Todos Santos: The Best Mexican Town You’ve Never Heard Of

Westerdam at anchor off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico on December 5, 2016. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Under cloudless skies and warm temperatures,  Holland America Line’s Westerdam sailed into the sheltered harbour of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico this morning. Located at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, sail-in to Cabo is a real treat, as ships must sail past the resorts that dot the Pacific side of the peninsula before rounding the corner at El Arco, or The Arch.

Sailing into Cabo San Lucas early this morning aboard Westerdam…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…and passing El Arco, or The Arch. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

I first came here in 2006, and let me tell you: the Cabo San Lucas I tendered ashore into this morning bears little resemblance to the one I saw aboard Oosterdam ten years ago. Today’s Cabo is built up substantially: where there were one dusty fields and vacant lots, there are upscale condominiums. Where the ramshackle harbour used to be, multi-million-dollar yachts are now berthed. The half-sinking rowboats and pelicans are long gone, replaced by Senior Frogs and Fat Tuesday locations.

This is my fifth visit to Cabo San Lucas, and I wanted to do something different. With that in mind, I booked Holland America’s five-hour long tour, Discover Todos Santos. I’d wanted to do this back in 2006 and I never did, and I found that few of the other cruise lines in this region offer this tour. Holland America does, and here’s the verdict: I should have done this a decade ago.

Arriving at Cabo San Lucas just before Noon…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…passengers on shore excursions had tender priority. This in and of itself is a great reason to book one through Holland America. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Tender and ‘dam’ ship. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Priced at $78.95, this tour takes guests 72 kilometres (45 miles) northwest of Cabo San Lucas to the town of Todos Santos; a sleepy Mexican town that is famous for its historic Mission de Nuestra Senora del Pilar cathedral and, of course, for the rust-red Hotel California, which reportedly inspired the Eagles song of the same name.

I nearly didn’t book this tour. The god-awful reviews on the Holland America website almost scared me away. Indeed, the tour gets two lonely stars out of five. And I think I know why: if you want to shop, or go to the beach, or drink your face off, this is not the tour for you. If you want to see Colonial Mexico and experience a town that few others do: pick this tour.

Welcome to Todos Santos! Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

From start to finish, the tour was positively superb. Our guide, Armando, gave us a great briefing on the history of Cabo San Lucas, Todos Santos and the surrounding region on our 60-minute drive to the town.

Upon arrival, we visited the Cultural Center in the city’s Centro Historico, or Historic District. The entire town looks like something out of a 19th century period movie; if Humphrey Bogart suddenly rounded the corner in a white Fedora, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised. It’s quaint, clean, colonial, and irresistibly beautiful – absolutely unlike any other city or town I’ve been to in this country.

Exploring the Cultural Center of Todos Santos, decked out for Christmas. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Inside the Cultural Center: a bizarre curio of all things Todos Santos. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The Cultural Center is an odd hodgepodge of things, from historic works of art to photographs in crumbling frames, rusting typewriters and machines, and traditional wooden homes that would have existed back in the 1800’s.  It’s mish-mash appearance, though, doesn’t come across as hokey – it comes across like the entire town: take it or leave it.

Afterwards, our short walking tour led us to the city’s Plaza Central, which backs onto the Mission. The town’s founders were an eclectic bunch, including a man from China who emigrated to Mexico and settled in Todos Santos in 1913.

Our guide, Armando, educates us on the history of Todos Santos…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…from the town’s Central Square. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

From there, a short walk brought us to the Hotel California. Forget the song; this funky and eclectic place stands on its own merits. Our lunch included a non-alcoholic drink, chips and salsa, and a very delicious burrito. But, if you want to, you can pay for alcoholic beverages and other food items, which I did along with my friend Jason Leppert of Popular Cruising, who happens to be on this voyage as well.

Let me tell you: order off the menu. Pay for it. It’s worth it. This is authentic, delicious, Mexican food. Wash it all down with a Pacifico (a beer brewed in nearby Mazatlán), and you’ve got the recipe for one heck of a fantastic afternoon.

Welcome to the Hotel California…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…Such a lovely place…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…such a lovely place. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Order from the hotel’s additional cost menu. Seriously – this is the best lunch I’ve had in Mexico (and I’ve had some really good lunches). Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

After lunch, we were given about an hour or so (depending on how long you took for lunch) to wander around town and do some shopping. If I’m being honest, I could have spent hundreds of dollars here: there are plenty of local artisans selling their wares, and some seriously good local artists with paintings of all shapes and sizes.

Even the gift shop at the Hotel California offers up some pretty interesting souvenirs, from the expected logo-brand T-shirts and coffee mugs to hand-made jewelry, books, journals, and wooden carvings that come in the form of boxes or Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) figurines.

Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – factors prominently here. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Todos Santos is colourful…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…and charming. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Hat, Senior? Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

I even loved the streets. So quiet. So different from Cabo San Lucas. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

At 3:25 pm, it was back to Cabo San Lucas, where we arrived just as the sun was starting to go down at 4:30 pm. I hopped on a tender, and by 5:00 pm, I was back in the Westerdam’s air-conditioned embrace.

This was, without a doubt, the best tour I’ve taken in the Mexican Riviera outside of swimming with the dolphins several years back. If you won’t miss a day at the beach, take my advice: this tour is a real gem. It’s also delightfully uncrowded: only 14 people, including myself, were booked on it – and we were given a coach that could have sat 50.

Before long, it was back to Cabo San Lucas and the tender pier…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…and the elegant ms Westerdam, bathed in the setting sun. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

I’d also like to point out one huge advantage for taking a ship-sponsored tour in Cabo San Lucas: this is a tender port, and that means that guests on shore excursions get tender priority. Not on a tour? You’ll have to queue up outside the Queen’s Lounge for tender tickets, beginning at 11:30 a.m.

This evening, I watched the sunset from up in the Crow’s Nest on Deck 10 forward. I love that Holland America’s ships all feature this beautiful forward observation lounge, and I personally consider it a “must-have” feature on any ship I sail on. To be able to see 180-degrees around the ship over the bow, above the navigation bridge, is a truly special thing.

While dancing kicks off in the Ocean Bar…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…I enjoy a pre-dinner Martini…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…in the Pinnacle Bar, Deck 2 midship. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Holland America also has unleashed its special Holiday Cocktails upon the Crow’s Nest. As I write this, I’m enjoying the “Candy Cane Martini” which, at $7.50 a hit, is dangerously good. What’s more, it tastes exactly like it sounds.

Speaking of the Holidays, Westerdam is dolled up in her Holiday Best as of this sailing, which seems to be the first departure of 2016 to feature Holiday décor. It’s tasteful and well laid-out, and actually makes the ship feel cozier than she already does.

I’m starting to develop an evening routine on Westerdam – and you will, too. My evening tonight involved another dip in the Hydrotherapy Pool at the Greenhouse Spa, followed by cocktails in the elegant Pinnacle Bar on Deck 2.

Up on deck tonight…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…a Mexican Buffet was served on the aft pool deck. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Westerdam will be refitted next spring to be able to boast the same venues as the refitted Eurodam. This includes the Gallery Bar where the Northern Lights Disco currently located; Billboard Onboard, which will replace the current Piano Bar and Sports Bar; and the Lincoln Center Stage, which will carve a space out of the forward half of the Explorer’s Lounge on Deck 2.

I saw this transformation on Eurodam back in March, and it worked out supremely well. So much so that I can’t wait to see these new venues – collectively known as the Music Walk because of their common Deck 2 location – installed on Westerdam.

It’s great to be back in Cabo San Lucas. It’s even better to be back here aboard the ‘dam ships’ of Holland America Line.

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Our Live Voyage Report aboard Holland America Line’s Westerdam continues tomorrow as we explore Mazatlán, Mexico! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog.

Westerdam - Mexican Riviera

Saturday, December 3, 2016San Diego, CaliforniaEmbark Westerdam1600
Sunday, December 4At Sea
Monday, December 5Cabo San Lucas, Mexico11001900
Tuesday, December 6Mazatlan, Mexico08001800
Wednesday, December 7Puerto Vallarta, Mexico08001700
Thursday, December 8At Sea
Friday, December 9At Sea
Saturday, December 10San Diego, California0700Disembark

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