The Mexican town of Todos Santos on the Baja California peninsula offers galleries, history and a wild-surf beach within walking distance.
TODOS SANTOS, Mexico — Most travel guidebooks, and many been-there-done-that travelers, will tell you that Todos Santos, a little artist enclave on the Pacific Coast of lower Baja, is “a lot like Taos.”
But that’s more than just a cliché. I found an expert witness, willing to testify.
On a spring-break visit with my college-age daughter, I chatted with artist Margaret Woodall, who was lazily daubing at a canvas in the shaded courtyard of a Todos Santos gallery during the town’s second annual artist-studio tour.
“I came to Todos Santos 15 years ago from Taos, because Todos Santos reminded me of Taos back then,” said Woodall, a slim, tanned grandmother who lived a good while in the famed New Mexican art colony, although she’s originally from Kentucky.
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She’s a confirmed convert to Todos Santos, a town of about 5,000 people 45 miles north of Cabo San Lucas. “I like the ocean here. The mountains are the same, but there’s no snow!”
And this sun-warmed courtyard, with its coral-pink wall festooned with longhorn cattle horns and framed by banana-tree leaves and cactus, was just the kind of place to get creative juices flowing.
Woodall’s works on the gallery wall included a painting of pangas — the local fishing skiffs — on a beach at nearby Point Lobos. It’s a subject we saw repeated at Galeria de Todos Santos, a short walk away through quiet, narrow streets of historical adobe buildings draped in purple bougainvillea.
There we met Erick Ochoa, a young Mexico City native, educated as an architect, who makes his living as an artist here.
He showed off a painting in progress, focused on the figure of a Mexican fisherman next to his beached panga. Ochoa’s Edward Hopper-style use of light and shadow brought the subject to vivid life.
Taos is known for the quality of its high-desert light — the town’s website devotes a whole link to the topic — and fans give Todos Santos similar plaudits.
“In summer, when it can be very hot, there are amazing cloud formations, and everything is bright — in Technicolor!” Ochoa said. “For an artist, there’s everything you need here.”
The same is true for art lovers. Twenty-seven local artists — about an even mix of Latino and Anglo names — welcomed visitors during the studio tour, which happens in March. A weeklong annual arts festival is in February. Galleries are everywhere, especially in the old-town blocks just uphill from the oasis ravine that cradled our little hotel, Casa Bentley.
A special place to stay
Welcoming the Casa Bentley’s guests are elaborately carved wooden gates, with sun and moon figures commemorating a 1991 solar eclipse, by artist Charles Stewart, another Taos expatriate who is credited as a founder of the Todos Santos artist community in the 1980s. (He died earlier this month.)
Through the gates we met the hotel’s builder and proprietor, Bob Bentley, a retired professor of geology from Central Washington University and a walking, breathing combination of Papa Hemingway (he has the white beard and straw hat) and John Steinbeck (he has the big poodle and the storytelling gene).
With a cup of coffee at a table beneath his wide-spreading rubber tree, “Doc” Bentley, 77, told us of the town’s growing reputation among what he calls the “woo-woo” crowd, which fancies this a center of everything from magnetic healing to magical powers. “Lots of folks from Sedona find their way here,” he said, referencing Arizona’s center of New Age spiritualism.
That aura was encouraged by Mexican tourism authorities’ official designation in 2006 of Todos Santos as a “Pueblo Magico,” or “magical village,” a designation given to some 40 towns across Mexico based on their natural beauty, cultural riches or historical significance.
But Bentley says it’s the climate that makes the place perfect.
Nearby mountains, the Sierra de la Laguna (“essentially a fragment of uptilted rocks from out in the Sea of Cortez,” our ever-the-geologist host explained), shield the area from summer’s superheated weather systems that feed northward up Baja to as far as California’s Death Valley.
“We have a little microclimate here — it’s really pleasant, day after day. And there isn’t any rain,” said Bentley, noting that the last bad hurricane was in 1996.
The climate drew him to retire here after spending 15 years of off-and-on visits overseeing the construction of his hotel, which started with an adobe farmhouse dating to the mid-19th century. Additional structures are of local red amphibolite rock, along with polished inlays from Bentley’s father’s trove of 30,000 agates, jaspers, turquoise and other semiprecious stones collected during a lifetime in eastern Oregon, where Bentley grew up.
Modeled in part after a castle in Portugal, the hotel has a tiled pool fed by a waterfall, multilevel patios, an elaborate fountain, a grove of century-old mango trees and quirky touches such as the large palm tree growing up through the roof of our bathroom.
Quiet tourist venue
The town gets an occasional tour bus up from Cabo San Lucas. There are one or two tacky T-shirt shops and a Coldwell Banker real-estate office. But unlike more populous parts of Baja, Walmart has yet to make its way here, and drunken college students on spring break tend to stay in Cabo.
You’ll find a dozen decent restaurants and cafes within walking distance around downtown. A local fish shop and an open-air kitchen at Casa Bentley let us concoct our own delectable shrimp tacos one night, a reminder that this is a coastal town.
But Todos Santos isn’t right on the ocean. From our inn, my daughter and I walked 25 minutes to the beach, along a narrow, dusty track past horse pastures and a pen of friendly goats who poked their heads through wire to get scratched (yes, that spot, just at the base of the horn). A temperature in the 70s and cooling breezes made it a fun outing rather than a hot trudge.
The town’s setback from the ocean, a small interceding lagoon, and an abrupt seafloor drop-off that creates treacherous surf unsuitable for swimming add up to a mostly undeveloped and beautifully wild beach. Blue water thunders ashore on a broad swath of caramel sand. A sign says it’s a turtle-nesting area.
Only a few local families dotted the beach. A man played bucking bronco with his kids. Someone flew a kite. Wide expanses of empty beach beckoned the footloose.
It was the kind of scene that would inspire artists, no matter where they came from.
And, oh, by the way: I’ve never been to Taos. Maybe I’ll visit someday.
I hear it’s a bit like Todos Santos.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or email@example.com