The house (and animals) we are caring for sits on a corner lot in the local barrio in south Todos Santos, not in the gringo developments to the north.
It is a traditional Mexican home, and no, I'm not referring to the Hacienda tradition. The house is a solid, squat single-level concrete box with a nice wide patio on 2 sides. It has survived about 30 years of hurricanes, an important advantage to note when one is house sitting during hurricane season.
It is not fancy by US standards, but with 2 bedrooms, a sala (living room), an entryway, a large defined kitchen, and generous assortment of windows, it's a nicer house than many in this local's barrio section of Todos Santos.
I say "defined" kitchen because, in many of the starter houses here, the layout is basically one room to live in and a bedroom or two. The kitchen is over in a corner where it was easiest to put in plumbing, and a bathroom is usually somewhere on the other side of a wall from that, even if it means the door to the only bathroom in the house opens out onto the living room.
Depending upon where the electric outlets are, the fridge might be next to the couch, you never know. And why not? This makes for easy access to the chelas (beers) while watching futbol on the big screen that invariably dominates the small room even in some of the smallest homes.
I'm kidding, sort of. The starter house is very common because many people add on to a house as you go. Mortgages are not readily available here. There are no personal construction loans, building codes or permits for adding onto personal property.
For entrepreneurial families with a little extra room on their lot, this freedom of construction is a boon. I have seen small tiendas, salons, tiny restaurants, and even auto repair businesses sprout up in front of the main house.
If you can afford the bags of Cemex, re-bar, chelas and tacos for your crew and electrician cousin, you can have a house raising anytime. This is why you will see re-bar sticking out of the roof of one story homes all over Mexico - the house isn’t done yet. A second level is in the works as the family cash flow improves, even if that means 10 years from now
Our house is located on the last dirt road before you enter the desert just south of town. This is also the main road to the local’s beach, Punta Lobos. (Wolf Point).
After the sugar industry left Todos Santos in the early 1900's, and before tourism became a thing in the late 1990's, Todos Santos was a fisherman’s town. Many of the people here are from fishing families, and a core group of men still fish most days.
In the mornings and late afternoons, their pickup trucks roar by, sending a fine cloud of dust wafting over the whole intersection, including our house. We have no AC and the dust is so fearsome that I don’t dare unpack my iMac until I find a temporary office with AC nearby.
We walk Chiki, our tri-lingual Blue Heeler, every morning before it gets too hot. We see the fishermen's trucks drive by most days.
One particular morning, a middle-aged fisherman sits on an overturned bucket at the corner, waiting on his ride. He has on an old shirt, high water pants (a practicality, not a fashion violation), and ancient flip-flops. He is the color of a medium roast coffee bean. Has no UV approved hat, no sunglasses, and I bet there isn't any sunscreen in his extra shirt that is tied to create a makeshift knapsack, either.
I have no insider information, but my guess is there is a hierarchy social order among the fishermen - those with boats, and those with an upturned bucket to sit on, who perhaps help the boat owners with their launch or even as crew.
This is understandable - given the option of hanging around a hot dusty town doing nothing, or hanging around the beach sitting on your upturned bucket, doing almost nothing, with your fishing buddies - which would you choose?
I see him as I exit our yard gate with Chiki. An old pickup truck, blaring Mexican music and full of loud men, happy to be on their way to the beach, pulls up and stops to let the man get on. They are laughing and a couple of them stare at me. The woman who lives in this house is American, married to a Mexican, but apart from that, gringas are not common in this corner of Todos Santos.
I say Buenos Dias and get some very enthused responses. Sergio, who had run back to grab his keys, then exits the gate. The men in the bed of the truck look a little surprised to see him, too. My Meximan, who was born and raised in Mexico City, can size up a social situation in a microsecond and respond accordingly.
He unconsciously swings his Spanish to a more relaxed, slangy dialect, projects his voice over the truck noise and the music, and continues the banter with them. It is obvious we are visitors in this house. He’s sending a message that 1) we know the owners 2) I’m with him, and 3) he is friendly but he’s neither a clueless rico nor a country bumpkin.
I have a confession - I love to watch Mexican men shoot the bull. And believe me, they can pile it on, especially with an audience.
Notice I said watch, not just listen. Latinos cannot converse without moving, and their expressions, physical and verbal, are very entertaining when they move off center from the traditional, formal interchange.
Sergio jokingly tells them to bring back a fish for him. As they roar away in a cloud of dust and Ranchero music, they yell something inappropriate about his mujer and trading a fish for a fish and I don’t even want to know.
It is all good-natured. Innuendo aside, I am pleased about the exchange because often the local people here are guarded and do not engage in informal banter, especially outside of a store or restaurant setting. They are not unfriendly, but you have to make the first move. I feel like we’ve made a connection from our routine of walking Chiki, who is known to many of them.
The beach is where the fishermen and local families gather in the evenings, especially late in the week, when people escape their concrete homes that turn into little square ovens, radiating the day's heat.
The hipster hotel San Cristobal squats off to one side, keeping a physical and cultural distance for both the tourists and the locals. I learned later that the hotel is owned by the Lambert Group from Austin, run by Liz Lambert, an early pioneer in South Congress’ renewal / gentrification. Small world.
I read a blog post about the local’s beach, the writer said this was “hands down” his favorite beach. In the afternoons the returning fishermen drive their boats right up onto the beach. It is quite a spectacle.
It is also a scene that you have to be in the mood for. I grew up going to the beach in Galveston, with pickup trucks cruising up and down, 90% humidity, scantily clad sweaty people drinking beer, playing loud music, checking each other out. This is the same template, albeit with a Mexican flair; it isn’t that exotic to me.
Sergio has a hard time with it because the popular corner of this beach is dirty. Sorry if you have only read the rave reviews on other blogs about TS beaches, but it is the truth.
The parking area is strewn with trash, people leave their beer cans and chip bags on the beach in a puzzling lack of regard for the natural setting of their community. Sort of like Galveston beaches back in the 80's.
Todos in general is pretty trashy. Stray a few blocks from the Hotel California and you might as well be in any random pueblo anywhere in the world where people litter at will and trash piles up in the corner of vacant lots.
The first quarter mile of our morning walk is in the low part of the desert, easily reached by trucks that dump trash. In the days before plastic, stuff decomposed eventually. Now, the amount of plastic in the world increased exponentially in the last 50 years, and its a huge mess all over the planet. Organized waste management and individual respect for the commons has not caught up with the amount of trash we all generate.
Back to the beach.
One afternoon, we get a late start, heading out to catch the sunset. We come upon two young men bumping along the dirt road on cruiser bikes. They were obviously not Mexican.
There is a hostel up the street from where our house is and I am thinking that is probably where they were staying.
As we past, they wave us down. One of them says, in Spanish with a German accent,
Is this the way to the beach?
About a mile and a half.
I look at his hostel bike, a hot pink beach cruiser with a basket; it is more suited to the boardwalk in Santa Monica than this dirt road in Mexico. His friend has a similarly tricked out ride.
Do you want a ride?
We'll follow you back to the hostel to drop off the bikes.
No, its OK, we can just lock them up here.
I look at Sergio who is trying not to laugh. You don't just lock your bike up in the desert outside of Todos Santos, on the main road to the local’s beach, and expect it to be there when you get back.
I say, No, its no trouble.
We follow them back to turn in the bikes. They pile into the car. Chiki is elated to have new pack members to keep track of, even though she is now relegated to the very back of the small SUV.
The windows don’t open back there, so she pants happy hot stinky dog breath on our new friends, her head between their shoulders as she catches a breeze from the windows. The German boys are super friendly with her and our tri-lingual dog is soon learning a fourth language.
We arrive at the beach a few minutes before sunset. We walk a few yards down, past the main hubbub of pickups and families, past the raised platform and lounge chairs where the gringos at the San Cristobal watch the world pass by below them. The German boys run down the beach with Chiki. Sergio wanders off to explore a tide pool.
To each his own corner.
I sit cross-legged on my towel, lean into the mountains behind me, and watch the sky turn pink. The sound of the ocean blots out my internal chatter; waves crashing in rhythm with the pull of the unseen moon. For the next few minutes, I claim this time, place and space as my corner of the world.
La Paz doesn’t usually make the glitz list for Americans vacationing to Mexico. Even though a couple of the richest American families (Walton and Getty) have homes in the La Paz area, Cabo San Lucas tends to steal the mainstream spotlight, and Todos Santos is enjoying an extended Instagram-fueled ride as a trendy offbeat destination.
Tourism is important here but it is not the only game in town, so La Paz retains a bustling down-to-earth working class vibe that is missing from luxe Cabo and certainly from sleepy Todos - at least the bustling part.
We have found ourselves heading into La Paz more often this trip and I’ve grown to like it more and more.
The older historic part of town retains many old buildings and happily hosts a (mostly) organic farmers market on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The inevitable cathedral is down this way, as well as a few streets with a local vibe from the traditional mercado and cool small businesses, many started by young people.
Today we are making the rounds looking for our first postcards for our inaugural Postcard Patron Society mail out. I asked at the Allende bookstore and the owner there directs me to the Galeria Casa Parra down the way.
We didn’t find any compelling postcards in the Galeria, but we did meet Claudia, the owner, and checked out a fabulous selection of handicrafts. Even though I’m not a big shopper, (I don’t want a house someday that looks like a cruise ship gift shop), I’ve seen a lot of Mexican souvenir stores, and this one is a good one.
If you are a big shopper, you have to be careful in the bigger markets and tourist areas, and I’m not just talking about keeping your iPhone on the down low. Lots of merch for sale in the tourist areas in Mexico is made in Guatemala and even China and India.
That right there tells you something about global wages, that it is cheaper for Mexicans vendors (who don’t make much, either) to import handmade items from other developing countries and resell them.
The Galeria Casa Parra’s offerings are 100% Hecho en Mexico, and even though I am very tempted to buy at least 7 things in the shop, I remain on task - which is sourcing postcards.
As we leave the store, I’m wilting a bit so we decide to regroup over an iced coffee at my favorite coffee stop in Baja so far, Doce Cuarenta
Doce Cuarenta is an excellent coffee shop with some super cute Baja swag in one corner, various trendy coffee doodads (Chemex, anyone?) in another, good food from a real kitchen, and real-deal AC, not always a given in this part of the world, where sometimes "air conditioned" is open to interpretation. We order our coffee at the counter, snag a table in front of the window and plug in our phones.
While we are waiting for our brew, I go over to the gifty corner. Our house sitting hosts have a coffee mug from this shop; we accidentally broke the handle the first week we were here, and I want to replace it.
The broken one will join our other two ceramic travel mugs that lost their handles along the way - one from a Goodwill in Santa Rosa, the other from Montana. Our small group of handleless mugs fits our current pared down reduce reuse travel lifestyle.
While I’m there looking at the coffee mugs and contemplating buying a cool t-shirt I don’t need, I notice - lo and behold - postcards! Cute postcards of baja scenes featuring hand drawn art from a local artist. Gooooaaal!
Later, after our coffee and a trip to the grocery store, I am craving a lunch that does not originate from the Corn food group, the traditional starting place for most Mexican meals.
Spanish food is usually a good bet in Central Mexico so I decide to give it a try here. I google “Tapas” (and, well OK, “wine bar” also). I come across a nearby charming place, at least according to Google.
We arrive and sure enough, it is a charming, small restored adobe building, painted clean white with a palapa roof. It even says La Casita Tapas Wine Bar right out front.
We park the car under a tree, in front of a couple of vintage 80’s cars parked on the street. Sergio stops to admire them - the 80s is his favorite decade by far and like many men, he sees cars as a defining element of an era.
We walk into the restaurant and are the only patrons. I’ve gotten used to this here; even in Mexico City we would sometimes be the only people in the place. If possible, I like to eat when I’m hungry, not wait around with my tummy growling until the clock strikes a certain time, so that means we are sometimes early for dinner or late for lunch.
The waiter brings the menu and, given that it is a tapas place, there is a puzzling, extensive array of sushi. We think perhaps the business recently changed owners and there hasn’t been time to change the sign outside. (Not uncommon in Mexico, where "for rent" signs, for example, may or may not be true in the present moment.)
We ask the waiter and he says, yes, this is La Casita Tapas Wine Bar. I guess it just happens to have a generous helping of sushi on the menu.
Through talking with him we learn that we have a fun connection to this place we have never visited before.
On our first driving trip to Mexico, when we crossed the border in Tijuana and drove down the Baja highway, we celebrated our safe arrival in Todos Santos 3 days later at - guess where - the La Casita Tapas Wine Bar!
The La Paz location is the second La Casita. Both are owned by a Mexican chef Sergio Rivera who worked in the US and as a chef on a yacht before “hanging up his sea legs”, (as his bio reports) and opening La Casita Tapas Wine Bar in Todos Santos, and now in La Paz.
On a recent visit to the La Casita in Todos, we saw Sergio, on a warm sweaty evening, alternating eating with his family, jumping up to help his low-season short staff crew, taking orders, and socializing with patrons. There were fans keeping the air moving, the bartender came out from behind the bar to keep the drinks flowing; it was kind of like a private party. I love restaurant people and entrepreneurs in general that actually hop in and work alongside their staff when needed.
Back to the La Casita in La Paz, where there is La Air Conditioning, too - so we order some delicious rolls, cold wine, and have a lovely sushi lunch at the tapas place.
We leave and as we are approaching our car, we see a tall thin man with RayBans, a pink polo shirt, jeans and loafers with no socks. He is wiping down one of the 80’s cars with a hand buffer.
Sergio, who secretly wants to buy a bunch more “accessories” for cleaning our car, strikes up a conversation.
We learn that he lives in the house behind us, and he has 2 more vintage cars in his garage. His Spanish has an Italian accent. He is originally from Rome but grew up in the La Paz area.
We introduce ourselves and he says, “My name is Giovanni”. I think, of course it is.
I settle back to enjoy observing the conversation between a native Roman and a Capitolino from Mexico City, who proceed with an inordinate amount of hand waving, exaggeration, shrugs of the shoulder, and fine tuned kvetching that finally arrives at the inevitable conclusion that ai, life is hard, but what are you going to do?
Giovanni’s father was a builder and developer. As Giovanni was growing up, the family lived in Canada, Arizona and finally in La Paz.
I have run the gauntlet to get my 4 year residency card here in Mexico, and I can barely get my head around the idea of buying an inexpensive apartment here, let alone develop property. I marvel at how easily some people appear to flow between countries, doing business, making money, because the truth is, it’s a lot of paperwork, tax headaches and risk.
Giovanni is also a developer. After living here for over 20 years, he has an insider’s view about the local real estate scene. He’s a dream contact for me as I’m always curious about the health of the local market.
La Paz real estate took a hit in 2008 and never really recovered fully, due to some bad press, increase in local drug related crime, and the ascendency of Cabo San Lucas in the luxury second home market.
He mentions a small town near here, Triunfo, that is on the rise as a tourist attraction. He spends every Sunday there, showing a historic home that he bought years ago and has remodeled. We make plans to stop by the following weekend. I share more about our Triunfo trip in this post, leaving you with this teaser:
They say there are only 6 degrees of separation between each person on earth - would you believe me if I told you a tiny ex-mining pueblo in Baja shrinks the distance to one of the wealthiest people on the planet to only a couple of degrees? It’s an interesting example of the distortion in local real estate (and I would imagine, local politics) when a billionaire comes to town.
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