Welcome to Hotel California

THE BALTIMORE SUN

David Galloway is pondering life in Todos Santos, a magical Mexican hamlet he calls home six months of the year. The friends at his table are fixed on his storytelling, mindlessly stirring their lattes, served in bowls, in the bougainvillea-shrouded patio of Cafe Todos Santos.

The ponytailed Galloway said it took just one brief stop several years ago, while exploring the southern tip of Mexico's Baja California peninsula, to decide this would be the place he'd hang out while fall and winter have their way with his other home in Vancouver, British Columbia. The question is whether it will stay that way.

It has a lot to do with the town's strongest attraction -- the Hotel California -- and its almost mythical grip on gringo baby boomers and their offspring.

Yes, that Hotel California: The place where singer-songwriter Don Henley is said to have stopped while touring what -- as late as the 1960s -- was Baja's lost coast, leading him to write the song "Hotel California." Nearly three decades after the Eagles released the song, it has gained near-cult status. Internet sites discuss Henley, the Eagles, Todos Santos and myths surrounding the real hotel, and help fans sort out the song's enigmatic lyrics.

Henley is believed to have been inspired by the town's characters and the rustic hotel at the shoulder of a Spanish colonial mission on Todos Santos' tidy square. It's a testament to the song's popularity that the hotel remains a busy tourist stop, though it's nothing more than a shuttered hulk awaiting a new owner. Rumors circulate of restoration and a new, unauthorized Eagles museum.

"This is cool!" shouted a teen-age visitor as she posed for photos in front of the hotel's tree-shrouded facade. "Dad's going to love this!"

Despite the visitors, Todos Santos is the opposite of its tourist-clogged neighbor, Cabo San Lucas, an hour south. While Todos Santos also draws tourists by the busload, they stay only to lunch at one of a growing number of fine restaurants or inspect paintings, crafts and photographs at the galleries downtown. But, unlike in Cabo San Lucas, where tourists on spring break turn the streets into a disco each night, most visitors leave Todos Santos along with the sun.

And that's just how David Galloway likes it.

"They come to appreciate what we live," he says. "And they go."

Still, expatriates know their out-of-the-way pueblo soon may change.

Self-appointed town historians chafe at the lowbrow scene around Hotel California and swear the hotel is not the hotel immortalized in the song. They point to a denial Henley once faxed to a local writer.

But Manuel Valdez, the hotel's former manager who now runs a restaurant and curio shops pegged to Hotel California themes, says there's too much in the song that's dead-on about Todos Santos.

"It is on a long desert highway," Valdez said, quoting the song's lyrics. "The smell of colitas -- marijuana buds -- probably came from the plants that kept springing up behind the hotel. And you can't help but hear mission bells ring from any of the hotel's rooms."

No neon in Todos Santos

Those irked by Hotel Califor- nia's odd fame may be glad to know that Todos Santos has grown beyond the song's legend.

The town once was little more than an oasis for Mexican artists, vacationing impresarios from Mexico City and Guadalajara, and American surfers. By the time Henley is said to have dropped in, it also was a mere shadow of its former commercial self as southern Baja's fruit and vegetable source and an important sugar-cane port. Jesuit missionaries had founded Todos Santos in 1723, calling it Santa Rosa de las Palmas after the green oasis that stretches to the ocean.

About 400 Americans and Canadians live full time among the town's 7,000 or so residents. Many more have vacation homes in and around town. And a growing number of wealthy Mexicans have discovered the village, helping to boost property values to the point that more middle-income and poor Mexicans now live on the town's edge.

It's bound to get more crowded, with two home developments and a championship golf course slated for beaches a few miles south.

So, the questions for Todos Santos are: Does it become a haven for sojourning Eagles freaks? Or does it check growth and deny its Mexican population the jobs that tourism lures?

Fair-minded locals hope there's a compromise.

All sides agree that there will never be neon in Todos Santos. But even a little tacky growth could spoil the feeling of being in a place only recently discovered by travelers. It was just a decade ago that asphalt supplanted the cobblestones and covered the dirt of some streets around Todos Santos' plaza.

A drive to create

The air is crisp here, even when it's hot. The sunlight has an unfiltered intensity that artists seek and then try to keep secret. Locals still jealously guard the locations of gardens with macadamia and mango trees. And most nearby beaches are unspoiled, so pristine that migrating whales frolic just beyond the breakers.

Todos Santos is like a fisherman's secret pool on a wild river -- a rewarding place so small and fragile that telling more than a couple of close buddies would ruin the fun.

Even hotel and restaurant owners -- folks you think would be eager to broadcast Todos Santos' coordinates -- talk of measured growth.

Robert Whiting, a Boston refugee from investment banking, for years harbored a dream of dropping out and running his own place. He thought it would be on an island in the Caribbean, but one visit to Todos Santos changed all that.

His Todos Santos Inn has four rooms nestled around a stone courtyard with a sundial and ever-blooming flowers. The rooms are sandwiched between a spacious gallery he rents to artists and an open-air art studio.

Whiting believes Todos Santos can develop without smothering its charm. He even hopes Hotel California will successfully reopen.

"We may cringe at times, but the hotel is the town's soul," Whiting says, fondly remembering the few sweltering nights he spent there when he first arrived, well after the hotel's old luster had faded.

"I don't think it's a crime that people benefit from the hotel's legend, even if it may not be true," he says. "It's not hurting anyone, and if it's a way to build something nice there, then so be it."

The tendency to create is so strong in Todos Santos that arts festivals dot the calendar and draw Mexicans and other tourists looking for a respite from Los Cabos.

Each year, a throng of Americans floods the beach for a competition -- a surf-in -- that dates back to the Don Henley days.

Galloway explains that there's so much energy in Todos Santos -- even electromagnetic power in the soil and rocks -- that its creative residents have had to invent ways to channel it.

Galloway runs an arts and crafts fair to benefit children's charities. But his real passion is pondering the desert rock formations, quizzing longtime residents about Todos Santos' history, and chilling out at the spectacular beaches.

Nestor Agundes, a retired teacher who grew up in Todos Santos and now runs its cultural center, believes Todos Santos is in good hands, now that it is dominated by artists whom he trusts to insist on careful development.

"The town has always been special," he says. "It's always attracted artists, and those with resources who wanted to escape their troubles All I ask is that everyone who comes now, does so with the desire to preserve what we have."

WHEN YOU GO ...

Getting there: Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, Mexico, is an hour south of La Paz and an hour north of Cabo San Lucas. Flying into La Paz International Airport via connecting service is your best bet. US Airways and United fly direct from BWI to Los Angeles, where you can connect via Aero California to La Paz.

Lodging:

Todos Santos Inn, Calle Legaspi No. 33, Todos Santos, BCS 23305, Mexico

* Phone: 011-52-114-50040

* Online: www.mexonline.com / todossantosinn.htm

* Rates: $85-$125

* Located in the heart of the historic district.

For more information about Todos Santos and the surrounding area, go online to:

* www.todossantos.cc (a directory of hotels and galleries, and a calendar)

* www.escapist.com / baja / todos.htm

* www.bajaportal.com

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