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Seen from the air, Baja California is a remote and forbidding place. Hulking mountains jut spiky peaks high into the sky, casting shadows on canyons tinted blue-green with copper and pink with iron ore. Dry arroyos are scrubbed with cacti and untouched by all but the very barest of roads. The landscape pushes up through the sea like a knife, and you know the tiny whitecaps you see from the air are, close up, crashing surf. You could be at the edge of the earth — the tip of the peninsula is called Land's End for a reason. The landscape seems alien, unknowable.

But as you draw closer, details of life begin to take shape. A dirt road traces a vertiginous cliff, fishing boats cut wake through blue water, glittering lights come up as the sky goes red in an eternity of spectacular sunsets. Forests of palm cast shadows over an oasis, seabirds circle and dive, and suddenly the wilderness gives way to a mission, a town, a city, a name. This wild and foreign place is, face-to-face, full of life — a life that despite all of Mexico's challenges, goes on.

Baja California is Mexico's most paradoxical region, a twisting peninsula of superlatives like driest, highest, richest, least-populated, and most-visited that defy one easy definition. It's Mexico, of course, but it's also the original California. It's a desert, with forests and oases; it's 4,828km (3,000 miles) of coast that is actually mostly high mountains. It's a million-tourist magnet that's mostly unpopulated, and it's a celebrated highway that leads, finally, to Land's End. It's the energy of all these contradictions that fuels Baja's distinctive culture and brings outsiders back, year after year.

To really know this place can take several lifetimes, and plenty of dedicated travelers and foreign residents have devoted theirs to just that. But its delights are so many and so diverse that to fall in love with la Baja is a matter of moments — the moments when your feet hit the sand through clear, turquoise water; when you're toasting the valley and the sunset with a glass of Baja chardonnay; when you first look a gray whale straight in the eye. Of all Baja's pleasures, the greatest is discovery.