Baja’s Hot Spot
“Good-bye -- if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican wall and shot to rags, please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar steps. To be a Gringo in Mexico – ah, that is euthanasia!”
So penned Ambrose Bierce in a letter dated October 1, 1913. Rather dramatic, this, but I suppose Mr. Bierce drove home his point especially the part about the cellar stairs. Never mind. It’s great to escape to this bit of Baja by the sea especially if you want to breathe in the clean, fresh air and feel absolutely alive. Comfortable temperatures, low humidity, and gentle breezes complete this south-of-the-border tableau. Note for the record that, along with the western shores of Chile and Africa, Baja boasts some of the world’s clearest skies. For that exact reason the national observatory was plunked down on this pencil-thin peninsula so stargazers can stare transfixed at the black, night sky.
Landscapes And Seascapes
Eons before there were dune buggies, micro-thongs or jet skis, the thousand-mile-long Baja Peninsula was nothing more than the western shores of mainland Mexico. Approximately 20 million years ago this narrow spit of land, twice the length of Florida, slowly inched its way across the Golfo de California, made possible by the seismic antics of the San Andreas Fault. Today, the Gulf of California is home to sport fish, gray whales, and pleasure crafts. In the beginning, it was not so wild and crazy.
There were some 40,000 indigenous people scraping out an existence when the Spaniards dropped anchor in 1535 and waded ashore led by Hernan Cortez. The first permanent settlement was not established in La Paz until 1811. Cortez’ countrymen set about developing the area while converting the indigenous people to Christianity. Ultimately, there were only 500 of the original inhabitants who survived. Though they died off in vast numbers, their 400 cave paintings, some dating back 1,000 years, thankfully survived.
City Of Peace. City Of Pearls.
La Paz does mean “peace” in Spanish. But, this seaside resort is more commonly called “the city of pearls.” With more than one-quarter of a million people, La Paz is Baja’s second largest city and capital of Baja California Sur (south). It’s found just a stone’s throw from the tropic of Cancer.
And though the waters off La Paz are some 10,000 feet deep, the shallow beds of oysters producing pearls put the city on the map and in the crosshairs of the Spanish. Cortes admired the black pearls he discovered here in the 16th century, naming one of the offshore islands “Isla de perlas.” Today it is called Espiritu Santo Island instead. Sadly, a disease wiped out the oyster population and the oyster death knell was heard far and wide.
Instead of oysters, today the limelight shines on the sea lions, hammerhead sharks, dolphins and tropical fish such as parrotfish and angelfish that delight snorkelers and scuba divers alike. The local colony of sea lions is Baja’s largest. In total, there are some 3,000 species of marine fauna lurking in the ice-blue seas. But the granddaddy of them all is the gray whale that migrates nearly 6,000 miles here from Alaska’s Bering Sea. Why? To breed and spawn in the tepid Baja shallows. Some 30 years ago, their breeding habitat was declared off limits to whalers who had hunted these 50-foot-long leviathans to near extinction, a practice set in place in the 1850s by Captain Charles M. Scammon from Maine. Today, they enjoy their time here from approximately December to May. These immense creatures then swim north again, as they have since time began, on the longest migration undertaken by any mammal on earth. The nearby whale sanctuary is known as Magdalena Bay.
Siesta Or Shopping? What to do.
Tough choice, this. You can while away the afternoon strolling along the Malecon waterfront in search of the perfect fried calamari and chilled cerveza. Or, you can make the 90-minute pilgrimage to Todos Santos to lounge about the hotel supposedly made famous by the Eagles in their hit song “Hotel California.” Hum as you go. Oh, and while you’re there discover why this enclave tucked into the Sierra de la Laguna hilltops is known as an artisan’s hideaway. Weavers produce wonders from hand-spun and hand-dyed wool, while potters create vases and tableware they then hand paint. Armed with enough souvenirs to satisfy everyone back home, you’ll soon see the sun set religiously into the background. A peaceful calm will be the legacy of your visit to La Paz. You’ll know what it’s like to be a Gringo in Mexico.