Paddling through Paradise: Sea Kayaking in Baja
Story and Photos by Ellen Clark
If someone had told me I would take up sea kayaking after age 50, I would have accused them of nipping on the cooking sherry. The last time I paddled anything it was summer camp—never mind how many years ago—and the vessel was a standard-issue canoe, not one of those new-fangled fiberglass boats with a tight little opening and nylon spray skirt. Yet there I was last winter, on the crystal-clear waters of the Sea of Cortez, trying to coordinate steering with foot peddles and paddling with two blades as I launched on a week-long outing along the coast of Baja.
From October through May, balmy weather—high 60s to high 80s—and warm waters make the islands and coastline on Baja California an ideal kayaking destination. While experienced kayakers may want to arrange their own trips to the region, novices like myself will find that a guided trip offers a compelling alternative. I chose a company that runs multi-day trips from the town of Loreto, located about half way down Baja on the Sea of Cortez.
Different from tipsy whitewater models, our beamy kayaks were very stable, even in choppy water. Most of the group’s kayaks were doubles so the guides could pair up stronger and weaker paddlers and achieve a balanced pace. Personally, I was happy to have help, but for those macho types who wanted to do it on their own, there were single boats.
Great vacations are not without their small inconveniences, and kayaking in Baja is no exception. Everything depende del viento (depends on the wind), and, as Baja is prone to strong El Norte winds, we were bound to encounter rough seas and difficult kayaking conditions. While this might sound exciting to more experienced paddlers, to me it heralded exhausting work and potential catastrophe. Fortunately Baja kayaking companies are adverse to losing clients in tumultuous seas. If the wind is up, days are spent hiking or relaxing on the beach. Several companies offer nine-day trips. This way, even accounting for a couple of windy days, clients will still get a week’s worth of paddling.
Our trip starts from Playa Blanca. Before heading to sea, our guides discuss safety procedures, give a brief paddling demonstration, and issue life jackets. Since this is a self-sufficient trip—without the aid of a motorized launch—groceries, duffels, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, jugs of water, and cooking equipment are stowed among our kayaks.
Once the kayaks are packed and launched, it is time to climb aboard. This is easier said than done. Thigh-deep in water, I am gradually able to slide in, bottom first, and then swing my legs in after me. Graceful it is not, though I will have plenty of opportunity to improve my technique.
Once adrift, the dreamiest part of kayaking begins. Skimming through calm, deep blue water, the sea gently laps at the sides of the boat. A warm breeze blows and seabirds hover overhead. How could anyone help but relax?
Our first destination is Isla Danzanta, a small uninhabited island a few miles off the Baja peninsula. After an hour-and-a-half of paddling, we land on a white sand beach backed by steep, saguaro cactus studded cliffs.For those interested in natural history, this area provides endless surprises. The desert supports one of the most diverse assortments of vegetation in the world, despite getting less than ten inches of rain each year. The Sea of Cortez is home to more than 600 species of fish, and the marine life, in turn, attracts a wide variety of sea birds.
After we set up camp and select a site for our sleeping bags, our group goes exploring. As we walk along the beach, brown pelicans dive for fish and yellow-footed gulls and various sandpipers gather along the water’s edge.
Vivid pinks and purples streak the sky as we return for dinner. With a small two-burner gas stove, a makeshift Dutch oven, and a limited amount of kitchen utensils, our guides have concocted a delicious meal.
Dinners consist of such tantalizing entrees as vegetarian spaghetti and garlic bread, tortilla, cheese and chili casserole, and guacamole burritos. Fresh fruits and vegetables like pineapples, oranges, mangoes, jicama, and tomatoes accompany the meals. One night, thanks to some local fishermen, we are treated to fish tacos, made with freshly caught grouper.
On the days we move camp, we struggle out of our warm sleeping bags at 5:30 a.m., since the calmest kayaking conditions are in the early morning. After coffee and breakfast, we load the kayaks by the rosy light of sunrise and set off together, lines of silvery flying needlefish leading the way.
Other days we rise at our leisure, taking time to soak in the early morning calm. Midmorning we would launch our kayaks and paddle to a sheltered cove for some hiking and snorkeling.
Hundreds of fish and invertebrates live in the Sea of Cortez, making it ideal for snorkeling. Brightly colored marine fish such as the yellow-and-blue sergeant major and orange-tailed grouper scurry by our masks. Scorpion fish, masters of camouflage, disguise themselves as barnacle-encrusted rocks. Bright red starfish and spiky sea urchins cling to rocky ledges, and spiny lobsters peek from the crevices.
At the shoreline, orange, polka-dotted crabs scampered over the rocks. Tide pools were filled with mysterious, tiny organisms. Fast-moving shells harbor shy hermit crabs, who will gladly invade an open sleeping bag—given the chance.
Hikes often entail scrambling up crumbling sandstone cliffs, past elephant trees and assorted cacti, for a crow’s nest view of the area. We are treated to bird songs supplied by doves, gulls, hummingbirds, and gnat-catchers.
After a week of paddling around various islands, we head back to the mainland. To balance out our Baja experience, our tour leader arranged a dinner with a local ranching family. We were graciously invited into their modest home for a meal of freshly picked squash and garlic, rice and onions, goat cheese, homemade tortillas, and basil tea. Sitting under the thatch-roofed patio, sharing food, and laughingly trying to make ourselves understood, we get a real sense of the warmth and pride of these rural Mexicans.
And then, suddenly, the trip is over. While I admit to resorting to an Ibuprofen occasionally, it was worth it. I hardly thought about my everyday problems for nine glorious days. In fact, the last time I had such a relaxing vacation I was about ten years old, paddling a canoe at summer camp.
Baja’s Pacific coast is home to a series of lagoons sheltered from the open sea by barrier islands. These sandy islands protect the lagoons from ocean currents, creating a fascinating environment of twisting, mangrove-lined estuaries, sand dunes, and blooming desert plants.
Each winter, hundreds of gray whales travel over 6,000 miles from Alaskan feeding grounds to mate and bear young in these protected waters. Once hunted by humans to the edge of extinction, California Gray Whales have staged a remarkable comeback. From January through March, the whales and their calves are the main attraction in this region for kayakers and tour boats.
“Kayakers have a remarkable opportunity to observe gentle gray whales close up without intruding,” says Terry Prichard, who operates naturalist-guided sea kayaking excursions. “With luck, we can witness courtship and calving.”
From base camp on a secluded barrier island, kayakers can venture in search for whales in the lagoon and birds among the mangroves. Often, they see whales from their tents, and can hear their breathing when lying in bed at night.
In addition to whales, the lagoon is home to dolphins, sea lions, pelicans, and thousands of shorebirds. There is a profusion of birds—ibises, six species of herons, and the rare mangrove warbler. Miles of uninhabited beaches littered with shells are a beachcomber’s paradise.
“It’s a wilderness—a very pristine, unique environment,” says Prichard. “If you enjoy nature, paddling in Baja’s western lagoons is a must.”
Paddling Baja offers kayakers a perfect opportunity to explore two dramatically diverse environments: the unique flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert and the abundant marine life of the Sea of Cortez. One hundred and twenty species of cactus are found on the Baja peninsula. Blue-footed boobies, high flying frigate-birds, osprey, and squadrons of pelicans soar above on the lookout for fish. Opportunities for encounters with playful dolphins as well as fin and blue whales—the largest mammals on earth—await patient paddlers.
Ellen Clark is a travel photographer and writer. For more information, you can visit her website at www.ellenclarktravel.com.
Using Loreto or La Paz as a base for going kayaking in Baja?
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