MECHUDO - a nickname ("apodo") for a man with bushy or long hair - and also the name attached to a region at the north end of La Paz Bay which is carefully avoided by many superstitious (perhaps wise) residents of the La Paz area. For example, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find local crew for a ship that might be venturing near the shores of the Mechudo region.
The nautical charts of La Paz Bay show, at the north end, two mentions of Mechudo, the subject of this legend. One reference is to Cabeza de Mechudo, a headland of 750 feet in height - on the charts it is incorrectly spelled as Cebeza de Mechudo. The second reference is to one of the highest peaks in the area, Cerro de Mechudo - a very prominent mountain at 3672 feet, and quite close to the waters of La Paz Bay.
Even the AAA road map of Baja California shows Punta El Mechudo where the road from San Juan de la Costa to San Evaristo passes through the Mechudo region.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, La Paz Bay was the center of one of the world's great pearling regions. During the early part of the 20th century, with the introduction of compressed-air diving equipment, the oyster beds were slowly cleaned out. The coup de grâce came in 1940 or so with the arrival of a blight which wiped out the remaining oyster beds.
Finally, towards the end of the century, some of the pearl-bearing oysters are now being found again in the La Paz region. However, in the interim, introduction of the cultured pearl has greatly reduced the value of natural pearls.
During the early years of the 20th century, with pearls becoming harder to find, the pearlers had to travel greater distances seeking rich oyster beds. The mode of travel for these pearlers was usually a small sail-driven canoe. They might have to travel several days before reaching a place known to have pearls.
The pearling activities began with an initial free-dive to check the quality of the site. If a pearl was secured during this preliminary dive, all the better.
It was the custom of the times to set aside the first pearl, regardless of size or quality, for presentation to the Church - an offering to the Virgin Mary. Given the superstitious nature of these people, this was surely a custom to be taken very seriously.
The stage is now set for the legend of "Mechudo," a young diver with long black hair. Mechudo was one of a group of pearl divers who set off from La Paz for the northern shores of the bay. After two days spent traveling to their planned site, Mechudo was selected to carry out the initial dive. These divers were free-diving without the benefit of compressed air.
Mechudo returned from that dive as excited as he had ever been. His eyes were wide with wonder and excitement as he described a giant oyster shell and pearl which he had discovered. He had attempted to extract the pearl without immediate success. The other divers exclaimed about how the Church would benefit from this wondrous pearl, and how their difficult lives would be blessed for making the traditional gift. With an uncontrollable greed taking hold of him, Mechudo quickly shouted
"No! This pearl I will keep for myself."
As the shocked divers stood by, Mechudo dove back into the water to again attempt to extract the great pearl. After a full two minutes had passed, more time than any of the divers could have stayed down, they began to worry about Mechudo. Further minutes passed, until the divers nervously agreed that one of them would have to go down and check for Mechudo, who was now surely dead.
The diver selected for this task dove over the side with fear in his heart. The remaining divers again waited, but this time quickly sent someone else in after just a single minute had passed. The process was repeated once more, and with the same result - not one of the divers had returned.
The few divers still left then dropped slowly over the side as a group, carefully peering below for any indication of what had occurred. The sight which eventually presented itself was that of Mechudo, one arm clamped tight by a giant oyster shell, eyes wide open and long black hair flowing in the current, and his free arm seemingly grasping for whatever object might be passing by. The bodies of the other divers could be seen faintly through the water as they drifted off with the current.
One week later, only one of these divers made it back to La Paz, crazed with the tale of Mechudo's greed and the death of the other members of the group. It seems that the other divers who had witnessed the terrible sight of Mechudo had, in their own turn, perished on the return trip. Perhaps the shock of what had happened caused them to ignore the harsh conditions of the sun and sea.
After the story had circulated in La Paz for some time, it is said that a second group of divers left for the same spot - probably to seek out the giant pearl. In this case, it is known that once again, only one of the divers returned. He had to walk the 45 miles back to La Paz along the shores of the bay. His somewhat incoherent story mentioned Mechudo having killed the other members of the group somewhere along the northern shores of La Paz Bay.
Thus we reach the end of the traditional legend of Mechudo. That the superstitious might not want to venture near that region can now be understood. However, the tale has its tentacles reaching into more modern times, and here we are dealing with better known facts.
On a Christmas Eve during the 1960's, a luxurious Lockheed Lodestar plane, belonging to the founder of the Bechtel Construction Company, was transporting the Stoeffer family to La Paz for Christmas. The plane left Loreto cleared only for visual flight below a heavy overcast. When the plane was late in arriving in La Paz, a search was begun.
The search became an international one since the plane and passengers both came from prominent U.S. families. The focus of the search quickly became the Mechudo region. No wreckage could be found, but evidence that the plane brushed Cerro de Mechudo suggested that it must have turned and gone down over the water. This was confirmed when the bodies of eight of the ten on board washed up on the beach.
Was this the ghost arm of Mechudo once again reaching out?
Along the shore of La Paz Bay, at the town of San Juan de la Costa, the Mexican company RofoMex has one of the world's largest phosphate mines. The mine is highly mechanized using immense machines to mine and transport the diggings. Freighters tie up to a loading dock to take on phosphate from a large conveyor belt.
In 1993 the mine was visited by several mining inspectors. As was the tradition, the chief inspector went into the mine unescorted, possibly to prevent any mine personnel from influencing his check. The inspectors probably considered the check to be perfunctory, and did not feel the need for all three of them to bother with the actual inspection.
After more than the necessary amount of time had elapsed, a second inspector went to check on the first. When neither of them returned, the third inspector, probably thinking the first two were in there having a party, headed into the mine. None of these inspectors came out alive. They were all killed by an unusual gas in the mine.
However, being armed with the information provided by the bigger picture of the Legend of Mechudo, we can again see an association with the ghost of Mechudo haunting the shores of La Paz Bay.
Should you be cruising the waters near Cerro de Mechudo, or driving the road from La Paz to San Evaristo, keep these events in mind. You may not want to dally along those shores. Drop your anchor, or have your picnic, far from the reach of Mechudo!
Richard Adcock (email@example.com)
Fred Metcalf (firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Written in August, 1996)