Baja – The Last Frontier
Baja California is often referred to as the “last frontier”. As I travel throughout the peninsula, I have often thought of why that may be true, and realized it must be quite like that moment in time before manifest destiny in the U.S. – the belief that expansion was both justified and inevitable. But, at this moment, right now, we have this spectacular frontier at our fingertips to explore. Who can say how long it will be until it is developed like the rest of the western world?
Frontier represents uncharted territory. It could be a remote piece of land or a new field of study, but if someone calls it “the frontier,” you are challenged to explore it.
This definition of a frontier very much applies to the “real” Baja I know – often referred to as the “last frontier” of the West!
It’s amazing to realize that immediately south of the enormous cities of Los Angeles, and San Diego, California, this 747-mile long peninsula, the second longest peninsula in the world, exists and is an explorers’ paradise, with still largely uncharted mountains, isolated beaches, and deserts to discover. Yet most people are surprised to find that Baja California is not part of the U.S., you do need a passport to visit, and there is much, much more to it than Cabo San Lucas!
Baja means “lower” in Spanish and what is now the State of California was originally called “Alta California”, or “upper”. The Baja peninsula was the first place the Spanish landed in the early 1500’s (in what is now La Paz), later making their way north.
There is one main road from Tijuana in the north to the tip of the peninsula in the south: Carretera Peninsular Benito Juarez, but we call it Highway 1. The road was completed in 1973, and is 1,059 miles of hard road, mostly two-lane blacktop. All goods and services, and everyone who drives any distance in Baja, take the same road – it is the lifeline of the peninsula.
I first visited Baja in 1983 when Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, the towns at the very tip of the peninsula, were just two small villages on one of the world’s most spectacular coasts. Now, they resemble Miami, with high-rise hotels blocking the beaches, yet most of the peninsula to the north remains sparsely populated and a true frontier.
One of the surprising things about Baja is it still retains its ranch culture which started with the Californios – the original cowboys who were descendants of the Spanish who first visited Baja in the 1500’s (bringing cows with them). These descendants still live in tiny villages in the Sierra de San Francisco mountains in the middle of the peninsula and in the Sierra de la Giganta mountains next to Loreto. Their lifestyle is almost completely sustainable – they grow or make their own food, and all of their leather saddles, ropes, bridles, polinas (lower leg coverings to protect from cactus), and shoes, often engraving them very artistically, and live in tight-knit communities where it is essential to rely on each other.
The Californios who live in the Sierra de San Francisco mountains are the keepers of a World Heritage site that contains hundreds of cave paintings over 10,000 years old. No one knows who the prolific painters were who created these sometimes huge murals, but it is considered one of the most important rock art sites in the world, rivaling that of Lascaux, France. The paintings are difficult to get to, requiring days of travel on mules with burros carrying supplies, and Californios as your guides. Visitors often remark that this rare glimpse of a culture that is rapidly disappearing is just as exciting as seeing the paintings.
Baja has eight major mountain ranges down the center of the peninsula, and one of them, the Sierra San Pedro Martir, contains a vast 250 square mile National Park that I have never seen more than five people in at one time, and two of them were friends of mine! The tallest mountain in Baja, Picacho del Diablo, is in this park and is over 10,000 ft. tall, often with snow on it! There is an observatory on the dirt road through the park, at 9,280 feet. It is located here because it is one of the clearest places on Earth, with low humidity, low light pollution, and low levels of radio interference.
In the foothills of all of these mountain ranges you will often find little isolated ranchos as many of the local Mexican families who may now reside in towns all over Baja first settled on property at a higher elevation. So, the ranch culture pervades all over the peninsula, either with descendants of the Californios, or with more recent ranch families. The children often had to come to town to go to school and stayed for work as they got older. But, it is very common to see older people from the mountain ranches in town, purchasing supplies, sometimes working at jobs in the city, or visiting families in town on Sunday.
Deep in the Sierra de la Laguna, the mountain range just north of Cabo San Lucas, live a few people that practice the art of pottery making. They make “ranchware”, a type of pottery made from the local clay and used for cooking on top of the stove, in ovens, and even in microwaves. It is rustic looking, but very functional and beautiful. They are difficult to find, but buying from them directly and being invited into their homes for coffee and to learn about their lifestyle “off the grid” is really something to remember, and they don’t often get many opportunities to hear about the “outside” world.
This mountain range was named “mountains of the lakes” because at one time there were lakes at the top – from which you can still see both the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. The lakes no longer exist, but in their place are year-round streams and waterfalls, and a wonderland of pine forests. The highest point is a little over 7,000 ft. and it is easy to get lost in the mountains – there are no signs on the trails, as we have in the U.S. – and the trail to the top climbs 4,500 ft. before there is a place to camp. These mountains are mysterious and beautiful, and on the east side contain hot springs and more waterfalls to discover!
You really never know what you will find when exploring any of the mountains in Baja! When the missionaries arrived in the 1600’s there were three Amerindian tribes living on the peninsula: the Pericu’, Guaycura, and Cochimi, all of which are now extinct. In 1994, on my very first foray with some seasoned Baja explorers into the Sierra Juarez, the mountain range in northern Baja, we hiked through what must have been an Indian gathering place as we found lots of pictographs on the rocks and many, many metate’s, or grinding stones. Crawling around the rocks we discovered some little caves and inside one was an ancient long bow and some arrows. Together, we wrapped them very carefully and transported them back to the museum in Ensenada. There, they categorized them and created an exhibit around them!
The mountains of Baja are sparsely populated, majestic, and enticing to explore, and the deserts are even more so! About 65% of Baja’s total land area is desert, and considered part of the Sonoran Desert, however, because of it’s unique location between the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean, and it’s many mountains, there are a great many endemic species of plants and animals, making it different from the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, or in mainland Mexico.
The first real glimpse most people have of the desert in Baja is about 8 hours south of Tijuana at a wide spot in the road called Catavina. It’s a place that makes you stop and stare because you don’t really know what you are seeing. The plants here remind you of something in a Dr. Seuss book, and one of them, the boojum tree was actually named that by an Arizona botanist after the imaginary character in Lewis Carrol’s “Hunting of the Snark”. It looks like an huge upside down carrot and is one of the slowest growing plants on Earth, growing only a foot every 10 years. So, a 50 ft. plant is over 500 years old, and there are many of them here.
There are also huge elephant trees (Torote Colorado) with peeling bark and trunks that look like elephant hide, ocotillos with lots of red flowers, and the world’s largest cactus, the Cardon, much taller than its smaller cousin the Saguaro – and hundreds more, a great many that are endemic to this area.
The other thing you’ll notice in Catavina is the boulder fields – boulders scattered everywhere, sometimes in huge piles, from the size of marbles to large buildings. I used to think it looked as if the gods had been bowling…but these boulders were all formed by the winds over millions of years.
The desert may look dry and uninviting, but I challenge you to just walk the distance of a couple blocks into it here and tell me that it isn’t alive. If you are like me, the silence will capture you. And, if you are ever there after a rain (10 inches a year is all the desert receives) you will not believe the wildflowers!!! The desert explodes!
The glimpse of the desert in Catavina may lead you to visit some of the harder to reach deserts in Baja, and they are even more spectacular and contain surprises just like the mountains do in Baja. You’ve never seen stars until you sleep in the desert in Baja.
I’ve hiked many times in Baja deserts and have discovered caves, rock art in the middle of nowhere, and tinajas (depressions below what used to be a waterfall, now filled with water and often deep enough to swim in). And, the wildlife!
Some of the deserts in Baja are protected and this includes the Vizcaino, and Valle de los Cirios. Traveling in either of these hard-to-get-to places is well worth it, but you will see few people if any, no gas stations, and no stores to buy water or anything else you might need. But, if you can equip yourself well beforehand, you will encounter incredible things!
Is Baja the last frontier? Many people think the entire peninsula is so unique that is should be declared a National Park. I am sure development will never allow that. But, right now, we have what probably is the last frontier in the west right in our own back yard and many people don’t even realize it. And, the perfect place to unplug from what has become a chaotic world, something that is increasingly difficult to find. It is a miraculous place and well-worth exploring, not only the mountains and deserts, but the spectacular, empty beaches you’ll also find if you just get off the beaten path!