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Snapshot Los Cabos
Where Desert Meets Sea
A visitor flying into Los Cabos will readily observe the peninsula's stark, brown terrain—indeed, it feels like you're arriving in middle of nowhere. You'll realize soon after landing that even though the tip of Baja once also resembled the rest of the dry, inhospitable, stark desert, it has been transformed into an inviting desert oasis. The desert topography, where once only cacti and a few hardy palms resided, is now punctuated by posh hotels, manicured golf courses, and brimming swimming pools. As shown by the thousands of sun-worshipping, partying people seemingly oblivious to the fact that true desert lies, literally, across Highway 1 from their beachfront hotel, Los Cabos has successfully beaten back the drylands. Pay some respect to the area's roots by taking a hike or tour around the surrounding desert landscape.
A similar phenomenon exists in the northern sector of the peninsula, with the metro area anchored by Tijuana, in reality just a continuation of U.S. Southern California. Irrigation has turned this desert into one of Mexico's prime agricultural regions.
In between far-northern Baja and Los Cabos—the peninsula logs a distance of just over 1,600 km (1,000 miles), which compares to the north–south length of Italy—expect mostly desert scrubland. Two-thirds of the land mass is desert—a continuation of the Sonora Desert in the southwest United States—and receives about 10 inches of rain per year. The remaining third of the peninsula forms a mountainous spine, technically four mountain ranges. The northernmost of these mountains are pine-forested and might make you think you've taken a wrong turn to Oregon. East of San Felipe, Baja's highest peak, the Picacho del Diablo ("Devil's Peak"), measures 10,150 feet and is snowcapped in winter.
Geography, history, and economics have conspired to give Baja California a different population mix than the rest of Mexico. The country as a whole is the quintessential mestizo (mixed indigenous and white-European descent) culture, but only half of Bajacalifornianos—the name is a mouthful—can point to any indigenous ancestry. Historically, the peninsula was a land apart, a Wild West where only the intrepid dared to venture to seek their fortunes—many Mexicans still view Baja through that prism—and has drawn a more international population. The indigenous population that does live here is a recent addition of migrants from the poorer southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas drawn to jobs in the border cities.
Baja's population is just over 3 million, but nearly two-thirds of that number lives near the U.S. border. The 1,600-km (1,000-mile) drive from north to south confirms this is a sparsely populated region of Mexico. The state of Baja California Sur, the southern half of the peninsula, is the country's least populous.
U.S. citizens make up around 10% of the population, with retirees, business owners who have set up shop here, or commuters who live in Mexico but work in the San Diego metro area among them.
A Multifaceted Economy
By Mexican standards, the Baja Peninsula is prosperous, but things were not always so. It was only some six decades ago that Mexico even deemed part of the region to be economically viable enough for statehood, creating the state of Baja California north of the 28th parallel in 1953. Baja California Sur became Mexico's newest state in 1974. Prior to that, the region, once considered far-off and neglected, was administered as a territory directly from Mexico City.
This is Mexico, however, and all is relative, even today. Wages here may be double, triple, or quadruple those in the rest of the country, but you pause when you realize that $5 a day is still the national average. The presence of the maquiladora economy has brought up the on-paper average level of prosperity to the peninsula. This industry of tariff-free, export-geared manufacturing congregates on the U.S. border with more than 900 factories providing employment for more than 300,000 people, but critics decry the sweatshop conditions. Urban magnet Tijuana—whose population now stands at 1.5 million—attracts people from all over the country looking for jobs.
Agriculture and fishing contribute to Baja's economy, too. Cotton, fruit, flowers, and ornamental plants grow in the irrigated northern region. (Most of the rest of Baja California is too arid and inhospitable to support much agriculture.) Large populations of tuna, sardines, and lobster support the fishing industry.
And it goes without saying that tourism is a huge business in Baja, with an impressive $1 billion flowing into Los Cabos annually. Historically, the border region has tallied those kinds of numbers as well, but fears of drug-cartel violence have greatly eaten into tourism revenues for that area. The U.S. recession—Mexico's northern neighbor provides the bulk of Baja visitors—has dampened peninsula-wide figures somewhat, but increased summer 2012 visitor numbers have sparked optimism.
Livin' la Vida Buena
Living the good life in Mexico—specifically in and around Los Cabos—seems to get easier year after year. Americans and Canadians are by far the biggest groups of expats, not only at the peninsula's southern tip, but in communities such as Ensenada, Rosarito, Loreto, and La Paz. In addition to those who have relocated to make Mexico their home, many foreigners have part-time retirement or vacation homes here.
Do not fall prey, though, to the dreaded "Sunshine Syndrome" that afflicts countless visitors to Los Cabos and Baja. Pause and take a deep breath if you find yourself on vacation here and starting to utter the words: "Honey, we met that nice real estate agent in the hotel bar. You know, we should buy a house here." Many succumb to the temptation, go back home and sell the farm, and return, only to find that living in Baja bears little resemblance to vacationing here. Experts suggest doing a trial rental for a few months. See if living the day-to-day life here is for you.
The sheer number of foreigners living in Los Cabos and the larger communities of Baja means that contractors and shopkeepers are used to dealing with gringos; most speak good to excellent English. Los Cabos, especially, is rich with English-language publications and opportunities for foreigners to meet up for events or volunteer work.
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