A tall American fisherman placed five good-sized fish on his camping table and began to gut them as a fellow tourist in Baja California appeared on a bank above him. “Did you just catch them?” he asked. There were five cabezons ranging in size from three to nine pounds.
The fisherman looked up, surprised at the sight of another tourist at his party’s camping cove at the tip of the Punta Baja peninsula. “Yep,” he said easily. “They look ugly but they’re delicious." And with that the tall man cut into the stomach of one cabezon and pulled out a silver-dollar-sized kelp crab and a six-inch, undigested octopus.
“Jesus!” said the visitor. “I’ve been coming to Baja for thirty years and I haven’t seen anything like this.”
The fisherman looked at an island offshore, the blue waters of Rosario Bay, and the mountains. “That could be,” he said softly, “because there isn’t anything in Baja like this.”
Norm Ash, the forty-two-year-old, tall, red-haired fisherman, explained to the visitor that Punta Baja is “a survivor, one of the last unspoiled outposts on the vanishing frontier of Lower California.” It remains that way today because Baja was developed from south to north over a period of 235 years, until about 1770, to about latitude thirty degrees north (the latitude of Punta Baja).
The development leapfrogged to San Diego and California during the next fifty-year period, at a time when syphilis was wiping out the native local Cochimi Indians. As late as the 1950s it was estimated that the desert region of which Punta Baja is a part actually had fewer inhabitants than it had before contact with the white man.
Though Punta Baja is within a day’s drive of San Diego — some 250 miles to the south — it gets little or no mention in Baja travel guidebooks. Miller and Baxter’s The Baja Book doesn’t mention it at all, for example. And the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Baja California calls it only “a seasonally occupied fish camp on an attractive beach.” Ash, a frequent Baja visitor who works as a surveyor in Marin County, said that Punta Baja is no more distant from the paved central Mexican Highway 1 than most other northern Baja coastal villages. “It’s just a little further down, and if campers get as far as El Rosario [the turnoff point for Punta Baja], the tendency is to turn left with the paved highway and drive across the peninsula to Los Angeles Bay. ” The alternative is the dirt road from El Rosario to Punta Baja, which is nine miles long. Depending on the weather, it can take an hour or a week to travel.
Punta Baja is plagued (or, depending on your viewpoint, blessed) with cold ocean temperatures at all times. Sixty degrees in summer is warm. This condition is dictated by what is known as upwelling, where chilly northwesterly winds combine with southerly ocean currents to displace normally warmer coastal water with deeper and colder offshore seawater. In short, visitors in wetsuits may surf Punta Baja; nobody swims it. Camping spots on the flat, sandy mesa have almost no protection from the wind that blows virtually year around. The place does get some visitors, but not very many returnees.
Though picturesque, with its La Jolla-like conglomerate rocks, tidal shelves, and sheer cliffs, Punta Baja demands a certain hardiness of its Mexican fisherman residents as well as of visitors. There is no electricity (not counting car batteries, which are sometimes called upon to light up lone twenty-five-watt bulbs when fuel for the Coleman lanterns runs out). There is no fresh water. Water is brought in by the villagers in fifty-five-gallon steel barrels, carried in the back seats of old sedans or the beds of newer Ford pickups. Clothes-washing is done on washboards, and the wash water, in testimony to the dust, comes out a dirty gray-brown and lacking suds. When there is no driftwood available — for use in the mass-cooking of lobsters in fifteen-gallon galvanized tubs — wood from the hills twelve miles away must be cut and trucked in.
“This place is subtle. It’ll fool you for a year or two,” Ash said. The dozen families here have all come within this decade, and they’ve come by way of La Paz, little villages in Sonora, Michoacan — you name it. They have created their own culture and to some extent their own standards and values. Very resourceful, very independent.
“They’re not angels, but Christ, this is still the frontier. I see these villagers as personable people of gumption and tolerance. They know what prejudice and injustice is all about. Many of them worked illegally in the United States.
“Every year Indians come to this region to harvest the tomatoes and probably the beans and the chiles. They come from Oaxaca. And as migrant laborers and as the local minority culture they are looked down upon by the Mexicans. But they are looked down on maybe less by the people in Punta Baja.”
Beto Alvarado, whom Ash calls “the mayor,” was born in the historic Mexican city of Morelia in the early Depression years and is in his late forties today. As a teen-ager he moved to and worked in Mexico City, and went from there to the farm fields of Sacramento and Salinas. He is bitter even today about his four years in the U.S. as a farm laborer of questionable status. “Beto spits angrily when he talks about the years he spent in California,” Ash said.
In 1952 Beto moved to El Rosario and began to work as a barber. He is still referred to today as “El Peluquero,” or the barber. Through a friend he got into fishing, because,in his words, “it paid more than cutting hair.” After the paved trans-peninsula highway that runs the length of Baja opened in December of 1973, making the port of Ensenada easily accessible to the El Rosario fishing cooperative, Beto was among the first to take up residence year round at Punta Baja. His first home was a tarpaper and frame shack. Today he lives with his second wife, Socorro, 35, and seven children in one of two cement-block houses on the Punta Baja headland. His three-room house is a half mile from the tarpaper-covered homes of the other villagers. Beto is seen by American visitors as the leader of Punta Baja and by Ash as its symbol. A proud, stocky man with