Welcome to Hotel California

Baja: Little Todos Santos, where Don Henley is said to have written a legendary song, is poised for a tourist boom. Residents are unsure about the consequences.

Destination : Mexico

May 20, 2001|By Ricardo Sandoval | Ricardo Sandoval,Dallas Morning News

David Galloway is pondering life in Todos Santos, a magical Mexican hamlet he calls home six months of the year. The friends at his table are fixed on his storytelling, mindlessly stirring their lattes, served in bowls, in the bougainvillea-shrouded patio of Cafe Todos Santos.

The ponytailed Galloway said it took just one brief stop several years ago, while exploring the southern tip of Mexico's Baja California peninsula, to decide this would be the place he'd hang out while fall and winter have their way with his other home in Vancouver, British Columbia. The question is whether it will stay that way.

It has a lot to do with the town's strongest attraction -- the Hotel California -- and its almost mythical grip on gringo baby boomers and their offspring.

Yes, that Hotel California: The place where singer-songwriter Don Henley is said to have stopped while touring what -- as late as the 1960s -- was Baja's lost coast, leading him to write the song "Hotel California." Nearly three decades after the Eagles released the song, it has gained near-cult status. Internet sites discuss Henley, the Eagles, Todos Santos and myths surrounding the real hotel, and help fans sort out the song's enigmatic lyrics.

Henley is believed to have been inspired by the town's characters and the rustic hotel at the shoulder of a Spanish colonial mission on Todos Santos' tidy square. It's a testament to the song's popularity that the hotel remains a busy tourist stop, though it's nothing more than a shuttered hulk awaiting a new owner. Rumors circulate of restoration and a new, unauthorized Eagles museum.

"This is cool!" shouted a teen-age visitor as she posed for photos in front of the hotel's tree-shrouded facade. "Dad's going to love this!"

Despite the visitors, Todos Santos is the opposite of its tourist-clogged neighbor, Cabo San Lucas, an hour south. While Todos Santos also draws tourists by the busload, they stay only to lunch at one of a growing number of fine restaurants or inspect paintings, crafts and photographs at the galleries downtown. But, unlike in Cabo San Lucas, where tourists on spring break turn the streets into a disco each night, most visitors leave Todos Santos along with the sun.

And that's just how David Galloway likes it.

"They come to appreciate what we live," he says. "And they go."

Still, expatriates know their out-of-the-way pueblo soon may change.

Self-appointed town historians chafe at the lowbrow scene around Hotel California and swear the hotel is not the hotel immortalized in the song. They point to a denial Henley once faxed to a local writer.

But Manuel Valdez, the hotel's former manager who now runs a restaurant and curio shops pegged to Hotel California themes, says there's too much in the song that's dead-on about Todos Santos.

"It is on a long desert highway," Valdez said, quoting the song's lyrics. "The smell of colitas -- marijuana buds -- probably came from the plants that kept springing up behind the hotel. And you can't help but hear mission bells ring from any of the hotel's rooms."

No neon in Todos Santos

Those irked by Hotel Califor- nia's odd fame may be glad to know that Todos Santos has grown beyond the song's legend.

The town once was little more than an oasis for Mexican artists, vacationing impresarios from Mexico City and Guadalajara, and American surfers. By the time Henley is said to have dropped in, it also was a mere shadow of its former commercial self as southern Baja's fruit and vegetable source and an important sugar-cane port. Jesuit missionaries had founded Todos Santos in 1723, calling it Santa Rosa de las Palmas after the green oasis that stretches to the ocean.

About 400 Americans and Canadians live full time among the town's 7,000 or so residents. Many more have vacation homes in and around town. And a growing number of wealthy Mexicans have discovered the village, helping to boost property values to the point that more middle-income and poor Mexicans now live on the town's edge.

It's bound to get more crowded, with two home developments and a championship golf course slated for beaches a few miles south.

So, the questions for Todos Santos are: Does it become a haven for sojourning Eagles freaks? Or does it check growth and deny its Mexican population the jobs that tourism lures?

Fair-minded locals hope there's a compromise.

All sides agree that there will never be neon in Todos Santos. But even a little tacky growth could spoil the feeling of being in a place only recently discovered by travelers. It was just a decade ago that asphalt supplanted the cobblestones and covered the dirt of some streets around Todos Santos' plaza.

A drive to create

The air is crisp here, even when it's hot. The sunlight has an unfiltered intensity that artists seek and then try to keep secret. Locals still jealously guard the locations of gardens with macadamia and mango trees. And most nearby beaches are unspoiled, so pristine that migrating whales frolic just beyond the breakers.

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