An hour’s drive from the coastal town of Todos Santos leads you off the highway and toward the foothills of the Sierra la Laguna Biosphere Reserve. The reserve boasts an astounding 900+ species of flora and fauna, 107 of which are endemic! Dusty backroads wind through a landscape dotted with ever-present cardon cactus among a variety of desert-loving trees and shrubs. With a little more altitude, and access to mountain water, the trees are taller and denser. This is the land of the Rancheros of Baja California Sur. A thriving community of incredibly hospitable people with a deep connection to the land, intertwined into the history of the Baja Peninsula. Research has shown that the rancheros are the original American cowboy!
Our home in the mountains, Camp Cecil de la Sierra, is located within the nearly 55,000 acres (!!!) of land owned by Chito Orozco Castro and his family. From the moment you meet him, Chito has a way of making you feel as if you belong. There are no formalities, no singing and dancing, or awkward introductions. Rather, expect a broad smile and hearty laughter as he catches up with the crew at camp, or a friendly wave as he rides by on his horse. Chito single-handedly manages his massive property and livestock. However, while we were there, he did have the help of his energetic, entertaining, and incredibly capable seven-year-old grandson, Alfredito (stay tuned for a short interview between my 11-year-old son and him). I felt immediately comfortable. Camp Cecil de la Sierra offers the Baja experience you did not know you were looking for.
The camp itself is a short walk from the homestead, tucked into a productive orchard (or huerta) of massive mango, grapefruit, and avocado trees. Chito estimates these shade-providing, life-giving trees are 100 years old. To me, they provide the perfect cozy ambiance for the four comfortable guest tents. Oh, and the perfect spot to sway in a hammock during siesta time. String lights and lanterns hang from the branches, lighting the sandy pathway from the kitchen and central hub of the camp to each tent.
Guest comfort has been made top priority with each walk-in tent featuring real beds (either king or two twins) with fluffy duvets and crispy sheets, bedside tables and lamps, colorful Mexican wool rugs, a lounge chair and shelf. On the front ‘porch’ of each are two handmade rocking chairs, an insanely comfy spot for reading, relaxing, and enjoying an afternoon coffee. In addition, private composting toilet cabanas are adjoined off the back. There is one shower house for all guests to share with ample hot water and space. Near the kitchen there a perfect reading area with a small library and games. You will also find yoga mats to use. This solar-powered camp is the perfect respite.
The undeniable heart of the camp is the custom open-air kitchen and dining area. It seems there is always something simmering over the wood fire in the traditional ranch kitchen. Following two separate visits to the camp, I can wholeheartedly attest to the incredible meals that are served. No two are alike, as the chefs are encouraged to use their creative freedom to craft healthy and hearty dishes using what is fresh. Cold breakfast is available from 7:00 am with coffee and tea and a selection of fruit, yogurt, cereals, toast and jam, and fresh-squeezed juices. This is followed with a hot breakfast at 8:00 am featuring an egg dish, the fluffiest beans, fresh tortillas, salsas, and surprise elements. Just in case you think you’ll go hungry, lunch is ready when you are, followed by Happy Hour at 4:30 and dinner at dusk!
Having traveled to many camps in Latin America and Africa, I was blown away by the care and creativity taken to ensure that the pescatarian and vegans in our group were equally as thrilled with every bite. Some of my lunch and dinner highlights included a delicate and flavorful bowl of ceviche (made with jicama for non-fish eaters), a grilled chicken dish with tamarind sauce (made with stuffed grilled avocado for vegetarians), and a final night celebration with a typical asadero BBQ over the campfire, the table set under the expansive starry sky. All dishes include plentiful fresh vegetables. I cannot leave out the deserts – including a wonderful cake baked in a Dutch oven over open flame and the melt-in-your-mouth goodness of plantains wrapped in tortillas, lightly fried, and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Activities are generally centered around ranch life, a wonderful way to learn about and pay homage to the past and present life of the rancheros.
Cheese making: Depending on the day and time, you might partake in making traditional queso fresco or fresh cheese from some of the 140 or so cows roaming the hillside. The clanging of their cowbells giving away their location at a distance.
Leathermaking: Chito is also a master leathermaker and loves to share his skill, which has been passed down generations. You may be invited to try your hand at it. We made leather bracelets using tools and techniques Chito inherited from his father. It was wonderful to hold the tools, like holding history in your hands, the wear they have seen a testament to the countless necessities they have created (including Chito’s prized saddle so beautifully and intricately designed). Your entire stay could be centered around a much larger leather project if you prefer!
Riding: A highlight for me was riding the trails on mule and horseback. The sturdy footing and clear confidence the mules had in navigating the rocky paths was impressive. I was also enamored with not only Chito’s handmade saddle, but also the wooden one that I used. Between the comfort of the saddle and the ease of the mule’s gait, it was one of the most enjoyable rides I have had.
Hiking: The hiking here is fantastic. From a short jaunt along the trails to a full day excursion with packed lunch, there are many options. The most rewarding options are those that lead up the mountains, affording viewpoints back toward the Pacific Ocean. Given the incredible diversity of the area, there is much to learn along the way whether your interests lie in tracking wildlife with tracks and scat, keeping eyes and ears alert for endemic bird species, or delving into the unique systems of the flora in the area. Unless you are walking the roads, be prepared for inclines, crossing arroyos (dry rocky river beds), and ever-changing footing. Chito will hike (and ride) in his homemade sandals but I suggest a good pair of hiking boots or shoes!
Art in Nature: Adding another level of interest to the hikes, or just your time around camp, consider plein air painting. This is an incredible opportunity to take in your surroundings at a different pace and with a new eye. In collaboration with Todos Artes out of Todos Santos, this is nature journalism at its best. After an overview of techniques in camp (or previously in Todos Santos), head out on the path armed with a notebook and pencil. Under the guidance of your instructors, the talented Donna Billick and Isabel ‘Issy’ von Zastrow, pause along the route to sketch elements big and small, labeling, and paying attention to detail. Upon return to camp, palettes of watercolor paints and a wide variety of brushes are laid out to bring your sketches to life. It is a wonderful immersion in color and meditative for the soul. Stay tuned for more info on a more in-depth program that this may be combined with. Please note that there is an additional charge for this activity.
Cooking Class: For me, cooking is always one of the best ways to immerse into a culture – and one I enjoy the most! It is an activity that piques all my senses. Being part of the action and melody of light chatter in the open-air ranch kitchen is fantastic. Do not expect your typical cooking class, instead, you’ll be jumping in as part of the family. My special request was empanadas as I’ve tried to master the dough for years. Our chef, Delia, made the process seem effortless and as soon as I get my hands on a tortilla press, I will be giving it another shot. We made light and flaky and oh-so-tasty empanadas with a variety of fillings to suit all guests. Yum!
This is just a sample of some of the experiences to be had. And let’s not forget the evenings after dinner whether spent swapping stories around the campfire or with your chin up quietly stargazing, a perfect end to the day. The beauty of the Camp Cecil de la Sierra experience is that is can be what you make it. There is no hard and fast line to follow. It is a wonderfully natural way to experience the mountains and unique history of the rancheros. What Bryan and Sergio and the Todos Santos Eco Adventures’ team have thoughtfully created hand-in-hand with Chito and his family is beautiful. I loved it!