TODOS SANTOS, Mexico -- Day One: Browse bristling cactuses. Assess crashing Pacific. Big dinner. Not much happens.
Day Two: Swim off a half-mile-long beach, utterly alone. Sight wildlife: a 2-inch frog crossing the busiest street in town, inch by inch, untroubled by traffic, at 9 p.m.
Day Three: Day One, with a bigger dinner.
Day Four: Departure. Despair.
Todos Santos (all saints), a small miracle of peace, quiet and creeping Bohemianism, lies about 50 miles north of lower Baja California's better-known vacation destination, Cabo San Lucas. It is a town of mostly unpaved streets, of thatched roofs and sleeping dogs, and crumbling adobe walls and ruined old sugar mills, with farms set among the cactus and palms on its outskirts.
It is sustained by the farming and fishing of several thousand Mexicans, the crumpled dollars of wayward surfers, and the arty aspirations of a few dozen emigres. Though a sign outside town puts the population at 3,400, local estimates run from 5,000 to 8,000.
Visitors lie low, eat under palapa roofs, sleep cheap, ponder epic deserts, possibly attempt watercolors. They probably don't go sportfishing -- there's no marina. There's one pool hall, and there are no nightclubs, though a sports bar is rumored to be coming. Tourists may not even lounge by the pool; only a couple of lodgings have them.
Todos Santos has one traffic signal and one gas station. Once Mexico Highway 19 takes you out of town, unfenced cows are prone to wander across the two blacktop lanes. The nearest beach is about three miles from downtown, and the coastal waters can be perilously rough.
The town hangs in a delicate state of mid-transformation: near enough to the international tourist path that its most popular restaurant has an all-Italian menu, yet far enough away that I couldn't find one Todos Santos hotel room that fetched more than $65 a night or featured air conditioning.
"So who's the mayor of L.A. now?" asked one of the first locals I met, a pleasant fellow sipping his morning coffee in the Caffe Todos Santos. He looked to be in his 40s and thoroughly Anglo, but gave his name as Pablo Domingo. He moved to Todos Santos from Los Angeles 10 years ago, he said, and does pen-and-ink artwork.
"They're saying this will be the new Carmel," he said. "It'll be the new something. I don't know what."
You never know. It was in the late 1980s, locals recall, when some Mexican tourism officials started pitching Todos Santos as a burgeoning international artist's colony -- a dubious claim, since just about the only international artist here then was Charles Stewart, an exile from Taos, N.M., who arrived with his wife, Mary Lou, in about 1985. (They remain, and if a visitor rings the bell at their home-gallery at Centenario and Obregon streets, one of them will probably grant a tour, which includes the chance to browse a rack of watercolors priced at $150 and up.)
Yet the prophecy has gradually been fulfilled. Every year, it seems, a few more aesthetically inclined expatriates show up.
A celebrated addition
On Calle Topete stands one of the most recent and celebrated additions to the local boho scene, the Galeria de Todos Santos.
In the front rooms of a high-ceilinged old brick building, gallery director Michael Cope began displaying his own work last April along with pieces by several accomplished Mexican and American artists. Two of them, potter Raul Cavazos (formerly of Texas) and painter Gloria Marie V. (of Los Angeles), have been in at least part-time residence around greater Todos Santos for several years.
Meanwhile, Mr. Cope and his wife, former Angelenos, are building a house on "the other side," a breeze-cooled residential area on the western end of town that has become popular with Americans.
They aren't alone. Americans are buying land and building homes for vacation, retirement and exile, and more outsiders are surely coming soon.
Soon, it seems likely, Todos Santos will be a place with more restaurants, fewer idle old buildings downtown and higher prices. Sooner or later, a big hotel is likely to rise near the town's most popular stretch of shoreline, known as Playa San Pedro or Palm Beach.
Right now, however, the beach lies unmarked at the end of a 1.5-mile-long dirt road that branches off from the highway about three miles south of town. The only structure in sight is a ruined old ranch building, moldering among the palms and cactus.
The tourist season in Todos Santos begins in October (the town's biggest party of the year is the Oct. 12 celebration of its patron saint, the Virgin of Pilar) and peaks in December, January (when there's an arts and crafts show) and February.
Many businesses curtail their hours or close altogether during the hot, humid, mosquito-marred and occasionally hurricane-threatened months of July, August and September.
(Map-browsers, take note: The town of Todos Santos is sometimes confused with Isla de Todos Santos, a better-known surf spot about 800 miles north in the Bay of Todos Santos off Ensenada.)
It takes about 15 minutes to learn your way around town. The highway from Los Cabos ends at Calle Juarez, where you turn right and find yourself on the main drag. It lasts seven blocks.
The Hotel California
On Juarez near Degollado, you see the ruins of an old sugar-cane mill. Near Calle Marquez de Leon, there's a two-story Hotel California, which dates to 1928, and stands as the most prominent lodging in town, with 15 rooms, wood floors, ceiling fans, pool, restaurant and, lest anyone live too high, an 11 p.m. guest curfew.
(People like to say that this is the hotel named in the famous Eagles song, but no one at the hotel could say why, and a spokesman for songwriter Don Henley said that the group had no literal Hotel California in mind.)
Farther along Juarez, at Calle Hidalgo, there's El Tecolote Bookstore, where proprietor Jane Perkins stocks a broad selection of English-language local guidebooks and volumes on Mexican geography and culture.
Parallel to Juarez and one block northwest, there's Calle Centenario and the town plaza.
Around the plaza stand a church, the city hall and the splendidly restored 1944 Teatro Manuel Marquez de Leon, which once housed productions from itinerant theater troupes. (It's now rarely used.) Facing the theater is the restaurant that many credit for leading the town on its bohemian renaissance, the Cafe Santa Fe.
Ezio and Paula Colombo -- he a restaurateur and painter from Italy, she a designer and former model from New York -- opened the cafe five years ago.
Ezio Colombo told me he came here "for the light and the quiet." I never got a look at Colombo's paintings, but in his restaurant, a stately and well-revived 19th-century structure with a menu of Northern Italian fare, I had two excellent dinners, including a porcini mushroom pasta in broth.
Next door to the restaurant, Paula Colombo recently opened the Gallery Santa Fe, which is full of high-quality furniture, crafts and artwork, including stylish hand-made chairs ($250 each) and a large copy of a Frida Kahlo portrait ($3,000).
If you go
Getting there: From Baltimore, it is probably easier to travel via Los Angeles, from which Alaska and Aero California and Mexicana fly nonstop to the Los Cabos International Airport (which neighbors San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas), a 90-minute drive south of Todos Santos. Round-trip restricted coach fares from Los Angeles to Los Cabos begin at $196, taxes included. Also, Aero California offers one nonstop flight daily from Los Angeles to the La Paz airport, an hour's drive north of Todos Santos. Fare for round-trip restricted coach tickets begins at $186, taxes included. Most major rental car companies have representatives at the Los Cabos International Airport.
Where to stay: The Hotel California (Calle Juarez; telephone and fax 011-52-114-50-002) has 15 rooms, a pool, a restaurant and a ** location on the main drag. Doubles rent for $42 nightly. Hosteria Las Casitas (Calle Rangel; local fax 50-288) has four brightly painted rooms in a restored old structure. Rates: $25-$45, including breakfast for one. Proprietor Wendy Faith also serves lunch. Santa Rosa Apartments (Calle Pedrajo; local telephone 50-394) offers eight units with kitchens and a pool. Doubles: $33.
RV camping is available at several sites, including El Molino Trailer Park near the south end of town, San Pedrito Trailer Park about four miles south of town, and Los Cerritos RV Park, about eight miles south of town. Fees vary.
Where to eat: Cafe Santa Fe (Calle Centenario on the plaza; local telephone or fax 50-340), the first dinner choice of every American with a few dollars in pocket, offers Italian fare featuring herbs from the cafe's own garden. Entrees run $8-$10. Closed Tuesday and the first half of October.
Caffe Todos Santos (Calle Centenario at Topete) is the leading ++ breakfast and lunch spot for English speakers, and features fruits from owner Marc Spahr's nearby farm. Most meals under $7.
El Pariente (Colegio Militar; telephone 50-042) offers seafood and other fare with Mexican style. Entrees $3-$8.
Information: Mexican Government Tourism Office, 405 Park Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022; (212) 755-7261.