Excerpts from the book,
50 Hikes in the Cape Region, Baja Sur


About the place ...
A trip near La Paz ...
A trip near San Jose ...
A trip near Cabo ...
A trip near Todos Santos ...
Two longer trips in the mountains ..
A few things that may be of interest from a chapter of facts ...
    (or see the whole chapter as PDF)
One or two short stories from chapter 8 ...
                          
               "'There are lots of marmots here,' said Rébuffat.
               But though I kept my eyes peeled, I didn't see a single one."
            - from the book "Annapurna" by Maurice Herzog.



About the place

From north to south the Cape Region is a hundred miles from La Paz to Cabo San Lucas, and from the Cortez Sea on one side to the Pacific Ocean on the other it's about fifty. Most of the land is hilly. Some is mountainous. The flat land is along the Pacific coast, in the broad valley north of San Jose and in two places along the gulf, south and east of La Paz and inland from La Ribera.

The sea and ocean with their different water temperatures (one warm, one cool) as well as changing elevations and topography affect rainfall and humidity, which plants grow and how, and the way that people live on the land. Since it is a small area a lot may change in a short distance. In five or ten miles one can go from dry to wet, from hot to cold or from sea to mountains. Some of this is illustrated by the following descriptions of different parts of the region.
 

Pichilingue Peninsula


This area of small peaks and indented bays extends north of La Paz for twelve miles. Because of a major fault, one that runs from the gulf across to the Pacific, the east side of the peninsula is granitic and the west side, the side most easily reached from La Paz, is volcanic. These rocks erode into strange shapes. The unusual "mushroom rock" of Balandra Bay is an example and inland many of the summits look oddly deformed. They stick up here and there in no real pattern and are all about the same height. Although the country is not as barren as it first appears from the road or from La Paz, it's still fairly open and a good place for hiking. Because of the easy access and modest elevations it would be an excellent place to develop a network of hiking trails.
 

The Gulf Coast


This is the coast, of which this is only the last southernmost part, that automatically says "Baja" to most people. It promises limpid, life-rich waters murmuring along a pristine desert shore. No matter that there are days in winter when a freezing wind blows down from the north, most of the year is nice enough. But it's really in summer when the temperatures are one side or the other of a hundred and the air vibrates with a special luminosity that it seems most unique, with colors glowing and the edges of things startling clear.

South of Punta Los Frailes the gulf becomes more ocean-like. There's a broader foreshore, more stretches of sandy beach and bigger waves for surfing.


The Pacific Coast


This coast is remarkably consistent with the rest of the Pacific coastline along the length of Baja and even up into California. The air always seems a little misty even when its clear, muting colors. It's not uncommon for a fog bank to be hovering just offshore which may roll in at night so that in the morning its overcast and things are a little damp. The cool ocean water moderates temperatures on land, not drastically but enough to notice. The foreshore is typically flat, often with sand blown in for some distance where grasses and tough wind-stunted shrubs survive. Unlike the gulf shore swimming is usually out of the question. In most places the shore shelves steeply and the waves land heavily.

Little suspected from near the coast where the main highway runs is the complexity of the fifteen or so miles of hilly land that is between it and the mountains to the east. Beginning about five miles inland are watered, sheltered places where there may be a house or small community remote from the outside world. Here the only sound to break the pristine stillness could be the rhythmic chop of a hoe as a farmer works over a tiny field.
 

The Sierra La Trinidad


The name is variously given to a small range of isolated hills apart from the main cordillera and near the gulf coast as well as to the high point among them. You won't find the little villages and communities here that dot the rest of the region, let alone another tourist. Even the peripatetic Nelson, the American. biologist who toured Baja a century ago and whose name will appear often in the following pages, passed it by. It's about as remote as it gets in the Cape Region with something of the feeling of what the old Baja must have been like before paved roads and cars.

There's a mix of geology. The west and south sides of the range grade into the sedimentary deposits that occur in the low lying valley and hills north of San Jose. Some of the softer and more recent of these contain fossils while others have been deeply cut into narrow, parallel-sided canyons. Granites make up the high points and there are some volcanics.

A few marginally maintained and poorly documented roads traverse the area. One crosses the range from near Los Frailes to either Miraflores or Santiago, while others go up canyons and end at ranches.
 

The Sierra de la Laguna

sotols

Sierra de la Laguna is the name for the highest part of the mountains that stretch between La Paz and the end of the peninsula where elevations are generally above 1500 meters (5000'). This is between where Highway 1 cuts across the mountains through the towns of San Antonio, El Triunfo and San Bartolo to somewhere north of Cabo San Lucas. Exactly where is an open question and sometimes the name Victoria Mountains or Sierra Victoria, is used for the southern part of the range where the elevations start to fall off.

These mountains are a little backwards from the way things usually work. Most start out slowly and get steeper as they go up, but these are the other way around. The part of the range that's highest and contains the highest summit (2100m, 6900') instead of jagged and inaccessible is gently rolling and forested. It's as though this high portion has remained intact from a previous, less cataclysmic age while everything else has dropped away.

Away from this highest part the country is steep and rugged and this is true on both sides of the range even though the divide is placed more to the west than to the east. Travel is mostly restricted to trails in the big canyons carved into the eastside and to their shorter and less well-defined counterparts on the westside.

Cross-country travel is further restricted because of dense vegetation. Wordsworth's, "the mountain on whose barren breast, the laboring clouds do often rest," describes it perfectly except that here the mountains are not so barren. Routes away from trails tend to follow the brush free arroyo bottoms and the major summits of interest are climbed this way. The exceptions are the places above about 1800 meters, for example the high area around La Laguna, the meadow from which the range gets its name, which tend to be open forests offering easy travel.


A trip near La Paz


Balandra Bay

This is the number one place for a La Paz outing. A bus comes on the weekends from the station on Obregón near 16 de Septiembre at noon, 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. (check times beforehand). The bay is shallow and one of the favorite recreations is to spend hours wading in the knee and waist deep water which extends in this manner from the parking lot all the way to the other side of the bay about a half-mile away. At least on par with wading is to make the pilgrimage over to the iconic, balancing rock a short distance away. From the parking lot go past a small headland to a beach where the rock is at the far end ten minutes away. The estimated weight of the rock is 8 tons resting on a narrow base and while wondering if it’s safe notice there is added concrete in places for reinforcement.
The rock is a remnant of an eroding sea cliff and these same cliffs full of grottoes making sea habitat extend around the point to Playa Tecolote about a half-mile away.


A trip near San Jose


Lost Coast

Playa Chileno and Playa Maria are two public beaches a mile and a half apart between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose. Between them is a hill with steep seaward sides where the highway is forced to run inland and, so far, other roads are absent as well leaving a wild section of coast in the middle of an area of aggressive development.

In 1969 when we started down the peninsula on a motorcycle the transpeninsular wasn’t much changed from Nelson’s day and we didn’t make it all the way. Now when I read the old descriptions in Gerhard and Gulick (our guidebook at the time) of Cabo San Lucas (with a population of 548) or look at the pictures of the bay with the foreground nothing but sand and shrubs, I wish we had.

So I was feeling smug when I found this piece of beach and could sit with my back to the cliffs looking south and out to sea dreaming I was back in the good old days until a boatload of snorkelers pulled in from Cabo. But times change and now to protect this place from development it could be better known.

From the land side the best way to find it is from Playa Chileno which has bus service from San Jose and Cabo San Lucas. From here walk the quarter-mile down to the beach from the parking lot, then go west to reach another beach and then a third. Ahead is a hill and part way up is the trail out to the coast that starts a few hundred feet to the right and ends at a rocky bay (some sand but not a lot) removed from the outside world. A sea arch at the east end of the bay is interesting but not as picturesque as the Land’s End arch.

The continuation to Playa Santa Maria to the west, another walk-in beach with bus service, has thus far discouraged not only road builders but trail builders as well. Here cliffs force a practical route high and over roughly broken hillside before dropping down the inland side


A trip near Cabo


 Land's End

This is one of the great places, it almost seems made on purpose. Granted it's just across the harbor from Cabo and the perfect foil but even without this contrast it is a place to seek out.

There are so many impediments to getting here by land that most visitors and locals excepting kids just take one of the many water taxis from the waterfront out to Playa del Amour. And this is a good way to see all the different rocks and sea rocks and little bays that cluster in this area as well as the much photographed arch.

Of the two land routes, one starts from the old cannery wharf across the harbor from town and scrambles along the sea rocks half-in and half-out of the water to reach Playa del Amour. The other needs a trip through the foyer of Hotel Solmar (allowed, but consider a clean shirt) followed by a scramble over rocks and past a surge channel which is dangerous at high tide. This way is probably best attempted as a way back.

Once at Playa del Amour, the side facing town has calm water and is the place for wading, snorkeling and sun bathing, while the side facing away from town catches the booming waves off the Pacific. On this side between waves, depending on the tide, a quick dash next to a cliff brings you to an exposed, uninviting beach directly underneath the Land's End arch.

Another interesting diversion is to climb to the top of the rock immediately above the arch and watch the swirling waves below changing color and foaming around the several offshore stacks, but for this you need a good head for heights. The route begins from a small pocket beach that's around the corner from the town side of Playa del Amour. From here go up a moderately angled gully then traverse and climb easy but nearly vertical rock 60' straight off the flat sand of Playa del Amour to reach easier going.


A trip near Todos Santos



Commons

Two miles above Todos Santos a prodigious amount of water comes up out of the ground making a stream that’s hard to cross without getting wet. The exact place where it starts, a little north of the 48 km marker on Highway 19, is hard to pin down. When I asked the water master who lives nearby, he pointed to an acre of reedy swamp and said, “It’s in there” while looking at me and drawing a hand across his upper thigh.

It’s easier to find the creek than the spring. It crosses the main highway just past the last building on the right after leaving town going north, close to some reddish cliffs. From here, one can walk upstream and find a picnic table near the stream about 5 minutes from the road.

After the creek crosses the road it’s routed into different channels and taken through tree shaded fields that are just short of being wild. The existing trails are utilitarian and short, whereas ideally, from a walker's standpoint, there would be one running from the spring all the way down to the beach three miles away. Just down from the cultural center along the road that crosses from one side of town to the other through the commons and to the right, there is a pleasant road to walk along beneath trees and alongside green fields.

The longest hike of this kind keeps straight ahead where the last one turned right, keeping to the sidewalk alongside the road crossing the commons until it starts to go uphill then turning left onto a side street. After one mile along the edge of fields and orchards reach the beach next to an unkempt tangle of ocean-edge trees, seemingly remote from civilization partly because rough surf (which is the norm) must discourage people from coming. To make a loop from this point, go down the beach (south) and after passing a lagoon on the left come to the base of a hill. Now find a trail going inland between the hill and the lagoon to reach a road and houses next to a newly built hotel and restaurant run by a Swiss. A road goes back across the commons to rejoin the original route about a quarter-mile up from the beach.

Two longer trips in the mountains


Cerro San Lázaro

Here's a summit that should appeal to the finicky climber who doesn't like long approaches or being stuck out in the middle of nowhere because it's only six miles from an international airport. What's more, the first four miles are flat and the rest end at a pretty rock spire high above the valley floor.

The first thing to do to climb it is to find a place where you can get a good look at it from out near the little town of Santa Anita. Notice that there is a minor summit to the right and below the main spire. And below it and down about a thousand feet is a long skinny “Y,” part of the system of gullies and canyons that drains this side of the mountain where the route lies.

To reach the beginning of the route go out a farm road leading west from Santa Anita. After 2.5 miles go left. Then in .2 miles go left again and in another 1.5 miles come to an arroyo. Find a road up the arroyo to where it steepens (2564200mN, 0625400mE), then climb up the right bank to forest. Near here is a small ranch.

Now follow a trail or any of the various meandering parallel paths through mature open forest for a mile and reach the main canyon streambed where there is year-round water. This place is well within the canyon proper, where the north side of the canyon goes up steeply to a broken ridge. After another half-mile look for the base of the “Y” where it comes in from the right about 500' below a prominent band of cliffs that prevent continuous travel straight ahead. Where the “Y” forks make a rising traverse to the left to regain the main streambed. Now stay left at side gullies to avoid getting stuck below the minor summit and reach the low point of the saddle on the ridge between the two summits.

From the saddle work along the ridge keeping to the more brush-free south side. Traverse right below the summit cliffs and in 300', without descending, come to a key ramp. This leads to a short, steep gully that exits at a notch on the west ridge at the base of the easy summit slopes.

Other routes: There is also a route up the NE ridge from a place called San Miguelito. This is long and currently access is a problem but it is the one that Ann Zwinger describes in her book A Desert Country Near the Sea. A third route, the most direct but unfortunately untried by the author, starts from a little farther up the Los Naranjos road, past San Miguelito, and from a higher elevation than the described route on the east side. It starts from near a place called Palmilla, follows ill-defined branches of the creek on this side of the mountain and is possibly steep and, since it's on the north side, brushy.

La Laguna

The Laguna, a mile-long grassy meadow, is a popular pack-in destination and justifiably so. Nowhere else is it possible to go as easily from the dry lowlands to the completely different scenery at the top of the range. The meadow is hemmed in by a group of low hills. Their gentle nature belie the fact that they are the highest peaks of the range. And like all high places they make their own weather. Humid air from the lowlands driven upwards many thousands of feet condenses so that rain, mist, low clouds and temperatures down into the forties and low fifties are common all year, in many ways like the cloud forests of southern Mexico and Central America, but as nod to the temperate climate just to the north, snow has fallen on at least one occasion. Because of the dampness there is a thick vegetation, that’s no longer the wispy and twisty-limbed subtropicals that grow down where it’s hot, but massive oaks and straight-trunked pines.

One reason the Laguna is appealing, besides being cooler than the surrounding country, is that it’s like a lost world, so different than anything around it for many hundreds of miles. Because of the way genetic material changes over time this isolation, extended to include other parts of the range, has produced a number of plants, called endemic, that are found nowhere else in the world. For example, one of the oaks (Quercus devia) and the sotol are of this kind as well as many others. In fact this is one of the most talked about features of this area, but least someone gets their hopes up unnecessarily about these plants with the fancy label being themselves somehow fancy, it should be pointed out that they're really no more unusual or special looking (at least to ordinary people) than plants that are more widespread. The level of endemism here is probably about the same as it is for the region as a whole or 30%. For comparison, in a place like Madagascar off the coast of Africa it’s around 80% and in Hawaii, isolated by thousands of miles of ocean, it’s 95%.

There are several ways to reach the Laguna. The trail up from Cañon San Dionisio on the east side, described on page 60, is by far the prettiest but it takes a day and a half.

Nelson in a tantalizing report, writes of coming here from Cañon San Bernardo along a trail that was, “ ... so narrow in places that there was little more than room for the trail, the mountain dropping away precipitously several thousand feet on the west and having a very steep slope on the east.” (He left the meadows going north, again by trail traveling with mules and horses, arriving in one day at a place called El Tarasio and the next at El Triunfo.)

The standard approach is from the west side over 8 miles of trail and in contrast to many, this is impossible to miss, even from as far away as Todos Santos where it shows itself to the naked eye going up the mountainside east of town fifteen miles away.

From Todos Santos the turnoff to the trailhead, signed “La Burrera” and possibly “Sierra La Laguna,” is a little over a mile south of town on Highway 19. The road starts out heading a little north of east, makes a bend to the south then goes northeast again. Reach the trailhead in 12.5 miles where there is a gate across the road.

After a little over a mile the trail leaves the road and starts climbing. For most of the year there is cattle trampled water at 2 miles and again at 3.5 miles. The crest is gained after 6 miles of steep trail and then descends slightly to reach the upper meadow. The lower meadow, with a foresters cabin, old weather station and lots of room for camping is another mile. Year round water is from a spring above the cabin (follow the water line), from a shallow well out towards the middle of the meadow and at the east end of the meadow where there’s a creek.

Given that the Laguna is a grassy meadow in the middle of a rugged batch of mountains, near their highest point and reached most easily only by toiling up a long, hot trail one might reasonably expect a nice place. But those expecting a carpet of soft, native grasses to flop down on when they arrive will be disappointed. Too many years of abuse including potato farming, overgrazing and visitors with less than fastidious camping habits have left their inevitable mark. That said, it’s still the first place someone with a little extra time on their hands should go. And with more time it’s the perfect base from which to make surrounding trips into the fascinating and unspoiled country around it.

Side trips from the Laguna include the following:

  Picacho.
This is the steep-sided landmark obvious from many places on the west and north sides of the range and a popular destination. A descriptive name for it is El Aguja (the needle). The two ways to the top are as follows: From near the high point of the Laguna trail find a trail going north along a ridge leading to a clearing where a lesser trail continues; or, from the upper Laguna meadow find a path in line with the top.

  Cerro San Antonio
This is the high point of the range (2100m). The name is misplaced on the 1:50,000 Las Cuevas map (1983) where it’s shown about 2.5 km west and a little south of the true summit (2603400mN, 0606800mE). Navigation to the summit can be tricky because of the gentle terrain and tree cover or possible fog. From a half-mile out the Cañon San Dionisio trail go south to the reach the top which has an aerial and a communications building.

  Cañon San Dionisio Trail
Find the trail at the lower end of the lower meadow (2604400mN, 0605350mE) just south of where the creek bends around a rocky outcrop. After one mile and 400’ of elevation gain a viewpoint looks eastward to the Sea of Cortez and the jungle shrouded north side of Cerro Verde. Farther along the trail after descending 2000’, come to a place to picnic by a year-round stream.

  Upper Rio San Dionisio
At the lower end of the big meadow find the outlet stream where it begins its descent into Cañon San Dionisio. The streambed becomes progressively more rugged and difficult to follow which is the reason the trail in from this side avoids it.

 Greater Plateau
The high, rolling plateau country that includes the Laguna averages two miles across and extends in a north and south direction from a mile north of the meadow to two or three miles south of it past the head of Cañon La Zorra. This is forested or sparsely forested country that offers mostly open travel. Because of a lack of obvious landmarks, navigation is difficult without a map and compass or GPS receiver which may not work because of trees.


A few things that may be of interest from the chapter of facts

Trails

This is a country where people don’t think twice about walking and it can take a little getting used to. Coming from a place where cars are the usual way to go places I’m often surprised, far from the nearest house, by someone showing up as if by magic unannounced by a combustion engine.

So with this the case, there’s no shortage of trails. But since the trails are used by the people that built them, or the descendants or friends of the people that built them, there isn’t a great need for signs or written records. (An exception is the Laguna trail from La Burrera which shows on maps.) Understandably, this makes them hard for an outsider to find. And once found it can be a challenge to stay on a trail to an intended destination because of the number of branching trails and misleading cow paths.

Some of the trails meet standards for what most people can follow easily without getting lost. These are: the two Laguna trails (the one from La Burrera is easier than the one from Cañon San Dionisio), the Vista trail near Cabo Pulmo, the first two or three miles of the Cañon La Zorra trail, the first mile or two of the trail that goes up Cañon San Bernardo, and the trail that goes up Cerro La Puerto behind La Paz.

More challenging are the cross-sierra trails via Cañon San Bernardo and Cañon San Pedro. These, as well as most canyon trails, can be hard to follow because they often cross from one side of the canyon to the other through the bottom streambed, which is often fifty feet wide or more, where they inevitably get lost in a kind of no-man’s-land of shifting sand and moving rocks. (For a description what it's like to follow one of these trails see pages 72 -73.) One of the accepted wisdoms here is to follow previous footprints. In some of the canyons there may be cairns to follow and there is often a pile of rocks to mark the place where the trail once again reaches stable ground or the trail itself is obvious. Once there, another bit of knowledge, because of the problem noted above about confusing cow paths, is to know that most trails, including the ones in this book, are kept clear of all side branches and fallen logs by the people that use them.



Roads

Except after major storms the condition of the roads is good and a two-wheel drive car, as long as it has decent road clearance, will go almost anywhere. Sand can be a problem, especially in arroyo bottoms along infrequently traveled routes. For this, wide tires or lowered air pressure is a help as is religiously keeping to any previous tracks. The usual way to get stuck is to be going along where it's sandy, not paying attention then pulling off the road for some reason and sinking in. Of course this is the time when everyone hops out to push the stuck vehicle back out onto the road, but without this recourse you must grab the shovel and dig down to the level of the bottom of the tires so there is in effect a little roadway for the car to build up momentum and get moving again.

Paving is confined to the numbered state and federal highways and a limited number of frequently traveled secondary roads. Secondary roads that go to smaller towns, communities or clusters of ranches are usually graveled. Roads to single ranches are mostly unimproved except for occasional grading. Off the main highways, signs are infrequent or missing so a map is handy. The only maps that shows these roads in detail (but not always) are the 1:50,000 INEGI maps.

There are two secondary roads that do other things than go to outlying communities. One is the Los Naranjos road that crosses the sierra from north of San Jose on the east side to a little south of Pescadero near the km 73 marker on the west side. A section of the road on the west side near the crest is steep and not always in good condition.

Another secondary road is the Eastcape road between La Ribera and San Jose passing through Cabo Pulmo. It tends to be badly washboarded and a better alternative to the south half, the Palo Escopeta road, goes between the coast (2568000mN, 0659000mE) and San Jose where it meets Highway 1 at an unmarked intersection between km markers 40 and 41 a little south of the international airport. [Note to website readers: the 7 digit numbers and abrev.'s here and elsewhere in the text are coordinates to use with an appropriate map and/or GPS reciever.]


Health and Safety

  Cows
I don’t notice the cow making its way through the hot springs campground until it wanders over to where I’ve left the car door open and starts looking inside for something to eat. Reluctantly, I get up from what I’m doing, go over and chase it off. Cows are just such a part of the landscape.  And the vast majority are harmless, even though it may not look like that because in Baja they all have big horns. They’re mostly out of sight, known only by the bells tied around their necks tinkling and dinging in the underbrush, but occasionally a trail will pass close to a herd resting near water or in shade where it’s best to pay attention because bulls and mothers with young can be dangerous. They can also carry a number of diarrhea related pathogens including Giardia, Cryptosporidium and E. coli 0157:H7 which is potentially more serious so it is a safe precaution to treat, boil or filter water from streams before drinking.

  Flash floods
Summer rains are brief but can be intense while they last. Because the lowland soil lacks substantial amounts of organic matter, rain tends to run off rather than soak in, and then it sets off rapidly down the arroyos, holding up traffic on the roads it crosses, often with enough volume to swamp a car or sweep it away. Nevertheless, a favorite sport at this time is to launch out for the opposite shore, plowing through the thick water that's now swirling around the the tires and lapping at the lower door frames, while the onshore crowd wonders what will happen out toward the middle.

  Rattlesnakes
There aren’t as many rattlesnakes here as in northern Baja or parts of the southwestern United States but even so care is needed. They occur throughout the country at all elevations, including the oak and pine forests surrounding Laguna meadow at 6000’. Some protection is afforded by wearing hiking boots and long pants preferably with some added material along the lower leg. The best defense is to listen for their warning rattle and watch the ground ahead.

  Dengue fever
There are occasional outbreaks of dengue fever when there is standing water after hurricanes. The disease is transmitted by a domestic day-biting mosquito so the problem is mostly confined to towns. Symptoms occur in 3 to 16 days. These include high fever and achiness. Treatment is limited to rest and drinking fluids. Avoid aspirin.

Virgin of Guadalupe

Nine out of ten people in Mexico are Catholic. Rustic shrines filled with lighted candles and pictures of saints are common along roads, often strategically placed at viewpoints or at a last bend before entering mountains. Backcountry communities or even single ranches sometimes have a church lovingly maintained. The Virgin of Guadalupe is an element of this success. According to the mythology she appeared as a vision to an Aztec Indian in southern Mexico a few years after the conquest and the Church established. In the stylized representation of the vision she bears a striking resemblance to the Virgin Mary, but there are many elements both in the story of her appearance and in the representation that relate to the New World. Thus she has been widely embraced. It’s said that few symbols have so successfully united a nation.

Water

There are few streams in the region that flow year-round for any great distance. Exceptions are the San Dionisio, the La Zorra and the upper reaches of the San Venancio. The big canyons usually have water but it is likely to come and go depending on the depth of sand and gravel in the stream bed. For this reason there is often water in the smaller side canyons that are steeper and therefore have less overburden.

For car camping, this can be purchased in nearly every grocery store in 5 gallon returnable bottles for about 15 pesos.
 


Weather

Daytime highs range from the 70s to low 80s in December and January (warm enough for tomatoes to ripen but a little cool for serious swimming) to the upper 90s in July, August and September. For the same periods nighttime lows can be 20 degrees cooler.

In the lowlands measurable rainfall usually comes during the summer rainy season between June and October as thunder showers from the east. In Guaymas, across the gulf on the mainland, it rains about twice as much. On the warm, sultry nights of this time of year the black sky over the gulf glows with a nearly steady pulse of lightning storms too distant to hear.

From about July through October is the season for strong tropical disturbances from the Gulf of Tehuantepec off Central America. At least as many hurricanes form here as in the Atlantic but most go westward out to sea. But every two or three years one swings north and runs into southern Baja wiping out bridges, wrecking roads, isolating ranches and making otherwise dry arroyos run water for weeks. 

The westerlies rarely come this far south but when they do an inch of rain can fall in late December to early February.

The pattern of dry winters and wet summers is typical for places that are halfway between the band of deserts that circle the earth at about 30 degrees north and south latitude, and the tropics. These climates depend on latitude or, more accurately, on the earth’s position relative to the sun. As the earth’s axis tilts first one way then another in its journey around the sun, they in effect move—in the northern hemisphere the deserts (so to speak) go south in winter and the tropics come north in summer.


One or two short stories from chapter 8

Maps and Dreams

I've been to a lot of houses at the end of roads because that's where they go. Almost always the main piece of action that you first come to is the corral. The road comes up, spreads out into a fair sized yard of packed dirt and there it is. The house is there too but back a ways so you don't really notice it. And there's usually a thicket of plantings in that direction so all you see are dark, shady places instead of a house.

I'd come east from Santiago and wound up at one of these places at the end of a road looking for a way to get up something. I'd started early so when I got there the cows hadn't been milked. Father and son were running around with their arms stretched out chasing them through the gate in the fence. Fence though is not quite the right word. The true corral fence is more of a stockade with eight to ten inch diameter tree parts stuck in the ground one right next to another that look like they'd hold an elephant. At some ranches the posts are neatly cut off so they're all the same height. At others the builders were less fussy and the top of the posts are just left to fall where they may, which was the way it was at this ranch.

After they'd gotten the cows in they came over to have a look at who it was that had pulled into their front yard. I asked questions, we drew lines in the dirt, and I checked some of the finer points of their directions against the dictionary I carry in the car. I even brought out the map and the old man went for his reading glasses. He looked at it for a long time, reading each familiar name the way I look at a map after a trip. “Why look,” he seemed to be thinking, “I've known it all my life, how it looks and smells and I was there just the other day and here it is all over again.”

Later on that afternoon I came back, hot and worn out but with that loose feeling from a day of moving around. The women were at work. The mother's brown, smooth arms are flecked with white curds from the cheese she's making from the morning's milk. A daughter comes out and motions for me to come inside. So I follow. Immediately I notice the impeccable housekeeping, which seems to be the way it is with these houses that are at the ends of roads. They may have started a hundred years ago from local dirt, tree limbs, sticks and palm fronds but over the years the building's been refined to where it can go no further. They seem to glow with a patina like desert varnish.

I'm led through an outer courtyard, past plants growing out of damp depressions making crisp shadows on the carefully swept ground, into a cool room off to one side. It may have been the young woman's room. It's small with a low ceiling like the rooms in these houses and neat as a pin. She shows me some shelves that take up one of the walls from the floor up to about head height. When my eyes grow more used to the halflight I see that they're a display of some kind and filled top to bottom with a collection of sea things, shells of different kinds and flat triangular shapes looking like they might be teeth. I think, Someone's been to the beach, which is about twenty miles away.

But she says, “No, they're fossils from around here.” And now it's my turn like the old man outside. As I look at the collection filling the shelves I see her outside under the bright sun, roaming the brown and brush covered hills.

¡Buenos Dias!

The mornings are always the same. It’s first light. The last stars are still in the sky. I fumble for the lighter, get the stove going, put the water on for tea and try to wake up. That’s when my landlord in the campground where I stay comes striding down the hill through the little grove of oaks headed to his mango field and sings out, “¡Buenos dias!”


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