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Golden Ghosts: El Triunfo and the Soul of Baja California Sur

All photos courtesy of Michael Kull

The two-lane stretch of Highway 1 between San Pedro and Los Barriles is one of the most beautiful on the Baja California peninsula. After climbing several thousand feet into the Sierra de la Laguna, the mountain range which dominates the center of Baja California Sur between La Paz and Los Cabos, the road curves perilously through a breathtaking panorama of peaks and valleys, the views of cactus, scrub and tree strewn slopes made more piquant by the specter of wandering goats and cows.

Traffic along this portion of Highway 1 is almost always sparse, limited to the occasional pick-up truck or dust-covered SUV.  In the rare event where traffic backs up, there are pull-off overlooks located between the winding mountain passes, and once in awhile a small town will appear, offering refreshments and a chance to rest one’s nerves.

El Triunfo

Choyero style limo service.

El Triunfo (pop. 321) and San Antonio (pop. 463) are the most notable of these small towns. They’re located 35 and 40 miles south of La Paz, respectively, straddling the highway at altitudes close to 1500 feet.  Although each has a few tourist attractions, it is only on special occasions, like the El Triunfo Arts and Crafts Festival – the 9th edition of which took place on a recent Sunday – that people ascend en masse to these sleepy mountain hamlets.

On festival days like this one, El Triunfo glows. A kaleidoscopic profusion of cars pull off onto every conceivable shoulder of the road and its downtown arteries, while clusters of brightly dressed people file through the slowed traffic along the highway towards the sounds of music and the smell of grilled meat. The dominant color motif, as always, is gold. The traditional costumes of the women swirling with their dance partners around the plaza principal are accented in gold. Many of the large, well-preserved homes that sit south of the highway are painted white but trimmed in gold. The old church, whose profile looms above the modest skyline, boasts a golden coat with royal red piping, its golden bell towers glinting in the afternoon sunlight.

El Triunfo

The golden bell towers of the El Triunfo church evoke the town’s mining heritage.

Once upon a time, El Triunfo and nearby San Antonio were the wealthiest and most famous towns on the Baja California peninsula. This legendarily prosperous period occurred during the latter part of the 19th century, but in truth the two were mining capitals and historical anomalies long before post San Francisco gold rush fever put the small Sierra de la Laguna communities on the international map in 1862.

It all started in the winter of 1720, during the age of Jesuit mission building, when padre Jaime Bravo and soldier Ignacio de Rojas stumbled upon a vein of silver ore while exploring the region south of La Paz. But close to 30 years passed before anyone took advantage of the find. That was Manuel de Ocio, a former soldier at the Loreto presidio who had retired and subsequently made his fortune from pearl diving. He and his partner, a Guadalajaran merchant named Antonio Ignacio de Mena, started the first mining operation on the peninsula, Real de Santa Ana, in 1748.

Historian Harry Crosby refers to Santa Ana as “the cradle of private enterprise in California.” It’s an apt description.  The most prolific mine, El Triunfo de la Cruz (not to be confused with the ship of the same name, which was the first ever built on the peninsula), was registered with the Spanish crown in 1751. Pioneer entrepreneurs Ocio and Mena also started raising cattle, and between the two industries, attracted a sizeable workforce from the mainland. This labor influx provided, after Santa Ana was abandoned, the populace for the first permanent secular communities in California: at San Antonio and El Triunfo.

San Antonio is, in fact, the longest continually occupied secular community in the Californias, and in 1829 was briefly the capital of peninsular California, after a hurricane devastated Loreto. The following year La Paz became the capital, which it remained for what ultimately became the southern territory of Baja California, and since 1974 has been the state of Baja California Sur.

The second boom hit in 1862, when a silver lode was discovered in San Antonio, followed by gold and silver deposits in El Triunfo. A little more than a decade had passed since the San Francisco fever of 1849, so the Sierra de la Laguna strikes offered a second chance for previously unsuccessful prospectors. Thousands eagerly joined fledgling mining companies – many of which were outright frauds, set up to swindle greedy investors – while others packed their pickaxes and boarded seagoing transports vessels bound for Baja Sur. Almost overnight, the population of tiny El Triunfo swelled from a few hundred to 10,000 strong. Many prospective miners landed at Cabo San Lucas, where one of the town’s founders, Thomas Ritchie, made his own fortune arranging for mule teams to ferry them overland.

Soon, El Triunfo had outstripped San Antonio as the premier mining center in the area. By 1874, its mines were shipping some $50,000 in silver to La Paz each month (over one million per month in modern U.S. dollars). Once larger companies like El Progreso moved in, prospectors scattered and the mines were mainly worked by Chinese immigrants and Yaqui Indians from Sonora. The largest chimney stack for smelting operations, dubbed Ramona, was built by none other than Gustave Eiffel, whose successes with the Statue of Liberty and a certain tower in Paris were yet to come. El Triunfo flourished for a time, becoming a regional cultural center, and the first town on the Baja California peninsula to install modern conveniences like electricity and telephones.

But the mine at El Triunfo was flooded during the hurricane of 1918, and although attempts were made to revive it a few years later, it closed for good in 1926. Today, the town and its once famous neighbors are largely forgotten: stage sets for ghost towns in movies, whose long ago heydays provide off-the-beaten-track diversions for intrepid tourists, and are occasionally revived for events like the Arts and Crafts Festival.

El Triunfo

Local color: residents showcase regional costume and dance.

El Triunfo

Outdoor stalls line the streets, offering traditional arts, crafts and cuisine.

Although cattle ranching and farming have become the main commercial industries, it’s almost impossible for visitors to separate present day El Triunfo from its prosperous mining past. Walking the streets one is struck by the town’s stately old buildings, its charming cafés, hand-painted advertisements and looming redbrick smokestacks: all of which hark back to the halcyon days of the late 19th and early 20th century mining boom. The stiffly posed black and white photographs in the fin-de-siecle focused cultural center seem more real, somehow, than the stalls filled with vendors selling pottery, blankets and carne asada; standard issue at any festival in any small town in México.

Are the vividly costumed residents who waltz around the town square – the young men dashing in white with their straw-woven cowboy hats, the young ladies sporting ruffled blouses, colorfully patterned skirts and flowers in their hair – celebrating regional tradition, or are they locked in a perpetual recreation of a long-dead era, a golden ghost dance in the name of tourism? Will they be celebrating the same things a hundred years hence, or will they have lost faith in the historical imperative that has shaped  their lives?

These are questions of somewhat more than rhetorical interest, because  El Triunfo is not just a town haunted by its past, but also by its uncertain future, and the vast untapped resources that still lay buried in the Sierra de la Laguna.

El Triunfo

El Triunfo’s stately homes are a legacy from its gold and silver mining days.

El Triunfo

Painted signs evoke El Triunfo’s golden age.

Here is a story sometimes told in El Triunfo. It’s probably apocryphal, but even as fable its lessons are instructive.

Many years ago there was a certain lady – let us call her Violeta – who although descended from a prominent gold mining family, was living in reduced circumstances. One day an elderly aunt, near death, confided to Violeta that there was a cache of gold hidden beneath her living room floor. Violeta returned to her home, and over the next few weeks became increasingly convinced that her aunt was right:  the beautiful house she had grown up in contained vast riches. Finally, unable to bear the thought of being relatively poor with a fortune in gold near at hand, Violeta began tearing up the elegant marble floor in her parlor. Her search was in vain, however, and she destroyed a significant part of her inheritance without unearthing any concealed wealth.

Some months later, Violeta returned from a trip to visit distant relatives and discovered her dining room floor had been dug up. A discarded wooden chest suggested that well-informed burglars had not only found, but escaped with the buried gold she had previously sought. What the thieves did not know, however, is that gold kept in a confined space for long periods corrodes, creating what are called “treasure gases.” If the gold is not aired out and the gases dispersed, the effects can be lethal. Thus it was in this case. The housebreakers were poisoned, and before they could spend a single gold sovereign became violently ill. Their last act before dying was to send a written apology to Violeta, apologizing for stealing her birthright. Nobody knows what ultimately happened to the gold.

El Triunfo

Birria and menudo headline the food options at this highway-side eatery.

Even after its lengthy history of mining, it’s estimated that some 1.73 million ounces of gold still remain in the Sierra de la Laguna, or an estimated two billion dollars worth. It’s a staggering sum, and one that has understandably created avid interest on the part of international mining consortiums. The publicly traded Canadian company Argonaut Gold has been among the most aggressive, embarking upon a campaign of political influence peddling. Despite legal setbacks to this point, Argonaut remains undaunted, and still classifies its “San Antonio Project” as in the “advanced exploration phase.”

The arguments on both sides are familiar ones. Proponents for mining argue it will create jobs, and stimulate the local economy. And of course there are many from traditional mining communities like El Triunfo and San Antonio who feel it is a well established industry in the region. Which, in fact, it is. Opponents, of course, point to the awful environmental consequences. It is not hyperbole to say that the proposed open pit mining operation would completely and irrevocably transform the magnificent landscape, leveling mountains and creating new ones from contaminated waste.

But what’s more terrifying for residents and lovers of Baja California Sur are the potentially devastating effects open pit mining could have on the water supply for the southernmost portion of the state. Anyone who doubts the possibility of a catastrophic contamination of ground water – and the source of the underground streams that replenish the regional aquifer are located distressingly near El Triunfo – need only look at the present day issues afflicting these mountain communities, where nearly half the wells show toxic arsenic levels that are not only well above legal Mexican limits, but way over the standards mandated by the U.S., and advocated by the World Health Organization. This from century old mining waste.

El Triunfo

Maestro Vicente Cardoza performs a classical piano concerto.

El Triunfo

The heart of the Museo de la Música is its collection of vintage pianos.

Indoors – far removed from the sunlight, the sound of electric guitars and the joyous shouts of energetic dancers – a man with thinning gray hair tied back in a ponytail places his long fingers on the black and white keys of a piano. An audience of some 50 people is crowded into seats in the intimate performance room of the Museo de la Musica, the seats framed along one wall by a row of antique pianos. In the back, where a small set of steps lead up from the main exhibit hall, latecomers maneuver for views, tugging at restless children as Maestro Vicente Cardoza  launches into a classical piano concerto.

The Museo de la Musica, more colloquially known as “The Piano Museum,” is a highlight of any visit to El Triunfo. Housed in an impressively maintained building just off the highway, the museum’s eclectic collection of musical artifacts contains everything from ancient victrolas, stereos and record albums to horns, drums and large paintings devoted to musical themes. But mainly there are pianos. Some date to the time when El Triunfo supposedly had more pianos per capita than any place in México, but the majority are of a somewhat more recent vintage.

There is also a scroll dedicated to classical composers from Baja California Sur:  Juan Nava Udiot, Gilberto R. Mendoza Ibarra, José de Sandozequi, Pedro Peláez Manriquez, Gilberto Isáis Moreno and Jesús Leonor Isáis Verdugo, most notable among them. Virtually all, by the way, hailed from or made their reputations in the capital city of La Paz. The homegrown genius of El Triunfo was concert trained pianist and teacher Francisca Mendoza, who could not have lacked for instruments with which to practice.

El Triunfo

One of Gustave Eiffel’s lesser known achievements: the 35 meter smelting chimney “Ramona” in El Triunfo.

Mendoza’s prime, like that of El Triunfo itself, belongs to another age. But the pall of nostalgia that clings to El Triunfo does not lessen the town’s attraction as a contemporary travel destination. Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland “there’s no there there.” El Triunfo has a “there,” not to mention abundant cultural resources; and its present, although overshadowed by its now romanticized past, provides plenty of day-tripping possibilities for those whose idea of a Mexican vacation extends beyond the boundaries of an all-inclusive beachfront resort.

The real issue, however, is not the future of tourism in El Triunfo, but the future of the town itself. Depending upon your perspective, its signature landmark, Eiffel’s early Baja “tower”, is either a quaint relic from an increasingly distant past, or an awful premonition of a not-so-distant future.

 

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About Chris Sands

Chris Sands is the author of Bohemia by the Bay, and writes about wine, golf, and travel for publications such as Baja.com, Los Cabos Guide, Los Cabos Magazine, 10 Best, and USA Today. He is a full-time resident of Cabo San Lucas.

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