Day Trip: Todos Santos
“We don’t want to be like Cabo” is a refrain often heard from residents of Todos Santos; by which they mean Cabo San Lucas, with its touristy hustle and boisterous nightlife. Todos Santos actually shares quite a bit in common with San José del Cabo: both communities were founded around Jesuit missions, both took advantage of available water resources to become peninsular commercial centers in the late 19th and early 20th century, and both are now distinguished by thriving art scenes.
Todos Santos does have a singular character, however. The many beautiful old brick buildings, a legacy from its 19th century heyday as a sugar capital, give the historic downtown area a distinctive profile unlike any other place in Baja California Sur. Todos Santos is also blessed by a beneficial vantage, between the Sierra de la Laguna mountains and the Pacific Ocean, that undoubtedly contributes to the unique quality of its light. This unusual light was what first attracted artists in the 1980s, and led to the town’s rebirth as an artists’ colony some thirty years or so after its water wells had run dry.
Todos Santos has for many years been a popular day trip destination from Los Cabos–it is less than an hour by car from Cabo San Lucas–notable for its fine arts galleries, hip eateries, and annual festivals celebrating art, film, music and literature. Todos Santos is also a destination surf spot, with popular breaks at Cerritos, San Pedrito and La Pastora.
It was the first place on the peninsula to be designated as a pueblo mágico (a promotional appellation applied to Mexican communities with great natural beauty, and strong cultural or historical legacies), and it remains, along with Loreto and Tecate, one of only three towns throughout Baja to be so honored.
History and Architecture
The original inhabitants of Todos Santos were Guaycuras, a tribe of hunter gatherers whose territory stretched as far north as Loreto. The Jesuits built a mission there in 1733, which proved to be rather unfortunate timing since the Pericúes, the tribe to the south, rebelled in 1734. All the southern missions, from San José del Cabo to La Paz, were looted and badly damaged during the three year conflict which followed.
Todos Santos was also the site of the final skirmish of the Mexican–American War in 1848, a little known footnote to an historical event that cost México approximately half its national territory. It became a sugar cane capital during the latter half of the 19th century, with residents not only growing the cash-rich crop but milling it as well. The town’s distinctive brick buildings largely date to this period.
This commercial prosperity was interrupted by the Mexican Revolution, although the action in Baja California remained limited to small-scale engagements. Todos Santos’ first brush with fine art occurred during the 1930s, at the height of the Mexican Mural Movement. Wonderful examples of this style can still be seen in the entryway of the town’s historic Centro Cultural Todosanteño.
Work began in 1947 on the now legendary Hotel California, a lodging founded by a Chinese immigrant named Mr. Wong, whose attempts to acclimate to Mexican culture included changing his name to Don Antonio Tabasco. The locals called him El Chino anyway, but his family’s 16-room hotel proved perennially popular with visitors and locals alike. The former were drawn to the comfortable lodgings, the latter because the Hotel California pumped the only gas, and served the only cold beer in town.
Inspired by the area’s unique light, acclaimed artist Charles Stewart and his wife Mary Lou settled in Todos Santos in 1985, and contributed mightily to the town’s reinvention as a culture driven tourist destination.
Painters are probably the best known artists in Todos Santos, but the downtown area also features studios and galleries showcasing superb sculpture and hand-crafted jewelry. A local association, The Artists of Todos Santos, organizes an annual Open Studios Tour. This tour is typically scheduled in February, and is slotted in during the series of cultural festivals that take place during the first three months of the year.
Former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck was the founder of the highly regarded Todos Santos Music Festival. Buck ruffled a few local feathers with political comments during the 2016 edition of the event, and did not return for 2017, when it was rebranded as the Tropic of Cancer Concert Series. The Todos Santos Writers Workshop follows in late January, leading into the Art Festival and Open Studios Tour in February, and the Film Festival in March. The latter recently celebrated its 14th anniversary bringing vintage and contemporary Latin American films to the historic Teatro-Cine General Márquez de León (completed in 1943, and lovingly restored earlier this decade), as well as select locations in Pescadero and La Paz.
Food & Wine
Although it lacks the nightlife characteristic of Cabo San Lucas, Todos Santos’ dining scene is among the best in Baja California Sur. Hotel California and Hotel Guaycura both feature excellent onsite restaurants, Michael’s at the Gallery offers delicious Asian themed fare in aesthetically pleasing surroundings (at Michael and Pat Cope’s Galería de Todos Santos), and Miguel’s…well, the New York Times said it best: Miguel’s serves up the best chile rellenos in Baja.
Mezcalaría El Refugio is a noteworthy addition to the local sipping scene, but La Bodega de Todos Santos remains the tasting spot nonpareil. The shop spotlights great bottled selections from Baja’s wine country, Valle de Guadalupe, and sponsors the town’s yearly food and wine festival. This celebration, called Gastrovino, takes place in late April or early May, and includes a weekend of festivities that culminate in an all-day fête featuring live music. Todos Santos is also home to a Mango Festival, which takes place when the fruit ripens in late July or early August.
The trip from Cabo San Lucas to Todos Santos is not an unbroken length of picturesque highway, and there are a few places worth stopping along the way. Playa Los Cerritos has a well-earned reputations as one of the best surf beaches in the region. The traditional wisdom–surf the Sea of Cortés in the Summer, the Pacific Ocean in the winter–still holds true, but Cerritos does offer surfable waves on a year-round basis. It is also home to the Cerritos Beach Club and Surf, where singer Daline Jones contributes to the tranquilo vibes, performing each Sunday afternoon. Baja Beans in nearby Pescadero also draws crowds on Sundays, although in the case of this charming outdoor café, it’s for brunch amid a bustling local market, complete with live music.
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Chris Sands and Michael L. Mattos