One by one the kayaks slipped into the Sea of Cortez. Beyond their narrow pointed bows the water rolled gently toward the horizon, water so clear and transparent the boats seemed to hover above it. The kayaks grew smaller as they moved away from the beach until at last they were mere scrawls of yellow on a field of perfect blue.
Not so long ago Mexico's Baja California was the epitome of a remote, almost inaccessible destination. Running nearly 800 miles from the U.S. border to Cabo San Lucas, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Sea of Cortez on the other, it was a place of tiny villages where only the hardy ventured for great fishing, whale watching and just hanging out.
Not any more.
Today, 1050 mile Highway Number One traces the entire length of the peninsula. Major airlines bring jets into the airports at La Paz and Loreto. Luxury resorts dot the coast at Los Cabos and more are on the drawing boards. The Baja is a happening place.
It wasn't, though, when a young American named Tim Means gave up running rafts on the Colorado River and, in 1975, founded Baja Expeditions. Beginning with camping trips on the coastal islands, it evolved into the largest and oldest catered sea kayaking outfit in the Baja. Almost 30 years later a serviceable workboat laden with kayaks and gear and 14 Americans aged 11 to 69 hugged the shoreline of La Paz on the way to Espiritu Santo Island. From the Rio Rita's deck they could see mountains unfolding into the distance, the near ones lumpy and black, the farthest barely visible smudges against the sky.
Studding the hilltops were strange deformed toothpicks. They weren't trees, yet they clearly had trunks and branches. Of course! They were cactuses sprouting from the barren dusty earth. Perfectly designed to live in one of the most hostile environments on earth. But were we?
Let's start with the tents. For someone who's never set one up, total confusion. For someone who has it's ten minutes of moderate exertion and presto, you've built a bungalow. Kim had done it.
Kim was our leader. A friendly and highly competent young woman, Kim was a terror with tents. At our campsite on Espiritu Santo Island she gathered us round her and explained the intricicies of tent construction. In no time we were doing it ourselves, a Marx Brothers comedy of misplaced supports and clips. With great generosity, those who'd done it before pitched in and helped. Tenting we could do!
But could we kayak?
"I have a friend who calls this a divorce kayak," Kim said, referring to the double seater she was using for a demonstration. "If the two kayakers aren't in perfect sync, they'll hit each others' paddles and arms and won't make much headway." Several of the couples glanced meaningfully at each other.
Some of our group had experience in kayaks, not surprisingly the same ones who knew how to set up tents. Others had very little, so Kim went through the basics of boat design, paddling, rudder, spray skirt and life vest, ending with an invitation to try a "wet escape." Soon we found ourselves in the bay questioning our sanity as we intentionally flipped our kayaks and disappeared into the briny. 11 year old Tim was first, paired with a man 6 times his age. Over they went and up they came to the relieved cheers of the group.
When each of us had taken the plunge and lived to tell the tale, we followed our leader to Roca Monumento, (Monument Rock), upthrust like a fist in the bay. Then, as the sun slipped lower and the temperature abruptly dropped, we paddled under a pink cliff where pelicans roosted. Yes, kayaking we could do, too.
The first night, after we'd finished our dessert flan, Kim laid down the law. "I hope you've all put away your watches," she said. "From now on we go to bed when we're tired and get up when we're rested. There will be coffee waiting for those who get up early. There's a boat for anyone who wants to fish, hiking to a canyon behind the beach before breakfast, or just staying in your sleeping bags." All activities were optional. Reading on the beach was as politically correct as kayaking. This was not an extreme adventure trip, a test of our endurance or courage or skill. This was an adventure designed to be fun.
Behind Kim dark hills loomed over each side of the ebony bay. A brilliant moon cast shadows on the sand. Tiny waves broke near our feet and the temperature finally completed its 30 degree freefall from the afternoon 80's. For a while we chatted, then one by one rose and ambled to our tents, grateful not to know the time. It's embarassing for an adult to go to bed before nine.
After a breakfast on the beach of eggs, hash, refried beans, tortillas, pastries yogurt and fruit, we boarded the Rio Rita to keep a rendevous with sea lions. Earlier we'd walked into the hills through rust-red passageways to hidden bowls. Now we sailed past sheer cliffs where great dusty chunks had broken and fallen into the sea. At a small rugged island the captain cut the engine and dropped anchor.
Lost Islotes was the residence of 200 California sea lions who bellowed at us from the rocks or sported in the water. Our own much more colorful gang, fancied up in hot pink wet suits and florescent yellow flippers, joined them for some close encounters. "This is just too cool," Jim called. On both sides of him fins and snouts and sleek brown bodies were breaking the surface. "They're just spinning around in front of me," he yelled before diving back under.
I don't know about the others, but I expected the Baja to be a flat, arid desert, not mountainous or necklaced with volcanic islands. I certainly wasn't prepared for the amphitheater on Isla San Jose. At midday we inserted ourselves in the kayaks and followed Kim into a light chop. Ten minutes later we rounded a small headland and there it was, a vast semi-circle of colored stone, pink at the water's edge, turning abruptly to beige half way up. The colors were painted in subtle stripes on a surface as smooth as the palms of our hands. Curving toward us, the cliff held a placid blue cove in rose-red arms. We paddled into the fabulous hall until we were floating in the orchestra seats. Bob suggested holding the world's first aquatic rock festival there. "We could call it Seastock."
"There must be more here than meets the eye," Chip said the next day as the Rio Rita approached Santa Catalina Island. Gone were the sandy beaches where until now we'd pitched our tents. Instead, we peered skeptically at a broad swath of small grey rocks flanked by hills bereft of anything but enormous multi-fingered cactuses groping toward the sky. But beyond the rocks we discovered flat sandy patches perfect for our tents. By the time we'd settled in, pitchers of margaritas were on the table with smoked fish and crackers and a sensational ceviche of the octopus the crew had caught the previous day. Happy Hour!
This was the one inflexible item on our trip. Late every afternoon, whether we asked for it or not, drinks and snacks appeared on a table set up on the sand. We'd ladle the liquid into cups magic markered with our names and tuck in, seeing if we could ruin our
appetites for supper.
After a relaxed half hour there was nothing to do but walk the beach, tidy the tent or update the journal. Then it was time to eat - again. This time the table groaned under lamplight with multiple courses our magician chef had whipped up in the tiny galley of the Rio Rita. Stews, rice, vegetables, tortillas, fruit and desserts, hearty dishes and plenty of them. We ate in a semi-circle of plastic chairs on the sand, comfortable as old friends, then stumbled off to bed.
On a morning hike - was it the next day or the next? - we found ourselves in a phantasmagoric landscape of towering Cardon cacti, massive barrel cactuses and pitaya cactus, whose low-growing arms writhed above the ground. There were fleshy jojoba plants, a nightshade with beautiful blue flowers, white "prickly poppies" on single grey stems, thin-skinned elephant trees sprawling on the ground, nubby chainlike chollas. Santa Catalina was an explosion of botanical wonders.
On a rare overcast afternoon we were kayaking under Santa Catalina's grey granite cliffs when suddenly we saw a ship, much larger and grander than our little Rio Rita. From its stern black rubber zodiacs were popping like eggs from a sea turtle. Each carried identically garbed passengers, and when I paddled over I saw they were dressed for snorkeling.
The ship belonged to a well known "soft adventure" cruise operator and this gutsy group of mostly seniors was gamely plunging into the choppy waters. "Hello," I called out as I glided by their zodiaks. "Hello," they called back. Having run out of things to say I rejoined my stalwart band in their bright fragile egg shells, happy to be doing the Baja our way.
On the morning of the 8th day, as the Rio Rita was transporting us to our fourth and final campsite, Kim suddenly said, "There's a huge school of dolphins ahead." Putting down our books and grabbing our cameras, we rushed to the port side and looked at a long line of water boiling off the bow. In a moment we were among them, hundreds of Common Dolphins leaping in synchronized waves next to, ahead of, on either side of the boat. Were they performing for us? From merely cresting the waves, now they were flinging themselves upward or flashing just under the boat. "It looks like they're having fun," Larry said. We couldn't be sure, but it was good to think so. If we were having fun, why shouldn't they?
But at lunch, Lin was not happy. She knew that next night we'd be in a hotel in Loreto and the following day we'd fly home. She very much did not want to leave. Suddenly she had the solution. The day of our flights Kim was starting a nine day kayak trip down the coast to La Paz. "Why don't we take that one, too?" she asked her husband.
I don't think she really expected a yes, so when Jim just continued staring silently at the horizon, she gave it up. The coastal kayaking trip would leave without them. There would be no last minute additions.
Then I thought, "Hmm, why not?"
BAJA EXPEDITIONS can be contacted at 800 843-6967, website www.bajaex.com. In addition to sea kayaking adventures, whale watching, natural history and scuba diving trips are offered. Trips last from 1 to 10 days and are suitable for all ranges of abilities. Ask which trips are more or less strenuous and the amount of kayaking on each.
HOW TO GET THERE: Aero Calfornia, 800 237-6225, offers flights to both La Paz and Loreto from Los Angeles and Tucson. Airlines flying to La Paz only include American Airlines, 800 433-7300, AeroMexico, 800 237- 6639, Alaska Airlines, 800 426-0333, and Aero Litoral, 800 237-6639. Baja Expeditions provides transfers to and from the first and last nights' hotels.
WHEN TO GO: Kayaking tours run from October through May. Scuba diving programs run year-round.
ACCOMMODATIONS AND MEALS: Single to family size tents are provided on sea kayaking adventures as are sleeping bags and sheets. (Bring a small pillow.) Meals are hearty and plentiful. Water is safe. The first and last nights are spent in hotels.
WHAT TO BRING: Baja Expeditions provides a check list of recommended items. Be sure to check the expected temperatures for the time of your trip. They can range from the 50's to the 90's in one day.