The Baja California peninsula extends into the Pacific Ocean, running parallel to Mexico like a continuation of California – but it is actually Mexican territory. The peninsula is separated from mainland Mexico by the Mar de Cortés (named after Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador who first arrived there back in 1533), and is an arid, desert area, unfavorable for human settlement. However, it has an incredible variety of landscapes: inland sierras – the home of over 4,000 plant species, 700 of which are endemic – and lush oases; beautiful bays with turquoise waters, the dunes of the coast, and the sheer rock faces of wild canyons. The ‘Transpenisular’ Mexico 1 is a tarmacked road, completed in 1973, which snakes across the whole peninsula from Tijuana, on the border with California, to Cabo San Luca in the extreme south of the peninsula, a distance of over 1,700km.
The best way to visit the peninsula is to hire a car so you can move around freely (it is advisable to do this in Mexico, as American car hire companies rarely allow users to cross the border, for fear of theft).
The seaside towns are favorite holiday spots for Californians, beginning with Mulegé, a small town overlooking the Baja de Santa Inés, on the Mar de Cortés. Wonderful beaches wind along the coast between these small towns, with excellent camping facilities: a few huts, each with parking space, a few meters from the water’s edge. There is a limited amount of space, and the prices are very accessible ($5-10 per night) for a very peaceful stay.
This area has many traditional dishes, though the recent floods of American tourists from nearby California may have contributed towards a simplification of the local culinary traditions and customs.
The cuisine of Baja California is similar to that of other areas of northern Mexico: ranch-style cooking is predominant in the rural areas, especially in the northern part of the peninsula, where the principal ingredients are red meat, chicken, fresh dairy produce and vegetables. The king of ingredients in the Baja, though, is fish.
All along the ‘Transpeninsular’, especially in the more populated areas, you will see endless kiosks, small huts or caravans with friendly taco or burrito vendors.
You will also find tacos de pescada here – white fish fillets in a batter of eggs, flour, water, yeast and powdered mustard, fried in boiling oil and served with corn or wheat flour tortillas and finely-chopped fresh cabbage, beans and rice, dressed with lime juice, tomato salsa and chile pequin (a very hot sauce!). Put aside your preconceptions and try them! They are delicious, and very cheap. The rule of thumb when eating food bought from street vendors is: trust your instinct as far as the aromas are concerned, to avoid stomach trouble later…. The same applies when trying cevice, mouthfuls of raw white fish (such as grey mullet, sole or weever-fish) marinated in lime juice and served on corn tortillas. This dish may be served with raw vegetables cut into chunks (tomatoes, cucumber, onion, peppers) and flavored with salt and spicy chili sauce.
Baja California is best known as one of the last remaining places in the world where you can witness a unique and fascinating sight: every January gray whales from the Bering Strait and the Arctic come here to give birth, traveling over 5000km to reach the Lagoon of Sant’Ignacio on the western coast of the peninsula, and remain until March when they return to the cold northern seas once their young (having reached 5m in length and a weight of 500kg) can look after themselves. A group of 20 whales parade by, beginning their summer migration. They leap out of the water two or three times in a row, which is known as ‘breaching’ or ‘spyhopping’: they turn slowly with their heads out of the water, in a graceful movement.
Gray whales have been a protected species since 1946 when they were threatened with extinction; this threat has now returned and with it, a risk for the lagoon area in the heart of the Vizcanio Biosphere Reserve, the largest natural reserve in Latin America (24,000 sq km), which was declared a World Heritage Site by the UN in 1993.
The multinational Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan has been working with the Exportadora de Sal (ESSA) for some years to build a plant in the lagoon which would supply Japan with all the salt it needs to make chloride, indispensable for the production of PVC.
ESSA is a Mexican company based in the little town of Guerrero Negro, just north of the Baja de San Ignacio, which works in salt extraction and production. The compromising effects of this activity on the coastal ecosystem are well known.
The new plant would take up over 300 sq km of the lagoon, pumping out 25,000 liters of water per second. Salt production, the resulting poisoning of the lagoon waters, noise pollution caused by the pumping of water into transportation equipment and the construction of infrastructures are the main causes of the deterioration of the area’s marine and land ecosystems.
The San Ignacio lagoon is home to sea turtles, dolphins, antelopes, mountain lions, coyotes, hawks and eagles and is one of the four remaining places in the world where gray whales and their young can be seen.
Giovanni Bellingeri is the head of the Slow Food Gastronomic Science University project
Photo:a gray whale in Baja California (G. Bellingeri)
Translated by Ailsa Wood