Adventures of a Gringa in Lower California
By Marion  Smothers
The travels of late archaeologist and Peabody Institute Fellow Marion Smothers were published in 1993 by Bueno Books/In One EAR Publications as Vintage Baja: Adventures of a Gringa in Lower California. Currently out-of-print, excerpts from this book have been made available to Ensenada Baja News-Gazette through the courtesy of Bueno Books and with permission of Sandy Flaharty Boyett.
Chapter 1: WHY BAJA?

Those of us who live either full or part-time in the Ensenada area are invariably asked by tourists dipping their toes in Baja's heady waters for the first time: 'Why? Why did you decide to settle here?' In my case, an elderly woman alone, next comes: 'Aren't you afraid?'

'Holy guacamole, no,' I say. As to the 'why': I've visited this fascinating peninsula, off and on, since 1930 -- exploring, fishing, making friends -- even buying and remodeling a house here.

It was a cold and rainy climate which forced me to return on a permanent basis: that, and the pneumonia cycle that dogged me. Dr. Bob Osborne on Vashon Island, Puget Sound, warned: 'This is it, Marion! If I pull you through this one, you can't live here another winter. You need sun!'

Where better than Baja for sun and sea breeze and a price I could afford? I wondered why I hadn't made the move before, thus avoiding all the illness and hospitals. In less than two weeks I'd listed my place with a realtor, bought a 21-foot vacation trailer and had a local blacksmith make a custom trailer hitch. My four Chihuahuas were ensconced in style in a baby playpen in the station wagon and, at 6 a.m., we were heading for the Tacoma Ferry and Interstate 5 south. All this at age 62.

Three days later we crossed the border at Tijuana. Somehow, Nemesis (the trailer), my dog family and I had made it to Mexico safely. After all the red tape, over all those mountains, fighting L.A.'s freeways -- Arriba! And then I proceeded to take us through downtown Tijuana traffic. After a minor brush with a taxi, I almost wished to be back on the Sierra Nevada Range where one only had to watch out for deer and trucks. Talking to truckers had been great fun with my C.B.; they all wished they were going to Mexico, too.

Taking Highway 1, I drove to Ensenada and then on to Maneadero where I took the fork to the right for La Bufadora. The burgeoning hills were like shadowed crates piled any which way. I savored it all: animals, olive groves, little houses with flaming pink, brightest orange, most passionate purple of bougainvillea. I sighted the estuary with whitecaps and the wind was tearing the clouds to pieces. Nemesis swayed a bit, but we had been through worse.

It was late in the afternoon of Thanksgiving weekend, 1977, when I pulled into Campo Villarino for parking. 'We will be here about three days,' I told Adolfo, the owner. 'We're going to Mulege for the winter.' Next morning, while taking the dogs for a walk through the campo to the beach, I noticed a desolate, shabby little house where, it was obvious, no one lived but the camp dogs. I peered through a cracked, dirty window at total chaos.

'Hmmm,' I told the dogs with the usual female logic, 'This place has great possibilities!' I bought it the same day from Adolfo for six hundred dollars. Then I sold my trailer to put in a new floor, a cement dog yard and a septic tank, fencing, new doors and windows. I laid the linoleum myself and painted the concrete block building sunshine yellow inside and out. I put in a bathroom, hauling the tile myself from the factory in Ensenada.

Attached to the building was an old, old Schultz trailer -- a dinosaur of trailers. I loved every inch of its really beautiful mahogany woodwork, its roomy built-ins and even a desk for my typewriter with little cubbyholes and a secret drawer. I planted geraniums from slips and tomato plants and a laurel tree. So here we are right on the beach listening to the surf and the gulls.

'You might not know it,' I told my pups, 'but your dog bowl runneth over!'

Neighbors were great. Rob Stevens and Ed Krause got my trailer refrigerator running after much tinkering. While part of the original trailer (which made it practically Pleistocene Epoch) that little box hummed along forever faithful. It gave one pause to compare with today's products.

Not all of my remodeling efforts turned out as well. Ed came by one day as I was putting Band-Aids (for lack of anything better) over cracks in the masonite exterior of the Schultz.

'I have something that should work,' he told me, returning with a roll of shiny, silvery tape.

'Hey, this goes on fine,' I said. 'What is it?'

I thought he said, 'Duck tape.' I drove to the hardware stare in Maneadero, only realizing as I entered the door that I didn't know how to say 'duck tape' in Spanish.

'I want duck tape,' I told the clerk. The store seemed to be a meeting place for local ranchers. They all gave me their immediate attention.

'Duck tape,' I repeated.

'No spik English,' he replied with a shrug.

'Please help me,' I insisted. 'Quack... quack... quack! Duck tape!' The room exploded in whoops of laughter.

'I think the lady wants duct tape,' said a man as he wiped his eyes. Then still chuckling, he translated for the clerk. The tape was forthwith produced by the clerk, also visibly amused. I paid for it and fled. After that, when I needed tacks or (especially) Phillips screws, I was careful to take a sample along. Unfailingly, the clerk greeted me with, 'Buenos dias, Senora Quack Quack!'

Now my little beach house is sold. The sound of the surf that once filled my days is but another memory of the spot in Baja that I loved. My spacious apartment, here in central Ensenada, is a comfortable home with a cleaning lady, TV, VCR, telephone, ceiling fan--and the world's sweetest, kindest landlady, Catalina.

Sure, I'm lucky. And that is 'why' I came to Baja!

The historic colony of Santa Guadalupe del Norte, located just south of Highway 3, in what is now Ejido El Porvenir, is much easier to visit today than was such a trip back when. The "when" being about 1930. In those days even a trip to Ensenada was a major undertaking. And the road into Guadalupe was wretched indeed, execrable enough to cause our Reo Flying Cloud to tuck in her sails. But my father had heard rumors of mission ruins and a White Russian settlement in a beautiful valley. Loaded with water, gasoline, cameras, and emergency rations, off we went, eating dust all the way. 

The early mission history may be of interest to Baja aficionados: Guadalupe was the last mission founded in Baja by the Dominican order. At that time (1833) a thriving Indian culture, the Gimieles, a subtribe of the Cochimies, occupied the site, in what was then called the valley of San Marcos. Its only access was an Indian trail to the Pacific coast. The adobe mission had a short life but not a merry one. Padre Caballero's beguiling words, and even more convincing gifts of beads 
and machetes and such, came to an end soon to be replaced with the whip and the stockade. By 1839 the Indians had their fill of harsh treatment and unremitting drudgery. 

The mission concept of slave labor, as well as its rule to attend daily Mass or be punished, was too foreign to aboriginal culture. And so they fell on Guadalupe, murdering and plundering. Over the years its roof fell in, adobe walls melted back into the earth and the Indians again were ruled by their chief, Jatnil, baptized by Caballero as Black Dog. Eventually Guadalupe became no more than a father-to-son legend around a campfire. 

The Malakans (also spelled "Molokans"), a Russian farming religious sect, purchased the valley, now known as Guadalupe, from the Mexican government in 1905. How they made their way from Czarist Russia to Canada, through the United States to an obscure spot in the mesa land of Lower California, appears to be lost in the mists of history. The price is said to have been more than $50,000. A village site was laid out: building lots, a wide street, the church of their native Russia, a windmill, irrigation ditches and communal fields. 

As we explored the neat village, we marveled at being transported back into an exotic peasant community. Red-bearded men greeted us with grave courtesy; their womenfolk, starched aprons over long skirts, shyly smiled from the doorways of peak-roofed houses. Window boxes overflowed with bright flowers. A sauna-type bath house shared space with each kitchen garden. Sleek dairy herds (Malakan translated as Milk Drinker) were sheltered in sturdy barns when not browsing the lush pastures. We kept our distance from flocks of aggressive geese and colonies of bee hives. 

However, one encroachment of the modern world charmed us. Half-naked Indian lads were playing soccer with their Russian friends. Even more surprising, the Indians were shouting in Russian during the heat of the game. Before our return to Ensenada, my father visited the village school. He left money with the teacher for a new ball to replace the boys' battered makeshift. Dad was told that the Guadalupe Colony for some time had suffered a common problem of villages almost everywhere: the exodus of ambitious young people. How do you keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Ensenada? -- in this case. 

Unusual to small communities here in Baja, Guadalupe has experienced four divergent cultures: Pagan Indian, Dominican Mission, Russian Malakan, Mexican Ejido. Of the first, little survives, as Indian genes have mixed with Russian and Mexican to evolve into the mestizo. All that remains of Mission Santa Guadalupe del Norte is the prickly pear that was planted by its friar, and a few foundation stones. The Malakans have left their graves among what is now an ejido cemetery -- and the legacy of a few red-headed Mexicans. 

Editor's Notes:The adobe ruins of Mision Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe del Norte are located in the town of Francisco Zarco in Valle de Guadalupe, just off Highway 3 to Tecate. Follow the main road into town for one mile until the pavement ends (a school is on the corner). Turn left on the dirt road; the gated site is within a few blocks. 

To discover more about the Russians of Valle de Guadalupe, visit the Community Museum (Museo Comunitario del Valle de Guadalupe) in Francisco Zarco, on the main dirt road about a half mile past the turnoff to the mission. Interesting exhibitions of pioneer memorabilia and local crafts are featured in a curious Russian home -- with an old-fashioned sauna -- dating from 1905. A replica of a wa, a native Indian dwelling, is on the premises. Sample authentic Russian dishes prepared by the friendly Samarin family in the tiny restaurant. Tel. (6)155-2030. Closed Mondays.

Today the village of Santo Tomas, some 29 miles south of Ensenada, is but a wide spot on Transpeninsular Highway Benito Juarez as it weaves its way through the cardon and chaparral desert gardens of Baja Norte and through the more tropical southern half, ending at San Jose del Cabo. But back in 1930, Santo Tomas was a great place to camp, literally the end of the road. What continued on was not what one considers a real road. Even driving from Tijuana to Ensenada was not always easy -- often reached only with endurance and a bit of luck. 

The village was named for Mision Santo Tomas de Aquino. First established about 1781 by the Dominican friars, it flourished in the fertile valley. And here they built their winery, Bodegas de Santo Tomas, most famous of the good wines of Mexico. My long-time friend, Enrique Villareal, Sr., owner of El Palomar store and Pemex gas station, once told me legend had it the original grapevine stock came from the foothills of the Italian Alps, homeland of some of the Dominican Order, who brought with them to Lower California their native heritage of viticulture and wine making. 

The founding fathers moved the mission three times. From the first site near the Pacific Ocean to what is now ejido communal land. And then to just east of the highway where they found springs of agua dulce (sweet water) -- furnishing ample pasture for sheep and cattle as well as vine land irrigation. By the 1930s all that was left of the mission was foundation stones and dissolving heaps of adobe. 

Santo Tomas not always has been the peaceful rural community of today. Enrique, an authority on local history, often related how fierce and treacherous were the early Indians. Not only did they attack and murder priests and loot the mission, but may have been incorrigible enough to cause its closure in 1849. Another folktale tells of a bloodthirsty skirmish a little south of here between the San Vicente Bravos and the entourage of a Spanish king's viceroy, Don Fermin Sanhudo. What turned the tide of battle was the bravery and equal ferocity of Sanhudo's Mayan Indian escort, brought by him from Yucatan for his journey to Monterey, Alta California, from Cabo San Lucas. The party fought their way to the shelter of Mission Santo Tomas. Or so the story goes ... 

From past history to the vintage Baja of my time: on the south wall of El Palomar, near the Pemex cashier window, hangs the picture of a young woman gussied up with a little hat, a fancy dress, white shoes, and -- I can't believe it myself -- white gloves. What I was doing in such a get up, I do not remember! The baby deer in my lap was Enrique's pet fawn. On the west wall is a picture of his beloved Chico, one of a pair of tiny Mexican hairless dogs he once owned. Many were the nights they snuggled under my bedclothes at Casa Villareal. 

Enrique's mother owned a ranch out at Puerto Santo Tomas. Here he had a fishing camp. Here, also, his men pried abalone from the rocks with a tire iron. This abalone, cut into strips and smoked over mesquite coals, was the best I've ever tasted. Lobster sold for twenty-five cents each; abalone and clams were a gift. I returned the favor by giving them the fish I couldn't keep. Ling cod, corbina and bass were so plentiful that mine was only a token gift. More useful, I'm sure, were the sinkers, hooks and other tackle that, along with clothing and leftover groceries, would always be my farewell present -- adios -- until next time. 

Anyone who is a Jack Smith fan and has been lucky enough to have read God and Mr. Gomez -- his hilarious account of the trials and tribulations of building a house overlooking Puerto Santo Tomas -- will recognize La Bocana and Vista al Mar. However, the small cove has never had protection from other than northeast or northwest weather. A rogue wave crashed inland during the big storm of several years ago to change quite a bit of local landscape. Its backwash took to sea the little store and restaurant, along with fishermen's boats, changing dramatically the face of the cove. But the hills, the beautiful valley, the warmhearted friendship of Senor Enrique Villareal remain with me always, a thin veil of remembrance.

Editor's Notes: The adobe ruins of one of the Santo Tomas mission sites are accessible through the grounds of El Palomar. Under the management of the late Enrique Villareal, Sr.'s daughter, Emma, and son, Enrique, Jr., El Palomar has expanded considerably. In addition to the original store and gas station, there is a 10-room motel, restaurant/bar, RV park, picnic grounds and water park. For information call (6)153-8002; fax (6)178-8002.


South of Ensenada the road known as the "All-Gear Highway" gradually deteriorated from rough to a spine-jarring washboard. We ran the gamut from second gear to a speedy thirty miles per hour without ever discovering what was the best way to traverse its potholes and ridges. After 150 miles or so of this, El Rosario looked to our dust-bleary eyes as the skyline of New York must have appeared to storm-wracked immigrants. And as they were greeted by our great lady, the Statue of Liberty, we, in turn, were welcomed by Anita Espinoza, widely known as "The Angel of El Rosario." Her husband's ancestor, Carlos Espinoza, located here on an early land grant and, according to Anita, the family had been true pioneers. This was Espinoza (also spelled "Espinosa") country. In her little store and cafe were cold drinks and hot food, lobster and fresh fish from their fishing camp, gasoline and radiator water, always served up with warm hospitality and a sympathetic agreement: "Si, the road is bad." 

Dona Anita Espinoza with copy of Marion Smothers' VINTAGE BAJA


El Rosario de Arriba had first been an Indian rancheria known as Vinadaca. Dominicans built the original mission, Nuestra Senora del Rosario, in 1774, moving it to Rosario de Abajo (on the other side of the arroyo) in 1802. Old adobe ruins of both missions could still be seen there back in the 1940's -- the time of the first of our many stops here on the way to Los Angeles Bay. 

We flattered ourselves we were already "Old Baja Hands!" The common denominator of all conversations -- whether with a rancher or other brave souls who, like us, had fallen in love with the arid coastal plains and cacti-dotted lunar landscape of interior Baja -- was that the road was bad. It was a litany that opened and closed any encounter. Now was the time to settle down to serous driving. After El Rosario it was no cliche to say the road separated men from boys, and women from Daddy's Little Girls! 

On the left, a trail meandered up the valley to Sauzalito, a copper mine said to be also rich in gold. But it was more suited to muleback than the narrow axles of our post-war jeep. We knew right off we were licked but couldn't turn around until reaching a rancho aptly named La Vibora, The Viper. So we discovered early in our exploring that not even a four-wheel- drive could take us anywhere an obscure track beckoned. 

South of El Rosario the long, steep, rock grade known as La Turquesa from the mine located on its flank, had stone teeth protruding above deep ruts in wait for the unwary. These were marked with splotches from unlucky oil pans. A look over its canyon side was rewarded with the chilling vista of wrecked cars- -even a stake-bed truck crumpled upside down, rusted innards exposed as a mute warning to the feckless driver. Once we were mindless enough to pull a heavily loaded, 16-foot boat to the gulf. We broke both trailer springs on this grade and had to precariously back all the way down the hill to return to El Rosario. Senora Espinoza arranged the repairs. Her Mexican workers, with impressive know-how, cannibalized one of the wrecks littering the arroyo, built a charcoal fire, and with much pounding and shaping repaired the boat trailer. 

I remember another time being flagged down by a rancher in El Progreso Valley. He was desperate as an invasion of rats had overwhelmed his corncrib and house, destroying the staple food his family and animals depended upon for survival -- as well as seed needed for the next crop. He had not been able to drive them off with a club; he had a gun but no ammunition. We always brought extra shells as a present for Antero Diaz at Los Angeles Bay, so we were able to help the rancher. This was no ploy on his part to get ammunition from a gullible gringo -- we actually saw rats scurrying around in broad daylight. The staccato blasts of his twenty-two rifle were our farewell. 

Once, while making a pit stop at Rancho San Agustin, renowned for its cold, pure water and cold beer, we came out from the front room -- tastefully decorated with rescued airplane seats -- to find the rancho's goats on top of and inside our jeep, munching away on clothes, supplies, even the upholstery. They were not easily dissuaded! The last ever to be seen of my yellow sweatshirt was it gaily flapping from the horns of a victorious nanny, progeny in full pursuit, as they all disappeared into the distance. 

This was the Baja of the giant cardon; the weird cirio, which looked like an upside-down parsnip; the pitahayas, whose fruit once delighted the Indians -- causing equal dismay for the Jesuit padres -- as harvest time was gorging time and orgy time and a great chance for breeding with neighboring tribes. This was the Baja of many kinds of cacti, all of whose names were self-descriptive: Fishhook; Old Man; Galloping: Pincushion; Prickly Pear; Cholla. Anyone who has been afoot in this lunar landscape knows its cruelty. Even jeep tires were not impervious!

Editor's Notes: Although culinary preparations are now in the hands of younger family members and lobster is available only in season, Espinoza's Restaurant (and cabanas) still offer a warm welcome to Baja travelers. In her eighties, Dona Anita continues to prepare Easter and Christmas baskets for the needy. For information call (6)165-8770.

Neither text nor photos may be reproduced without the written approval of authors or legal representatives. Photos copyright 2001 Connie Ellig & David Hopps.

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