Baja California is a long and narrow Mexican peninsula (1250 km long by a maximum of 200km wide) that is located to the south of American California and is one of the most intact areas on the planet. According to an estimate from 2015, it is the second most depopulated country in the world. Its low population density is concentrated in a few cities and the peninsula is characterized by wide desert spaces and fortunately intact nature.
Baja California Sur is an autonomous territory since the Mexican-American War that, in the middle of the 19th century, made Mexico lose Texas, New Mexico and Alta California. When the war ended, Baja California was divided into two territories, each with its own government and capital, Mexicali in the north (although Tijuana is the most well-known city), and La Paz in the south.
What to see in Baja California
Separated from the rest of Mexico two million years ago, it has mountains of volcanic origin that run parallel to the coast and that reach 3,000 meters in height in the north. It also has long plains near the magnificent coasts (the most extensive are on the Pacific side) and a large central desert area that includes two important protected areas, the Valle de los Cirios and the Vizcaíno Desert, unique ecosystems in the world that are home to endemic plants and animals.
La Sierra and the cave paintings
From a natural point of view, Baja California Sur is characterized by the presence of large massifs. Sierra de la Giganta, near the historic colonial town of Loreto, is one of the least explored territories in Baja California, but one that is worth visiting, distinguished by the presence of endemic plants and animals such as the Borrego (the desert bighorn, unfortunately in danger of extinction). This part of the peninsula has an important archaeological zone, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and rich in extraordinary cave paintings, perfectly preserved and can be visited on foot or by donkey, leaving from a small mountain village in the middle of the impressive canyons. (internal link to Cave paintings)
Another important Mexican massif rises further south and reaches 2,080 meters in height. It is Sierra de la Laguna, a biosphere reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a complex and unique ecosystem in the world due to its extreme climatic variety, which quickly goes from arid temperatures and desert landscapes to oases with palm trees and water bodies to cool and humid areas, characterized by lush forests, oaks and evergreen pines. In the Sierra, there are also small hot-water thermal oases in the middle of nature.
The Vizcaíno Desert embraces the entire central part of the peninsula, from the Sea of Cortez to the Pacific, and it constitutes another one of the most important protected areas in Baja California Sur and is one of the most extensive biospheres in the world.
When crossing it, leaving the street that leaves from Santa Rosalía towards the interior, you can see the silhouettes of three extinct ancient volcanoes, known as Las Tres Vírgenes, (El Viejo, El Azufre and El Virgen) whose last eruption, reflected in the memories of a Jesuit father, dates back to 1746. The natural habitat of this area has five hundred species of plants, four amphibians, forty-three reptiles, two hundred species of birds and more than fifty mammals that are exclusively found in this place.
The endemism of animals and plants is due not only to isolation, but also to certain climatic peculiarities. In arid areas, the fauna is limited to small mammals, such as the hare, the kangaroo rat and the coyote, to reptiles, such as the dreaded rattlesnake, to birds and insects. But just go a little further north, where there is more vegetation and the temperature is cooler, to find the cougar, bobcat and other wild cats or the mule deer, bighorn, antelope and many other animals.
Among the endemic plants, Vizcaíno is characterized by the presence of a curiously shaped plant, the Fouquieria columnaris, known as Cirios, which can reach 20 meters in height. Many of the numerous desert plants in southern Baja California are a source of interest to botany enthusiasts. Some of these cacti, due to their peculiarity, have a certain commercial value and therefore are given protection and guardianship laws.
The most common cacti are the cardones (Pachycereus pringlei Britton & Rose), shaped like a candelabrum and can be up to 15 meters high. They are ancient cacti as they grow only one centimeter a year and can flower only after having completed a century of life. Seeing the desert in bloom is one of the most incredible spectacles, especially when you consider the amount of time and effort these plants have had to spend before finally maturing and giving hummingbirds, of which there are many, the nectar from which they feed.
The Sea of Cortez and The Pacific
Baja California Sur also has a tropical look. The difference that characterizes the Pacific coasts, cooler than those of the Sea of Cortez, make this coast very green, rich with shady palm groves.
In the plains of both coasts, the annual average temperature is very pleasant, around 22 degrees Celsius with a dry climate. This changes in summer, because it is very hot and in September, it can be very humid, due to the heavy rains that reach the peninsula.
If the terrestrial desert beauty does not raise everyone’s enthusiasm (you need to be an attentive observer to capture the secret wonder), the same cannot be said of the sea, which is an explosion of life and welcomes most of the tourist flow that flood this place every year.
Virgin beaches, white or gold, crystal clear waters, shells, all kinds of colorful tropical fish, mantas, sea turtles and dolphins impress swimmers.
This peninsula also has desert islands and islets; there are three large ones in the Pacific and many smaller ones in the Gulf of California, some of which are part of beautiful marine parks that can be visited by boat and where you can do dives or go snorkeling to admire the abundant variety of marine life.
There are also numerous lagoons, estuaries and mangroves that constitute another very rich and fascinating ecosystem.
The star of these seas is undoubtedly the grey whale. In late September or early October, they start their migration, , leaving icy Alaska to reach the warm waters of southern California in early January.
Here, they begin their courtship rites and bring the little ones into the world that were conceived the previous year. During the longest known migration, they never stop, traveling 16,000 kilometers, day and night, until they reach the coast of Baja California.
Aware that man does not represent a danger here, they approach the friendly groups of tourists who go by boat and burst into tears of emotion when these marine giants appreciate their caresses and when their primitive eyes, mysteriously full of sympathy and understanding, meet the eyes of humans.
From the first friendly contact between a whale and a human being, which occurred in 1977, the Mexican government promised a campaign to protect and conserve the marine and terrestrial habitat of these mammals, which is essential for their feeding and reproduction. Through the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, the government enacted laws and established specific regulations for whale watching, granting permits for sighting to a limited number of small boats, determining the distance and speed to be maintained when approaching, and prohibiting the use of sonar and probes to locate them. Fishing and other water and air activities were also prohibited in the protected areas to avoid any discomfort during mating or parturition.
These policies have also had n impact on economic income by promoting a type of tourist activity; they have managed to be successful in the conservation of the species and this year, the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas has carried out a census of gray whales. The birth of 14 calves has been celebrated and, between the Ojo de Liebre Lagoon and the San Ignacio Lagoon, the presence of 830 cetaceans has been detected, including 268 calves and 562 adult females.
In fact, gray whales are one of the many species that migrate to the waters of southern Baja California. A few months earlier, in November, other species of marine mammals arrive such as the humpback whale, the largest singer in the Ocean, although without vocal cords. It comes from British Columbia, the state of Washington and Northern California. Along with the blue whales and other cetaceans, they can be seen by boat from different coastal towns of Baja California where they stay for a few months.
Another type of chills, not only of emotion, are those caused by the sighting of sperm whales, the whale shark and especially the sharks of the most successful marine park in the southern hemisphere: Cabo Pulmo. The park is home to 6,000 marine species that live on the largest coral reef in North America. It is a site that lovers of the sea should not miss, especially for those who like diving and snorkeling, to see scrambled schools of fish of all shapes and sizes, sea turtles and even the tiny, rare and colorful nudibranchs.
Baja California, how to arrive
Traveling to Baja California in complete autonomy is possible.
Flights from Europe depart from all the main cities and stop in Mexico City if the final destination is La Paz, or in Los Angeles if your goal is Los Cabos.
If you want to savor the real Baja California and visit all the hidden and little-known places that it offers, it is essential to trust local structures such as Baja California Travel, the only company that organizes self-guided trips along the peninsula with complete safety, or with Timeless Baja, which organizes guided group tours offering constant support to avoid any possible inconvenience that this desert territory may have.