Packing in Baja
by Thalia Zepatos
I drained the coffee from my cup while the
others drowned the smoking embers of the campfire.
We checked our saddle bags one last time, got
onto our mules and headed down the arroyo. It
was our first morning in the Sierra Giganta;
the central portion of the mountainous spine
that bisects the length of the Baja Peninsula
in Mexico. We were headed for Los Pilares, a
ranch that could only be reached on foot, mule,
or horseback, and I was starting to feel like
Each year I made a pilgrimage to the nearby
mountains, snatching only small glimpses of
life at rural ranchos that clung to the dry
and dusty landscape of the monte. I knew that
many ranch families raised cattle and a few
crops if the weather was kind, and that they
often went to market on foot, or by burro or
mule. I was intrigued by the mountain-ranch
life, and its modes of travel that seemed to
fit the terrain. When my friend and compañera
Esther called and invited me to join a mule-packing
trip through that arid high country, I said
yes quicker than you can flip a tortilla.
The trip was organized by Trudi Angell, who
has lived in Baja since 1976. There's not a
gringa who knows Baja better than Trudi. For
years she's led kayak trips along the Sea of
Cortez for her company, Paddling South. But
her love of the people and the landscape of
the peninsula has brought her into the mountains,
too. Trudi shares this lesser-known aspect of
Baja on organized mule pack trips, under the
name Saddling South.
Our small group gathered at midday in Loreto.
Aside from Trudi and her young daughter, Olivia,
the group included Esther and me, Esther's friend
Ann, a Baja resident in her seventies, and Leslie
and Rachel, instructors from the nearby National
Outdoor Leadership School on holiday.
We loaded our gear into a couple of trucks,
drove a few miles down the paved highway and
then turned onto a rough track that pointed
like an arrow toward the Sierra Giganta. We
negotiated the ruts in the road for over an
hour until we pulled up to the mesquite fence
at Rancho Viejo. We were welcomed by Tista short
for Juan Bautista, a longtime friend of Trudi's
who had gathered the mules from nearby ranches
for our ride. We shook hands formally in the
Mexican style, then sat and drank a cup of coffee.
We were then ushered inside the casita where
we changed out of shorts and T-shirts and into
our riding clothes, long pants and long-sleeved
shirts that would protect us from the scratchy
brush and hot sun of the high desierto.
Then Trudi and Tista paired us up with our
mules. It was a delicate process of matchmaking
in which both humans and animals were sized
up by temperament and bulk. Tista places a pair
of reins in my hand and introduced me to Cuervo,
a tall, dark mule that immediately belied my
image of a little burro. Trudi would ride Pimienta,
with three-and-a-half-year-old Olivia sitting
before her; she wrapped a sweatshirt around
both their waists to secure the child. The others
were introduced to their mounts, who had names
like Alacrán and Enrique. A Mexican rancher,
Raul de los Santos, would assist Trudi, riding
a burro called Tequila while leading Barquito
(Little Boat), so named because she rocked from
side to side as she walked, piled high with
our sleeping bags and foam pads.
We packed our gear, adjusted the stirrups,
waved good-bye and finally rode off. It was
mid-afternoon, comfortably beyond the hottest
part of the day. We passed through an ever-changing
dry landscape. A line of bright green vegetation
ahead marked the location of a desert river
or spring, with date palms and fan palms outlining
As we ambled along the arroyo, I picked fears
and concerns off my shoulders and dropped them
like a trail of crumbs behind me. I'd been a
bit unsure about mule packing-what exactly would
I have to do, and could I handle it? I'd harbored
a nightmare vision of myself inching along on
a stubborn little burro, my long legs dragging
the ground on each side. Instead, I was sauntering
high above the desert floor on an energetic
and responsive animal. I had managed to get
up on the mule without falling off and everyone
in the group seemed pleasant and easy-going.
We ranged from well-experienced riders to those,
like me, who had only ridden a handfuls of times
before. The pace was comfortable, and we formed
and re-formed into conversational pairs and
trios as we rode.
I rode up alongside Trudi and asked why she
chose mules instead of horses. "Mules are
much more sure-footed and less temperamental
in the desert," she told me. "Everyone
up here prefers mules for both work and riding
stock." The one horse we had along on the
trip, Trudi's own, confirmed her comments by
acting touchy and skittish from the start.
After two hours, we came to El Palmarito, an
abandoned rancho in a clearing surrounded by
palm trees, where we made camp for the night.
The corral served to hold our animals, and Raul
gathered food and made them comfortable after
Barquito ran off and was fetched in a comic
chase. We gathered scrap wood for our campfire
and feasted on roast chicken and potato salad.
It was a night that called for sleeping out,
and we laid our beds under a star-encrusted
We rose before dawn to the smell of hot coffee,
ate a quick breakfast, and saddled up to make
time before the heat of the day. Arroyo Santa
Isabel, a dry riverbed, was a mule highway through
scrub-covered desert. Esther pointed out the
cholla, barrel cactus, and pitayas as we passed.
Then we entered a forest of cardón cactus.
Some of the giants were fifteen feet high, their
massive heads and stocky arms festooned with
delicate white flowers. Hawks and peregrine
falcons played the updraft along the cliffs
as we approached, then dove closer to investigate
We continued at a comfortable pace, stopping
in the shade of an occasional grove of Palo
Verde trees to wander off for a quick pit stop,
eat an orange, or share dried fruit and nuts.
We carried bottles of water and small treats
in our saddle bags, hand-tooled by local saddle makers
into a perfect combination of utility and beauty.
Midday was announced by the pungent odor of
hierbabuena as it toasted under the hot sun.
We continued on through palm groves and oases,
where the mules bent their heads for a quick
drink in the green rivers. Soon after we reached
Los Pilares, a ranch named for the pillars of
columnar basalt striating the giant wall that
points like a road sign to its gateway. We tied
the animals under the shady trees near the river
and waded up to the casita to greet Doña
Ester and her sons. "You'll love Doña
Ester," Trudi had said that morning. "She's
eighty-seven, more or less, but no one really
knows for sure. She lives with her bachelor
sons- they're in their sixties."
Traveling with Trudi is like going with one
friend to visit others. Fluent in Spanish, she
conveys a deep respect for Mexican tradition
and an appreciation for the crafts of the ranchers.
In a circumspect fashion, she has found ways
to share the income of her work with the local
community: she hires mules locally rather than
buying her own and pays the ranchers to come
along as mule wranglers. She encourages artisans
in remote places by bringing foreigners to admire
and buy their work and has trained young people
from the area as local guides. She had proven
herself a friend in these parts the only way
it can be proved-over time.
Doña Ester welcomed us with a report
on the mountain lion that had killed a pig on
their ranch a few nights before. The Doñas's
wiry body glided between the wood fire she kept
tending inside the cookhouse and the outdoor
sitting area under a palapa roof where we
gathered. The oldest son, Silvestre, brought
out some of his fresh farmer's cheese to sprinkle
on our tostada lunches. We returned to the flowing
river to set up our camp, and then Trudi pointed
the way to a swimming hole that swallowed up
the rest of our afternoon.
The next day was Mother's Day in Mexico. Doña
Ester's second son, Salvador, walked the fourteen
miles from Comondú early that morning
to observe the tradition by singing "Las
Mañanitas" to his mamå. Silvestre
took us into his shadowy workshop to see the
saddles he made and the ropes and lariats he
braided in complex patterns. One style was made
by weaving eight different lines together; Rachel
asked intent questions and then tried her hand
at the weaving. Silvestre's shy smile indicated
Early the next morning we packed up and rode
to Rancho Monte Alto. I tightened the chin strap
on my borrowed straw hat, nudged Cuervo past
the others and galloped full speed down a long
straight-away. I'd never ridden so far, so fast,
and I loved it! Then I turned and raced back
to the others, just for the joy of flying along.
Once I had questioned whether three days of
mule packing would be too much; now I was ready
to sign up for the two-week journey to the cave
paintings and far-flung ranchos.
The only consolation in heading for home was
the news that we were stopping for the midday
meal at Chari's (short for María del
Rosario de los Santos de Romero). She is a famous
cook in the sierra, and we consumed the feast
with gusto while sitting on the ranch's wide
palapa-roofed terrace surrounded by potted plants
and flowers. Little Olivia switched into Spanish
upon sight of Chari's son Juanito, and they
galloped around after each other on horses fashioned
from sticks with strings for reins. We could
only convince ourselves to leave by tucking
more of Chari's sweet bean burritos into our
Two by two we returned the mules to their ranches,
then took our seats in Trudi's pickup truck.
After only a few days, the sight of the truck
was rude, its ride bumpy and inelegant. For
more than a hundred years, the only way to travel
these mountains had been on foot or by saddle.
In a way, it still is.
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