Off the Beaten Track in Baja – Tres Virgenes
By Cheryl Miller - June 2012
Just north of Santa Rosalia and south of San Ignacio in the Municipality of Mulege, rising from the valley floor are three imposing volcanic mountain named Tres Virgenes (“Three Virgens”). It is a unique area with mountainous roads hugging cliff sides and volcanic lava fields spreading outward from these three sisters. The highest peak is the youngest named La Virgin which heralds a height of 1940mt.s (6363.20 ft above sea level) and is the 2nd highest peak in Baja California and the 1327th highest peak in Mexico. El Azufre (The Sulpher) stands 1650 mts (5412 ft above sea level) and is the second oldest peak, while El Viejo (Old Man) rises just 1570 mt.s (4493.60 ft). above sea level. The volcanic mountain chain is constructed along a NE-SW line and are progressively younger to the SW.
La Virgen El Azufre El Viejo
Volcanolgists report that these volcanos are classified as Stratovolcanos, which are defined as steep volcanos built up from alternating layers of lava, ash and cinders. Certainly, the evidence of this is present for even a layman to appreciate, particularly on the southwest sides of the mountain slopes. Miles and miles of volcanic lava flows, now decomposing and lying on the mountain sides and desert floor as volcanic rubble for all to admire even from the confines of your car on Highway 1. Both El Viejo and El Azufre are composed of dacitic (magma is highly viscous) lava domes and flows. While La Virgen is much more complex with a history of pumice eruptions, pyroclastic flows, as well as dacitic and andesitic (dark-colored volcanic rock composed essentially of plagioclase feldspar and one or more mafic minerals, as hornblende or biotite) lava flows and explosive eruptions.Although a Croation Jesuit monk named Ferdinand Konščak wrote a reference to an eruption in 1746 in his journal, his description leads researchers to believe it was probably only a plume, as radiometric datings, do not agree with his observation. A charcoal fragment was found in a volcanic deposit stemming from a major plinian (pumice-fall) explosive eruption from a SW-flank vent and was dated at approximately 6515 years ago, which was followed by effusion of a thick lava flow much younger than the actual eruption, The prececding eruption was dated at approximately 24 thousand years B.C. which agrees with a dating of fragments from La Virgen, the youngest of the volcanos. An age of approximately 36 thousand years B.C. was given for the last major explosive eruption before those. Are they still prone to activity? Scientists are split on this due to the lack of historic data and recent activity, but, the mountains still yield heat from their depths, in the form of geothermic water, so they are definitely not dormant. In fact, CFE has a geothermic plant to generate electricity in operation today on the northern end of the volcanic complex near the margin of the Pleistocene El Aguajito caldera. It yields hot water and steam sufficient to generate electricity to add to and support the Santa Rosalia grid. They reported to us an average depth of 90 meters to reach these boiling waters. It is quite interesting to visit and see this activity, but there are no tourist centers, museums or roadside information plaques. In fact, although the workers were courteous and answered our questions, the CFE workers were not accustomed to visitors and our welcome was definitely limited.
Geothermic Plant at Tres Virgenes
The land in which Tres Virgens is located belongs to the Ejido Alfredo V. Bonfil The land is vast: from San Francisquito to San Ignacio (including Santa Marta and Sierra San Francisco), past Mulegé to Playa El Coyote. The area is 519,000 hectares, the membership is 142. These Ejido members work for the benefit of the land and the population of its membership, one project they achieved was to come together with the Mexican government (CONANP) as part of the Reserva de la Biósfera to construct bungalows (similar in style and concept to those of Valle de los Cirios) and a lodge, all with breathtaking views of this extinct volcano and surrounding area.
Until recently, this part of the interior was inaccessible to most travelers except hunters who stalked the borrego cimarrón (desert bighorn sheep). The lodge area was initially built up to care for the licensed hunters. The lodge is fully booked in sheep hunting season and one of the Ejidos quoted us a cost of as much as $50,000 US to bag one of these beauties, with no annual permit left untaken. The Mexican government issues permits for game based on the area and native population of the game in the area. There are 6 or 7 permits granted each year. BY limiting the hunt, the native populations of sheep can be protected. In 1994, 90 sheep were counted. Now 450 exist. Only the rams are shot, which are normally 8-10 years old, mainly because of the size of the trophy. Each hunter comes to hunt for 10 days, sometime between the end of November and late March. He is guided all over to view his perspective target and when he chooses his sheep he shoots it (at around 300 yards). Saying that, one can begin to understand the attention the guides and staff give to their clients and wildlife. However, there is a shift to more tourism, but it's in its infancy.
If you are not into hunting, as I am not, licensed guides now offer a variety of ecotours, including hikes to the top of the volcano (recommended mid-Oct.–mid-Apr.), tours to Laguna San Ignacio for whale-watching (Dec.–Mar.), hikes throughout the surrounding area to view the borregos, and tours to the cave paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco and not to far from the camp. There are also horseback tours offered.
Simple cabanas provide visitors a chance to experience true desert tranquility and fantastic vistas. A simple restaurant exists on the premises. Interested visitors should contact Juan Villa Vicencio or Marcial Landeros Valdez (tel. 615/155-4241, firstname.lastname@example.org) ahead of time, or those with open travel plans should drive in and be prepared to stay or move on. Rates vary depending on the season, and all is quite simple. (Pets are not welcome on hikes and in the wild, so it is best to leave them home.)
Just another side trip gem in Baja!