On a clear morning, the Pacific Ocean looms large from the patio of the Hotel San Cristóbal Baja in Todos Santos, Mexico. The 6,000-person town, just 45 minutes north of Cabo San Lucas, couldn’t feel less like one of Mexico’s tourist-packed vacation capitals. The coastline here is mostly untouched, save for a beach populated by fishermen and their small vessels. On an earlier visit to the Baja town, I certainly never imagined that the next time I would set foot on this glorious stretch of sand it would be to stay at an oceanfront boutique hotel, created by an award-winning American architecture firm and a hotelier known for attracting a particularly savvy set. One of Todos’ first boutique spots, it offers more rooms than any other hotel in town—surpassing Rancho Pescadero, the only other comparable property in the largely unspoiled region. But while the development boom has been celebrated by many, as with any dramatic shift, the changes underway have ignited some controversy amongst those who prefer that Todos Santos remains the way it’s always been.
Over several weeks this spring, early visitors to the property included music industry executives, interior designers, landscape architects and photographers, many of whom were coming to the area for the first time. “There is something really magical about it,” says hotelier Liz Lambert, the brains behind the project. “I’ve always been drawn to the desert, but a desert on the ocean? It’s a game-changer.” Perhaps in more ways than one: The San Cristóbal is part of a controversial 1,100 acre mixed-use development called Tres Santos, which stands to add 620 houses on this quarter-mile stretch of shore and the surrounding hills, as well as 500 more inland, according to a 2016 report in the New York Times. Aside from the hotel, only nine inland units have been built to date (as of this writing, none have officially sold), but the project’s director, Ernie Glesner, confirmed plans to build on the beach, saying he “doesn’t have exact timing.”
The initiative has proved extremely polarizing for the town. Long-time friends and neighbors are pit against each other over what this project is doing to a place that, somewhat miraculously, has avoided major development in the decades since it began attracting luminaries like former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck (who owns a home here), Jenny Armit (a British interior designer who relocated from Los Angeles 12 years ago and now owns a B&B called Hotelito) and Julia Chaplin (journalist and creator of Assounline’s Gypset series of coffee table books). Online reviews of the hotel include comments like “This hotel violates numerous environmental regulations,” and “I found out that it was built by violating local building codes and steamrolling the local population with a kind of economic imperialism.” Individuals I spoke with on the condition of anonymity agreed with some of these points, but just as many said they liked the design, appreciated another good restaurant and felt that the hotel would ultimately benefit the town.
Lambert—founder of Texas-based Bunkhouse Hotels, the business behind Austin’s Hotel San Jose, Hotel Saint Cecilia, Austin Motel and Jo’s Coffee and the Fair Market, as well as the Hotel Havana in San Antonio and El Cosmico in Marfa—had not been to Todos herself before being tapped for this project. (Two years ago, it was reported that the Standard International Group bought 51 percent of her company.) With properties like Thunderbird Hotel, which Lambert renovated more than a decade ago before moving on to other projects, and El Cosmico, now home to the annual Trans-Pecos music festival (which has drawn the likes of Kacey Musgraves and Neko Case), the hotelier gave the cultured, stylish set that flocked to Marfa the hotels they wanted. With the San Cristóbal, Lambert is at it again, bringing her sought after brand of bohemian chic to a town that has been known since the 1980s for attracting an eclectic crowd of, per the New York Times, “surfers, artists, yogis, retirees, and the sort of scruffy Americans who look as if they took a wrong turn on their way home from an Allman Brothers concert.”
In conceiving the 32-room San Cristóbal, Lambert referenced ’60s, ’70s and ’80s surf culture, the Baja Bug (Volkswagen Beetles modified so that their engines were exposed) and the Baja 1000—the legendary off-road race that started in the ’60s and went on to garner a major cult following including the likes of Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and James Garner. “We tried to capture the spirit of Baja, with a little bit of funkiness,” Lambert says of the overall aesthetic. The hotel itself, a modern plaster structure designed by San Antonio-based architecture firm Lake | Flato, sits on a property awash in colorful, encaustic tile in shades of green, orange, red, purple and white. Furniture and accessories come primarily from Mexico: Oversized pillows are made of striped Baja blankets, hanging lamps and coffee tables were produced by a family-owned ceramics studio in Guadalajara and brightly colored traditional blankets custom made in Oaxaca cover Coco-mat beds (one of few imported furnishings, along with Sferra bedlinens and Malin + Goetz products). Most rooms have water views; some have an outdoor tub, or shower, or both; and all have outdoor space.
Benno, the hotel’s restaurant, has a Mexican-Mediterranean menu of simply prepared dishes that change based on availability, including crudo and codorniz con picadillo, an unexpected and delicious roasted quail dish. There’s no spa, but a masseuse and shaman can be summoned to treat guests who feel the need for a massage or sunrise cleansing ceremony. Surfers take note: There are several bucket-list breaks in the area. The best is Cerritos Beach, but the no-longer-secret spot that originally drew the Endless Summer crowd is La Pastura.
The dog-friendly hotel has also partnered with a local rescue organization to match dogs with hotel guests. Since opening, several guests—including a prominent Los Angeles-based interior designer and the founder of a modern furniture retailer—have left with foster pups, including Solito, a three-legged mixed breed and the hotel’s former unofficial mascot, now happily ensconced in his new northern California home.
If the assumption is that development is inevitable for any breathtakingly beautiful corner of the globe, then Hotel San Cristóbal is likely a more palatable option for those who love Todos than many of the alternatives. There are few, if any, secret spots left in this world, and sooner or later, somebody was bound to do this here. When compared with Cabo—where a Four Seasons, a St. Regis and Ritz Carlton residences are set to open over the next couple years—the development footprint on Todos feels minimal. Despite the current drama, the town is one of those places that still feels authentic. Yes, there are expats who have made it their home. But as Armit told me, “you still get the feeling that the town belongs to the people.” You see kids walking home from school with their oversized backpacks on the cobblestoned streets. You might occasionally spot someone riding a horse through town. The best fish tacos (Taqueria El Parguito) and ceviche (Mariscos El Compa Chava) are both served at establishments generously described as shacks, with a hodgepodge of plastic and folding chairs arranged under roofs with no walls. But there are also two standout farm-to-table restaurants, Hierbabuena and Jazamango (the latter helmed by star Mexican chef Javier Plascencia), in addition to a selection of galleries, an annual music festival founded by Buck, a film festival and a well-regarded writers’ workshop. How the development plays out remains to be seen, but for now, the San Cristóbal is here to stay, and for now, it seems authentically in line with the area. One hopes it will remain that way.