editor’s note: The tireless David “el Codo” Eidell recruited Baja mule diva Teddi Montes to write this fantastic article for us. Big thanks to Codo, Tedi, and to Trudi Angell for the photos.
by Teddi Montes
If you’ve never been on a mule, and want the adventure of a lifetime, just once experience a trip into the Sierra San Francisco and see what it’s all about. You can go in for just a one to two nighter, or you can ride for two weeks. Just keep this in mind–you may feel the need to return.
I am female, 60, and I drive my little truck through Baja every year. I’ve been doin’ it for over 40 years. The Sierra San Francisco in the central desert of Baja California is that spot in my heart that is home. I try to spend all of March and all of November on a mule in this country. I have been addicted to Baja’s el Camino Real for over 40 years (it’s all Harry Crosby’s fault!) and I’ve ridden about 85% of it on mules.
The incredible rock art of the Sierra de San Francisco range of Baja California draws visitors from all over the world. No book or video can do it justice. There are many fantastic rock art sites to explore on the Baja California peninsula, but the Great Mural Art of the Sierra de San Francisco is one that should be on your bucket list. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and for good reason.
Many people go into the canyon, see Pintada (the mothership as I call it) and maybe Flechas, Soledad, and San Julio, leave the canyon and say “Yea, I’ve seen the cave art” and never return because “they’ve seen it”. That is like making a one day trip to Tijuana and then saying, “I’ve been to Mexico and I’m never returning again.” There are soooo many rock art sites in the SSF that I can not even begin to list them in my brain.
I am not a rock art nut, but several years ago I tagged along on a few rock art researchers’ mule trips and I soon came to the realization that “It ain’t just doodling!” Along the way, with many successive adventures chauffeuring certain rock art guys around Baja in my little truck and on mules, I pretty much attained a little university level education in rock art studies-theories and otherwise.
Riding a mule is pretty much the only way to really experience this world in the SSF range. Yeah, you can be tough and hike in. But there is a reason that mules reign supreme for travel in the high country of Baja and safety is part of it. Riding in and out of the range at least four times a year, I see tourists going in unprepared for what awaits them–some hiking in as if on a day trip to Disneyland. So I thought I’d throw in my two cents and maybe improve future experiences for anyone who might be thinking of visiting this range where time stands still.
If you are thinking of saving money and hiking in, know that the trail going down to Santa Teresa canyon is not a groomed path one might find in San Diego’s Balboa Park but a trail that can be slippery, rocky, and steep and is exposed to the sun and wind. It is a very well-maintained trail because it is the main highway (hehehe) into the canyon if you are heading only to the most-visited caves there (Pintada etc). If you are not renting a pack animal for your gear, understand that you will be carrying everything.
The cowboys actually prefer that visitors ride, as the mules are more sure-footed than most hikers and much less likely to slip and fall. If you have never ridden, don’t worry! The mules are there to take care of you and keep you safe! I had a 65 year-old cousin who’d never ridden in her life do two trips with me and she had a ball. My sons were very young (under 10) when they first rode into rock art sites. As for me–I was extremely afraid of heights for many years (the cowboys knew I was the one who cried yet kept coming back!) I finally realized that my mule did not want to die and I’ve been fine ever since. Mules are INCREDIBLE!
If you think you are too old, too lame, too blind, too (fill in the blanks) to see the rock art in the canyons, think again. I have friends who are close to 80, visually-impaired, almost crippled, etc. and they have successfully ridden in and explored and returned to do it again. My good friend, Trudi, has gotten 80 year olds into the canyon, small children, a few guys who could barely walk, the legally blind…and it is possible and worth it.
So to help first-timers here are my two cents:
- This is not a day trip to Disneyland–leave the tanktops and skimpy shoes at home.
- Wear jeans and shoes/boots with a heel. I ride in my hiking boots as cowboy boots are no fun for hiking, and some walking is required to get up to caves or on the trail. Tennis shoes can be slippery.
- Bring a hat with tie strings–the hat needs to stay on your head during a wind gust.
- Borrow half-chaps from a horse-friend or, even better, purchase polainas from Juanita at Casa de Leree in San Ignacio. If you know dates when you are going in, you can email her with measurements (calf and length) and she can have Juan Gabriel Arce make a pair for you. These protect your lower legs from cactus and everything spiny while you are in the saddle and walking around camp and cave. If you never go back, they are a memorable part of an exciting adventure (and a real piece of history).
- Bring a pommel bag for the horn of your saddle. This can carry a couple of water bottles, sunscreen, small camera, snack and other stuff you’ll want to be able to grab easily.
- PACK SMALL! Figure on a single small duffle (12X24) for each person’s personal gear (clothing, toiletries); a sleeping bag that packs small, sleeping pad (remember pack small–no huge thermorests or 3″foam pads); and a 1 or 2 man backpacking tent (if wanted).
- Bring a small rain poncho or a thick black plastic trash bag for sudden rain. You can buy heavy-duty plastic trash bags for like 5 pesos from Castros in San Ignacio….
- If you are not using a tour operator like Trudi Angell of Saddling South, remember to bring a water filter. Otherwise, most operators should make sure all water is filtered before use. Always ask.
- I always bring a down vest for extra cool evenings or mornings.
- Leather ranch gloves are a good idea–for riding, walking thru and over brush and rocks (think cactus!) and just keeping the hands protected. ( I am a wimp!)
- Bring a walking stick. I used to think these were for city-folk, but I found out that having a third leg or hand is a real asset when hiking around. Plus, it lets you alert any snakes that might be hiding! I have Black Diamond telescoping sticks, and carry the 2nd as back-up in case of loan or breakage. They fit well, tied behind my saddle.
- REMEMBER mules and horses are prey animals while your dog is a predator animal. ALWAYS talk or sing when near a mule–let him know you are NOT a lion sneaking up on him. Never silently approach or yell. Just speak calmly as you enter the animals’ range and do this every time. Stay away from his rear end unless the vaquero tells you otherwise. Your mule is not a backyard pet. He works for a living and will keep you SAFE and SOUND if you let him do his job.
- The reins are NOT for your balance, so don’t hang on to them for dear life. Your mule will have some mane on his neck left there just for you to get a handful. Use it! (This does not hurt the mule.) When going uphill, lean forward, holding yourself forward with the mane. The reins need to be held in the other hand-long enough for the animal to use his neck but not so long as to get caught in front legs. When going downhill, lean waaayback, holding on to the back of your saddle with one hand, and stretch the other arm with reins far forward so the mule can properly use himself to keep YOU safe.
- When first having your stirrups adjusted: If you feel like your feet are having to reach for them–they are too long. You should just barely have an angle in your knee when your heels are pointed: toes pointed up and forward-not out to the sides. Also guys, a hint–a jock is not a bad idea (related to me by my sons).
- The cowboys will keep an eye on you and your saddle, and all you need to do is enjoy the ride.
- That said-the mules and vaqueros keep you safe…and you must properly feed the cowboy! Freeze-dried or exotic foods don’t do it. They like the usual fare-tortillas, beans, goat cheese etc. If you are planning your own trip (without a tour operator), buy tortillas in San Ignacio by the kilo and some goat cheese and beans to keep your cowboys happy.
- PLEASE TIP YOUR VAQUEROS when the ride is done. This trip may be the only income they have for the entire year. (Their names are on a guide roll and there are over 70 people waiting to get the chance at working.)
- Figure on one pack burro per each two people, plus your riding animals (tourists & guides) and pack accordingly. I pack in my guitar, and a bajo sexto usually gets hauled in too for primo ranchero music around the fires.
- If you know well-enough in advance where you are riding, bring alfalfa for the animals. The last thing you need is to ride on a mule who hasn’t had a decent meal lately because of drought etc. If you’re using a good tour operator, they should be taking care of this beforehand! Ask!
- In the days before your ride, stretch the lower body muscles. The first day or two of the trip, stretch those new muscles every time you dismount. And remember, Ibuprofen—breakfast of champions! Take whatever you are going to take BEFORE you need it. You will have a more enjoyable trip.
- Remember to stay hydrated. Drink water even if you don’t think you need it. Flavorings for water are a plus to bring along.
- A fire is not allowed in a couple of main spots and it would be a good idea to bring a single burner stove…Don’t forget the cowboy coffee!
- I always have my cash in pesos for tips and pay, and in lower denominations (200 and 500 peso bills). Paying in dollars is hard for the cowboys as the nearest bank is hours away from the range and it charges them to exchange for pesos. If you use a tour operator you can pay in either dollars or pesos.
- The country you will be riding in is a wilderness and all communication is done via two meter handheld radios; every cowboy has one. Cell phones only work if you have a Mexican cell AND can climb to a very high point, so don’t plan on it. In case of an emergency, the jungle grapevine (aka radio and mules) would be used to get you out and back to a vehicle. (That said, I have been riding this country for many years and my worst injuries have been the cactus spines I wasn’t looking for.)
- If you are carrying too much weight, realize that most mules in the range are small to medium-size. If the cowboys know ahead of time that a rider is pretty overweight, they can search for a large mule. I mention this because if you are really overweight, it might be time to lose a little before the trip to make your mule’s job safer. As for guys who are 6′ plus–give the guides a little heads up so they can find a bigger saddle and suitable mule.
- I have found over the many years of organizing my own mule trips that it is much easier to let someone else do the hard work of logistics and problem-solving and in this range, INAH permits.
Many people are perfectly content to get everything arranged by someone else and all they have to do is park the car in San Francisco and hop on a mule. Over 15 years ago, when I had difficulties trying to ride el camino real in the northern part of Baja (from Mission San Borja north through Mission Calamajue to Mission Santa Maria), I finally contacted Trudi Angell of Saddling South. I told her what I needed, and she said “Hummm, I think I can do that!” I have been using her services ever since. I look at it this way–You know what? If after a long day in the saddle, we arrive at the night’s campsite and find a dead cow in our only water source….It’s not my problem! If I get up in the morning and two of the animals have made a break for home two days’ ride away, It’s not my probelm! And that’s why I first try to organize my trips with Trudi. If she is already booked or unavailable, then I run my own.
Trudi has lived in Loreto for over 25 years and is a Mexican citizen. She has a track record that no one can compare to. She is respected by all the old families in many ranges, and has pretty much completed her own BAJA MIL (Baja 1000) muleback along with her daughter, Olivia, who traveled as a tiny kid, reading books while covering the miles.
If you take one of Trudi’s trips, I can guarantee you will not lose weight, as her meals are excellent. You usually either meet up with her in Loreto or in San Ignacio (many people fly in to Cabo and bus north or ride from Tijuana south to San Ignacio) or at the tiny village of San Francisco. She runs a smooth ship, and has an excellent head guide who sings and cooks (he can make rocks taste wonderful!). She’s very good at ironing out any problems that might arise and she always “brings em back alive and happy!” There aren’t many old trails in the SSF that she hasn’t explored and I’ve spent the past decade exploring them with her.
So that’s probably more than two cents worth but I have covered a lot of ground.
One dawning March morning while camped near Cueva Natividad, I watched as the sun’s golden rays filtered into the quiet canyon like a probing flashlight in the dark…I remembered something I’d heard from a movie with Jodie Foster (Contact) who played a scientist…
“They should have sent a poet……”
Need I say more……
Prepare to have the experience of a LIFETIME! I just keep going back………
note: photos courtesy of Trudi Angell