Down narrow, winding, desert Highway 19, an hour past the last golf course in Cabo
San Lucas, lies quiet Todos Santos,
a Mexican hamlet with just over 3,400 residents, on the Pacific side of southern Baja
Here, its not what you see but what you dont see. Life goes on behind
pastel walls. As part-time resident and author, Joe Cummings, put it,
"Todos Santoss real life lies underneath." From the exterior, to a passing
traveler, this small town looks like any other Mexican town. It has its church, its main
plaza, a few restaurants, and mostly dirt streets. But underneath it all lies the heart of
Mexicos newest art colony and a controversial battle over change.
"Todos Santos is a place people disappear into," added Cummings.
"Theres something about the way the two-lane highway through town can take in
casual visitors at one end and dispense with them at the other end without revealing too
"Beneath the towns sleepy surface, behind the century-old brick and adobe
facades, lives a small, year-round colony of artists, writers, surfers, and organic
farmers who have found Todos Santos the ideal place to follow their independent
pursuits," says Cummings in his Moon Guide,
Cabo HandBook from Avalon Travel Publishing. He noted that very few visitors
ever cross to el otro lado (the other side) of the palm-filled arroyo along the
north side of town, thus protecting the privacy of artists, who came here for the light,
and of writers, like Cummings, who find the lack of distractions, refreshing.
Todos Santos is unlike other art colonies like Taos, New Mexico, and Carmel,
California. Those places boast chic galleries and chi-chi cafes, but very few artists, for
few can afford to live there.
But artists and writers can afford to live and work in Todos Santos, at least for the
Unfotunately, the town has been discovered. Some claim its one of the most
charming villages in Baja California. And with charm comes tourists and with tourists
Todos Santos rather unremarkable history began when Jesuit missionaries established
a farm community in 1724 to supply the mission at La Paz with fruits, vegetables, wine,
and sugarcane. By 1733, the community was so successful that Padre Sigismundo Taraval
founded Misión Santa Rosa de las Palmas. And by the mid-18th Century, Todos Santos was
bigger than La Paz. Renamed Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Todos Santos in 1749, the town
remained an important mission settlement until 1840.
Following the secularization of the missions, Todos Santos thrived as Baja's sugarcane
capital, supporting eight sugar mills by the late 19th Century. Only one
existed by the time the towns freshwater spring dried up in1950. Todos Santos faded
into near obscurity after that last mill closed in 1965. Miraculously, the spring came
back to life in 1981 and the area began producing fruits and vegetables in quantity.
Tourists began arriving when the Mexican Government paved Highway 19 in the mid
1980sand the rest, as they say, is history.
And with the tourists came problems faced by other Mexican towns discovered on the
tourist path. Just two weeks after the local police chief announced that there was little
crime in Todos Santos, the town had its first Bonnie & Clyde Mexican Style bank raid.
Armed robbers, who made their getaway in a truck, stripped the local bank of cash.
To Change or Not to Change: That is the Question?
One of the most hotly discussed subjects in town is the subject of change, sort
of like when Wal-Mart plans to build a new store in a town, only on a smaller scale. There
are advocates for no change, who moved here for the quiet life. And there are those who
welcome change because with it comes economic opportunity.
Mike Cope, owner of Galeria de Todos Santos, is an advocate of change. "Im
excited about the influx of young Mexican artists in town," he said. "Im
excited that so many people care about the town, and I hope this caring extends into
empowering the Mexican population. By that, I mean creating opportunities that are more
educational, that will actively involve the local kids in subjects like the environmental
health of the town."
Architect Brenda Cassiltas, who came to Todos Santos because she just loved the
"feel" of the town, is an example of the young talent to which Mike refers.
Charles Stewart, the towns first expatriate artist, hit town in 1986. In time,
other artists, like Raul Cavazos, a California builder who now uses local clay to craft
his graceful pots, settled in Todos Santos.
"Today, Todos Santos is home to eight well-regarded American artists and a
temporary home to 10 others," said Cope, also a painter. On many days, several
American artists gather on the patio of his gallery to paint, sculpt and make pots. For
them, Todos Santos is a love affair--a place to work with good light, amiable colleagues
in the arts, a fascinating local culture, time to spend with their families and enough
amenities to keep life comfortable.
On the other side of town, behind the counter of the SuperMercado El Sol, sits Maria
del Rosario Ojeda. She fears that Todos Santos will go the way of other Mexican tourist
towns if big developments are allowed to come in. "We feel its important to
protect our family and community values," she said. "Here, everyone can walk the
streets without fear. The values we are protecting are the very thing that attracts
One of the insignificant signs of change can be seen at the House of Culture, the
regional museum of southern Baja California. Instead of signs saying Mujeres and Hombres,
a half-naked Barbie doll hangs over the entrance to the ladies room and a broken Ken doll
hangs over the entrance to the mens room, perhaps put there with a Mexican sense of
humor or as silent symbols of change.
The museum, itself, with its exhibits of local building techniques and photographs from
the Mexican Revolution, offers visitors a chance to see what life was like before the
touristsbefore Los Cabos and its golf courses.
When Todos Santos lay sleeping in the Baja sunshine in the 1970s, hippies would
pay $2 for a hammock and the use of a communal bath and shower at the Hotel California. As
hype and legend would have it, it became >the< Hotel California of Eagles
rock and roll fame. However, as Cummings will tell you, this Eagles legend is the
creation of one man, Manuel Valdez, the former manager of the hotel, who now operates two
shops selling Hotel California memorabilia.
Today, visitors sleep comfortably at the Todos Santos Inn, a four-room boutique hotel
housed in a former cantina and military headquarters, run by Robert Whiting, an expat from
Boston. For $125 a night, guests stay in luxurious suites with four-poster beds and carved
And when theyre hungry, they head over to Restaurante Las Fuentes, sit under a
big palapa and munch on the best burritos de machaca in town, washed down with cold
Pacifico beer. Its owner, affectionately known as Paquita, firmly believes in the changes
that will come to Todos Santos. "The conflict that growth brings can be
difficult," she said. "Ive seen many changes in the last 10 years. Growth
is good for everyone, it brings more jobs, but we must avoid the problems of other tourist
towns." She believes everyone needs to get involved so that Todos Santos doesnt
make the same mistakes other tourist towns have made.
The bell on the cart of a passing street vendor tinkles as he passes by. Shadows fall
softly on a pink building with its locked white door. Todos Santos is a quiet once
againbut not for long.