Mingling with the townies on Mexico's coast

Email|Print| Text size + By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / May 29, 2005

TODOS SANTOS, Mexico -- In the doldrums of winter, or the meteorological disappointments of New England spring, when it comes to sun-seeking, I am not a picky sort. Sun is sun is sun.

So when a jaunt to Baja California was possible in February because of business in Los Angeles, my first thought was to head to Cabo San Lucas. The all-purpose resort megalopolis seemed a natural spot to lie on the beach. But a bit of research revealed that beyond Cabo is a languidly romantic corner of Mexico, dotted with small towns whose charms are best explored from beyond a poolside cabana.

The idea of combining sun and exploration appealed, since the most interesting part of travel to me is observing the daily lives and rhythms of a place. Which is how a friend and I came to be driving through a desert studded with imposing cacti and Spanish signs warning that trash not be tossed out of cars. We were headed to Todos Santos, a town on the west coast of Baja, just south of the Tropic of Cancer. It was billed as a mellow oasis of turquoise waters and prime surfing waves, where a burgeoning American expatriate community has opened art galleries and fine dining spots alongside, but not to the exclusion of, the workaday ways of Mexican locals.

We were skeptics. Could American culture find its way to Mexico without overwhelming all that surrounds it? Could the real deal be experienced along with vacation amenities?

Our arrival provided some answers. Famished, we set out on a food hunt shortly after 3 p.m. The dirt roads were untrafficked save for a handful of vintage Ford pickup trucks chortling along. Doors were shuttered and sidewalks empty. We came upon a lone open-for-business fish taco stand. Flies buzzed. Not a soul sat at the tables. The proprietress was fresh out of the shrimp-filled delights, but she had another idea.

''Quesadillas?" she said, pointing to an al fresco grill. We nodded appreciatively.

Munching the crisp half-moon-shaped sandwiches, we wondered: Was there a holiday we didn't know about?

Finally our jet-lagged brains stumbled onto the obvious: siesta. We had to smile.

Todos Santos, delightfully, improbably, is very much a Mexican town. Spanish is spoken, and seems expected from Americans, in part because so many expatriates have embraced it. The Americans who have homes in Todos Santos have built next to Mexican neighbors, not walled themselves off in separate communities. And they have not imported American conveniences. There is no McDonald's here, just a branch of a Mexican chain, Super Pollo, a chicken joint.

Yet it is also a place of vacation indulgences. We chose the Hotel California, long rumored to be the setting for the Eagles' famous eponymous song, though wrongly so, according to a much-publicized denial by band member Don Henley. The story lives on, though, and visitors from Cabo flock to see the place. Only guests are allowed in the inner sanctum, making us feel somewhat special as we passed into the roped-off corridors.

Hotel California is richly appointed with a maze of public lounging spaces, stone floors cool to the touch, and floral blooms bursting forth in unlikely spots. Our room was spacious and calming, with French doors that opened onto a curtained balcony.

For food, Todos Santos offers a jumble of roadside stands where tourists and locals alike take seats on plastic chairs at tables covered with colorful vinyl. Tacos Chilakos on Benito Juarez Street, for one, serves tacos mixtos, a mix of beef and chicken tacos, for about $1.40; quesadillas are about $1.

A number of restaurants also offer high-end regional Mexican cuisine with prices that reflect as much, but settings that are refreshingly casual. At the thatch-roofed Fonda El Zaguan, I ate tuna marinated with cilantro papaya sauce. At Los Adobes de Todos Santos, a soup appetizer astounded with its squash blossoms and corn dumplings. It was called Tlaxcalteca, which our waiter kindly helped me pronounce and then exhorted me to repeat: ''And now, again!"

We were beginning to think we had found harmonious cultural balance in Todos Santos.

Then we had breakfast at Caffe Todos Santos. A high-ceilinged place with pastel-washed walls arrayed with original paintings by local artists, the cafe is owned by Marc Spahr, a Parisian-trained baker and Harley-Davidson rider who moved here from California 18 years ago.

Back then he was one of the first Americans to set up shop in town. Now, he grumbled, Todos Santos is beset by the whims of Americans.

''They get here and they start complaining that it's not like the US," Spahr said one morning as he waited for a batch of artisanal bread to bake. ''Mexico is what it is."

He has since relocated to a nearby, smaller town of 300 residents. There, he said, he is the lone American.

The conversation gave us pause. By falling under the town's charms, were we adding to its American overload? We pondered the thought over orange juice squeezed from fruit picked that morning, a nectar beyond sweet.

Then we discarded it: The beaches awaited.

Hours slipped away on the amazing array of beaches that surround Todos Santos. One was a palm-tree-framed cove with the feel of a Caribbean island. Another was a wide-open space with vistas of mountains and prickly brush.

Many are secluded, though there are exceptions. At Las Pocitas at about 3 p.m., small crowds gather to watch triangles of gray pop up on the ocean's horizon. They are the fins of gray whales who swim close to shore, apparently to rub their bodies along the sandy bottom. The whales are part of a rebounding of the mammals in Mexico.

The other busy beaches are the surfing spots. A surf camp is just outside town, a hurly-burly place where boards can be rented for $15 and cabanas for $40. When we visited, the camp was filled with twentysomethings lounging about the pool, many of whom showed up later at a nearby beach to surf and cheer each other on.

The waves there were much as promised: not for the faint of heart. I opted out; my friend braved it.

On our last night, over margaritas, our thoughts turned to what it might be like to be an expatriate in Todos Santos. We didn't doubt the colonizing spirit Spahr had lamented. Indeed, a golf course was rumored to be in the works for the town.

Yet the Americans we met seemed intent on minimizing division between themselves and the Mexicans. While Americans tend to be familiar with one another, few know each others' full names, a deliberate ignorance, we were told, born of a sense that too much information could breed chumminess and exclusiveness.

''Last names don't count," said Paul Shortell, a retired computer programmer formerly of Salem who was out strolling one morning wearing a Red Sox hat. He was on his way to pay his water bill, and seemed dumbfounded when we asked what else he would do that day.

''Not much," he said.

Such is the pace in Todos Santos, which seemed about right. Cabo San Lucas might be fine for some, but there are those of us who need a Todos Santos.

Contact Sarah Schweitzer at

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