December 26th, 2011
Today we made the 2-hour trip across the peninsula to Todos los Santos, the folk art hub of the Baja and the location of the Hotel California (made famous by The Eagles). On the drive you gain quite a bit of altitude and the temperature is cooler, but the vegetation is much lusher. The mountainsides are covered in skinny trees that look a bit like eucalyptus and there are a lot fewer cacti. The cacti that you do see are still in flower, their tops ringed with bright white blooms that kind of look like those fluffy Halloween angel halos from a distance. The scenery is an pretty decent consolation prize for the carsickness you will inevitably feel driving the serpentine curves of a Mexican mountain road. Take a Gravol before you attempt it, and maybe a shot of tequila to calm you down since there are points where the road turns to one lane on a blind corner. There also may be cows everywhere.
On the way up, you will drive through San Antonio and El Triunfo, both old colonial towns with warped cobblestone streets and brightly-painted plaster houses. El Triunfo seems to be the more popular of the two, because as we were enjoying the echoing silence of the colonial church a busload of tourists came in with a shouty guide who urged them to go next door and buy stuff from the folkart shop. Even so, it is apparent that El Triunfo has seen far better days: Gold and silver were discovered there in 1862 and a mining operation began but was cut short when a hurricane flooded the area. One of the remnants of its heyday is a 35-meter smokestack designed by Gustav Eiffel. At its high point El Triunfo was home to over 10,000 miners, now it is home to about 320 people. There are a lot of ruined brick buildings and vacant lots overrun by chickens. Nevertheless, its location nestled in the crook of a mountain is really lovely and it is certainly worth stopping at.
We passed a military checkpoint before entering the outskirts of Todos los Santos. They give those guys some very serious artillery—my guess is that they don’t want any incidents in such a tourist-heavy area. Bad PR.
We had lunch at a place called Fonda el ZaguAn, which was more expensive than what we had gotten used to in La Ventana, but served possibly the most delicious fruit smoothies ever. They had to have made it in some kind of wizard blender because smoothies are so rarely this good. Delicious fish tacos, too.
If you plan on buying folkart in the Baja, then Todos los Santos is absolutely the place to do it. Every block has five or six stores packed with traditional pottery, metalwork, woven stuff, and carvings. However, because there are so many stores, you can often find the same piece or similar in several places and, if you hunt, at a better price. So if you fall in love with a tin nicho or a fabulous silver pendant, DEFINITELY have a look around first and come back to it. Walking out of a store happy with your ‘one of a kind’ purchase only to find one you like more at a lower price next door is nothing short of a bummer.
That being said, talking to shopkeepers is an excellent way to practice your Spanish. Because Todos los Santos is so touristy, the majority of them will be very patient with grammatical fumblings or switch into English if you’re really having a hard time. Mom and I spoke to the young owner of a pottery shop for almost an hour. He brought us up to speed on Mexican current affairs as well as world news while rocking his tiny new baby in a stroller.
The beach is around a 15 minute drive from the center of town and is weirdly difficult to find. Max and dad drove what felt like all over the southern Baja trying to find the damn thing due to poor directions. To my understanding you have to actually leave town, drive around the little mountain and take the big road down. The Pacific here is cold enough that you would have to wear a wetsuit, and not really swimmer-friendly. The waves are around six and a half feet high with a wicked undertow.
Close-ish to the beach you will find the The Hotel California. It’s the main artery in an out of Todos los Santos, but isn’t anything terribly interesting. Unless you are a huge Eagles fan or are interested in their extremely overpriced ‘Hotel California’ tequila, don’t waste your time. It’s a hotel. What is interesting about it is that the hotel was built in 1947 by a Chinese immigrant who changed his name from Mr. Wong to Don Antonio Tabasco (hilarious) in an effort to trick the locals into thinking he was Mexican. You can find the rest of the hotel’s piecemeal history on their website.
Spanish Vocab of the Day
Mexican-specific vocab of the day
Nopal—Prickly pear cactus
Tiny gecko! Watch where you step in the morning, these guys like to hide in the grooves between tiles.
Interior of an old colonial church in El Triunfo.
The exterior of the same church.
Crosses on the wall of Cafe El Triunfo.
Bougainvillea grows everywhere in Baja. For some reason it is far more vibrant in colour here than anywhere in the northern hemisphere.
Outside an artisan shop. Wares are commonly displayed in this way.
Masks made by the indigenous people of the southern provinces. Apparently they are carved of palm wood and all the paints are handmade.
Holy masks, Batman!