Baja California's Beachy Star
Is this heaven? It's a fair question. I'm standing where the desert meets the beach, where to my right a saguaro cactus stretches its thick arms upward like a border sentry. Behind me, a trail through an arid landscape of scarcity, of finely ground dust underfoot, of grays and tans and sharp edges. Ahead, a sudden miracle of abundance. A dense stand of emerald palms, a wide ribbon of golden sand, an expanse of cobalt sea.
I pull off my shoes and step barefoot onto the sand. It receives me with a pliant, cool density. Is it too fine a point to say I feel like a pilgrim, emerging from the desert unshod and entering a paradise? Where from these palms a clear, freshwater rivulet carves its way toward the sea, luring a gang of seabirds to bathe? Where a pelican, that avian symbol of the Eucharist, looks on? Where if I stay long enough, I think, fish may leap from the sea and tell tales of miracles not yet heard by human ears?
Is this heaven?
The crazy thing is that this is not the first time I've asked myself this question since arriving in Todos Santos. And I've been here less than 24 hours.
To understand what Todos Santos is and why it generates the divine on a more-than-daily basis, it's vital to begin with what it is not. It isn't Cabo San Lucas 47 miles to the south, which smothers the tip of Mexico's Baja California with resorts, bars, and plea-sures calculated to tickle the fancy of the hedonistic tourist. Todos Santos isn't even a beach town really, like El Pescadero and Playa Cerritos, its laid-back, surfer-populated neighbors on the Paciﬁc coast. What it is, though, is blessed by the rarest thing in a parched world: water.
Very little rain falls in the Baja: about 13 inches a year, a drop in the climate bucket. (Consider that Tulum gets around 48 inches and Puerto Vallarta nearly 60.) But what little rain falls here—coming in seasonal spasms often qualifying as hurricanes—is caught by the high ridges of the Sierra de la Laguna, a formidable range that runs from La Paz in the north to the peninsula's terminus. On those few torrential days, the water literally pours down the mountainsides, washing into arroyos as it tumbles toward sea level.
But here is the magic: The sandy soil draws the water inside the earth and stores it. Sitting beneath the ground like a liquid Fort Knox, a vast aquifer offers a year-round source of water—enough to support farms, palm forests, and a vibrant little town with a centuries-old church at its heart.
Which means that Todos Santos was, and is, a magnet, beginning with Jesuits who named their fertile discovery not for one saint but for all of them, founded a church in 1733, and pressed religious conversion and agricultural labor onto the local Uchiti peoples. In the 19th century, sugar barons turned the place into the Baja's cane capital and constructed many of the graceful haciendas and mercantile buildings that line the streets to this day. But what nature giveth, it can taketh away: In 1950 the aquifer dried up. The last sugar mill closed in 1965, and that could have been the end of Todos Santos. But, with the (perhaps miraculous) return of water in 1981 and the (less miraculous) completion of a paved road from Cabo in 1984, the town resurrected itself, thanks to an influx of restoration-minded artists and expats, and became one of Mexico's sweetest, best kept secrets.
I'd been one of the lucky searchers to have stumbled onto Todos Santos in the 1990s, wandering the chromatic streetscapes of its stunningly intact historic district, poking in and out of galleries and shops, finding shady courtyards for lazy meals, and hiking blufftop trails overlooking its barely occupied beaches. I came home with folk art and recommendations, sending friends and later returning with my school-age kids. I felt lucky to have been in on the secret. Then, with so much of Mexico left to see, I reluctantly relegated Todos Santos to the kind of place it felt good to have known. To have seen it when.
But then I heard about a concrete hotel on a farm with a view of the ocean.
Where ARE you? My phone is blowing up with DMs because I am in aesthetic thrall to Paradero Todos Santos, that very concrete hotel on a farm with a view of the ocean that lured me back to the Baja.
I cannot stop taking photos and posting them to Instagram. I confess this because although it may say something about me, I believe it says more about the place that I've stepped into. A stunning iteration of Mexico's new wave of modernist architecture, Paradero is like a caravanserai, a thick-walled fortress of undulating concrete geometries where guests live within the walls in spaces so serene, they feel luxuriously monastic.
From my rooftop lounge chair, which I reach via private, spiraling concrete stairs, I can survey the whole of Paradero's landscape. Within our walls, a cultivated paradise: clusters of native succulents, cacti, and palms; a shaded gathering zone with no walls but plentiful hammocks, hassocks, and low chairs; an open-air kitchen where chef Eduardo Ríos and his crew are prepping fresh-caught shrimp and stoking the wood fires that will cook it; an azure rectangle of swimming pool. Outside our redoubt: farmland and its soft verdancy of tilled fields of peppers, herbs, and lettuces. In another direction, the glorious Baja desert, dun brown and dotted with cacti. Beyond, a valley leading to the sea, which I glimpse in distant blue.
Is this heaven? I ask myself, and now you know where I ﬁrst got the idea.
It's surprisingly easy to collapse into Paradero's embrace, even with the ample charms of Todos Santos just 10 minutes up the road. Whether heading out with one of its guides for morning and sunset hikes, mountain biking, learning organic farming techniques, surfing and whale watching, joining a taquería crawl, or scanning the desert from the pool, I ﬁnd myself following the team around, enjoying their smarts and their kindness, and envying their wool Baja ponchos that keep the evening's chilled ocean mists at bay. One morning I catch Ríos at the kitchen's concrete bar after breakfast, long after the wood-grilled avocado toasts and huevos rancheros have been cleared. I watch him patch his Oaxacan clay comal—a regular bit of maintenance, he explains, for the restaurant's wood-fired tortilla griddle.
The young chef came down from Mexico City's buzzy Pujol and brought a small, sophisticated team with him. In the wake of the 2017 arrival of Baja culinary pioneer Javier Plascencia opening Jazamango in Todos Santos, Ríos represents a new guard. He views the kitchen at Paradero as his chance to innovate and bring Baja cuisine back even closer to its roots, from local catch and produce to his latest discovery—the first Mexican ranch to raise Wagyu beef.
He's not the only culinary innovator—this spring, chef Poncho Cadena opened Oystera, an oyster bar and seafood restaurant, in the elegant shell of one of Todos Santos's oldest sugar mills. Up a narrow dirt road on the outskirts of town, French chef Aurelien Legeay and his wife, Paulina Noble, have turned a lush palm grove into DŪM, a magical eatery with three- and five-course tasting menus. A bit farther up that same dirt road, Doce Cuarenta is a new market-style cafe with house-roasted coffees, an open kitchen, and the best logo'd products in town. Wrap those innovations up with top-notch hangout Todos Santos Brewing and Ana Rivas's mind-blowing collection of more than 400 mezcals for sale at her venerable shop, México Gourmet, and it's a bona fide culinary gold rush.
Ríos, who possesses the gravitas of talent but is also quietly chatty, shares a few favorite new spots in town while he dabs his oven's hairline cracks at a rhythmic, meditative pace. "It's the heart of the kitchen," he says about the comal, and he's right. For hours every day, one of his team—generally female—keeps the wood fires hot within and a steady flow of freshly rolled circles of tortilla dough moving across its blistering surface. He asks what my favorite foods are, and while I stumble to say something smart, he offers that he loves tacos more than anything. I'm not surprised, then, when Ríos shows up on Paradero's taquería tour, checking out Baja-style fish tacos at local beach landmark Barracuda Cantina and praising the ceviche at Tiki Santos Bar, a brand-new, thatched-roof joint on the out-skirts of town. Of course, he wants the final stop to be his kitchen, where he's been plating mind-blowing soft-shell crab tacos, and the team behind the bar has a collection of mezcal they want everyone to taste. Let's just say it's hard to summon the energy to go out again. Or ever leave.
But Sunday, it's the perfect day for a reunion date with Todos Santos. I hit the town late morning, enjoying the quiet while families are still in church, but soon they emerge and join my wanderings beneath strings of fluttering papél picado flags that pop brightly against the Baja's resplendent sky. Back at the town square, I duck into the iglesia's La Parroquia Shop, where the clerk presses jasmine-scented rosary beads into my palm to inhale their fragrant promise of sins absolved. In the sun outside, a young couple draws close for a kiss in the gazebo; fathers hoist their toddlers shoulderward to set up family photos against the sculptural rendering of the town's name in cheery big capital letters. A lifting breeze rustles through the bougainvillea.
It feels beautifully the same decades later, even amid the excitement of everything new that brought me back. On an impulse, I walk back through town to the historic hacienda-style hotel where, nearly 20 years ago, my children and I slept in heavy antique beds under gauzy canopies and where I taught them how to sip tequila with the help of an indulgent barkeeper.
I reach the hotel's entrance, the bright sunscape of the street yielding to the cool vision of a lush courtyard and its silver-toned, splashing fountain. A young woman is seated at a desk just within. "I was here so long ago!" I blurt. Without missing a beat, she smiles. "I'm so glad you returned!" she offers back. I step inside and take it all back in.
And it's heavenly.
Most major airlines offer direct service to San Jose del Cabo Airport (SJD). From there, you can coordinate a private transfer with Paradero or rent a car.
A high-design dream just 20 minutes from the beach, in the embrace of a farm and with its own botanical garden, Paradero Todos Santos is a game changer for luxury travel in Baja California. Its 35 suites are formed in serene, modernist concrete with open-air views, and its on-site restaurant, bar, and spa are as world class as the architecture. Rates, which include breakfast and a daily experience including hiking, biking, farming, and cultural tours (plus surfing in some room categories), start at $550; paraderohotels.com.
Eat & Drink Here
When you can break away from the house restaurant at Paradero, an excellent food scene awaits. For classic Baja fish tacos, there's no better stop than beachy Barracuda Cantina in Los Cerritos; in town proper, check out Tiki Santos Bar for great drinks and ceviche in a thatched-roof setting and Santo Chilote for old-school classic tacos. (Don't miss the coconut shrimp.) On the upscale side, Oystera plates fresh oysters and seafood in an airy, historic building, while DŪM conjures Mediterranean degustation menus in a dreamy jungle setting. Pay homage to Baja's culinary founding father, Javier Plascencia, at Jazamango, a breezy open-air restaurant on a hill overlooking town with a killer sunset view. Venture south to El Pescadero, where Hierbabuena serves plant-forward plates in the middle of its own lush garden. Keep caffeinated at Taller 17 and Doce Cuarenta.
The best boutique in town, El Taller showcases Mexican and international designers, and hits the sweet spot where bohemia meets chic. For the coolest souvenir tees, sweatshirts, bags, and mugs, hit Doce Cuarenta. (Pick up a pound of their excellent coffee, too.) Expand your mezcal collection (and your mind) at Ana Rivas's remarkable México Gourmet, and consider a saintly artifact from La Parroquia Shop in the Our Lady of Pilar Church on the town square.