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Kayaking Baja Sur

by Scott Goodhue
photos: Betsy Goodhue

The roosters cockle-doodle-dooed us into consciousness before the wake-up call at Los Arcos cabanas. We rose to the warming day in the laid-back La Paz, a small city 80 miles north of the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula. The cost of a single/double room at the only five star hotel in La Paz begins at $75.00 per night. Our cabana at their sister location just down the street was $60.00 and included a porch that overlooked the pool. After a cafeteria-style breakfast at the main hotel we dropped off of our passports, credit cards and plane tickets in a gratis safe deposit box. We negotiated a taxi ride from the eager drivers outside the hotel and headed for Mar y Adventuras.

I was green to green travel. My experienced wife was about to change that.

The outriggers arrived and explained that the skiff was a bit late, but that they were always reliable. We learned from the flight time adjustments at Aero California out of Tijuana that you have to remember to be round about with schedules in Mexico. Plus because my wife, Betsy, and I are on the tallish side, they needed to adjust the rudder pedals for our dimensions. While waiting, we went to the neighboring “yacht club,” which is more like a boatyard with a restaurant and shop. “We don’t want to become another Los Cabos” (where development has gone crazy) a local told me. Although the eateries certainly cater to visitors, the residents are mostly geared toward government, work and the marine industries. And they encourage a good education with emphasis on languages and computers.

Thanks to the advice of the outriggers, the groceries we had bought at the CCC supermarket the previous evening awaited us on a folding table, off the ground where they would have been more accessible to the resident friendly mutts. We finished transferring our items into zip lock bags and nylon stuff sacks. In keeping with the recommended gallon-a-day allotment per person, we also had ten gallons of purified water for our five-day trip. Our tent (for which we were given an assembly sketch and an explanation) fit neatly into a small cylindrical bag. Rental for the two-person kayak, tent, wet suits, snorkel gear, propane stove and point-to-point transportation came to a bit over six hundred U.S. dollars.

Manuel, a jovial man with a silver-lined front tooth, drove us to the put in point. Along the winding way we saw varieties of cacti, a few skinny cattle and road signs that warned, “Curvas Peligrosas.” A secondary school was situated in a beautiful coastal setting some distance from La Paz. He explained that they focus their studies on aquaculture. Thanks to some Japanese businessmen, they had a shrimp farm of two large rectangles dug into the earth across from the campus.

Manuel introduced us to our skipper, Guadeloupe, and bid farewell as we climbed aboard the skiff. Once Guadeloupe dropped us off on a beach on Isla Partida, about a dozen miles northeast of La Paz, we loaded the two-person kayak. Packing is an art to sea kayaking. I was to learn that it involves the regular practice of arranging the gear into the craft, unpacking, locating supplies and repacking. We set off for the sea lion colony near the arched rock, where they are known to frolic with snorkelers.

The most ominous thing first perceived was how barren the island looked. We saw predominately rocks and birds. As we passed along the edge of volcanic cliffs, we began to appreciate the variations of age-old geologic activity shaped by erosion. The islands themselves were once a part of a peninsular range that was a giant batholith sloping downward from east to west. We were absorbed into the red, coral, ferrous, gray, and black terrain. Rough chunks and smooth columnar slabs. In some sea cave areas, impressions were made from gaseous burps during cooling, many of which looked like natural arabesque inscriptions that documented the prehistory event of their own formation.

As we paddled along, we worked on a synchronous rhythm with the oars. I became comfortable with pedal steering the rudder. But the northeasterly winds proved too stiff for our destination. It was time to say “Hola!” to the olas. The swells were about six feet; the sea was full of white caps. My wife’s normally great confidence was shaken, which certainly played upon mine. If we went out too far, the swells got even larger and increased the danger of capsizing. We hugged the shoreline for safety.

The wind plays heavily upon the water. Strong northeasters are rare and tend to be strongest and longest December through February. But they can turn the placid waters into a raging sea with 12 to 15 foot swells.

We found safe harbor on a small beach a few miles south of our origination. Just as we landed, a gringo family was motored in by a guide. They disembarked to relieve themselves and disappeared. Then a large group arrived with many children. They chattered in Spanish and let the kids take turns riding a jetski. Eventually, they too disappeared.

Fish carcasses, including spiny blowfish, small animal skeletal remains and even a pelican head with beak in tact were encountered on our beach strolls. The occasional strewn plastic, bottles and metal trash were found, presumably from fishermen. Although tourists seem to be highly conscientious about not leaving behind trash, remnants were occasionally seen, such as unearthed strips of toilet paper.

We positioned the tent as we saw most aerodynamic against the prevailing northeasterly winds that had caused us so much trouble at sea. Our outrigger had given us five sand anchors: one for the kayak and four for the tent. Each consisted of a small piece of plywood with a length of rope coming through a hole in the center and knotted at one end. We figured how to tie them to the tent rings at each corner and bury them. Regardless, a big gust tore one side of the tent out of the sand. To prevent a recurrence, we learned to bury the sand anchors deeper.

The wind kicked up a sandstorm. Grains of sand that got under the curtain sifted through the mesh areas of the tent. Only we slept fitfully on the beach that night accompanied by the squawks of gulls and pelicans on the cliffs (and whatever unseen creatures were in the surrounds). Our unspoken thoughts included things like, we’re too far out to sea to worry about banditos. If they were at sea, they’d be… pirates. Or drug runners. For a cartel. The kind journalists get murdered for investigating. It’s just the wind. Let’s embrace again…

At daybreak, we shook off the dusting and emerged from the tent. An occasional chipmunk or lizard scuttled away to hide from us. We fired up the propane tank and made coffee.

A pair of stingrays entertained us as they flopped in and out of the water, reaching heights of about four feet. Scientists don’t seem to be certain if they perform this act for mating purposes or perhaps to remove irritating parasites. Either way, it was hard not to think of them when flipping pancakes in the skillet at subsequent breakfasts.

We continued in a southward direction fighting swells by facing them directly then aiming for safer waters on the other side of the cliffs. A wave put us on a crash course toward the rocks. This required some strong paddling for redirection. Our map was a bit cartoonish and it’s difficult to determine scale when you’re not going in a linear path, but we were able to distinguish the notable locations along the way. In particular, the legend explained the symbol markings for the beaches where outfitter expeditions tended to cluster, where good camping spots were, where good snorkeling was and where the mangroves grew.

We camped at the opening between the two islands known as La Partida, which partitions Isla La Partida and Espiritu Santo. On the extended entry, we saw a seal, plunging pelicans, frigate birds, gulls, cormorants, a blue heron, and an eel. The waters were far calmer in La Partida, but as we directed ourselves to the beach, that northeasterly wind pounded against us. We made it to the shore with burning shoulders. Thanks to having brought a Swiss Army knife (the Leatherman is another oft recommended multi tool), I was able to work with reassembling the rudder, which had slipped from its apparatus and dangled off the stern. Kayak rudders have a tendency to pop out in rougher seas or if the cables attached to the pedals have problems. We had been given back up cables but did not need to resort to them. I found you can get along without a rudder just fine by paddle steering, but it does make navigation easier.

For the second half of our trip, the winds were lighter and the waters were smoother. We spent those days along the coast of Espiritu Santo. The island was where the Jesuit Father Taraval took refuge in the 1730s, when the Indians rose up against the missionaries. They had rebelled against the maltreatment that had been taking place since the 1530’s when Cortez came looking for gold and pearls and didn’t find much of either. A Pericu named Fabian accompanied Father Taraval. Eventually, Spanish soldiers came to rescue. Fabian remained loyal until the Spanish soldiers raped his wife. He led an uprising to free other women that had essentially become concubines and was summarily hanged. The indigenous people of the Baja Peninsula eventually were all wiped out from killings, syphilis, dysentery and smallpox. The mestizo people have mixed sangre as descendants of both.

The island is ideal for kayaking because the majority of its beaches and bays face west, on the lee side. Like La Partida, it has a tremendous beauty of desolation. It’s a dry desert world on a thriving wet ocean. Betsy pointed to the sky above us one day and said, “Look, a rainbow.” Could it be? I was used to associating rainbows with rain. Yet there was a wake of vultures circling beside the colorful band that streaked across the sky.

Although the Gulf of California is of an intense emerald color, it has also been called the Vermilion Sea due to Cortez’s bloody influence upon the region. As the sun wanes, the sea takes on more of a blue color. So does the sky. Variations spanned from turquoise and robin’s egg to royal and enamel blues. At one time we looked out on the horizon as we sat in our Crazy Creek chairs. If not for the landmass of the peninsula, which looked opaque in the setting sun, the sky and sea seemed like they would dissolve into a oneness. Later streaks of reds, pinks and oranges brushed dramatically across the dusk sky. And each night, the brilliant light of Venus shone in the April heavens.

“Does it look like a mushroom to you?” I asked. We had set out for our next destination: Playa Gallo by the formation called Mushroom Rock. It towered over us stacked in a triangular form at the edge of a cliff. “I guess it depends on who was looking at it when they named it,” I added. As we approached, I saw a yellowish cube on the beach and said I thought it was a stand of some sort. We pulled the kayak to shore. I walked over and found it was a gutted refrigerator on its side. Despite the fridge, it looked Edenic. We decided to stay for the two remaining nights.

We pitched tent. Although we noticed some small pellets fairly frequently, we did not see the probable producers: black hares or squirrels. A cabin crusier and a sailing yacht were anchored off shore. Beyond them, it looked like it was just we as visitors. I snorkeled along the cliff while Betsy read on the beach. There were triggerfish, angelfish (I particularly liked the adolescents with the shocking purple bodies and orange lips), coronets, and tubular bumpy sea cucumbers.

As I walked backwards in my flippers to get on land, a long strand of kayaks came into view. They pulled to shore. Betsy and I discussed whether we should part for what the map showed to be a neighboring lagoon, but we decided it just couldn’t be as beautiful. We opted to welcome the invasion. After all, this wasn’t our private beach in Mexico just because we decided to pitch tent on it! Soon after the group arrived, a motorboat dropped off supplies and plastic chairs. Bursts of laughter would rise from the group in waves as the guide entertained. One woman in particular had a loud and delirious cackle that we assumed was to assure her mate she was having a better time after an argument. They ate a catered meal. We mixed together noodles with curry. By sundown, they had constructed their tents. They respected our privacy and we theirs. The next day, the group paddled off to their next destination. The man who skippered one of the skiffs introduced himself and exchanged greetings in Spanish. When I needed to ask Betsy a question during our conversation, he switched to English and explained they were from a competing outfitter.

We left our tent and toured the two small neighboring islets for the day. They were bird cloisters of towering red volcanic cliffs decorated with guano. In between the islands we counted 13 dolphin fins swimming just yards away. Although we did not encounter any, the rich biomass attracts Humpback, Fin, Blue and even Orca whales. January to March is the peak time for whale watching.

An oceanography boat from the school appeared towing some fisherman in its wake. One of the fishermen, comfortable with the engine trouble, maximized the opportunity by running a drop line from the back of their boat. It’s a common courtesy to haul to fishermen that have run out of gas.

A couple from Mammouth, California appeared after our return and said they didn’t want to disturb us. They stayed in the area where the group had camped and we enjoyed our mutual seclusion. A few men and teenagers appeared at sundown in a skiff to drop off more supplies, presumably for the tour group. The gutted refrigerator was used for storage. They stayed the night near the couple on the other side of the beach.

As we made our way to our take out point for the skiff back to La Paz, we heard a woman call out from a single kayak. Her husband joined in his. It turned out that Risa and Kevin were marine biologists from Washington state. They had driven the entire way down the peninsula. We took them up on their invitation to snorkel. After the snorkel, Risa referenced the fish we had just seen with a picture book of the indigenous sealife. It had both of the corresponding Latin and colloquial names.

Betsy talked with them about experiences kayaking Alaska. Kevin said, “What’s so great about this place when compared to Alaska is that here, the water’s your friend.” Comparatively it is. At least in temperature. In Alaska, if you capsize, you worry about hypothermia and death soon after. It was smooth paddling now, but they had weathered the storm we had experienced just days before on the other side of the island where there are no sandy beaches for camping. They found a pebble beach near a sea cave after some harrowing rides. They commented on fast we could travel. We had the weight and paddle power in our favor. The advantage they had, however, was the ability to “spin on a dime” at will.

Funny, the couple from Mammoth, California had made a similar comment. But they had a silly inflatable crusing kayak that they had brought along to save on the rental fee. It appeared to be the bane of their trip. Risa and Kevin were far more equipped. They even had a lobster grabber and a fishing spear.

What does it take you to make this voyage? More than just an appreciation of warm climes, sandy beaches and sea life. It also takes guts, endurance, resourcefulness, conservation and a respect for nature. That’s what I find so appealing to ecotravel — being tough but gentle, like nature herself. You have to be physically and mentally capable but kind to your surroundings.

You don’t have to be an amazing athlete to make this trip. You really don’t even have to be a great kayaker. Sure, it helps, from what I had witnessed. But don’t let those images of helmeted white waterers that do rolls underwater worry you. As long as you can comfortably maneuver, are careful about distributing your weight and don’t stray too far from the shore, you can probably handle it. But if you haven’t already done an outing like it, you’ll be encouraged to go with a group expedition.

At about three in the morning our last day, Betsy and I became wide-awake. It’s easy to listen to the sounds around a tent when camping. We had earlier heard rattles that came and went. They were faster than the rhythm of the wind but would fade soon after recognition. We both sat up and looked outside the front of the tent at the water. A narrow band glowed where the waves curled against the shore. It was due to the part plant/part animals known as dinoflagellattes. They produce the effect during photosynthesis. Glowing splotches appeared beyond the surf. The phosphorescence looked otherworldly. But then again, in Baja, much of what is natural seems supernatural.

And sometimes surreal.

Like later, in full daylight. Betsy had noticed a wet stain by the tent and assessed it was urine from some creature. I shrugged it off and took a stroll along the cliffs by the water. There I came across the sandprint from the underbelly of a snake. Nearby was a rock. On it someone had marked three letters with charcoal; O-Y-E. Whoa! That would translate to LISTEN. A warning… about the snake?

Back in La Paz, we wandered along the shops among the strip of restaurants. One had branded shorts and t-shirts with its logo: BYE La Paz. Maybe I had misread the graffiti on that rock. Was the O a B? Had I actually encountered a subtle form of outdoor advertising?

Couldn’t be. Must have needed to shake a little water out of the ear.

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