Road Less Traveled

05.26.13

Mexico’s Hidden Getaway: Todos Santos, Playa Cerritos

Cabo San Lucas is filled with glitz and drunken college kids—so drive right past it and head to Todos Santos for some of the most exciting art, music, and beaches in Mexico.
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Playa Cerritos is one of the undeveloped attractions of Mexico. (Caroline Linton/Newsweek Daily Beast)

You’ve heard of Los Cabos, right? While it's the official name of the southern corner of Baja California, it's most famous for its popular resort town Cabo San Lucas, Mexico’s premiere spring-break destination. The birthplace of Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo, with its trademark Cabo Wabo Tequila. Home to pricey condo complexes and over a dozen golf courses. And, of course, a frequent cruise-ship stop and coed party spot.

It’s the perfect place for an all-American vacation, that is. But if you want to avoid the crowds, go off the grid, and have a more authentic experience, but still be on the beach, consider other alternatives. First, keep driving on the (mostly) four-lane Highway 19, past the desolate mountains, dazzlingly beautiful beaches, and tiny and remote taco stands, until it turns into a dirt road with a few stop lights (seriously, watch out for those stoplights—they come out of nowhere). Welcome to Todos Santos, population just over 5,000.

It’s one of only 30 communities in Mexico to receive the honor of a “Pueblo Magico,” or “Magical Town,” a designation awarded for retaining its authentic historic and artistic charm. There are at least 20 art galleries on these dusty streets, such as the Galeria Logan, Gabo, and the Faces of Mexico Ethnic Art Gallery, which features some of the area’s traditional masks.

A surfers’ haven, there’s still plenty of places to have a drink—in a more relaxed fashion than the crazed nightlife up the road in Cabo. Take the Hotel California (no relation to the popular song, despite what so many tourists believe) located on the main drag, Calle Juarez. The hotel is home to two restaurants, La Coronela and Santo Vino Bistro, and even makes its own Hotel California Tequila. Founded in 1947 by a Chinese immigrant named Mr. Wong, “El Chino” brought ice from nearby La Paz to serve the only cold beer to Todos Santos. Along with the lobby and the restaurants, the hotel’s 11 rooms are decked out floor-to-ceiling with artwork, representing the true feel of the town.

There’s something for music lovers too—in 2012, Peter Buck of REM started the Todos Santos Music Festival with the Hotel California to benefit the Palapa Society, a nonprofit that benefits local children and their families. The 2013 festival, which ran for three weeks in January, included the Minus 5, the Posies, the Baseball Project, the Elected, Jon Langford, Joseph Arthur, and Alejandro Escovedo and the Sensitive Boys.

Stick around for February, and there’s the Todos Santos Art Festival, five days of folk dancing, music, and theater performances. There are also workshops teaching local music and folk dancing, and guest speakers on everything from turtle conservation to domestic-violence prevention.

It’s one of only 30 communities in Mexico to receive the honor of a “Pueblo Magico,” or “Magical Town.”

Besides art and music, don’t forget the beaches. And oh, are there are beaches in Todos Santos. The town is located just near Playa Pescadero, near the tiny town of El Pescardo. Take a left at the Pescadero Pemex station at the beginning of town, and you’re there, with a long stretch of sand and waves perfect for surfing. There’s also the new upscale hotel Rancho Pescardo, with a restaurant, bar, two outdoor pools, and surfing lessons.

For seasoned wave riders, there’s also Playa San Pedrito and Playa la Pastora. Whale watchers—a popular activity in the first three months of the year—can check out Playa la Cachora.

If it’s swimming in the Pacific you’re after, there are very few beaches in Cabo that are safe—except for the jaw-dropping Playa Cerritos. To truly get off the grid, Playa Cerritos is just a few miles up the road on Highway 19. Take a left on Highway 19 at kilometer 66 to reach the oasis, which includes the luxury boutique hotel Hacienda Cerritos with four pools (including two infinity pools) and a helicopter pad, and the more traditional hotel and condo complex Cerritos Surf Colony. Playa Cerritos is a world of its own, with surf lessons, local artisans selling trinkets, massages on the beach, and horse-riding lessons. And of course, the Cerritos Beach Club, which offers music, breakfast and lunch—and service direct to your beach chair. There’s even Day of the Dead bartenders, reminding everyone that this is still Mexico.

There’s a whale-watching bar open to the public at Hacienda Cerritos, the 10-bedroom plantation-style hotel atop a cliff overlooking the beach. Grab a beer, sit at the tiny table at the edge of the balcony, and watch as the sun descends into the ocean. You’ll realize that there’s nothing in life more important than this moment.