Appreciating Pacific Beaches: Where el Nino and la Nina Come to Shore
Sunday, April 05, 2009
By David Bear, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Playa las Palmas near the town of Todos Santos is one of the best beaches in southwest Baja Mexico.
TODOS SANTOS, Baja, Mexico — The great gray whale and her calf lolled and spouted in the white-capped swells barely 200 feet from where my wife, Sari, and I sat on the steeply banked, deserted beach. We had cruised 500 miles down the coast of Baja’s Sea of Cortez but witnessed more whales from this beach in an hour that afternoon than during the previous week. We watched enraptured until the setting sun told us it was time to go. The huge, wind-pushed, winter swells that roll in all along this coast from the deep, cold Pacific offer sure-footed surfers some mondo rides, but the ocean’s regular rip tides and rogue waves often make these long sandy beaches too risky for even strong swimmers. Situated on the Tropic of Cancer, the town of Todos Santos (All Saints) dates from 1723, when the first Spanish Mission on the Baja was relocated from bone-dry La Paz on the Sea of Cortez to this spring-fed valley on the Pacific coast 60 miles north of the peninsula’s tip. The mission’s church on the town square still retains its original statue of the Virgin of Pilar, a relic adorated at an annual October festival. The small farms that took root around the mission in the fertile lowlands between the ocean and dry hills eventually evolved into significant plantations that made Todos Santos the sugar cane capital of Baja during the 19th century. Decades of droughts ended those operations by the 1950s, but the fields still produce plenty of vegetables and chili peppers amid orchards of avocado, papaya and mango. Along with other traditional occupations such as small-scale fishing and ranching operations, these activities give the town its livelihood, as well as its agrarian authenticity. Tourism is a relatively recent arrival. Connected in 1988 only by paved road to the cities of Cabo San Lucas to the south or La Paz to the northeast, Todos Santos evolved relatively sheltered from the tides of tourism that have totally overwhelmed its Baja neighbors. The steady waves that wash its half-dozen magnificently wild beaches have long attracted serious surfers, and birding buffs have come to revel in the abundance of avian species. But since the two-lane Highway 19 that heads south along the coast to Los Cabos was situated 11/2 miles inland, all beach access involves finding your way down a long, dusty, unmarked lane through the dry brush and cactus scrubland. That distance coupled with the chilly, often treacherous Pacific, have discouraged major construction on the sand. As we discovered during our three-day visit of all six of the area’s beaches, there are no high-rise condos or big name hotels — only a few small beachside bistros, modest bungalows and campgrounds. We wandered freely along these scenic stretches almost by ourselves. Several times, there were more whales than people. That lack of development also holds true for Todos Santos itself, which still retains its rustic, authentically Mexican air. Other than a main road that bisects it, most of the town’s streets are still hard packed dirt, with dogs sleeping in lazy corners. Accommodations are limited. The largest is the venerable 11-room Hotel California in the center of town, followed by a handful of smaller inns, B&Bs, boutique resorts and rental homes. Drawing on its natural beauties, Todos Santos has blossomed as a community for artists and crafts people; there are more than 15 small galleries, local craft and jewelry shops that have some calling it the Santa Fe of Baja. A clutch of upish-scale restaurants and kitschy cafes have injected new color into several of the town’s well-worn storefronts. Film festivals, art shows, food tastings, dharma talks and other New Age events also have been fitted into the schedule of activities, along with hill hiking, sea-kayaking and other eco-adventures.
If you go: Todos Santos
The laid-back coastal ambience and redeeming summer breezes have also attracted an expatriate community of several hundred North Americans and Europeans who call Todos Santos home. Among them are the Wiesendangers, a colorful couple who arrived in southern Baja on a vacation from Switzerland in 1998 and fell under the spell of Todos Santos. Libuche, an artist, and Juerg, a banker, were looking for a change from their Alpine homeland. Over the next four years, they constructed a pastel-colored walled compound around a garden of cactus and palm trees, including a house for themselves, a small restaurant and a boutique hotel, Posada La Poza or House of the Spring. It has seven guest rooms in two buildings around a lovely saltwater pool and hot tub. Guests are able to access the beach where we watched whales by rowboat across a small, bird-blessed lagoon. In addition to armadas of pelicans and gulls, we saw cormorants, frigate birds, diving ducks, heron, snowy egrets, kingfishers, hummingbirds, willets and yellowthroat warblers. Juerg designed the handsome buildings and Libusche decorated the tiles and textiles in traditional Mexican styles. The result is an elegant, shore-side simplicity accented with European sophistication. Equally important, the enclave is run with Swiss graciousness and efficiency, overseen by the ever energetic and engaging Juerg, who both sets high standards for his staff and ensures every guest gets personal attention. Chef-prepared gourmet meals served nightly in the restaurant are an impressive blend of Mexican and Continental cuisines made with local organic produce, meats and fresh seafood. The posada’s accommodations are private and plush, with incredibly comfortable beds and verandas open to the garden, the lagoon and the ocean beyond. Suites are equipped with ceiling fans, air-conditioning and CDs, but they have no TV, telephone or Internet access, so relaxation and self-amusement are the primary activities. But with the sun by day and the stars at night, that is not an issue. Nightly rates, which start at $210, include a full breakfast. To be fair, reaching the posada requires negotiating a badly rutted mile route from Todos Santos that had us originally reconsidering our stay as we drove up. It is fortunate Juerg has done a good job of posting directional signs. But once we reached the apricot-colored compound with the blue Pacific as its backdrop, we soon discovered it difficult to come up with reasons ever to leave. And that’s a very good thing.
David Bear, Post-Gazette travel editor emeritus, can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org.
First published on April 5, 2009 at 12:00 am
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