Every May 3rd La Paz Foundation festivities are celebrated. On a day like that in 1535 Hernan Cortés arrived at a paradise of beautiful beaches full of pearls and native men and women, which he named Puerto and Valle de La Santa Cruz, after navigating the gulf that he named the Sea of Cortez in search of a European legend, the “California”. Despite not being the first European to set foot in southern California, Hernán Cortés is considered its discoverer and the foundation of La Paz, the current capital of Baja California Sur, is celebrated on the day of his arrival.
Seeing the beautiful mountains that surround the city of La Paz, those that color in reddish tones in dry seasons and quickly green again when some rain falls, mountains that contrast with this sea full of life, crystalline and bluish, some questions inevitably come to mind: How were this lands like many years ago? Who were their first inhabitants? What did these Europeans find upon arrival?
La Paz has very arid lands with little rainfall per year and very high evaporation rates; this results in a warm desert with many drawbacks in terms of the use of water resources, soil and vegetation; for this reason, the first settlers were basically nomads, gatherers, hunters and fishermen who lived and took refuge on the edges of the ravines that provided shelter and protection. If you are a thorough explorer, today you will see vast evidence of this in cave paintings throughout the Baja California peninsula, including some in Espiritu Santo Island; and perhaps the most impressive example found in the Sierra de San Francisco, located around 10 hours away from La Paz. This living story told by prehistoric South Californians is worth witnessing
The first indigenous people of the region were named by the Jesuit Segismundo Taraval in three nations: Guaycura, Pericú and Cochimí. These early settlers were changing their ways of living and became semi nomadic due to the deep knowledge of diversity and resources, as well as the fragility of the ecosystems. The process of colonization of the peninsula was very slow due to the challenge posed by the wild, arid and isolated environment; however, the first colonizers managed to settle in the oases as they had available water, and it was not until 1697, seventeen decades after Hernán Cortés arrived, that the first missions were established by the Jesuits, the first of them being Our Lady of Loreto. And after this, 18 more missions followed, their main goal was the westernization of the indigenous people.
The establishment of these missions produced the need to grow food in situ, requiring the constant availability of water and modifying the ecosystem not only environmentally but also socially. For the type of work that agriculture required, the Jesuits selected ranchers with experience in arid agriculture in southern Spain. In the 18th century they were brought to this new world. Poor and uprooted, these ranchers found the possibility of settling on lands that no one would claim in ancient Baja California. These ranchero families incorporated indigenous people into their lives, making them pawns through marriage, that is how the flourishing of the ranchero population began while the indigenous population became extinct.
In Baja California Sur, the women and men of the ranch have determined the identity of this place, which is why its culture is of utmost importance, so much that today it represents the most ancient component of the cultural identity of this region. Harvesting strategies for ranchers with a collective mindset and vital respect for the environment subsist with little alteration in a few southern California oases.
In the contemporary period, important events were experienced such as concessions to foreign enterprises and the establishment of mining companies in the region such as the one in El Triunfo. Besides that, the construction of the transpeninsular highway was also begun, and areas such as Los Planes, the Santo Domingo Valley and the Vizcaino Valley were cultivated. Additionally maritime routes from the peninsula to the rest of the country were established, public drinking water and electricity services were implemented, and the territory was divided into three municipalities: La Paz, Comondú and Mulegé initially, and later the municipalities of Los Cabos and Loreto were created.
This is just a tiny bit of the history of this beautiful region, and perhaps wondering and thinking about how things were could be delightful when traveling, visiting and admiring our desert, oases, mountains and ravines. By knowing the ranchers and their culture, visiting the mountains and their paintings we can get to feel today those memories from other times.