South of El Rosario
For travelers who are making their way down the Baja peninsula, the terrain below El Rosario marks the beginning of the real adventure. The next sizable town lies a couple of hundred kilometers away; meanwhile, pristine desert scenery unfolds with every turn.
Around Km. 62, cirio and cardón cacti begin to dot the landscape. This drive is particularly spectacular if you arrive toward the end of the rainy season in October or November, when all the desert flowers are in bloom.
Misión San Fernando Velicatá
The Franciscans built only one mission (1769–1818) in lower California; the little that remains of it can be found relatively close to the highway (8 km to the west), off a dirt road that begins at Km. 121 near Rancho Progresso. Although the Jesuits discovered the site in 1766, it was Franciscan Father Junípero Serra who established the mission in 1769.
A strategic location halfway between the Pacific and Gulf coasts ensured an important, if short-lived, role. In time, some 1,500 indigenous people came to live and worship at San Fernando. The mission came under Dominican control in 1772 but would experience a rapid decline by the end of the decade due to an epidemic.
Only some bits of walls and the foundation remain; the real attraction today is the arroyo setting. You’ll find two ranchitos near the site. Look for petroglyphs and pictographs dating back to the 17th century in the rock cliffs above the arroyo.
At Km. 149, a 15-kilometer graded dirt road heads east to an abandoned onyx quarry that was run by a San Diego mining company from the turn of the 20th century through the 1950s. Demand for the brown-and-tan banded mineral was highest during the art deco period, when it was used as a substitute for marble in American homes.
Today you’ll find the remains of a schoolhouse made entirely of onyx, a cemetery with onyx-covered gravestones, and a scattering of onyx blocks around the site.
Valle de los Cirios
According to desert plant specialist Robert R. Humphrey, the area contains one of the most interesting and varied types of desert flora in the world.
This government-funded project has resulted in chain of ecologically sound cabanas throughout the area; all are rustic, solar-powered, constructed from local materials, and built to blend as much as possible with the natural surroundings. Each locale is based on proximity to longstanding ranches, and the ranchers themselves have been trained to work as hosts and guides to the surrounding area.
The idea behind the project is to preserve the fragile ecosystem by empowering its few inhabitants to live off of the natural beauty around them, while providing tourists with a low-impact way of experiencing this unique environment. The average price is US$120 for two people; reasonably priced meals can be arranged through the families operating the ranches.
Concepción Recoder (tel. 615/157-2849, cell tel. 646/161-8149, crecoder [at] conanp [dot] gob [dot] mx) will put interested visitors in touch with the appropriate ranch. The Valle de los Cirios office is attached to the Comisión Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP) office in Guerrero Negro (Profesor Domingo Carballo Félix s/n at Ruiz Cortinez, Col. Marcelo Rubio, Guerrero Negro, www.conanp.gob.mx).
© Nikki Goth Itoi from Moon Baja, 9th Edition