La Ventana Stories


La Ventana Stories, an ongoing series of write-ups, started in December 2018, about the history and the happenings of La Ventana Bay and the surrounding region. Contributed by seasonally resident authors, look for a new story every few weeks during the windy season.

Doña María Rieke Verdugo, Ángel de Rancho Las Canoas [1]

During the late 1800s, several German immigrants to Mexico came to Baja California to seek their fortune; Doña María Rieke’s grandfather, Eduard Rieke, was one of them. Adopting the Spanish name Eduardo, he arrived in La Paz in the late 1800s and made his way to El Triunfo to look for work. He met Fructosa Avilés in San Antonio, and they fell in love. She was married and had a son but left her husband for Eduardo.

Eduardo learned about a Piedra Inscrita, Inscribed Rock, in the Las Canoas Arroyo above the Bay of La Ventana [2,3]. The rock held a clue to the location of a vein of gold discovered by Pericue Indians, which came to be known as La Tapada, The Covered [Mine].  Eduardo came to Las Canoas to search for La Tapada.

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Piedra Inscrita de Las Canoas

Eduardo found the Piedra Inscrita, but not La Tapada. However, he saw potential in the Las Canoas Arroyo property, filed a claim for it, and wrote the date on a rock near the entrance to the Arroyo.  Eduardo and Fructosa raised a large family at Rancho Las Canoas, including their colorful son Antonio, Maria’s father.

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Antonio Rieke (upper left) and his three sons.

María Rieke was born at the Rancho on March 3, 1942, to Antonio Rieke and Vincenta Verdugo Avilés of Rancho Los Encinitos near El Ancon. Maria remembers helping with ranch work from a very young age:

We got up early to prepare coffee, grind corn by hand on a rock metate, and make tortillas. Sometimes we made pan dulce, sweet bread, if we had some flour and honey on hand. We hauled up buckets of water from a spring-filled cistern, milked the cows and goats, made cheese, cleaned our adobe and palm houses, did the washing, gathered firewood, and looked for wild plants ready to harvest. We picked a spinach-like plant for dinner called quelite, amaranth, that was abundant in the arroyos after summer rains. When native fruit was ripe, we enjoyed both sweet and sour pitahaya, ciruelos, plums, higos, figs, datils, dates, and sandlitas, passion fruit. We also hunted rabbits, pigeons, and quail. Sometimes, though, we only had enough food for two meals a day and went to bed hungry.

Besides raising cattle, running a small-scale gold mining operation, and occasionally fishing, Maria’s father kept bees and sold their wax to fishermen in El Sargento who used it to lubricate their boat riggings. Heavy rain sometimes damaged ranch property. After a summer cloudburst, the arroyo rumbled with the sound of water shoving boulders around like marbles.  When the torrent subsided, all hands helped clear paths and repair damaged structures.

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Pitaya Agria, Sour Pitaya, ripens in the fall.
(Pitaya Dulce, Sweet Pitaya, ripens in the summer)

After Inocencio Rosas Castro from El Sargento married  Socorro Aguilar from Rancho Las Canoas, he shouldered this heavy rock metate Socorro had grown up using, and carried it more than 6 miles down the arroyo to their outdoor kitchen in El Sargento.
Metate carried down from Rancho Las Canoas by Inocencio for the outdoor kitchen of his wife, Socorro Aguilar [4].

Maria recalls that while ranch life involved hard work, they made time for fun.

My father lugged a hand-cranked record player up to the ranch. We loved to listen to music and to my father sing and play the guitar. The highlight of the year was my Grandmother Fructosa’s birthday on January 21. People from El Sargento walked up to our ranch for the occasion. We played music and danced until after midnight [5] .

My Abuela Fructosa outlived her husband but did not die at Las Canoas. Some of her sons were skilled cowboys and when needed, went to Todos Santos or Pescadero to amanzar bestias, tame wild horses. On one of these trips, Fructosa went with them but died before they could return. My own mother died in her early fifties, probably from the rigors of ranch life.

At the Rancho, we treated most illnesses and injuries ourselves. But if one of the younger women were pregnant and began labor, someone took an extra horse and rode down to La Ventana to get Prudencia Amador, who was a partera, midwife. I remember they brought her up there when my younger siblings were born.

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Doña María Rieke next to the remains of an arrastra her family used to crush gold ore.
(April 2017)

According to Gregorio Castro Calderón, around 1957 miners came to Las Canoas to explore for gold.  Led by engineer Sebastián Díaz Encinas, they opened La Sonia mine, where they believed gold had been extracted before. This was at a place nearby called  El Campamento, which María remembers visiting:

I took freshly-made cheese up to the miners to trade for beans and rice. Some people said that La Sonia was named after Senor Díaz‘s daughter. The only women I remember up there were the cooks. My father sold or traded the gold we found on our ranch property to buyers in La Paz or San Antonio. There was never much profit from our small operation. 

Ernesto Rieke said that his father Enrique, one of Eduardo’s sons, told him that the first mines of Las Canoas may have been dug by Indians. He remembered a story about a ship that came to pick up a load of gold and pearls but was attacked by Indians before it could be loaded. They killed most of the ship’s crew, hid the treasure in a mine, and covered the entrance.  Perhaps that was La Tapada. Sr. Enrique Rieke used his mining skills to excavate most of the wells in El Sargento, and others in La Ventana, El Teso, and nearby ranchos.

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Looking down a well lined with adobe brick at Rancho Santa Rosa (photo 2007)
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The Shrine of Las Canoas (Piedra Inscrita)

Perhaps the biggest mystery surrounding the Rancho is the “Shrine of Las Canoas.” The rock’s face has a faint cross at the left and the name Jesus below it. At the upper right are the words Sor María and under them the date año 1763 Agosto 3 [6]. I’ve been told there‘s an image of a ship somewhere on the rock. Can you find it? 

María’s father, Antonio, was known as the Güero of Las Canoas because of his fair complexion.  Although illiterate, he took care of the Rancho’s business in La Paz, sometimes using humor to his advantage as in these two stories [7]:

One time the Güero visited a friend in La Paz and suggested they sail to the  Magote to pick wild plums. Antonio found a pair of panties under a tree and bet his friend that they belonged to his madre. Later, walking back to the friend’s house, two young ladies approached the men from the other direction. Antonio held up the panties and asked if they belonged to one them. Infuriated, one of the girls yelled pertenecen a tu madre prostituta, they belong to your prostitute mother.  See, Antonio said, turning to his surprised friend, I think you owe me some money.

Another time,  Antonio killed and butchered a neighbor’s bull that had wandered onto Rancho property. The neighbor had Antonio subpoenaed to court in La Paz. The deputy asked Antonio why he had slaughtered the animal. Antonio asked if the deputy had forgotten that he’d given him permission. I gave you a license to kill one of your bulls, the deputy answered. Delagado, the Güero replied, I can slaughter my animals anytime I want; I only asked because the beast on our property was not mine. The Güero left the court that day smiling.

There are legends about Victor Navarro, the cowboy of the Cacachilas,  aka Don Diablo [8]. Less well known are the exploits of Doña María Rieke, Ángel of Las Canoas, if  I can coin the expression. As she recalls here, her adventures were just part of living in the mountains:

Sometimes I walked or went by horse over dangerous trails through the sierra with my siblings to La Paz to sell gold and buy coffee, beans, and rice. On other occasions, I traveled alone from Las Canoas to San Antonio to see my cousin, Emilia. I’d start at 8 o’clock in the morning, stop at ranchos along the way, and arrive at my cousin’s place in the late afternoon.

I don’t remember my exact age when Victor and I started a relationship. He used to visit Las Canoas to look for work. Before we had children, we’d ride together hunting for deer and other game. I loved to explore the mountains with him, and we often rode double. With a hand from Victor, I’d swing myself onto a blanket behind the saddle and hold onto him tight. When my father got more horses, I rode my own.

In 1958 when I was 16, Victor shot a wild pig. He followed it to a  small cave,  entered to remove the dead animal, and was astonished to find one wall covered with pinturas rupestres. I don’t think Victor was the first person to find the cave. Other people living in the mountains probably knew about it also. Two people lived in a cave near us during that time. They were friendly and had the features of Indians. The man was tall and had a prominent, curved nose. His wife was small and always wore a headscarf. They spoke Spanish with us, but between themselves, they spoke a language we did not understand. They hunted rabbits with slingshots, traded us gold for food, and sometimes helped in the mines. 

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Cave Rock Art in Cacachilas Visited by Victor Navarro In 1958
(Notice the coincidental Baja-Penninsula shape at the lower-left outlined in black shading.)
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Victor Navarro in the cave he discovered while hunting.
Photo Courtesy Aníbal López  Espinoza,  2010

Victor and I had some favorite camping spots under big Palo San Juan trees. He chiseled his name on their trunks, carved images of animals and cattle brands, and chipped out figures, probably to get his bearings and remember where water could be found. After nightfall, we’d put the saddle blankets on the ground, pull palm fronds over us for warmth, and watch the stars and constellations pass overhead.

Below: Carvings by Victor Navarro on  Palo San Juan trees in the Cacachilas. Courtesy of Chuck Murphy 2019 [10]

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Palo San Juan Tree on the Main Road in North El Sargento
(Photo 2019)

On one hunting trip, Victor dismounted by a tree that had round pods hanging among clusters of narrow leaves and picked a few to investigate. Something from the tree got in his eyes, and by the next morning, he was blind. It took a few weeks before his vision was completely restored. [The tree, actually a bush that grows up to 20 feet tall, is the Yerba de Flecha, the Poison Arrow Tree, and the pods are the famous Mexican jumping bean.]

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Yerba de Flecha, easily identified by the narrow three-inch-long leaves that are slightly serrated along the edge.

I was not afraid of wild animals, but we tried to keep our distance from rabid ones. A mad fox bit one of my brothers who had to be treated in La Paz. Another time camping with Victor, I woke up to find a rattlesnake next to my arm. I kept as still as possible, but when I moved,  the snake reared its head and shook its rattles. Finally, after what seemed like hours, it slithered off into the bushes.

Victor found work at San Antonio, but the job only lasted a few months, so he returned and stayed with me for a while. When I became pregnant, he promised to marry me but reneged later. He didn’t want to be tied down, but he always came back to me as I was the only person who accepted his way of life.

As the population at Las Canoas grew larger, it became more difficult to get by raising goats, gathering wild plants, and crushing rocks for diminishing amounts of gold.  My aunt Ramona had 12 children and could not provide them enough food. They often went to bed hungry.

People began to leave the Ranch to marry or just to find a job. I was one of the last to stay. I raised goats and made a small amount of money selling meat and cheese in El Sargento.

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Ten-mile round-trip path Maria followed to sell cheese in El Sargento

One day I returned from the village and found my hut had burned down. I had three boys to care for as well as my father, whose health was deteriorating fast. I decided to move us all to a shady palo verde tree close to the beach near the village. I stretched out a rope around our campsite so the cows wouldn‘t trample us while we slept. Not long after we moved, my dad died. 

We didn’t get much help from the older residents of El Sargento, who considered people from Las Canoas to be backward. I think we were looked down on because we hadn’t attended school. Even relatives who had moved down earlier and married Ejido members treated us as lower class. One time it turned so cold I asked a lady in town if we could stay in an empty room she had, but she turned us away.  I was able to earn a small amount of money washing clothes and doing other domestic jobs, barely enough to get by.

Kiki Lucero saved us by giving me a job taking care of his livestock for 800 pesos a month. I got up at 3 o’clock in the morning, took a container of hot coffee with me, and walked up to the corrals where I fed the animals, milked the cows and goats, and cleaned up the place. If I hadn’t found work, we probably would have starved to death.

One time Victor resorted to drastic measures to help his homeless family.  He rounded up and sold two cows for a rancher but made off with the money. The owner reported the theft to the authorities in La Paz; they found Victor and put him in jail. That’s when he made his famous escape and led the police on a chase through the mountains he knew so well. He even “borrowed” food from the sleeping posse at night. They never caught him. That’s probably how he got his nickname of Don Diablo, Devil.

Around this time, Victor decided to go to Tijuana to look for work. He spent one year there but never had enough success to send Maria any money. In the meantime, Maria’s oldest son, Javier, got a job working as a fisherman to help the family financially – he was only 11 years old.

Maria remembers this was when their life began to improve:

 Relatives finally helped us get warm clothes and shelter. Eventually, we got a piece of land and built a little hut out of cartón on it, which I painted blue. We tried for several years to get the CFE to extend the power lines out to our home. Finally, Eli and Federico, windsurfers from Germany, bought property nearby and got them to bring electricity north of the village, making our lives much more comfortable.

My father inherited Rancho Las Canoas, but as he was illiterate, he left the title papers and power of attorney with a cousin who lived at Rancho Dos Hermanos. Many years after my father died, the property was sold to an American for 25 million pesos, as I recall. The cousin claimed all the money went to pay for my brother’s heart treatment in Mexico City. We never received a cent. Unfortunately, my brother died just a few days after returning home.

My father’s cousin had always been poor, but he no longer works and now lives in a large house in La Paz. I continued to get by caring for cattle and doing domestic jobs for Americans until I became too frail to continue working. I’m proud I can recall these events from the past and contribute to this story about Rancho Las Canoas.

Old-timers in La Ventana and El Sargento remember when hiking to Rancho Las Canoas was an annual event until access to the arroyo was fenced off.  However, if you use your imagination, I’ll take you there. We’ll drive up the road from El Sargento that Maria walked so often, then hike the last quarter-mile to the entrance of the upper arroyo. Watch your step when you climb through the gap in the rock wall and enter a lush valley splashed with desert green.

Follow me around the boulders, and across the meandering stream, but be careful where you put your feet – rattlesnakes live here. Watch for Xantus’ hummingbirds, the only endemic hummers in Baja. We will stop at the Shrine of  Las Canoas under the giant fig tree ahead on the right bank. There are some boulders to climb over before we arrive at the ruins of the Ranch.  Someday, I hope a memorial plaque will be placed here to honor Maria and the Riekes, the First Family of Las Canoas.

After dinner at the Rancho campground, we‘ll dance to music from a hand-cranked record player. Before we head back down, close your eyes and listen for a voice from the past coming from one of Victor and Maria‘s camps.  As darkness falls and the constellations begin to sparkle overhead, one of them sings a popular Mexican bolero of the time: “Now we own all the stars/ And a million guitars/ Are still playing./ Darling, you are the song,/ And you’ll always belong/ To my heart.” 

Tom at

Note: Rancho Las Canoas is private property, part of Rancho Cacachilas. Guided hikes and bike rides ending at Rancho Las Canoas can be arranged at the Bike Hub in El Sargento, or the Rancho web site. Hopefully, a walk to Shrine of Las Canoas, as described above, will be offered someday by Rancho Cacachilas.

[1] A story constructed from background material and interviews with Maria Rieke by Elisabeth and Federico Weiland, and Tom Spradley.

[2] From a 2006 interview with 70-year-old Gregorio Castro Calderón by Josue Sanders (married to Julia Rieke)

[3] When we asked Maria if she knew where the name Las Canoas came from, she told us to hike up to the very end of the canyon where there is sometimes a waterfall. She said if we climb up to the base of the waterfall, we will find the canyon narrows to point just like a canoe.  Other former Las Canoas residents have told us there is a rock above the floor of the arroyo with drawings of canoes.

[4] After Inocencio Rosas Castro from El Sargento married  Socorro Aguilar from Rancho Las Canoas, he shouldered this heavy rock metate Socorro had grown up using and carried it more than 6 miles down the arroyo to their outdoor kitchen in El Sargento.

[5] Told to Tom & Louise Spradley around 2008 by Anolfo and Anilita of El Sargento who attended the dances.

[6]  “Sor María” means “Sister María,” but in 1763 Sor María was someone special to Jesuit missionaries in the New World. She had lived in Spain in the 1600s. At a young age, she began to have mystical ecstasies. She wanted to go to the New World as a missionary, a role filled mostly by men in those times. She became a nun and convinced her rich father to convert the family estate into a convent so she would not have to leave home. She became one of the 10 most influential women in Spanish history, a trusted advisor to King Felipe IV, and author of many books. Though she never left Spain, she believed she had traveled to Mexico during trances and converted the Jumano Indians living along the Rio Grande, and Jumano Indians reported many visits by a lady dressed in blue. Each year the Jumanos celebrate these visits at a festival that honors The Lady in Blue. In 1763 Jesuits were still exploring remote areas of Baja looking for Indian Rancherias and new converts. They looked to the story of Sor María for inspiration and strength. On August 3, 1763, it appears that someone visited this place and created the Shrine of Las Canoas.

[7] Crónicas: La Paz y sus Historias, “El Guero del Rancho las Canoas,”  Noticalifornia: “El Güero de Las Canoas y el Novillo Perdido


[9] When author Aníbal López  Espinoza was tracking down and photographing the rock art of the Cape Region for his book Evocaciones del Olvido (Reminders of a Forgotten Past – 2013), Victor Navarro took him to the cave paintings he had discovered in the Sierra de Las Cacachilas. 

[10] Several of the Palo San Juan trees Victor camped under have been discovered by Chuck Murphy. The species, which has Federal protection, live hundreds of years and produce edible fruit. Victor Navarro’s name and the date are carved in many of the trees. He also left works of art, arborglyphs, on some, a tradition of  Basque sheepherders in the United States, and apparently of at least one Baja cowboy.

The Invasion of La Paz by an American Filibuster

Since the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519, Mexico has gone through several major political iterations. But La Paz and the Peninsula have, in addition, had their own peculiar brushes with international politics. First, some early history.

La Paz Bay was “discovered” in 1533 by Spaniard Fortun Ximenez, but efforts to establish a colony were thwarted by natives who killed him and his 21 crew members. Hernán Cortez arrived in 1535 after successfully subduing the mainland and named the Bay “Santa Cruz.” But his attempt to gain a foothold on the wild Baja peninsula also came to naught. His colony failed in a few years.

Fast forward to 1596 when the Spanish finally made a go of it. A successful colony was founded by Sebastian Vizcaíno and given the name “La Paz.” “New Spain,” as the country was known, held forth until 1821 when, after a protracted struggle (1810-21), the sovereign Republic of Mexico was established with the signing of the Treaty of Córdoba.

In 1861, however, conservative elements fought for the return of a monarchy. The French helped make it happen. France invaded and put monarch Maximillian I on a throne. The U.S. during this period, of course, was embroiled in the Civil War and didn’t have resources to help Mexican liberals keep the French out.

But, at the end of the war, the U.S. actively opposed Maximilian’s regime. France withdrew its support in 1867, monarchist-rule collapsed, Maximilian was executed, and the republic was restored.

Continue reading “The Invasion of La Paz by an American Filibuster”

Considering Birds When Building in La Ventana

Down here in Baja where my wife and I own a wee abode to escape the chilly Canadian winter weather, we are seeing lots of new houses going up. Some of the local folks are even blaming an apparent decline in our songbird populations on all of this construction. But it is not fair of us to roll up the carpet and tell others that they cannot enjoy our neighborhood too. So… what to do? How can we build our homes but also keep the birds here?

Costa’s Hummingbird in El Sargento (photo: Chris Smith)

If you are building a new home down here, and you do care about the birds, consider these tips on how to minimize the impact of construction on their populations:

Continue reading “Considering Birds When Building in La Ventana”

John Steinbeck in Baja (Part 2)

Read Part 1 of this story first, if you haven’t already. Onward…

The crew was anxious to port in La Paz. Their encounter with ragged little St. Lucas had been disappointing.

Cape St. Lucas had not really been a town, and our crew had convinced itself that it had been a very long time out of touch with civilization…. In addition, there is a genuine fascination with of the city of La Paz. Everyone in the area knows the greatness of La Paz. You can get anything in the world there… (and) a cloud of delight hangs over the distant city from the time when it was the great pearl center of the world.

Steinbeck noted that the La Paz pearl oyster drew men from all over the world.

And, as in all concentrations of natural wealth, the terrors of greed were let loose on the city again and again.

In Chapter 11, he recounts a cautionary folk tale about the greed associated with finding a massive pearl. The story became the catalyst for his novella, The Pearl, published in 1945, in which an impoverished pearl diver finds a huge pearl. “The Pearl of the World” promises to transform his life. It does, but not in the way one might expect.

By 1936, a century of rampant overfishing of oyster beds had depleted natural stocks to the point where recovery was unlikely. To cap it off, an unknown disease then spread rapidly through the remaining oysters, virtually wiping them out. By the time Steinbeck arrived, the glory days of Mexican pearling were over.

During several days of collecting, the crew was joined by a rag-tag rabble of young boys seeking adventure. Steinbeck rewarded them with 10 centavo pieces for specimens they collected. Even if creatures captured by these budding marine biologists were too mangled to be useful, Steinbeck paid them anyway.

Continue reading “John Steinbeck in Baja (Part 2)”

John Steinbeck in Baja (Part 1)

In 1940, author John Steinbeck took a breather from writing fiction—he had just published Grapes of Wrath (1939)—and ventured on a six-week, 4,000-mile expedition down the Pacific Coast of Baja and into and up what is now more commonly called the Gulf of California. Steinbeck and long-time marine biologist friend Ed Ricketts leased the Western Flyer, a 76-foot sardine boat out of Monterey.

The result was a work of non-fiction, The Sea of Cortez (1941)—a 600-page pioneering treatise focusing on the intertidal or shoreline (littoral) ecology of Baja. Steinbeck published The Log from the Sea of Cortez, a more accessible preface to the much larger work, in 1951.

Here, in this two-part article, we focus not on marine invertebrates, but Steinbeck’s philosophical musings and observations of Baja in this pre-WWII era.

Pulitzer-prize winning author John Steinbeck had a “thing” about Baja. Born in Salinas, CA, in 1902, the Salinas Valley, Monterey and the Pacific Coast—about 25 miles distant—would serve as settings for some of his best fiction. The location also sparked a deep and abiding interest in marine biology, enhanced as a young man after he took a course on general zoology in 1923.

His first major success came in 1935 with Tortilla Flat, stories about Monterey’s paisanos. Two of his best known and most powerful novels followed: Of Mice and Men (1937) and Grapes of Wrath (1939). And there were dozens more including Cannery Row (1945) and his monumental East of Eden (1952), the saga of the Salinas Valley and his own family history.

In 1940, however, Steinbeck took a breather from fiction and ventured on a six-week, 4,000-mile expedition down the Pacific Coast of Baja and into and up what is now more commonly called the Gulf of California. Steinbeck and long-time marine biologist friend Ed Ricketts leased the Western Flyer, a 76-foot sardine boat out of Monterey.

The result was a work of non-fiction, The Sea of Cortez (1941)—a 600-page pioneering treatise focusing on the intertidal or shoreline (littoral) ecology of Baja. Steinbeck published The Log from the Sea of Cortez, a more accessible preface to the much larger work, in 1951.

This exciting day-by-day account of their expedition combines science, philosophy and high-spirited adventure—providing a much fuller picture of Steinbeck and his beliefs about humans and the world. In addition, the book provides interesting and valuable insights into the history of Baja just prior to the outbreak of World War II.

Continue reading “John Steinbeck in Baja (Part 1)”

The Coral Reefs of La Ventana Bay

Below the vast blue mirror of Ventana Bay lives a variety of flora and fauna, what the locals call “silvestre” or the “wild”. At the core of this diverse ecosystem are the rocky coral reefs that dot our beautiful coast line. While our predominantly finger-based coral may not provide as colorful a display as seen in coral colonies throughout the Caribbean, these shallow, rock-based reefs provide a critical habitat for a diverse array of life that have called Ventana Bay “home” long before we did.

Baby fish or “juveniles” seek protection and sustenance in these shallow reef systems and adult turtles come in for rest and nourishment. Slow-growing coral colonies are nurseries not only to fish, but to crustaceans, star fish, sea urchins, clams, sea anemones and a host of other critters that hold a symbiotic relationship with their living host. Mary Sim, a local snorkeler living in the area since 1987 and a full-time since resident 1998, recalls in one snorkel session, “logging over 95 varieties of fish on one reef.” Continue reading “The Coral Reefs of La Ventana Bay”

Discovering the Great Cave Murals of Baja

Jesuit Padre Joseph Maxiáno Rotheax gazed in surprise and wonder at the ceiling and back wall of the underside of the huge cliff. Staring back at him were a series of life-sized or larger than life-sized human figures standing with arms outstretched, feet wide apart. They were virtually neckless. The heads of many were decorated with several forms of headdress. Most of the figures were neatly split down the middle—one side painted in reddish pigment; the other in black. Some were depicted as having been shot with one or more arrows.

Most of the Monos appear to have been wounded with arrows—another common feature of the cave paintings. The best archeologists can surmise is the obvious—these are battle scenes. (San Borjitas, Photo by Lorin Robinson)

In addition to these apparitions, the cave contained simple but lifelike representations of mammals, birds and sea life. Based on evidence of extensive overpainting and faded pigments, Rotheax assumed the drawings were of great age.

Two beautifully rendered deer. In addition to human figures, the caves are festooned with mammals and marine life. Note the overpainting and fading indicating great age. (La Palmarita, Photo by Lorin Robinson)

Rotheax’s visit to this painted cave in the Sierra de San Francisco mountains of central Baja took place on an unknown date in the late 1760s, shortly before all Jesuit missionaries to the peninsula were recalled when the order was expelled from Spain. He had heard from Cochimi natives he served in San Ignacio of many caves reputedly painted by a race of giants who had migrated to the region from the north centuries earlier. Since many of the paintings are 20-30 feet above the floors of these cliff overhangs, known in Spanish as respaldos, the Cochimi believed that they could only have been created by giant artists.

His native informants claimed their people had nothing to do with the drawings; that, as far as was known, they were there before the Cochimi came to the region. They had no idea what they meant or how they were made. Continue reading “Discovering the Great Cave Murals of Baja”

Fact-checking the “Gustave Eiffel” El Triunfo Chimney Story

Fact checking has become a major industry. The focus is primarily political as legions of fact-checkers try to ascertain the “truthiness” of politicians’ pronouncements. But, other “facts” need checking, too.

In my recent article The Eiffel Chimney & Mining Museum of El Triunfo, I parroted the common wisdom that French engineer Gustave Eiffel—he of Eiffel Tower fame—designed El Triunfo’s iconic 10-story high chimney, built in 1890. But, despite numerous citations to that effect on-line, the reality is that Eiffel’s involvement in the design of the chimney is questionable.

Unfortunately, this is a “fact” that’s difficult to check for lack of original source material. One of the most persuasive citations in favor comes from a 2008 report to the Geographic Society of America outlining an archeological study conducted in El Triunfo:

“El Triunfo, like other mining communities, utilized some of the most advanced industrial technology of the 19th century, including La Ramona, 35-meter-high smokestack designed by Gustav Eiffel, renowned engineer and designer of the Eiffel Tower….”

But no primary source material was cited.

Two readers—both of whom have studied the history of the chimney—let me know they have been unable to find any support the claim. And a sign posted on a fence surrounding the base of the chimney—placed there as part of the recent restoration project—calls the Eiffel story a myth.

“Although we don’t know specifically who designed it, we do know that it was NOT Gustave Eiffel as a local myth has had it for years; there is no record of the structure in the Eiffel archives in France.”

If the story is not true, an interesting question remains: who created the myth and why?

A Brief History of the Founding of La Ventana (II)


In Part 1 (see Part 1 here),  Cortés landed on Cerralvo, and named the island Santiago. Vizcaino tried to found a settlement here. Now, a century later, we meet Francisco de Ortega who visited our bay three times. Evidence suggests he landed here, befriended the Indians, and reported on their customs. An ingenious and politically astute person, he carried a new machine to aid in the search for pearls. Ortega and crew were marooned when their ship broke to pieces on the rocks north of Punta Gorda.

Part 2 —   The Voyages of Francisco de Ortega to La Ventana Bay  1632-1636

Kcuhc and Ykceb left camp at dawn. They had work to do on a trail to Cerro del Puerto (Pericú sacred mountain west of El Sargento). They hiked up a narrow arroyo past red-billed colibrís  (hummingbirds) feeding on the blossoms of a plant hanging from the arroyo’s south wall. On the opposite side, abejas (bees) worked on honeycomb inside a rock alcove.

At a mojón de roca (rock cairn), the trailblazers climbed to a ridge where a giant, old, gray-top cactus stood. Its multitude of tall columns towered high above their heads. They had used rebanadas (slices) cut from young gray-tops to treat stingray wounds. But the tribe was in awe of this old gray-top. It was one of several natural landmarks created by Niparaja throughout the Cunimniici  (Pericú word for mountain range, the Cacachilas and others of Baja Sur) to guide them to water, shelters, and sacred sites. The ancestors had left other landmarks on the sides of giant boulders: images of animals, humans, hands, and geometric figures.

Old Gray-Top Cactus Marking Trail to Cerro del Puerto


Landmark on Boulder in Cacachilas above La Ventana



A century after Cortés’ voyage to the Baja peninsula, Martín de Lezama, an accountant in Mexico City, and son-in-law of Vizcaíno, wanted to try his suerte (luck) in California. After the Viceroy of New Spain, the 3rd Marquis of Cerralvo, approved his plans, Lezama hired carpenters and shipwrights, and took everyone to a place on the Pacific coast with good access to timber to build his ship. However, after the Crown ordered the Viceroy to halt further exploration of California until he could determine if colonization was advisable, Lezama found “the inhospitable land and the many mosquitoes,” not to his liking. He abandoned the project, and returned, leaving everyone else stranded.

Continue reading “A Brief History of the Founding of La Ventana (II)”

The Eiffel Chimney & Mining Museum of El Triunfo

Update: despite numerous citations to that effect on-line, the reality is that Eiffel’s involvement in the design of the chimney is questionable. Read here an updated “fact-check” of this article – Lorin.

Here’s a trivia question that’s likely to stump all players: What do the most famous landmark in Paris, the Statue of Liberty and the 115-foot high smelting chimney looming over El Triunfo have in common? The answer—Gustav Eiffel, the famed 19th architect and civil engineer whose best-known creation is his tower in Paris. It’s not widely known, however, that Eiffel had a world-wide reputation and designed structures all over the globe.

Eiffel Chimney, El Triunfo

Eiffel’s wrought-iron tower, completed in 1889, is the most visited attraction in the world with almost seven million tourists ascending to one of three levels on the 1,063 foot structure in 2015.

The Statue of Liberty was a joint effort between France and the United States intended to commemorate the friendship between the peoples of the two nations. The French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi created the statue itself out of sheets of hammered copper, while Eiffel designed the statue’s steel framework. It was dedicated in 1886 and remains one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks.

In contrast, the towering “La Ramona” chimney in El Triunfo is little known outside of Southern Baja. Continue reading “The Eiffel Chimney & Mining Museum of El Triunfo”