Be a smart traveler: the term “Baja Mexico” explained

Baja Mexico, Baja, Baja California, Baja California Sur, Baja Norte – why are there too many names for this area in Mexico? In this “Explained” series, you will learn about the differences between these places which will help you travel smarter.

When I first moved to Cabo San Lucas, I kept saying the word “Baja Mexico” and it stings with my Mexican friends. They apparently don’t use the term, “Baja.”

As a foreigner who has been living in Mexico for a long time now, I make sure to follow Mexican customs and cultures. I am very grateful and feel privileged that this country welcomed me and that I get to call it my home.

So I did a deep dive into Baja Mexico and here’s what I found. This is quite long and has a lot of history in it so I tried my best to explain it to you in a language that all of us understand.

This will greatly help you in planning your trip to Baja in terms of using the correct search keywords on Google so read on and be a smart traveler!

💡 Key Takeaways

  • “Baja” means “lower” or “low” in English. California, USA used to be a Mexican territory but left a little of that California to Mexico which is what we call Baja Mexico today.
  • Back when California was owned by Mexico, it was called Alta California (alta means high in English)
  • Baja has no geographical location on Google maps. It is not an official place or destination in Mexico
  • Baja Peninsula refers to both the states of Baja California and Baja California Sur.
  • Baja California was one state until the south, Baja California Sur has declared an independent state in 1974
  • Baja California kept the name and it is the official state name. It is sometimes referred to as Baja California Norte (north) to easily identify it from Baja California Sur.
  • Locals and Mexicans use “Baja Sur” and “Baja Norte” to easily distinguish the two.

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baja mexico
Pin this image to Pinterest and save it for your trip to the Baja Peninsula in Mexico!

🏴󠁵󠁳󠁴󠁸󠁿 How Northern Mexico became Southern USA

You may not know this but California (and Texas) in the USA used to be a territory of Mexico. In the mid-1800s, the US has 27 states but they were all inland.

They have not had a territory near the sea despite the many invasions they did in the west. While they continue their Westward invasion plan, they came across the newly independently declared country, our beloved Mexico.

Mexico’s northern part was called Tejas (now Texas). During this time, Tejas had a population of native Americans who were living there for centuries. They have nothing to do with either the USA or Mexico.

Mexico then looks at Tejas and could not figure out what they can do with so many lands?! They came up with a plan to give incentives to settlers and they invited the Americans to “rent” their lands in Tejas.

Mexico’s goal was to make Tejas economically productive and independent and the best way to do that is if there are actually people living there. The Americans traveled to Tejas and passed the word to more settlers.

As more American settlers came into Mexico, they also brought slaves with them. At this point in time, slavery was legal in the US but was very illegal in Mexico. Apart from the slaves, they also brought with them an attitude of entitlement, which is very obvious in our American culture today.

With this entitlement attitude also came a resistance: “we do not want to be governed by the Mexican government.” Mexico was not very happy about that and they started to feel that renting lands in Tejas to Americans was a bad idea.

What Mexico then did was send the military to Tejas to make a point: Tejas is just being rented to you. This is still Mexican property and you are in Mexican land, not the USA.

History records that the Battle of Alamo lasted for less than an hour. | Photo: Hamilton Historical Records

Did you think that the American settlers cared? Nope. They started a battle and the Americans lost. Historically, this is called The Battle of the Alamo.

The poster child of Westward expansion, David Crockett died in the Battle of Alamo. He was a politician, a soldier, and what they call in pop culture, the “King of the Wild Frontier.” In short, David is a freaking folk hero to the Americans.

The Americans fled to Tejas, Mexico, and fought many battles against the Mexican army. Which, they all won easily. After winning these battles in 1845, the United States declared Tejas, Mexico as The Republic of Texas.

Even though Mexico already accepted defeat, they had to clarify the lines that the USA drew between them. And it was excessive. There was a big part there that really Mexico believes that is still theirs while and the US thinks it’s theirs too.

baja mexico
Mexico believes that Texas ends in Nueces River while the USA is firm that Rio Grande is the line that separates USA and Mexico. | Photo: The Daily Texan

Basically, the US Westward expansion was thirsty to have ocean territories so the dispute goes like this: Mexico believes that the territory of Texas ends in the Nueces River while the USA believed that the line of Texas ends in the Rio Grande.

Enter, the Chamizal Dispute: the Mexico-USA border conflict that covers the areas of modern-day El Paso (USA), Texas (USA), Juarez City (Mexico), and Chihuahua (Mexico).

Despite the ongoing Chazimal dispute, the US didn’t care anyway and declared Texas to be the 28th state of the United States of America.

During this ordeal, Mexico and the USA completely ignored the native Americans caught in their crossfire and greatly suffered from this dispute.

🇺🇸 History of Baja Mexico: the US invasion

At this time, the President of the USA was James Knox Polk (number 11). His tenure started at the time when Texas has declared a US state and he had two important things for him to achieve during his presidency:

  1. Take California from Mexico
  2. Take Oregon from the United Kingdom (at the time, the US and the UK have jointly occupied Oregon

Since the US already half-owns Oregon, it wasn’t urgent. His number one goal is to take California from Mexico. How did he plan to do that?

James Polk: “I want to buy California from you for US$25 million.”

Mexico: “No thanks, we’ll pass.”

baja mexico
James Knox Polk was the 11th President of the United States of America who served from March 4, 1845 – March 3, 1849.

The 11th American president got pissed. Polk was so convinced that it was easy to take California from Mexico. So how can he easily access Mexico from the US? Through Texas and the disputed border.

Polk sends American troops to the disputed land (Texas, Rio Grande) but did not really instruct them to attack right away. Mexico learned about it so they sent the Mexican army to respond.

For them, the American troops being at their territory was an attack as they believe that the disputed territory is theirs. 1,600 Mexican soldiers attacked 80 American troops. 11 Americans were killed and the rest (69) were held in captivity.

This is exactly what Polk wanted. He wanted to provoke Mexico to kill the American soldiers to justify going to war with Mexico. This also strengthens his democratic processes in congress.

He really wanted California and he believed this was the easiest way to get it. Here’s how he presented the situation to the US Congress:

“Mexico has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.”

baja mexico
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States of America serving from March 4, 1861 – April 15, 1865.

This statement was enough for Congress to back up and support Polk’s crusade to take California from Mexico. As you know, Congress is very protective of their troops and in their mind, “you killed 11 of our people and we will go after you.”

Not everyone agreed with this. One of these people is Abraham Lincoln, who expressed his view on James Polk’s attack to Mexico:

Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure.


James Polk didn’t have to do the heavy lifting. The USA declared war on Mexico. Of course, coming prepared, the US troops won and they did this war quickly.

After winning the war, they paid Mexico US$15 million for giving up their beloved California. The Chamizal dispute also ended as Mexico gave up the disputed territory in Texas.

baja mexico
This little boy outside of the #CAGOPConvention has a message for Trump: 29 April 2016 | Photo: AJ+ / Twitter

Today, many Californian cities have Spanish names: San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, San Jose, etc.

For further reading about what US territories used to belong to Mexico, see also the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This treaty was signed during the Mexico-USA war that ended in 1847 which states that Mexico agrees to sell California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming to the USA.

But the USA still acknowledged Baja Mexico or the Baja Peninsula as part of Mexico. The US did not touch this territory.

baja mexico
I am still in awe that I live here! What a privilege!

🗺️ Baja Mexico: what’s left of Mexico’s California

Baja California

Also known as Baja California Norte, Baja California is on the border of the United States (San Diego, CA) and Mexico (Tijuana). The capital city of Baja California state is Mexicali.

Baja California is the official name of this state, not Baja California Norte although many people use the term Norte to differentiate it from Baja California Sur.

Its economy depends on livelihoods like mining, agriculture, plant manufacturing, and of course, tourism. There are 6 border crossing points in the US and there are many Americans/Mexicans/Mexican-Americans who live in Baja California and work in the United States.

They commute daily because the US salary can be stretched further if you are living in Mexico. This border crossing is very busy and it may take up to 6 hours if you don’t have border special passes like Sentri.

Baja California Mexico quick facts:

  • Official State Name: Baja California
  • Capital: Mexicali
  • Population: 3.7 million (2020 Census)
  • Size: 56,017 square miles
  • Year established: 1952
  • Major cities by population: Tijuana (1,410,700) Mexicali (855,962) Ensenada (413,481) Tecate (91,021) Playas de Rosarito (73,305)
baja mexico
Rosarito is one of the top places to live for Americans on the border.

Baja California Sur

Baja California and Baja California Sur used to be just one state in Mexico until Baja California Sur was declared a separate Mexican state in 1974.

It is the third most visited state in Mexico. Just in 2021 alone, San Jose del Cabo International Airport recorded 1,069,834 foreign visitors.

There are many direct flights from the US to Los Cabos which is one of the reasons it is still the best weekend destination in Mexico. The Sea of Cortez in the state is popular for many water activities such as fishing. It is one of the major livelihoods in the state of Baja California Sur along with agriculture and salt mining.

Baja California Sur quick facts

  • Official state name: Baja California Sur
  • Capital: La Paz
  • Population: 798,447 (2020 Census)
  • Size: 28,369 square miles
  • Year established: 1974
  • Major cities by population: La Paz (219,596) San Jose del Cabo (164,162) Ciudad Constitución (63,830) Santa Rosalia (52,743) Loreto (11,839)
cabo mexico

✅ Why knowing this is relevant to you as a tourist or expat

Many blogs are motivated to create content by high-ranking Google keywords. Here at Mexico Insider, we focus on our reader’s needs.

Our content thrives on your questions about Mexico so when we analyzed the search term behavior for Baja Mexico travel or Baja trips, it does not really give you the best results that you need.

First, the term “Baja” has no exact location on the map. Baja California and Baja California Sur are the correct words to get helpful information for your travels but note that these two are states that have major cities.

We hope you can support our campaign to make Baja Mexico, Baja California, and Baja California Sur more understandable on the Internet which can be helpful for your trip.

Only read blogs or trust websites that use Baja California or Baja California Sur in their article titles because this is the information that you need.

Below are some of our helpful guides and pages for all the things you need to know about visiting Baja Mexico:

I live in Cabo San Lucas (Baja California Sur) so if you ever make it here, please send a message on Instagram – I’d love to meet you and show you around the place I now call home.

Meet my Lola who loves swimming in the El Medano Beach, Cabo San Lucas.

✈️ Ready for your trip to Baja Mexico? If you need more information about the Baja branding, we’d be happy to update this post – just leave your questions in the comment box below or join our communities where we answer questions for FREE.

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One Comment

  1. I really enjoyed reading your article. You told the story in a way that was easy for me to understand and you kept my attention. I live in Texas and travel to Todos Santos and sail the Sea of Cortez often. My plan is to move there one day. I love the people there.

    Thank you for this history lesson. I plan to pass it along because I have a feeling my expats friends don’t have a clue about the history.

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