Sunlight dances over the waters of the Gulf of California right up to the doorstep of Mulege, about a 1.5-2 hour drive from San Ignacio and 38 miles south of Santa Rosalia. With just a few thousand year-round residents, this is a quiet place where people go to find tranquility and beauty. Travelers make the two-day road trip from the U.S. border to head for the quiet desert and volcanic mountains that frame the cerulean water of the Bay of Conception; here, Mulege offers a place to rest and enjoy spectacular sunrises, and to taste the historic significance of old Mexico.
Entering the town through Gothic looking arches, a two-lane road is bordered on both sides by small businesses. Yielding right at the Y intersection, all streets in town are one-way beyond this point. It is easy to navigate, once you get hang of it. The small town is nestled in the hills where the fresh water river, Rio Mulege, meanders through palm groves to flow into the Bay (Bahia) of Conception. During heavy rains from tropical storms, this seemingly placid river can turn into a torrent of muddy water 30-feet deep.
The Bay of Conception (Bahia Concepcion) is within the greater gulf and has been named one of the many protected biospheres by the Mexican government. The waters are safe for swimming, kayaking, sailing, diving and snorkeling, not to mention a creative environment for photographers, bird watching, poets and writers. Fishermen love to pull out a big Dorado from the shimmering water, and shrimping trawlers drop anchor each morning with fresh shrimp caught just that morning.
For all of its lovely isolation, you might be surprised at the amazing number of activities available. A few days in Mulege’s magic can create what aficionados call the Baja Bug, and once bitten there is no cure. Thoughts turn towards extending the trip or looking for a long term rental. The best months for travel this deep into the gulf region are the spring, fall, and winter. Hot and humid weather begins near the end of May and last into September.
And it probably wasn’t that different eons ago. The first people of Mulege were the Cochimi Indian. They called the area “Large Ravine of the White Mouth.” They recorded their history on the walls of caves that are found in many parts of Baja and today, remnants of their etchings can be seen. The river valley of ‘modern’ Mulege was discovered by Jesuit Father Juan Maria de Salvatierra in 1702. As in other parts of Baja, the Spanish church established a mission (Santa Rosalia de Mulege, founded in 1705) and settlement here, motivated by the area’s abundance of water.
In 1754 father Francisco Escalante began the formal construction of the church’s mission, which was completed in 1766. Abandoned in 1828, it has been restored several times. It retains its original appearance, and inside the building is a statue of Santa Rosalia and a mission bell, both from the 17th century.
(A little known historic event happened in October of 1847. During the American-Mexican war of 1846-1848, the United States tried to occupy long stretches of Baja California coastline, which belonged to Mexico at that time. The U.S. sent war ships into the Sea of Cortez. The people of Mulegé and surrounding settlements lead by Captain Manual Pinada gathered together nearly 300 men to fight off the northern giant. He vowed, saying they would defend their country until the last drop of blood was shed. The U.S. commander sent 60 men ashore from the sloop Dale, but the Mexicans held fast and the Americans were forced to return to their ship defeated.
As a result Mulegé was not occupied and was rewarded the official title “Heroica Mulegé.” Even today, on any official letters of the Government you will find the title “Heroica Mulegé.”)
In more recent years, this idyllic setting near the Gulf of California has been discovered by sport-fishermen when big game fish were in abundance. Another burst of growth happened when the real estate industry began to see the area as prime location for development. And over the years, the reputation of the village was bolstered by visits from celebrities like John Wayne (who acutally had a house there) and Olivia Newton John. Sadly — although not for those who rejoiced in reclaiming the solitude and tranquility for which Mulege is famous — before Mulege hit its touristic stride, the global economic downturn took its toll. Today Mulege has once again become a sleepy town, maintaining a community of Mexican fishermen and a small group of foreign residents. Light tourism keeps the town operating during the fall and winter months. And now, the little pueblo awaits those adventure seekers who come to Baja to find their own personal paradise.
San Ignacio (northwest of Mulegé)
A highlight of Central Baja is the lovely town of San Ignacio – arguably one of the prettiest villages in Baja – a veritable oasis right in the middle of the narrow part of the Baja Peninsula, with its date palm canopy and a beautiful and historic church. This is a stopping point for many bikers and SCORE racers, and a great place to use as a hub for various eco-tours in the region. During whale-watching season, hotels book up quickly and do they at the end of July for the little pueblo’s celebration of their patron saint, San Ignacio (said to be one of the best fiestas in the region!)
Santa Rosalia (north of Mulegé)
Santa Rosalia on the Sea of Cortez is just an hour’s drive from San Ignacio. This under-visited and yet good-sized town has a bygone-days feeling to its architecture and streets. Founded by the French company El Boleo in 1884, that company worked copper mines there until the 1950s. They built houses (many of which boast ornate wood construction, unusual in Baja) and installed a metallic church building created by Gustav Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame).
Mostly undeveloped, Bahía Asunción and Central Baja epitomize the natural beauty and laid-back appeal of Baja. This is an area of unbridled friendliness: hotel owners, boat operators (from charter fishing boats to little pangas), farmers and even tour guides who will lead groups far into the hills on mules to see cave paintings and ruins are all welcoming and informative. There is no gastronomic explosion or cultural rebirth going on here…only simple good food, quiet evenings under a blanket of stars and the sense of ‘past’ and ‘future’ that is captured in rocks, desert and mammals that rule the seas. It is a place that isn’t all that easy to get to…but that calls you back, again and again.