Words by Drew Rohde | Photos by Dylan VanWeelden, Billy Sinkford & Drew Rohde
Mountain biking is the best thing that has happened to me. The reasons I love this sport are many. Beyond the exhilaration, exercise and memories, this hobby has taken me all around the world and saved me from some less-than-savory paths in life. I think it’s safe to say that some of the biggest reasons mountain bikers get hooked on the sport are the same. We love the camaraderie, the solitude, personal victories and enjoying sights not seen by the masses. The list of things that make us smile from the seat of our bikes is never ending, but not many things make us smile more than a bike trip with the crew! Most riders I know plan several trips a year to go ride with their friends, whether it’s a small weekend trip to a riding destination just a couple hours away, or an adventure to a far away land. Riders love putting rubber to dirt in new locations and exploring the unknown.
Recently I was lucky enough to add another destination to my personal list, and it’s a spot that will stand out as long as I live. Not because the riding was the best I’ve ever experienced, but because of the people involved in the Rancho Cacahilas project and the good things it is bringing to an area and people deserving of more.
Rancho Cacachilas is located in Baja California Sur and sits on 16,000 hectares (about 40,000 acres) overlooking the Sea of Cortez. Nestled into the beautiful Sierra Cacachilas mountains, this self-sustaining adventure guest ranch offers more than just a recreational getaway. The ranch is completely off the grid and is focused on improving the land while helping show locals and tourists alike that there is a better, less-impactful way to live.
Purchased by Christy Walton, arguably the highest ranked female philanthropist in the world, the Rancho has seen major work over the last ten years of her ownership. As stated by the Rancho Cacachilas website, and exemplified by everyone we met, the ranch’s goal is to “Manage, protect and enhance the lands while integrating scientific research, education and diverse economic activities such as eco-tourism, animal husbandry and traditional artisanal projects.” Another major goal of the ranch, which we toured and saw proof of first hand, is to improve the property, the local ecosystem and bring benefit to the local communities existing below the ranch.
Christy Walton may be famous for the many millions of dollars she donates, but in Baja California, she is known as an organized, forward-thinking doer that is making things happen in an organic way, pun intended. Rather than bring her vast amounts of wealth into an area and having her way with the terrain, Walton has instead worked closely with locals and now employs roughly 60 full-time employees on the ranch, offering them reliable income and employment that affords them the option of buying a home in the communities they grew up in. Increasing their pride in that community even more and bringing more local money to these small coastal towns.
While at the ranch I got to know several of the staff quite well and really enjoyed the education and conversations we had. Whether it was a member of the kitchen staff, a trail builder, geologist, goat dairy farmer or the ranch’s tourism operations manager, everyone was smiling and happy to share valuable information with you. Local history, facts about the watershed, bat caves, ancient mining tunnels, or the ambitious trail-building projects were just some of the topics I learned about over five days at Rancho Cacachilas.
After spending several days eating delicious, ranch-grown food and riding ranch-built singletrack, I was eager to sit down with archaeologist turned trail development supervisor, Rafael Camposeco Gonzalez. At just 41 years old, Rafael, or Rafa as his friends call him, has already seen and done more than most. Having grown up in a poor neighborhood of Mexico City with a single, working mother, Rafa found mountain bikes as a way to escape the problems of the city and not feeling welcomed at his private school. “My mother always focused all her efforts to get me in a nice school, but I was a poor kid from a poor neighborhood,” Rafa said. “I didn’t fit in at school, but when I came home, the neighborhood kids didn’t like my fancy school attendance either. So I looked forward to weekends riding to escape that feeling that I didn’t belong. I met friends who rode and found a bike shop and developed a group that made me feel like I belonged and we began to take trips to places and go ride together.”
These trips are what led Rafa to develop an interest in mountain bike tourism, and travel in general. Not wanting to let his mother’s hard work go unthanked however, Rafa went on to further his education and became an archaeologist. During that time he also worked as a mountain bike guide for over 20 years, building on his passion of travel and riding.
Oddly enough, it was archaeology that brought Rafa to the Baja peninsula. It’s a unique region with amazing views, mountains and natural history. As it turned out, all the time Rafael spent mapping, organizing expeditions and trips for archaeological digs combined with his mountain bike guiding would pay off.
Rafa told us, “The archaeology thing just didn’t become fruitful enough and through a friend that linked Christy’s consulting agency to me, I was invited out to the ranch for a visit.” Christy had Rafa ride the first mountain bike trail at the property, which ends up right at a little casita where we had also ridden and had lunch two times during the week. It was the first homestead of the property, built decades ago. “When I got to the casita I saw Christy there with some pretty high-level friends of hers and she had some picnic-type snacks set up and asked me, ‘What do you see here?’ I replied by saying, I see possibilities!” Rafa told us.
After exploring more of the rancho Rafa continued to be impressed. “Everywhere you look you see how neat and orderly things are, that is what Christy and this ranch stand for. When I decided to come on board I was blown away by the vision, and meticulous nature of things. She noticed everything, and thought about the land, the plants and the animals first,” Rafa continued, “I knew this was my new home and her passion for the future and improving the local communities has been infectious.”
Rafa’s story is not a unique one here at the ranch. Our crew was constantly surprised that our humble guides were all overachievers and many were college-educated in everything from biology to geology and beyond.
The large ranch has several smaller ranches within its fences. One ranch for example is the dairy, where 15 goats produce all the cheese, milk and other dairy consumed on the property. They also produce enough goat cheese, something the region is known for, to sell it at local farmer’s markets and to restaurants. Rather than looking to compete with local ranchers, Rancho Cacachilas actually hosts workshops and has an open invitation to all local ranchers to come out and see how they can improve their own operations.
By educating the local ranchers and steering them away from the way their grandfather’s ranching techniques, Rancho Cacachilas is trying to show the ranchers they can demand higher prices, sell to restaurants and increase the quality of their cheese while also reducing the cost of operations by being more efficient and clean in their production.
The same can be said for agriculture. Rancho Cacachilas has a beautiful farm where they produce fruits and vegetables, which we enjoyed all week. By taking the waste from the goat farms and dry toilets, the rancho creates their own manure and soil and is able to grow the most beautiful looking lettuce I’ve ever seen. In an area with nothing but decomposed granite and almost no rainfall! These practices are all openly shared to tourists looking to develop their own gardens or for local farmers who are looking to better their output and crop sustainability.
When we asked Rafael about the changes he’s seen in the local towns he said, “The hardest part is changing the minds of the locals. The rancho wants to invest in the people and culture and show them there are smarter, better alternatives to create what they’ve always created. This is why we have great youth programs and are hoping to build a visitor and information center at the edge of town. Children are like sponges and if we can make them feel like they’re a part of this ranch and the change it can bring to the towns around it, we will see big changes.”
Rafael went on to explain some of the changes he’d seen personally. “We had guys that originally started here as trail builders, all they knew was how to use a pick or a shovel. Some of them are happy to remain there, but as the trails began to near completion I noticed some guys slowed down and were scared that they’d be cut loose after the trail was built. They expect to be used and let go, it’s all they’ve known and I had to reassure them, this job is here as long as you want it. If you want more, we can do more.” As Rafa reassured his crew of their job security he had more guys showing initiative and asking for larger roles. “I now have guys that couldn’t speak English and were manual laborers that are now conversational in English and are certified map makers and can do topography reports and more. The rancho pays for English classes and many other types of courses for employees that want to learn more. This increases their value, their pride and of course, the amount of money they make. One of my most rewarding things has been to see people’s eye light up when they get it. Like, I can see a click in their brain and it’s like, ok, now we’re on the same page, you are driven and we want that!” Rafa said with a smile.
So, how does mountain biking fit in? Well, for the first seven years Christy and the rancho team were busy working on repairing the land from cattle ravaging, mining operations and water erosion. In fact one of the biggest projects undertaken by the ranch doesn’t even really benefit the ranch directly. Watershed projects and road construction have consumed lots of resources but are hugely beneficial to the area. The ranch has employed local workers to build ten larger retention dams and hundreds of smaller “Gabions” (rock and wire structures, to slow the water from running down the steep, decomposed granite arroyos straight into the Sea of Cortez. Rainfall isn’t much in the driest state of Mexico. In fact roughly 8-inches per year is the average and a huge majority of it runs to the sea before it can be absorbed into the local water table. Rancho Cacachilas now believes they’re saving 15,000 cubic meters, or 3.9 million gallons, of water that are recharging the underground aquifers, thereby improving the downstream communities of El Sargento and La Ventana’s water quality and quantity.
Needless to say, these endeavors while benevolent, are costly and it was decided about three years ago that there should be some sort of a way that the ranch could sustain its costs by bringing visitors on-site to learn about the amazing work being done. As fun as it was touring goat farms and vegetable gardens, the Rancho Cacachilas crew knew they needed a little bit more to entice visitors. Here’s where the trail building comes in.
Rancho Cacachilas currently has about 26 miles of singletrack that can be enjoyed by hikers, mountain bikers and even on the back of a mule. They are hoping to double that and have about 50 miles of trails done in the next few years, which is honestly amazing considering this is the friggin desert! There is no soil or easy digging around here. The rock work, and bench cutting had our entire crew astonished quite honestly.
What else blew our minds was how we could seemingly be riding in the arid desert yet make a turn and be in a lush green oasis five times per ride! Running water, dense trees and tall palms offered respite from the sun and captivated us every day. The scenery and riding is rugged, but enjoyable. It’s most definitely not built for new-school berm slapping shredders, but if you enjoy riding raw trails where line choice, sharp eyes and reflexes reward, this is certainly a destination worth checking out.
What’s it like staying here? Rugged would be the word I could use to describe the ranch. Very nice, thick canvas tents house two cots with decent bedding and come stocked with nice stands to store your luggage, a feature we didn’t use until day three after my bunkie found a scorpion in his shoes one day. The bathroom situation is definitely one for the books. Being that the ranch is eco-minded, running water is treated as a resource and so is your doodie. Dry toilets are outside of your tent and are stoocked with a roll of toilet paper and a bucket full of wood chips. When it comes time to clean up after your awesome ride you’ve got two options: a beautiful pool overlooking the Sea of Cortez or a bucket shower in the outdoor shower row. Here you can fill up a 5-gallon bucket with warm water and carry it into a bamboo stall where you use a smaller bucket to soak yourself before lathering up and rinsing off. It certainly was an eye-opening experience as to how much water I normally use at home when bathing. Luckily the temperatures are never that cold so the outdoor showering thing isn’t too uncomfortable.
Rancho Cacachilas has absolutely earned a special place in my heart. Conversations with awesome people by the nightly bonfire, delicious hand-prepared meals cooked from locally grown food and days spent riding beautiful singletrack away from the hustle and bustle of the world…What’s not to love about that!?
Not only does the rancho fulfill my ego-driven selfishness as a mountain biker, it makes me feel good knowing that there are people and places like this that are genuinely helping improve the world. All the people I met in the towns below the rancho, the employees and guides, were incredibly kind and gentle souls who loved to have fun and keep life simple. Seeing and talking with them about how the ranch’s growth was helping their situation was truly inspiring and still makes me happy as I sit here in self-quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m not gonna lie when I say those simpler times, removed from this crazy society aren’t calling me back in a pretty big way. Now I know why so many ex-pats are making Baja California Sur their new home.