Todos Santos on my mind: February 1998

RECENTLY, my friend Robin Wade suggested I reread my book, “Agave Sunsets” in order to enrich my perspective on my homecoming. I did. It was definitely a blast through my past. So much history. Here is an excerpt from 16 years ago….

Todos Santos may just be the hippest spot on the entire peninsula. Tourists from nearby Los Cabos flock to Baja Sur’s most acclaimed artist colony every day. They come in their rental cars to check out the spectacular beaches with their much-talked-about secret surf spots, to eat lunch in one of its quaint but fabulous restaurants, to see the artists and to visit the Hotel California—supposedly the one the Eagles sang about back in the ‘70s.

Todos Santos, located 45 miles northwest of Cabo San Lucas and 50 miles south of La Paz, on the Pacific coast of Baja was founded in 1724. It crept along as a remote, inaccessible outpost until the late 1800s when its vast aquifer was discovered. Sugarcane farmers rushed in and it became a booming agricultural community overnight. Today, all kinds of tropical fruits and vegetables are grown in and around Todos Santos. Cattle ranching flourishes. It’s an oasis—a tropical paradise without a single five star resort—yet. The most expensive rooms in town are found at the Todos Santos Inn, an upscale bed and breakfast that’s located in the heart of the historic district, within walking distance of all the galleries, shops and restaurants in town. There are more modest hotels too—more and more all the time.

Highway 19 runs from La Paz to Cabo and passes through Todos Santos. It was built in 1986—the year everything began to change. Pavement always does that. In the words of Joseph Wood Krutch, author of The Forgotten Peninsula, “Baja is a splendid example of how much bad roads can do for a country.” Pavement brings people. People bring along with them the accouterments of and desire for … progress. About the time the road was paved, 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 permanent population of expatriate artsy types comprised of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, chefs, dancers and writers, currently numbers over 400. In addition to being an artist, Ezio Columbo is the Executive Chef at Cafe Santa Fe, a much-celebrated Italian restaurant he owns with his wife, Paula. They helped found the Todos Santos Festival of the Arts, which is held during the first week of February.

Why all the artists? I wondered the same thing myself the first time I was there, so I picked up a copy of the Spirit of Todos Santos, the local paper. Now called El Calendario de Todos Santos, it absolutely oozed culture and creative energy. There were meetings where artists shared their lives and processes, poetry readings, a monthly writer’s series, historical house tours, events featuring folkloric dancers and gourmet food prepared by local chefs. There were medicine women offering physical and spiritual healing, concerts, sing-along campfires, meditation and massage. Stores advertised authentic Mexican home furnishings from Guadalajara and San Miguel de Allende. 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.”

When I came back for my fourth visit, right after my cookbook was published, it was the first time I got to stay for longer than a few hours. Upon arrival, Kit and I headed straight for the beach. While he fiddled around under the hood of his Land Cruiser, I took off down a deserted expanse of sand. The air and water were both about 80 degrees. Trailing my toes in the surf and hiking my dress up to my knees, I chased the waves. I wandered, I danced, I cried, I chased pelicans, I sang and finally, I sat down and wrote poetry in the sand. The mountains behind me rose up like pale purple monoliths. The white-tipped turquoise water in front of me rushed out to claim me as its own child. I lost all track of time. (Note from 2014: I was just there 20 minutes ago!!!)

Kit was relieved when I finally showed up. We got back in the car and bumped up the dirt road through the fields of tropical fruits and vegetables and palm groves towards the center of town. We stopped in at Caffé Todos Santos. Its front room houses an espresso/juice bar and a bakery. Each chair and table is a work of art, having been painted in funky, bright colors. The walls are covered with original works of art. Patrons sit inside or out on the sidewalk, or they cruise through the kitchen and eat on the patio. A courtyard from a nineteenth century hacienda, it’s sheltered from the blazing sun by a canopy of lush greenery and flowers. A soft breeze blows through it, making it pleasant even on the hottest of days.

After lunch we walked around the corner and visited with Janet at Tecolote Libros. As usual, the store was packed. Then we took a stroll walk around town and made a visit to the mission, which is now a fully functioning Catholic church. Around the corner is the Hotel California. As we walked into the lobby to check in, the Eagles song of the same name was blaring. Contrary to rumor—Don Henley never did own part of this hotel. It’s all hoopla. There were no mirrors on the ceilings and no pink Champagne on ice either, but the view was to-die-for. Looking out over the rooftops and treetops toward the ocean, we watched as the sun slipped into the sea. We could see the mission and plaza in the golden light and hear the ringing of the church bells, mingled with the chanting of evening mass.

When you go to Todos Santos, which you must, go sit in the big plaza—the park just off the main drag into town. Wait until it gets dark and the hot dog carts come out. Actually, the signs on the carts read, “Perritos Calientes, which translates to “Warm Puppies” in English. Kit and I conducted taste tests all up and down Baja and we concurred that the very best warm puppies (and the cheapest too, at five pesos each) were in Todos Santos, at a cart right across from the Hotel California. What’s a warm puppy? It’s a spicy hot dog, wrapped in bacon and grilled to perfection, served in a fresh bun and slathered with Mexican white sauce, fresh tomatoes, grilled chiles and onions, mustard, catsup. Oh yeah, another of Todos Santos’ sensual treats….

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