La Baja California

“A both magic and unreal place of a big beauty”: John Steinbeck.

When a morning of the year 1536, a crew sent to expedition by the famous conquistador Hernán Cortés, land for the first time on the coast of "Baja" (Baja California), they are far from imagining that they have “just” discovered one of the real jewels which possesses Mexico.

A surprising spectacle offers itself to them: spotless deserts, giant cacti, majestic sierras and many marine sanctuaries providing an habitat for cetaceans and dolphins such an “El Dorado” brushed by the rays of an endless sunshine.

This paradise of nature knew how to protect jealously all the constituents of this dream.

The author of this book invites us to travel all over this dream. From north to south, the peninsula of Baja California displays with generosity its numerous treasures; mountains, volcanoes, deserts, lagoons and virgin beaches never seem to drain the thirst of the visitor in search of discoveries. A curiosity always on alert, including the exceptional variety of the flora and the fauna, of which some of the species exist nowhere else in the world.

The American writer John Steinbeck describes, in his work "The Pearl", the entire atmosphere and the magic of  the Gulf of California and the city of La Paz when fishermen made a fortune in fishing and the business of pearl oysters. He presents the place as “a place of a big beauty both magic and unreal”.

Still today, the biggest part of "Baja" (Baja California) stays a blank painting for the travellers in search of untamed spaces. It is, without any doubt, one of the rare places of the planet still privileged and so convenient to ecotourism. 

Between sea and ocean, a long finger of deserts which is attached to North America.

Baja California is a 1300 kilometre long (800 Miles) peninsula situated along the northwest coast of Mexico.

Hung on North America, it’s lined on the West by the Pacific Ocean and on the East by the Sea of Cortez (Cortez Sea), also named "Gulf of California".

Its disentangled silhouette stretches from the border with North American California down south to Cabo San Lucas, after having crossed the Tropic of Cancer.

With a surface of 143 000 km2, it exceeds hardly 230 kilometres in its width and does not achieve what is more 45 kilometres wide in its most narrow point. This peninsula considers more than 3000 kilometres of coast surrounded by about 50 islands, most of which situated in the Gulf of California. 

A unique geologic configuration.

The current aspect of the peninsula is due to the combination of two geologic phenomenons which are the plate tectonics and the volcanic activity. The Pacific plate which holds alta California and Baja California is moving north westward away little by little from the America plate on which the rest of North America is based.

On the very long term, the effect of this tectonics gradually untied Baja California of the continent and formed most of the mountain ranges of the peninsula. the sadly famous fault of San Andréas, which marks the limit between both tectonic plates, extends from the city of San Francisco (USA) to the depths of the Sea of Cortez (Cortez Sea).

The volcanic activity also left indelible tracks on the topography of "Baja" (Baja California) which we “find” for example near San Quintin or near San Ignacio.

A chain of sierras between sea and desert from north to south.

An almost continuous succession of mountains forms the spine of the peninsula.

While westward, these mountains gradually slope to the Pacific, they are extremely abrupt on the east side is and “dive” literally towards the desert.

Among the various mountain ranges, the most important are the Sierra of Juarez, in the North, sheltering the National park Constitución of 1857, varying at heights included between 1000 and 1800 metres and the Sierra San Pedro Mártir which peaks in 3095 metres to the Picacho del Diablo, highest of Baja California. More in the South, we find the Sierra of Giganta which extends from Loreto to the North to La Paz and finally the Sierra of Laguna in the south region, which reaches 2100 metres in height. 

A ground blessed with sunshine.

Baja California is a part of the desert of Sonora which includes both the southwest of the United States and the northwest of Mexico. The major part of the peninsula enjoys a dry, sunny and warm climate all year long; however, we consider a surprising variety of microclimates due to the height and to the exposure. As a general rule, it is warmer in the South and East of the peninsula and the climate is fresher/cooler and wetter in the North and in border of the Pacific.

The northwest part, which extends from Tijuana to El Rosario, possesses a climate of Mediterranean type, similar to what we can find in southern California (USA) and benefits from the breeze of the Pacific which plays the role of “natural air conditioner” by bringing cooler air. On the other hand, the northeast and the plain of Mexicali undergoes the assaults of a desert climate, with strong thermal amplitude. The temperatures can reach 50°C (120°F) in summer and can drop under the 0°C (32°F) mark in winter.

More in the South, in the central desert, the climate remains very dry the major part of the year.

Baja California “north” receives the main part of its precipitation during period from December till March. The south part of the peninsula undergoes the tropical influence from the tropics wich explains the fact that it is sometimes hit by hurricanes in August and  September, the wettest period of the year.

In altitude, the climate changes and cools off; certain mountain ranges of the centre even cover themselves with snow during the wintery period.

This mountain range which separates the East and the West acts as a barrier against clouds, that’s why the coasts of Cortez Sea are drier than the Pacific Coast. 

A rare and varied ecosystem.

Its geographical isolation with regard to the continent, and the variety of the microclimates, endowed the peninsula of a fauna and a flora of an incredible variety, adapted to the extreme temperatures and to the weak precipitation.

An exuberant flora.

 Cacti and other succulent plants colonized more than three quarters of the territory, even sometimes going as far as creating real natural barriers. We meet essentially cacti, agaves, yuccas and some bushes and small trees as "palo verde" or the "manzanita".

Of the 130 species of cactus present in Baja California, 80 are endemic, that is to say they grow nowhere else on the planet.

The "cardon ", the biggest cactus of the world which we often mistake with the saguaro of Arizona and Sonora, can reach more than 20 metres and weigh several tons.

We also count others endemic plants trees as the blue palm tree or the "cirio", which grow near Cataviña in the central desert as well as the surprising "torote " or the elephant tree, sort of "miniature baobab”.

Where water is present, the vegetation becomes luxuriant with palm trees, papyri, mangoes, papaya trees and others tropical trees.

When the height increases, cactus give up the place to bigger trees such as oaks and several sorts of conifers as the Douglas pine or the Jeffrey pine.

Many kilometres of coasts are lined with a dense mangrove swamp sheltering a very varied fauna.

 A surprising fauna.

At first sight, "Baja" seems free of any animal life given the harshness of its climate, nevertheless, numerous species knew how to adapt themselves and content themselves with “few” to survive. 

The peninsula counts on numerous species of reptiles such as snakes, lizards or tortoises. The most known snake and also the most dangerous is certainly the rattlesnake which we find in numerous desert and mountainous areas and which goes out mostly at night.

Hares and coyotes also populate a big part of "Baja" and are very easy to observe, contrary to the pumas and to the more reserved lynxes. The national parks of the North shelter deers and ibexes as well as many rabbits, squirrels and some racoons.

Birds are present everywhere on "Baja". The most wide-spread are the gull and the pelican near coast, as well as cranes, herons and cormorants near the zones of mangrove swamp. In desert regions, we find numerous vultures, hawks, ospreys, and the other birds of prey and naturally the famous road runner (the bird who makes "beep beep" and is constantly chased by a coyote!).

The Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez/Cortez Sea

The cold and agitated waters of the Pacific Ocean contrast strongly with those of Gulf of California, warmer and more often quiet. This difference is also noticeable under the water with two totally different ecosystems.

The Pacific shelters a fauna of molluscs, shellfishes (crab, spiny lobster) as well as a big variety of fishes, and also some colonies of sea lions and elephant seals. Finally we can observe many dolphins as dolphin "nose of bottle" or dolphin of "Risso".

But the most unexpected resident is naturally the grey whale which goes down every year from Alaska to reproduce, from December till March, in warmer and quieter waters of the various bays situated on the Pacific side (Laguna Ojo de Liebre or Bahía Magdalena).

The gulf of California is protected from the colds streams and from the swell.

We find an impressive number of species of tropical and subtropical fishes very colourful as cortez Angel fish the rainbow fish, the scorpion fish, the moray, sting rays, manta rays.

Marlins and barracudas are also very common as well as the giant calamar. Some marine mammals such as sea lions and seals populate the islands of the Sea of Cortez/Cortez Sea.

Finally, and not the least the sea of Cortez is the best place on earth to watch cetaceans, the blue whale, the bigger marine mammal of the planet with an average length of 33 metres, rest often in-depth and goes back to the surface only to get its breath back, but the humpback whale, sperm whale, pilot whale, fin whale, killer whale, without forgetting many dolphin species are not rare to see all year long.

We find some cliffs of corals near La Paz and east of the Southern part of "Baja".

It’s a refuge and a guarantee to find food for numerous species. The dive spots here offer all different attractions.

This diversity and this richness gave to the sea of Cortez the nicknames of "aquarium of the world" (Jacques-Yves Cousteau) either of "Galápagos of the north hemisphere."

A little/few (of) history.

According to the historians specialized in the region, the first inhabitants of the peninsula arrived from 10 000 years BC. The oldest vestiges have been discovered near San Ignacio and near Bahía of Los Angeles. These prehistoric peoples came from the North of Asia crossed the strait of Bering by foot when this one was covered by ice.

They came down since Alaska to populate little by little the entire American continent. These peoples, today almost disappeared, left a prehistoric cultural heritage constituted by rock paintings, by petroglyphs and all sorts of instruments, tools discovered in many sites of the peninsula.

Just before the arrival of the European in the XVIth century, we counted approximately 50.000 inhabitants belonging to 3 big tribes settled from north to south as Yumanos, Cochimies and Guaycuras; every tribe being divided into “sub-tribes” such as Tipais, Kumiais, Paipais or Cucupahs, in the north part, and Huchitis and Pericus in the South.

We count no more than one thousand individuals today living in the extreme north of the peninsula. They remain thanks to the agriculture but especially to the crafts such as the weaving of baskets in leaves of palm tree or the pottery.

The first Spanish explorers.

 At the dawn of the XVIth century, the Spanish caravels reached Mexico.
The Spaniards Began then the "conquista" of this new El Dorado …
Once/After the continent is tamed; they were interested in the borders of their new empire.
When the sailor Hernan Cortés disembarked near the bay of La Paz in 1536, he believee at first to have arrived on an island of the Pacific described as an island of gold offshore Mexico. It is there so hot that he used the words "Calida Fornax" (burning hot oven) to describe it. Here is the first supposed origin of the word California …
Other  results from a Spanish novel of the beginning of the XVIth century, entitled: "Las sergas de Esplandian" in whom this famous "golden island" was governed by a queen: Barbara Calafia and his women warriors group. Calafia would have then been transformed to “California”. Baja California will remain represented as an island on maps until XVIIth century.
 
Then a merciless fight of the native people to prevent the Spanish intervention began.
The diseases brought by the European killed a big part of them, but the aridity and the heat ended up sending back the European back home in Europe. The peninsula remained virgin of colonizers until 1683, date at which the first missionaries disembarked, sent by the Spanish kingdom.
 

The period of the missions.

 The first Jesuit missionaries, supervised by the Father Eusebio Kino, began to settle down on the lands of Baja California, with for mission, the evangelization of the autochthonous peoples. Disembarked in La Paz, they could hardly stay because they were not welcome among the local population.
They settled down then in the North of current Loreto but the implantation was also very hard. in spite of their efforts to inculcate the religion, more than fourteen years were necessary to manage finally to establish the first mission Nuestra Señora de Loreto.
This one is built in 1697 and constitutes the point of departure of a long evangelization of the peninsula, marked by the construction of twenty three missions during of seventy years.
During this period, the native populations suffered a lot of the diseases brought by the European, against whom their immune defence system can’t fight. They are moreover about 40 000 to succumb.
Because of the reproduction of the epidemics, the missions became more difficult to manage and that’s why the Jesuits were recalled in Spain in 1767.
 
In order to ensure the durability of all these religious constructions and continue to inculcate "God's word",  then Franciscans Order was then sent, directed by the father Junipero Serra. who closed missions, restored others and established a new mission, that of San Fernando. Their efforts concerned then to the construction of twenty one new missions in what is the current California.
 
In 1773, the Dominican priests relieved in Baja California and found nine last missions in the North of the peninsula, built with adobe, kind of local cob. More fragile with this technique of construction, there are only ruins left today.

The war (between) United States – Mexico.

After independence acquired not without difficulty in 1821, Mexico then has to fight against the invasion of the "North American" in 1832 in Texas.

A war in which Mexico looses a big part of its territory, and must get separated from California, Arizona, Texas and Florida in order to resell it to its North American neighbour.

The “gold-fever” and the mines.

Baja California then attracted the mining companies which followed one another, attracted by the natural reserves of the peninsula in precious metals such as the gold, the silver or the copper. Among these pretenders, the mining company of Boleo, came from France, settled down in Santa Rosalía, bringing on the spot all the manpower as well as the mining equipment. The company worked till the beginning of 1950s, then got back to France. Witness of this historic episode, Santa Rosalía still possesses even today a unique architecture which contrasts strongly with all the cities which we can find in Mexico.

A cultural identity.

Except some descendants of local tribes who remain in the mountains of the extreme north (we estimate their number to-of 1500 individuals) as Paipais, Kumiais and Cochimis, the population of "Baja" arises from many Mexican states, holds an extreme cultural variety. Currently, we count about 3.5 million inhabitants in the State of Baja California (North part), most grouped together in cities borders of the North (Tijuana: 2.000.000, Mexicali: 950.000, Ensenada: 500.000) whereas the population of Baja California Sur (South part) exceeds hardly 500 000 inhabitants, among whom about 280 000 in La Paz.

Many people consider the peninsula as a front door towards the United States.

The American influence is there consequently tangible in some respects and more evident in certain places. For logistic reasons and due to the proximity, the majority of the imports of "Baja" result not from Mexico but from California.

So, Baja California shows an own strong identity. Isolated from the rest Mexico, it appears as a coloured ground with a heterogeneous mixture between Latin and Anglo-Saxon culture.

This aspect is especially visible in cities borders of the North where the wide rectilinear avenues and the reign of the car echoes the configurations and the plans of the big American urban areas. It is also in the North where the economy is doped by the American system and where the standard of living is consequently higher than in the rest of Mexico.

Except this “outside” aspect, the peninsula remains strongly printed by its Mexican roots, what confers on the place a warm and alive atmosphere.

More we come down southward, more the stigmas of the American culture become rare, letting the nature and the cultural identity revive their rights.

Cities and villages are then filled with a more marked Mexican culture, than we notably find during the local and national celebrations as the carnival of La Paz or the “day of the dead”celebrated in all the country.

As their fellow citizen of the continent, the inhabitants are very opened and friendly, enjoying life every second. Their activities are essentially based on fishing and tourism in the south part; and on the industry “maquilladora” and business in border cities of the North.

An authentic “cooking of the sun”.

The gastronomy of "Baja" possesses the same bases as that of the continent, but also grows rich of a big opening towards the international cooking.

With the nearness of the sea, it’s frequent to find as as regular ingredients fish and seafood.

The Pacific Coast is very rich in lobsters, spiny lobsters and fish such as tuna, swordfish or  grouper, whereas the sea of Cortés abounds in squids of Humboldt,  shrimps, mahi mahi, yellowtail... to talk only about the most common.

These products of the sea are the base of the famous tacos, burritos or others local “enchiladas”, and flavour with the other king ingredients: fresh cilantro, lime and chili pepper. (There are tens of varieties of chiles in Mexico).

Meats (poultry, beef) and fish are almost always served with rice and beans and sometimes with "chips" of corn tortillas as bread.

Other typical Mexican dish contains a more unexpected ingredients as the cocoa which serves as base to prepare “mole poblano” (chicken with sauce of chocolate) or certain varieties of cactus as the "nopal" (Opuntia) or fruits of the Cardon and the pytahaya.

As for drinks, beer is the most popular drink even if for some years wine has begun to get more and more followers.

The vineyard is mainly cultivated in the valley of Guadalupe, in the North of "Baja", where is produced 70 % of the vineyard of all Mexico.

The Mediterranean climate and the fertile lands give this place a convenient ground for this type of activity. The local wine has moreover nothing to envy to European wines. The French, Spanish and Italian vines which are used for the production seem to be perfectly suitable for this region of Mexico.

A strong tourist potential.

After the Second World War, the peninsula began little by little to receive some fortunate American tourists, attracted mainly by borders cities.

They arrived by boat or by private plane, because of the absence of road in this period.

It is only in 1973, when the “transpeninsular” road was finished, that the peninsula really began to develop, particularly the extreme north with cities borders (Tijuana, Mexicali) and extremely south (Los Cabos and La Paz). 

Today still, only these two regions show a real development, leaving the rest of the peninsula relatively virgin and wild…

So, numerous points of the peninsula even are today a real small paradise dedicated to ecotourism, what will delight all the lovers of big spaces and nature, as well as enthusiasts of deserted beaches bathed by sun.