SAN QUINTÍN & SAN PEDRO MÁRTIR, the peninsula’s rugged, unspoiled heart, where condors soar and cowboys still ride.
Marcial Ruben Arce Villavicencio was 8 the first time he sat on a horse. It bolted and threw him off, but he got back in the saddle. Forty-six years later he’s still riding. He’s been a cowboy all his life, just like his father and his grandfather.
Arce Villavicencio’s ranch, Rancho Las Hilachas, is just south of San Quintín and is home to 250 cows that wander freely over the 2,700 acres. It takes Arce Villavicencio and the other cowboys three months to round them up, during which time they camp and eat under the stars. They do many things the old-fashioned way here in Baja California’s dusty heartland. From a young age, the cowboys must learn to be handy with a rope. “When an animal is wild, you have to lasso it,” explains Arce Villavicencio. “That’s one of the toughest things to learn. It’s what makes taking care of so many animals hard. It’s like having hundreds of children.”
At least he can count on his own faithful steed Algodón (Cotton). The bay-colored criollo horse will stay with him long after the cows have been exported across the border to the
U.S., where they are worth more than $800 each. Arce Villavicencio maintains that his cows are worth every penny. “This job is satisfying, but the process of looking after a cow is a responsibility,” he says. “You have to give them a good life, let them run and be happy. When you eat the steak, you will know by the flavor if you did well.”
Arce Villavicencio doesn’t worry that more cost-efficient commercial farming might one day kill off his timeworn way of life. “We’re not afraid of competition from farms like that, because we think people value this more.”
With Arce Villavicencio herding his cows through the foothills, the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir rises behind him on the horizon. The mountain range is home to a 170,000-acre national park, which is a sanctuary for bighorn sheep and mule deer, as well as cougars, bobcats and coyotes. The thick pine forests, punctuated occasionally by craggy rock faces, make the perfect environment for hikers and horseback riders.
At the very top of the park stand several deepspace telescopes that make up the National Astronomical Observatory. The location was chosen because of its lack of nighttime cloud cover and light pollution, meaning that professional astronomers and amateur stargazers can view the vast Milky Way. And that’s not the only impressive sight to be seen above. Near the entrance to the park is a rocky outcrop where California condors gather. In most places the graceful birds only can be spotted circling high in the air, but here they swoop low overhead, their huge wings making a loud crack as they glide downward.
Back on the ranch, Arce Villavicencio tends to his own animals. Then, with the last of the day’s sunlight fading away, he takes his place on an old sofa outside to open a few beers with his son and brother-in-law. “I can’t imagine going anywhere else,” he says. “We don’t do this for tourism.
This is the way we live. If you want to learn about ranches and the cowboy lifestyle, then this is the best place to come because we’re not pretending. That’s the special thing about this place.”
Rejoin Highway 1 and head south for four hours until the le -hand turno toward Bahía de los Ángeles, another hour away.