Jack's Baja Travel Stories

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By JACK DANYLCHUK

The last cirio in Baja, or the first if you're headed north, is not at Bahia Los Angeles, where Joseph Wood Krutch placed it. It is far to the south, on a ridge high above Rancho San Antonio. It stands alone, across a sere alta plano from another ridge where a line of cirio rise like wisps of smoke made solid in the desert air.

That's what comes of touring the peninsula in a private plane or four wheel drive truck, as Krutch did. You arrive at your destination less worse for wear, but with ill-informed conclusions, like the range of the cirio, that strangest of all the strange flora to be seen in Baja California.

On a bicycle, you get a close look. But you also need a road and there was no road into the Sierra San Francisco 40 years ago, when Krutch gathered the material for his book, The Forgotten Peninsula. Much of Baja was accessible only by mule or burro. That still holds true for Rancho San Antonio.

Since the trans-peninsular highway opened in 1973 many of the old trails that crisscrossed Baja have been built up to the standard of rugged fire roads. Krutch anticipated the change and fretted over the future of fragile ecosystems in the desert, sierra and the coastal salt marshes.

Journeys by mule and burro that required several days have been reduced to mere hours. Better roads have encouraged ranchers to expand their herds on what is at best marginal land and allow the army to truck potable water to remote villages high in the sierra. What's good for a half-ton truck also works just as well for a mountain bike.

Viewed from a high-flying jet, the heart of the Sierra San Francisco appears as the vast caldera of a silent volcano. Deep arroyos that fall away from ragged peaks and high mesas on their way to the Pacific or the Sea of Cortes hide caves and great murals painted by the hands of a long-vanished people. It remains a wild place and has been designated by the United Nations as a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site.

In the pre-dawn darkness at Vizcaino where the bus dropped me after sailing through my stop at San Ignacio, a handful of truck drivers gathered to watch as I sorted gear and assembled my bike. Where was I going? San Francisco, across to Santa Marta, then to San Ignacio.

"Santa Marta," one said, and grinned, and held his hand at an angle to indicate the radical descent. They shook their heads. Another crazy gringo.

Creosote is the smell of the desert. But here, in one of the driest corners of Baja, the air was suffused with the mineral odour of water. A dense sea fog drifted among the ocotillo and yucca. Traffic was almost at a standstill. Two hours later, when I looked back from the toe of a ridge that climbs into the Sierra, much of the Vizacaino desert was still under a heavy, white blanket.

A crew of ranchers was busy filling potholes and they extended a welcome. Tourists seldom venture here, except to view the rock paintings and guide fees are an important source of cash in the Sierra. They were disappointed to hear that I lacked a permit to visit one of the great mural sites, which are in a deep arroyo, three days ride by burro from San Francisco.

Within sight of San Francisco, the road passes by a small painted cave. It is closed off to discourage pilfering that plagues such sites, but the fence sagged in one place and I scrambled over. The cave wall is overlaid with images that create an illusion of time in motion. Experts dismiss it as one of the least spectacular, but the site has one unique feature - the representation of a large, black feline.

The caves were known to the first settlers, forgotten by the outside world and then rediscovered. Mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner documented his personal adventure with the paintings in "The Hidden Heart of Baja." The best popular book on the subject is Harry Crosby's "The Cave Paintings of Baja California."

I rolled out my tent on a mesa just below the summit, where a colony of barrel cactus worshipped at the feet of a column of cirio that marched along the lip of a deep arroyo. Far below, a small oasis gleamed. A covey of quail burst from cover and fled before a kestrel that materialized out of the blue. The sun dropped into the Pacific and stars flooded into a sky swept clear of clouds by a brisk December wind.

San Francisco is a collection of weathered houses gathered around a one-room school. Santa Marta was six hours away by a narrow trail, and best negotiated on foot with a burro to carry any burden, according to the man who refilled my water bottles.

"It's for a mule, not for a bicycle," he said.

I recalled a story I had heard in San Ignacio. It was a New Year's Day tradition, I had been told, to hike up from Santa Marta. I had a mental picture of well-lubricated celebrants weaving up a steep, narrow trail, and then strolling another 10 km to San Francisco. How tough could it be?

Tough enough, if you take a wrong turn. I was well launched on the wrong road before I discovered my error. I found a clear spot on a rocky slope and settled in for another night under the stars. There was much laughter when I returned to San Francisco in the morning for more water. I had stumbled on to an obscure and difficult trail that leads to a ranch hidden in a deep arroyo.

The trail to Santa Marta is polished into the bare rock. Narrow, strewn with broken cobbles and cholla spines that punctured my tires, it twisted across a steep slope and down to Rancho San Antonio. The day was spent portaging gear toward a faint line drawn up the far side of the alta plano, where the trail plunges 700 meters down to Santa Marta.

I camped in the shelter of a rock wall, at the edge of the ridge. Three dogs crept to my fire. Looking for food, I thought, but they were there to meet their master. From the shadows below came a clatter of hooves. Four burros appeared, urged up the steep, narrow staircase worn deep into the rock. The jefe of Rancho San Antonio, leading a magnificent white mule, followed close behind.

Enrique Arce offered a hand that was smooth, hard and cool as stone in leather. The dogs wriggled about his legs as he welcomed me to the ranch that has been in his family for more than 100 years. San Antonio is a dry ranch, he explained. The burros were laden with water drawn from a well in Santa Marta, and brought up once a week over the ancient trail.

Owls still called from the shadows when I began my decent, working down the steep, narrow path in relays. Blurred images of wild sheep drawn in red ochre pranced across a sheer wall far below the summit of the pass where contemporary travelers have cut a small shrine into the rock. The valley spread out below, covered in a gray-green nap of cactus and mesquite.

Three hours later, I filled my water bottles in Santa Marta and turned on to the only road to Mexico 1. The maps I consulted warned that it was at least as rugged as the way up to San Francisco. What I found was a long down-hill run over a trail of white sand, most of it so firm and smooth that the road might have been concrete.

By late afternoon I was standing under a hot shower in San Ignacio, trying to decide between a cold beer or an icy Margarita, feeling my bones absorb the ease and indolence of the oasis. In the morning I loaded my bike on the bus for LaPaz and settled in to a window seat for a day of passive sight-seeing.

By JACK DANYLCHUK

Here's a sanity test for middle aged men. Take a winter holiday in the hot latitudes, and add a choice: a week in a seaside hotel, or a bicycle ride along a rugged coast, over a mountain pass and into a maze of canyons where military patrols hunt for drug runners.

This came to me on the final leg of a three-day ramble through Baja California Sur, as I bounced over sandy washboard toward a rendezvous with a bus that would return me to the comforts of LaPaz.

I wished for the cool oasis far behind me in a deep fold of the Sierra Giganta, where the range presses against the soft curve of the Bay of La Paz. Instead, a small truck packed with battered sound equipment rattled up beside me.

"What's happening friend?" the driver asked, peering out through eyes so bloodshot and yellow that they seemed to glow like pools of molten sulfur. One of his companions inhaled deeply from a can of gasoline cradled in his lap.

It was at that point, with about 30 km of desert simmering between me and Mexico 1, that the test took shape.

What the hell was happening? Why was I there?

I'm an avid cyclist, so rain and snow don't stop me - but warm and dry is better. Baja California's exotic landscape resembles a vast mountain bike park and charter flights make it accessible and relatively inexpensive. Over the past decade I've bounced over many of the mountain roads shown on maps of the peninsula, and a few known only to local ranchers. The north end of the Bay of La Paz was one corner I had yet to explore.

The first day was easy. I left La Paz with no firm plan other than to head for San Evaristo, a fish camp about 120 km north of the capital, at the top end of the bay that resembles a large fish hook. My map showed an old mission site on the only road that led west over the mountains. I added it to the itinerary and rolled along the smooth, empty highway that swoops through dreamscape spumoni cliffs of pink and green.

Camped that night beneath an ancient mesquite, I watched the faint glow of the city on the horizon, just beyond the southern reach of Isla Espiritu Santu. Navigation beacons winked from Isla San Jose. Kayakers are warned against camping on the island, lest they run into smugglers who also appreciate the silence and solitude of its pristine beaches.

The camp site had been used often. There were several old fire rings and beneath the tree was a small cache of canned tuna and mixed vegetables - basic ingredients for a cold salad that fishermen and ranchers devour with a splash of salsa piquante. I rolled up some burritos - flour tortillas warmed over the fire and filled with dried meat, tomato, onion and chilies.

The character of the ride changed the next day as a procession of rugged headlands cinched the road down to a rutted trail that struggled up rocky switchbacks and plunged into deep arroyos. Pinon jays called from the palo blanco and there was a flash of crimson from the flight line of a cardinal.

Waiting at the bottom of a dry gulch was a platoon of soldiers, smartly turned out in the olive green of the Mexican army. Under the command of a smiling, bespectacled lieutenant, lean and wolfish young recruits concealed a wire that snaked across the road.

They were after drug runners, and never mind the cynics in La Paz who scoff that the real purpose of the army patrols is to make sure that the contraband gets to the right people. Bails of marijuana wash up on the remote beaches of the bay and cocaine seems to be everywhere, even in the quiet ranch towns of the peninsula.

My average speed was down to just10 km/h when I turned off at the sign for El Bosque, the first ranch on the west side of the Sierra Giganta. Three hours later I was standing on the divide, looking down at a wedge of ocean cupped by the rocky hills. I had come six km and was just 600 meters above sea level, but felt as though I had scaled Everest.

The road bounced down the western slope until it found the lip of a canyon where ancient water pools at the feet of fan palms. It rolled past the gates of tidy ranches, the houses built of adobe and palm thatch seemed to grow out of hardpan. The yards were swept clean of litter where scorpions like to hide.

At Soledad, a herd of curious cows gathered to watch as I pitched my tent in a grove of mesquite. The rancher on whose land I spent the night, stopped by to introduce. himself. Marco Antonio was there to check me out. We were only 150 km from LaPaz, but travelers are few. The village is home to a residential school that draws students from isolated ranches throughout that corner of the sierra and he wanted to be sure that I wasn't a drug dealer.

Time and neglect long ago dissolved the mission that drew me into the sierra. Nothing remained but a mound of ruddy mud. Beyond the last of the oasis villages, the road climbed out of the canyon lands and over the hard cap of lava rock that overlays the high mesas.

Out on the hot, arid plain that tilts toward the Pacific, cholla and ocotillo covered hard white ground of decayed granite. The ranches diminished to scattered, hardscrabble outposts sustained by patience, hard labour and the military's weekly delivery of potable water.

It was a Sunday afternoon. Families visited in corredors, the long, open porches that provide cool, breezy shelter from the blazing sun. They courted and gossiped over a background mutter of radios that relayed the surge and sigh of a distant soccer match and wisps of lilting norteneos music.

They listened with amiable patience to my fractured Spanish, refilled my water bottles and cheered me on my way, out into the heat of the day where only eccentric gringos ventured unnecessarily. Water was my fuel and I was averaging a litre every 10 kilometers.

The addled musicians turned to their gasoline and left me grinding toward Mexico 1, hoping for a long downgrade that was not to be found in the landscape that rolled west in great ground swells. I found a steady rhythm somewhere in the chatter of washboard, and counted down the distance markers to the junction.

The cantina at Km 127 is like any other along that stretch of road between Santa Rita and Las Pocitas: a square of cinder block, painted in Tecate brewery colours of red, gold and white, with an awning for shade, and the familiar offerings of meat, beans, rice and tortillas. I sat down to wait for the bus and savoured iced beer as the night drew a blue veil across the face of the distant sierra.


THE SIERRA DE LA LAGUNA

By Jack Danylchuk

The Sierra de La Laguna rise up to meet flights inbound to San Jose del Cabo just as they enter the Tropic of Cancer. That glimpse is as close as most will get to the mountainous heart of Baja's south cape.

The range is an archipelago of granitic blocks set on edge in a pudding of coarse sand just recently risen from the sea, topped off and knit together with a riot of desert, subtropical, and alpine vegetation - a wilderness, but only just.

Ranches and roads press in on all sides, from La Paz to Cabo San Lucas, 100 km south. Miners have plundered its gold, cattle roam freely. Just a small swatch of the La Lagunas remains as a relatively untouched biosphere reserve, silent, seldom - visited, and traversed only by footpaths.

For Californios, a walk into the sierra is a rite of passage, and a balm for the soul. They swear by the healing powers of its herbs. Ranchers who live in its shadow adopt a look of reverence when they speak of the mountains, the way fishers do when they recall a meal of turtle.

The La Lagunas hold more than 200 species of plants, many of them endemic to its rugged uplands and deep canyons. It's a refuge for deer, bobcat, coyote, fox and species of birds rarely seen in the desert below. Puma are rumored, but there are no recent reports of sightings to confirm the presence of the big cats.

There are four trails into the biosphere reserve. The La Burrera route up the west face is the most accessible and direct. It switches back and forth for 15 km, climbing about 1,200 meters from a forest of mesquite and cactus through stands of oak to glades of arbutus and pine. There is an invitation at every turn to stop, gaze out to the Pacific, listen to bird calls fill the silence.

I walked up on a weekend that coincided with the annual La Laguna Challenge. Teams of four, each man burdened with a 10 kilo pack, scrambled up and down the mountain. The winners did it in 4:26. Most hikers step on to the mesa below the summit after six hours on the trail.

Jesus Quinones was among those on the mesa when the first runners arrived. He is an assistant director with SEMARNAP, the federal environmental agency that manages a biosphere reserve in the La Lagunas. Three years ago, they began asking visitors to register with the office in La Paz or Todos Santos before going into the sierra.

Previous mass invasions left a trail of litter and vandalism. Marauding students spray-painted rocks, and on one of their annual binges, butchered a cow. The visitor register opened the next year, and the agency has also recruited volunteers to pack out garbage.

Race sponsors made a party at the finish line. A brewery put up its big blue tents. Runners and their fans rested in the shade, enjoying cold drinks from cans and bottles that are part of the litter that plagues every public space in Baja. They left little behind.

Subsistence ranchers have the run of the sierra and the biosphere reserve. Santa Gertrudis, the first private ranch in Baja California, is tucked in a deep green fold of the La Lagunas. For almost two centuries, cows, goats, horses, mules and pigs have run wild, browsing and tramping vague trails to secret waterholes.

SEMARNAP gives the ranchers work growing trees, fighting fires, and brushing the trails. They keep a rude shack on the meadow below the summit. Saddles, bridles, grazing mules give it the look of a working ranch. The only visual clue that it is not a bucolic scene from the 19th century is the solar telephone bolted to the shack.

Quinones was on a mission, inspecting trails with another agency manager and three ranch hands. They came up by horse and mule on a little-used path that climbs a flank of El Picacho, the most prominent peak on the summit ridge - but not the highest. They were going down by La Victoria, on a trail that traverses the northern fringe of the reserve and Quinones invited me to tag along. We would leave at six.

Fed and watered, horses, men and dogs finally set out at nine, walking in a straight line across the mesa. Local lore says the mesa is the bed of a mountain lake that drained away. Now it's a park of oak, pine and arbutus, coursed by streams. It might be any meadow from Marin County to the Saanich Peninsula, but for the sprawling beds of optunia nopal, with their pale green lobes crowned in haloes of prickly red fruit.

Water can be found throughout the sierra, even in years when there is no winter rain. Some lush micro climates in the range get as much as 200 cm a year. Hurricane Juliette flooded the south cape in September and four months later many mountain streams still gurgled with water.

The way to La Victoria winds over steep forested ridges and comes out on a gaited road about 15 km north and east of the summit. Quinones stopped frequently to take GPS readings and record the vistas on a small video camera. Hector, the lead hand, produced a half litre of reposado from his saddle bag. He drank deeply and offered it around. The other hands took up the challenge, but couldn't empty the bottle.

I lagged behind, indulging in the illusion that I was alone with the sound of a hummingbird feeding in an arbutus, seeing the mountains roll north in deep green waves.

The sound of cattle bells drifted up as we crossed the pass high above San Dionisio. Some guidebooks describe a trail that works up the deep, bouldered canyon to the La Laguna summit. We could see the road up to the village from Santiago, a gold line drawn beside the river in the narrow green valley.

La Victoria was a surprise. Instead of a village at the end of the steep, winding road up from Rancho San Antonio, there is the solitary ruin of a house worthy of a scene in a B movie. It clings to the sides of a massive granite boulder, palapa roof in tatters, cantilevered decks tilting into a deep gorge.

True to Quinones estimate, we got to the locked gate six hours after setting out from the summit. Our ride out was waiting, with linament for the animals and cold beer from an ice chest on the tailgate of a shiny new white crew cab. We stopped at a small ranch to buy cheese and stable the animals, then bounced down deeply-eroded mountain roads to Mexico 1, just an hour from La Paz or San Jose del Cabo.

The way up from San Dionisio is the longest of the routes to the summit. Ranchers usually make the trip up in 12 hours, but its better spread over two days. There are fine camp sites on all of the sierra trails and a night under the stars with the sounds of a wilderness forest is one of the rewards of a journey into the mountains.

The trail heads directly south from where the Santiago road ends at Rancho La Acacia, and follows black water hoses to a pool surrounded by giant cottonwoods. It then embarks on a series of climbs up steep, eroded staircases of sand and loose rocks.

The prize is the long ridge that leads to the summit. The view is east, to La Rivera, where the arroyo pushes golden sand into the gulf, and to the southern reaches of the La Lagunas. The trail curls over the forested shoulder of Las Casitas, at 2200 meters the highest peak in the range, and drops into the La Laguna basin where it disappears in the sunburned grass beneath a venerable arbutus.

Jack Danylchuck

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