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.
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.
Eduardo heard a story [ii] about a Piedra Escrita (Inscribed Stone) in the Las Canoas Arroyo [iii] above the Bay of La Ventana. The inscription, according to the story, held a clue to a treasure hidden by Pericu Indians. They had discovered gold and dug out a very pure form of the precious metal. They hid their discovery by covering the entrance to the mine, which came to be known as La Tapada (The Covered Mine). So Eduardo came to Las Canoas to explore for gold and search for the Piedra Escrita and La Tapada.
Eduardo found the Piedra Escrita but did not find La Tapada. However, when he discovered a fresh-water spring nearby, he saw potential in the Las Canoas property and filed a claim for it in 1876 in La Paz. According to Eduardo‘s granddaughter María, he wrote the date on a rock near the narrow entrance to the upper Las Canoas Arroyo. Eduardo and Fructosa raised 18 children on their Rancho. One of them, Maria’s father Antonio, raised María and her siblings [iv] there. María’s other grandparents were Pablo Verdugo and Vincenta Verdugo Avilés from Rancho El Ancón [v].
María Rieke was born at Rancho Las Canoas on March 3, 1942, to Antonio Rieke and Vincenta Verdugo Avilés, daughter of the El Ancon Vincenta. There was no school at the Ranch. When children were old enough to follow instructions, they were expected to help with the daily chores:
With our Rancho home at the bottom of an arroyo, darkness fell soon after sunset. We went to bed early and got up before sunrise. There was always plenty of work for everyone. We had to make coffee, soak and cook frijoles, make fresh tortillas, and collect eggs if they were available. Tortillas took lots of time to make. Masa harina or corn flour was not always available and did not keep as well as whole corn kernels. The kernels had to be ground by hand on a rock metate using a mano. Once in a while, we would have pan dulce which we made from flour and honey. If a cow or goat had recently given birth, we had fresh milk and made cheese. We still had to wash clothes, and gather firewood. Water for cooking and washing flowed to the ranch through a hose from a spring at a higher elevation. With sufficient rain, the arroyo sometimes became a short-lived torrent that pushed giant boulders around like marbles. Afterward, we had to clear paths and repair any damaged structures. Sometimes there was not enough food for more than two meals a day and we went to bed hungry.
Besides raising cattle and making cheese, my father kept bees. He sold the wax to fishermen in El Sargento, who used it for the sails and rigging on their boats. He also did some fishing to keep food on the table. We couldn’t grow vegetables in the sandy soil, so we were happy when we could go out and pick ripe pitaya (a cactus fruit), ciruelo (Cape wild plum), higos (wild figs), and sandlitta (Palmer passion fruit). A few weeks after rain fell, there was plentiful Quelite (Amaranth, something like spinach but with smaller leaves) growing in the arroyos. There were other wild plants we gathered for food or to use as medicine.
My father lugged a windup record player up to the ranch. We loved to listen to recorded music, and my father played the guitar and loved to sing. When I was still a child, one of the highlights of the year was my Abuela’s (grandmother‘s) birthday on January 21. People from El Sargento made the long walk up the arroyo to our rancho [vi]. We kept the music going and danced the night away. Everyone had a great time. Long after midnight, guests made their way home, probably arriving after sunrise.
According to Gregorio Castro Calderón again, around 1957, another group working for a US company came to Las Canoas to explore for gold. Led by engineer Sebastián Díaz Encinas, they opened La Sonia mine in a location where they believed there was an old mine. This was not at Las Canoas, but at a place nearby called El Campamento. María remembers visiting El Campamento :
Sebastián used much better machinery than our primitive arrastras. He had two sons, Manuel and another named Miguel, who they called Miki. Sometimes I took cheese up to El Campamento to trade for beans and rice. Some people said that La Sonia was named after Díaz‘s daughter. I don’t recall that he had any daughters, at least not at the mining camp. The only females I remember were the cooks. My family was not employed in those mines. My father sold or traded the gold we found 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 in Las Canoas were dug long ago, possibly by the Indians. He remembered a story about a ship that came to pick up a cargo load of gold and pearls. However, the local Indians attacked and took the cargo before it could be loaded onto the ship. They killed most of the ship’s crew and hid the valuable cargo in a mine. Then they destroyed and covered the entrance.
Whether this story is fact or fiction, Sr. Enrique Rieke used his mining experience to dig wells, building most of the ones in El Sargento, and many others in La Ventana, El Teso and surrounding ranchos, including Santa Rosa.
Perhaps the biggest mystery surrounding the Rancho is the Shrine of Las Canoas (Piedra Escrita mentioned above), as Jimmy Smith, legendary Baja historian, named it. Just below the Rancho, concealed in a cave formed by boulders and the roots of a fig tree, there is a smaller boulder with fading inscriptions on its face. At the upper left is a small cross, beneath it the word Jesus. At the upper right there is an inscription that reads Sor María [vii] (perhaps this footnote explains the mystery). Beneath the inscription is the date año 1763, Agosto 3. I’ve been told there is also a drawing of a ship. If so, it’s too faded for my eyes. Can you find it?
María‘s father Antonio was known as the Güero of Las Canoas because of his fair complexion. When it came to taking care of family affairs in La Paz, María‘s grandfather sent the Güero. He knew how to use humor to his advantage[viii]:
One time the Güero went to see a friend in La Paz and suggested that they take the friend’s boat to the Magote to pick wild plums. They each filled a sack full of the tiny fruit. Antonio found a pair of women’s panties under one of the trees and stuck them in his pocket. He told his friend that they belonged to his ama (mistress of the household), and that he could prove it. His friend bet he couldn’t. Back in La Paz, as they were walking to the friend’s house, two young ladies approached from the other direction. When the girls were near, Antonio pulled out the panties, held them up, and asked if they belonged to either one of them. Infuriated by the insult, one of the girls yelled pertenecen a tu – expletivo – madre (they belong to your – expletive — mother). See, Antonio said, turning to his surprised friend, I think you owe me some money.
Another time, he tricked a delagado into giving him permission to kill a neighbor’s bull that had wandered onto his property. The neighbor had him subpoenaed to the delagacion in La Paz. There, the deputy asked why he had killed his neighbor’s bull. Antonio asked the deputy if he had forgotten that he‘d given him permission. I gave you permission to kill one of your bulls, the deputy answered. Delagado, the Güero replied, I don‘t need permission to kill one of my bulls. I asked for permission to kill a bull that had wandered onto my property. The Güero of Las Canoas may not have gone to school, but he was intelligent and very clever with words.
Maria recalls that there were people living in nearby caves during that time:
They used palm fronds for doors. They were very good, friendly people and had features of Indians. The man, for instance, had a prominent curved nose. He was tall and dressed normally in shorts. His wife was small and wore long skirts and usually wore a head scarf. They spoke Spanish with us, but among themselves, they spoke a language we could not understand. They were friendly people, hunted rabbits with slingshots, and traded us gold for food.
There are well-known stories about the El Sargento cowboy Victor Navaro, aka Don Diablo [ix]. Less well-known are those of Doña María Rieke, Ángel of Las Canoas, if I may coin the expression:
Sometimes I walked with my siblings to La Paz or went by horse, to sell gold and buy coffee, beans, and rice. The trail to La Paz was very bad and often difficult to negotiate. I also used to travel alone on foot from Las Canoas to San Antonio to see my cousin Emilia, who I really liked. I would start early and arrive in San Antonio in the late afternoon. On the way, I used to stop at ranchos to ask for water, visit, and pick up the latest news. My cousin Emilia still lives in San Antonio.
I don‘t remember exactly how old I was when I started a relationship with Victor Navaro. He used to hang around at Las Canoas and get work here and there. I loved to explore the mountains with him. Before we had children, we used to ride together to hunt for deer and other game. Victor had secret camping spots, many under big Palo San Juan trees. He had carved his name and strange symbols in their corteza (bark). I think they were marks he made to get his bearings in the mountains and remember where water and other things could be found. At night, we put the saddle blankets on the ground and pulled palm fronds over us for warmth. If the sky was clear, we watched for estrellas de fugaz (shooting stars) and looked for familiar constellations.
I was never afraid of the wild animals in the mountains even though foxes and coyotes were dangerous when they had rabies. The healthy ones did not come near, but you kept your distance from a rabid one. Once my brother got bitten by one and had to be treated in La Paz. Another time, at a mountain camp with Victor, I woke up to find a rattlesnake next to my arm. I tried to be as still as possible. When I made a slight movement, the snake rattled angrily. Finally, after what seemed like hours, the snake slithered off into the brush.
Sometimes Victor found work at San Antonio, then after a time, he would return to visit, and stay for a while. When I became pregnant with our first child, he promised to marry me. However, he felt marriage would tie him down too much and decided to remain soltero (single). He didn’t want to give up his freedom. But he always came back to me as I was the only one to accept his way of life.
It became increasingly difficult to feed everyone by raising animals and eking out a little gold from crushing rocks. My aunt Ramona had 12 children. They often went to bed hungry. The residents of Rancho Las Canoas began to leave, sometimes to marry someone in El Sargento or elsewhere, or just to find a way to make a living. I was one of the last to stay up there with my dad. I made some money breeding goats, and selling meat and cheese.
One day I came back from selling cheese in El Sargento and found my hut had burned down. I had three boys, Javier, Pepe, and Martin to care for. I was also caring for my father whose health had been deteriorating. I decided to move down to El Sargento. We had to camp under a shady Palo Verde tree close to the beach. At night, I put the boys down to sleep on some palm fronds, and put some rope around our campsite so the cows would not come in and trample them while they slept. My father was still living up at the Ranch, but was not in good health. I had to bring him down to care for him. Not long after I moved him to our camp, he died.
In the beginning, I got very little help from the residents of El Sargento. Many of them considered the people living up at Rancho Las Canoas to be unruly. I think we were looked down on because none of us had attended school. Even relatives who had moved down from the Canoas earlier, and married an ejidatario, considered us in a lower class than themselves. We were often cold and hungry. When the weather became rough, I went to see a lady in town who had an empty room. I asked her if we could stay there, but she turned us away. I earned a small amount of money washing clothes and doing other domestic jobs, barely enough to get by.
It was Kiki Lucero who gave me a job taking care of about a hundred of his livestock. I received 800 pesos a month for it. I got up at 3 o’clock in the morning and carried a flask of coffee and walked up above El Sargento to the corrals where I fed and milked the cows and goats, fed the pigs, and cleaned the place up. If I had not found work, we might have starved to death. When they were in season, we gathered the same fruit and plants I had learned to use for food and medicine up at the Rancho. When our oldest son Javier was about 11, he got a job working as a fisherman and helped the family financially.
A few relatives who had already moved to El Sargento finally helped us get clothes and shelter. We got a small piece of land and built a little hut on it out of cartón (heavy waterproof cardboard), which I painted blue. My son Pepe tried to get the CFE to connect us to electricity which was about a kilometer away in the village, but no one helped him. Many years later, Eli and Federico from Germany bought property nearby. They organized the Americanos to get the CFE to bring electricity out north of the village and we got connected.
Victor used to come by once in a while and bring me money or food. He hadn’t forgotten us, and loved his children. One time, he decided to go to Tijuana for work. He spent one year there but never sent us any money. Later, he told me that he didn’t have much success in Tijuana. Sometimes when he couldn’t find work he had to steal to help us survive. One time he was asked to sell two cows for their owner. He sold them, but made off with the money. The owner prosecuted and the police put Victor in jail in La Paz. That’s when he made his famous escape and led the police on a chase through the mountains. He knew the Cacachilas so much better than the police that they never caught him. That ’s probably one reason he was called Don Diablo.
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. When my father died, the cousin was supposed to put our ranch up for sale and distribute the money from the sale to me and my three brothers and one sister. The ranch finally sold to an American for 25 million pesos, as I recall, but the cousin never distributed the money to us. He claimed all of it went to pay for our brother’s heart treatment in Mexico City. Unfortunately, my brother died just a few days after returning home. The rest of us never received a cent. When the Americans began building homes near where I live, some employed me to clean their homes, or look after their property when they were gone. I’m not able to work much now, but they still stop by to visit.
Tom at BajaNightSky@gmail.com
The Don Diablo Trail Run is named for Victor Navaro. It has gained fame and success, a tribute to the Rancho Cacachilas organizers, and the competitors. There is a short story about Victor at the bottom of the Don Diablo Trail Run home page here.
While Don Diablo gained recognition for his escape and skills as a Baja vaquero (cowboy), Doña Ángel’s skills as a vaquera, mother, and survivor were never given the same respect. Born and raised at Rancho Las Canoas, she walked — ran for all we know — the trails through the Cacachilas to La Paz and San Antonio. She herded cattle, explored the Cacachilas with Victor, and bore and raised his children. After losing her Rancho home and belongings to fire, she lived under a tree in El Sargento with her small children and dying father. Then, to add insult to injury, the Rancho was, in effect, stolen from her and her siblings, leaving her to live in poverty. But she persevered. It is only right that her story, like Victor’s, not be forgotten.
Rancho Cacachilas could honor María by naming their camp at Rancho Las Canoas after her and her ancestors and telling the family story on their website. Perhaps the Trail Run organizers can name some aspect of the Don Diablo Trail Run for María Rieke, Doña Ángel de Las Canoas, and inspire female as well as male runners by María‘s life well-run under challenging circumstances.
Before it is taken to the grave by people who still remember, the history of El Sargento, La Ventana, and Rancho Las Canoas should be preserved in order to honor its founders, and inform residents and visitors about the history and uniqueness of this region. The Ventana View, by publishing old photos and promoting La Ventana Stories, has started the process of preservation. A Visitors Center that presents founding family histories, and the cultural and natural history of the region, could be dynamic enough to grow as the community grows. Its exhibits and publications could provide insights about the Native Americans who once thrived here, the European explorers who anchored in the bay and explored the area, and the miners, pearl divers, fishermen, and cattlemen that founded Rancho Las Canoas and the villages on the bay below. And it should not overlook the contributions of current citizens and recent immigrants from the north.
Dream for a moment about the possibilities: After an hour or two at the Visitors Center, we climb aboard a shuttle and ride to the entrance of the upper Las Canoas Arroyo. A guide leads us up a path surrounded by lush desert vegetation and explains how Indians and the first permanent settlers used different plants. The trail winds around boulders where rare red-billed Xantus hummingbirds feed on Baja Rock-Nettle blossoms. After a short walk, we arrive at the Shrine of Las Canoas where our guide interprets the writing that was left on a rock there more than 250 years ago. Then we walk a little farther to the Rancho and learn about its interesting history. After dinner, we explore the incredible night sky that María still remembers. Later, to music from a hand-cranked record player, you dance the night away — or imagine so — until music from the popular Mexican Bolero of that era, You Belong to my Heart, signals an end to the evening. Close your eyes and listen to words from the past as Victor and Maria make camp somewhere in the Cacachilas. As darkness falls and the constellations sparkle overhead, one of them sings softly: 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. Can you guess who?
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 at the Rancho Cacachilas web site here. An arroyo loop hike stopping at the Shrine of Las Canoas and led by a guide versed in the cultural and natural history of Las Canoas would make an interesting excursion on its own or as part of a longer hike or bike ride. I hope that in the near future Rancho Cacachilas will offer an activity that includes this hike.
[i] A story written using background material and interviews with Maria Rieke including ones by Elisabeth and Federico Weiland which were invaluable. Without their help Maria’s story would still be waiting to be told.
[ii] From a 2006 interview with 70-year-old Gregorio Castro Calderón by Josue Sanders (married to Julia Rieke).
[iii] 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. Photos and a brief history of Rancho Las Canoas are here.
[iv] María’s brothers Alejandro, Jose, and Antonio have all passed on; as of March 2019 her sister Carmelo is alive.
[v] El Ancón is a beautiful mountain rancho community on a loop off Hwy 286 just past the top of La Cuesta, the long grade going to La Paz. Their extended families lived there also, brothers, sisters, cousins and others. They took care of cattle, chickens, pigs, and goats. Back when mines were still operating in Las Canoas, they sold their produce to the workers. Today, El Ancón has a population of about 80 people. Many, like Chama and Pablo Lucero, are palapa builders and construction workers. A slow drive around the loop will take you back to another era in Baja history.
[vi] Told toTom & Louise Spradley around 2008 by Anolfo and Anilita of El Sargento who attended the dances.
[vii] “Sor María” simply means “Sister María,” but in 1763 Sor María was someone special to Jesuit missionaries in the New World. Sor María 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, in hundreds of trances she believed she had traveled to Mexico and converted the Jumano Indians living along the Rio Grande. About the same time, 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, wild 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.