In Search Of Baja Bandits
Bandits! Roadside robbers! Drug cartels and Mafia! That's the recent news from Baja California. It's enough to make you stay home. So what's the real story?
The Turtle Expedition has spent over 35 years following backroads in Baja, but mostly we have kept to the abundant coast of the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez. Plentiful fish, crab, lobster, mussels, abalone, and clams were an undeniable attraction. We also could be pretty sure that the fishermen we encountered were not going to rob us. So where were all these bad guys hiding?
Leaving our idyllic camp at Agua Verde (FW, June '09), we decided to head inland for a change. Maybe we could find some bandits there. As you may recall, just after airing back up on Highway 1, we suffered a massive blowout, and the nearest reserve tire was three days away. We mounted the spare and continued, trusting luck to another 1,000 miles of dirt.
The gravel road headed west out of Mulegé, a busy oasis on the coast of Baja California's Sea of Cortez. At first it was fast washboard, but soon it turned into a classic one-lane Baja backroad as it snaked into the mountains - just the kind we love to drive. What looked like small villages on our detailed maps were solitary ranches. Some were abandoned where water had dried up. Others appeared to be seasonal goat camps, judging by the quantity of goat droppings on the ground.
Over the years, we had heard of these remote ranchos. A book by Harry W. Crosby, The Last of the Californios, gave us a sense of these settlements, many still reached only by horse or mule. In recent years, some have become accessible by vehicle, but often only with four-wheel drive.
Two centuries ago, Baja California was mostly an unknown, forbidden land of vast deserts, rugged mountains, and deep canyons sculpted by periodic catastrophic flash floods. Prehistoric tribes of Indians were scattered here and there. Their amazing cave paintings date back over 10,800 years.
Early on in the 1700s, Spain and the Catholic church established a few mission settlements. To guard and assist the padres, a select group of soldiers and skilled frontier tradesmen were deployed to these missions. Part of their responsibility was to explore the interior in search of suitable land for agriculture. There was little as we might imagine it.
When the Jesuits were expelled in 1776, they were replaced by Franciscans, followed by the Dominicans a decade later. Some missions were abandoned. Others fell into neglect. Many of the original settlers, soldiers and pioneers, stayed on. Seeking freedom and uncontested land, with their skills and tenacity they began to establish small homesteads, or ranchos, in the remote mountains where water existed. Could these be the desperados we were looking for?
Because of their isolation, many traditions and lifestyles have remained virtually unchanged for nearly 200 years. Goats are herded for cheese, sheep for wool and meat, and cattle for meat and leather, which is tanned using methods brought over by the original Spanish frontiersmen. Small vegetable patches and fruit orchards exist, often with soil carried in, one bag at a time, on burros. Where there was a spring, ingenious irrigation systems were built, often only to be flushed away by horrific flash floods ripping down the barren mountains.
Rough trails and dirt tracks have slowly brought some trappings of modern civilization. Solar panels provide power for some conveniences. The use of VHF radios has allowed ranches within a limited range to communicate. You might find the occasional pickup truck in the front yard, but it may not run. Not too important, anyway. These ranches are very self-sufficient. Cheese, meat and leather are sold or traded in town. Without refrigeration, meat is dried.