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Todos Santos Article

TODOS SANTOS, MEXICO — First, a fact: At the real Hotel California, you will not find any mirrors on the ceilings or pink champagne on ice.

Those lyrics from the still-popular 1977 Eagles' song allude to an imaginary place. Furthermore, musician Don Henley has denied ever visiting the inn at this clean-swept town about an hour's drive north of Cabo San Lucas.

But reality hasn't prevented Todos Santos' circa-1950 inn (which does at least boast hallucinogenically-painted rooms) from capitalizing on the myth. Nor has it deterred day-trip pilgrims who pack the La Coronela Restaurant and Bar on the hotel's shaded patio and buy souvenirs at the Hotel California gift shop across the street. (You'll find much cooler goods at the hotel's own Emporium.)

This is not the only reason the Mexican Tourism Ministry in 2006 declared Todos Santos a "Pueblo Magico" — or Magical Town. The designation brings cultural and environmental protection, but it's also an invitation to growth. Which is why, on a weekday morning last February, a government-paid guide named Arturo chauffeured a vanload of curious journalists in for a tour.

We arrived mid-morning, and it didn't bode well when no one came to the gates at our first destination — the colorful adobe studio compound of the artist known as Gabo. He's one of several local creative celebrities, including the elderly American ex-pat Charles Stewart, who moved here from Taos, N.M., in 1986.

Like a soul sister to Taos (which, incidentally, has a legitimate landmark lodging in the Taos Inn), Todos Santos has become a haven for writers and visual artists. Think small-scale, though — there are about 20 galleries and as many quaint shops here.

In "old town," Todos' Santos colonial heart, the day was starting slowly, too. The main plaza was deserted.

Sun washed over the warm yellow walls inside the serenely simple Nuestra Señora del Pilar Mission church. This is where Todos Santos was founded in 1733, although all that remains of the original structure is a statue of the Señora.

We also wandered into the flower-filled, terraced courtyard of the Todos Santos Inn. Intimate and inviting, this converted hacienda gives Hotel California serious competition — although with only about 20 rooms between them, it's no wonder Todos Santos is mostly a day-trip kind of town. For now.

We found a bit of a late-breakfast crowd inside the Caffé Todos Santos — the town's artsy, charming answer to Starbucks. Except with better chai lattes, delicious pastries and smoothies.

Buoyed by the caffeine, we stepped onto Centenario Street and caught sight of St. Francis on a building across the street. Small statues of patron saints, carved in a primitive style and colorfully painted, adorned the low-slung Colonial buildings along two blocks.

Although Todos Santos translates as "All Saints," we counted just 10 here including St. Anthony, the Sacred Heart, St. Jude Thaddaeus, St. Martin de Porres, St. Peter, St. Francis Xavier, St. John, the Lord of the Afflicted and St. Paul.

From there, Arturo led us to another low-key attraction: the Centro Cultural Professor Nestor Agundez Martinez. Just inside the doors of this circa-1921 building — a former school — giant murals depict the region's history. (Todos Santos is a mural-lover's town.)

We breezed through several galleries featuring maps, historic photos and dolls. But out back, the replica ranchito — a small ranch house — was fascinating. A rooster roamed the premises. Live hens clucked from cages. With clothes hung on the bound-stick walls and cooking implements lined up, it felt like the inhabitants had just stepped away.

Another enchanted world beckoned at Los Adobes Restaurant, where we had lunch overlooking a magnificent cactus garden that reflects the area's abundant native flora. The excellent menu features regionally-inspired specialties with organic produce and fresh seafood. It was tough passing up beef tenderloin with huitlacoche (corn fungus), mole poblano, fish dishes in herb sauces and vegetarian options. But I devoured every bite of the camarones con salsa de mango y albahaca — shrimp with fresh vegetables and a bright mango, basil and arbol pepper salsa over rice.

Before we left town, Arturo took us to an off-the-beaten path surprise: a candy market where a dozen or so vendors offered a tempting array of regional sweets including chimangos — a sopapilla-like local specialty. It was a reminder that the lush landscape around Todos Santos was once home to numerous sugar cane farms.

On a tight schedule — the curse of travel writers' tours — we had only a few minutes to stop at the Los Cerritos Beach Club, a surfer's hideaway about eight miles from town. Here's where the boys were — and the girls — downing beers at the waterfront bar and lounging in the sand.

With a view that merges mountains and ocean, this is prime beachfront property. On a bluff just above the surfboard rental stands, construction was underway on one of several new resort developments that will bring many more people to this "Pueblo Magico" within five years or less.

If you're a purist, go now.

Posted: Saturday, March 29, 2008 7:29 PM by Nick Fong

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