By David Kier
My story begins as a young boy traveling with his Baja-exploring parents in their recently purchased Jeep Wagoneer. Our travels into Baja California began in 1965 with a trip to Gonzaga Bay. Back then, the road south of Puertecitos was only advised for four-wheel drive vehicles or trucks with extra-low gear. We were checking out locations advised to us by Andy Anderson, a travel companion of Howard Gulick, who was the author of the Lower California Guidebook.
Bahía San Luis Gonzaga was incredible, with its huge sand beach, blue water, and great fishing! On the way home, my dad wanted to check out another place Andy had mentioned, Agua de Chale. A place named for a well dug in the early 1900s by one “Charley Chinaman” [according to Marion Smothers in her 1993 book, Vintage Baja]. Andy had promised a beautiful camping location and fantastic fishing. The road to it was at the sulfur mine, he said. Well, we missed the correct road as we would soon discover. We got onto a seldom-used-road to Percebú, just north of the sulfur mine. Percebu back then was a commercial fishing camp. We were shown what they took from the sea, including hacha clams and an octopus, whose tentacle was applied to my mom’s arm so she could feel the suction cups! Funny what I can remember so long ago!
Percebú was interesting, but we wanted to get to Agua de Chale. The next trip south was specifically to do just that, and we succeeded. We found cabañas made of ocotillo, brush, and cardboard to provide shade that were big enough to park your vehicle or trailer into. They were built on a beautiful sand beach that went for miles in both directions. The camp was the property of Luis Castellanos Moreno, a very entrepreneurial Mexican individual. Luis spoke some English and he was very friendly. Luis desired to make his place into a popular camp for American fishermen. We went back to Agua de Chale again and again, as often as possible. The fishing was outstanding, and the beach was perfect. Exploring by Jeep, we found a shallow bay just over a mile north. We called it “The Lagoon” and at high tide it was the best place to go fishing!
On our second trip to Agua de Chale, Luis informed us he was changing the name of the camp to one with more tourist appeal: Nuevo (New) Mazatlán! It took some years for all the maps to adjust, but eventually they did. The “Lagoon” became Bahía Santa María when the Madueña family claimed the area by it. Luis began planting branches from a nearby salt-cedar (tamarisk) tree, creating shaded camping lanes between the rows of trees. Luis would carry buckets of water from the well (Agua de Chale) to his baby trees. In just a couple of years, they were tall and healthy. The scheme worked so well that some maps called his camp Bosque (forest) Nuevo Mazatlán!
In the 1970s, other campos began popping up, eventually filling the coastline for many miles. Most of them became vacation-home campos, but Nuevo Mazatlán continued on as a camping-campo. Only Nuevo Mazatlán had the forest of shade trees for campers to enjoy. Luis was very proud of that. Soon, Luis found himself a wife and her name was Felicitas. They would walk hand-in-hand to the beach each morning to collect the fish caught in a net, out front. Because Luis had a drinking issue with tequila, Felicitas told him if he ever drank again, she would leave him! One day, Eduardo, the owner of nearby Campo La Roca, showed up with a bottle, and the two men went off to go drinking. Felicitas left.
In 1974, I began driving myself to Baja. On a camping trip with a high school friend, Luis talked us into giving him a ride into San Felipe. Back then, it was a 45-minute, dusty drive in my dune buggy. Luis wanted to get drunk and we couldn’t change his mind (we were only 16). On that trip, Luis said a new highway was going to be built very close to the coast. Hundreds of campers would be coming. He was so excited. The new road didn’t arrive for eight more years and paving it took even longer. Luis would never see the new road come and bring all the turistas to enjoy his forest in the desert. I camped there many more times in the 1970s but didn’t see Luis on those later trips.
In 1980, someone new was living in Luis’s house. Things were going to change at Nuevo Mazatlán, but the beautiful forest of trees made it an oasis for all time. Nuevo Mazatlán remains open for camping, forty years later. The camp is run by Javier, he also has a water delivery service for the area homes. Javier added flush toilets and showers. There are now a couple of homes on each side of the tree-filled arroyo. The new highway (unpaved) arrived in late 1982. Nuevo Mazatlán would from then on be at Kilometer 32.
I last saw Luis on the sidewalk in San Felipe. It was 1989, and sadly, he didn’t look good. I was 31 and it had been 15 years since he last saw me. When I jogged his memory of who I was and my parent’s names, a huge smile came to his face and a tear rolled from the corner of his eye. After some time of reflection, I gave Luis money to help and said my last “adios amigo” to this person who did so much and was a pioneer in creating a beautiful tourist camp, south of San Felipe.
David Kier is a veteran Baja traveler, author of 'Baja California - Land Of Missions' and co-author of 'The Old Missions of Baja and Alta California 1697-1834'. Visit the Old Missions website.