January 25 2012
Right now, I’m flying back home to San Francisco from Baja California, Mexico. A close friend is making a book about places that attract nomads or highly mobile travellers, and invited my family and me to join her for a few days while she worked on a chapter about a small town on the coast.
Baja, one of my favourite places in the world, is a 1,100-mile-long peninsula, flanked by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Sea of Cortez to the east. It is dry, dusty and desert-like – unless you stay at one of those all-inclusive resorts that not only has the mandatory golf course, but landscapes the entire resort to look like a golf course.
But that is not where we stay; the resort scene is not my fare. Vacations, even short ones, still need to feel like an adventure to me, or at least offer a few chance encounters. I am not talking here about running into work acquaintances or asking maître-ds about their Swiss hotel education, but more about the real story of a place or person. And the little town of Todos Santos, two hours north of the Cabo San Lucas airport, has plenty of stories to tell.
Being a designer means I constantly notice how the world is designed, the whole world. Everything is designed, whether it’s the fake-local architecture of resorts that differentiate between their worldwide locations with a splash of local colour, or a fence made of driftwood to keep a few cows penned. I happen to be more interested in the fence, or the Mexican revolution artifacts, or the monumental cacti sprouting on rocky moonscapes.
A good way to travel these days for me, and my family of four, is to rent a house as close as possible to a good beach and surf spot. The options are many, it is safe for a family, and it allows us to share meaningful time together: cooking and eating, sitting by an outdoor fireplace, or inviting friends and locals over for a meal or a glass of tequila. Often, the owner will live nearby, or even on the property. What started as a couch-surfing, low-cost way to travel is now a fantastic way to “localise” anywhere – and at any level of accommodation, from humble to luxurious.
My favourite resource for this type of travel is the company Airbnb. Two of the co-founders are designers, and their firm has seen massive growth; after four years in business, they now rent to more people in New York on a given night than Manhattan’s largest hotel. The reason that I love renting houses or apartments is that I not only get all the tips on what to do and where to eat from a local, but I also contribute directly to the neighbourhood economy. Same if I hire a babysitter, a yoga instructor or a cook.
This time, Todos Santos had a few surprises for me. This is the kind of place where people sometimes seem to have escaped their past (and perhaps the law), or joined a tribe of like-minded expats. From the nomad surfers living in the back of pick-up trucks to the English and French stylists who love the quaint brick town, the Mexican artists, the Hollywood escapees and the Italian restaurateurs... Legend has it, by the way, that one of them is ex-Red Brigades.
This is my kind of place, the last stop of adventurers; looking west it’s the Pacific Ocean, and behind us the arid landscape of Baja California.