Baja California’s French Connection: Four Good Reasons to Visit Santa Rosalia

The first sight of the Sea of Cortés on a southbound trip along the transpeninsular highway (Mex 1), Santa Rosalia certainly is a unique place. Founded by a French copper mining company in the 1880s, who then left in the 1950s, its architecture is like no other on the Baja California peninsula, and reminders of its French origins dominate the town. Whereas most settlements on the Cortés coast are associated with beautiful beaches and related aquatic activities (San Felipe, Bahia de Los Angeles to the north and Mulege, Loreto, La Paz, etc. to the south) Santa Rosalia has always been an industrial port with little concession to the diver, kayaker or fishing enthusiast. This difference from the norm does, however, make it a fascinating stopover on any transpeninsular tour.

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1. Strolling the Narrow Streets

The town is situated in a narrow valley (arroyo) between two mesas, which defines its elongated grid structure, leading either towards or away from the coast. Wooden buildings reminiscent of the Caribbean predominate, and house everything from bars and restaurants to the Casa de la Cultura .

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2. The French Bakery

Although the town is unable to boast a bona fide French restaurant the El Boleo Bakery does provide an excellent consolation prize, with all kinds of pan dulce on offer. Well over a century old, the bakery still uses some of its original imported machinery.

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3. Santa Barbara Church

Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most striking remnant of the French presence is La Iglesia de Santa Barbara (main image above), a sheet metal construction imported in kit form all the way from France in the 1890s. Legend has it that it was designed by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame, and intended for export to Africa after being displayed at a Paris expo. It was certainly purchased by the boss of the El Boleo Mining Company a few years later and brought over for the benefit of the company’s French workers, though it doesn’t resemble the style of any of the French churches this writer has ever visited!

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4. The El Boleo Mining Museum

Machinery and rolling stock from the mining era lie seemingly abandoned around the town. To make sense of all this a visit to the Mining Museum is essential, and just a short, if steep (!) walk from Santa Barbara Church. The company’s former headquarters building houses a large number of well curated relics from the El Boleo era on the ground floor and the company archives on the floor above. The interior of the building is extremely well preserved, with original furniture, working telephone lines from the 1920s and the original electric ceiling fans from this period. El Boleo may be long gone, but the local mining tradition continues on nearby Isla San Marcos, where a gypsum mine of global importance can be found.

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Visit Santa Rosalía with us as part of our transpeninsular tour. Click for itineraries, dates and prices.