La Ventana Stories

Welcome!

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.

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”

Doña María Rieke — Ángel de Las Canoas

Many residents and winter visitors to this area can remember an earlier time when exploring the trail to Rancho Las Canoas was an annual ritual. We drove up a wide wash to within half a mile of the entrance to the upper Arroyo de Las Canoas (Arroyo of the Canoes) shown at the lower right on the map below. Passing through a small gap in a high rock wall, we found ourselves in a lush desert arboretum with torote, agave, Baja California Rock-Nettle, and other vegetation hanging from the steep south wall of the arroyo. After a short walk that included clambering over boulders and stepping across a meandering stream, we stopped to wonder about the meaning of the Shrine of Las Canoas concealed in a cave just above the trail. Then we proceeded to the ruins of the Ranch. Some hikers continued up to where the sides of the arroyo come together like the prow of a canoe below a high seasonal waterfall that blocks hiking farther. Others trudged up a hill from the Ranch to another arroyo behind a ridge to the south and walked back down a path through a slightly different ecosystem to our starting point. Had we known the history of the Pericu Indians who made the Arroyo their seasonal home, and the Rieke family who first staked a claim on this property, we might have walked slower, quieter, and with more reflective thought and conversation. This story [i] is dedicated to the memory of those people.

Note: After translation from Spanish, interview material has been edited for length and clarity.

The two to three-mile loop past the Shrine of Las Canoas
to the Rancho and back to the starting point at the
Arroyo’s narrow entrance at the bottom right.

Google Maps 2019

During the second half of the 19th century, there was a large migration of ethnic Germans into Mexico. They established several towns on the Mexican mainland where German culture is still evident today. A few brave souls came to Baja California to seek adventure and fortune prospecting for silver and gold.  Doña María Rieke’s grandfather, Eduard Rieke, was one of them. Going by the Spanish name Eduardo, he probably arrived in La Paz around 1875 and made his way to El Triunfo to look for work in the mining industry. He met Fructosa Avilés in San Antonio. She was married to Avilés Castro, and they had a son named Raymundo. However, she fell in love with the German Eduardo and left her first husband.

Continue reading “Doña María Rieke — Ángel de Las Canoas”

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)

Introduction

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”