Hidden in what's literally a palm forest in the middle of the desert some 1,100 kilometers down the Baja peninsula, an oasis kept alive thanks to its location on an inlet of the Sea of Cortez, is the town of Mulege (Moo-lay-hay).
I'd been antsy to visit Mulege for years, ever since I learned that its vacant beaches and turquoise waters are the go-to spring break spot for Baja Californians looking to escape the annual migration of gringos gone wild that once roared into Tijuana and Rosarito. Since then I've harbored a puppy obsession with Mulege and its remoteness, some 15 hours down the road.
And why wouldn't I? Oasis? Vacant? Beaches? Turquoise waters? Fifteen hours down the road? Who cares if spring break is still two months away?
I live by a beach in Tijuana, but it's not really what you'd call an oasis. Unless by oasis you mean flourishing mounds of trash, dirty diapers and empty Coke bottles left by picnicking families that manage to haul half the kitchen out to the sand and somehow think the aftermath will drive itself to the city dump. And all the deported cholos with tattooed scalps and lifeguards that usually mistake any swimsuit shorter than oversized board shorts to be underwear and an affront to their masculinity make it anything but vacant. The deported cholos with tattooed scalps have been pretty cool with me and my nontraditional beach attire thus far, I should say.
Before the arrival of the transpeninsular highway in 1971 the only way to reach Mulege was by boat or prop plane. Prisoners in the town jail were permitted to come and go during the day, allowing them to hold jobs and eat meals at home with their families (not to mention relieving the jail of having to provide facilities for conjugal visits). If anyone happened to break the sunset curfew, every man was in for a mandatory manhunt. There's little incentive to attempt escape when doing so will most likely leave you dead, either in the desert or at the hands of your fellow inmates who were out chainganging it all night to find your sorry ass.
The minutes I wound up spending in Mulege proper were actually few. And judging by the absence of traffic both auto and foot, it seems that's exactly what the locals do. On the way in at dusk I was around long enough to lap the labyrinth of narrow one-ways -- 15 blocks in total, maybe -- until finding the town's lone supermarket for supplies. There, I learned the deli man doubles as the pueblo's overlord of pirated videos when some bulbous woman almost knocked me out of her way while I was ordering cheese to see if he had any new DVDs for sale, which he did.
On the way back north, trying to shoot for a little one-on-one time with Mulege before heading home after the week on the beach, I did all I could to stretch the exploring. My scouting efforts wound up taking me by a few hotels, two pharmacies, the beer dispensary, a couple of boarded-up ice cream shops, the tiniest Pemex station I've ever seen, the post office, city hall and the police station (all of which I'm pretty sure were located in the same building).
And just when I was beginning to regret not making enough time to park myself at some corner bar where I would no doubt find a grizzled man with a mustache who'd fill me in on the ins and outs of his oasis hideaway, there it was. Up at the top of a hill reachable only by wa of a narrow road that nearly dips into a ravine. Something to curb my incessant tourist pangs. The Santa Rosalía de Mulegé mission.
Construction began in 1754 and was finished in 1767, nine years before we gabachos even signed the Declaration of Independence. It's supposedly the crash site of a ship that was carrying Jesuit priests from Sonora to Loreto, another 200 kilometers south of Mulege, who of course took their safe landing at Mulege as a sign from God to open yet another franchised chain of Catholicism to the Cochimi people. And voila. A town is born. Only to be abandoned in 1828 because of the dwindling population. (The current count, according to the sign at the entrance to town, is 3,111.)
Per the placard outside the church: "At the end of the 18th century, Mulegé had scarcely 100 people. Nevertheless, in the 19th century, a new generation was born who faced adversities and showed bravery and heroism during the 1846-1848 war with the United States. Therefore, Mulegé is a beloved place in southern California, from where the rise of the Mexican Nation was made possible."
It's not often a North American, especially an Anglophone, finds himself in a place where land travel to the outside world wasn't possible until only 40 years ago. Forget the fact that it's also home to a structure nearing its 250th birthday. That's the real irony of Mulege. Once upon a time horses trotted down the stone road outside that church. Now, trucks carrying potato chips and propane tanks zoom by. Maybe one day they'll fly.
Distance from Tijuana: 1,000 kilometers.