Since Steinbeck made his first road trip to Baja in 1941, this magical place has inspired artists, writers, and dreamers to record their experiences and create their own visions. Brushing up on your Baja means understanding Mexico and California, too; today's Baja owes its identity to both and the contrasts between them.
For a survey of Mexican history through modern times, A Short History of Mexico by J. Patrick McHenry provides a complete, yet concise account. For contemporary culture, start with Octavio Paz's classic, The Labyrinth of Solitude, which still generates controversy among Mexicans for its warts-and-all profile of the national soul. Earl Shorris's The Life and Times of Mexico is a critically acclaimed history of Mexico seen through the lens of traditional Aztec beliefs.
In 1941, John Steinbeck joined his marine biologist friend, Ed "Doc" Ricketts, on a journey along the Sea of Cortez. The result was Steinbeck's book, The Log from the Sea of Cortez; while technical in spots, this is a must-read for those impassioned by Baja's sea. Ricketts went on to become a minor celebrity after Steinbeck used him as the model for "Doc," a character in his popular novel, Cannery Row. Another one of Steinbeck's classic novels, The Pearl, tells the story of Kino, a pearl diver from La Paz, who must deal with the consequences of potential sudden wealth.
For a modern account of Steinbeck's experiences, read Andromeda Romano Lax's travel narrative Searching for Steinbeck's Sea of Cortez: A Makeshift Expedition Along Baja's Desert Coast. In it, Lax attempts to trace Steinbeck and Ricketts's journey with her husband and young children in tow.
Graham Mackintosh left his home and family in England to walk across Baja, alone. He lived to tell the tale, in Into a Desert Place. He repeated the feat, but with company, in Journey with a Baja Burro. Nearer My Dog to Thee, and Marooned with Very Little Beer continue his Baja-based adventures, which are self-published but available in many Baja bookstores and online at bajadetour.books.officelive.com.
Miraculous Air, a travel memoir by C. M. Mayo, takes the reader on a journey through the history, culture, economics, and lifestyle of the entire Baja peninsula.
For a gritty take on Northern Baja, Kem Nunn's excellent "surfer noir" novel Tijuana Straits follows a retired surfer who makes a grim discovery while out hunting south of Tijuana.
Baja's ancient history lives in Harry W. Crosby's The Cave Paintings of Baja California, a book that delves into the history and mystery of indigenous people long forgotten.
And Baja's modern history gets colorful in Greg Nieman's book, Baja Legends: The Historic Characters, Events, and Locations That Put Baja California on the Map.
Markes Johnsen brings Baja's unique geology alive in Discovering the Geology of Baja California: Six Hikes on the Southern Coast.
Ann Hazard's Cooking with Baja Magic Dos, the sequel to her first cookbook of the same name, can help you re-create some of that Baja cuisine -- and Baja magic -- at home. And the Hotel California's chef Dany Lamote has compiled some of his award-winning tequila recipes in the Hotel California Tequila cookbook, available in the hotel gift shop in Todos Santos.
Popular Mexican Literature -- Jorge Ibargüengoitia, one of Mexico's most famous modern writers, died in 1983 but remains popular in Mexico and is available in translation. His novels Estas Ruinas Que Ves (These Ruins You See) and The Dead Girls (a fictional account of a famous 1970s crime) display deft characterization and a sardonic view of Mexican life.
Juan Rulfo, one of Mexico's most esteemed authors, wrote only three slim books before his death in 1986. His second, Pedro Páramo, is Mexico's equivalent of Shakespearean tragedy and has never been out of print since its publication in 1955. The short novel of a son's search for his abusive, tyrannical father is told in competing first- and third-person narration and had a major influence on the magical realism movement. It has been translated twice into English and been made into film several times.
The earlier novels of Carlos Fuentes, Mexico's preeminent living writer, are easier to read than more recent works; try The Death of Artemio Cruz. Angeles Mastretta's delightful Arráncame la Vida (Tear Up My Life) is a well-written novel about a young woman's life in post-revolutionary Puebla. Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate (and the subsequent movie) covers roughly the same period through a lens of magical realism and helped to popularize Mexican food abroad.
Hasta No Verte Jesús Mío by Elena Poniatowska, and anything by Pulitzer winner Luis Alberto Urrea, offer hard looks at third-world realities.
Guillermo Arriaga, screenwriter for Amores Perros, is a brilliant novelist, too. El Bufalo de la Noche, about a young man reeling from his best friend's suicide, is available in English. Retorno 201, a collection of stories set on the Mexico City street where Arriaga grew up, was published in 2005.
Golden Age Classics -- Mexico's "Golden Age of Cinema" refers to a period in the 1940s when the country's film studios dropped their attempts at mimicking Hollywood and started producing black-and-white films that were Mexican to the core. The stars of the day are now icons of Mexican culture. Mario Moreno, also known as Cantinflas, was the comedic genius that personalized the cultural archetype of el pelado -- a poor, picaresque, appealingly naughty character looking to get ahead by his wits, and not getting very far at all. His speech is a torrent of free association and digressions and innuendo that gives the comedy a madcap quality. Dolores del Río was the Mexican beauty who was later shipped off to Hollywood to fill the role of steamy Latin babe. Pedro Infante expressed the ideal of Mexican manhood, and was also Mexico's singing cowboy.
For some takes on old-school Mexico, check out Elia Kazan's 1952 classic, Viva Zapata!, written by Baja California fanatic John Steinbeck and starring Marlon Brando as the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Then there's Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, about drugs and corruption in Tijuana (preposterously starring Charlton Heston as a Mexican). Or rent the HBO flick And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself with Antonio Banderas, a true story about how revolutionaries allowed a Hollywood film company to tape Pancho Villa in actual battle.
The New Cinema -- Since the ignition of Mexico's drug war, Tijuana is experiencing a mini-film boom, as a center for narco-stories both on and off-screen. Most are low-budget shoot-'em-uppers; some even feature local drug lords in cameos and their homes as locations. They're available on DVD from Baja Films, www.bajafilms.com.mx. In happier times, better films were being made: Tijuana Makes Me Happy (2005), directed by Dylan Verrechia, paints a bright and realistic picture of Tijuana. The film aims to break down stereotypes of the city by focusing on the personal stories and struggles of its characters. The film won the Grand Jury Prize in the 2007 Slamdance Film Festival.
Stephen Soderberg's Academy Award-winning Traffic (2000), starring Benicio del Toro, includes some powerful scenes focusing on the drug war at the Tijuana border. The documentary Tijuana Remix (2002), celebrates the city's culturally unique and idiosyncratic qualities. You can also get a great "tourist guide" online via a short film called Tijuana es Addiccion made by local Jacinto Astiazaran.
Alfredo Zacarias's The Pearl (2001) is based on John Steinbeck's novel of the same name and stars American actor Lucas Haas as Kino the fisherman and Mexican actress Tere Tarin as his wife, Juana. No one's going to be winning any awards for this lemon, but fast-forward through the bad Mexican accents and enjoy La Paz's beautiful coastline.
While there aren't very many movies about Baja, a lot have been shot there. The former set for Cameron Crowe's Titanic (1997), in Rosarito, has now been turned into a museum called Xploration. Other recent films shot on location in the state of Baja California include Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), Pearl Harbor (2001), Jarhead (2005), and Borderland (2007). Recent movies filmed in Baja California Sur include Troy (2004), The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005), and The Heartbreak Kid (2007).
Mariachi & Ranchera -- Mariachi is the music most readily identified with Mexico, and mariachis, with their distinctive costume -- big sombreros, waist-length jackets, and tight pants -- easily stand out. The music originated from a style of son played in the state of Jalisco. It was rearranged to be played with guitars, violins, a string bass, and trumpets. Now you hear it across Mexico and much of the American Southwest.
Ranchera music is closely associated with mariachi music and is performed with the same instruments. It's defined by its expression of national pride, strong individualism, and lots of sentiment, hence its favored status as drinking music. The most famous composer is José Alfredo Jiménez, whose songs many Mexicans know by heart.
Norteña, Grupera & Banda -- Norteña owes its origins to tejano music, coming out of Texas. Mexicans in south central Texas came in contact with musicians from the immigrant Czech and German communities of the Texas Hill Country and picked up a taste for polkas and the accordion. Gradually the music became popular farther south. Norteña music tweaked the polka for many of its popular songs and later borrowed from the cumbia, slowing the tempo a bit and adding a strong down beat. It also incorporated a native form of song known as the corrido, which is a type of ballad that was popularized during the Mexican revolution (1910-17). Norteña became hugely popular in rural northern Mexico through the 1970s and later generated spinoffs, which are known as grupera or banda, a style of norteña from the area of Sinaloa, which replaces the accordion with electric keyboards. Los Tigres del Norte, with their catchy melodies backed by hopped up accordion and bass guitars, are probably the most famous practitioners of norteña music.
Baja Rocks -- While Sammy Hagar of Van Halen fame became the posterboy for rock in Baja after opening his wildly successful Cabo Wabo bar in Cabo San Lucas, he's not the only rocker who has been influenced by the spirit of the peninsula. Mexican-American rocker Carlos Santana got his start in the 1950s playing at bars and clubs in Tijuana and Mexicali. After visiting for a surfing trip with his buddies, Chris Isaak went directly to his studio to produce the 1996 album, Baja Sessions.
Herb Alpert: Original Tijuana Mix Master -- The musical trend of splicing and mixing different genres to create new sounds is not a 21st-century invention. In fact, one of the pioneers of this dubbing technique was Herb Alpert, who was inspired to create the sound for his 1962 hit "The Lonely Bull" after watching a bull fight in Tijuana. Alpert utilized an overdubbed trumpet sound as well as actual recordings of the crowd in order to create a unique sound that he believed captured the excitement of the experience. Pepe "Fussible" Mogt, one of the founders of the critically acclaimed Nortec Collective has said that Alpert served as a musical influence when he and fellow DJs Bostich, Clorofila, Hiperboreal, and Panoptica began fusing electronic and norteña music to form their signature sound.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.