Baja California: The complete guide

It's vast, it's sparsely populated and its emptiness can extend for 750 miles at a stretch. In the Prohibition era, its towns were fleshpots. But nowadays, says David Orkin, magnificent scenery, picturesque beaches and stunning mountain walks make Baja even more appealing
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The Independent Travel

WHAT IS BAJA CALIFORNIA?

WHAT IS BAJA CALIFORNIA?

The finger jabbing down into the Pacific, longer than Italy and varying in width from 30 to 150 miles.

IS BAJA CALIFORNIA PART OF CALIFORNIA?

No, Baja California (Baja for short) is south of the international border from the US state. Confusingly, it comprises two Mexican states, Baja California (sometimes more helpfully called Baja California Norte or BCN) and Baja California Sur (BCS). BCN shares a border with Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora as well as California. BCS borders BCN - the state line cuts across the peninsula just north of Guerrero Negro - but is otherwise surrounded by water: to the west is the Pacific, to the east the Sea of Cortez.

HOW DID IT GET THERE?

Five million years ago, the earth's surface split along the San Andreas Fault, allowing sea water to rush in to form an 800-mile long peninsula.

WHO'S BEEN THIS WAY BEFORE?

Unlike much of the rest of Mexico, there have been relatively few archaeological studies here: the earliest known human presence was 7,000 years ago but it is likely that Baja has been inhabited for at least 20,000 years.

As with much of the "New World", the Spanish arrived on the scene around the start of the 16th century: conquistadores looked across to Baja from the Mexican "mainland" and (wrongly) assumed they were looking at a huge island. Their earliest attempts to sail to Baja failed for various reasons, and when a landing was made in 1534 the captain and many of the crew were attacked and killed by local tribesmen, very soon after they had succeeded in setting foot on dry land. Hernan Cortes established a settlement near present-day La Paz in 1535, but after a couple of years the Spanish withdrew from the inhospitable land and its less than welcoming inhabitants.

The peninsula and the area to the north were named "California", and in the 1700s a distinction was made between "Alta [high] California" (what is now California), and "Baja [low] California" - even as late as the end of the 19th century, the US state was often still officially referred to as Alta California.

For some 250 years from the end of the 1500s, Baja's coves were frequently used as hideouts for pirates and plunderers, who would prey on Spanish galleons loaded with goodies sailing the Pacific between Manila and Acapulco.

Permanent settlement started with the arrival of missionaries. The first of a chain of missions that would run all the way through Baja and coastal southern California was built in Loreto in 1697.

Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1810. Some 40 years later, the United States bought California as part of a $25m package; but they didn't ask for Baja to be included. Boom time for border towns arrived in the 1920s, when Prohibition was introduced in the USA. Almost all the growth was in the form of bars, casinos and brothels catering to deprived and depraved Americans. This earned towns like Tijuana reputations as "sleaze capitals", images that, even after they were "cleaned up", took decades to shake off.

WHY DO PEOPLE GO TO BAJA CALIFORNIA?

The prime attraction is nature. Desert lovers who drive along the peninsula will be happy: there are mountain ranges, coastal cliffs and coves, sand dunes, "fields" of huge boulders, incredibly picturesque beaches, date-palm oases and sublime sunrises and sunsets. Flora includes over 100 species of cactus (such as giant Cardon, some 50ft high) and a wide range of Joshua Tree-like yuccas. Baja's most famous plant is the cirio, or boojum tree: bizarre and distinctive, these are found in their thousands throughout the most magnificent area of desert scenery - which stretches south for 200 miles from El Rosario).

There are elephant trees, cottonwoods, acacias, mesquites and seven varieties of palm tree. What you might expect to be simply a barren desert is actually incredibly fertile: and the mountains and valleys of northern Baja even have some highly regarded vineyards and wineries. Particularly on the east coast, the arid mountains meet a deep blue sea in much the same way as the hills that flank Israel's Dead Sea coast.

There are many beautiful beaches, particularly in the Los Cabos area around Bahia Concepcion (close to Mulege), and near to La Paz. Baja is also a top bird-watching destination, hosting over 300 species. Even people with no previous interest in "twitching" are likely to be captivated by the antics of pelicans, frigates, and turkey vultures - often seen surveying the landscape from the top of Cardon cacti.

ANY PEOPLE?

Like the Australian outback or Namibia, distances are great and in between is a lot of "emptiness". Population is sparse and there are few cities or towns, and fewer still with much character: exceptions include San Ignacio, Santa Rosalia, Mulege, Loreto and La Paz.

"Snowbirds" (retired couples from the northern US and Canada who come south to escape the freezing winters back home) drive in huge motorhomes and spend weeks fishing and resting on one quiet Baja beach before moving on to another.

Younger adventurers are drawn here by stunning scenery and deserted beaches, ruined missions and mines, mountain hiking and desert trails. Most rent a car or bring their own vehicles, a few hitch-hike, some even cycle. Other visitors are specialists: they come to fish, dive, surf, whale-watch, bird-watch, or perhaps study desert plants or centuries-old cave paintings.

DO I NEED TO SPEAK SPANISH

English is quite widely spoken, especially close to the US border, but away from the major tourist centres a smattering of Spanish will make things easier and more rewarding.

IS IT VERY 'AMERICANISED'?

Tijuana claims to be the world's busiest border crossing and North America's most visited city, with the majority of visitors on day trips from San Diego and environs: consequently, there are hordes of artefact vendors and donkeys in sombreros for souvenir photos. South of Tijuana, the coast also has a lot of tourist development and Ensenada is a major cruise ship stop. It's then quite empty for 750 miles.

WHAT HAPPENS AT THE OTHER END?

On the peninsula's southern tip is Los Cabos airport, the main one on Baja, bringing in a steady year-round flow of holiday-makers. Los Cabos comprises the towns of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, and the 20-mile coastal "corridor" between the two. This is a region packed with beach resorts and golf courses. Of the towns, San Jose is the quieter and more traditional; Cabo San Lucas attracts a more lively crowd. Even these areas (though their commercialism is in stark contrast with much of Baja's untouched emptiness and simplicity) compare quite favourably with major holiday destinations elsewhere in the world. Walk a couple of blocks in the right direction and you'll hardly see another gringo.

IS IT SAFE ?

It's a lot safer than city life in the UK or USA: violent crime is exceedingly rare and petty theft is usually opportunist, occurring because a tourist has left valuables unlocked and unwatched. Be wary of bandidos in the form of petrol pump attendants - make sure they reset the pump to zero before they start fuelling or you may end up paying for someone else's petrol as well.

Drivers should acquaint themselves with local road signs. Do not drive after dark: it can be dangerous enough during the day - very narrow roads, "blind" bends, speeding trucks, sudden potholes, dogs and livestock in the road - at night, it could be suicidal.

Healthwise, sunburn is the major threat. Although malaria is not a worry, in some areas mosquitos and tiny, black biting flies can be an nuisance, especially when there's no breeze. Those camping and hiking should be aware that (though very rarely a problem) rattlesnakes and scorpions do live in desert areas. At the beach, the sea is usually crystal clear and you can look out for a wayward sea urchin or jelly-fish. Shuffling your feet through the sand when paddling will greatly reduce any possibility of a sting from a ray.

WILL I HAVE TO LIVE ON TORTILLAS, TOSTADAS, TACOS AND TAMALES ?

With so much fishing, seafood is the big thing here. Any settlement remotely near the coast will have Fish Taco stands: two or three tortillas each with a couple of small fried fillets of freshly caught, lightly battered fish served with lettuce and an array of salsas and dips make an excellent meal for around £2. Tacos also come with other seafoods, chicken, beef or pork or cheese. Meals are served with tortillas and the ubiquitous frijoles, mushy refried beans. Menus in the tourist areas offer more choice.

Those wanting to avoid fiery dishes can relax - food is often served unspiced, with salsas and condiments on the table for diners to add themselves.

Large towns have well stocked supermarkets, and every settlement has a grocery store, so unless particularly fussy, self-caterers don't need to fill their luggage with victuals from home.

Hotels almost always supply purified water: in any case, bottled mineral water is cheap and sold everywhere, as are the usual fizzy drinks (diet versions are harder to find). Fresh juice (usually orange) and licuado (like a fruit smoothie) shops and stands are found in most towns of any size.

AND FOR SOMETHING STRONGER?

Though there's no shortage of beer in Baja (Pacifico, Corona Extra and XX are all popular), the peoples' favourite is Tecate (bottled in the northern Baja border town of the same name). These beers are all slightly stronger than the "export" versions offered in the USA.

As throughout Mexico, tequila (distilled from juice extracted when hearts of Blue Agave plants are baked) has long been a favourite Baja tipple. Records show that the spirit was already being taxed in 1608. While the locals usually drink it straight, tourists in Baja prefer it blended into one of the many varieties of margarita. Don't forget the salt and lime juice.

WHERE WILL I STAY?

Other than in the city centres, camping grounds can be anything from a few palapas, thatch shelters, on a beach, costing £2 a night, to "fully serviced" parks with laundries, hot showers and even swimming pools. In general, camp sites are simple with running water, toilets and showers for perhaps £6 per night. "Self-contained" campers have complete freedom - there are any number of empty beaches or dirt roads through the desert where they can camp free surrounded by Baja's wonderful nature.

More permanent accommodation options range from fairly clean (if sometimes dark and musty) rooms through to world-class luxury resorts. Simple rooms for travellers start at around £8-£10, perhaps £30 for something comparable to a mid-range US motel. Prices will be 50-100 per cent higher in such places as Tecate, Loreto, Ensenada and La Paz, and higher still in the Los Cabos area.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

There are no direct scheduled flights from the UK . Continental flies from Gatwick to Los Cabos with a change of planes in Houston. The airline also has departures from Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow (these require an additional plane change in Newark). Departures until 4 April cost in the region of £460 return.

British Airways flies daily from Gatwick to San Diego, an hour by bus or tram ("trolley") from Tijuana. The standard fare through agents is about £365, return, but there are often specials which can be as much as £100 cheaper.

Another possibility is to ask for a fare to Los Angeles (from the UK they are always very competitive) and one from there to Loreto, La Paz (make sure it's La Paz, Mexico, not La Paz, Bolivia) or Los Cabos.

Any good discount agent will be able to find you a cheap flight. For package tours to La Paz or Los Cabos, contact Mundi Color (020-7828 6021), and as with anywhere at all in Mexico, try Cathy Matos Mexican Tours (020-8492 0000, sales@mextours.co.uk) for individual, tailor-made itineraries.

Driving from the USA the major border crossings are San Diego-Tijuana, Tecate (the quietest), and Calexico-Mexicali. If renting, check that you are permitted to take the vehicle into Baja. Drivers need Mexican motor insurance. There are three ferry routes from mainland Mexico to Baja. One of the routes to La Paz is from near Los Mochis, terminus of the justifiably famous Copper Canyon Railway from Chihuahua: combining the train and ferry makes part of a fascinating loop.

HOW ABOUT GETTING AROUND?

No joy for rail enthusiasts (Mexicali in Baja's far north east is the western terminus of the Mexican railway system). Scheduled domestic air travel is limited to the airports at Tijuana, Loreto, La Paz and Los Cabos. Apart from the highway (Mexico 1) that runs the entire length of the peninsula, there are few other paved roads outside the cities.

Though local transport around (and to outlying areas of) cities and towns isn't bad, the problem with long distance bus travel is that so many of Baja's attractions are side trips off the main highway where no buses go. Bahia de Los Angeles, for example, a relaxed Sea of Cortez resort, popular with seasoned Baja travellers, is 40 miles from the nearest bus stop.

To see the real Baja, renting a vehicle or joining a tour are the only practical options. If you don't enjoy long drives, think about flying to La Paz, Loreto or Los Cabos, and renting a car and exploring the local area there . A week's hire of a compact in La Paz in February would be in the region of £240 with unlimited mileage. One-way rentals are possible, but fees are often exorbitant.

Some companies run camping tours into Baja - try Exodus (020-8675 5550, www.exodus.co.uk) or the unique Green Tortoise (www.greentortoise.com), which uses converted Greyhound buses. A good company for sea-focused tours (such as sea kayaking, diving) is Baja Expeditions (www.bajaex.com).

WHEN'S THE BEST TIME TO GO?

Go now for the whales (see box). Northern Baja (from the border to Ensenada) is generally pleasant all year round, though December to February is likely to see more cooler, cloudier days.

The Pacific coast (and even some low-lying inland areas) are occasionally covered by a coastal fog (familiar to those who have toured Oregon and Northern California). Inland deserts may be unbearably hot between May and October: cold nights are possible at any time of year. The Sea of Cortez coast can be very hot from mid-June to September; on this coast, sea temperatures are cooler in the north than further south. The Los Cabos area tends to have good weather all year round (with occasional very hot days in August and September).

There is the possibility of a tropical storm between mid-May and mid-November but Baja is far less likely to be hit by hurricanes than mainland Mexico or the Caribbean.

Busiest seasons for visitors are February, late-March - mid-April, July - September and Christmas.

WILL I NEED A VISA?

British passport holders don't need a visa to visit Mexico, but do need to complete a Tourist Card (obtained either on the plane or at the border Immigration office). If travelling south of Ensenada, those arriving in Baja by land will have to pay a Tourist Fee of £11 - this is included in the total ticket cost if flying in.

HOW DO I GET MORE INFORMATION?

Unless you are just going to Los Cabos (on which there are specific guidebooks), try the Baja guides from Moon Publications or Lonely Planet; the latter's latest edition hits the British bookshops this week. The AAA Baja map isn't bad (free to AA members from AAA offices in the USA, or try specialist bookshops). There's a good selection of websites to check out. Try for example, the following: www.baja.com; www.bajanomad.com; www.baja-web.com; and the fascinating, if not catchily named, math.ucr.edu/ftm/baja.html.

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