About 50 miles north of Cabo on the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula is a pueblo magico called Todos Santos – All Saints. And truly, the handiwork of all the saints seems to be reflected everywhere in our home town. It’s easy to imagine that St. Anthony (San Antonio), the Patron Saint of the Desert, had his hand in the underground springs that make the town a true desert oasis, thick with palms, lush with lagoons and filled with the birds they attract. St. Francis (San Francisco), Patron Saint of the Environment, seems like a sure bet for the town’s seemingly endless miles of pristine beach – home to 5 of the 7 turtle species found in the world, host to surf breaks that make the town one of the best surfing destinations on the Cape, and favored people watching spot of gray whales on their annual trip to Baja because they can get so close to shore. St. Isidore (San Isidro), Patron Saint of Agriculture, almost certainly got in on the act with the vast orchards of mango trees and fields filled with strawberries, chilies and herbs, while St. Peter (San Pedro), Patron Saint of Fishermen, could easily be the wily soul who ensured no natural harbor in the town to keep the waters from being overfished and therefore full of bounty for the intrepid local fishermen, masters of the surf launch and landing.
But perhaps the saint who most shaped the town with his piece of manna was St. Aaron (San Aron), the Patron Saint of anyone who lives a passionate life. Todos Santos may be a tiny town but it is filled with Mexican and expatriate artists, chefs, musicians, fishermen, photographers, philanthropists, surfers, sculptors, farmers, film-makers, potters, spiritualists, naturalists, adventurers, entrepreneurs, explorers, yogis and more, all pursuing their passions in this paradise that draws, inspires and drives them. The result is one heckuva place to indulge your passions for travel and adventure so grab your St. Christopher (the Patron Saint of Travelers) and head to Todos Santos for (at least) three perfect days.
Now perfection, like beauty, is really in the eye of beholder, so we’ve created 3 sets of 3 perfect days, each of which shows off a particular aspect of the town and the surrounding environment.
I came down to Baja one February to escape the cold grey of Oregon and hang out with my family. My sister Bryan – who owns and operates Todos Santos Eco Adventures with her husband Sergio — was excited she had arranged for us to come at the perfect time to see the grey whales in Magdalena Bay. I was excited we had yet another entertaining way to spend a day in paradise while waiting for Sergio’s killer margaritas to appear at dusk.
I had been whale watching in Oregon before, and found it hard to recommend: Go out in a large boat with a bunch of strangers in the rain, get mildly seasick, look for whales for about 2 hours, finally catch a glimpse of one swimming 50 yards off, pursue it until it disappears, then call it a day. Oh yeah, and get totally drenched and freeze to death. I was glad I could look forward to better weather.
On the appointed day, my family goes out onto Mag Bay in a 40-foot open boat. We putter along for a while admiring the smooth open water and arid landscape. After about an hour, the panga driver starts turning the boat around. Sergio, who can always spot wildlife a mile away, gets an intense look on his face.
“Ballena!” We all turn in the direction Sergio is pointing. And there is the unmistakable shape of a grey whale fluke disappearing into the bay – about 50 yards away. I’m thrilled. We’re all thrilled. It’s like a Sierra Club calendar cover shot. We hoot and holler and jump up and down as best we can without tipping the boat. I am completely satisfied with the trip, as I have never seen that classic image in real life – and so close. Awesome. And I’m still dry and warm. I’m thinking Todos Santos Eco Adventures might want to expand their business to Oregon.
The panga driver cuts the motor back and we start sort of drifting around in the middle of the Bay. I’m thinking a margarita might be nice to celebrate our sighting. Then I hear again: “Ballena!” On the right side of the boat about 10 yards off, we see a whale flipper sticking out of the water, turning – as if the whale is flopping onto its back for a rest. Sergio says it’s a juvenile – probably 40 feet long – the size of our boat. Gulp. Where’s Mom?
The next thing I know Bryan and Sergio are diving towards one side of the boat where we can see the juvenile just five feet under the surface a few feet away from us. Holy smokes, he’s big! The panga driver starts banging the boat and Bryan and Sergio are singing and calling out like they’re calling their cats: “Hey Ballena; here ballena. Come to mama; come to papa. Here ballena.”
Well, I think, crazy’s what I’m good at, so what the hell? I throw myself along the edge of the boat, leaning out as far as I can over the water: “Here Ballena. Hey baby. Come here, cutie.” A moment later, I am gobsmacked when the little sweetheart lifts his huge head out of the water — right under my outstretched hand! I almost dive in the water to embrace him, but somebody’s got a firm hold on my jeans from behind.
Blair and Pinky in Magdalena Bay
I pet and scratch his head and back and coo and laugh. As Bryan points out, he really likes it when you scratch his chin and barnacley parts. She calls him Pinky. So I keep petting and scratching and cooing, wishing the moment would never end. My baby stays with me a good long while and then, finally, turns and looks me straight in the eye with a sweet smile to say thank you and farewell.
At that moment, gazing into that beautiful eye, I know. You may think that angels have wings. But I’m here to tell you they have fins and flukes and are covered with barnacles. I have never had such a feeling of peace and connectedness with any of the many sentient beings I’ve encountered on this planet. That sweet young whale radiated total kindness, beneficence and fun. Anthropomorphizing? I don’t think so. Ask my family. Pinky was generous. He let everyone love him and pet him and feel that amazing connection, the grace of encounter.
This is all by way of saying that if anyone suggests you spend a day or two whale watching with Todos Santos Eco Adventures – as opposed to say, another day of walking on the beach, eating at all the fabulous Todos Santos restaurants, or drinking mas margaritas with your pals – you might want to seriously consider it. It’s not Oregon. Just sayin’.
These days it seem like the world has gone just plain crazy for Baja cuisine. The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio – these are but a few from the 4th estate that have lined up to gush over chefs and restaurants that are giving Baja – heretofore best known to outsiders as a totally rad surf scene dude – a bona fide “food scene”. So while it was the surfers who first made the terms “firing” and “shredding” famous in Baja (all surfspeak for surfing really well) it’s the chefs who are breathing new life into the terms in the culinary revolution that is sweeping the peninsula.
But what exactly is it that the chefs are firing and shredding? Of course there’s the bounty from the two seas, and all that great produce from the organic farms that populate the region. But most of Baja is desert and when you look out at it, it can seem kind of desolate, maybe a little forbidding, definitely thorny. What’s there to eat? Turns out, quite a bit (if you don’t mind getting your fingers pricked)!
Sergio preparing pitaya at home
Take the pitaya. The Baja peninsula is covered in this cactus andChef Danyof Santo Vino/Hotel California likens the fruit of this plant to a red kiwi. He loves to cook it up with ginger and butter to make sauce for his Cabrilla (sea bass), and he’s also found that it makes a zingy vinaigrette for his salads. Our local ice cream stores in Todos Santos and La Paz report that pitaya ice cream is a perennial best-seller, notwithstanding the fact that the pitaya fruit is disgustingly healthy, packed with cancer-fighting antioxidants and Vitamin C. In fact, Juice Generation, a chain of smoothie bars in New York City, is promoting the pitaya as “the next big superfruit”, following in the footsteps of pomegranates, mangosteens and acai.
The tuna, or prickly pear, is the fruit of the nopal cactus, another ubiquitous Baja dweller. While Chef Dany likes to use the prickly pear for his dynamite fish salsas, and others like to pair it with tequila for a zingy barbeque sauce, Chef Rick Baylesslikes to make Fresh Prickly Pear Ice as a refreshing dessert, and many folks in Baja share this enthusiasm for sweets made from tunas and regularly cook up prickly pear jelly, prickly pear syrup and prickly pear candy. Like the pitaya though, the tuna is ridiculously healthy, being high in magnesium, taurine, Vitamin C, calcium, potassium and antioxidants.
The leaves or paddles of the nopal are another great staple of Baja cuisine. Sergio Jáuregui (yes, our very own Sergio ofTodos Santos Eco Adventures) likes to make what he calls nopal “quesadillas”. He cleans the paddle, grills it on both sides, then melts his favorite cooking cheese onto it – usually Oaxaca or Manchego – and fries it up. Delicious! (In that deep-fat fryer / comfort food kind of way.) Chef Dany’s favorite way to eat nopal paddles is equally tasty (and far more healthy): he puts it raw in salads with cubes of onion, tomatoes, local fresh cheese (queso fresco), parsley and cilantro – magnifique!
There are many more cactus plants from the Baja desert that make great eating, including the biznaga – which many chefs include in their chiles en nogada – and yucca, whose lovely white flowers make a great stir fry in Chef Dany’s wok.
But the real test of any Baja food is: can you make a margarita with it? And for all of our featured cacti here – the prickly pear, the pitaya, the biznaga and yucca – the answer is a resounding YES! Just swing by Santo Vino or the Hotel California some evening and prepare yourself for a most delicious treat (and don’t be afraid to try it at home either!)
Brown-Garitas for Everyone!
Chef Iker Algorriof Café Brown likes to use a plant local to Todos Santos – damiana – to make his world-famous Brown-Garitas, a sure crowd pleaser:
1 shot of of tequila
1 shot of controy or triple sec
3/5th shot of damiana
Splash of lime juice
Splash of fresh orange juice
Blend it up, serve with love and enjoy! Oh, and damiana is widely considered a potent aphrodisiac so best to enjoy your Brown-Garitas with friends!
If you’d like to learn more about cooking with Baja foods please contact us about our Cooking Adventures Week here in Todos Santos. It features fun, informative classes with both Chef Dany and Chef Iker, as well as lots of time in the glorious nature of Baja, checking out the bounty of the ocean and desert.
Thanks to Janine Wall for her help with this article.
You may have noticed a certain remarkable phenomenon that occurs when you take visitors to dine at La Casita Tapas and Wine Bar in Todos Santos: Chef Sergio comes over to greet you; he politely inquires where your guests are from; then, seemingly no matter what place your guests claim as home, Chef Sergio tells them how much he enjoyed his time in their city. And in more cases then not, he’ll tell them about the time he lived in their city, describing neighborhoods, restaurants and, claro, girls he dated. We’ve heard this happen with visitors from all points of the compass in the USA: from Phoenix, AZ to St. Paul, MN; from New York, NY to San Francisco, CA. Never fails! But how could such a thing be? How could a poor boy from Mazatlan have visited – let alone lived in – so many places on and around the American continent? Surely it must be some sort of charming restauranteur’s parlor trick? Some sort of travel magazine savant’s tomfoolery?
Turns out it’s no trick at all. “The boats I worked on got progressively larger. I started off on an 87-footer, then moved to a 95-footer, a 106-footer and finally a 180-foot yacht. That thing had a $40,000 stove. When I finished the contract they gave me a week on St. Martin, a week in Panama, a week in the Dominican Republic and a week in Mexico City. Very nice people.”
And that’s just the last four years before he moved to Todos Santos. Sergio Antonio Rivera Velazquez has been cooking up one side of the Americas, down the other and at points in between for years. And like many a Todos Santeño before him, the drive to ride the waves was behind his choice of careers. “My main goal when I was in high school was to be a doctor. But then I did the entrance exam for medical school, and let’s just say that the results indicated that I was far better suited to traveling and surfing than practicing medicine. And the only industry I had skills in that would let me do that was the restaurant business.”
So in 1990 the 20-year old left his home in Mazatlan and headed to Cabo where he landed a job at the Hotel Cabo San Lucas – the kind of place where guests arrived in their private jets. He’d surf El Tule each morning then go to work each afternoon. Nice joint, but couldn’t stick around long. He returned to Mazatlan where he met an American family from Bend, Oregon. He took them up on their invitation to come visit for a while. A year and many great memories later, they finally decided to drive him back down to Mazatlan – stopping in Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and many other points of interest along the way. Once back in Mazatlan he promptly met a girl in a restaurant and moved with her to St. Paul, Minnesota where he worked, naturally enough, in an Irish pub. A year and many great memories later, the Bend, Oregon family decided to move to Cabo so Sergio joined them. He surfed in the morning and worked in the evening at a restaurant called the Giggling Marlin. A year and many great memories later he returned to Mazatlan where he met a girl – but stayed in Mazatlan anyway.
The years in New York left Sergio a die hard Yankees fan
Now when Sergio was a kid growing up in Mazatlan his mother ran a small restaurant on the weekends and he had always enjoyed helping around the kitchen and entertaining the customers. So when he returned to Mazatlan in 1996 he’d literally spent a lifetime working in and around restaurants, but he’d never actually learned to cook. He decided that needed to change. He was working in a restaurant called Jungle Juice, and asked the owner/chef to teach him to cook on the job – for no pay. It was an offer the owner couldn’t refuse and Sergio was put in charge of the outdoor barbeque. His skills improved so dramatically that before long an entrepreneur visiting from New York invited him to move to the U.S. to design, build and manage a Mexican restaurant. So at the age of 27 Sergio moved to Suffern, NY and Olé! was born. He ran the kitchen for 6 years and loved the work, but he missed the spirituality of being close to the ocean. So when friends from Santa Cruz, CA invited him out, he bid good-bye to New York and moved to California, where he surfed in the morning and worked in the evening at the Paradise Beach Bar and Grill. Stints in Arizona, Iowa, Mazatlan and New York (again) followed until 2004 when a friend started introducing him to the 1%, many of whom – you won’t be surprised to learn – own remarkable yachts. A four-year career as the private chef on some incredible boats ensued, with Sergio running the kitchen on boats such as the Flying Dutchman, the Adventure More, the Illegal and the Boardwalk, all while exploring ports of call throughout Mexico, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, Aruba, Curacao, the Dominican Republic… a much broader education than medical school could ever have provided!
Sergio and Aury with Baby on the Way
In 2008 Sergio was vacationing in La Paz when he met a woman named Kim Gianotti-Keltto who had a dream of opening a restaurant in Todos Santos. Todos Santos – a surfer’s paradise, a food lover’s haven. In short, heaven for a surfin’ chef like Sergio. Sergio and Kim pooled their resources and on November 23, 2010 La Casita Tapas and Wine Bar opened and began serving up the fabulous food for which it has won a truly devoted following. In fact, almost every Todos Santos Eco Adventures adventure week includes a meal at La Casita. And seemingly no matter where our guests are from, Chef Sergio has spent some time in their town…
When Sergio leased the building for La Casita everyone told him that the place was cursed and that he no doubt would be too. If this is what being cursed looks like then Sergio is ready for more. He bought Kim’s share of the business when she decided to return to the States, so at the age of 42 the peripatetic boy from Mazatlan finds himself the owner of a thriving business, stepfather to a beautiful 4-year old girl, and father to a son to be born in October. “I’m living such a happy life here, and can’t imagine a better place to be. The tranquility, the weather, the spirituality of Todos Santos. I am so thankful to the community of Todos Santos for showing such great support and loyalty to us. It really is heaven here.” Another little slice of magic in our pueblo magico.
Mario’s guide to surfing the cape is part of our article, Surfing Santeños, published in the Summer 2012 issue of Janice Kinne’s Journal del Pacifico.
Las Palmas (San Pedrito)
Drive 5 km south from Todos Santos on Highway 19. Look for the Campo Experimental building on your left, and turn off the highway onto one of the dirt roads that winds toward the beach. Las Palmas is a beautiful beach with a lot of palm trees, and has a fast, heavy beach break.
• Best for: Intermediate to advanced surfers
South of Las Palmas you will find San Pedrito. Also known as Pescadero Beach, it’s about 8 km south of Todos Santos. It’s a point break with a rocky bottom and breaks best with a north swell. • Best for: Advanced surfers
This is one of the best beaches in Mexico for learning to surf. Los Cerritos is a beach break with a sandy bottom and has one of the most consistent waves in Baja. It is also one of the few swimmable beaches in the area. From Todos Santos, look for the Cerritos signs at km 66. Lodging and restaurants are located nearby. • Best for: Beginner to advanced surfers
La Curva, also known as KM 93, has a long, right point break that only breaks with north swells and mostly in the winter. Watch for three large rocks you can only see at low tide.
• Best for: Intermediate to advanced surfers
Five minutes from Cabo San Lucas on the way to San Jose del Cabo, this is a left point break that is best with a south swell, although it also breaks with north swells. Take the road to Misiones Hotel and park on the road. Be aware of sea urchins at low tides. • Best for: Advanced surfers
Also known as Acapulquito, this is one of three close breaks on the Costa Azul Beach. It is east of the Palmilla sign, on the right below the view point off the highway to San Jose del Cabo. It breaks with a south swell and there is a long, right point break, especially good for long boards. The waves are mushy and easy to read. Watch for rocks at low tide. Surf lessons and rentals are available here, and many restaurants are located nearby. • Best for: Beginner to intermediate surfers
Another break that needs a south swell, The Rock is located on the Costa Azul Beach, east of Old Man’s. It is named for the rocks that are visible from the viewpoint. It is a long, right point break, a little faster than Old Man’s. • Best for: Intermediate to advanced surfers
Last of the three Costa Azul breaks, Zippers is a shorter, faster, right point break. This break is popular with the locals who may seem a little territorial. Only breaks with a south swell.
• Best for: Advanced surfers
Shipwrecks offers a fast, right point break. Be aware of rocks. It is located on the East Cape. To get there travel past downtown San Jose del Cabo on the bridge over the estuary then drive approximately 20 minutes east. • Best for: Advanced surfers
Drive another 20 minutes east of Shipwrecks, and look for the palms at the little rancho, where you may find donkeys and cows resting in the shade. This is a mushy, long point break, good for long boards.
• Best for: Beginner surfers