We have a plan, Pahoran Gurrola and I, for finding the Hotel California. “When we get there, you’re going to see,” says Pahoran Gurrola, my Mexican driver and guide with Baja Outback tours, poking his finger over the steering wheel to what lies ahead. Paho (pronounced Pow) knows all about the outback. His khaki sleeves are rolled up to his elbows; his shirt tucked into khaki pants. The burnished brown of his face ignites his white teeth. If he were to hide in the desert, his cheery smile would give him away.
“The magical town of Todos Santos is the home of the hotel that’s surrounded by desert,” he says. “But, when you get near, it shimmers like an oasis.”
Since hitchhiking to California to see the Eagles play at Anaheim Stadium 36 years ago, my life has veered into the slow lane, where the band’s songs haunt the soundtrack of my life. As I vacation in Mexico’s Baja California Sur and hear there is a real Hotel California, even though I’m skeptical that it’s the one in the song, it beckons me like a ghost from the past.
Crazy? Maybe. It’s a pilgrim’s journey towards an urban legend—the one about the band staying at this hotel and turning those wild times into a song. Paho has shepherded many nostalgia-addled baby boomers along this two-hour dusty trail to the hotel that may be enshrined by a rock song. At worst, it’s a fun way to spend the day on Baja Outback’s Todos Santos Expedition.
Starting in Cabo San Lucas, we take the old Candelaria Road through the sun-blasted Sonoran Desert, winding our way past gnarled golden trees, slumbering roadside villages and thorny green cacti. The silver Hummer rumbles as it careens over ruts on the road and as we swerve upward toward the mountains, loose rocks tumble off the worn shoulders. The cacti raise their arms to the sky where, far above, a vulture sweeps like the black arm of a clock, its shadow tracing the sand around us.
We step outside the idling Hummer. Paho picks a leaf from the twisted limb of a Torote Colorado tree and passes a sharp smell, like mint, under my nostrils. He is a thoughtful guide, eager to explain the outback’s mysteries. “The gum of the tree is popular for scorpion bites,” he says. I leap back into the air-conditioned vehicle.
As we near Todos Santos, we hit Highway 19. The blacktop races past the blue Pacific where a few surfers break through the morning haze on cresting waves. I wonder, did Bernie Leadon, a surfer and guitar player who was in the first formation of the Eagles, ride these breaks?
Within minutes of pulling into town, I can see why Todos Santos is considered an art-lover’s dream; it’s home to a dozen galleries and a gourmand’s pick of upscale restaurants. With its history dating back to 1723, when Jesuits came to establish a regional outpost and its official designation as a Pueblo Mágico (Magical Town), Todos Santos can be an entrancing day trip. For those who want to stay longer, there are some 15 boutique-style hotels. The most fabled, however, is Hotel California, with its total of 11 rooms and suites, its 500-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, and its mysterious tie to the Eagles.
Elsewhere in town, at the cultural centre, a small display with newspaper clippings questions the link between the band, Todos Santos and Hotel California. The only thing people know for certain is someone once started a rumour about the Eagles being linked to the hotel in Todos Santos. The gossip gained momentum through the 1990s, attracting enough curious people to the town and the hotel that it continued to spread.
It even reached Richard Verrone, a history expert on pop-culture and 20th century America at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Tex., though he can’t recall how or when. Nonetheless, there is a hunger, he says, for these journeys.
“These kinds of treks are a fun way of exploring the mystery of what places such as Hotel California mean to us—even if we know it may not be the real location,” he says. “It can be a reconnection to our youth or, at least, to something that means a lot to us. And it’s exciting, because those who make the journey can tell their friends about it. They can say, ‘Maybe the Eagles were there, maybe not, but I was there.’ ”
When Paho and I pull up to the reddish-tan, Colonial-style exterior, unlike the song, no woman stands in the doorway. But right beside the hotel is a storied Jesuit mission with a bell at its top (“I heard the mission bell, and I was thinking to myself, this could be heaven or this could be hell…”). I want to believe this is a connection to the song. To find the truth, I decide to consult a magic spirit. Tequila.
In the hotel’s courtyard (“how they dance in the courtyard, sweet summer sweat”), a spectacled classical guitar player strums and sings Mexican music, though no one is cutting a rug. While I sip a red-rimmed jalapeno margarita, Debbie Stewart, the hotel’s owner originally from Surrey, B.C., explains that her late husband, John, who passed away in 2006, had a vision to create a special hotel that would be a little jewel in the desert.
I can’t help but ask about the Eagles.
“There is certainly a mystique with the title of Hotel California, but the song and the Eagles had nothing to do with our project,” she says. On its website, the hotel even refutes that the Eagles once owned the hotel and it discourages any association.
At first, I’m disappointed. I want it to be the home of “mirrors on the ceiling, the pink champagne on ice.” It’s been a great trip so far, but it’s a bit like buying a ticket to a concert that’s been cancelled.
The original Hotel California in Todos Santos opened in 1950 and it changed hands until the Stewarts purchased and completely renovated it. Inside, the hotel is boldly beautiful. The cosy, wood-beamed lobby, with its multi-hued chandelier, announces the art and vigorous colours that make the place so vibrant.
In 2002, the Stewarts enticed executive chef Dany Lamote to leave Calgary, where he pioneered Californian-Southwestern flavours at the city’s popular Cilantro restaurant. Now, he has opened his own bistro restaurant, Santo Vino, in Hotel California. He shops in local gardens, finding fresh passion fruit that he uses for cheesecakes and star fruit to garnish margaritas.
“I was looking for a new project to sink my teeth into and I’d known John when he was a customer at Cilantro, so Hotel California seemed right,” says Lamote, as I flip through the book he wrote about using tequila to enhance flavours, The Hotel California Tequila Cookbook. “The town’s quality of light for artists, the quietness toward the evening, the rustic nature and the peacefulness; it is a good fit for me.”
My back-to-back margaritas are blurring the courtyard and the sun is setting. On the way back to Cabo San Lucas, we are indeed on a dark desert highway, though it is air conditioning in my hair, not cool wind. After returning home, I contacted ex-Eagle Don Felder, who co-wrote the song "Hotel California" as the Eagles’ lead guitarist. The song was originally titled “Mexican Reggae” before the lyrics—but that’s the only connection to Mexico.
Felder confirms he and the Eagles never spent time at the Baja hotel, have no association with it, and the song is definitely not about the hotel. It’s about the mystical allure of life in California and Los Angeles, says Felder, now a solo performer whose shows are titled An Evening at the Hotel California.
“Someone spread the rumour that this hotel was where the Eagles hung out, but it’s not true,” he says. “So people make the trip from Cabo San Lucas thinking they will see the Eagles’ original Hotel California, but it’s not.”
For some, the journey to Hotel California can be a path to revisiting lost youth. For others, it’s simply a good time at the destination. For me, it was both. Paho says it best: “Hotel California is all about the experience.” If you choose to visit, the Hotel California in Todos Santos—like the mythical one in the song—never closes. You can check out any time you like, but you will likely never want to leave.