Cabo Pulmo is a destination for divers and snorkelers on the East Cape of Baja Sur. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
It would be hard to find a place that humans haven’t ruined in some manner. Fortunately, the stories about recovery—by humans—are also out there.
One of those places is Cabo Pulmo National Park on the east side of Baja Sur in Mexico.
This area—which covers land and the Sea of Cortez—became a park in 1995, and a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005.
SeaLegacy and Beta Diversidad point to the success of restoring Cabo Pulmo as they, along with other environmental agencies, try to broaden the protection of Baja’s natural resources.
Time magazine this month reported that the organizations are seeking to “create a protective zone that will fit like a sock over the southern half of Baja California—where the peninsula’s greatest bio-diversity is found—extending into the waters of the Gulf of California to the east of Baja and the Pacific Ocean to the west.”
The article also says the proposal states, “Some sport and artisanal fishing will be allowed near the coasts, and a tightly regulated ecotourism industry, but no industrial fishing. Farther out into the ocean will be a ‘no take’ zone that will leave part of the Pacific and the Gulf of California entirely untouched.”
Ultimately it will be up to the president of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, to designate the waters a marine preserve. A decision could come this year.
Fishing is big business in this part of the world. Big for those selling their catch commercially, and big for tourist boats taking visitors out with the expectation something will be on the end of their line.
Tourist boats also are out in force chasing whales all for the enjoyment of looky-loos. What this is doing to these mammals, well, it can’t be beneficial.
Advocates for the preserve say the region has been overfished and something must be done in order to bring back the fish and their habitat.
The magazine article said only 4 percent of the bluefin tuna population in this region are still in these waters.
“For every 2.2 pounds of shrimp pulled from the ocean, there are more than 20 pounds of unwanted bycatch—mostly juveniles of various species,” Time reports. “The nets drag along the bottom of the ocean, damaging the delicate ecosystem of the ocean floor, and releasing the carbon that’s sequestered in the sediment.”
Cabo Pulmo is the example people keep returning to. Industrial fishing in no longer allowed there and ecotourism is regulated.
The coral reef there has recovered and the fish population has increased by 465 percent, reports Time. Plus, the diversity of aquatic wildlife has also proliferated.
Inadequate infrastructure adds to Todos Santos’ inability to capture rain water. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Balance. It’s something much of Baja California Sur is trying to figure out, with Todos Santos in the thick of it.
The balance of people and natural resources is at the crux of so many issues embroiling this town.
Money is also an integral component.
Development is an economic driver for those in the construction trades and for government officials putting their stamp of approval on plans. More people in town also brings cash to local businesses.
The problems, though, include, but are not limited to, an evaporating aquifer, destruction of dunes, and the rewriting of the rules governing development.
The latter has been going on for a few months. Officials in La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur, decided to rewrite the PDU. The Program for Urban Development (PDU) for Todos Santos, El Pescadero, and Las Playitas was published in 2012. It covers more than 30 miles from Elias Calles on the south to Agua Blanca north of Todos Santos. The PDU prohibits any development on primary and secondary dunes.
That document took five years to finalize.
At a meeting this spring between government officials and Todos Santos residents it was revealed the new PDU would be done in five months. The meeting got heated, with accusations of corruption being leveled.
“Rumor is $25,000 (U.S.) will get you a building permit. We don’t have proof of it happening, but why would you do this if there weren’t some kind of reward?” a spokesman for Protect Todos Santos said.
The nonprofit Protect Todos Santos was formed in the last few years to bring light to illegal construction and other issues affecting the area. The group recently hired a criminal attorney to go after people who they believe are acting illegally, while a civil attorney is filing cases in federal court in order to stop building that Protect Todos Santos believes violates the PDU.
Urbanistica was hired to rewrite the Todos Santos PDU as well as PDUs for La Ventana and Las Barrillas on the East Cape.
“I don’t think they are qualified if you look at their project experience. I expect they will produce a terrible product and then La Paz will throw our PDU in the trash and that is what we will be left with, a piece of shit,” according to a member of Protect Todos Santos.
Urbanistica deferred comment to IMPLAN, the government agency that handles development and is in charge of the PDU. Iván Enrique Valencia Duarte was contacted by the Gringo Gazette newspaper, but chose not to respond to an email inquiry.
That means we don’t know why the government wants to rewrite the document, what they don’t like about the current PDU, who initiated this idea, or why locals were not consulted before a decision to create a new PDU was made.
Protect Todos Santos (PTS) members are alarmed with the contents of the second draft of the new PDU that was released in June. One of the main issues was water.
“They devoted a page and half to water. They didn’t even get the chart right. They don’t even understand water,” a PTS official said. “It was wrong in the first and second drafts. It is the most important thing. They are not doing their homework.”
PTS hired Victor Sevilla Unda, professor of Water Science at the Autonomous University in La Paz, and William Sanford, professor in the Department of Geoscience at Colorado State University, to look into the local water situation. This summer a report titled “Evaluation of Groundwater Resources in the Todos Santos Aquifer” was released.
Much of the data came from Conagua, Mexico’s federal water agency that manages the dams and oversees the country’s water resources. In 2020, 30 percent more water was extracted from the aquifer compared to 2007
The Santa Inés Dam near Todos Santos helps recharge the groundwater. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Considering the growth in the greater Todos Santos area, notably the Las Tunas neighborhood, that percentage is likely higher today.
The report states, “From 2013 to 2020 the rate of extraction doubled and if we extrapolate the rate based upon its recent growth, by 2030 we will be extracting twice as much water as is recharged in an average year.”
It goes on to say, “In addition, climate variability studies suggest that precipitation will decrease, and the frequency of hurricanes will lessen, which will reduce the amount of recharge to the aquifer. This coupled with the increased demand for water resources may cause a significant loss of available water.”
Protest Todos Santos’ summer newsletter said, “We think IMPLAN should know how much water we currently consume and how those numbers will be impacted by their proposed PDU as part of the development process. However, their most recent PDU draft indicates they are not going to do that very necessary calculation, so our plan is to present them with our scientists’ reports and predictions and hope they are incorporated it into the new PDU.
“In the end, desalination may be our only hope unless we find ways to slow development, move water currently used for agriculture to domestic uses, find other ways to store water, and reduce water use through conservation. However, we are skeptical that La Paz will have the money needed to build a plant in Todos Santos. And it is not our first choice for a solution since desalination plants are notorious for using a large amount of fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change, and the salt brine waste created needs to be properly addressed.”
Desalinization plants are expensive; La Paz is spending $165 million (U.S.) for one.
A Protect Todos Santos representative admitted it’s not the Mexican citizens who are the water hogs. Instead, this person said, it’s agriculture and foreigners who have taken up residence in the area. Big houses, pools, landscaping—they are draining the aquifer.
After all, on average Todos Santos receives 6 inches of rain a year. That doesn’t amount to much per person.
The experts who created the water report came up with 15 recommendations ranging from improving monitoring, installing flow meters on extraction wells, upgrading weather stations, identifying groundwater sources outside the basin, creating a groundwater model, and studying the water flow at the Santa Inés Dam.
Protect Todos Santos hopes to work with a university that would want to implement some of the recommendations as a potential research project.
Tiny napkins are the norm at restaurants in Baja Sur. (Images: Kathryn Reed)
Cocktail napkins should not be used as a dinner (or lunch or breakfast) napkin. They are too dang small.
That’s not the belief in Mexico, though. Well, at least throughout the Baja peninsula.
Restaurants in Baja are known for their penchant to provide napkins that can’t do the job. Well, they can, it just takes multiple napkins to get through an entire meal.
I’m not really sure how this is efficient. It seems like a waste of paper and a waste of money. It seems like an environmental nightmare.
These servilletas, which in reality are probably a hair bigger than cocktail napkins, are also usually thin. This contributes to needing more than one or two or three to get through a meal—even if you aren’t a messy eater or even eating something messy. It’s not like I’m eating barbecue or the like where more than one of any size napkin is necessary.
The worst is when the napkin is wrapped around eating utensils. Inevitably the napkin is ripped because it’s been secured by a wrapper that doesn’t want to come undone.
While many times a container of napkins is on the table, you can’t be guaranteed that is going to be the case. To me, this arsenal of additional napkins is evidence the original napkin is not enough to get through the meal. So, it’s not like restaurateurs don’t know there is an issue with the napkins.
I realize the size of a napkin is not usually something worthy of a rant. I just think if these restaurants in Baja would be helping the environment and customers if they would provide guests with a better, bigger napkin.
All of this makes me wonder what Mexicans do in their homes. What size napkins are they using? How many do they use in one meal?
Ibarra pottery is all made by hand in La Paz, Mexico. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Imperfections can actually make something even more perfect.
That’s what happens with handcrafted pottery and glassware. Two glasses or bowls may be similar, even seem alike, but look closer and you’ll see each is unique.
Mexican pottery is full of vibrant colors that seem to draw one’s eye to it no matter where it is located—a kitchen, outdoors, on a table as a decorative piece.
Ibarra’s Pottery was founded in 1958 by Julio Ibarra and Juanita Chavez. They met in Mexico City where they were both studying art. They decided to join forces and create pottery together.
In the mid-1980s they moved to La Paz in Baja California Sur to where they had family. In many ways it was like starting all over as the Ibarra art was not locally known.
Julio Ibarra died in 2015, while Juanita Chavez was still working there last year.
In April 2022, Ibarra’s Pottery celebrated what it called its evolution in La Paz from 1987-2022.
Ibarra’s factory and shop is a couple blocks from the malecon in La Paz. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Today, the La Paz shop is run by the founders’ daughter, Vicky Ibarra. A third generation is also becoming potterers.
While they don’t like people to take pictures onsite, the pottery makers post pictures online of the finished work and of employees painting what is essentially a blank canvas. There are even videos of how the clay comes into being.
The store/factory in La Paz is continually turning out new work. Plates, glasses, wall hangings, pitchers, and so much more are handcrafted right there.
If you don’t find what you are looking for or you have an idea for a piece, special orders can be placed.
One of Ibarra’s Facebook posts sums up why handmade art is so wonderful, “When you are buying a handmade piece you must know it might have some small defects and you can’t blame the artisan. The truth is: it makes it unique. Why? Because when you are creating something with your hands no matter how careful you are sometimes it’s impossible to make it exactly like the others.”
A post on Ibarra’s Instagram page says each piece takes about two weeks to complete. All of the Ibarra pieces are lead free. What I have bought can go in the oven and dishwasher, though I haven’t done so.
I love that each is signed on the bottom, so you know it’s an Ibarra. (They carry other works at the store.)
Tools of the vaquero at the cowboy museum in El Triunfo. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
The smell of new leather wafts through the entrance, an appropriate greeting for a museum all about cowboys.
Museo del Vaquero de las Californias (MuVaCa for short and the Cowboy Museum of the Californias in English) opened in the tiny Baja town of El Triunfo the first week of November. (It’s still hard to believe this was once the most populated town in Baja California Sur.)
This ode to cowboy history is as well done as the mining museum (Museo Ruta de Plata/Silver Route Museum) that is on the same street.
The museum captures more than 300 years of cowboy traditions throughout the Baja peninsula. Details include aspects about life before the Spanish arrived, their influence, life after they were conquered, and the war with the United States that resulted in a large swath of Mexico becoming part of the U.S.
One display points out, “During the war between the United States and Mexico, rancheros and vaqueros joined together to defend their lands. On December 6, 1846, at the Battle of San Pasqual (in present day San Diego County), Californios defeated U.S. forces while armed only with lances, swords, and a few firearms.”
In other words, the Mexicans won at least one battle before losing the war.
Information is written in English and Spanish, as is the case at the mining museum.
The detail in this saddle is exquisite. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Walking in there are displays of cowboys in all their garb. The circular layout then leads visitors to the small theater where a film (also in English and Spanish) gives a thorough history about the vaqueros up to present day.
This is a good foundation to have before visiting the main museum which is in a separate building across a walkway that includes a tiered concrete seating area where outdoor presentations could be conducted.
There is so much to read, see and absorb in the museum that it would make sense to go multiple times. There is no way to grasp everything in one visit.
While the story and evolution of the Baja cowboy are fascinating, I seemed to be most enamored by the clothing for the people and the horses. The detail in the saddles was stunning. It was like artwork.
One display said, “The Baja California Sur saddle was designed to manage cattle safely in the harsh environment by protecting mount and rider from spines and thorns.”
The desert is not a forgiving place so protection is necessary, even today.
Museo del Vaquero de las Californias in El Triunfo has been open since early November. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Because living off the land is hard work no matter where one does it the early vaqueros had to be resourceful.
“As the population grew, hides, tallow, milk, cheese, and other products were transported through the Sierra of the peninsula to towns and cities that depended on the ranches for their supplies. In Alta California, the international tallow and leather trade gave rise to a boom; some families amassed huge tracts of pastureland for thousands of cattle,” one display reads. “The importance of livestock ranching as the economic base and the proliferation of wild cattle prompted the systematization of rodeos, the establishment of controlled herds, and the mark of ownership through branding.”
Today, one does not have to go far out of any town in Baja Sur to come across a ranch. Cowboys are still very much a part of the 21st century.
“The mountains of Guadalupe and La Giganta are home to hundreds of families who live a life similar to their ancestors of over 300 years ago,” the museum teaches. “Today, nearly 5,000 people continue living much of that lifestyle: tending the garden; making tools, leatherwork, cheeses, and knives for sale preparing food; and performing the many tasks it takes to remain on the ranches.”
Since its inception in 2016 the Padrino Children’s Foundation has outgrown its space three times. That is why the nonprofit is on a quest to raise $750,000 for a two-story, 5,000-square-foot building in Todos Santos.
As the town’s population grows, so does its needs. Each month Padrino sees new patients, with about 20 percent of the local population coming through its doors. That’s 21,800 medical interventions provided to 1,211 kids since January 2017.
Dr. Alejandra Peña Salguero and Jim Cardillo with the Padrino Children’s Foundation at a Dec. 3 fundraiser. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
In December 2019, the reported number of medical interventions was 10,688, with 707 children served.
Mental and social health, rare genetic diseases, and helping kids with special needs are part of the services. Financial assistance for care is a big part of what Padrino does, including paying for transportation to La Paz or Cabo and even mainland Mexico. The group also offers specialized health clinics.
“Cases have gotten more complicated over time,” Dr. Alejandra Peña Salguero, medical and executive director, said at a fundraiser this month.
More children are coming in who need speech therapy and help with their autism.
Nancy Naigle and Nancy Serfass founded the organization “to provide access to professional medical care for children in need and promote wellness for children in the community of Todos Santos and the surrounding region.” Both remain actively involved, including being on the board of directors.
To date, $300,000 has been raised for the new clinic. That leaves $450,000 still to be collected. Naigle is hopeful this will be attained in the first quarter of 2023.
Todos Santos area residents this winter are opening their homes for fundraising events to benefit the Padrino Children’s Foundation. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
The land in the San Vicente area of Todos Santos, which is about two blocks from the current location, has been donated.
The new clinic will have a room dedicated for visiting specialists. There will also be guest suites for doctors so the foundation will no longer have to pay for hotel expenses.
Padrino used to have an annual fundraising dinner which is where a huge chunk of its operating dollars came from. The pandemic put an end to the large gathering. It has been replaced with several dinners at private residences, where 20 or more people gather for food and drink, sometimes live entertainment, with those intimately involved giving an update on the foundation
The December gathering was the first of 14 this season, with the others to take place in January and February.
The foundation is in the process of securing its status as a nonprofit in Mexico, which should then enable it to tap other financial resources.
While money is needed for the structure, dollars (and pesos) are also being raised to keep the services going.
Jim Cardillo, chairman of the board, said the 2022 operating budget is about $310,0000, of which 70 percent is paid for by individual donors. The rest mostly comes from grants and fundraisers.
A Canadian ambulance is now calling Todos Santos home. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
As a retired deputy chief and paramedic, Paul Charbonneau was beside himself when he saw a picture of a Todos Santos ambulance broken down along the side of the road.
Thus began his quest to bring an ambulance from his home country of Canada to Baja California Sur.
Todos Santos community members on Dec. 4 celebrated the arrival of the rolling medical unit at the Todos Santos station.
With fresh paint and the local name and emblem on the vehicle, it looks brand new. Tires are new (though they were used to drive from Canada), and the whole unit has been looked over by a mechanic. All of those costs were absorbed by Charbonneau.
Charbonneau, who is currently executive director of the Ontario Association of Paramedic Chiefs in Canada, said ambulances in Ontario are only used there for five years. He was able to get the one now in Todos Santos as a donation; it’s value being $8,000 Canadian.
It took 14 months for the ambulance to get to Baja Sur; which happened this fall. Border closures contributed to the delays, and then the need to secure permission to drive through the U.S. and Mexico.
Todos Santos fire Cmdr. Chava Cadena and retired Canadian paramedic Paul Charbonneau at the Dec. 4 celebration. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
On this latest trip south Charbonneau came with a suit case full of supplies for the ambulance—goods worth about $600 (Canadian). Stethoscopes bandages for burn wounds and much more are part of the medical equipment he is donating.
Chava Cadena, commander of the Todos Santos Bomberos, said about 20 times a month one of his three paramedics drives someone via ambulance from here to a hospital in La Paz, about an hour away. Because those vehicles are used beyond emergencies in town, a ton of miles are being put on them.
In addition to the paramedics, Cadena said the department has 20 firefighters.
He added that the government provides minimal financial help to operate the fire and ambulance services, which is why donations of equipment and cash are always in need. Seven of his charges receive limited compensation.
Firefighters battle a fire about once month, with car accidents being what they respond to most often. Those average about 12 a month; with crashes on the road between Todos Santos and La Paz being the most common, according to Cadena.
Now the nearly all-volunteer department has three ambulances, two fire trucks and one water tank.
Others who helped make the ambulance deal come to fruition include Nathan Charbonneau, Dan Shannon, Anthony Johnson, Maryann Douglas, and Kate Lewis.
This sign sums of the desires of many Todos Santos residents when it comes to building on the dunes. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Updated Dec. 19, 2022
Rules are for other people seems to be the mantra when it comes to building on the dunes in the greater Todos Santos area.
Another lot has a 5-foot green wire fence around the perimeter, with construction possibly starting this month.
In a show of solidarity against the continual building on these environmentally sensitive lands more than 100 people gathered Dec. 2 outside that fence. Some came with signs in Spanish calling for the revocation of the permit, the protection of the dunes, and how this type of building is illegal.
While the crowd was mostly white, not all were.
Protect Todos Santos initiated the gathering, with a spokesman explaining how Eddie Ogden owns 100 beachfront lots—all on the dunes. Ogden’s latest project, which would be his seventh house on the dunes, is likely to be a spec home that could break ground the first full week of December, according to the activists’ group.
Protect Todos Santos was formed earlier this year as a nonprofit for locals and foreign residents to safeguard the area “from the environmental threats our community faces due to the rapid growth we are now experiencing.” Their goals are more than protecting the dunes. They also want to help the environment as a whole, as well as to educate and not just be enforcers.
Those against building on the dunes are hoping construction does not begin and then get stopped like what happened a couple streets over on Calle Los Mangos. Authorities halted that illegal build, but did not mandate what was constructed be removed and the land restored. Beyond being an eyesore, it is an ecological travesty.
More than 100 people on Dec. 2 voice their concerns about building houses on the dunes in Todos Santos. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Days before the protest Ogden, the landowner and developer of the controversial home build, was sent an email from the Gringo Gazette with a series of questions. He still has not responded. A couple of the questions were: You have a permit to build a 4,000 square foot house at Vista Ballena off International on the dunes near the turtle release. This violates the current PDU. How do you justify this? Are you backing the proposal to redo the PDU? Why or why not?
The Program for Urban Development (PDU) for Todos Santos, El Pescadero, and Las Playitas was published in 2012. It covers more than 30 miles from Elias Calles on the south to Agua Blanca north of Todos Santos. The PDU prohibits any development on primary and secondary dunes.
The problem is the authorities in La Paz are not enforcing the rules. Some allege bribery is an issue.
Another potential problem for those who are against this type of building is the real possibility of a new PDU being written. La Paz Municipal Planning Department representatives had a meeting Nov. 29 at the Cultural Center in Todos Santos to talk about drafting a new PDU.
“We are all wondering why they are drafting a new one when they are not enforcing the current one. I guess they just like having a bunch of meetings. Very frustrating,” Protect Todos Santos said in a group email.
Hours before the protest a leader in the group sent an email to supporters saying, “These protests are working. The one (Nov. 29) at the Cultural Center where 100 people showed up got us a meeting (Dec. 1) with 12 officials in La Paz, but they are not willing to pull the permit so we need to keep the pressure on. We are hoping a protest will get SERMANAT, who was at the meeting, to shut the construction down before the dune is destroyed.”
SERMANAT is short for the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, which is equivalent to the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States.
Prior to the event, Protect Todos Santos rallied supporters with another email that said, “It is very frustrating that a permit is being issued without even the required ecological study and in complete violation of the PDU which does not allow any construction on the primary or even secondary dunes. So, our plan is to have our attorney John Moreno sue everyone involved in issuing the permit and to try to stop the construction by going out there and protesting.”
A Protect Todos Santos rep said attemps are being made to contact Romex and other building suppliers to not deliver to the Vista Ballena address. A few of the onlookers essentially said quietly, “Good luck; that won’t happen.”
Developers know that breaking ground leading up to and during the holidays is a key time of year to get away with less than honest undertakings because few officials work during this time so enforcement is even less likely to happen.
That is why at the protest people were encouraged to be diligent about reporting any activity in the area in order to stop any building before it occurs.
Note: This was originally written for the Gringo Gazette.