Getting to Know Baja’s Central Gulf Coast
by Ruth Bennett
Ruth Bennett, a long-time Mexico File subscriber, is a retired technology specialist and life-long nature enthusiast. She and her family are creating a new eco-sensitive community near Mulege in Baja California (see the classifieds). Ruth can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
You wouldn’t consider me a real Baja expat, or expert – not yet, anyway. The folks I know here on the beach at Bahia Santa Inés, Punta Chivato, on the Sea of Cortés side of Baja California Sur, have been living Baja-style for an average of five years – some as long as 18. Me, I’m a newcomer. More than ten years ago, I made two short trips to Hotel Punta Chivato, to shake off civilization and a marriage gone bad. Now I’m back to this “once seen, never forgotten” place, and now I’m staying. We’ve got a piece of land, a house in progress and a plan to live here full-time in the near future. I’ve learned a lot – where to find things, how to get things done, what to keep and what to dispense with, who to trust – and I’ve got lots more to learn.
If you’re at all familiar with this area of Baja – some 500 road-miles north of Los Cabos, 600 miles south of the US border – you’re a fortunate person. But if you’ve just found yourself wishing that Tucson, Arizona, had a bit more ocean frontage, then you might really like it here. This stretch of the peninsula’s eastern coastline on the Sea of Cortés still shelters the Baja of years past. It’s an almost mythical place of rugged mountains and palm-filled valleys, hardscrabble farms and ranches, tough, self-sufficient locals, and equally self-sufficient, but somewhat romantic, expatriates from all over the world – including mainland Mexico.
It’s not a tame place. It doesn’t like to be tended, trimmed or “fussed over” – nor do the people who live here. Yet it’s quite habitable, if you understand the terms and are flexible.
Punta Chivato and Bahia Santa Ines
Punta Chivato, my favorite place, is between the towns of Santa Rosalía and Mulegé (more about them later), and about five miles off Baja’s Transpeninsular Highway 1 on a well-maintained gravel road near the little hamlet of Palo Verde. Ask for directions before you head in, because most maps in the US are not up-to-date.
Naturalists, and amateur naturalists like me, love Punta Chivato and its bay, Bahia Santa Ines. Marine biologists study the life in its waters and those of neighboring Bahia Concepción. Desert ecologists follow the coyote trails into the cardonal, the groves of giant cardón cactus. Astronomers scan the clear night sky for comets and other celestial wonders. Geologists scramble around on the cliffs and promontories and write guidebooks for us to follow. (See the review of “Discovering the Geology of Baja California”, Markes Johnson, in the November, 2002 issue of Mexico File.)
Other folks with complimentary interests love this place, too. Fisher folk bring their boats and spend every day they can out on the Sea of Cortès in search of, catching, and often releasing, dorado and yellowtail. The sailboat people come in to the sheltered bay near the hotel to resupply and socialize with the beach folk. Pilots fly their small planes down for the pleasure of the trip over Baja’s beautiful scenery, followed by a few weeks or weekends of relaxation. RV-ers and campers head for the camping beach each year for a few weeks of rest and relaxation.
In the ten years since my early experience with Punta Chivato, change has come. Not a lot of change, but enough to give us cause for concern, and reason to examine our intentions in living here.
Ten years ago, the rustic, comfortable, affordable and always fascinating Hotel Punta Chivato was flanked by no more than a dozen homes. Once you passed the last house on the bay side, you could walk for six miles down the white, shell-strewn beach without seeing another soul and encountering anything more habitable than a fish camp.
Now, homes are scattered in pockets down the six-mile-long beach and there are more on the way. Our own little community, Costa Cardonal, of 14 homesites, though laid out carefully to minimize environmental damage, will add to the number. Managing this growth, and its impact on the land and resources, is our biggest challenge, and we hope to set an ecology-sensitive standard that others can look to.
Ten years after my stay there, the hotel has changed hands. While its old bones have been restored beautifully, it has become “exclusive” and expensive, and is now called “Posada de las Flores, Punta Chivato.” The locals don’t drop in for dinner much anymore – reservations and “proper attire” are required, and the prices are daunting.
But visitors are welcome to Punta Chivato. The beach is public (as are all coastlines in Mexico) and there are dozens of fascinating places to explore. While there is a small store near the hotel that sells essentials, it’s best to bring with you what you need for a picnic or an overnight stay. If you’re inclined to settle in awhile – and most folks can’t resist the miles of beaches, gorgeous vistas and fascinating hikes in the area – plan ahead to either camp at the camping beach, rent a local home, or stay at the hotel. A new motel is being constructed in the area, but little is known yet about its quality and opening date. And, as is so typical of Mexico, an intriguingly built but unfinished restaurant stands forlornly on the beach near the airstrip, waiting for funds or whatever. If you’re looking for the most up-to-date information on the Punta Chivato area, check its website ( www.PuntaChivato.com ).
Two “Frontier Towns” – Santa Rosalía and Mulegé
The best way – but not the only way – to see this stretch of coastline, its two major towns, Santa Rosalía and Mulegé as well as Punta Chivato, is to drive to it. A road trip in Baja is fascinating from one end to the other – and definitely doesn’t deserve the reputation for risk and ruggedness that it had in the past. On your trip down, you’ll drive along the Pacific coastline with its resort and agricultural towns, you’ll wind among the granite boulders and “boojums” in the central desert highlands, and pass the famous lagoons that are now preserves for grey whales. You’ll turn southeast and cut diagonally across Baja, through the Viscaino Desert, beautiful when carpeted with wildflowers. Finally, you’ll crest a rise and see the Sea of Cortés for the first time, deep blue and shimmering in the sun.
Within a few miles you have dropped down to sea level and are entering the old mining town of Santa Rosalía. Now, you must set aside your first impression that this is a rusty-dusty industrial town. There is character and history here. At the restored railroad engine, which once pulled trainloads of ore to the smelter, turn in to the town center.
Santa Rosalía is unlike any other town in Baja, and maybe all of Mexico. Its roots are in copper mining, and for that reason it more resembles Arizona mining towns – but with an international twist. The company founders were French, and the town takes on the character of an old French colony somewhere on the coast of North Africa, maybe. Many of the houses are made of wood, with tin roofs – supremely impractical materials for Baja and imported on the French mine owners’ ships from elsewhere. Two-story homes with second-story verandas line the narrow streets. Municipal buildings, the town library, the old hotel, and other original structures are decidedly French colonial.
The town’s history is also, sadly, colonial. For almost 70 years, since the opening of the mines near the turn of the century, exploitation was the name of the game. The small local population in and near Santa Rosalía was augmented with workers conscripted from the mainland to work in the mines. The work was grueling, wages were extremely low and the mining conditions were markedly unsafe and unhealthful. When the copper became unprofitable in the mid 50’s, the mines closed down, the mine owners and managers left for better circumstances, and the town settled back into obscurity. While the air became cleaner when the smelters shut down and the townspeople breathed easier, there was little work and less hope.
Now the town has revived. Its mining past has become “quaint and charming,” the gypsum mining on Isla San Marcos just offshore is thriving, the fishing industry has picked up, and there is a new geothermal power generation plant at the foot of the Tres Virgines volcano that is promising to supply a large quantity of clean electrical power to Baja.
Santa Rosalía is not a tourist “mecca” (although cruise ships are stopping a few times a year during the spring months). You’ll find far more Mexicans – children in their school uniforms, campesinos and rancheros in from the mountain arroyos, and professionals going about their businesses – than tourists. The occasional wind-blown sailboat owner from parts unknown may pass you on the street, or maybe a Punta Chivato resident in town for groceries, a trip to the bank, and a propane tank fill-up.
Santa Rosalía is a great town to walk through. Tackling it in a car can be challenging since the streets are narrow and organized on an alternating one-way-only grid – the establishment you’re heading for is always on the street going in the other direction. But, the whole of the town center is no more than six narrow, tree-lined streets wide and maybe twelve long. Park where you can, and set out on foot. You’ll find fascinating architecture everywhere, intriguing shops, stands selling all manner of refreshment, and friendly people – and, oh, how delightful are the children!
When you need a rest and something more substantial than a taco, stop in at one of these equally good restaurants. Restaurante El Muelle, near the central town square has an eclectic US-inspired interior and sells great Mexican seafood as well as pizza and hamburgers. Or try Tercos’ El Pollito Restaurant on your right just as you enter the town center, which has equally delicious seafood and other Mexican dishes.
And, if you’re looking for a way to communicate with the folks back home, Santa Rosalía now has at least three internet cafes! For between 15 and 20 pesos ($1.50 to $2.00 at the current exchange rate) per hour, you can pick up your email, send back your trip stories and photos, and check your bank balance. It’s also a great way to meet the town’s young people, who come there to work on school assignments and check in to their favorite chat rooms.
Santa Rosalía has the only banks in the vicinity. If you’re short of cash, there are ATMs available 24 hours a day at both of the town’s centrally located banks – Banamex and Bancomer. During bank hours, you can exchange US dollars and travelers checks for pesos. But, make sure you’re well supplied before you head south, because you won’t find another bank until you reach Loreto – three hours away. Mulegé has none.
Before you leave town, stop by “Panaderia El Boleo” and pick up some of their legendary baked goods, which have been made on the premises continuously for over 100 years. The crusty French rolls (boleos) are still made from the original recipe, and are sold beside their Mexican descendents – softer, slightly sweet. Pick up a bit of fresh Mexican cheese and a refreshing fruit “liquada” and you’re set for your trip on down the road to Punta Chivato and Mulegé.
But wait – on the other hand, you might consider staying overnight in Santa Rosalía. This town sparkles after dark. Little white lights twinkle everywhere – in trees, on balconies and building facades. Little shops that might have seemed dingy during the day are quite magical at night. And during much of the year, there’s an unforgettable light show that occurs just offshore. As evening falls, multitudes of small fishing boats set out from Santa Rosalía’s harbor and drop anchor within a mile of shore. As the stars come out, each boat turns on its light to attract the giant squid that inhabit the deep waters of the gulf. For the next several hours, hundreds of tiny lights bob on the sea, like marine fireflies. Slowly the boats return to the harbor with their catch of squid, and the lights wink out one by one.
In my opinion, the best lodging to be found along the entire central coast – as well as the best place to watch the marine fireflies – is “Hotel Las Casitas de Santa Rosalía,” newly opened and located on Highway 1 in the southern outskirts of Santa Rosalía. The five beautiful “casitas” are perched on the bluff directly above the sea, with balconies that afford gorgeous views. The rooms are beautifully decorated, with large comfortable beds, well-appointed bathrooms and luxurious showers. Brenda, an American who settled here a few years ago, manages everything with charm and expertise. Most rooms are priced around $40 US – a bargain for such supreme comfort and beauty. Don’t let the dusty frontage fool you – this is a hidden jewel!
Mulegé, about 40 miles south of Santa Rosalía on Highway 1 and 15 miles from the turnoff to Punta Chivato, is a different place altogether. You’ll appreciate the difference the moment you descend through multi-colored volcanic hills into Mulegé’s palm-filled valley.
Mulegé is an agricultural center for the locals, and a tourist center for visitors. The date palm-lined estuary that gives the Mulegé area its beauty is brackish, but is an indication of fresh water sources underground and upstream, where a wide valley supports local agriculture. Orchards of citrus and mango, and fields of vegetables, corn, beans, alfalfa and hay stretch across this valley.
Most visitors to Mulegé are struck by the deep, lush, shaded palm groves along the estuary. The palms are the descendents of date palms brought by the Spanish padres who claimed this valley from its small group of indigenous people and set about their colonization, indoctrination and exploitation. The mission church, which overlooks the palm groves and the estuary, was first constructed in the 1600’s, and remains in use today. It’s worth a visit for its austere architecture and for the gorgeous vista from a nearby viewpoint.
The town of Mulegé itself is located on the north side of the estuary and just above it. It’s a quintessential Baja town – dusty and bright in the sunlight, blocky from stone and concrete masonry, but filled with shady patios and alcoves and decorated with scarlet bouganvillea and yellow trumpet bush. In the ten years or so that I’ve been familiar with the town, it has hardly changed. The main streets are paved with asphalt now and aren’t quite so dusty, but the buildings and shops are just the same. Tourism, though a major contributor to the town’s economy, hasn’t brought the garish, plastic resort developments, with their desparate “got to sell that time-share” attitude, that have ruined Los Cabos further south. Mulegé is just inaccessible enough – and we residents of the area hope it remains that way.
Mulegé (pronounced “Moo-le-GHAY”) is another town to see on foot. The narrow streets are one-way and intersect each other at odd angles. You’ll find more businesses designed for tourists here than you’ll see in Santa Rosalía. There are more restaurants, more hotels and more artesan shops. There are grocery stores that cater to Americans – selling real butter, for example, and other items with their Costco labels still on them. There are tour companies offering kayak and diving trips to nearby Bahia Concepción and jeep and horseback trips to the cave paintings in the mountains. There are a number of fishing guides in the area who will take you out in search of the Sea of Cortés’ bounty, fishing, bird nesting sites and sea lion colonies.
And, as in Santa Rosalía, you’ll find one or two internet cafes catering to visitors and school children. There’s a post office in Mulegé, but not one bank. Remember, if you’re inclined to buy anything – and Mulegé has much to offer – pesos are almost universally required. Replenish your stash before you leave Santa Rosalía!
There are several restaurants in Mulegé that are worth a visit. A long-time favorite is “Los Equipales.” Set on the second floor, with windows that open wide to catch the breezes, it’s a lovely place to look out over Mulegé’s rooftops while you enjoy local seafood and traditional Mexican dishes. “El Candil,” also located in the town center, has recently been purchased by a highly respected local restaurant owner, Saul, and is offering great food in a bougainvillea-filled open-air patio. On the way out of town to the south, you’ll find Saul’s original restaurant, “Las Palapas,” a favorite with travellers with big rigs – commercial and RV – who can’t negotiate the small streets of Mulegé.
Accomodations in Mulegé haven’t changed much in the last ten years. Rumors of big resorts come and go – thankfully – but the old stand-bys are still there and still the best. Hotel Hacienda, in the town center, is old and quaint, with a traditional enclosed central patio. Las Casitas is charming and intimate with a good restaurant. Hotel Serenidad, just south of the town and just off of Highway 1, is a legendary place with its own airstrip and a fascinating, checkered history. All are within the $40-to-$60-per-night range.
Beautiful, but Endangered
The fifty-mile stretch between Santa Rosalía and Mulegé, which includes my home in Punta Chivato, is my favorite in all of Baja – in all of Mexico. Wild, dry, rugged, it coaxes a pioneer spirit from us. We love meeting the challenge of living here, but our real challenge is to leave it alone – to curb our human tendency to tamper with good things. In the last ten years, the Sea of Cortés has been opened up to commercial “factory” fishing. Long-lines, gill nets, trawlers and purse-seiners on an industrial scale have threatened many marine species – both intentionally and quasi-intentionally. Some long-lived species, such as sharks, turtles and manta rays, that grow up in the Sea of Cortés are often not making it to reproductive age. The food chain is disrupted in dozens of ways, and “nurseries” for the young of many species among mangroves and in estuaries are being destroyed to make way for yacht harbors and marinas. We are alarmed and outraged by these events, and fully support the efforts of the Sea of Cortés Foundation and other organizations that are bringing world attention to the problem. The Sea of Cortés has been called “the world’s aquarium” for the richness of its waters and the diversity of its life.
Equally, the deserts of Baja are magnificent in their uniqueness, with plants that have evolved in marvelous ways to accommodate and thrive in Baja’s rugged conditions. The cardón cactus and elephant trees store the water of infrequent rains and support themselves over years of drought if necessary. The rocky cliffs provide homes for owls and osprey, and the offshore islands shelter colonies of frigate birds, pelicans and terns. The coyotes, mountain lions and bobcats prowl the desert floor, and the ground is pocketed with the burrows of rabbits, mice, lizards and snakes. All are perfectly and uniquely adapted for life here.
We residents of Punta Chivato can choose to be either stewards or destroyers of this precious environment. We have the uniquely human ability to understand the past and apply it to the future. We can romantically, thoughtlessly, go about our destructive pioneering ways and wonder ten or twenty years down the road where all the things that attracted us to this place have gone. Or, as I and my family and friends choose to, we can manage our impact on this land and sea, allowing it to thrive in our presence.
I’m looking out across the blue-green waters of Bahia Santa Inés at the moment, and I’m hopeful.