Vizcaíno Desert

Open road in the Vizcaino Desert.

The Vizcaíno Desert, named for the Spanish admiral, Sebastián Vizcaíno, who sailed its shores in 1602, stretches across central Baja from the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Cortez. This is the most desolate region in Baja, thousands of square miles where rain is so scarce that vegetation has learned to get its moisture from the fogs that blow in from the Pacific. Rocky mesas, volcanic cinder cones, and broad plains are scattered with stands of yucca, agave, ocotillo, cirio and cactus.

Snakes, lizards, rodents and birds live here, as do small herds of rare desert pronghorn and bighorn sheep. In the eastern desert, beyond the reach of the fog, life is stunted, scorched and sparse. Guerrero Negro, on the Pacific, and San Ignacio, on the Cortez side of the desert, are the only towns for a hundred miles large enough to have reliable stocks of groceries and gasoline. Guerrero Negro has several hotels, San Ignacio only two.

Desert landscape
north of Guerrero Negro.

Guerrero Negro means Black Warrior, the name of a ship that sank here in 1858, under the weight of its cargo of whale oil. A year earlier, Charles Scammon had entered the local lagoons and begun the slaughter of thousands of gray whales, whose annual migrations brought them here to calve and mate.

Whaling led to the near-extinction of the species early in this century, but intensive protection efforts have restored their numbers. The frolicking giants now put on spectacular shows for thousands of tourists who visit the lagoons every winter.

Aerial views of Guerrero Negro
and saltworks evaporation lagoons.

Guerrero Negro lies just south of the border between the states of Baja California and Baja California Sur (south), where clocks change from Pacific to Mountain time. Ocean breezes keep temperatures pleasant year-round. The town's 10,000 inhabitants are sustained by salt. The local works produce more salt than any other source in the world, more than six million tons per year.

Seawater is channeled from the ocean into hundreds of shallow ponds, where it evaporates quickly under the intense desert sun, leaving behind thick layers of sea salt. Workers scoop the salt onto barges, for delivery to the nearby Island of Cedros, home to Mexico's third largest seaport, which ships nothing but salt. The salt is then loaded onto seagoing vessels for export to tables all over the world.

San Ignacio is an oasis in every sense of the word. It lies nested in a deep arroyo, protected on all sides by high mesas that make it almost invisible from the surrounding desert. To the highway traveler, a crack of incongruous green appears suddenly in the desolate desert floor, and turns out to be the tops of fruit orchards and thousands of date palm trees. Arroyo San Ignacio is a relief to scorched eyeballs.

Yuccas thrive in the western Vizcaino Desert.

The palm trees are descended from an orchard planted by Jesuit missionary Juan Luyando more than two hundred fifty years ago, near the source of the Rio San Ignacio, which emerges as a marsh springing out of the rocky arroyo bottom. The Cochimí Indians called the site kadakaamán, or creek of reeds. The Spaniards dammed the creek to form a small lake that still provides irrigation water for the town's crops and orchards. From this lake, the mostly dry arroyo runs westward across the desert and empties into the Laguna San Ignacio, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean.

Laguna San Ignacio harbors Baja's friendliest whales. The lagoon, fifty miles by dirt road from San Ignacio, is another popular winter tourist site. The whales, especially the inquisitive calves, seem to enjoy humans. They often swim up to the open tourist boats, begging to be petted and scratched, like giant, seagoing puppies.

Environmentalists are engaged in a bitter fight against Japanese corporate interests who want to use the lagoon for a new salt extraction facility, which would be the world's largest, potentially a devastating threat to the whales' calving and breeding waters.

Boojum trees (cirios) add variety
to the strange desert landscape.

The Cochimí Indians occupied the desert when the first Spaniards arrived. The Cochimí often lived on the edge of starvation. To survive during lean times, they dried their own feces after feasting on the annual harvest of pitahaya cactus fruit. When food ran out, they reaped a "second harvest" by sifting pitahaya seeds from their dried excrement. To improve their diet, they were willing even to submit to the authority of Jesuit missionaries.

The abundance of water and willing Indian labor eventually made San Ignacio Kadakaamán the most prosperous mission in Baja. The first church was erected in 1728, and in 1786 the present church was completed on the site. Its four-foot thick walls were built with blocks of local lava rock, without the use of mortar.

Still in use today, the church is the anchor of San Ignacio's town square, and the most impressive of all the Baja mission churches.

Parched desert vegetation
draws moisture from Pacific fogs.

At the mission's peak, as many as 5,000 Cochimí produced fruits, grains, vegetables and livestock. But, the Cochimí met the same tragic fate as most of Baja's native peoples. Lacking immunity to European diseases, their population was devastated by epidemics. There were only about a hundred survivors by the end of the 19th century.

Archaeologists are fighting to save what the Cochimí left behind, including some of the world's most extensive, and least studied and protected, prehistoric cave art. The paintings include abstract symbols and stylized human and animal figures in in red, black, ocher and other colors.

Some appear on inaccessible rock overhangs and cave ceilings more than thirty feet above the ground. A few of the paintings reflect Spanish influence, but the Indians, possibly fearing religious persecution, denied any knowledge of the artists or techniques responsible for the ancient works.

Volcanic cinder cone
in the central Vizcaino Desert.

Thousands of similar paintings and petroglyphs exist throughout Baja, in areas inhabited by several different tribes when the Spaniards arrived. It is but one of Baja's oddities that the ancient sites were publicized in this century by the author of the Perry Mason murder mysteries, Erle Stanley Gardner, who spent many years of his life exploring and writing about them.

Legal visits to the sites require permits or licensed guides. In San Ignacio, one can arrange to visit both whales and cave paintings in a single day trip.

Tortilla and I arrived in San Ignacio after a grueling day's drive across the desert. We had enjoyed a great meal and room at the Hotel La Pinta in San Quintín the night before, our first night ever in Baja, and we were looking forward to the same spoiled gringo luxuries from the equally expensive La Pinta in San Ignacio: a modern hot shower, air conditioning, satellite TV, good food and comfortable beds to soothe our aching backs.

We'd had our adventure for the day, we spoke almost no Spanish, and on this, only our second night on the road in Mexico, finding the best budget hotel was not on the agenda.

Desert landscape near San Ignacio.

We pulled the car off the highway at dusk, and drove the two miles into San Ignacio, amazed and refreshed at the sight of the man-made lake, and the canopy of date palms overhead.

Set among the palms at the edge of town was the La Pinta, looking a bit tired and worn, not as impressive as the San Quintín version, but its handsome neo-colonial arches were a welcome sight. Relieved that the parking lot was nearly empty, we stopped to claim a room. But, the polite desk clerk informed us there were "problems".

The room rate of eighty gringo bucks would not include hot water tonight. But, the clerk was kind enough to call the other hotel in town to learn that, yes, they still had hot water.

So, not without difficulty in our overloaded little car, we picked our way among the sharp boulders protruding from the dirt of the narrow side streets, finally found the unmarked Motel La Posada, and squeezed into the tiny dirt lot that appeared to be for parking.

The proprietor handed us a key, and left us alone to check the room. In the dim light from the bare bulb in the ceiling, we could see peeling paint and a tiny shower stall, with primitive plumbing. The room seemed clean enough. The air conditioning was a small electric floor fan with a frayed cord. The two mushy beds were matched mattress was higher at the foot, the other was higher at the head.

At twenty-five bucks the price seemed steep. We decided we could do without hot water. The proprietor seemed not at all surprised when we handed him the key, thanked him, and returned to the La Pinta.

View of Arroyo San Ignacio,
from Highway 1.

Our La Pinta room was smaller than in San Quintín, but it was clean. In fact, it reeked of cleaning solution. There was no balcony with a view. We didn't mind that the TV got only one channel, or that the picture was too snowy to watch. We hadn't come to San Ignacio to watch TV.

We could use the black plastic wastebasket liner to cover the big hole in the window blinds. But, we couldn't start the air conditioner, and when the hotel manager finally got it going, it produced more noise than comfort.

The plumbing leaked, the toilet hissed and dripped, and there was a large puddle on the bathroom floor. A disturbing streak of black soot ran up the wall from the only electrical outlet that would light the bed lamp. The window wouldn't open, so we left the door ajar for air, and locked our bags in the car while we went to dinner.

The hotel food was expensive and barely edible, and the beer was warm. At least, the beds were fairly level, and we were happy to have them, until we discovered that the springs poked through their saggy mattresses. The threadbare sheets would be no protection. And our showers, of course, were cold.

Colonial era buildings
along the San Ignacio town plaza.

After dinner, we strolled into town. The lovely walk beneath the palms and the brilliant stars quickly made us forget our eighty-dollar room at the La Pinta. We had the streets almost to ourselves. The town was quiet, almost asleep. The only restaurant in sight had already closed, and the taco stand on the plaza across from the church was cleaning up for the night.

San Ignacio's nightlife was focused around a battered foosball table set up on the sidewalk next to the taco stand, where some old men sat on a bench, visiting and smoking and watching two teenagers play foosball.

As we enjoyed our peaceful stroll, we noticed two suspicious-looking men lurking in the shadows, taking an obvious interest in us. They kept looking our way, then speaking to one another in low tones. Like most ignorant, first-time gringo travelers in Mexico, we had heard scary stories about bandidos. Now, we braced ourselves for the possibility of meeting the reality, face to face.

Mission San Ignacio Kadakaaman:
Founded 1728, church completed in 1789.

The characters in the shadows had all the appearance of every Mexican bandit we had ever imagined or seen in old cowboy movies. They might have stepped right out of Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Then it happened. One of the men, the short, round one, started walking slowly toward us, while the other looked on. We kept walking, trying to appear unconcerned, moving steadily up the dimly lighted street, back toward our safe haven at the La Pinta. The short, round one, circled slowly behind us. They had us surrounded. Then he shouted in our direction, "Hola, buenas noches!"

We stopped in our tracks, and the man approached. He was barely five feet tall, and his belly hung over his belt. His shirt was clean, but tattered, frayed at the cuffs and collar, and had but a single button left to hold it together over his belly. Underneath, he wore a tee shirt that would not survive many more washings. His dark, baggy trousers hung loosely over his worn-out boots.

When he got close enough to pick our pockets, he reached toward us with his right hand. We could decipher just enough Spanish to comprehend his greeting. "Good evening," he said. "I am the Chief of Police. Welcome to San Ignacio!"

Dusk in the desert, east of San Ignacio.

The Chief of Police spoke no English at all. But this sweet little man quickly put us at ease, took us under his wing and guided us on a memorable walking tour of San Ignacio. We soon found ways to communicate. He pointed out houses of interest, and told us stories of the people, many of them his relatives and ancestors, who had lived in them.

As we walked, a large, white apparition glided silently between the palms above our heads. "Tecolote", he said, and patiently explained until we understood that this great white owl had lived in these trees for as long as anyone living could remember.

"There is no crime in this town," he said, when we asked about his job. "No criminals, no bad people. All the time, it is very quiet and peaceful here. Muy tranquilo. There are no problems. Maybe a tourist drinks too much, that is all. I take him home, no problem. I have a very good job."

Approaching the mountains
on Highway 1 to Santa Rosalia.

Tortilla explained that we were on our way to live in San José del Cabo, because we thought its dry climate and clean air would be healthy. When he understood our meaning, he expounded on all the home remedies his family knew, effective for every ailment known to medicine. "No rain here," he added, "it is very healthy here, and the air is very clean, the stars are very bright."

In animated tones, he enumerated each of his relatives and friends who had come to live in San Ignacio, and found good health such as they had never before known in their lives.

There was genuine concern in his voice. "After you try the other places, you must come back here and live with us," he insisted. "This is the best place for you to live. There is no place better to live than here."

We would indeed experience the reality of bandidos this night, but not on the streets of San Ignacio. The robbery had already happened, back at the La Pinta, when we paid too much for our room.


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