In the early 1970s, my late grandfather, an artist and retired San Diego State art professor, took me camping to a beautiful and remote setting along Baja’s northwest coast. While exploring the peninsula’s back roads, he and a colleague had discovered a hundred-yard-long sandy cove at San Juan de las Pulgas, with glowing sunsets, a rocky point for fishing, and solitude that stretched for 15 miles, from a promontory to the south all the way up to the lonely lighthouse at Punta San José. It became known to us and our camping companions as simply Pulgas, “fleas” in Spanish.
Over the next 20 years, occasionally seeking refuge from urban San Diego, I introduced various friends to this peaceful, desolate place. Though it is only some 50 miles south of Ensenada, first-time visitors would have a hard time finding it unguided, and parts of the dirt road leading in from the highway could present challenges even to vehicles with four-wheel drive.
In the early ’90s I married and started a family, and though I did not return for over a decade, there was always a comforting feeling that Pulgas remained, untouched and unknown, apart from the few ranchers, farmers, and fishermen who made their living in the area.
In the spring of 2005, I persuaded my family to join me in journeying to this destination once again, setting out in a small pickup with our Chesapeake Bay retriever riding in the truck’s bed. Although the cove is only 150 miles south of San Diego, the trip can easily end up taking six or seven hours, slowed particularly once you turn off Mexico’s Transpeninsular Highway, 30 miles south of Ensenada, onto an inconspicuous dirt road behind the pueblo of Santo Tomás.
The rains that winter five years ago had been heavy — about 15 inches — and the hills along the 20-mile pastoral route from Santo Tomás to the coast were rich with wildflowers. While enjoying that scenery, I soon learned to watch the road because, unlike what I’d encountered in the past, enormous trucks would appear from either direction at high speed, kicking up great clouds of choking dust. By the time we passed under the portal of a wooden sign reading “Rancho San Juan de las Pulgas” and looked out upon the Pacific, dusk was approaching and several miles of the most difficult terrain remained.
Before we had gone much farther, however, we faced something new: the road down the coast to Pulgas was completely fenced off. A guard was posted at a gate as trucks came and went to a giant construction project that had now come into view to the south (this explained the big rigs). We were told that no one was allowed to enter this area, but with the late hour and an anxious family looking on, I somehow persuaded someone to let us proceed — a cold cerveza might have been offered — assuring him we were merely passing through to reach our old campsite a few miles beyond.
We were instructed to follow a large truck and did so. As we passed the site, we could see that something extraordinary was being undertaken here. There in this pristine, obscure location we could see the foundations and walls of massive buildings that were going up. While disheartening to my sense of isolation of Pulgas, I thought that as large as it was, this development might not be visible from our cove a few kilometers to the south, due to the contour of the coast and the project’s location slightly inland from, though overlooking, the sea.
It was now dark, and with headlights on we crept toward the next landmark in my recollection, the simple, rustic ranch house of Señor Morales, a friend of my grandfather’s. His home was situated a few hundred yards back from the ocean, just before the road wound sharply down around the side of a steep arroyo and crossed a creek before climbing up again. With relief I spotted a lighted house where I remembered Señor Morales’s abode to be. As we came closer, however, I was startled to see an immaculate, modern-looking home, something one might find in a suburban American neighborhood.
I got out of our truck and approached the house to greet its occupants and to get advice on the condition of the road before descending into the arroyo. Looking through the windows of the brightly lit home, once again I saw something strange. Several stations of what appeared to be sophisticated computer drafting equipment filled the front rooms. With stars shimmering overhead and waves crashing nearby, I called out into the darkness, “Buenas noches.”
I had surprised the occupants, and one of several inside came outside wanting to know what we were doing there. He spoke in English but had an accent that sounded German. He appeared middle-aged, with brownish hair, and he obviously was very disturbed by our presence. We were on private property, he said, and would have to leave at once. I explained that we were trying to reach our longtime campsite a short distance ahead. Hoping to put him at ease, I called to my wife, who speaks German, to converse with him. Although he spoke with her, he did not seem at all interested in doing so. Another accented Northern European man appeared from the house for a moment but then went back inside. The first fellow’s German sounded a bit strange to my wife, and from his vague responses during our conversation I understood his nationality to be successively German, Swedish, and finally Danish.
The encounter had now reached a level of bizarreness unrivaled in my decades of Baja camping. One of the beauties of travel in remote lower California had always been the humanity and warmth one finds among the Mexicans in rural areas. We were encountering a coldness, detachment, and almost hostility at the site of the former home of my grandfather’s friend, the amiable Señor Morales. Further, they weren’t Mexicans but Scandinavians — evidently doing high-tech engineering work in a modern-looking home in Baja’s coastal wilderness.