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Meeting the cowboys of Baja California, Mexico

A road trip to visit the Mexican cowboys that eke a living from the arid sierras of southern Baja California reveals remote ranches, sun-bleached mission towns and prehistoric rock art amid soaring mesas — and a way of life that’s hanging by a thread.

Nary drives his mules home to Rancho Mesa San Esteban.

Photograph by Balazs Gardi
By Jason Motlagh
photographs by Balazs Gardi
Published 20 Dec 2021, 06:08 GMT, Updated 20 Dec 2021, 09:33 GMT

Somewhere near road marker 101, a beer can dangling from a wisp of Ocotillo cactus indicates it’s time to turn off Baja California’s transpeninsular highway. The side road, if one can call it that, is a faintly discernible skein of dirt track and crumbling rock that rattles the brain and tests the mettle of our rented Jeep Wrangler. “The ranch is right up on that ridge, to the left of El Batequi,” says Trudi Angell, pointing to a lone peak that thrusts into the cloudless horizon. She’s the founder of Loreto-based Saddling South, an outfit that specialises in mule pack trips, and my guide to the Sierra de San Francisco mountains. I shift into four-wheel drive, and we rumble past giant cactuses, sun-bleached cattle carcasses and rock art that dates back thousands of years. Such a landscape anywhere else would draw crowds. Out here, in the central badlands of Mexico’s dangling, northwesterly peninsula, there’s no one in sight.

We drop into a dried creek, the silt-choked engine groaning in complaint. As punishing as the drive is, this is exactly what I’ve come for: a parallel universe beyond the reach of modern comforts and reliable internet. In the summer of 2017, after spending the better part of a decade in California, my then-pregnant wife and I packed our truck on a whim and struck out for Baja at the height of summer, in search of simpler living and solitude. We found it in a Pacific beach town called Todos Santos, near the peninsula’s southern tip. We bought some land near the ocean, had two boys at home and adopted a dog, some chickens and several horses. There would be no going back. 

But as the novel became routine, the desert outback we’d streaked past on that first cannonball run began to call me. Adding to its allure were my occasional encounters with vaqueros (cowboys), who’d swagger into town on horseback for annual festivals or to sell their wares at the ranch market. These were tough people who eked a living off a lean landscape in much the same way their Spanish ancestors did centuries ago, when they were brought to Baja to fend off pirates and manage herds of cattle. My intrigue developed into fascination, and some local friends suggested I get in touch with Trudi, who’d developed deep relationships with vaquero families from 30 years of running mule pack trips to some of the most remote pockets of the peninsula. Together, we’d plotted a road trip through the heart of my new homeland. 

Some 15 miles from the nearest paved road, we pull up to the homestead of Ricardo ‘Tete’ Arce Aguilar, a softly spoken vaquero with a brushy, black moustache. “Welcome to Rancho Los Datilitos,” he says, giving me a strong handshake. With a vegetable garden and citrus trees set among clapboard buildings and a concrete water tank, the ranch strikes me as a kind of oasis. But the arid wilderness stretching beyond is, I quickly learn, a very different story. This stretch of the mountains hasn’t seen rain for almost two years, Ricardo tells me. In the midst of this drought, the only water comes from a PVC pipe that leads to a spring eight miles away — a lifeline for the handful of ranches in the area. I pluck a tangerine from one of Ricardo’s trees, and savour the juice in the near 40C heat. 

Ignacio 'Nacho' Arce Arce at Rancho Aguajito de la Tia Adelaida in Santa Martha Valley, Baja California Sur, Mexico.

Photograph by Balazs Gardi

For all the challenges facing his way of life, Ricardo insists that quitting is out of the question. He’s worked the land as long as he can remember, only boarding an aeroplane for the first time in 2015, to take part in a cultural exchange with US cowboys in Nevada. But it wasn’t long before Ricardo missed the quiet rhythms of home. “Life is so much more tranquil here,” he says. “There’s a lot of work to do but there’s less stress than in town.”

In normal times, Ricardo and his family supplement their cattle income by guiding multi-day trips to some of the 400 recorded prehistoric rock art sites tucked away in the sierra. But the pandemic has hit Mexico hard; visitors from the US, Canada and Europe have withered to almost nothing, and the family have had to be resourceful to scrape by.

Ricardo’s wife, Alicia (seven months pregnant), is in the kitchen knitting a blanket for a client, with help from their 12-year-old daughter, Azucena. On the porch, Ricardo’s shaded leatherwork bench is strewn with hand-tooled items in various stages of completion: teguas (riding shoes), soled with tyre rubber; wallets, belts, beautiful saddles adorned with equine motifs; and polainas (gaiters) — essential protection against cactus spines and rattlesnakes.

Under a harsh midday glare, I tag along as Ricardo checks on sheets of cowhide and goatskin left to soak in a vat of palo blanco tree bark that reeks like rancid salami. This is the sort of thing I’d hoped to witness: the artistry behind the distinctive aesthetic of the vaquero. Ricardo turns them over and stirs the tawny mulch to ensure the skins are dyed evenly. When the colour is set, he and his son Esteban will slather the skins in chicken grease and hang them out to dry.

These traditions have changed little since their Spanish ancestors arrived on the peninsula back in the 18th century. Hired by Jesuit missionaries who were granted control of the frontier by the monarchy, the vaqueros’ forebears — known as ‘soldiers of leather’ for the deer-skin jerkins they wore — lived off the land and were tasked with guarding mission outposts throughout Baja California. When the Jesuits were expelled in 1767, vast tracts of lands were granted to the cowboys. They raised cattle and goats and lived off the land, largely insulated from political upheavals elsewhere in Mexico and the advance of technology. Wresting their living from the hard terrain, beyond government control, they evolved an extraordinary level of self-sufficiency, developing tanning, ropemaking and cooking traditions that blend art and necessity. 

“They have this incredible knowledge in their bones — the real vaqueros know all about the environment, the land and its history,” says Trudi. With a tinge of melancholy, she adds: “But we say it’s a dying culture.” 

Late in the afternoon, a caravan of pack burros lurches into Ricardo’s corral, his younger brother emerging from a cloud of dust at the rear. Slim and strikingly tanned in a white, clasp-button shirt, his spurs jangling in time with his horse’s gait, Eleonary ‘Nary’ Arce Aguilar has the insouciant bearing of a Western film hero. The romantic impression is tempered by a brutal reality: he is locked in a battle for his livelihood. As the summer heat intensifies, Nary must drive down from his drought-stricken ranch at least three times a week to load up with enough water to allow his family to survive on their ancestral land.

Nary tips his Stetson hat and takes a long drink from the spring-fed pipe. He and Ricardo swap news and spend almost an hour filling up five-gallon water jugs and prepping our mules for the trip up to the high mesa, where we’ll be staying at his home, Rancho Mesa San Esteban. We swing up onto our mounts and start climbing as the sun dips behind the ridge line, casting the trail in shadow. Trudi informs me the trail we’re on is part of the old El Camino Real, a centuries-old backcountry trading route that once linked missions from Loreto all the way up to present-day Sonoma, California. Up tight hairpin bends slippery with scree, and across rock faces polished to a patina, the mules are slow yet sure-footed, despite my doubts. (“Trust your mule,” Trudi’s voice reminds me from behind.) Our progress is steady until Nary spots a young calf lying motionless on the shoulder of the trail and dismounts. Seizing its horns, he tries to help it stand, but the calf is limp, its eyes glazed over. “There’s nothing else I can do,” Nary shrugs.

Eleonari Arce Aguilar and his daughter Guadalupe at Rancho Mesa San Esteban in the Sierra de San Francisco of Baja California Sur, Mexico.

Photograph by Balazs Gardi

The high mesa

Long before the US-Mexico border came into force, vaqueros drove massive herds of Spanish cattle freely through the borderlands, seeding a cultural and linguistic legacy that endures to this day. ‘Buckaroo’, for instance, derives from ‘vaquero’, while the word ‘rodeo’ comes from the Spanish verb ‘rodear’ (to round up). Moreover, the US livestock industry is full of techniques that originated in Mexico, from branding and saddle-cinching to the use of hand-braided lariats (a word that derives from ‘la reata’, meaning ‘the rope’) to rope cattle.

And while cowboy culture north of the border has dwindled to become a shadow of its former self, some insist that Baja’s off-grid vaqueros still embody the rugged individualism of US legend. “They’re the last representation of the cowboys who conquered the West,” Fermín Reygadas tells me over the phone. He’s a professor of alternative tourism at the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur and has done field research with Baja Californian ranchers for more than four decades. “Life is hard, endless work for them, but they’re free.”

Every morning before the rooster’s call, Nary’s wife, Erlinda ‘Linda’ Arce Arce begins her daily ritual. Over a cholla-fuelled stove, she sets a pot of hand-ground coffee to boil and starts slapping out corn tortillas as the two-metre radio crackles in the background, mostly with chatter about the weather. It’s not long before Guadelupe, Linda and Nary’s five-year-old daughter, bounds into the kitchen to mix chocolate powder into the milk she’s just pulled from a cow.

Sturdily built, with an ebony braid that falls to her waist, Linda met Nary at a wedding. They danced and “had eyes for each other”, she says, but it took four years of courtship before they married. Nary had to ride out and ask Linda’s father for permission to court her. Then he had to return several times a year to work on the ranch and prove his worth to the family; all part of a time-worn ritual. Often apart for months at a time, and without a reliable phone service, the two of them would talk on the radio for hours, limiting their conversations to pleasantries, since everyone in the valley could tune in. When their wedding was finally held, they celebrated with a two-day party full of feasting, drinking and live music. 

Those fun-loving times seem a long way off, in the face of the region’s water shortages, but the family still manages to lighten the mood. When Ricardo shows up at midday with his guitar, Nary and his burly father, José María ‘Chema’ Arce Arce take a break from their chores and grab their instruments (accordion for Chema, bass cello for Nary) to perform an impromptu concert of ranchero ballads on the front porch. Chema croons about unrequited love, the silver caps of his teeth glinting as he flashes a mischievous grin. Nary thrums out the base line and exchanges a smile with Guadelupe. I rock along in my chair and sip another cup of Linda’s strong, dark coffee, content to be in the shade. 

Come afternoon, Nary and Chema are once again sweating through the daily grind to make sure all their cattle are fed. Wielding pitchforks, we rake cholla cactuses into small fires to burn the spines off and fling smouldering chunks to the cows, which crash into each other to get a bite. It takes three hours for us to feed them all, then Nary sets off in search of barrel cactus for his mules and horses. In lockstep, we hike across the ravine to an even higher mesa, which is laden with volcanic rock split by the sun. 

The sky is pitch-black by the time we’re done, so Nary hacks off a dead limb of organ pipe cactus and sets it alight for the walk home. It burns red and white against an inky sky flecked with constellations. “Lámpara de ranchero,” he exclaims. Rancher’s torch. 

Filmmaker and guide Trudi Angell at Rancho Mesa San Esteban in the Sierra de San Francisco of Baja California Sur, Mexico.

Photograph by Balazs Gardi

Due south

Just after dawn, Trudi and I bid our hosts farewell and meander back to the highway for the long drive south. Our destination: San Javier, a colonial-era farming village nestled in the mountains west of Loreto. One of Trudi’s closest vaquero friends, Dario Higuera Meza, a saddle-maker, and several other old hands are having a reunion at Rancho Viejo cattle ranch. The plan is to sit around an open fire as the friends share stories over mezcal, a potent Mexican spirit distilled from the agave plant. 

The potholed road wends its way across dusty, wind-blown flats before dropping into the town of San Ignacio. The sleepy oasis boasts a palm-fringed lagoon that’s a UNESCO World Heritage Centre and Latin America’s largest wildlife sanctuary. In winter, gray whales migrate to its warm waters from Alaska to mate and calve. But with no whales to spot in high summer, we cool off with ice cream cones and take cover under the massive Indian laurels that cloak the main plaza, then walk over to Casa Lereé, a museum-cum-bookshop run by Jane Ames, a local historian and good friend of Trudi’s. Jane is a font of knowledge on all things Baja, her living room a treasure trove of vintage photographs, books, handicrafts and hiking maps. 

Pressing on to the coast, the highway plunges us down the Cuesta del Infierno (the ‘slope of hell’) to the Sea of Cortés and the mining town of Santa Rosalía. At first glance, it’s doesn’t seem like a place to linger in. Rusted hulks of industrial machinery line the road into town, which was founded in 1884 by the French company El Boleo. Although the copper mine has gone now, much of the French legacy has survived. Sun-bleached homes with red roofs and ornate balconies exude a shabby charm found nowhere else in Baja, and an iron church designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) still stands in the town centre. Around the corner, bakery Panadería El Bole serves up croissants and other French favourites, filling the air with the smell of sweet, warm bread. 

The highway then skirts windswept Conception Bay and some of the most enticing beaches in southern Baja: sugary white arcs of sand that slip into blue-green seas. Shoals of fish are visible from the shore and every so often, dolphin pods jump and dive. I have a powerful urge to just peel off the road, pull up at the water’s edge and sink into a hammock for a siesta as a fisherman grills the catch of the day. Next time, I tell myself. The long road south has given me ample time to reflect on our days in the Sierra de San Francisco. They linger like a daydream, and I feel an overriding desire to get back to the high country. Vast and relentless, a world apart.

We settle for a quick snack of mahi-mahi ceviche at a roadside stand outside Loreto and turn inland towards the Sierra de la Giganta. The road climbs up and around hairpin turns before levelling out on the outskirts of the time-warp mission town of San Javier, home to several hundred people. 

The air is cool when we arrive at Rancho Viejo. A fire flickers in the dark, and that’s where we find Dario and his old friend Juan Bautista ‘Tista’ Romero Drew, the owner of the ranch. The pair have known each other since they were teenagers, when Dario worked as a cattle wrangler for Tista’s father on a sprawling range several hours to the north. The men endured back-breaking work for little pay, but the freedom and camaraderie they enjoyed was its own reward. “We love the ranchero life,” says Dario, now in his seventies. “It’s what our fathers taught us, and what their fathers taught them.” 

All these years later, he and Tista clearly relish each other’s company. The men are custodians of an essential way of life that’s unfathomable to most of us caught up in a hyper-connected, overcomplicated world. Weeks-long cattle drives, storm floods, snake bites and surviving on one’s wits. The conversation segues from laughter to waves of nostalgia, the mesquite crackling in the silences between. Out under the stars, warmed by the fire, I’m reminded of what first drew me to the wilds of Baja. I add a few more blocks of wood to the flames, not wanting the spell to end.  

Eleonary "Nary" Arce Aguilar lights a fire while driving his animals around in search of feed near Rancho Mesa San Esteban in the Sierra de San Francisco of Baja California Sur, Mexico.

Photograph by Balazs Gardi

How to do it
 

Getting there & around
To reach the state of Baja California Sur, transit in the US and fly onwards to either Cabo San Lucas, Loreto or La Paz. Popular transit hubs include Los Angeles and San Francisco, served by airlines including British Airways and American Airlines.

Average flight time: 17h.

San Ignacio-based tours of the Sierra de San Francisco by car, on foot or by pack mule can be arranged by companies including Kuyima. Tour companies based around Loreto offer tours of the Sierra de la Giganta. Self-guided trips are possible (the town has numerous hire companies, including Hertz and Europcar).  

When to go
October to May is best, avoiding the heat of high summer. Daytime temperatures can reach 30C in autumn and spring, but can be as low as 5C at night in mid-winter, with little chance of rain throughout the season. 

Where to stay
Casa Mangos, Loreto. From $170 (£126) for two nights (minimum stay).
Ignacio Springs, San Ignacio. From $105 (£78), B&B. 

More info
La Recua, 2021 documentary
Visit México

How to do it
Saddling South offers bespoke, multi-day tours of cowboy ranches and rock art from $300 (£222) per person, including meals and transport from Loreto. 

Published in the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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