Ever watch the sun rise over northwestern Mexico? The first rays strike the mountains (usually turning them orange), then a vast array of desert, the Sea of Cortez, the Altar Desert, the craters, and the majesty of jet black lava standing where some 600 volcanoes created a lunar landscape ultimately controlled by a handful of regional Indians.
They’ve been there for much of the past 40,000 years, you know. Not the Pinacateños, but Indians, nonetheless; a stream of men and women who arrived that long ago and are a part of the land we’d come to study. A U-shaped stretch of land that, if we mark it the way we mark a clock:
3 is at Bahia San Luis Gonzaga, 6 is at the mouth of the Colorado River, 9 is at Sonora’s Punta Bola, and you and I are standing at 7.
America’s first lunar astronauts trained on this region’s moon-like surface near where, moving west from Volcán Pinacate, we come upon a series of craters. The first is named “Colorado,” the second “Elegante”. But, there is a third, a fourth and, extending to the Altar Desert, as many as five others.
Created when magma came in contact with underground pools of water, they are “Maar” Craters although, to the untrained eye, they appear as if created by meteorites. Suffice it to say they are the lasting visible evidence of the geologic violence perpetrated in this region: specifically, 11 craters and 600 volcanoes!
Standing anywhere in this region, we are “sandwiched” between the Sea of Cortez and Mexico’s Federal Highway 15; the pueblo of Sonoita is several miles northeast. At this point, 87 miles east of the pueblo of San Luis, there is a Pemex gasoline station called “Los Vidrios“.
Named for a nearby crater, there is an unimproved road across the highway from this gas station. Assuming the gate is unlocked (it normally is), drive 1 1/4-miles south of that gate to Los Vidrios Crater, which you will find on your left side. Equally interesting, there is a large (natural) mound of volcanic pumice on the right.
There’s also a network of roads in here and a centuries-old Indian trail, although you’ll need a map to find your way around. “Topos” (topographic maps) are available in San Diego’s Map Center and at Encinitas’ “Map World“. Ask for Mexican topo map H12A12… for starters.
The Sierra Pinacate region covers 600 square miles of volcanoes, lava, cinders and cinder cones. So unique is this region*, it is resistant to weathering. That is, nearly everything ever dropped on it remains where it came to rest. Consequently, archeologists have dated early man’s tools, his sleeping circles, his cairns, and his 20 giant stone intaglios to as long ago as 39,000 years.
West of the Sierra Pinacate there is a sea of sand known as El Desierto Del Altar. For the novice, there is an agonizing death lurking in this waterless place where directions without a compass are impossible except for the times you can see the Pinacates. 40 miles wide by 95 in length, even the Pimas paid the Pinacateños to utilize their trail to Puerto Peñasco rather than risk dying in this treacherous Sea of Sand.
For those who understand, however, it can be a world of fun, even a treasure trove, for along the shore there are clams, oysters, mussels, snails and scallops… so long as you know where to look. For a mental picture of this place think of the Yuma Dunes but return to the Altar Desert to experience the starkness of a tiny Sahara.
Located on the Baja–Sonora border is the agricultural town of Coahuila. 43 miles farther south, there is a fish camp beside a sea as vibrant as it was in the old days. With your back to the camp, run the beach to the south—you’ll know when you get there—and you’ll find a peaceful place free of the sounds and scenes of metropolis …where the mind has a chance to reflect.
Standing here, perhaps the only human for many miles around, you’ll learn the desert is kind to the sun and is blessed, in return, with a morning and evening fluorescence ranging from orange through red to purple.
Standing on that southwestern shore as the sun dipped behind mountains we stood on at dawn, I gazed at a reddened sky and gave thanks for the pleasures I enjoyed in a U-shaped stretch of land …created of sea and sand.
*The uniqueness of this region is the result of it being in the “rain shadow” of Baja California’s Sierra San Pedro Martir.