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The Pearl King's Buried Treasure
by David Kier

The Pearl King's Buried Treasure

A story from history, told by Choral Pepper; edited by David Kier

Gulf of California
The Gulf of California

The incredibly blue sea we call the Gulf of California has laid claim to names far more romantic than its present one. Early Spanish explorers who sailed northward in 1538 as far as Cedros Island called it the “Sea of Cortez” to honor the Spanish explorer of Mexico. Later explorers, some of whom were jealous enemies of Cortez, changed its name to the “Vermilion Sea” because of the red tint from Colorado River runoff. Shipwrecks, mutinies, a fabled island dominated by Amazons, political disputes, pearl fishermen, smugglers, piracy-- all are part of the Gulf’s oft-told legendary history, with one important exception.

While I researched old records for my early Baja book, the name “Ocio” cropped up in so many instances that it piqued my curiosity. The man appeared to be an enormous power, and yet nothing of substance gave a concrete account of his activities. I could not decide whether he was one of the “good guys” or one of the “bad guys,” so I began to fit bits and pieces of information together.

Manuel Ocio was a master at delivering the shaft. He not only pulled off the biggest mine swindle in the history of Baja California, but he also expedited, if not directly brought about, the expulsion of the Jesuit Order from the New World.

Choral Pepper Baja CA Book
Choral's early Baja book (second edition, 1975)

Ocio arrived in Baja California as a mission soldier. Almost immediately he recognized that a future in pearl hunting would be more lucrative than one in soul saving. When a band of recently converted Indigenous divers arrived at San Ignacio Mission bearing a cache of pearls destined for the Holy Virgin, Ocio managed to intercept their leader and for a trifling value, acquire the pearls. With this grubstake, he procured a discharge from the mission army and hastened to Sinaloa on the mainland to purchase boats, supplies and men.

By 1742, Ocio had fished up more than 128 pounds of pearls. By 1744, his record exceeded 275 pounds per year. He then produced a coup that forever established him as the Pearl King of Mexico. Off the shore of Mulegé, his Yaqui divers brought up the largest pearl ever found in peninsular waters -- a giant the size of a pigeon egg valued at 50,000 pesos. Ocio offered to sell it to the Queen of Spain, and she accepted his offer. This established him as Mexico’s leading pearler and gained for him the fawning respect of Spain’s governing body in the New World.

Conversely, it repulsed the Jesuit fathers. Five percent of all pearls acquired by legitimate pearl hunters went to the Crown, but only after the largest and most perfectly formed had been collected by the priests to be set aside for the Holy Virgin. That Ocio had ignored this tradition did not endear him to the clergy. They showed their displeasure in 1750 by outlawing all pearl fisheries in peninsular waters because pearl hunters and corrupt mission soldiers were arousing discontent among the converts and causing uprisings.

The powerful Jesuits, in their agreement with the Crown, were empowered with full rights of administration in Baja California provided they operated there at their own expense. So, there was little that Ocio could do but continue his fisheries surreptitiously. This he managed to do for good many years until a fateful encounter inspired him to take on the Jesuits in a new endeavor.

While on a business trip to Guadalajara, Ocio met a priest, a Franciscan, with whom he could talk sense. This man resented the power that the Jesuit order held in Baja California almost as bitterly as did Ocio. He pointed out that although the Jesuits were empowered with full rights of administration on the peninsula, possession of the land still remained in the name of his Majesty. Considering Ocio’s popularity with the king’s advocates in the New World, would it not be possible for him to acquire from the Crown land capable of being developed for mining? Surely the Crown would prefer mining interests to be in the hands of a trusted citizen rather than controlled by the secretive Jesuits.

Santa Ana Mine Baja
The horno (furnace oven) at Santa Ana where silver was melted into ingots.
Santa Ana Mine Baja

Ocio laid his plans well, carefully, and slowly. He acquired a powerful business partner in Guadalajara to negotiate on their behalf on the mainland, while Ocio himself returned to Baja California to study the land. As a blacksmith in his youth in Andalusia, he had learned enough about metallurgy to convince himself that a weak silver lode lay in the Santa Ana district near the southern tip of the peninsula. This area also embraced plentiful grazing land for cattle and had a convenient access for shipments arriving by sea. Although it was situated between two missions, Santiago and Todos Santos, it was still isolated enough to minimize Jesuit interference with the Indigenous miners. That prospect, however, was eliminated in one forceful blow when the Jesuits issued an order that no Baja California native would be permitted to work in Ocio’s mines.

This injunction deterred Ocio only temporarily. He still maintained a fleet of ships that employed Yaqui divers who could be brought from Sonora to work the mines. They also could cause unrest with the Jesuit’s converts, he ultimately learned. Ocio’s miners were building up resentment among Baja Indigenous by telling them that natives on the mainland were given their own land to cultivate as they liked, keeping all profits to themselves. This caused the mission’s fickle-minded Pericus to make extravagant demands upon the missions, even though the claim was not true.

Jesuit missionaries further complained that Ocio did nothing to provide for the spiritual needs of his laborers. When out of charity they felt compelled to visit the mines to celebrate mass, Ocio refused to compensate by even providing meals or paying traveling expenses.

Santa Ana Mill Baja
Mill house ruins at Santa Ana, over 250 years old.
Santa Ana Mill Baja

Then new problems arose. Santa Ana’s miners ran short of supplies and took advantage of the priests’ compassion by applying at Santiago and Todos Santa missions for help. The missionaries naturally did not wish to sell provisions, that they needed for their own converts, but with the poor miners so neglected by their employer, it seemed cruel to refuse them. To solve the dilemma, the priests took to charging a just price to those who could pay while others received necessary supplies for free.

As Ocio had designed it, word soon reached Jesuit enemies in Mexico that corn, and other produce sold to the miners at the mission instituted a great commercial enterprise in which the missionaries acted as agents. This accusation was accompanied with another claiming that the missionary at Santiago was also engaged in furnishing fresh provisions to the Manila Galleon that annually entered the harbor at San Bernabe.

Meanwhile, following the Jesuit ban on pearl fisheries in 1750, Ocio subsidized the development of his Santa Ana property by making ninety-day voyages every few years to Europe in order to profitably unload his illegally obtained pearls. On one of these sojourns Don Jose de Galvez, an aristocrat whom King Carlos III was secretly planning to send to rule New Spain, sought him out. Ocio discussed quite frankly his concern over Jesuit exploitation of the Baja California peninsula, emphasizing that their continual interference impeded the progress of his mining industry. Don Jose listened sympathetically.

A short time thereafter the superior of the Jesuits in Mexico found reason to fear that enemies of the Order, specifically one, prevented from enriching himself at the expense of peninsula natives, were attempting to falsely pin a crime on the priests who charitably visited his mines. To prevent this from occurring in the future, the Superior demanded that Ocio obtain a secular priest to serve his mining settlement.

Paradoxically, Ocio welcomed this idea. He had a son approaching marriageable age that had grown up under the tutelage of ignorant cowhands and miners. Ocio himself had felt inadequate to certain social situations during his visits to the mainland and he was desirous that his son and heir make a worthy marriage and be equipped to cope with the new station in life to which the family had ascended. Possibly an educated priest familiar with the social amenities of the mainland would be an asset to Ocio’s establishment. So, for once Ocio agreed with a Jesuit command provided he selected the priest.

This was agreed to, and Ocio sailed to Guadalajara. He returned with a priest whose name was never known outside of Ocio’s household. Where the priest went when he departed two years later was never revealed. During the priest’s stay, however, Ocio accomplished his purpose. His son was wed to the daughter of a highly respected merchant and business associate of his father’s after a dowry of 20,000 guilders from Ocio’s European pearl profits had persuaded the girl to come to Baja California.

Following the priest’s unexplained departure, the little chapel at Santa Ana stood empty and the disagreeable task of saving uncouth miners’ souls again fell upon the missionary at Santiago. With it also came the necessity of providing for their substance when supplies ran short at Ocio’s company store, an occurrence that grew alarmingly frequent. Increasing likewise in frequency were whispers on the mainland that the Jesuits were undermining Ocio’s control over his mine workers and retarding production that resulted in a loss of tax revenue for the Crown.

The whole business climaxed in 1767 when the first party of Franciscan priests set sail from the mainland in a launch provided for them by Don Manuel Ocio. They were enroute to Baja California to replace the Jesuits, who had been expelled by a secret mandate from Spain.

Ocio hacienda Santa Ana Baja
Ruins at the hacienda of Manuel Ocio (23°45.00′, -110°5.70′). Photo from Jack Swords
Ocio hacienda Santa Ana Baja

Two years prior to that, Don Jose de Galvez had arrived in New Spain, endowed by King Carlos III with almost absolute power. One year following the Jesuit expulsion, Don Jose himself arrived on the peninsula. He, too, sailed there in a ship owned by Ocio and when he and his family arrived, they proceeded directly to Santa Ana where they lodged with Ocio while Galvez set up headquarters from which to start colonization.

Galvez was intensely interested in colonizing Lower California with Spaniards. He was still convinced that great riches lay somewhere in the land and with so many missions losing converts to epidemics, he wanted to make sure that the Crown maintained its foothold there. At least, that appeared to be his motive when he separated government land from mission land and offered it to mainland Spaniards of good reputation on easy terms.

A district was organized called “Real de Minas” with headquarters in Santa Ana. It was this district that was settled first to the gratification of Ocio, who owned the only store in the district. Supplied with meat from his own cattle that grazed on his own land and other goods that arrived on his ships from the company he owned in partnership with his new daughter-in-law’s father in Guadalajara, the store’s profits increased with each new arrival.

Even Ocio’s mines appeared to prosper with the exodus of the Jesuits. For the first time, the viceroy in Mexico began to receive bars of silver designated as the Royal Fifth. The viceroy also received tokens of pearls from Galvez, with a vague explanation that they were mined during his stay on the peninsula.

Things began to look so profitable on the peninsula that when Ocio suggested one day that he might be talked into selling his mines to the Crown, Galvez offered to cooperate. Or perhaps Galvez had offered to cooperate long before. At any rate, toward the end of Galvez’ yearlong residence with Ocio, the sale was consummated. Houses were added for dependents in the royal service, the chapel was enlarged with intentions to raise it to the status of a mission, and Ocio’s mercantile operation was doing a thriving business supplying the new settlers. Galvez then sailed back to the mainland, leaving his secretary, Juan Manuel Viniegra, to oversee the completion of the project.

Viniegra did not have to remain very long.

By 1771 the proposed mission at Santa Ana had been abandoned. Indigenous people brought over from Sonora to work the mines had been returned to their respective pueblos to relieve the Crown of their support. The mine was ordered sold, along with everything pertaining to it. If a purchaser could not be found, the mine was to be given to anyone who could work it. There had been no further receipts for the Royal Fifth from Santa Ana after the mines had been purchased from Ocio by the Crown.

Father Francisco Palou, a Franciscan priest asked to report on the situation, wrote that a man versed in such matters had informed him that the mines were of so little value that they had never paid their way, even when Ocio had them. Later, Galvez’ secretary, Viniegra, confessed that no metal was ever refined from the Santa Ana mines, but that the bars of silver and the pearls sent to the viceroy in Mexico by Galvez had been taken from the missions after the Jesuits departed.

In a surprise move to discount these rumors, Manuel Ocio leased back from the Crown a part of the abandoned mines, but the move was suspected as a ploy to disguise his profits from illegal pearl fisheries.

The small chapel still stands at Santa Ana, along with ruins of Ocio’s mansion. The settlement is a ghost town, haunted by a legend that lives on in distant Guadalajara.

According to this legend, Ocio was killed by his Yaqui pearl divers while getting ready to take five hundred pounds of pearls to Europe to sell. While he prepared for his voyage, the pearls were believed to be buried for safekeeping at the mine property he had recently leased from the Crown at a site called “Tescalama.” His son had already moved from Baja California to continue family interests in Guadalajara.

Ship in the desert
Illustration by John Mattos
Ship in the desert

The pearls have never been found.

Juan de Iturbe, explorer for the King and pearler on his own account, sailed the entire length along the California Gulf Coast and into the Colorado River in 1615. After loading his fifty-ton ship with a great fortune in pearls, he sailed northward beyond San Felipe, but instead of finding the mouth of the Colorado River, he discovered himself grounded on a sandbar in a vast sea surrounded by mountains. Certain that he had discovered the long-sought Straits of Anian that gave entrance to the Pacific Ocean, even though it had already been determined that this was not so, Iturbe stayed there for a month waiting for a storm or enough wind to carry him off the bar. At last, the heavens favored him with a great cloudburst, but water gushed down from the high mountains with such fury that waves rendered his ship unmanageable.

Still dreaming that he and his crew would be ennobled by the King and endowed with measureless fame and fortune, Iturbe continued his exploration by land. When supplies ran low, they dried flesh from antelope and wild sheep. After several months of futile searching, they climbed to the top of the highest mountain and identified the Colorado River winding toward the northeast, but the mouth of it was as elusive as the supposed Straits running to the west.

With their ship finally seaworthy, they attempted again to sail around the landlocked sea in search of an exit, but somehow, as if controlled by a sorcerer, the water had receded. Iturbe once again found himself grounded, this time on soft, boggy ground from which the crew barely escaped alive. With little choice, they abandoned the ship with its vast treasure of pearls, leaving it poised upright with its keel buried in sand as if a-sail, and managed to straggle across the sandy waste back to the Gulf where they eventually were rescued.

Iturbe’s aborted pearling adventure gave birth to one of California’s greatest lost treasure legends, The Lost Ship of the Desert.

Choral Pepper and David Kier
Choral Pepper and David Kier in 2002
Choral Pepper and David Kier

Read more about Ocio and the Real de Santa Ana.

Read more about Choral Pepper.











About David

David Kier is a veteran Baja traveler, author of 'Baja California - Land Of Missions' and co-author of 'Old Missions of the Californias'. Visit the Old Missions website.

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    They make it very easy to get Mexican insurance.

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    Robert Goody Good Real Estate Mesquite Nevada
    From logo

    Thank goodness never had to use this. Great interactive website to huy.

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    Ryan Perkio
    From logo

    I have been using BajaBound Insurance for 15 years - multiple trips per year. Their website is easy, their coverage is great, and the...

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    jarrod williams
    From logo

    Trip was awesome.

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    Chyla Nava
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    Great, easy to use service. I haven't had to file a claim (and hope I never have to) but the online portal is very easy to use, and it's...

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    BC Construction
    From logo

    Wonderful customer service, they made it easy to get my motorcycle insured for a last minute trip into Mexico. Explained the coverage with...

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    Edilver Martinez
    From logo

    Our go to Baja car insurance, everytime we take a visit down south . Usually it's for a day trip either for a quick getaway with the family...

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    Dylan Balderson
    From logo

    Easiest method of getting Mexican auto insurance. Best rate we found and was setup in no time.

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    Marilyn Moore Gianetti
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    Easy to renew, offers the best coverage for me to feel comfortable while driving in Mexico.

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    Ted Talmon
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    Easy to renew my policy after two years. Good database!

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    Christian Minor
    From logo

    Team were on point, provided inside information, prices were great and they had my proposal already in the system when I called back....

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    Luis Cortes
    From logo

    Easiest way to purchase insurance when traveling to Mexico. I have used their service for the last 7 years and it only gets easier and...

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    Esther Valencia
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    Super easy to purchase just the coverage you need when crossing the border in your own car. I especially appreciate the fact that I was...

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    Carlos Antonio Lopez Chavez
    From logo

    Great service, whoever answered my call was very helpful. First time using Baja Bound and I was expressed with the service. We'll see in...

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    Ryan Dee
    From logo

    Baja Bound is the easiest way to set up coverage before you head into Baja. Online, 5-mins, you're done! Simple. I insure my truck and...

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    Tudor Thomas
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    Baja Bound makes buying insurance for going south of the border as easy as it gets. The website is the easiest I have used and the staff...

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    Michelle Cloud-Hughes
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    I've used this company for all my Baja trips. Always super easy and straightforward, and I've never had any issues or problems.

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    Ed Derge
    From logo

    Great insurance for your motor trip to Mexico.

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    Nereyda Torres
    From logo

    (Translated by Google) I like the insurance because you can buy it for a day and it assures you in Mexico for the time you go either up to...

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    Christa Bedwin
    From logo

    Rigo at the office has been so supportive and awesome, both on e-mail and by telephone. He helped me figure out details of my trip, sort...

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    Mike Alexander
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    I had questions while submitting for Insurance on line so I called them. The customer service agent was exceptional on helping me to get...

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    Kim Nguyen
    From logo

    Amazing customer service. Very attentive. Definitely will do business with BAJA BOUND in the future. Thanks.

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    Mehdi Fahid
    From logo

    I reapplied for my Baja Bound Mexican car Insurance yesterday and I spoke to Ms. Shauna. This lady processed my application quickly and...

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    Bruce Thacker
    From logo

    No claims but purchase was quick and simple.

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    Tony Vigil
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    My wife and I were in Baja the 1st week of October. Insurance through Baja Bound was quick and easy. Thank you

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    Benny Marquez
    From logo

    Great company and they use CHUBB which is a top notch insurance company.We got our policy online 30min before crossing the border and were...

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    Blake Glassco
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    I will never drive south of the border without Baja Bound in my center console. I was in an accident a couple hours south of Ensenada and...

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    Kierian Kuklok
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    I have been a customer for years and when I really needed them they stepped up in every way. I had a freak accident to my car and they...

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    Lourdes Montoya
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    Easy, fast, and affordable.

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    Teresa Stricker
    From logo

    Great service and prices!

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    Jo
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    Baja Bound Insurance has gone above and beyond for me in their customer care. I was a pain as a customer, bought the wrong insurance, had...

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    Dennis Rogers Viejo Loco Chingon
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    Mexican Insurance made easy, I have used Baja Bound Mexican Insurance for all most 5 years, price and ease is great, luckily I have never...

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    RaMon McBride
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    I have not had any claims thus far so rating is based on ease of purchase.

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    Jeff G
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    Went down to TJ June 11 2020 No problems going into TJ but the way back was a ordeal 6 hours in line to get back into the USA but no...

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    j dougher ty
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    Great service, EZ and reasonbably priced. Been using Baja Bound for many years now. Great company and people!

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    masa SAL.
    From logo

    Good seevice have use baja bound for many years good price....

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    robert
    From logo

    If you are going to Mexico Baja Bound is excellent. Buy online, good price, good quality. Fast and efficient.

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    Peter Pontell
    From logo

    Save the hassle of trying to find a Mexican Insurance shop or waiting in line if you do. Baja Bound Mexican insurance on line is quick,...

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    Jermaine Coston
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    Baja Bound makes insurance for my occasional weekend motorcycle trips to Mexico easy and affordable. I can buy my previously-purchased...

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    Tyler Riddle
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    Easy to buy! I didn’t have to use it, so no clue on that front

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    Kristina Leano
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    Michelle L. is the best Client Care Specialist! I originally purchased a policy a few months ago when we moved to Mexico. Then, my car...

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    len buckholtz
    From logo

    SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD. OLD GUYS LIKE THAT. WILL DEFINITELY USE IN 6 MONTHS IF STILL RUNNING AROUND THE WILDS OF BAJA.

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    Jolene Bibian
    From logo

    Shauna at Baja Bound was AWESOME!! We had specific questions about how to quote the policy based on our vehicle type and she was super...

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    JohnPaul Gemelli
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    Baja Bound could not have made it an easier ... also, I made a mistake and called them having to leave a message ... but, they called back...

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    Angie Rodriguez
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    I wish every company was as easy to deal with as Baja Bound. I ended up staying in Baja longer than expected and it took a 3 minute phone...

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    Mark Sokol
    From logo

    Easy to obtain, good quality, auto insurance for Mexico.

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    Jennifer Toups
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    Baja Bound is and has been my go to Mexico insurance company. The website is extremely easy to use, keeps all your info for a quick...

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    Corinne Huntress
    From logo

    I absolutely love this company and site! We travel frequently between Arizona and Puerto Penaso, thus I have used the company multiple...

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    Ted Ramirez
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    Baja Bound Mexico Insurance provided great assistance during our drive into Hermosillo Son. last December 2021. We were victims of...

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    Cesar Lopez
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    Very convenient, great price !!

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    Sheldon Caughey
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    Best Claim Service. Staff went out of their way to resolve and settle an accident claim for me. I recommend Baja Bound having used them for...

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    Stephen Graham
    From logo

    Super simple, inexpensive, easy to work with, amicable and great communication

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    Roberto Garcia
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    Easy and fast in less than 10 minutes you could have insurance for Mexico. I have used them for about 8 years already.

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    Adrianna Dorsey
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    Great company, great prices, and even better customer service. We've lived in Baja for 7 years and have used them for the past 6years....