Danny Perez, the founder of Dharma Expeditions, is on a mission to bring sustainable tourism to threatened indigenous Ranchero Californio communities off the tourist map in Los Cabos by providing cactus cooking classes for travelers
Local tour guide Danny Perez was out rock climbing one day along the outskirts of the vast UNESCO-protected Sierra de la Laguna Biosphere Reserve when he stumbled upon something special. There in the middle of the desert in one of Baja’s most beautiful but least explored places outside of Los Cabos, he found El Barranco, a traditional rancho (ranch) where the Ranchero Californio people continue to live and farm their land in one of the harshest environments in Mexico as their indigenous ancestors have for centuries.
Stunned, Danny stopped to chat with the owners and learned that today there are only 102 ranchos left in all of Los Cabos. As an experienced adventure tour guide in Los Cabos for 15 years, Perez hatched the idea to launch Dharma Expeditions, his grassroots tourism program.
“The beginnings were very humble” Danny confessed. “I basically had to build everything from scratch. The kitchen, the wood-burning stove (which is made from a recycled oil drum), and the bathroom for guests. It has all been a labor of love in the hope that my tours help keep this amazing community and culture alive” Danny concluded.
Four years later, his program works with five ranchos in the area bringing tourists for a one-of-a-kind indigenous nopales cactus taco cooking class. Not only does Danny connect travelers with a rare glimpse into indigenous life and culture, but the tours also provide income for the rancho families in the hope of keeping their community, culture, and heritage alive. Dharma is one of the only outfitters who work with the rarely visited Ranchero California communities in Los Cabos.
The rancheros’ traditional way of life and culture is being threatened by climate change, mass tourism, over-development, and commercialization of Los Cabos. In the past year alone, tourism and housing prices have exploded making Los Cabos the most expensive destination in all of Mexico and pushing the local community out. A new resort is also being built right outside of El Barranco’s property line threatening to push them out. “This is part of the reason why I launched our cactus cooking tours,” said Danny. “I am worried that the ranchero community will soon be gone”.
Danny’s tours are not for the unadventurous traveler. Getting to the ranchero itself is half the fun. The ranchero my family and I visited this past March for our cactus cooking class tour was located roughly 23 miles northwest of Los Cabos along Highway 19 in El Barranco. The village is really a blip on the map except for Playa Curva del Soldado, a beautiful local beach across the road.
As we pulled off the highway, we entered an entirely new world way different than what we found in Los Cabos. We were on a gravel road in the middle of the desert with sparse vegetation except for cacti and native shrubs. We drove about five minutes along the road until we reached the family ranch. There, Rita Garcia and her thirteen-year-old daughter greeted us for a tour of the property followed by the cactus cooking class and meal. We first viewed the small garden where the family grows produce and harvests nopales (prickly pear cactus) a staple food in Mexico that grows easily and abundantly in these dry conditions.
After the garden tour, we got to meet the goats that provided the delicious goat cheese we would eat with our cactus tacos later on that day.
As I learned during our visit (and shared in this story I wrote for BBC Travel), nopales are one of the most traditional foods used in Mexican cuisine and are known as a nutritional powerhouse. They grow all throughout Mexico and are extremely versatile being eaten as a salad, a juice, in stews, or with eggs. They taste similar to a green bean however have a slightly more tangy flavor. The processing of nopales is also a little different. First, you have to pick the perfect ripeness which generally is when the pad of the nopal is a bright green. Second, you take a sharp knife and turn the nopal ever so slightly to cut off its horns. Rita showed us how to do it but in all honesty, with my untrained hands, my nopal did not look as nice as hers did.
We learned that Rita rises before dawn a couple of times a week to harvest nopales that are then picked up by truck at 6 a.m. and brought to the local market. She confessed that it was hard to do so early in the morning, especially in the dark but it is a valuable income for the family. That is why Danny’s tours are so beneficial. Not only do they provide much-needed income to the ranchero families, but they also introduce travelers to a part and lifestyle of Mexico that they rarely see. “No one visits the ranchero communities except for me” Danny confided proudly. “That is why I provide the cactus cooking classes and tours. To make a difference and protect this unique heritage”.
And he is making a difference.
“We started this program from scratch. The ranch had no kitchen and no electricity. We went out searching and found some pieces of abandoned gas station for the walls. It is very basic, we built everything from recycled materials finding whatever scrapes we could like the abandoned sink for tourists to wash their hands. That was from an old beauty salon. The siding of the kitchen came from a gas station and the oven from an oil barrel”.
But soon Danny and his team will be building a new more modern dining area. We could see the frame just outside of where we ate our meal.
“With each tour, I can reinvest it back into the community providing the rancheros an opportunity to engage in sustainable, impactful tourism,” Danny grinned. “It makes me so happy!”
As the sun dipped down, we made our nopal taco salad, fresh homemade tortillas, and two types of salsa and enjoyed our feast to the strumming of Danny’s business partner, Jordan’s guitar. The food was absolutely delicious yet the experience itself was even better.
After we said goodbye to Rita and her daughter, we drove across the highway to catch the sunset on the beach. It was a beautiful night and we were the only ones there except for a local family having a picnic. Danny pointed out the new luxurious multi-million dollar clubhouse built perched above the beach. “This is part of a new development being made right outside the property lines of the ranch. It is for wealthy expats. I worry that places like this will push out the remaining ranchero communities”.
And Danny has a valid point. After a week in bustling Los Cabos, we saw firsthand the local people’s struggles. Soaring real estate costs and development, exorbitant rent, continual mass development, and the list goes on. In the past year alone, tourism and housing prices have exploded making Los Cabos the most expensive destination in all of Mexico and pushing the local community out. “Most locals now use most of their income just to pay rent. The cost of living has gone through the roof in Los Cabos. It is not good for the people” Danny said. “Especially not for the true locals, the farmers, and rancheros who have lived off the land for centuries”.
As we headed back to the city lights of Los Cabos, we reflected on the magnificent adventure we had just experienced. Hands down, our cactus cooking class was one of our favorite memories of our entire week in Los Cabos. Best of all, I knew that our visit made a difference.
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