The peak is called El Sordo, the Deaf One, and after our guide – a 72-year-old vaquero named Diego Madrid – rides off alone, vanishing into a canyon on his spotted white gelding, we're left to ponder the high desert vista in total silence. From 5,000 feet, it's a stunning, sun-baked view. But mostly, the three other riders and I are looking at each other, trying to figure out where the hell our cowboy went.
That's how things tend to go at Rancho Los Baños, a guest ranch in Sonora, Mexico. Unlike typical dude ranches in the U.S. – which lean toward luxury retreats with lassoing lessons tacked on – Los Baños is a working cattle ranch. There are no barn dances or campfire singalongs, and during a ride, the cowboys might ditch you to do some actual cowboying. Although the vibe is loose and the schedule unstructured, the ranch caters to an adventurous guest – one who might start the day at 6 am with a five-hour horse ride, then, in the afternoon, bomb down one of its roads on a mountain bike, go bouldering in a box canyon, or paddle the whitewater of the nearby Bavispe River. Mainly, though, Los Baños has become known as an unparalleled destination for vertical, rugged horseback riding – one that costs a third less than a similar stay in the States.
I ask a fellow rider, an experienced 48-year-old equestrian from Pennsylvania named Amy Deptula, if she's seen this cowboy disappearing act before. "No," says the Los Baños first-timer, laughing. "I've been to ranches before, and done two-hour-long rides, 30 riders deep, nose-to-tail. The freedom here is something else. In part, because it's fucking impossible to get to."
Remoteness is much of Los Baños' appeal. The private, 30,000-acre ranch is located just 55 miles from Douglas, Arizona, but it's tucked into the foothills of the Sierra Madre, and accessing it requires a two-hour, washing machine-like drive on a dirt road. Still, it's not actually that hard to get to: Los Baños handles guest transport from Tucson, and the passage into Mexico is through Agua Prieta, a border town that's managed to avoid much of the drug cartel-relate violence of its neighbors.
Los Baños' acreage is at least twice that of Manhattan, but, since its boundaries enclose peaks and valleys and Zion-like canyons, its surface area is far more. Aside from the roughly 750 cattle that graze even its most improbable spots, climbing like goats, the ranch is populated by mountain lion, ocelot,
bobcat, black bear, javelina, Coues deer, coatimundi, coyote, and an occasional migrating jaguar.
Over a four-day stay, I grow accustomed to the rhythm of the ranch. Dry, hot afternoons end with winds that cool my rustic but well-appointed cabin (guests can also choose to stay in a more luxurious three-bedroom lodge). Mornings start early with cowboy coffee, brewed through a sock, served at a communal table with a traditional Mexican breakfast like huevos and jamón. The meal is followed by a long horseback ride or an adventure of your choosing.
One morning, I go hiking with Manuel Valenzuela Jr., 38, a self-described "recovering lawyer," whose family owns Los Baños. He spent much of his youth in Arizona and attended college in Boston. Five years ago, he convinced his father that the ranch should start entertaining guests. A few hours into the hike, we encounter a cave with walls decked in pictographs painted by nomadic tribes 2,000 years ago. Manuel Jr. tells me he's been exploring this enchanted landscape since he was a kid, and it starts to make sense why he quit lawyering to spend more time here. "I was doing the job, but I wasn't fully present," he says. "Here, my mind's fully engaged."
While most guests sleep off the midday heat with a siesta, I spend part of an afternoon borrowing a mountain bike to ride the seven miles between the main ranch and guest lodge on a wildly rocky, rutted access road that descends a canyon. I wonder by the end if I've melted the Trek's brakes. Later I convince Manuel Jr. to let me drive the same road in the ranch's open-top, beat-to-hell Suzuki Samurai 4x4. Throwing up a cloud of dust on the edge of a cliff in the Sierra Madre is an outrageous, laugh-inducing, videogame-like experience.
Afterwards, Manuel Jr. drives me and the other guests – Amy's friend Michelle and two fortysomething couples from Maine – to a canyon spring a half-hour away. Late-day sun cooks the copper-colored walls overhead, but beneath them is a strange tropical paradise shadowed by palms. Warm water gushing from small holes feeds a stream whose flow has created rock slides and pools deep enough to soak in. It's just what we need. Our knees and asses are shot.
In the evening, we gather on the porch of the lodge and take in the epic landscape, which includes the peak of El Tigre, Geronimo's last holdout. Manuel Jr. brings out a plastic water bottle filled with smooth, smoky mescal moonshined by the ranch's chef, Julio. We ask about the cowboys – a staff of four who mend fences, blaze trails, and move cattle. "They're not so easy to find anymore," Manuel says. Diego is the most dependable; the three others, all of them younger and from Villa Hidalgo, three hours away, today called in sick. Later, we hear that the trio painted Hidalgo red the night before.
Manuel explains that all the ranch's cows are tagged; eventually, he believes, they'll be microchipped. "Imagine drone cowboys. It's a possibility."
In the morning, I hitch a ride up the canyon with Manuel Sr., the 68-year-old head rancher. He wears dad jeans and is followed everywhere by a pack of eight dogs, tails wagging. A cow and two calves appear a dozen feet in front of our truck, soon running alongside it. Manuel Sr. waves his hand, rooting for the lumbering beasts to veer away. "You know," he says, slowing the vehicle, "the only significance that this land really has is to those who come to ride and walk it. We just see ourselves as its caretakers for the time being. We love sharing it."
More information: Visit Los Baños, from $139/night per person. Fly to Tucson; ranch staff will pick you up there for the five-hour drive. Go during August or September for lush vegetation; November for a cattle roundup. [tierrachamahuaecoadventures.com]