By Greg Niemann
Still a legendary Baja place, the Cielito Lindo Hotel, Restaurant, Bar and RV Park in San Quintín at one time was also a mini-zoo thanks to the owners’ penchant for animals which strolled the grounds unfettered.
South of San Quintín, just a few hundred yards inland from the sand dunes and the broad, sweeping beach called Playa Santa Maria, an airstrip and few buildings were built and the place was named Rancho El Manana. Owned by Italians, the El Manana enterprise was allegedly used to smuggle illegal booze and also illegal Italians for that matter into southern California.
In the late 1960s it went Hollywood. Mark Armistead, producer and inventor of television’s Instant Replay, bought the Rancho and it became a hideaway for a number of his celebrity friends. John Wayne, John Huston, Ward Bond and Henry Fonda were among the Hollywood luminaries who sought refuge at the beach hideaway.
Armistead even designed the rustic bar and restaurant, which are still in use and little changed, after his favorite Newport Beach, California watering hole at the time.
An ad in the Wall Street Journal
By 1975, Highway #1 had opened and an El Presidente Hotel (now Hotel Misión Santa Maria) was constructed just a quarter mile down the beach. Feeling that too many people were in the area, Armistead’s refuge no longer held the same attraction for him. He looked to sell and providence was his as he thumbed through the Wall Street Journal one day and saw the following ad:
“Wanted: Nice place to raise kids. I need a 2 or 3 bedroom house or ??? in Mexico. Call Juanita”
He called and met Juanita Fitzpatrick who had placed the ad. Soon Cielito Lindo (Pretty Little Heaven) would be hers, and the animals would follow.
Cielito Lindo, along with the historic bar, motel, airstrip and RV park, offered a restaurant whose specialty was a messy but tasty Cracked Crab dinner (now called Crab with Paprika), in fact there are devotees who claimed the restaurant served the best Blue Shell Crab dinner on the Pacific Coast.
The animals were part of the lore of Cielito Lindo. Back in 1999, my fishing buddy Don Lund and I learned about the animals a little at a time. Shortly after check-in, a goat crossed in front of us as we walked across the lawn to our room. I looked back to reassure myself that this was indeed a motel. I then noticed a couple of miniature burros munching alfalfa in a small pen against the building.
Ahead, resting against the fountain in the center of the compound was the owner Juanita talking to another guest. Just then two peacocks strolled by. A larger colorful male, with puffed chest and full plumage, and a smaller female slowly strutted past us with the assurance of propriety. They knew it was their turf.
“Nice peacocks,” I said as the large bright birds continued around the bend.
“Thanks. They add a lot around here,” the friendly down-to-earth woman commented with a contented grin.
The other woman broke into a chuckle and added, “You ain’t seen Porky yet!”
Juanita beamed with pride. “Yeah, my pot-bellied pig,” Juanita added. “Everybody loves Porky. He’s such a dear.”
Deer? I half expected to see antlers popping out of the bushes surrounding this strange motel until I realized she was still talking about Porky.
“Sounds great,” I said. “With the animals this place has become so interesting. It’s been years since I’ve been here.”
Huge numbers on motel doors
Don and I chatted a little more with them about the menagerie and then headed across the lawn toward our room. Now I couldn’t miss the room as each door has a huge room number painted on it. It is so large you could spot your room from an airplane flying in (There is the small airstrip behind the Cielito Lindo). I suppose the two-foot-high number also might aid those errant souls who stay in the bar too long.
As we reached the door to our room, Juanita’s husband David approached and asked us to come on over to their house when we had a chance. “I want to show you something,” he said like a child withholding a surprise.
Don and I joined him at the larger house on the other side of the courtyard. We entered and I was immediately impressed with the floor, shiny and dramatic with square blocks of polished onyx. They also were extant throughout our large motel room. But it was not the floor he wanted us to see.
Rather it was what was on the floor. After pointing out an immense “doggy door,” he took us into the bedroom where curled up on cushions at the foot of the master bed was a huge black pig.
“This is Porky,” David said as he began to massage the swine’s considerable belly. Porky snorted a little and continued to wallow in its luxurious “pen.” “He loves to be petted,” said David beaming almost with parental pride.
I gave Porky a good rub
Okay! I reached down and touched the beast’s snout. Then, I moved my hand to his stomach and gave Porky a good rub. He liked it. Like my former dog Taco, he tried to shift a little to maximize the treatment. “Nice,” I said tentatively, afraid there might be a boa constrictor in the closet.
As we walked outside, David explained that the 200-pound pig was house broken and a real member of the family. As if I couldn’t tell. (In fact, for years “porkypig” was the on-line handle for Dave and Juanita in a popular Baja forum.)
The twilight sky was filled with small birds, pumping and twitting their small wings and flying in almost corkscrew fashion about the grounds. They looked like the square-tailed cliff swallows of the San Juan Capistrano Mission legend. “Swallows,” confirmed David, explaining that the swallows arrive at their San Quintín reverie about a week before their heralded March 17 appearance at Capistrano some 275 miles farther north.
As the small birds darted this way and that, I could see their mud homes constructed under the eaves of several motel rooms. David beamed, “We like ‘em. When we paint, we even paint around their homes. In fact, the mosquito population drops to zero once they arrive.
“I tried to attract bats to stay here when the swallows go south, but they didn’t seem to appreciate the homes I built for them,” he continued as darkness enveloped the area. Fickle bats.
Before we left, David pointed to a small house being constructed on a nearby lot. “Now that it’s just us, we’re going to move to that smaller house being built over there.” He went on to explain that it would be similar to the environmentally conscious buildings that Roy Mahoof and Becky Aparicio had built at Eco Mundo, south of Mulege. That is, made out of bales of straw and mud.
But with Porky around, I don’t know if I’d want a straw house. What was it about that legend of the three little pigs? Apparently, it was not a problem as the house was finished not long thereafter.
According to a March 2001 e-mail from Juanita, “Dave and I have finally retired to our straw bale house here at Rancho Cielito Lindo with Poncho our dog, Porky Pig, and Charlie cat. Esteban Valdez Espinoza has purchased the 12-acre business portion of the rancho and has taken over its operation. This portion is basically the bar and restaurant, motel, RV and camping area, and the big house. Dave and I will still be running the rest of the 400 acres including homesites and monthly RV sites.”
2023 Note: Juanita and David had made major renovations to the place and then helped Esteban manage Cielito Lindo until it sold again in 2010. With new owners the animal population began its decline. Porky went to that big sty in the sky and “Baby,” the burro that delighted children by pulling a cart around the property, died of old age in 2012.
While its zoo-inspired days are gone, Cielito Lindo today is an historic slice of vintage Baja that still offers good food, camaraderie, and comfortable, affordable rooms.
Greg Niemann, a long-time Baja writer, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit www.gregniemann.com.