Bewitched by Baja

11:00 p.m Friday, May 12, 2017 Travel
The Hotel San Cristóbal in Todos Santos blends into its natural surroundings. Contributed by Nick Simonite

When I think back to the three days I spent seduced by the landscape and vibe surrounding the Hotel San Cristóbal in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, my memory is soundtracked by the Echocentrics’ “Canyon.”

Maybe it’s the hypnotic movements of the psychedelic song’s rhythm guitar and vocals, like slow-motion hula dancing, or the trill of the guitar floating on the breeze like a gull. Maybe it’s the way the song’s hazy languor sonically represents a destination where dusty roads and craggy hills bow to the Pacific Ocean.

Maybe it’s the fact that the band and Hotel San Cristóbal’s operator Bunkhouse are both based in Austin. Or the fact that the song serenaded me for three minutes as I drifted around the 4-foot-deep pool with a margarita in hand. Or was it three hours? Three days? Time slows until it evaporates at this rustic retreat imagined, curated and operated by Bunkhouse chief creative officer Liz Lambert’s team.

The 32-room white stucco hotel designed by Austin’s Lake Flato reveals itself like a mirage over the dirt road as you drive toward the ocean. Shades of brown frame doors and windows of the stark two-story buildings that sit on a property dotted with palm trees. Think Palm Springs meets Tatooine.

As the sun arcs across the sky before hiding behind the ocean, shadows draw magnificent lines across the hotel’s naturalistic palette, dark parallel stripes contrasting with the slashes of light beaming through slatted shutters. The twirling designs of the hotel’s colorful tiles match the surrounding shades: the green of the trees and brush, the beige of sand and the faded crimson of sunset. Hotel San Cristóbal isn’t a resort as much as it is an escape, and its charming and rough-hewn home of Todos Santos appealed to Lambert in a way similar to another escape familiar to Austinites.

“I was instantly attracted to the convergence of nature — ocean, desert, agriculture. In some ways, it reminded me a lot of Marfa — both places feel like something you discover at the end of a dirt road, and both feel like islands in a great way,” said Lambert, who operates El Cosmico in Marfa in addition to Hotel San Jose, Austin Motel and Hotel St. Cecilia in Austin and Hotel Havana in San Antonio.

Should you want to keep track of the day, turn to daily rituals and the sky, not your watch. Wake early and admire the yolk of the sun as it cracks over the Sierra de la Laguna mountains. Then, if the morning air holds a chill, make your way to one of several fireplaces on the property for coffee service from the hotel’s restaurant, Benno, before moving to the patio overlooking the pool. A shower of queso fresco tempers the fire-roasted salsa that bathes fried eggs and ham in a breakfast dish sweetened with thin slices of sugar peas from the hotel’s garden. Or start your day with dessert — you are on vacation. Caramel sauce leaves its sticky glaze across feathered mango and banana rounds sprinkled with toasted coconut.

As you’re easing into the morning, members of the local fishing cooperative, many of whom have worked these waters for decades, are pushing their colorful boats out into the choppy waters. They return with their bounty six afternoons a week, selling snapper, vieja and other fish to the hotel. Their work is your reward in the form of brilliant snapper ceviche and campechana that you can order from the bar menu and eat poolside midday, along with citrusy guacamole and the tart piquancy of a jalapeno and grapefruit zipped La Reina cocktail made with mezcal and tequila. You can also retreat to your calming room for a snack and siesta as you star in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Hotel Robe.

The pool and its sunken Jacuzzis offer views of the ocean and beach, which is usually sparsely populated, though it buzzed with the jovial energy of celebratory families camping, cooking and reveling into the night in honor of Semana Santa (Easter week) during our visit. While the stretch of isolated beach makes for a perfect morning walk and transcendent sunsets, the ocean outside of the hotel is not recommended for swimming. You can access several stretches of swimmable beach nearby, so it is imperative that you rent a car.

The popular Cerritos Beach and the secluded Playa las Palmas, which sits tucked behind a grove of palm trees, are both accessible, like most things in Baja, via a bumpy dirt road. The friendly and knowledgeable San Cristóbal staff, comprised almost entirely of locals, some of whom are related to the fishermen, will give you directions to the two spots that deliver very different beach experiences.

You will likely encounter tourists and locals at Cerritos Beach, as the staff of a nearby beach club tries to sell you chairs in exchange for a drink minimum and locals push their crafts and surfing lessons. But at Playa las Palmas and the nearby San Pedrito Beach, you’ll be surrounded only by the sound of crashing waves and the gentle murmurings of long-haired surfers and wanderlusters. If you’re looking for a respite from crowds while at Cerritos Beach, head a few hundred meters away from the water to the rooftop restaurant Lost Souls, which serves Italian-inspired salads, pizzas and a jigsaw ceviche tower of shrimp and serrano ham. You can still see the ocean from the restaurant’s pool (yes, a rooftop pool) while you sip a powerful rum-fueled cocktail without drinking in all the commotion below.

The road between San Cristóbal and Cerritos features two can’t-miss dining destinations. The open-air Los Claros taco stand (look for the sign of the shrimp and marlin cartoons shaking hands) opened a few months ago and serves a fragrant smoked marlin taco for a couple of dollars. You can dress the meaty fish with one of several salsas, escabeche, cabbage and other accoutrements from a startlingly fresh salsa bar. Make sure to order the torito, a yellow pepper stuffed with shrimp and cheese, fried and served in a tortilla. Sweet and crunchy with a vegetal glow, it is the perfect dish following a swim.

The idea of farm-to-table dining is much more than a marketing gimmick at Hierbabuena, a sleek outdoor restaurant set in the middle of a bountiful farm. Inspired by El Pescadero’s microclimate and suitability for growing, Mexico City native Marcos Ramirez and his wife moved to the area in 2012 and taught themselves how to farm. They’re quick studies. The dining area, covered with an industrial corrugated steel roof, is surrounded by countless rows of vegetables, their brilliant colors standing in vivid contrast to the surrounding rocky landscape.

“The garden surrounds the restaurant so that one can get a sense of what truly is on their plate, much like a garden plot at home,” Ramirez said. “We most value the principles of my mom’s generation: uncomplicated, fresh, healthy eating.”

The farm’s harvest makes its way onto your plate with dishes like roasted carrot and ricotta ravioli with basil pesto, a verdura pizza and simple salad of beets and arugula; and also into your drink, with cocktails like the mezcal-based and basil-studded Dusty Dog with its hibiscus salt rim.

The center of tiny nearby Todos Santos, about a 10-minute drive from the hotel, offers the opportunity to purchase the wares of local artisans and goods imported from around Mexico. While you may have trouble spotting unique crafts, I recommend you stop by Mexico Gourmet and chat and imbibe with master mezcalier Jaime Pedraza, who will send you on your way with some mezcals you can’t buy in the states.

We had the misfortune of landing in town when the much-heralded-by-friends-and-locals Taqueria El Parguito was closed, but Mariscos El Compa Chava should be considered nobody’s second place. Despite its location on a dusty road outside of ocean view, the open-air restaurant served stunning ceviche presented in a format I hadn’t encountered before — tender octopus (or snapper) chopped with onions, tomatoes and peppers and splayed out across a long plate. They also served excellent fish tacos seared to a crispy but tender finish.

Cafe Santa Fe, the town’s stalwart fine dining restaurant, has been around since 1990. The age of the restaurant surprised me for such a quiet little town, but the staying power of the handsome restaurant, which features a thatched hut dining area in an unassuming courtyard, was evident in the execution of simple and elegant snapper carpaccio enlivened with scallions, capers and citrus, and the Italian-influenced dishes like lobster ravioli served beneath a scatter of shaved Parmesan.

While you should spend time exploring the gustatory pleasures both high and low of the surrounding villages, you’ll feel pulled back to San Cristóbal each evening. Breakfast and midday snacks hint at the excellence you’ll find at dinner in dishes that run from the light and vibrant (shrimp aguachile and snapper crudo with pickled mushroom) to earthy and hearty (stuffed quail and a harissa-spiced braised short rib).

But you may realize that despite the kitchen’s appeal, you’ll be slow to find your way to dinner after being mesmerized by the changing evening sky. Rest your arms on the edge of the pool and lose yourself in the kaleidoscopic dance of sunset. Stars pierce the twilight sky as the sounds of Leonard Cohen wash up from hidden speakers. The moon churns the waves like a machine trying to toss its blanket of water over the earth. The tide rocks and recedes. Turndown service writ large.