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Hotel San Cristóbal scenic view at sunset by Nick Simonite

Baja California, the land of contrasts

A journey to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula is never what you expect, but just what you need.

From Tijuana to Cabo, it’s a wild concoction of no rules, street food, wine, surfing and quaint fishing villages.

A journey to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula is never what you expect, but just what you need.

Desolate, dry, harsh, and unforgiving are all ways to describe the nearly 1,250-kilometre long finger of land that hangs off the west coast of California. Mexico’s Baja California is indeed rough and rugged, yet rising out of this abrasive landscape are things of ridiculous beauty and unexpected sophistication.

Vaqueros or cowboys are a big part of Baja culture, these men are making a pilgrimage in honor of the patron saint of their hometown
Vaqueros or cowboys are a big part of Baja culture, these men are making a pilgrimage in honor of the patron saint of their hometown

The inhospitable desert sits in juxtaposition to life thriving despite the odds: sparkling turquoise bays full of marine life, towering brilliant green cacti, and hidden oases of palm trees. Deep dark storm clouds pour buckets of rain over otherwise barren terrain and brilliant yellow wildflowers pop up across the desert. In small towns, friendly locals lift the veil of poverty to share the songs of the mariachis and a taste of tequila. An oppressive and impassable border creates an atmosphere for a culinary revolution.

Travelling in Baja is 100% about the journey rather than the destination. Throughout a trip to Mexico’s northern and westernmost state, you come to expect the unexpected. Unforeseen bounty hides in what appears to be the scarcest of circumstances. From the border town of Tijuana to “Cabo,” or the land’s end, Baja’s magic is waiting for the discerning traveller to come and find it.

there is nothing like jumping into the ocean after a long day of adventuring in Baja
there is nothing like jumping into the ocean after a long day of adventuring in Baja

Tijuana: Despite the Wall, Life Flourishes

Whether you walk or drive across, For most visitors, a journey to the Northern half of Baja California begins at one of the busiest and most fortified borders in the world. The wall between America and Mexico looms larger than life despite covering an expanse of land not much wider than a fútbol field. On the Mexican side, you instantly know you’re in another country by the sight of colourful hand-painted signs, the smell of street tacos, and the voices of men in cowboy hats offering unsolicited taxis.

You’re officially in Tijuana, or “TJ” for short, a place that has had a reputation for being a full-strength, no-holds-barred adult Disneyland ever since filling a need during prohibition. Today, Tijuana’s main drag, Avenida Revolución, is much safer and G-rated than in the past. Yet, the “no rules” attitude that has attracted so many Americans over the years lives on amongst Baja chefs and restaurateurs.

Take Javier Plascencia, for example. His upscale flagship restaurant, Mision 19, arrived in TJ at a time when no one was doing fine dining in the city. He took the rule book and threw it out the window by occupying a modern office building in a part of the city away from the main tourist haunts. With avant-garde art and in-your-face yet sophisticated dishes like beef tongue with blood-sausage vinaigrette and sea urchin soup with poblano chillies, Mission 19 feels more New York than Tijuana.

Ubiquitous street taco
Ubiquitous street taco

For most, Tijuana is where you come for taco stands and hole-in-the-wall joints featuring Mexican dishes like birria (spicy goat stew), carnitas, and Baja fish tacos. These days, it’s not only Baja food you’ll find on the street.  TJ has become a melting pot of all the people who get stuck there in their quest for the American dream. Rules may stop them from crossing the border, but Tijuana eschews convention. That’s why you’re headed to Telefonica for lunch. Places like Telefonica, a gastro-park, and Plaza Fiesta, a craft beer garden, are so popular because they don’t follow the rules. A Mex-inspired ramen truck saddles up next to a taco stand selling cauliflower mole. Anything goes and it all tastes amazing.

Hotel San Cristóbal pool loungers by Nick Simonite
Hotel San Cristóbal pool loungers by Nick Simonite

The Valle De Guadalupe: Sophistication, Mexico Style

From Tijuana, head out west and make your way down the coast. You can make out tiny surfers in the ocean as you pass a giant statue of Jesus Christ with welcoming, outstretched arms. He seems to say, ‘Bienvenidos a Baja,’ (welcome to Baja) to all who drive by.
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© This article was first published in Oct-Nov 2018 edition of World Travel Magazine.

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