By Greg Niemann
Mulegé to many Baja travelers means the Hotel Serenidad, a tropical fly-in resort down near the mouth of the Santa Rosalía (or Mulegé) River. And when they think of the Serenidad, they usually think about its affable host Don Johnson.
Johnson, who seemingly has been around forever, actually hasn’t, only almost forever. He discovered Mulegé in 1960 arriving that first time by boat from San Felipe. Born in Springfield, IL, he was raised in San Jose, CA. At age 35, looking for a change and a better opportunity, he left San Jose to return to Baja and settled in Mulegé.
He married a local girl, Nancy Ugalde Gorosave, the granddaughter of Mulegé area rancher Don Jose Gorosave and niece of Cuca Gorosave who had opened the Las Casitas, a small motel and restaurant in town with her husband Fred Woodworth in 1961.
The Serenidad (Serenity) Hotel was developed in 1961 by Leroy Center. Johnson had earlier been part-owner of the Loma Linda, and was the Serenidad’s boat manager during the 1960s. Then in 1968, with partners Fernando del Morel and Chester Mason, Johnson bought the resort.
Don Johnson has owned the Serenidad ever since, his name synonymous with the place. For a while in the mid-1990s the Serenidad was closed during a land dispute, but Johnson prevailed and re-opened the Serenidad in October, 1997.
The air strip next to the Serenidad has always been and still is the main source of travelers for the hotel. By the early 1970s the hotel offered modern accommodations, patio dining, a bar and a new swimming pool. The Serenidad became like its name, serene, with large, beautiful furnished rooms strung out across tropical grounds. There was a large outdoor patio built and is still used for dining al fresco.
TThe Serenidad became known for its assistance and advice for pilots, good boat launching, and other facilities. Even in the early 1970s they offered compressed air to fill scuba tanks. The ambience of the tropical hotel about two and a half miles from town has also been hard to beat. And then there’s the food.
A 48-year tradition
Johnson started a tradition that has been going strong for 48 years. Every Saturday night is a pig roast, and I’ve met Baja pilots who fly in just for the feast. The tradition began as an occasional weekend celebration.
Ray Cannon, author of the best seller “Sea of Cortez” wrote about the Serenidad and the beginning of the pig tradition in 1970: “Most of our group stayed at the Hotel Serenidad, where another old friend, Don Johnson, is co-operator and where he sees to supplying gas and supplies to the boats at his pier. Don had a whole pig barbecued for us on an old-style spit beside the outdoor dining veranda.”
A special magazine heralding the opening of Highway 1 in 1973 put out by Four Wheeler Publications even had a photo of the pig roast. The magazine was simply called Baja Highway One and the photo caption read, “Every Saturday night is fiesta at Serenidad. The management barbecues a whole pig for the dinner.”
Even today, the Pig Roast buffet is still offered at 6:30 p.m. every Saturday evening. For only $15.00, the traditional dinner now features Folkloric dancers, mariachis, one margarita and all you can eat roast pig. It's a real party time atmosphere and I can assure you that you won't go away hungry. During September each year, the kitchen is closed, but the hotel and bar remain open.
I've stayed at the Serenidad twice in recent years and found very comfortable accommodations in rooms named after Mexican states (the Chiapas and Jalisco Rooms) set amid a refreshing garden array of plants and flowers. Most of the other guests I met flew into the adjacent airstrip. The 4,000 x 125 foot graded strip is no longer called “Serenidad,” having been renamed “El Gallito.”
Current sleeping room rates range from about $60 to $80. There are also several two-bedroom bungalows with fireplaces. The 58 rooms are all air conditioned and offer satellite T.V. There is an adjacent trailer park with RV hookups and disposal.
Diana Johnson, the oldest of Don and Nancy's three daughters, managed the Serenidad for years. Diana was also Director of Tourism for the Municipality of Mulegé, the largest county in Baja California Sur. She ran the Serenidad with competence and resolve and I even found her hard at work early on a Sunday morning. Her sisters, Sara Laura and Sandra Lynn, were not as actively involved.
Perhaps the family should continue to play a more prominent role as, unfortunately, many very recent Tripadvisor comments have not been too complimentary.
Don still serves as the unofficial ambassador at the Serenidad, constantly visiting and chatting with his guests. It's a comfortable role for him as in 1980 he became the American consulate in Mulegé, a job he performed for 13 official years and several decades of unofficial ones.
Don loves to tell stories
While I met several pilots fresh from a few hours flight, I usually drive the 620 miles from San Diego to Mulegé. Don Johnson once joined me while I dined on the patio and offered me an ice cream which he insisted his restaurant crew made fresh. I’m sure they did; it was rich and creamy. People kept dropping by our table to say hi, or make a quick joke with their host. He loves to tell stories and sometimes they’re told about him.
He once told me an ice cream story that involved a frequent visitor to Baja, John “the Duke” Wayne. “He loved these kinds of places,” admitted Johnson. “He was the most down-to-earth guy you'd ever want to meet. After he died I learned from the captain of the Wild Goose (John Wayne's boat) how considerate the Duke was. The captain reminded me that every time Nancy and I would have dinner on his boat that the dessert was always Rocky Road ice cream. I said, ‘You're right, I love Rocky Road ice cream.’ The captain went on to say that the Duke knew that and always reminded him to stock up if we were heading down to visit Don Johnson. I was pretty impressed that he would do that.”
Author Jerry Kink, in his 1974 book “The Mighty Cortez Fish Trap” tells a wonderful story about Don Johnson and his partner Fernando del Moral referring to the Mulegé prison where prisoners would leave for day jobs:
“Well…Don Johnson was sitting at the bar with a couple of gringos who had just checked into the hotel. They were asking him the usual questions about the prison when Fernando, his partner, came in and sat at the other end of the bar. ‘There's one of the prisoners now,’ said Don, pointing to Fernando. Fernando, picking up on the gag, charged down to Don and the guests. His countenance was surly as he wagged his finger in Don's face. ‘Why you point at me?’ he bellowed.
“’These people want to see a prisoner,’” said Don.
“Fernando, who speaks excellent English, rattled off some violent Spanish.
“’What did he say?’ asked the wary gringos.
“’He's offended,’ replied Don. ‘He resents being singled out as a curiosity.’ And with that he called the bartender and instructed him not to give the prisoner any more to drink.
“Fernando then blasted Don and the gringos in Spanish, shook his fist at them, and stomped out of the bar.
“The shaky Americans heaved a sigh of relief and each ordered a double Scotch. Don and Fernando will do anything to keep their guests spending money.”
Don laughed when I reminded him of the story and admitted, “It’s true.” He also got a little maudlin as the yarn made him think about his old friend. “Fernando was a great partner. I miss him and will always remember him. Unfortunately, he passed away from cancer in 1974.”
There's a caring and tender side to this icon from Mulegé. He's one of the best-known hotel owners in Baja. People will be telling stories for decades about the legend named Don Johnson and his little piece of paradise down by the mouth of the Mulegé River.
Greg Niemann, a long-time Baja writer, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit www.gregniemann.com.