June 2, 2010

The Magical Old Baja

The Old Baja... a taste of old Baja... it's just like Old Baja...

It's a phrase that you hear often. It's not even just the elderly senors and senoras sitting back with misty-eyed nostalgia. People in their 30s will sigh over their tequilas at the mention of 'old Baja'. The internet is full of it. Newcomers and tourists would be forgiven for thinking that 'old Baja' is some mystical Otherworld. Perhaps a legendary Brigadoon, that only appears once every 100 years for just one night, to carry off heroes into the sunset.

So what is it?

It's a region of Mexico that you can visit right now. It's the Baja Peninsula of Las Californias. Back in 1510, García Ordóñez de Montalvo published his 'Las Sergas de Esplandián', which talked of an island to the west of the Indies. Las CaliforniasThis island was entirely populated by women, in the manner of Amazons, and was ruled over by Queen Califia. The island was named California after her. The legend was so well known that when the Spanish Conquistador, Hernán Cortés, travelled along the Pacific coast of Mexico and the USA, he was convinced that he had found the place. He then worked out that the area wasn't an island. It was a peninsula. Nevertheless, he named it California.

Today, there are three Californias, known collectively as Las Californias. From the top, they are California, in the USA; then, crossing into Mexico, Baja California and Baja California Sur. 'Baja' means 'lower' and 'sur' means 'south'. So it's California, Lower California and Southern Lower California. When people refer to the Baja, they are talking about the Mexican peninsula.

But that's the modern Baja. The 'old Baja' was in exactly the same place, but felt different. Even 20 years ago, few people had electricity, especially in Baja California Sur. Towns like Cabo San Lucas were a fraction of the size that they are today. The main visitors were sailors, stopping for food and fuel. They might have dined at the single restaurant or paused for a drink at the only bar in town.

In 1949, the American director, Silas Johnson, travelled from the north to the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula. He recorded what he saw and created this short film, showing precisely what 'old Baja' was.

The film is only 60 years old, so many of those children would only be in their 70s now. Baja did not change overnight. In fact, there are still some areas where 'old Baja' is alive and well in everyday life. For many though, the lure of tourism grew too great and the last ten years has seen a lot of expansion. Much of this has happened during the past couple of decades, so even those in their 30s might remember Johnson's Baja. Those in their 20s or even their teens will recall a Baja slowly transforming into the vacation mecca that it's becoming now.

We can use Google Streetview to take a tour of Cabo San Lucas today. You might notice a few changes since the end of Johnson's 1949 film and the scenes in 2010.

View Larger Map

Click on the map and use your keyboard's arrow keys to take a virtual tour through the streets.

The Baja Peninsula is still tranquil. There are still old Spanish colonial towns and small fishing villages. There's still a lot of the old Baja in evidence, but it is disappearing fast. If you wish to experience it close to how it used to be, it might be worth going soon. Wait just ten or twenty years and the old Baja could well have vanished under the prosperous new Baja. And good luck to them!


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