The Sea of Cortés and Yesterday's Mexico

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There are two things almost every Mexican port in the Sea of Cortes has: a Catholic church and its own museum.

Photography by the authors

An upscale modern cruise liner and an old anchor would bring out any camera.

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The swings left and turns into the fabled Sea of Cortés. Professor Jay Cristofferson, our cruise line guest lecturer chooses that moment to tell his audience that the tectonic plates are shifting around Baja, making this gulf wider and longer.

“The land masses are moving northwest,” he says.

A passenger asks, “Will the Sea of Cortez ever reach up to San Francisco?”

“No,” Cristofferson answers. “San Francisco is moving north as well!”

We are of course talking in millions of years but these are light-hearted lectures on a light-hearted ship. It’s time to go ashore. The ship is tied down at La Paz, a city of 200,000 people and the one time pearl fishing capital of Baja California. Something is happening outside; passengers hear trumpets and violins. Ah! They are being welcomed to Mexico.

The welcoming bands smile as they play. They are trying to reverse any concerns cruise lines may have about stopping on the Mexican Riviera.

La Paz has the two typical attractions of the ports in the Sea of Cortés: a rather neat Catholic church and a small museum. The latter, the Anthropology and History Museum exhibits the stories of the earliest indigenous people up through the Mexican revolution of 1910.

Small town museums in Mexico make some American visitors suffer because the chore of translating the Spanish information on the walls into English is scheduled for mañana and an understanding of the replicas of the cave art in the nearby Sierra de San Francisco is hard to come by.

Author John Steinbeck loved the Baja Peninsula, the town of La Paz and the Sea of Cortés. He dreaded the area would be overrun by outsiders and turned into a “paved paradise.” It hasn’t happened, although the city is being “discovered” slowly and tourism is its future. Deserted beaches nevertheless can be found not far from town, something that has been lost at the busier Cabo San Lucas.

There’s a lot to ponder in the La Paz museum from ancient grave diggings to dioramas that show how the early indigenous peoples lived.

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La Paz claims one of the highest standards of living in Mexico but it is, after all, the capital of Baja California. About 150 miles northeast, across the gulf, lies Guaymas, an old city with its own history. The native Indian tribes had lived here for 2,000 years when the Spanish attempted to land and were vigorously repelled. In 1769 modern weapons succeeded in establishing a European colony. American forces occupied the harbor for a year during the Mexican-American War and during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. Pancho Villa, one of the heroes of that revolution, figures n this city’s history.

“He was our Mexican Robin Hood,” our guide says in the cantina named after Villa. On the wall are gruesome images of his assassination. “He was driving his 1919 black Dodge Roadster back from his bank when someone put nine bullets into his head and chest. It was July, 1923.”

The guide leads us to a small museum we never would have found by ourselves to show us the letter Villa wrote to the governor to say he was resigning from political life. There, too, lies the handgun he was allegedly reaching for on the front seat of his car when he was shot.

Villa was a colorful character indeed. Hollywood loved him. Dozens of actors have portrayed him in movies: from Villa, playing himself in 1912 to Johnny Depp, a century later. With his attack on Columbus, N.M., Villa is said to have been “the only foreign military personage ever to have successfully invaded continental United States territory.”

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Down the coast to the south lies the port of Topolobampo, an industrial wasteland of sorts. It’s the kind of desolated spot that might make passengers wish they had signed up for the expensive and possibly tediously-long Copper Canyon train ride. However offered a courtesy bus ride to the inland town of Los Mochis, where passengers again had a musical welcome from a local band while the train ride enthusiasts headed for the railway station.

Downtown Los Mochis was an easy walk around the small park where both an art gallery and a museum showing local history are situated.

The art has impact: in particular Teodoro Rodriguez Carmola’s strange “Sistole Diastole I” that had two horizontal dark masses joined by what appeared to be a ladder with the lower rungs painted red.

More understandable were exhibits in the Fuerte Valley Regional Museum showing Spanish Weapons and armor going back to the late 1700s.

Although the arrival of Spanish soldiers and priests in this area certainly left its mark, the biggest local story may be not that of a missionary but of a visionary, one Albert Kimsey Owen. He was a railroad entrepreneur who made his fortune building American railroads after the Civil War. His 1873 vision was a socialistic utopia on 100,000 acres on Topolobampo Bay. He wanted to build a community where the rewards of work would go to the colony and then distributed “to each according to their needs.” Like communism, it failed.

The land however is now said to be some of the most productive in Mexico, but the benefactor was Mother Nature not politics.

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The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called