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.

El Sargento’s First Settlers — Part 1

Introduction

The pueblo of El Sargento in Baja California Sur overlooks the Bay of La Ventana and Isla Cerralvo, the rugged, uninhabited island seven miles offshore. In 1998, the quiet fishing village had a population of around 800.[i] A dozen foreigners had built homes close to the beach below the washboard road going north from town. They bought their groceries from Armida at the one-room market in her mother’s house across from the church plaza.  You could have a delicious Mexican meal at Tacos Leon for as little as two dollars. The place was so popular, people often had to wait outside for the “second sitting.”

Ten concrete-block homes lined the narrow dirt road that winds through the pueblo. Mexican families enjoyed sitting outdoors on their verandas, eating dinner, visiting with neighbors, and watching children play in the street. When the newcomers drove by, out of common courtesy they slowed to a crawl to avoid causing an injury or leaving residents choking on clouds of dust. A few recent visitors, however, seem to be in such a big hurry that they forget they are guests in another country. They careen through the zigzag as though competing in the Baja 1000. They must be going someplace more important than respect for La Gente, the Mexican people who live and work here.

The campground at the pueblo’s sister village 5 km to the south, La Ventana, was a winter haven for a few hundred windsurfers. That was about to change. La Ventana’s first kiteboarder hit the water in 1998 with a two-line kite and a broken seven-foot surfboard he had glued back together. The combination was a sight foreign to most people that day, but it changed the bay forever. That was my son, Bruce. Soon there would be more kites in the sky than sails on the water.

The two villages provided only essential services for visitors. If you needed gas for a trip to La Paz to fill up, go shopping, or check email at an internet cafe, you stopped by Juan Ramon’s hardware. Juan or Alejandro Rieke pumped a few gallons of gasoline from a barrel to get you there. And if you spoke some Spanish, they had some interesting stories to share.

Alejandro Rieke

Juan Avilés Avilés, who lived in a house in La Ventana decorated with chocolate clamshells, owned the only phone in town, a shoebox-size cellular. Juan had a wireless monopoly and charged ten pesos a minute, which he timed with a stopwatch while you made a phone call from his sofa. His neighbors called him Juan Lana, the equivalent of “Moneybags John.”

Nowadays, it’s not unusual for old-time visitors, to complain that twenty years ago, times were much better: fewer people, less traffic, less late-night noise, and no new home or business blocking a cherished view. I imagine many Mexicans who have always lived here feel the same way.

 Along with more people came more outdoor illumination and the misconception that light at night provides security for homes and is attractive for businesses. Properly shaded fixtures that direct light down where it is needed do, but unshielded lights produce polluting glare, attract unwanted attention, and rob everyone, especially the children who grow up here, of the awe-inspiring night sky. The gains made against light pollution with the new night-sky-friendly street lights are being lost to bare-bulb strings of hanging lights that make a property look like a cheap Christmas-tree lot. La Ventana and El Sargento cannot gain International Dark Sky status without everyone, campers, homeowners, and businesses, using only night-sky friendly outdoor lights [ii].

Change has required new legislation making it illegal to block access to beaches or drive ATVs on them, dump trash and construction debris in arroyos, and put up unshaded outdoor lights, laws designed to protect turtle habitat, the bay, the night sky, and people. Young and old have organized to protect access to beaches and the night sky, enforce the ban on driving ATVs on beaches, clean up trash from the highways, eliminate the use of plastic bags, provide funding for schools, the handicapped,  and the ambulance team, recycle cans, glass, and paper, fight global warming by reducing the consumption of meat, care for animals, and support other worthy causes. Maybe we are just beginning the best of times. [iii]


  1. [i] Gilberto Ibarra Rivera (2016),  Diccionario Sudcaliforniano: Historia, Geografía, y Biographías de Baja California Sur
  2. [ii] See resources at www.darksky.org
  3. [iii] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/10/opinion/how-to-help-climate-change.html?auth=login-email&login=email

Who Was El Sargento?

El Sargento’s earlier past is murky. It was once called La Flecha, for the arrowheads people found along mountain trails and on the bluffs above the shore. Opinions differ on how the town acquired its present name. Justiniano Lucero[i] recalls hearing that “A ship called El Sargento got caught in bad weather here, went aground, and broke up in the pounding waves. It was for this reason they called the place El Sargento.”  Another version of the story suggests the name honors a Sargento from the shipwreck, who washed up on shore dead. The grave next to the old Centro de Salud is supposedly where he is buried.

Old El Sargento Highway Sign
(Photo courtesy Sharon Bishop)

A third story for the origin of the town’s name requires some explanation. Fishermen, pearl divers, and sailors visited the region as early as 1816 to quench their thirst at El Pozo del Sargento, The Sergeant’s Well. [ii] It was probably located near the palmar, palm grove, next to Las Palmas Restaurant, which provided a sheltered place for a canoe or ship’s boat to land near the well. Nowadays, surfers or Minnesotans are more likely to visit the watering hole at the Restaurant and quench their thirst with a few beers or margaritas.

The third story, mentioned above, involves a sergeant Spain posted here in the early 1800s to watch for ships flying a Dutch, English, or freebooter flag. If the lookout spotted one, he warned the garrison in La Paz. Perhaps homing pigeons carried the message, or maybe the sergeant took it himself, running through the mountains on Indian trails. Even today, a few aging marathoners make the run in the opposite direction for no apparent reason other than to reenact history, a brave and noble act requiring many hours of training.

Believe what you wish—shipwreck, dead sergeant, or lookout’s well. If you find none of them convincing, a vacationing birdwatcher once suggested to me that the pueblo was named for the El Sargento Bird, a migratory species that frequents these parts during the winter mating season. In any case, for one reason or another, people started calling this place El Sargento.


  1. [i] From Josue Sanders Interview with Justiniano Lucero Aviles, age 84 (2006)
  • [ii]  Gilberto Ibarra Rivera (2016),  Diccionario Sudcaliforniano: Historia, Geografía, y Biographías de Baja California Sur                                                                                           

The First Colonists

Schemes to attract buyers to nonexistent resorts on the Bay of La Ventana are not original with twenty-first-century scammers. In 1862, The Lower California Colonization and Mining Company of San Francisco lured settlers here with outright lies about a colonial town on the shores of the Bahía de la Ventura, Bay of Treasure. The shrewd promoters did not think Bahía de la Ventana, Bay of the Window, was seductive enough to sell a fool’s paradise.[i]

The colonial town the company was “building” was said to be surrounded by 125,000 acres of fertile, well-irrigated land producing a variety of fruits and vegetables. A network of roads made it easy to sell a bountiful harvest to miners in nearby San Antonio and El Triunfo. The sea and mountains had pearls, gold, and precious stones for the taking. There were verdant woodlands and streams. It must have all been true because it was shown right on the promoter’s maps. All that was missing was kitesurfing, pizza, and a website, but those would inevitably follow in 150 years. Despite these fanciful claims, people invested money and signed up to colonize the new town. After all, there were persistent rumors that the United States would soon acquire Lower California, instantly making the land soar in value.

After a miserable voyage of 27 days, when the seasick colonists disembarked, all they found was a parched and prickly desert—no city, no fertile farmland, and no water or food. The disillusioned colonists had to dig in the arroyos for water as they made their way through the hostile desert to San Antonio. Most, if not all of the vagabonds, ended up in La Paz, a city of some 800 souls, and begged them for passage back to San Francisco.

Disillusioned Colonists After Landing at La Ventura (La Ventana)
(Do you see yourself in this sketch?)

[i] Browne, J. Ross (1862) Explorations in Lower California 1868 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, November 1868 pages 744-746


The First Settlers

In the 1750s, Manuel de Osio used his pearling fortune to develop the first privately-owned cattle ranch in Baja California, near San Antonio. His success attracted others into raising livestock, and the number of ranchos grew steadily over the next 150 years. One of them was Eduardo Rieke’s Las Canoas Rancho in the mountains above El Sargento; there were others within a day’s walking distance of the village.

Beginning around 1909, a trickle of ranch hands made their way to El Sargento. They came from Las Canoas, Agua Amarga, Punta Perico, and Bahia de Los Muertos, Bay of the Dead, where ships docked to unload supplies and pick up cattle for the mainland. A few disenchanted mineworkers came from El Triunfo. One family of mountain homesteaders arrived from the rugged valley-and-ridge enclaves a few miles northeast of El Triunfo, where some of the region’s finest alfareros, potters, developed their art. They all shared a desire to build a better life for their families. Many of the newcomers were Luceros, “bright stars” in Spanish, cousins of some degree who brought the energy of bright stars to the growing village.

Tia María

María Beltrán Lucero, who came to be known by everyone in El Sargento as “mi Tía María,” was born in 1928 in the pueblo of Agua Amarga. When María was an infant, her parents went north to Ensenda to look for work. Her grandparents, Don Pedro Lucero and Doña Jerónima Lucero, cared for her at nearby Punta Perico. Don Pedro fished and cared for cattle for Toribio Geraldo, one of the wealthiest ranchers in the area.

One day, Don Pedro and his son, Justiniano, paddled across the bay to look for a route to La Paz since there were no roads to the city at that time. They pulled their canoe ashore at the palmar below the Sergeant’s Well. Nearby, they met Juan Avilés, who had a vineyard, and a garden of vegetables and watermelons. Juan encouraged Don Pedro to join the small community and enjoy the easy access to La Paz to purchase beans and flour.

Don Pedro took a look around and agreed with Juan. He could provide a better life for his family here than rounding up stray cattle for a rich man at Punta Perico. So in 1932, Don Pedro canoed across the bay again with his wife and four-year-old granddaughter.  He built a shelter for the family out of fallen cardón trunks, palo de arco branches, adobe, and palm.

Not long after Don Pedro got settled, his son Justiniano followed. When he arrived, Pablo Castro was already living here.  Later, Ramon Avilés and Cuco Calderon arrived. All of the new arrivals brought skills they could share to make their neighbor’s lives more comfortable. Little by little, the village of El Sargento was formed.

Victoriano

In 1944, twelve years after Don Pedro and his family settled in El Sargento, the Cosio Arellano family arrived from El Triunfo. Jobs were scarce in the silver-mining town, so the family had decided to look for work as fishermen. Don Pedro offered them food and a place to sleep while they got established. His granddaughter, María, was now a young lady of sixteen, and she caught the eye of a member of the new family, an attractive boy named Victoriano.

María and Victoriano fell in love, and a short time later, they married.  Lupe Angulo helped them build their first home, where they lived for the next eight years. María excelled at cooking and decorated the inside of her home with shells, driftwood, and flowers. Victoriano could row a dugout canoe to Isla Cerralvo, load it with a fresh catch, and return home the same day. When a gust of wind knocked over candles burning in the couple’s home, a fire destroyed the palm roof and damaged the interior. With the help of friends, Victoriano soon made the home livable again.

Treasures from the Sea to Build a House

By 1953, the couple had several children and needed a more substantial house. Victoriano had found some wooden planks from a shipwreck off the shore of the island. Whenever he fished there, he filled his canoe with whatever he could salvage: wood planks, nails, screws, and on one voyage, a large pulley. Victoriano used the planks for the new casita’s walls, decay-resistant palo amarillo for the foundation, and adobe bricks for the floor. When he ran out of wood from the sea, he sold two cows to buy lumber to finish the walls and entrance. He painted the door blue, the color of the sea and sky that he so admired.

The House that Victoriano Built
Sketch by Louise Spradley

Food and Water

The early settlers of El Sargento eked out a living from the sea and desert. When they wanted meat, they rowed out to the island and killed a few goats or trapped kids to raise back home. They fished and dived for sea turtles, which they sold or traded. From the desert, they gathered wild plums and pitahaya fruit. They hiked into the hills, fell and cut up palo blanco trees, carried the logs home, peeled the bark off, let it dry in the sun, and sold it to ranchers for tanning animal hides.[i]

Around 1960, the well water began to turn brackish, so Victoriano started digging a new one a few meters north of his home. He excavated a chest-high hole and shored it up with wood. After several months of work, hauling dirt and rock out using the pulley he had salvaged from the sea, he reached a depth of eight meters—without finding water.[ii]

On a warm Wednesday, Victoriano worked until noon. His heart pounded as he wiped the sweat from his brow, lifted the pick over his head, and smashed it into the earth.  He gasped and let out a shriek of pain. When he realized he had driven the pick through his left foot, he yanked it out of his bloody flesh and broken bone, secured the rope around his waist, and called for his friends to haul him up. As they pulled him out of the well, he fainted.

Fortunately, there was an automobile in the village that day. After cleaning and wrapping the wound, Victoriano’s friends loaded him into the car. The driver headed up the road to Las Canoas, the only way out of the village, crossed over to the windy camino from Los Planes to San Antonio, and made the dangerous three-hour trip from there to La Paz for medical care. 

Victoriano recovered and continued his work, but when a chubasco hit, water overflowed a nearby gully and washed the excavated earth back into the hole. After another year of digging in his free time, he struck water at a depth of twelve meters. He filled the bottom of the well with a layer of gravel, finished lining the walls with brick and mortar, built the cap, and reinstalled the pulley from the shipwreck.

Everyone turned out to celebrate the completion of the well. When the first bucket of 1961-vintage water was hauled up, the villagers offered a toast to Victoriano and Maria and carried large containers of the water back to their homes.


  1. [i] Josue Sanders interview with Gregorio Castro Calderón, 70 years of age  (2006)
  • [ii] Well digging story provided by María’s daughter (2006) The house had to be torn down in 2016.

Terremoto!

Justiniano Lucero never forgot the earthquakes that shook the bay in April of 1969: [i]  “We kept tubs of water from Victoriano’s well in our house for cooking and washing. When the shaking started, the water sloshed out onto the ground. Sections of arroyos on the island collapsed, sending boulders crashing to the bottom and dust billowing into the air, hiding the island from sight. A part of the beach called Carapachos, the back of a tortoise, was mostly underwater after the shaking stopped.” The earthquakes were stronger on Cerralvo where the epicenters are just a few miles off of the island’s northeastern coast. [1]

After that earthquake, Esteban Lucero, a thirty-two-year-old fisherman living in El Sargento, looked across the bay as dust rose into the sky over the island. He wondered if Daphne and Dana had survived the earthquake. By April of 1969, sixteen-year-old Daphne had been living on Cerralvo since the age of thirteen. El Sargento fishermen called her La Caballera de Cerralvo, The Horsewoman of Cerralvo, but Esteban Lucero knew her and her nine-year-old visiting friend, Dana, as friends. If they were injured, they needed his help. A storm coming up the gulf from the south was already bringing strong winds and kicking up whitecaps on the bay. It was not safe to paddle his fishing canoe to the island. All he could do for now was pray.


  1. [i] From Josue Sanders Interview with Justiniano Lucero Aviles, 84 years of age (2006).

Bird’s Eye View: The Imposter Among Us

Even if you are not into birds in the slightest, most folks in La Ventana and El Sargento are familiar with those large black birds with the broad wings soaring effortlessly over our heads without flapping for seemingly hours or perched on the tops of the cardon cacti with their wings held wide open to warm themselves up after a cool night.

Turkey Vulture (photo: Charles Kling)

These birds are called turkey vultures because their dark bodies and featherless reddish heads make us think of turkeys. They seldom if ever kill any prey, preferring instead to dine upon dead animals or carrion. But not so fast! When you supposedly see one of them flying overhead with its wings held in the typical V-shape and tipping slightly from side to side, you could be looking at something else — a zone-tailed hawk! These clever birds of prey have adapted their flight behaviour to mimic the harmless turkey vultures so that they can sneak in closer to unsuspecting rodents and rabbits.

Zone-tailed Hawk (photo: Charles Kling)

While zone-tailed hawks are much less common than the turkey vultures, rest assured that they do occasionally fly over the sunny skies of our two villages. The next time you see a so-called turkey vulture passing overhead, look at the head and the tail. If you see a good-sized feathered head and a tail with a white bar, you are looking at the imposter.

And no, they won’t go after your chihuahuas!

David M. Bird, Ph.D. Emeritus Professor of Wildlife Biology, Department of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill University – david.bird@mcgill.ca

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.

Continue reading “Doña María Rieke Verdugo, Ángel de Rancho Las Canoas [1]”

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?