Maybe it all began with Don Henley and the Eagles singing about the Hotel California.
On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair,
Warm smell of colitas rising up through the air.
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light.
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim,
I had to stop for the night.
There she stood in the doorway,
I heard the mission bell.
And I was thinking to myself -
This could be heaven or this could be hell.
Then she lit up a candle, and she showed me the way.
There were voices down the corridor -
I thought I heard them say…
Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place
Such a lovely face
Plenty of room in the Hotel California
Any time of year, you can find it here …
You know the rest of the song. While there are many Hotel California’s on the peninsula, the one in Todos Santos capitalized on the legend the most. The whole world vision of some tropical episode of The Twilight Zone accurately captures the essence of Todos Santos, except that the reality is more positive. The bottom line is, there are touristic experiences and there are touristic experiences, and perhaps the way Todos Santos was in the beginning goes a long way towards explaining why it’s a refuge for lefty expatriates from American Bohemialand who want to go native.
Geographically, Todos Santos sits at the very end of a funnel for a vast watershed that flows down from the mountains. Because of this, Todos Santos has the incongruous air of Hawaii or Cuba sitting smack dab in the middle of the Mexican desert. In 1800, it was the site of sugar plantations, and you can still see the ruins or restored buildings when you walk around the town. Fast forward to the 1930s when Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo paid a visit to the exploited sugar cane workers. You can see the results from that era, not only from the remnants of a revolutionary mural painted in his style, but by the original self-portrait of Frida hanging on the wall among the amateur and lesser artistic lights in the Centro Cultural. Forty years later, an earthquake cut off the water supply, and Todos withered on the vine. While this was an extremely bad thing at the time, it turned out to be a positive for Todos in the long run, as the Mexican government decided to put all its chips into developing the little fishing village of Cabo San Lucas instead.
I don’t care what you’ve been told, or by whom. Cabo San Lucas is an abomination and a low grade tourist hell. I tell all of my ignorant, stupid California acquaintances that Cabo is the only place to go in all of Baja. The rest of the peninsula is infested with scorpions, rattlesnakes, banditos, and drug dealers. Enough people go to Cabo in their timeshares, and they’re as happy as pigs in slop, and that’s just fine with me. That way the Mexican government can keep the white man on the rez, leaving the rest of the peninsula to me.
Moving forward slightly in time to the late 70s and early 80s, some American refugees from Taos and Southern California settled in the dry abandoned town, including the soon to be world famous painter, Charles Stewart. Boho attracted boho, and the makings of a real honest to goodness artists’ colony was born. Charles Stewart told his friends, and the rest of the history is what you see in the main part of town. When you walk up and down Calle Juarez, you’ll see tiny tienda after tienda of artists selling their own work. And then you have the world class restaurants with internationally trained chefs trying to outdo each other, and the small four or five star boutique hotels. And they’re all surrounded by Mexicans.
The whole feeling is very much like a summer camp for refugees from Beverly Hills. Because it’s Baja, there’s plenty of Third World vibe here. But the food and the art and the world view and attitudes and sophistication give Todos Santos a very different ambiance from the trailer park full of gringo fishermen or the millionaire ghettos that you’ll encounter elsewhere all over the peninsula. And yes, there is a substantial industry presence here. How else do you explain my movie habits? I never go to the movies in the States because all the good ones are shown while I’m in Mexico, and I don’t believe in DVDs most of the time. But here I was, watching bootleg copies of The King’s Speech and True Grit when I wasn’t putting in requests for illegal copies of Inside Job and the latest award winner from Cannes. 50 pesos each. No more, no less.
But of course, in the culture here there’s a reverse snobbism at work. The tiny hotels and most of the shops are really for the suckers. And the highest status americanos are actually the ones that have assimilated the most into Mexican culture. By far, you’ve got more street cred if you speak Spanish well and pursue your art. The actual lower status gringos live in the conventional millionaire ghettos along the beach. I saw the winner of the status contest in grocery store while I was shopping. “Are you gringo or Mexicano?” I asked. The man admitted that he was originally from Southern California, but that he’d lived here full time for 35 years.
And because the refugees are from So-So Cal, you’ll find more New Age, healing crystals, yoga, and astrology than you could possibly stand. As for example, I was talking with Michael, the chef at Gemini – named because the Tropic of Cancer is so old that the heavens have actually shifted one astrological sign, thus making Todos sit on the Tropic of Gemini. We got into an extended discussion on the nature of Betelguese, the largest star in the constellation of Orion which is currently in the process of imploding. At some time in the near future, Betelguese will explode, going supernova. Michael contended that within a year, we’ll be able to see another sun in the sky at night. I bet $500 to his $1 that by the end of 2012, Betelguese will still look normal. My wife asked where the name of the star came from, and I joked “the movie.”
And to add a bit of spice to the mix, this is an excellent place to retire to if you’ve spent a lot of time in the CIA or other such establishments. An indicator of this is the “ham radio operator” sitting on top of a hill with all of the usual equipment, except for the stuff on steroids. He has a giant movable earth station dish that’s usually pointed straight up. I suppose that if he was a radio astronomer, he could scan for signals from alien planets all he wanted to. As a cheeky response to that, another rich Californio built a very futuristic house on an opposite hill that has what appears to be a giant flying saucer hovering over his abode. When I climbed up to the top of another hill to take a picture of the two juxtaposed, I was disappointed. The earth station guy had his dish pointed at the horizon, monitoring the nuke plant chatter from the Japanese earthquake disaster. The earth dish was invisible.
Recently there was a little incident that took place on Calle Juarez. Wifey and I ran into a big, fat, red-faced guy with his porky family taking promiscuous pictures of everything from their day trip up from Cabo. I disparagingly remarked that they must be Germans. I was wrong. They were Canadians. He looked at me in my Ray Bans, and my black tee shirt, and faded designer jeans with contempt, and he said, “It’s too bad. Some people just don’t know when to give up work when they’re on vacation.”
I knew I was superior. Or at least, I’d like to think that I’m that way. But what do I really know?