food, again, was phenomenal. Owner/Chef Marcos made us a trio of exotic Margaritas. I chose the Pomegranate Margarita, made with mescal and fresh pomegranate juice from the garden. Deb had a Mango Margarita and Colleen had a Baja Sunrise, with house made jamaica liqueur, lime, fresh orange juice and tequila. Craving Italian, I had eggplant parmesan for lunch. The others shared hummus and fresh veggies along with roasted squash soup. To-die-for.
We had planned to visit Rancho Pescadero, a boutique resort closer to the beach, but it was closed for a private event. I’d been there before and I will attest that their Pineapple-Cilantro Margarita is excellent, as is their chile-rimmed Mango Margarita.
Saturday our first stop was Art & Beer, the place that started it all for me back in 2006. Instead of just one exotic Margarita, there was now an entire chalk board filled with them. Deb ordered a Kiwi Margarita. Colleen ordered a Mixed Berry Margarita and I went with my old favorite, the Citrus Margarita. While we were waiting for them to be made, we wandered around the property and took photos. There was far more art and sculptures than on my previous visit, and the backdrop of Cerritos Beach and the Pacific was beautiful. All three Margaritas were delicious and beautifully garnished. As we drank them, we discussed, but decided against having another round. Instead we put the paper umbrellas behind our ears and headed north to our next destination.
Hacienda Cerritos is a spectacular Mexican hacienda perched dramatically on the cliffs at the north end of Cerritos Beach. Its oceanfront bar is open to the public, and a must-see for all visitors. Their signature drink is the Basil Margarita. Deb and Colleen had theirs on the rocks and I had mine blended. We agreed mine was better. I am a huge fan of basil, and this drink rocks my world. The view isn’t bad either. Perched on the edge of a cliff towering over the ocean, it feels like you’re on the bow of an ocean liner. We spotted plenty of whales cavorting offshore in the short time we were there and watched people surfing, boogie boarding and swimming below us.
Because we could, we made out last stop Hierbabuena Hortaliza again. This time, Marcos made Deb his version of the Basil Margarita with muddled basil from his garden, white tequila, limon and Controy. It was shaken and served with a salted rim. Colleen tried his Watermelon Margarita and I had a Pineapple-Cilantro Margarita. Each one was delicious.
There is no shortage of boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts to entice you to spend some time in Todos Santos. If your spirit is more “traveler” than “resort hopper,” then this is definitely somewhere you should explore. There is a new beach club where previously only fishing pangas hung out. It’s owned by Hotel Guaycura, once an old dormitory in town for rural students that has been converted into an elegant hotel with a rooftop pool. Live music abounds during the season, which runs from November through May.
Give yourself a few days to explore the historic district, the shops and the galleries. Eat at every restaurant. Experience one of the worst dirt roads in Baja and head to Las Palmas Beach south of town for a picnic. It’s worth the drive. Take long walks on deserted beaches. Wade in water so clear you can see the fish dart across the tops of light blue 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.
Visit the La Poza Lagoon, adjacent to the hotel of the same name. Check out 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.
Truly … Baja’s South Pacific Coast is somewhere that belongs on your Bucket List!