Three Kinds of Magic: Baja’s Enchanting Pueblos Magicos
What is magic, really? Is it merely sleight of hand, or is it something made real by the imagination, by people and places whose unusual histories and unexpected charms create in one’s mind a whole far greater than their individual parts would suggest?
The latter explanation has always made more sense to me, particularly in regards pueblos magicos (literally, magical villages), Mexican towns that by dint of great natural beauty, thriving cultural communities and strong historical legacies have been given an official stamp of enchantment. The pueblo magico program was founded by Mexico’s Secretariat of Tourism (SECTUR) in 2001, and since then some 111 places have earned this wizardly appellation, with at least one located in each of the country’s 31 states.
The Baja California peninsula has, to date, three pueblos magicos: Tecate in the state of Baja California; and Loreto and Todos Santos in Baja California Sur.
All three are part of a program that from its inception was deliberately designed to drive and disperse tourism dollars. But here’s the thing: they really do have some magic.
An oasis surrounded by desert, mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Todos Santos has from its very beginnings been a place of great natural beauty. The original inhabitants were Guaycuras, a hunter gatherer tribe whose territory reached as far north as Loreto. The Jesuits built a mission there in 1733, which proved to be rather unfortunate timing since the Pericues, the tribe to the south, rebelled in 1734 and all the southern missions, from San Jose del Cabo to La Paz, were looted and badly damaged.
During the 19th century, Todos Santos became a sugar cane capital, with residents not only growing the cash-rich crop but milling it as well. The town’s most distinctive building feature, its beautiful old redbrick buildings, largely date to this period.
The prosperity was interrupted by the Mexican Revolution, although the action in Baja California was limited to few small skirmishes. The Mexican Mural Movement, an artistic highlight of the post-Revolutionary period, reached the town in the 1930s, wonderful examples of which can still be seen in its historic Centro Cultural Todosanteño.
In 1947, work began on the now legendary Hotel California, a lodging conjured by a Chinese immigrant named Mr. Wong, whose attempts to acclimate to Mexican culture included changing his name to Don Antonio Tabasco. The locals called him El Chino anyway, but his family’s 16-room hotel proved perennially popular with visitors and locals alike. The former were drawn to the comfortable lodgings, the latter because the Hotel California pumped the only gas, and served the only cold beer in town.
Inspired by the area’s unique light, acclaimed artist Charles Stewart and his wife Mary Lou settled in Todos Santos in 1985, and the town soon boasted a thriving artists’ colony. Today, Todos Santos remains distinguished by its many superb art galleries, but also by its boutique hotels – some, like The Todos Santos Inn and Hotel Guaycura, housed in historic 19th century redbrick buildings – and the excellent surfing conditions off Pacific Coast beaches, from La Pastora to San Pedrito. Todos Santos is also famed for its many outstanding cultural festivals, among which are annual events dedicated to art, music, film and writing.
The Jesuit mission period, remembered as one of the defining epochs in Baja California, effectively began in 1697, when Juan Maria de Salvatierra and nine others landed at Loreto. Loreto was the first permanent Spanish settlement on the peninsula, the beachhead for over 70 years of Jesuit proselytizing, with new missions radiating out in all directions from this central hub. Loreto was the start of El Camino Real, the Royal Road which, in olden days before the Transpeninsular Highway was even a gleam in Governor Francisco J. Mugica’s eye, was the “golden brick road” of Las Californias…minus the gold bricks, of course. The Jesuits, despite opponents’ claims of hidden wealth and hidden missions, measured their success in salvaged souls. Loreto was the first capital of California, remaining so until ceding power to Monterey in 1776, after Franciscan Junipero Serra had opened up Alta California.
Loreto remains a premier destination for peninsular historians, with a fine museum at the site of the well-preserved remains of the first mission. Nowadays, however, it is primarily a gateway to the gorgeous Islands of Loreto, and to the enormously important and still mysterious rock art in what is called the Great Mural Region.
The five islands off the coast of Loreto – Carmen, Coronado, Danzante, Monserrat and Santa Catalina – have been designated as a protected marine preserve, and a UNESCO world heritage site. Intrepid romantics seek out Danzante’s spectacular Honeymoon Cove, and the breathtakingly beautiful waters surrounding the islands draw divers and kayakers from around the world. The protected marine preserve is home, seasonally at least, to the largest creatures ever to live on the planet, blue whales, and the islands themselves feature many plant and animal species endemic to Baja California Sur.
The age-old rock art found in Baja’s central sierras like the Sierra de la Giganta, to the west of Loreto, was first brought to public attention by Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason, who wrote about it in his many Baja focused travel books, as well as for Life Magazine. Examples of Baja’s primitive rock art extend south of La Paz and thus could be said to have existed in the territory of each of the peninsula’s large indigenous groups: the Cochimi, Guaycura and Pericu. Yet all maintained the evocative outsized rock art was created by a race that came before them, a race of giants.
Tecate is probably best known for its eponymous beer, or for being the gateway to Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s best and most productive wine region. The picturesque border community is much more than a destination for aficionados of fermented grape and grain, however, and was well deserving of its pueblo magico status, which it attained as recently as 2012.
The plaza principal, Parque Hidalgo, really is the heart of Tecate, a quaint but vibrant urban oasis in a small city with less than 100,000 inhabitants. The town square is invariably brimming with spirited activity, from lively dominoes games and roving musicians to arts and crafts vendors and the budget-friendly restaurants and umbrella-shaded outdoor cafés that mark its outer boundaries. Tecate too has its own notable art scene, from ancient rock art in nearby mountains to skilled contemporary pottery makers and the excellent Mexican Art Collection at Hotel Santo Diegueño.
The name of the boutique lodging is a nod to the designation once given to native Kumeyaay Indians by San Diego based missionaries. In addition to its fabulous art collection, Santuario Diegueño is also home to Asao, a highly acclaimed restaurant that specializes in locally sourced food and wines. Asao is situated at the property’s highest point, and pairs its fine fare with magnificent views.
Rancho La Puerta is another major Tecate attraction. The 3,000 acre wellness retreat was founded by Edmond and Deborah Szekely in 1940, and its ongoing cult-like appeal was recently noted by none other than the Washington Post, who favored it with a lengthy profile. The exquisitely landscaped property features gorgeous gardens and hiking trails, a pampering spa and abundant salon facilities, as well as celebrations of or instruction in a wide range of disciplines, from cooking and crafts to yoga and fitness.
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