Like little kids with our noses pressed up against a confectionary window, we are visiting the century-old El Boleo bakery in Santa Rosalia, northern Baja California Sur, Mexico.
As passengers on the Astoria, we have been fed to the gills with delicious food throughout our cruise. So you know we aren’t the least bit hungry. But smelling that delicious bread and pastries made us pull out pesos to buy some.
Well worth it. No wonder El Boleo has a sign out front proclaiming that it is “World Famous.”
The bakery and its French baguettes certainly were a surprise. In fact, this whole town of Santa Rosalia has been a surprise. When the Astoria docked in Santa Rosalia, I expected another beautiful Mexican beach town like La Paz with glistening white sands, clear blue waters, souvenir shops, boat tours and a walkable pier lined with great seafood restaurants.
No sandy beach here. Dark rocks lining the shore. Santa Rosalia (population 14,000) seems more like a forgotten French village or an old Colorado ghost town stuck in time. Maybe because that is what it is.
Royal welcome for cruise ship
When we disembarked for the day from the Astoria, the folks of Santa Rosalia gave us a most royal welcome. The Astoria was the first cruise ship to visit in a decade and townsfolk were ready. They had prepared for months, said tour guide Leo.
A mariachi band was playing on the dock. Government officials greeted ship officials with an official proclamation. A little girl and boy were performing folk dances. Tourism spots were set up around town to help visitors.
A farmers’ market was arranged for us in the nearby park. Homemade goodies, wine, jewelry and other items were on display to sample and buy. Victor Manuel Verdugo Garcia was passing out samples of wine he had made from local fruit. “Try it, try it,” he encouraged visitors, nodding to the wine, cheese and crackers.
Leo took us on a walking tour of Santa Rosalia while he shared the fascinating history of the town. That beautiful Santa Barbara church in the center of town, for example. (Pictured in cover photo)
“It was designed by Alexander Gustave Eiffel who designed the Eiffel Tower,” Leo said, adding that the prefabricated metal church was shipped from France and constructed in Santa Rosalia in 1897.
Santa Rosalia was born as a French company town and remnants of that are everywhere. Really, the site had occupants long before written history – the Cochimi Indians who left paintings on the walls of caves and stones and made their living from sea and land. Then missionaries arrived.
But it was the 1868 discovery of small round green balls (boleos) by rancher Jose Rosas that forever changed the future of Santa Rosalia. Local lore says that Rosas was paid only 16 pesos for the treasure he found.
When French geologists heard of the find and saw the samples, they knew what must be waiting underground in the small Mexican village. The House of Rothschild financed mining operations and by 1885 had formed the El Boleo Copper Company in France.
Becoming a major copper producer
Underground tunnels were dug to mine the copper. Roads were constructed and an 18-mile railroad track was laid to move the ore. European company houses made of wood with balconies, picket fences and corrugated tin roofs (quite unusual for this part of Mexico) were built. Fresh water was piped in from 10 miles away. Chinese, Mexican, Japanese and Yaqui Indian workers were brought in to work the mines.
By the early part of the 20th century, Santa Rosalia had become one of the world’s major copper-producing areas. Once the high-grade ore was mined out, the company closed in 1953. A Mexican company resumed operations but it also closed in 1985. Another company has been trying to get mining off the ground again with small success, Leo said.
What draws visitors to Santa Rosalia now is its unique European architecture, its history and its bakery. A small museum in former mining offices spotlights the mining history. Reproduction mines down by the port show the difficult job of being a copper miner.
Still welcoming guests, the Hotel Frances built in 1886 at the top of a hill offered luxury accommodations for the copper company bigwigs. And scattered around town are equipment leftovers from the mining past.
By presidential decree, on Dec. 5, 1986, Santa Rosalia was declared a Zone of Historic Monuments, establishing 135 blocks and 32 historic buildings.
As for that bakery, El Boleo has been operating since 1901. Located in the heart of Santa Rosalia, El Boleo continues to make as many as 8,000 pieces of bread daily. The three original clay ovens fueled with mesquite firewood can hold as many as 500 pieces of bread which are cooked for about 20 minutes.
The hospitable bakers invited us to the back to see the bakery in operation. We watched as an elderly man poured flour and sugar, mixed in a big blob of butter and eggs and some other stuff and kneaded the dough. He then ran it through what looked like a huge wringer to flatten it for shaping.
A woman, Nina Palapix, then used a long pole to slide pans of bread in and out of the ovens. She explained that the bread-making process has been going on for generations and no one sees any reason to change it. Some traditions are certainly well worth keeping.
Cover photo: The beautiful Santa Barbara church was designed by Alexander Gustave Eiffel who designed the Eiffel Tower, credit Jackie Sheckler Finch
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