Navigating Baja: Little Town, Big Fish – Dispatch #7

The power of the wind blowing by at 100 miles per hour was enough to make me worry that if I turned sideways, I wouldn’t get my head pointed forward again. I was riding double, perched on the back of a KTM motorcycle, flying past saguaro and agave plants. The two-lane road we were cruising up led from Los Barilles on the Sea of Cortez across the Baja peninsula to the Pacific. Two minutes into our ride, I was convinced this was the best way to see Baja.

The freedom of the open road was powerful and intoxicating. Curves flow by as though we’d found a pavement river through the landscape. My companion and driver, Chris, had chosen to make Baja his home—and being on the bike with him was a window into his connection with this place. Cresting a hill, we took a more leisurely pace as we approach the small town of El Triunfo.

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A vintage truck sits parked in a sideway in the small town of El Triunfo; Photograph by Max Lowe

We turned off the main road and park near Caffé El Triunfo, a two-story building with peeling, faded pink paint. Chris warmly greeted his friend Marc, the cafe’s owner, as we entered a space that is so unexpected, I’m forced to stop at the door. Asian parasols were suspended upside-down from the ceiling and colorful surrealist paintings covered the walls. Freshly baked cinnamon rolls, blackberry mango strudel, and assorted cookies line the counter. Through the doorway, a courtyard dining area was surrounded by lush vegetation and flowering bougainvillea. Nearby, a chef slid pizzas into a clay oven in the outdoor kitchen.

Chris and I ordered fresh-squeezed orange juice, as Marc, a tattooed American Harley Davidson aficionado, explained his restaurant philosophy.

“I just make what I like; it makes it easy. Other places you have to order three glasses of orange juice to get enough. So I decided, why not just serve as much as people want to start with?” Marc said.

It’s true, that was the biggest glass of orange juice I’ve ever been served—and I loved it!

The other Adventurists joined us for a lunch of Ahi tacos and sandwiches made on Marc’s artisan bread before setting out to explore. El Triunfo is one of Chris’ favorite Baja haunts. With two restaurants serving local food, a revival of old silver smithing techniques, and a resurgence of community spirit, it was a wonderful place to experience the soul of Baja.

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The author, Mary McIntyre, looks up the smokestack of an old silver smelting mine in El Triunfo; Photograph by Max Lowe

El Triunfo was once an affluent, bustling silver mining town. In fact the smelting stacks are visible long before the town itself. Once home to 20,000, now less than than 500 people reside there. The mining heyday ended in 1926 and most buildings were now dilapidated and boarded up. The mine property had rusted machines scattered throughout the trees, and crumbling brick buildings surrounded the 150-foot-high smoke stack. We scrambled through a tunnel into the stack and stood staring at the sphere of light far above. Walking along the main street, we wandered into the town’s ochre-colored Catholic church and then continued down a side road to the whitewashed cemetery on the outskirts of town.

Golden evening light illuminated the hills, and I could feel the history of this place in the cobblestone streets, in the collapsing buildings, and the new life that people like Marc and Chris are breathing into it. In Chris’s words, “Love is about being conspicuous and sharing it freely. It’s about sharing the people and places I love.” That day was like an incredible manifestation of that sharing, and I was so glad to be a part of it.

Up next: Swimming with whale sharks

The Adventurists blog series “Navigating Baja” is sponsored by OluKai, which provided footwear for this adventure.

Follow us on Instagram at @NatGeoAdvenure—coming soon!

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McIntyre looks out the sun-soaked window of an old church in El Triunfo, Mexico; Photograph by Max Lowe