Todos Santos: The Best Mexican Town You’ve Never Heard Of

Westerdam at anchor off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico on December 5, 2016. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Under cloudless skies and warm temperatures,  Holland America Line’s Westerdam sailed into the sheltered harbour of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico this morning. Located at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, sail-in to Cabo is a real treat, as ships must sail past the resorts that dot the Pacific side of the peninsula before rounding the corner at El Arco, or The Arch.

Sailing into Cabo San Lucas early this morning aboard Westerdam…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…and passing El Arco, or The Arch. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

I first came here in 2006, and let me tell you: the Cabo San Lucas I tendered ashore into this morning bears little resemblance to the one I saw aboard Oosterdam ten years ago. Today’s Cabo is built up substantially: where there were one dusty fields and vacant lots, there are upscale condominiums. Where the ramshackle harbour used to be, multi-million-dollar yachts are now berthed. The half-sinking rowboats and pelicans are long gone, replaced by Senior Frogs and Fat Tuesday locations.
This is my fifth visit to Cabo San Lucas, and I wanted to do something different. With that in mind, I booked Holland America’s five-hour long tour, Discover Todos Santos. I’d wanted to do this back in 2006 and I never did, and I found that few of the other cruise lines in this region offer this tour. Holland America does, and here’s the verdict: I should have done this a decade ago.

Arriving at Cabo San Lucas just before Noon…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…passengers on shore excursions had tender priority. This in and of itself is a great reason to book one through Holland America. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Tender and ‘dam’ ship. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Priced at $78.95, this tour takes guests 72 kilometres (45 miles) northwest of Cabo San Lucas to the town of Todos Santos; a sleepy Mexican town that is famous for its historic Mission de Nuestra Senora del Pilar cathedral and, of course, for the rust-red Hotel California, which reportedly inspired the Eagles song of the same name.
I nearly didn’t book this tour. The god-awful reviews on the Holland America website almost scared me away. Indeed, the tour gets two lonely stars out of five. And I think I know why: if you want to shop, or go to the beach, or drink your face off, this is not the tour for you. If you want to see Colonial Mexico and experience a town that few others do: pick this tour.

Welcome to Todos Santos! Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

From start to finish, the tour was positively superb. Our guide, Armando, gave us a great briefing on the history of Cabo San Lucas, Todos Santos and the surrounding region on our 60-minute drive to the town.
Upon arrival, we visited the Cultural Center in the city’s Centro Historico, or Historic District. The entire town looks like something out of a 19th century period movie; if Humphrey Bogart suddenly rounded the corner in a white Fedora, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised. It’s quaint, clean, colonial, and irresistibly beautiful – absolutely unlike any other city or town I’ve been to in this country.

Exploring the Cultural Center of Todos Santos, decked out for Christmas. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Inside the Cultural Center: a bizarre curio of all things Todos Santos. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The Cultural Center is an odd hodgepodge of things, from historic works of art to photographs in crumbling frames, rusting typewriters and machines, and traditional wooden homes that would have existed back in the 1800’s.  It’s mish-mash appearance, though, doesn’t come across as hokey – it comes across like the entire town: take it or leave it.
Afterwards, our short walking tour led us to the city’s Plaza Central, which backs onto the Mission. The town’s founders were an eclectic bunch, including a man from China who emigrated to Mexico and settled in Todos Santos in 1913.

Our guide, Armando, educates us on the history of Todos Santos…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…from the town’s Central Square. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

From there, a short walk brought us to the Hotel California. Forget the song; this funky and eclectic place stands on its own merits. Our lunch included a non-alcoholic drink, chips and salsa, and a very delicious burrito. But, if you want to, you can pay for alcoholic beverages and other food items, which I did along with my friend Jason Leppert of Popular Cruising, who happens to be on this voyage as well.
Let me tell you: order off the menu. Pay for it. It’s worth it. This is authentic, delicious, Mexican food. Wash it all down with a Pacifico (a beer brewed in nearby Mazatlán), and you’ve got the recipe for one heck of a fantastic afternoon.

Welcome to the Hotel California…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…Such a lovely place…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…such a lovely place. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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