The American at the border crossing in Tijuana said of Santa Rosalía, “That’s a dirty little town.” Since that was our stated destination, the man’s assertion seemed quite rude. But we handled his affront well enough. And, yes, one might think so, if you are—as most do—driving straight through Santa Rosalía en route to somewhere else, somewhere better known to the average tourist who spends his or her time elsewhere in southern Baja.
Treasures Abound in Southern Baja
Baja California Sur is a treasure trove of beautiful vistas, ancient and recent history, and various fantastic natural features. Some of these gems are miles of dirt road off the main path, and others may be located with just a simple turn off your primary route. I found Santa Rosalía as one such treasure, one that most people simply drive past. Positioned about halfway down the Baja peninsula on the Sea of Cortéz, Santa Rosalía is a mining town with oodles of history and a distinct character. A short visit will provide you with views of the old and new as seen through waves of economic boom and bust characteristic of many old mining communities.
Without any solid preconceptions, I didn’t know what to expect, but Santa Rosalía really surprised me. It was so different from most small towns in Baja. Turn off Baja’s Highway 1 into the old part of town, and you’ll find French architecture and restored mining equipment, museums, and even a French bakery—Panaderia El Boleo—that dates back to 1901.
Another such pearl in the center of town is the Iglesia de Santa Bárbara, a metallic structure reportedly designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame), which was built in Europe and sent prefab style to Santa Rosalía, where it was reassembled in 1897.
With its decades-old French clapboard-style architecture and well-preserved mining history, this port town rewards those who brave the urge to drive straight through with a very unfamiliar feel. In the center of town, for example, you will find a community very different from the usual cement-block homes and businesses of Baja. Because Santa Rosalía is situated in an area of the world prone to hurricane strikes and with very few trees, the common building materials there are cement block and rebar.
The soft, pastel-colored clapboard siding and red corrugated metal-roofed homes and businesses are reminiscent of Caribbean villages of the same era. Just by making that ninety-degree turn off the highway, tourists might think they jumped from Baja to Jamaica without knowing there was even a portal.
From the highway, the passerby sees dilapidated harbor-side businesses and now defunct ore-processing facilities, tailings, and smokestacks of the old copper mine. These facilities are now closed to visitors for safety reasons, but there are many large pieces of equipment on display throughout town, at a museum in an old administration building, and in the public library. Restaurants and other local businesses showcase memorabilia and photos from the boom days of the late 1800s and early 1900s.
On the north side of town are the new mining operations, El Boleo, owned and run by a Canadian and Korean partnership. The new mine has now returned a bit of prosperity to Santa Rosalía. The casual eye will note new pickup trucks driving about town and service company vehicles parked outside restaurants, at gas stations, and at convenience stores.
Not known as a resort town, Santa Rosalía certainly has its charms. Though there is a nice harbor near the ferry building, which hosts sailboats from around the world, Santa Rosalía has no beautiful beaches to entice the visitor. South, there are various seaside communities and the tourist destination of Mulegé, which is less than an hour drive from Santa Rosalía.
Where to Stay and Eat During Your Visit
Because Santa Rosalía is not a typical destination, there are few tourist amenities, and when venturing about town, you won’t be in competition with hordes of other visitors. More charm, I’d say of that. But there are lodgings at Las Casitas on the south edge of town, the El Morro farther south, and at the Hotel Frances in the old part of town near the industrial museum. And there are many good restaurants. For dinner, try Tonka’s Grill just up the street from the beautiful Oficina de Telegrafos building on Manuel F. Montoya, or for breakfast, try Tercos Pollitos on Alvaro Obregón near Parque Jose Maria Morelos Y Pavon. Parque Jose Maria has been recently rebuilt/remodeled following damage caused by flooding during a hurricane in 2016.
Getting There and Away
Baja’s Highway 1, the main route through the Baja peninsula, passes through Santa Rosalía, a mere 570 miles south of the border. There is a regular ferry from the mainland of Mexico, at Guaymas. And by air, a visit to Santa Rosalía starts with a flight to either La Paz or Loreto, farther south.
In My Estimation
So, was the ugly American right about Santa Rosalía? Not at all, in my estimation. It may take you an hour or even a lifetime to explore the wonderful old town and its mining history. But it’s well worth a quick visit to find this surprising community beside the sapphire blue Sea of Cortéz.