Baja California: Santa Rosalía, the French city in the middle of the Mexican desert | The traveler


Santa Rosalía is another world within another world. A twist. Therefore, due to excess or opposition, it ends up lowering the fantasy of the rest of the Mexican peninsula of Baja California. It brings down the fantasy of the desert, full of exotic, and in some cases unique, plants from that area. Of the candles, which sometimes grow in games of contortions towards the ground, and other times tall and thin towards the sky, like a mutant blade of grass in a garden of giants. Cardones, a species of enormous cactus; of the tallest and longest-lived cacti in the world, some have been on this part of the planet for several centuries. Roadrunners, which are not cartoons here, are real animals, very agile birds that can run more than 20 kilometers per hour. Of the rattlesnakes, the pronghorn, the whales and a long list of animals and plants that, with luck, can be seen if you go down the Transpeninsular highway, from Tijuana, or if you go up from La Paz or Los Cabos . This peninsula is one of the areas of Mexico that takes the most care of its nature, with around twenty protected natural areas, including biosphere reserves, national parks, flora and fauna protection areas, and sanctuaries.

But Santa Rosalía is not that. It sucks us out of that outer space and returns us to a reality that is at least more urban, although no less surreal. Because, although Santa Rosalía propels us out of this cosmos that is the peninsula, it has something magical, because it is something strange within the strangeness. Something that catches your attention and is also a little extraterrestrial in its own way. Doesn’t a town with French architecture in the middle of the Mexican desert attract attention? Isn’t it strange to have a church attributed to Gustave Eiffel so far from France?

This small town, with just over 14,000 inhabitants, declared a historical monument in the early eighties, is reached leaving behind the Las Tres Vírgenes volcano, a few hours after having crossed the border between the State of Baja California and the State of Baja California. Baja California Sur. The latter, according to official data, is the State with the lowest population density in all of Mexico. Fewer people live in the entire territory, for example, than in the northern city of Tijuana. These official data also say that almost 2% of the population speaks an indigenous language, that just over 3% recognize themselves as Afro-Mexican or Afro-descendant, and that, of the foreign residents, the majority are Americans or Canadians.

The Mission of Santa Rosalía de Mulegé, built between 1705 and 1766.
The Mission of Santa Rosalía de Mulegé, built between 1705 and 1766.Hemis / Alamy / CORDON PRESS

So, apparently, nothing to do with the French. So why is Santa Rosalía like this? It is because of its succulent copper deposits, which at the end of the 19th century a rancher discovered by chance. The man wanted to find a shortcut to get from his ranch to the coast faster and in his search he came across a hill full of some kind of green clods. That’s what Juan Manuel Romero Gil says in El Boleo: Santa Rosalía, Baja California Sur, 1885-1954. The book continues explaining how the news spread and soon some miners of German origin arrived, who, with their thirst for wealth, in just four years exhausted the surface layer of the deposit and left. But others began to come and open small mines. Until, in 1885, bankers from the House of Rothschild – European capitalists of German-Jewish origin – disbursed 12 million francs of the time and with that founded the Compagnie du Boléo (The Boleo Company). Thus, in that mostly uninhabited and arid area, a mining colony began to be created. At first they brought many Yaqui workers, an indigenous population from Sonora, who spent 10-hour days in the mines. The company had agreed by contract with the Mexican government of Porfirio Díaz to establish a minimum of “sixteen foreign and fifty Mexican families” there, writes Romero Gil. In this way, houses, a railway, pipes to carry water and other infrastructure began to be built.

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Now, walking through the center of the city is almost a leap in geography and time, because it is like walking through France centuries ago or through modern-day New Orleans, in the United States, which also has a mix of French past. and Spanish.

People walking on the dock of the port of Santa Rosalía, in Baja California Sur, Mexico.
People walking on the dock of the port of Santa Rosalía, in Baja California Sur, Mexico.Nano Calvo (Alamy / CORDON PRESS)

Many of the houses in Santa Rosalía are still made of wooden slats, in light, pastel colors, with a porch to shelter from the sun and triangular roofs. And in the streets there are stalls selling tacos, tostadas and seafood cocktails, hot dogs, coffees and a very particular bakery: El Boleo, where on the wall at the entrance a phrase in English stands for spoiler or declaration of intent: “World’s famous bread since 1901” (the world famous bread since 1901). The striking thing is that, although the text is in English, the coveted bread is French, or at least it was in its beginnings when the mining company founded the bakery, because the pastries they offered there were made with ingredients imported from France. Today they still sell a type of bread that they call French there, something like a small loaf of bread.

Although perhaps the most curious thing about that walk through the center is discovering the church of Saint Barbara, where at the entrance a plaque announces that it was “designed in 1884 by Gustave Eiffel, built in 1887. Exhibited in Paris in 1889 along with the Eiffel Tower ”. The building, with an iron structure that is very reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower, is attributed to the French engineer, although it is not proven. But be that as it may, its uniqueness alone makes it worth visiting. To complete the day, you can take guided tours of the mines and end up seeing the sea on a walk through the port.

Church of Saint Barbara, designed by Gustav Eiffel.
Church of Saint Barbara, designed by Gustav Eiffel.Prism / Dukas Presseagentur / Alamy / CORDON PRESS

Between crystal clear waters and desert

Santa Rosalía belongs to the municipality of Mulegé, especially known for its spectacular beaches, which are a little further south, in Bahía Concepción. Most of them are incredible, although there are perhaps two that stand out: Coyote and Requeson. There the white sands, crystal clear waters and fish coexist with a semi-desert landscape of cacti and other similar vegetation, even with mangroves, as is the case of Requesón. Although there may be more people in the place, there is a welcoming calm.

Mining works in Santa Rosalía.
Mining works in Santa Rosalía.ap-photo / Alamy / CORDON PRESS

In all these sandy areas you can camp for around 10 euros in a motorhome, like many retired Americans and Canadians, or in tents under the palapas that are installed there. Spending the night in those places and contemplating the virgin landscapes under the sky full of stars is a fantasy. But the most magical thing is that it is a real fantasy.

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