Baja Bohemia On the edge: The Mexican town of Todos Santos remains peaceful and quiet, but its art scene is expanding, and it is attracting interest as a vacation destination.

February 18, 1996|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TODOS SANTOS, Mexico -- Day One: Browse bristling cactuses. Assess crashing Pacific. Big dinner. Not much happens.

Day Two: Swim off a half-mile-long beach, utterly alone. Sight wildlife: a 2-inch frog crossing the busiest street in town, inch by inch, untroubled by traffic, at 9 p.m.

Day Three: Day One, with a bigger dinner.

Day Four: Departure. Despair.

Todos Santos (all saints), a small miracle of peace, quiet and creeping Bohemianism, lies about 50 miles north of lower Baja California's better-known vacation destination, Cabo San Lucas. It is a town of mostly unpaved streets, of thatched roofs and sleeping dogs, and crumbling adobe walls and ruined old sugar mills, with farms set among the cactus and palms on its outskirts.

It is sustained by the farming and fishing of several thousand Mexicans, the crumpled dollars of wayward surfers, and the arty aspirations of a few dozen emigres. Though a sign outside town puts the population at 3,400, local estimates run from 5,000 to 8,000.

Visitors lie low, eat under palapa roofs, sleep cheap, ponder epic deserts, possibly attempt watercolors. They probably don't go sportfishing -- there's no marina. There's one pool hall, and there are no nightclubs, though a sports bar is rumored to be coming. Tourists may not even lounge by the pool; only a couple of lodgings have them.

Todos Santos has one traffic signal and one gas station. Once Mexico Highway 19 takes you out of town, unfenced cows are prone to wander across the two blacktop lanes. The nearest beach is about three miles from downtown, and the coastal waters can be perilously rough.

The town hangs in a delicate state of mid-transformation: near enough to the international tourist path that its most popular restaurant has an all-Italian menu, yet far enough away that I couldn't find one Todos Santos hotel room that fetched more than $65 a night or featured air conditioning.

"So who's the mayor of L.A. now?" asked one of the first locals I met, a pleasant fellow sipping his morning coffee in the Caffe Todos Santos. He looked to be in his 40s and thoroughly Anglo, but gave his name as Pablo Domingo. He moved to Todos Santos from Los Angeles 10 years ago, he said, and does pen-and-ink artwork.

"They're saying this will be the new Carmel," he said. "It'll be the new something. I don't know what."

You never know. It was in the late 1980s, locals recall, when some Mexican tourism officials started pitching Todos Santos as a burgeoning international artist's colony -- a dubious claim, since just about the only international artist here then was Charles Stewart, an exile from Taos, N.M., who arrived with his wife, Mary Lou, in about 1985. (They remain, and if a visitor rings the bell at their home-gallery at Centenario and Obregon streets, one of them will probably grant a tour, which includes the chance to browse a rack of watercolors priced at $150 and up.)

Yet the prophecy has gradually been fulfilled. Every year, it seems, a few more aesthetically inclined expatriates show up.

A celebrated addition

On Calle Topete stands one of the most recent and celebrated additions to the local boho scene, the Galeria de Todos Santos.

In the front rooms of a high-ceilinged old brick building, gallery director Michael Cope began displaying his own work last April along with pieces by several accomplished Mexican and American artists. Two of them, potter Raul Cavazos (formerly of Texas) and painter Gloria Marie V. (of Los Angeles), have been in at least part-time residence around greater Todos Santos for several years.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cope and his wife, former Angelenos, are building a house on "the other side," a breeze-cooled residential area on the western end of town that has become popular with Americans.

They aren't alone. Americans are buying land and building homes for vacation, retirement and exile, and more outsiders are surely coming soon.

Soon, it seems likely, Todos Santos will be a place with more restaurants, fewer idle old buildings downtown and higher prices. Sooner or later, a big hotel is likely to rise near the town's most popular stretch of shoreline, known as Playa San Pedro or Palm Beach.

Right now, however, the beach lies unmarked at the end of a 1.5-mile-long dirt road that branches off from the highway about three miles south of town. The only structure in sight is a ruined old ranch building, moldering among the palms and cactus.

The tourist season in Todos Santos begins in October (the town's biggest party of the year is the Oct. 12 celebration of its patron saint, the Virgin of Pilar) and peaks in December, January (when there's an arts and crafts show) and February.

Many businesses curtail their hours or close altogether during the hot, humid, mosquito-marred and occasionally hurricane-threatened months of July, August and September.

(Map-browsers, take note: The town of Todos Santos is sometimes confused with Isla de Todos Santos, a better-known surf spot about 800 miles north in the Bay of Todos Santos off Ensenada.)

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