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Free Spay and Neuter Clinic Helps Underdogs and Undercats

No Longer Shot or Poisoned, Animals Benefit From Two Decades of Humane Population Control Efforts In Todos Santos

Four-month old Princesa doesn’t know it yet, November 13, 2010 is the day her life will change forever. Owner Yuta Torres has traveled several miles over a bumpy dirt road to bring the young dog to a free spay and neuter clinic.

Owner Yuta Torres (right) with Princesa and volunteer Maryann Douglas. On a piece of masking tape stuck to her forehead, Princesa has all the vital pre-op information vets need for a successful outcome

Yuta found the tiny puppy wandering in the desert. Now, the sweet-tempered mixed-breed greets everyone with a lick on the hand and a tail wag.

Princesa is lucky. She’s about to meet a well-organized team of US volunteer veterinarians, vet technicians, and 30 local animal loving volunteers who assemble for twice-yearly clinics. In a simple half-hour spay operation the team will take a small step to ease  Mexico’s exploding animal population.

“For fifty one weeks of the year we take care of pampered pets,” said Dr. Scott Dolginow, owner of Aspen (Colorado) Animal Hospital and Valley Emergency Pet Care. But when we come to Todos Santos we see the need. We’re inspired to work long hours to improve the quality of life for animals here. We definitely see the value of what we offer.”

The busy four-table operating theatre is set up outdoors under large awnings at Canada del Diablo. With a single anesthesia machine (center) veterinary technicians are able to simultaneously keep four animals properly sedated

Dr. Dolginow, 55, and his team of six will do approximately 120 to 140 surgeries over the course of three  twelve-hour days. This is the fifth time this all-volunteer team of experts has visited Todos Santos, located about a one-hour drive north of the resorts at Cabo San Lucas.

Since the program was started, more than 3500 dogs and cats have been spayed and neutered.


Cats can have up to 3 litters a year. Theoretically, in just seven years, two cats and their offspring can produce over 420,000 cats. A pair of dogs can produce up to 67,000 offspring according to the US Humane Society.

Dr. Dolginow brought the entire staff of his vet hospital to Todos Santos. Doctors John Kuck and Julie Martin will also be doing surgeries. Backing the surgeons are Veterinary Technicians Katie Hack, Rebecca Everest and Angie Bloomfield. Traffic coordinator Patsy Psaledakis keeps things flowing smoothly in the four-table, sand-floored operating arena.

The staff of Dr. Dolginow's Aspen Animal Hospital

The makeshift MASH (Mobile Animal Surgical Hospital) is set up under outdoor awnings at space lent by Canada del Diablo, a large furniture store and storage yard.

In the US, a spay or neuter costs between $200 to $800 depending on the complexity of the operation. While costs in Mexico are lower, vet services outside of large towns are may be difficult to find. To get Princesa fixed, for example, Yuta might have to make a 100-mile round trip to La Paz to find a vet.


Funding for the effort comes from sources in both the US and Mexico. Private donors kick in, as do Friends of the Aspen Animal Shelter. In Todos Santos there is the annual Fur Ball fund raiser, and rummage sales.

Dr. Dolginow pays for gas, food and lodging to get his team on the road. His biggest expense, however, is paying another vet to cover his practice while he is away from the office for a week.

Volunteers round up stray dogs and cats and bring them to the clinic in pet carriers

Dogs and cats come from various sources. There’s no local newspaper and few locals have Internet access. One of the most effective means of reaching locals is to hire a car with loudspeaker on the roof to cruise the neighborhoods blaring out the message.

Volunteers also scour neighborhoods, beaches, and the city dump scooping up strays. They also take care of everything from checking in clients to feeding the team.


Todos Santos’ spay and neuter clinic is organized into four steps, with volunteers for each phase. First, an incoming animal gets a pre-operative exam and a weigh-in to determine the amount of anesthesia to administer.

After a tense moment the pre-surgical team was able to get a tranquilizer into this struggling dog to calm him down

Initial anesthesia is injected; after a few minutes, a volunteer transports it to the operating table where it is shaved and cleansed with betadyne.

Next, the doctor performs surgery while an assistant administers anesthetic gas to keep it at the right level of sedation. In addition to the spay or neuter, doctors sometimes perform emergency surgeries. Today they also performed a mastectomy to remove a breast cancer, removed a badly damaged eye, and wired the broken jaw of a tomcat.

Finally the animal is delivered to the recovery area where volunteers carefully watch it slowly come out of anesthesia. Volunteers watch to make sure an airway isn’t blocked, there is no bleeding. They administer an anti-flea and tick treatment. They may also do additional grooming such as clipping long nails.


It’s taken nearly two decades of spay and neuter clinics to develop such a well-oiled machine, according to program founder Angelique Schorenstein.

“Until 1994, we took dogs and cats from Todos Santos all the way to La Paz (a 100-mile round trip) because we had no vet here,” Angelique said.

Sleeping it off: Blanketed to ward off post-aesthesia chill, Princesa, with her black muzzle and white paws, pulled through the operation with flying colors

A breakthrough came in 1994 when they convinced a veterinarian to come to Todos Santos to do the operations at Schorenstein’s office at Maya Roca Real Estate.

A second breakthrough came when Barbara Perkins, the owner of Canada Diablo, agreed to let the spay/neuter team use her much larger facility.

Perkins, another animal lover, was able to expand the surgical team for today’s effort at the last second when she ran into her

Barbara Perkins, the feisty, animal-loving owner of Canada del Diablo, hosts the spay and neuter clinic at her business

friend, Dr. Rob Tugend of San Diego. Tugend, who works for Main Street Animal Hospital, had just arrived in Todos Santos to spend some time at his second home.

Dr. Rob Tugend of San Diego

“I’ve been in Todos Santos just four days, and here I am, helping out at the clinic,” Tugend said. “I’m loving it.”

Tugend speaks easily as he works on a small dog. “When I first came down here the police used to warn people to keep their pets indoors,” he said. “Then they shot or poisoned strays they found.”

Tugend said that continuous efforts are paying off. “If we spay or neuter 100 or more dogs and cats in a small town such as Todos Santos it makes a real difference. We can dramatically cut the number of unwanted animals.”

Efforts are also reaching into the schools, where young students are being taught the importance of animal population control.

Angelique Schorenstein (left) with Dr. Julie Martin and a beautiful brindle-coated puppy

During a break in the action Schorenstein scoops up two puppies that were brought in as strays. She’s heard of a family who may want to adopt the young dogs.

In 30 minutes she’s back, wearing a broad grin.

“They took both puppies,” she said. “I’m so happy it makes me want to cry.”

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Pre-Hispanic Day of the Dead Traditions

It’s late October at Novedades Daniel (Daniel’s Novelty Shop) in the middle of downtown Todos Santos, in Baja California. At this store, and thousands like it throughout Mexico, colorful flowers are bursting out of shop doors and into the street.

Mexico is bursting with colorful flowers during Day of the Dead celebrations on November 1 and 2

Exuberant arrangements in the shapes of wreaths, crosses and bouquets  fill containers and obscure walls. Flowers are stacked in mounds on the floor and hung in bunches from the ceiling.

Over the next couple of days, practically everyone in town will stop by a shop like this, buy some flowers, and plan a day of celebration to honor deceased family members.

She's making a flowered wreath that will adorn a grave marker for traditional Day of the Dead commemorations

In the middle of this melee of colorful petals inside the shop, young Jessel Aviles Ibarra patiently weaves flowers to another wreath while her puppy plays at her feet.

“It takes about an hour to make one of these wreaths,” the shy teenager says in Spanish. “We will sell it for 120 pesos.” (About $10 USD)

Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) is a  holiday celebrated by Mexicans and by some living in the US and abroad. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died.

The families will take the new flowers to the graves, clean tombstones, and light candles. They may bring some of the deceased ones’ favorite foods to leave at graveside.

In Todos Santos, and throughout Mexico, the first two days of November mark one of the country’s most important festivals.

There are actually two Days of the Dead, both in early November.

She's showing off a beautiful floral crucifix

In most regions of Mexico, November 1 honors children and infants or Día de los Inocentes (“Day of the Innocents”) or Día de los Angelitos (“Day of the Little Angels”). Deceased adults are honored on November 2 and is called Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos (“Day of the Dead”).

The Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico can be traced back to ancient cultures. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed by these civilizations perhaps for as long as 2,500–3,000 years. In the pre-Hispanic era, it was common to keep skulls as trophies and display them during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.

The store manager of Novedades Daniel, 36-year old Jesus Elias, is well acquainted with Day of the Dead traditions.

“Some people think that this is a Christian holiday, but it really goes back to Aztec times,” he says in Spanish.

Jesus also tells me that families make or buy special foods to celebrate Day of the Dead.

“Pan de Muertos (bread of the dead) is an unleavened flatbread that is traditional for this holiday,” he tells me. “You can buy it now in bakeries around town.”

In addition to  special foods, you may see altars set up in shops and businesses. They feature flowers, skulls, foods, and other items.

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Hiking Baja California’s Mountains of Mystery

Nearly Uninhabited, Baja’s Sierra La Laguna is an Oasis of Life in the Desert

I have two incredible views from the roof deck of my tiny two-story home in Todos Santos,  Baja California, Mexico.

The Pacific Ocean vistas are spectacular. But the longer I live here, the more I am pulled toward the magnificent mountains called the Sierra La Laguna of Southern Baja.

Spectacular mountain views greet hikers at the entrance to Sierra La Laguna Biosphere Preserve

Fall and early winter an ideal time to go for a ramble among these pristine peaks. The weather is cooler and more comfortable. The sun is hanging lower in the sky, which provides dramatic backlighting to native plants.


Richard Scott models desert hiking attire: sun hat, SPF 50 long-sleeved shirt, sunscreen and a trekking pole. On his waist: a belt pack with water and snacks.

One of the things I love about this hike is that even at mid-day, one can walk under a cooling canopy of shady scrub-oak forest. That’s rare at lower elevations in the desert, where a hike usually means a tromp under blazing direct sunlight.

Today I’m hiking with my friend Richard Scott of Todos Santos. We’re doing a moderately challenging half-day walk beginning on the Pacific side. There’s been only one significant tropical rainstorm in Baja this year but that precious moisture has made the desert spring to life in a thousand shades of green.

Well-marked, shaded and gently graded, the lower portion of this hike is a pleasant walk.


The Sierra La Laguna is a range of high peaks stretching from La Paz in the north to Cabo San Lucas in the south, a distance of about 137 miles (220 Km).

Most who make Baja California their destination only notice the Sierra la Laguna from the airplane window. But these serene mountains are undisturbed, undeveloped and often under appreciated.

A recent census of the Sierra La Laguna lists no more than 200 inhabitants widely scattered throughout 35 ranchos. The area is vast, covering more than 112,000 hectares (276,000 acres). In 2000, the park was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique biodiversity of plant and animal life.

Martin, a forest ranger, just finished patrolling the high country on horseback. He also serves as a firefighter and trail builder

These peaks are unique among mountains in the southern half of Baja California because they’re granitic rather than volcanic. And unlike the sierras to the north, the entire Laguna range is tilted eastward instead of westward. In other words, the steepest slopes are on the west side of the escarpment rather than the east.


Picacho de la Laguna (elevation 2,161 m/7,090 ft), roughly in the sierra’s center, is usually cited as the highest peak in the range, although according to some sources Cerro las Casitas—approximately 6.5 kilometers (4 mi) southeast of Picacho de la Laguna and measuring 2,083 meters (6,835 ft) by most accounts—may be higher.

I haven’t yet hiked to the top of Picacho, but Richard Scott has done the climb. He tells me it’s a two-day, butt-kicking,  gut-busting,  leg-cramping overnight backpacking expedition.  Trails are eroded, and hand-0ver-hand scrambling is necessary in some places.


As we drive up the long, sandy road towards the ranger station, we see foothills and mesas below 500 meters in elevation covered with dry, low-growing cacti, succulents, thornscrub, and abundant herbs. Common species include barrel cactus, cholla, palo verde, ironwood, damiana, and oregano. Canyon walls may be draped with zalate (wild fig).

At elevations of 500–750 meters (1,640–2,460 ft), tropical-subtropical deciduous forest and columnar cacti are the dominant flora (e.g., mauto, palo blanco, prickly pear, cardón, palo adán).

Rangers man the entrance desk in front of a beautifully made palo de arco hut. They were equipped with a visitor's log book, a portable radio, and not much else

At 750–1,200 meters (2,460–3,940 ft), live-oak woodlands (encino, madrone) dominate. This is where the drive ends and the hike begins. There’s a chain across the road, and a ranger station made of palo de arco sticks. It was unmanned when we arrived at 9:30 AM. The trail is well-marked; simply follow the signs.

At 1,200 meters a mix of live oak and piñon pine prevails–we didn’t quite make it into this zone during our 90 minute outward bound trek. The trail (actually a fire road) has a gentle grade and would be ideal for mountain biking or horseback riding as well as hiking.

At its highest elevations, La Laguna qualifies as a cloud forest during the moist summer months, when the peaks are consistently shrouded in mist or rain. During the 1800’s there was indeed a shallow laguna (lake) nestled in the peaks. However, erosion caused it to be drained out.


The starting point for Richard and I starting is exactly 1.85 miles (2.5 km) north of Todos Santos’ only traffic light on Mexico highway 19. In years past there was a faded traffic sign pointing to Ramal a la Burrera, but it seems to have disappeared.

START HERE: From Todos Santos' only traffic light, drive 1.85 miles south on Mexico Highway 19. Look for this small white shrine to the Virgin Mary on the east side of the road.

Now the turning off point is indicated by  a small white shrine to the Virgin Mary on the east side of the highway. On the Sea of Cortez side of the Preserve, the town of Santiago serves as a jumping off point.

For Richard and I, it takes about 75-90 minutes to drive east to the trailhead from the main highway.

If you are coming north from Cabo, look for the memorial in this photo,  (above left) located at about kilometer 53.5.

TURN #1: Take the RIGHT HAND FORK at this unmarked junction in the road, heading towards the abandoned lookout tower on the knoll in the distance. You'll see only a small memorial marker, but no direction signs--you're on the right road.


Observe the rules of desert travel. Make others aware of your travel plans, including expected return time. Start with a full gas tank. Wear sun-proof clothing, a hat, and sunscreen. Carry plenty of water and enough food or snacks. If you bring a dog into the park (they are welcome) , carry water for them, as well as yourself. As of this writing (late October, 2010) low elevation streams are dry.

TURN #2: At this small green shrine at the entrance to a rancho, thake the RIGHT HAND FORK in the road. The shrine is a bit tricky to see--it's slightly hidden behind foliage as you drive up the road.


Richard and I drove into and out of the park just fine using only the 2-wheel drive of his Toyota Tacoma. However, the road is sandy in places and it was good to know that we had 4WD as a backup in case we needed it. At lower elevations, the road has been used as a off-road race course, so it’s somewhat rough and corrugated. For a more comfortable ride and to greatly improve traction in soft sand, you can let the pressure in your tires down to about 20 psi. This is also a good trick if you become bogged down in sand. Be sure to refill them to normal pressure when you get to a gas station.


If rangers are present at the main gate, they will check you in. Entrance fee is 25 pesos per person. You will receive a wrist band indicating that you have paid the entrance fee.  Opposite the ranger station, there is a crude outhouse made of palo de arco sticks; you may wish to bring your own supply of TP. There is no water or electricity at the ranger station, although rangers did have a portable radio.

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Baja’s Magic Native

Palo de Arco: Part of the Baja Experience in Everything from Gardens to Furniture to Fine Architecture

I am writing this sitting under a ramada shaded with palo de arco, lounging in a chair made of palo de arco sticks. I’m enjoying a garden filled with the bright yellow flowers of–you guessed it–palo de arco.

Clusters of clear yellow palo de arco flowers

Palo de Arco is a Baja California native distinguished by its shiny green foliage and clusters of bright, clear yellow, one-inch wide flowers. At this writing (late October, 2010) plants are in spectacular bloom and setting seed.


Early settlers throughout Baja built entire homes using palo de arco sticks for walls and doors, shade structures, fences and furniture. There’s a wonderful display of an early palo de arco ranchero home at the Cultural Center in the heart of downtown Todos Santos.

Another of my favorite palo de arco structures is the former Aguila bus stop in Todos Santos. No longer in use (a loss to our town’s status as a Pueblo Magico, if you ask me), this one-of-a-kind bus stop is built entirely of palo de arco–even the interior counters. I used to enjoy sitting on the station’s palo de arco bench waiting for the 70 peso bus ride to Cabo.


Loose, rambling palo de arco hedge provides privacy and filters the dust raised by passing traffic.

Palo de arco makes a wonderful, informal, easy-to-maintain hedge or privacy screen. You’ll often see it intermingled with bougainvillea, oleander, or other profusely flowering plants. Use it along driveways, or in masses beneath taller plants such as palms. Palo de arco seems to thrive on being trimmed. (Cut it back to the ground; it will resprout). Or, if you prefer, let it grow and the sticks will be thicker.


Outdoors, Penny and I own and use a lounge chair, two massive arm chairs, and a coffee table. Indoors we have a small rustic palo de arco coffee table. We have had the set for at least five years now, and it looks the same as the day we bought it.

The outdoor furniture is comfortable, but HEAVY. It takes two of us to move the lounge chair. Consider your portability needs before you invest in palo de arco furniture. You can purchase palo de arco furniture at craft fairs. Occasionally wandering craftsmen offer great deals from the back of their pickup trucks, as well.


You may notice seed pods on plants at this time of year. These tiny seeds are carried in are six to eight-inch long light brown pods. The tiny, flattish seeds are easy to germinate.  Set them in moist soil about one-eighth to one-quarter-inch deep and keep them slightly moist. They should germinate in a few days.

At the Government-run Campo Experimental 3 miles north of Todos Santos there are limited supplies of flats of 300 palo de arco seedlings

If you live in the Todos Santos/Pescadero area you may want to check out the Todos Santos Campo Experimental. This rather past-its-prime looking federal government funded agricultural research station struggles on by selling a few plants here and there. When I checked it it, they had some decent-looking flats of palo de arco seedlings. It’s located on the east side of Mexico highway 19 exactly 2.8 miles south of Todos Santos. Look for the big white blockhouse-looking buildings.

Palo de arco plants are also available at other nurseries.

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Keeping Traditional Weaving Alive

On the Road Between Cabo San Lucas and Todos Santos, The Vasquez Family Weaves Beautiful Blankets by Hand

Not long ago, we hosted some visitors from the U.S.

While driving along the beautiful Mexico Highway 19 just north of Todos Santos, we saw one of those roadside stands that sells blankets, bedspreads, pottery and other stuff.  The signs outside said “blanket factory.”

The Vasquez family blanket "factory" is shaded under a palapa roof. Gardens are filled with colorful art

“Do they actually make the blankets there,” my somewhat skeptical Silicon Valley friend asked?  I had to admit that I didn’t know.

We didn’t stop to go blanket shopping that day, but his question piqued my interest. Could these be the real thing: genuine handmade blankets?

A few days ago I returned to see if I could get a satisfactory answer to our questions, and I was pleasantly surprised.

Christina Vasquez demonstrated a loom handmade by her grandfather more than 30 years ago

I didn’t know it yet, but I was again stumbling into what I like to call “another Magical Mexican Moment.”

Outside the shady palapa showroom I was greeted by young Christina Vasquez who showed me the handmade wooden looms, some more than 30 years old, on which the blankets are woven. Large 4-foot-wide by 6-foot-long blankets take a week or more to make, depending on the intricacy of the pattern. Small 16-inch by 24 inch blankets take a day or so.

Here, by the side of a dusty road, I watched this talented young girl, fingers flying across the loom, weaving a beautiful blanket the way it was done a century or more ago.

The Vasquez family offers a range of standard designs ranging from geometrics to elaborate Mayan-influenced motifs. They can also weave custom designs. Christina showed me an intricate rhinocerous design that was still in the pencil-and-paper design phase. It looked beautiful.

Christina shows off weaving technique using a small loom

Christina demonstrated the use of the loom using a red-and-white diamond-designed blanket. “This is one of our most popular designs,” she told me.  I liked this confident young lady who corrected my Spanish on a couple of occasions.

Most of the blankets and bed covers are made of soft cotton or chenille.

All the members of Christina’s large family–aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers– make blankets and sobre camas, or colorful bed covers. When I asked how many people there were, she had to stop and think. “There are a lot!” she said with a laugh.

The Vasquez family blanket factory is located at Km 68, next to Art and Beer on Mexico Highway 19. It is about a 20 minute drive south of Todos Santos, and about a 60-minute drive from Cabo San Lucas.

Currently there is significant road construction in the area, so be prepared to drive part of the way on dusty, bumpy dirt side roads.


Here’s a lunch suggestion if you’re driving out to look at blankets and work up an appetite. I like the Cerritos Beach Club, located at Km 64.5. (just about 2 miles north of the blanket factory). The Cerritos Beach Club’s a classic sand-between-your-toes, wooden-decked, palapa-shaded bar/restaurant. Follow the signs off the main highway.

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