The Illusion of Hotel California

(Song quotes by The Eagles)

There really is a Hotel California. A few, actually. We heard about this one while in Los Cabos, that exotic haven at the southern tip of Mexico’s thousand-mile peninsula, Baja California Sur. Los Cabos is affectionately called the Jewel of the Baja, or Land’s End, where the desert meets the sea. A business supplier affectionately flew my husband and I there to win our love for their products. It almost worked. For four days, we indulged in pristine sport fishing, golf, surfing, beaches, shopping and clubbing.

Puerto Paraiso Shopping Mall in Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur

On our last day, we decided to hit the road and see some real Mexico, the kind that didn’t make us feel like pampered wimps. In this escape from our stressed-out suburban life in North Florida, we wanted to find that ethereal truth that makes people abandon the rat race to live in a hut.

Los Cabos is an umbrella term for the fingernail of the Baja Peninsula. Its eastern end is marked by San Jose del Cabo, the western end by Cabo San Lucas. They are connected by a 25-kilometer, resort-studded route known as the Tourist Corridor. Frankly, this luxurious environment did not strike us as real Mexico.

Our rental car agent also was not real Mexico. He looked Mexican, but he counseled our sightseeing options with an American voice. Sure enough, he touted his Californian heritage—the U.S. one. But as a lover of Baja, he showed our current position on the map of The Tourist Corridor. That was us. Pampered tourists. Strategically planted in the Tourist Corridor. Getting advice on Mexico from a Mexican imposter. Tourism can be that way: wax museums, wildlife eating out of your hand, natives shedding their costumes at shift change.

The American voice droned on till we heard, “Or you can go up to Todos Santos and check out Hotel California.”

We perked up. The Hotel California? Was this the real place behind the Eagles' mystical song? Or was it the other way around? Maybe this Mexican landmark held some ethereal truth about Americans.

Hotel California Tequila

The agent handed us a local newspaper. A single advertisement consumed the entire front page. The ad displayed an amber bottle in the shape of an elongated teardrop, corked by what looked like a solid silver Hershey’s Kiss sitting upright. More silver wrapped the belly of the bottle with ornate carving and bold western font reading, “Hotel California Tequila.” In contrasting, flowing letters, the caption beckoned, “Taste the Legend.”

“Let’s do it,” smiled my husband, with a twinkle in his eye that revealed the air guitarist within him. I twinkled back with a guttural “Yeah.” From that point, our day took on an eerie parallel to the song.

There were voices down the corridor

I thought I heard them say

Welcome to the Hotel California

Such a lovely place Dead cow beside the highway

It was the last day of our vacation, so we couldn’t stay at the iconic hotel; but just having dinner there was well worth the one-hour treck. The drive alone to this bohemian hideaway is at least half the fun. A dead cow graced the highway on our way out of the Corridor. All four legs pointed stiffly forward like a toy the size of our rental car.

Outside of town, we passed cows and goats—live ones—who didn’t distinguish between the road and the surrounding desert. Live cow beside the highwayOne stately longhorn watched us go by as he lay in the shade of the only tree in sight. The only fence in fifty miles was a flimsy stick enclosure fooling ten ostriches into thinking they couldn’t knock it down; just in case, a plywood shanty stood guard outside the fence. Drink stand beside the highway

The map showed no towns between Los Cabos and Todos Santos. However, every five miles or so, roadside shanties offering beer and tequila spared us the desert's wrath.

Finally, linear mango groves and power lines told us we were near our destination. According to the brochure, “Todos Santos transfixes its visitors with enchanted walkways, blooming flowers, and art-laden galleries on every corner.”

Well, maybe not at five o’clock Sunday. Most doors were closed as we trolled through town. We saw more action in the desert. But soon we rounded a corner, and there, compromised between an open, empty, 19th-century mission and a boarded-up storefront, stood our ticket to Eagle-sized inspiration.

Welcome to the Hotel California

Such a lovely place

Two rectangular stories of terracotta stucco spanned two hundred feet of the brick street. Wide archways strung along each level, exposing stucco walls behind covered walkways. From each upstairs arch, white sheers billowed around green potted palms centered in the arches. In the space between the lower and upper arches, the same bold western font from the tequila bottle boomed onto the quiet street, Hotel California. A yellow 1979 Volkswagen bus parked on the street interfered with our photographs, but in its nostalgic, yellow-submarine way, it completed the façade.

Such a lovely face Foyer at Hotel California

We saw no sign of a restaurant or people, but through an open doorway, a charming, empty sitting area bid us welcome. I studied the ensemble, taking mental decorating notes. A rustic wooden bench with blood-red throw pillows on each end, contrasting the yellow wall behind them. In front of the bench crouched a rustic wood coffee table. It held the odd couple: a tall, cobalt tube sprouting ferns and hibiscus blossoms, married to an orange and red marbled sphere the size of a beach ball. Beside the bench, a fat candle burned under a lampshade topping a bedpost pedestal. Fabulous, dahling.

To the left, a walkway led through another wide arch, exposing an ornate Old West bar, fully stocked and fully abandoned. To the right, an area rug covered most of the stone tiled floor. From a rafter above, a bronze chandelier cradled flaming candles in glass votives. Reception desk at Hotel California

While I wondered who did the decorating, hubby wondered who did the greeting. He made his way to the tall oak desk that spanned most of the evergreen far wall. “They grow big here,” he smiled, stepping around a table holding a five-foot-wide flower of upholstery watermelon wedges. He looked for a bell, then pretended to whistle with his fingers. I shot him a ‘don’t you dare’ look and peeked into the empty bar, while he stood obediently at the empty desk.

Plenty of room at the Hotel California

We waited.

Any time of year

And waited.

You can find it here

House behind Hotel CaliforniaYep. We weren’t hungry yet anyway. We went back outside and wandered the empty streets. Behind the hotel, a short wall marked a dropoff to a backstreet neighborhood below. At the front of that community, a bare cinderblock home squatted under corrugated sheeting, spread across two-by-fours which stuck out both sides. A Dish Network satellite beamed from one of the two-by-fours. An old gray station wagon with a red cylinder light on top tried to hide beneath a layer of dust. I would have thought it was the Ghostbusters’ car, had I not seen that one preserved at Universal Studios in Orlando. Kids at a shanty snack bar

This little town was a far cry from Orlando. I wondered what is considered poverty level in Mexico. Branching off the brick street, a narrow dirt road stretched away into the trees. Homes of corrugated fiberglass sheeting lined the dirt road. The first, sporting a covered porch and a satellite dish, might have doubled as a store of some sort, from the looks of the four kids standing in a barefooted line at its doorway. They barely glanced at us, but their dog trotted up to check us out. For some reason, I was slightly surprised the kids didn’t greet us like celebrity Americans; I guess I was spoiled to being treated like a tourist down in Cabo.

After thirty minutes, we tried the hotel again. This time, we bypassed the front desk and the bar. We found a large, dark-haired man cutting vegetables in an exposed cooking area. A counter formed a wide semicircle around him with barstools for observers.

“Is this a restaurant?” Hub asked, gesturing like he was eating. Without speaking or smiling, the cook wiped his hands on a towel, disappeared for a minute, and came back with a younger, slim, dark-haired man.

“You want to eat?” he asked.

We nodded “yes” and “si.”

“I take you,” he said, turning and walking away. He didn’t smile, but he didn’t seem rude, either. We followed him further back, to a pebbled courtyard full of palms and tropical plants surrounding occasional sculptures and tables. Dining table at Hotel California

A wooden deck on one side of the courtyard held a few more small tables, and one large one which was elaborately set for eight, complete with candles. Thick white linens hanging twenty feet from the overhead beams were loosely tied with gold rope to jade columns at each corner of the deck. The young man sat us beside one of these columns. Nearby, a nude female Greek statue poured water into a basin that perpetually overflowed.

After placing our order, we spied on the only other people there: a man in his fifties with a white girl and a black girl, both beautiful; probably eighteen years old. As usual, my imagination got carried away.

Her mind is Tiffany twisted

She got the Mercedes bends

She's got a lot of pretty, pretty boys

She calls friends

The girls giggled and chatted, while he poured wine for them from a towel-wrapped bottle.

How they dance in the courtyard

Sweet summer sweat

Some dance to remember

Some dance to forget

It made me sad. I wanted a drink.

So I called up the Captain

Please bring me my wine

“Corona,” asked Hub, with a drinking gesture.

“White zinfandel?” I asked, with some senseless bottle gesture.

He said, We haven't had that spirit here since 1969

Fine. Corona. It’s easier to get than water there. I tried not to judge the older man or worry about the girls’ self-image. Women. Whatever.

And still those voices are calling from far away

Wake you up in the middle of the night

Just to hear them say

Welcome to the Hotel California

The food took forever.

They're livin' it up at the Hotel California

By the time the ménage à trois silenced us into melancholy, a smiling, gray-haired couple emerged from a door behind me. A glimpse of pink fabric flashed from within before the door closed again. Was that one of the hotel rooms? Were these guests? Clearly, these were the owners of the yellow submarine out front.

What a nice surprise

Bring your alibies

He wore baggy, torn, faded jeans, a loose tee shirt screen-printed with a faded American flag, flip flops, and a salt-and-pepper braid hanging halfway down his back. She wore a long, pale blue prairie skirt, floppy slides, and white tank top. They lived the seventies era, still today. The hotel was validation.

Mirrors on the ceiling

Pink champagne on ice

They clung to remants of their youth.

She said

We are all just prisoners here

Of our own device

I felt their attempt to identify with this hotel, and it seemed a bittersweet delusion. I questioned my own attempt to identify with it, and wondered again if this place had inspired the Eagles. It was eerie and beautiful and nestled in the stark reality of poverty; was that all? Tacos at Hotel California

Into my second Corona, our food came, as beautiful as our surroundings. Steak and shrimp tacos. Homemade flour tortillas. Piles of julienned vegetables and guacamole to stuff in them. Yum.

In the master's chambers

They gathered for the feast

Yuck. Tough shrimp. Soft, fleshy rubber – tough to chew. I gave up and moved on to the steak. Same thing. Even worse because of the longer strips to contend with. I held the taco to my face and tried to separate a bite by sawing the meat with my front teeth. Finally, I put down the rest of the taco, grabbed the steak strip, and ripped it apart.

They stab it with their steely knives

But they just can't kill the beast

As I chewed and chewed, trying to get it to a swallowable consistency, I realized there was no flavor in the meat. Or a different flavor. I didn’t recognize it. Do they eat dog in Mexico? Horse? I thought about spitting it into my cloth napkin, but I didn’t want to spoil Hub’s meal, too.

Last thing I remember

I was running for the door

No really, I walked. Nonchalantly. I looked for the bathroom so I could discreetly dispose of the mystery meat in my mouth. I found it behind a barn-style door off the courtyard. The interior was so pristine I didn’t want to disturb even the elegant wastebasket with my discard. I flushed it down the toilet, then returned and had veggie tacos. The waiter never came back to see if everything was alright.

I had to find the passage back to the place I was before

I was ready to go back. Back to the Tourist Corridor, where everyone you pass says Buenos Dias with a big smile. Where an Andes Candy waited on my pillow with a card that said Dulces Suenos, Sweet Dreams. The Hotel California waiter never asked how our meal was, or if we wanted anything else, and I didn’t want to attempt any more Spanglish with him. When he reappeared, we asked for the check.

Relax said the nightman

We are programmed to receive

The waiter disappeared again, and we waited again. Ten minutes went by.

You can check out any time you like

We went back inside to the cooking bar; it was empty. The drinking bar was empty. We waited.

But you can never leave

Finally, the cook appeared with a towel in his hands and rounded up the waiter. Good ol' Cookie. We handed over our pesos and returned to the highway we came in on. We stopped off at Fisherman's Beach to catch the sunset, then drove through the night air in silent contemplation of the end of our vacation.

On a dark desert highway

Our day’s quest for magic had been disappointing. Succumbing to reality, my eyes maintained a death grip on the cone of visibility in front of the Corolla. The 90kph speed limit didn't accommodate Highway Nineteen's broken pavement, hills, curves, and livestock who claimed equal rights to the road. Every few miles, the reflective Mex-19 and cow-crossing signs tempted my eyes from obstacle guard duty. I tried to relax.

Cool wind in my hair

As we drove, I remembered the chilly breeze we had just endured at Fisherman’s Beach. A gas station attendant in Todos Santos had granted our request for an ocean sunset with a bright smile. He said, “After the last speed bump, count one and a half kilometers, and turn right on the dirt road; then follow it to the ocean.” House on a hill near Fisherman's Beach

If anything was trickier than Mex-19, it was the road to Fisherman’s Beach. Our exhausted Corolla wanted to take a nap in the deep sand ruts, so we had to speed past the weathered black shoes hanging from the barbed-wire fence that lined our path, all the while hoping to God another vehicle didn’t appear around a bend, hidden by the truck-high brush. We managed, however, to get a good view of another example of simplistic living: a bare cinderblock dwelling up on a hill. It didn’t seem to have windows or electricity, but still impressive compared to the make-shift shacks we’d seen throughout the state. I wondered what it would be like to live here, without traffic and neighbors and superstores. I could get a lot of writing done. Would my Nextel work out here? DSL? Men fishing at Fisherman's Beach

When we emerged from the scrubby dunes, we had rolled onto a beach about the length of a football field, bound on one side by a cluster of rocky cliffs, and on the other by a ten-foot high sand dune. Off to the left, a band of cars and coolers indicated a gathering, which, from the stares of the Latin women and children around them, we seemed to have intruded upon. We parked a respectable outsider’s distance away and trudged to the edge of the dune, asserting our foreign rights to the sunset.

Five or six men stood out by the shore, several yards away from each other. The men paid no attention to us, but we couldn’t keep our eyes off them as they swung fishing lines like lassos over their heads and cast them into the surf. I fantasized they enjoyed an audience. We pried our eyes away to watch our good ol’ familiar sun drop as fast as the second hand on a watch, till it poured into the Pacific. Cow-crossing sign on Highway 19

Headlights in the side mirror snapped me back to attention on the dark road; the lights appeared and disappeared over the hills behind us. Within about thirty seconds, they rode our tail and swerved to get a peek around our car at the road ahead. There was nothing for them to see except more curves and hills. Their erratic behavior disturbed the peace of the desert. From the large size and height of the lights, I decided it was a monster truck on its way to party in Cabo.

Cabo San Lucas claims to be one of the hottest party towns in North America—yes, that’s what it claims—offering such night clubs as the Nowhere Bar, El Squid Roe, and Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo, all of which play dance beats till dawn. Our previous night’s experience with Cabo Wabo had been cut short when the DJ asked for contributions to Sammy’s bra collection hanging from the rafters. The crowd suddenly took up more space than was available, so we had joined the swarms of people outside wandering the five blocks of street vendors, tequila shops and night clubs without walls. As we wandered, a boy about nine years old tugged my elbow,

“Pretty lady. Pretty lady. You like dolphin?” He pushed a trinket into my hand. I looked at the carved dolphin that looked like jade, big enough to take on a dung beetle. “I have whole family.” He approached a cocktail table at the café we stood near, and proceeded to set up the family of seven dolphins, all in gradually smaller sizes, lined up on the edge of the table. “Fifteen American dolla. Whole family. You like turtle?” Within ten seconds, he had another family of tan, marbled turtles lined up. “You like donkey?” He unwrapped each trinket from its own ball of tissue, families grouped in baggies, his whole stash in a plastic grocery bag hanging from his arm. “Two family twenty dolla.” Hub and I looked over the boys head at each other’s eyes, weighing the knowledge that the kid was sent by some adult, and probably wouldn’t receive much, if any, of the proceeds. I had decided the experience alone was worth thirty dolla, and came away with a family of each. My thoughts returned to the monster lights swerving behind us on the dark road.

Warm smell of colitas

Rising up through the air

Colitas. Marijuana. Of course, that would explain those headlights barreling past us on a combination curve-hill with no view ahead. It turned out to be a charter bus. I guess the locals know what they’re doing more than we do. A few miles later, we slowed down to approach a couple of cars who had stopped to shoo some goats out of the road; the bus was nowhere in sight. Soon, we cruised alone on the road again.

Up ahead in the distance

I saw a shimmering light

As it drew nearer, I recognized it as an extravagant shrine we had passed earlier that day.

Small shrine on Highway 19Roadside shrines had cast a surreal aura over our entire visit to Cabo. The first, across the road from the palatial entrance to our resort, consisted of a mound of dirt about two feet wide and one foot tall, topped with two sticks tied together to form a cross. I thought it was a statement about the gluttony the resort represented in an impoverished country. Maybe I got that idea from the resort's next-door neighbor: a littered lot, home to a shanty of four sheets of plywood attached to the back of an old blue pickup truck, complete with a matching blue sheet for a doorway. It helps that Baja only gets five days of rain per year. So anyway, I thought the first shrine was a political statement.Shrine for baby on Highway 19

Soon after the first, however, I had seen another shrine — a small mound of stones, a cross made from three-inch boards nailed together. I had seen several each day, each one more evolved than the last, some forming what looked like dog houses, out of plywood, stone or brick.

This one, however, could almost hold a church service. Its white stucco walls reached eight feet toward the sky, then angled in toward each other, meeting at the two-foot steeple and cross that crowned it. Now illuminated in the desert nighttime, it beckoned with a bright glow pushing back the dark.

My head grew heavy, and my sight grew dim

I had to stop for the night

Baby picture in shrine on Highway 19We pulled over. The Pacific breezes blanket the peninsula in a nighttime chill. Barefoot, I tiptoed quickly across the cold gravel toward the shrine; a wave of warmth reached out to pull me inside. The heat came from over a hundred white candles burning along the tiered interior walls. An iron gate blocked off the back half of the tiny room, protecting an altar of baby clothes and toys. Above the array, an eight-by-ten photo of a dark-haired baby grinned curiously at me, her eyes sparkling against her silver stud earrings. Baby clothes in shrine on Highway 19

There she stood in the doorway

I heard the mission bell

I later learned some of these drive-by shrines were placed by grateful people expressing thanks for their continued existence on our green earth. Some are chapels dedicated to the professional truck drivers of the dangerous Mexican highway system. These are usually located on clearings near dangerous mountain curves. Bus drivers might want to take notice. Most shrines, however, are memorials to family members and friends who died in traffic accidents or through violent acts.

And I was thinking to myself

This could be Heaven or this could be Hell

My eyes watered as I looked around at the christening gown hanging from the wall, knitted booties hanging opposite, several baby items hanging from the iron gate. I couldn’t move for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, I took a long stick from the jar that sat among the candles.

Then she lit up a candle

And she showed me the way

Borrowing flame from a lit candle to revive a dead one, I knew I had found the truth.

The meaning that no hotel or song or alcohol could offer.

Turning reluctantly, I noticed a broom leaning in the corner of the front wall, and a manila folder full of papers. They were copies of something like a letter, or one-page essay, in Spanish. I couldn’t read it, but I took one because it was put there for me. To remind me that reality should be illuminated, not illusioned.

May 2005