We were leaving the town of Santiago, Baja California Sur, and made a stop to replenish the ice in our chest at a small tienda at the entrance to the village square. We were planning on heading south that morning. We never made it.
Mary Ann, Debra and Brendan, and Pedito, our Mexican mutt, waited in the car while I entered the store, asked for a bag of cubos. The owner, a man about forty, directed a teenage girl to get my ice. While we were waiting the store owner asked me where we were from and going.
"You can't leave Santiago without visiting the cascades." He said.
He said it with such focus I wondered if we had missed something on the map. We had never been to Santiago as it's a bit off Highway 1.
The young lady returned with the ice. I paid and thanked him for his suggestion, but, as always, I was anxious to be off toward the next adventure.
"I know you would enjoy Los Cascades." He reiterated. "If you have the time, my daughter will act as your guide." He told me it was 25 kilometers of dirt road that worked high into the Sierra de la Laguna.
I excused myself, walked across the street and discussed the side trip with the others. We decided to take it. While it was the enthusiasm of the shopkeeper and the offer of a guide that had caused me to consider that Los Cascades must have been something to see, we had no room in the Trooper for a fifth person. I thanked the man and his daughter and we were off on an exploration.
The road is on most maps and heads out from a junction in the heart of the village, crosses a beautiful tropically verdant swatch of bamboo and palms and row crops plowed apparently by hand. The road meanders through the outskirts of the village and eventually finds its way into the gentle climbs amongst the foothills of the sierra. From several points, climbing, we could look back into the valley where blue pools of abundant water set off the deep greens of crops. The road was wide and graded. We were towing a low-sided trailer with my 14-foot aluminum boat inverted on top. It was rattling and clanging, banging against the steel sides of the trailer. The ball for the trailer turned out to be too small for the receiver and it came loose several times during that trip. But we were in no hurry and glad for an objective off the pavement.
We continued our climb, about 10 kilometers, across high meadows and flatlands in the hillsides of La Laguna, occasionally encountering row crops but mostly open space. Then we were channeled into a narrow canyon. We encountered a major watercourse with a small stream but since we were facing the cusps of summer were surprised to find any water at all.
While I never read the words on any map, I assumed Los Cascades was comprised of this canyon. From the point at which we entered, for the remaining kilometers the road narrowed and led us upward and ever narrowing into the heart of the Sierra. I had read of this road years ago, a fact I hadn't remembered until we were here, and about how the rural ranchers had produced beef for the folks in the time of Cortez. In the lower portions of the road we had seen many signs of farming and ranching activities, but no homes, barns or other buildings. But as the mountains reconfigured into the canyon the world drew closer and converged around to include us.
About 5 kilometers from the point at which the road ends abruptly, we found a remote rancho every kilometer or two, maybe four or five ranches total. Cattle wandered the damp hillsides. Nearing the end of the road, which simply stopped at an aged dropgate and a house, huge banyan trees snuggled into the steep climbs of rock and earth, wrapped their rooty tentacles around whatever they could find to cling to. Their broadleaf shade was welcome in the heat of the day and we stopped to take pictures and guzzle a cerveza in their coolness.
At the end of the road I wasn't quite certain that it was the actual end as we hadn't seen cascades of water. I started to drop the gate and drive on, an acceptable custom in many parts of Baja where a road passes through a property, but something told me to wait. A moment later a burly rancher, apparently fresh out of swimming in the stream, walked up and told us that this was the end of the road. So we returned the way we had come.
A kilometer or so back, boat balking behind us, with aluminum loosing to the steel of the trailer siding, we stopped at a small rancho with a sign in English indicating they welcomed tourists to park here and visit the stream. I had to wonder how many gringos they would get this far out. But park we did. Mary Ann and Debra rested in the shade of old oaks while Brendan and I took individual paths to the granite channel that formed Los Cascades, a wide path that often carried huge quantities of runoff down the steep slopes of La Laguna to the thirsty villages below and fed the crops we had passed in abundance.
I passed from the small house where we had parked toward the cascades through a herd of thirty cows and a single longhorn steer. The cattle added a dimension to the site as the books and articles I had read that included discussions of the beef industry of the 1700's. I could feel the boatsmen from long ago coming into these hills for replenishment timber for their damaged and worn vessels, for food. I could sense the remote, cooler and tranquil lives of the folks that lived here in the sierra, how different their existences were from the flatlanders below. Brendan and I re-collected with the ladies at the ranch. The rancher was working on some hardware item; his wife hanging laundry and tending a small planter. They were happy for the company but held to their work. I supposed there was plenty of that here in the upper outback where I assumed it grew pretty cold in winter.
Too soon we were working our way down the steep hills of the western end of the now narrow roadway. It took us an hour or two to arrive back in Santiago. I thought about stopping at the small tienda where the man had suggested our now completed adventure, but it was closed. We headed south into the midday brilliant sun bursting through our windows and into another segment of our trip. By mid afternoon we were approaching San Jose and the cape and wondering how the small world of Baja California Sur could offer up so many wonderful and varied environments.
After the days and weeks we have been going through this hurricane season it makes me want to have been at Los Cascades during storm to appreciate her full capacity as a conduit.