There are two very different Baja Californias. One is the ever more popular tourist destination, but the other is a hidden Baja just a few miles, or even a few feet away.
This is a splendid visual feast that takes you:
This is a Baja that calls to the heart with great natural beauty, simple living, and warm, friendly people.
Review: "Shows the real Baja - one of our favorites." From Gloria Jones, Director of Vagabundos del Mar.
For good information about travelling in Baja California visit the Vagabundos del Mar travel club.
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There are two very different Baja Californias. The first is the ever more popular tourist destinations. It is the bustle of traffic, and the color of the market place in La Paz. It is the cruise ships and yachts of Cabo San Lucas, perched at the tip of Baja, a thousand-mile drive from the U.S. border, and it is the long white beaches of Conception Bay in central Baja with their rows of recreational vehicles and cabanas.
But as attractive as this Baja is, there is another Baja just a few miles or even only a few feet away. This is a hidden Baja that if we let it, can break into our ordinary routines and whisper to us about another way of living with its deserted beaches, secluded ranchos, lost tribes and beautiful Spanish mission churches.
Baja is a desert surrounded and obsessed by water. For hundreds of miles the Pacific pounds its shores while across the narrow peninsula the Sea of Cortez lures the adventuresome to go for a little sail, or to paddle out and explore the islands of the Gulf.
There is magic here, as well, for those who wander its beaches. Along Conception Bay pelicans glide and dive, and hold important conventions of their own. South of La Paz in esteros where rain water collects in the arroyos behind the beaches the egrets gather as the day begins. Herons stand sentinel along the shore, and when in the enchanted light of dawn they dance with the waves we can believe for a moment that we have reached a beach at the end of the world.
Boys from the village do their own dance in the hope of fish for breakfast while their fathers go off to work with no freeway traffic to fight, and come home in the broad light of day with dinner a dinner eagerly awaited by all.
But it is not only the shores of Baja that have their secrets, but the sierras and the cacti-studded desert, as well, deserts when the rain sweeps through them are capable of a prodigious display of finery. And where there is water the people of Baja have lived for thousands of years. Here is Cataviña nature has created a magnificent rock garden complete with pools and bathtubs. And the early dwellers had their own penthouse apartment by the water.
The prehistoric inhabitants of Baja are surrounded by mystery. Did these now lost tribes of the south come voyaging out of the far reaches of the Pacific? No one knows for sure, and we are left with their paintings that are a riddle for the mind and a feast for the imagination.
Along Conception Bay paintings give way to petroglyphs scratched on the boulders. But to really see why the prehistoric art of Baja ranks among the finest in the world we traveled with our teenage children and their friends to the Sierra de San Francisco, and then, with our Baja Californian guide, descended by foot and mule into the depths of the Canyon de Santa Teresa whose beauty made it a natural sanctuary for these unknown peoples. Over and over again they painted the walls of the open caves lining the canyon, covering them with pictures of the animals they hunted, and bi-colored men with strange headdresses. It was as if the very place was sacred to them, or perhaps the very act of creating their art, for they often painted one picture on top of another to create an art gallery of big-horned sheep, rabbits and rats, deer and turtles and vultures, and even a man pierced by arrows.
Modern Baja Californians have found this hidden canyon attractive, as well. Fernando Arcel created rancho Santa Teresita more than forty years ago, and it follows the classic rancho pattern: water source, garden and orchard, goat herd, all in the midst of the wild splendor of this hidden canyon. There is no running to the store from here. We asked Señor Arcels son José whether it bothered him to go to town only a few days a year. "Well, if you cant, you cant."
The desert is studded with little ranchos that have grown up wherever water was to be found, and their names are a litany of beliefs, surroundings and old happenings: Santa Fe, La Soledad, El Pilar, La Casa Vieja. Here at El Quemado, literally "the burned one," a tiny oasis surrounds a spring and pool, and still yields its harvest of oranges, grapefruit and flowers.
At newer ranches life is sometimes simpler and more elemental. Here at Rancho Santa María we visited our friends Emeterio and Felicitas Mendoza who pioneered this place forty years ago. They built the walls of their thatch-roofed house out of the skeletons of giant cardon cacti. And twice a day Emeterio, sometimes helped by his family, leads his goats out into the surrounding desert to forage. There was no natural water here, and Emeterio hand-dug many holes before he found water. Daily life here has a magic that comes from a closeness to the earth, and its creatures.
And wherever we go we encounter another facet of the hidden magic of Baja rooted in the faith planted by the old Spanish missions. Some of these missions, like San Fernando de Velicata, founded by Junipero Serra before he departed for San Diego, are no more than melancholy ruins. Others like Nuestra Señora de Loreto, the first of the California missions, still live on. Santa Rosalia is like a jewel overlooking the tropical luxuriance of Mulege, while in the ancient Indian stronghold of Kadakáman, literally "creek of reeds," where an underground river surfaces out of the desert and feeds an oasis of 80,000 date palms, we find San Ignacio.
And the signs of this faith still live on today. In a roadside shrine on the shores of Conception Bay, in the humble altar of a distant rancho, or deep on the canyon of San Dionysio, where an elegantly crafted chapel serves this remote community. And we find it in the simple and joyful lives of the sisters.
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