Todos Santos, a sleepy desert town near the tip of the Baja California Sur peninsula, is well-known to conscious vacation go-getters. From its stunning beaches, whale watching, and surfing, to artist enclaves, farm-to-table restaurants, historical buildings, and a rich wildlife ecosystem. It’s a destination getaway for peace and tranquility, yet close to modern amenities and activities if you’re looking for something interesting to do.
In the centre of it all, Culinary Nutrition Expert Nilú Feregrino is trailblazing a new path to conscious vacations with her brand-new boutique hotel and cooking studio. A mere six years ago, Nilú barely knew how to cook. Now, she and her husband run a plant-based, environmentally friendly getaway where she teaches cooking classes.
“Most of the time, I’m talking to the guests about what I learned in culinary nutrition school,” she says. “I love my guests and my students, and I love to share what I know.”
Finding the courage to cook
Photo: Ashlie René
Nilú has always loved eating, but felt completely lost in the kitchen. Her husband, a talented home cook, prepared the household meals and she never imagined that one day she could, too.
“I thought only Grandmas knew how to cook,” she laughs. “I felt that I didn’t have the talent, it was too difficult, and I didn’t even know where to start. It was very challenging.”
A move from Milan, Italy to San Francisco was life-changing in more ways than one, especially when it came to the food. Nilú discovered local farmer’s markets, fresh produce she’d never tried before and delicious plant-based restaurants. Living in a health-conscious city, Nilú was inspired to learn more about nutrition.
As she searched for both online and in-person programs, she couldn’t quite find the right fit – until she came across the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program.
“When I discovered the Academy of Culinary Nutrition I went, ‘Oh my god. This is what I really want’. I couldn’t find another course like it,” Nilú says. “It brings together a perfect blend of nutrition and cooking.”
Developing a brand-new skill set
Photo: Ashlie René
Nilú joined the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program in 2016 and threw herself into the experience. She adored learning cooking techniques and discovering new ingredients and flavours, plus she appreciated the professional structure of the program and its assignments that pushed her to newfound heights.
“It was awesome from the first minute until the end. I still miss it,” she says.
Nilú was four months pregnant when the program began and credits the program’s recipe assignments and wisdom for helping her experience a healthy pregnancy, too.
As each week passed, Nilú’s confidence in her ability to cook grew exponentially.
“I learned to cook, and I was amazed at that,” she says. “I felt very empowered, and now I no longer feel afraid of cooking.”
And by the end of the program, Nilú’s husband stopped cooking entirely because he adored the new style of food she learned to prepare in the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program.
“I learned to cook, and I was amazed at that. I felt very empowered, and now I no longer feel afraid of cooking.”
Establishing a boutique hotel and disrupting the all-inclusive vacation industry
Photo: Ashlie René
During the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program Nilú felt compelled to educate others, and dreamed of building an in-person school where she could teach the basics of cooking for health.
After finding the perfect plot of land in Todos Santos, Nilú and her husband began to build their boutique hotel, Desierto Azul, in March 2020. They sought to create a restorative, rejuvenating place, as well as provide a drastically unique experience from the typical all-inclusive resort.
Constructing a sustainable, organic and eco-friendly hotel outside the norms of the industry was no easy feat, and Nilú found herself educating people much earlier than planned. From tradespeople to suppliers to potential employees, Nilú explained her vision and why it was important to her to make intentional choices, even when there were much cheaper options.
Desierto Azul’s health-building amenities include organic food, organic bedding and towels, a mineral-rich water filtration system throughout the building (you can drink water in your shower!), non-toxic body care and cleaning products, and a saltwater pool that is free of any harsh chemicals.
The entire hotel is solar powered, has a low-water garden of local plants, and they reuse wastewater for irrigation. Since the property has a comprehensive filtration system, there is no need to drink from packaged, plastic water bottles.
“People are so grateful to find a place that cares about all of this. It’s a lot of effort, but it’s worth it.”
Amid the challenges, every so often Nilú and her husband wondered late at night if all the extra effort, expense and resourcefulness was worthwhile. But they kept returning to their vision, and their great desire to help guests build health. And once the hotel welcomed its first visitors, the impact on them was immediate and profound.
“You arrive to our hotel and you feel different,” she says. “When they have our breakfast, when they take a shower with our natural products, when they taste the difference in our water and feel it in the pool, with the feel of the towels and linens, they say, ‘Oh my god, this is good’. People are so grateful to find a place that cares about all of this. It’s a lot of effort, but it’s worth it.”
Establishing a cooking studio using Certified Instructor classes
Photo: Jo Portia
After Desierto Azul opened in November 2021, Nilú began to build a separate cooking studio to hold classes for both guests and locals.
Between running a hotel and being a mom to two young children, Nilú didn’t have a lot of extra time to develop cooking class materials. Since she wanted to teach quality, professional-level classes, deciding to become an Academy of Culinary Nutrition Certified Instructor was a no-brainer for Nilú. With nine done-for-you classes, as a certified instructor Nilú is thrilled to have many options to teach.
“They are so well planned, and they have everything step by step. It was just the right choice to start,” she says. “It saved me a lot of headaches.”
Desierto Azul’s plant-based cooking studio opened in July 2022, and is open to hotel visitors and the general public (in fact, other hotels and AirBnb hosts frequently refer their guests to Nilú’s classes). She teaches classes in English and Spanish, to both large groups and offers private lessons.
“It’s going great, and people love them,” she says. “Many of my guests arrive not knowing how to cook, and by the end of the lesson, they know how. It’s important for me to empower them because I know where they’re coming from.”
“Many of my guests arrive not knowing how to cook and by the end of the lesson they know how. It’s important for me to empower them because I know where they’re coming from.”
And the cooking studio is only the first step of Nilú’s plan for Desierto Azul’s growth. She plans to open a café on site, and eventually expand the hotel so they can accommodate retreats, festivals and events.
Her ultimate goal is to help transform Todos Santos into the health capital of Mexico. She envisions Desierto Azul as a hub for health and wellbeing, and a hotel that attracts the best talent across Mexico and internationally to come and share their wisdom.
“We’re not doing this to get rich,” Nilú says. “We put all of our hearts, and all of our knowledge (and all of our savings) into this project. We want to do it because we love this. It’s not about how much you earn, it’s about doing what you enjoy and sharing it with others.”
Header Image: Fabrizio Cavallo