The Baja peninsula's physical separation has helped contribute to the sense of cultural separation from the rest of its homeland. Although as in the rest of Mexico, there's a deep sense of national pride, in Baja there is also a close sense of kinship with its neighbor to the north -- the U.S. state of California, which, of course, was once part of Mexico itself.

Today, many travelers to Baja say this region feels more like an extension of Southern California than it does Mexico. This is especially true in the Los Cabos area, at the southern tip of Baja (ironically, the farthest point from Southern California on the peninsula), where a large and growing expatriate community of Americans and Canadians has taken up residence. There, English is as common as Spanish, and dollars are interchangeable with pesos. Expats have a lower profile in mid-Baja and the North, which maintain their mostly rural Mexican identity.

But Baja has its own unique cultural identity too. It was and remains a rough and rugged place, and has been, through the years, as much a home to pirates, outlaws, and adventurers as to anyone. To survive here has always been a challenge, and the generations who've faced it look on their accomplishment with a justifiable pride.

While most of the peninsula remains thankfully distant from Mexico's ongoing drug war, Baja has suffered a major drop in tourism, its main source of income, from bad press related to the violence elsewhere in the country. The economic downturn in the U.S. hasn't helped either, as tourists have either turned to cheaper destinations or stayed home altogether. Tijuana and its immediate surroundings are struggling to preserve a tenuous peace, while law enforcement fights to maintain the gains of the last years. And in the rest of the peninsula, small communities are trying to balance the temptations of tourism and real-estate development with preserving the laid-back lifestyle and natural splendor that drew so many people here in the first place.

But signs indicate they're on the right track. The violence at the Mexico-U.S. border has never spread into Baja, and even Tijuana is a safer place to live than it was just a few years ago. While tourism at the border remains down 18% in the last four years, visits to the rest of Baja are up. Hotels that slashed prices in the last lean years are seeing the rewards, and at least some of the newest development projects show a sensitivity to environment and place that, if not a victory for preservationists, can be seen as a truce.

Baja's Culture & People

Because Baja's geography created a natural barrier to growth for so many years, many of Baja's inhabitants are transplants from the north or from other parts of Mexico, most a mix of foreign and indigenous ancestry. In addition to the European settlers, who included sea-weary sailors and English pirates who jumped ship, the early pioneers of Baja included Chinese immigrants brought here to work, a colony of Russian refugees granted political asylum who came to the Valle de Guadalupe, and French miners who settled in Santa Rosalía. Their descendants have greatly contributed to the come-one-come-all spirit of Baja.

However, there remains a sense of separatism to this culture, and as such, you may not find the bursting cultural pride of other parts of Mexico. What you will often encounter, though, is an eagerness by locals to share the natural treasures of Baja -- the unique desert flora, the rich underwater life, or even basic survival skills in this challenging terrain. Most of Baja's long-term residents are deeply respectful of the surrounding nature and, especially in the middle and southern reaches, grateful for its bountiful seafood, available work, and sunny weather.

Religion, Myth & Folklore

Today's Mexico is predominantly Roman Catholic, a religion introduced by the Spaniards during the Conquest. But it's not necessarily the religion the Spaniards brought with them. Throughout Mexico, the Catholic faith has been entwined and influenced by Mexico's pre-Hispanic belief systems, creating a hybrid religion whose tenets owe as much to the conquered ancestors as to the conquistadores. Modern scholars have less information about Baja's original inhabitants than they do about populations in mainland Mexico, and their original belief systems remain as yet unstudied.

We do know that many of Baja's people today have their own regional versions of popular Mexican myths. For example, the Baja version of the tale of La Llorona (The Weeping Woman) tells of a young woman who loves to party so much that she throws her demanding children in a river so she can enjoy her fiestas. When she finally reaches the afterlife, she's sentenced to an eternity of wandering riverbeds in search of her children and weeping for all to hear.

Although the Catholic Church has no well-established saints in Baja California, residents do look to their own unofficial folk saint Juan Soldado for help and guidance. Juan Castillo Morales was a peasant farmer from Oaxaca who moved north to be a soldier in the Mexican army and was later put to death for the rape and murder of a young girl in 1938. His followers -- many of them undocumented migrants -- believe he was falsely accused and now look to him for help and guidance before crossing the border. The Catholic Church does not recognize the young soldier saint, but that doesn't stop believers from paying their respects. Thousands visit his grave in Tijuana's Panteón Número Uno cemetery to recite the phrase "Juan Soldado, ayúdame a cruzar" ("Soldier John, help me across.").

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