“Be careful,” said the sixtyish snowy-haired gentleman with a matching white beard, weather-beaten face, gray twinkling eyes, and a wry smile hinting at some private little secret.
“Before you know it, you’ll be looking to live here. It has that strange effect on you.”
There’s a different kind of magic at work in Baja Sur’s Todos Santos. One of 36 towns to be designated a pueblo magico (or magic town) for its natural beauty, cultural riches or historical relevance, this palm-fringed desert oasis provides the perfect respite from touristy Cabo San Lucas.
An easy one-hour drive from Cabo on well-maintained roads, Todos Santos – meaning “All Saints” – is a small coastal pueblo with captivating charm. At the foothills of the rugged Sierra de la Laguna Mountains on the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula, the village provides the perfect blend of peaceful, laid-back atmosphere and cultural sophistication.
Authentic Baja Sur
A mission and farm community was established here by Jesuit padres in 1724. Fertile soil and the abundance of fresh water from underground aquifers produced a bounty of vegetables, sugarcane and grapes for wine making.
This tradition of harvesting the land carries on today; local restaurants boast their own farm-to-table organic products. And there’s no shortage of papayas, avocados, tomatoes, strawberries and chilies at the town’s farmers market.
Nestled between ancient mango and palm orchards with spectacular views overlooking white sandy Pacific beaches, Todos Santos is what Cabo was 20 years ago, say locals. It’s home to artists, craftsmen, musicians, filmmakers and surfers, but hasn’t yet lost its authentic Baja flavor. People here are friendly, hospitable and happy to regale you with tales of the area’s history and traditions.
What to see
Strolling along narrow cobblestone side streets, my husband and I browsed colorful craft, jewelry and boutique shops, some traditional Mexican and others with more of a bohemian flair. Over 30 galleries and artist studios displayed paintings, sculpture, ceramic tile designs, stained glass and photographic art.
Drawn to a large, magnificent watercolor print that seemed to capture Baja’s allure to a T, I asked myself, “Now, how am I going to get this on the plane?”
For such a small town, the number and variety of restaurants here was unexpected – from street-side taco stands to traditional Mexican fare to fine dining. Tequila's Sunrise’s wafting aromas lured us to its colorful open-air entrance. Claiming to have the best guacamole in town (which we now know to be true), their shrimp and lobster chile rellenos made for a mouth-watering lunchtime feast. A guitarist serenaded diners in the outdoor courtyard.
Where to stay
Tops on our curiosity list was the surreal and somewhat bizarre Hotel California. The vibrant, quirky hotel, whose name predates the iconic 1973 Eagles song, adamantly denies the rumor that the Eagles were in residence when the song was written. The bartender, however, proudly confirmed stories and firsthand reports of spirits and ghosts in the hotel’s courtyard. I found it a lovely place.
Offering a completely different feel, Hacienda Cerritos, perched alone on a bluff overlooking picturesque Cerritos Bay, is visible from miles away. From an outdoor whale-watching bar, guests are treated to miles of sweeping views of the crystal blue Pacific. With its lofty bell tower, flowery Spanish courtyard and tiled corridors, this hauntingly beautiful boutique hotel could have easily been the true inspiration for the Eagles song.
Best of the beaches
A 15-minute drive from town transports you to some of the most isolated and beautiful beaches in all of Baja. Locals guided us to Playa Las Palmas, telling us “the only footprints you are likely to see in the sand are your own.”
We followed a short, dusty path to the beach, with desert cacti lining the mountainside to our left and lush, green sawgrass and towering palms on the right. Desert meets tropics. The tip was spot-on; the secluded half-mile of protected beach was devoid of humans. Seabirds foraging in the adjacent lagoon were our only companions.
Nearby, pristine crescent-shaped Playa Los Cerritos provides the area’s safest swimming and best surfing. An ideal spot to wiggle my toes in the sand under a shady palapa with a cold, refreshing margarita. Now this is what a Baja vacation is all about!
As a perfect sunset guided us back to our villa in Cabo San Lucas, it was comforting to know that our decision to get off the grid and explore somewhere new had paid off. And I understood where the gentleman was coming from – magical Todos Santos lingers in my mind still.
If you go
Todos Santos is one hour north of Cabo San Lucas via MEX Hwy 19 N, and one hour southwest of La Paz via MEX Hwy 19 S.