For human interlopers in kayaks, some sort of wild entertainment is almost always at hand.
Mexico's Baja Peninsula is a contradictory land of heat and cold, sea and desert. The cactuses are often more widely separated than trees on a New York street, and when the sun is up, almost nothing moves.Even the rattlesnakes sleep in the shade of rocks, waiting for the night to relieve the heat as the temperatures fall 30 degrees or more soon after the sun drops. It is a land of spines and barbs, of tumbled seaside rocks sharp as hatchets. Life begins at the water's edge.
That is where osprey, sea gulls and cormorants congregate on the rocks, where rock lice skitter ahead of one's steps on the small offshore islands. Gray whales swim from Alaska to the Pacific coast to have their young; many travel another 200 miles or more to the Gulf of California to feed before re-turning.
For a person paddling a kayak, it means that there is usually some sort of wild entertainment not too far away. It might be a school of fish leaping out of the water as a shark feeds below, or a group of curious sea lions peering over the waves to observe the human inter-lopers.
Last April I joined three others for a seven-day sea kayaking trip to the islands in the Gulf of California near Bahia de los Angeles, about a third of the way down the Baja's eastern coast. Our group was led by Florin Botezatu of Miramar Adventures in Seattle, an outfitter who leads expeditions in that area.
While van pools and charter flights are available into Bahia de los Angeles, our group decided to meet in San Diego and travel together in a rental sedan with front-wheel drive, which proved well suited to the rigors of the land as long as we didn't wander too far from the highway. We took Highway 1, also known as the Trans-pen-in-sular Highway, which connects to a 42-mile road leading directly into Bahia de los Angeles.
Some say the drive of about 425 miles can be done in a day, but, forewarned of jalopies without lights, we made it a two-day trip, with a stopover at a motel on the Bahia San Quintin. More time on the road allowed us to inspect the curiosities dotting the countryside after the built-up areas slid away south of Ensenada.
Chief among these curiosities is the cirio tree, a monstrosity that looks as if it had leaped from the ground and buried itself again head first, leaving only a giant tap root exposed to the sky. It is also known as the boojum, a name given it by Lewis Carroll in "The Hunting of the Snark."
There are occasional mission ruins - like the Mision Santo Domingo, on a side road north of Colonia Vicente Guerrero - that are worth seeing if for no other reason than that they are always near one of the few sources of fresh water.
A side trip to visit the ruins can be a respite from sand and cactus, offering a reward of blooming desert willows and tamarisks accompanied by the sound of rippling water.
While the highway is sometimes bumpy or narrow, its grading and paving in 1973 forever ended the images of the Baja as a country only for dune buggies with roll bars. Turnoffs along the route offer access to stretches of countryside that are perfect for a picnic in the shade of a blooming mesquite.
From the edge of the mountains before it descends to the coastal plain, the connecting highway to Bahia de los Angeles offers a magnificent view of the bay, the small huddle of buildings in town and the imposing bulk of Angel de la Guarda Island about 15 miles out in the gulf. From there the water is an iridescent azure and the land is a palette of tans and siennas with some solemn volcanic blacks mixed in.
The town, of mostly white or gray low stucco houses, runs about four blocks deep for less than a mile along the main road before trickling out to a single line of houses along the bay, save for one area to the south where a rocky cliff has claimed shoreline as its own. Though there are a couple of hotels in town, we were headed for the cabins of Camp Gecko, where our outfitter had made his base and stored the kayaks he had brought from Seattle.
The dirt road to the beachfront camp was a torture test for shock absorbers, but it was also a sign that we had truly left civilization. While the cabins had toilets, and showers were available in a separate building, gone were the generators that provided electricity in the towns farther north.
With the setting of the sun came our introduction to the other main character of life beside the sea: the wind. After a good meal of fresh fish on a cabin porch a chilly breeze blew in and the daytime temperature of about 90 fell into the lower 60s, prompting a quick change into heavier shirts.
After waking with the sun and having a big breakfast of eggs with ham, bacon and potatoes, our group got together with Botezatu for some instructions in the basics of kayaking. Throughout the trip we used two-person sea kayaks that require the person in the rear to coordinate strokes with the person in front and to handle the rudder.
If one has no experience with sea kayaks, it can take some adjusting, but it is quickly learned. We had all had experience either canoeing or kayaking, so the lesson quickly covered the essentials of launching, steering and paddling, and we were soon on our way to Punta Arena, a spit of land with a lighthouse three or four miles away.
It was an easy run over light swells. The sandy point had only a few straggling plants, but the beach was a good place to eat the sandwiches we had brought along. I went to the lighthouse at the end of the point and, perhaps unwisely, climbed its circular staircase, even though its rebar support was broken on the bottom three steps. But the view of the bay stretching some seven miles to the south was well worth it.
As we headed back, a north wind came up at about 10 miles an hour with gusts nearly twice as strong, pushing us around as we paddled a mile back to Guillermo's Restaurant in the village and making for a choppy landing - not a good thing for our Fiberglas kayaks, which scratch easily.
The next morning we were off for four days and three nights of paddling and camping among two clusters of islands that began about three miles offshore and about four miles north of Punta Arena, where we had been the day before. The largest, Isla Coronado, was about six miles long and was dominated by the black hulk of an extinct volcano.
As we put in about two miles north of the lighthouse at Punta Arena, we staggered under the weight of the kayaks, which had grown from dolphins into whales with the addition of food, tents, and about two gallons of fresh water for each person each day. But once the craft was launched, the sea water lifted it nicely.
We made a run of about five miles, circling from the southwest of Isla La Ventana to a cove on the western edge of the island in about three hours. An American couple was already camped there, but we decided to pitch our tents near some steep cliffs that cut off all wind from the north and east.
In the afternoon we headed up the cliffs and explored the square mile of land. We came across a pair of ospreys feeding their good-size chick in a nest on a rocky point.
Hiking through the central bowl, which was encircled by cliffs, we found cardon cactuses, red-headed barrel cactuses and a variety of cholla, as well as several specimens of Adam's Tree.
Spirits were high and the meal of fish and rice that Botezatu prepared that night was outstanding, but everyone was asleep by 9 on a soothing mattress of sand.
That was for the best, because a radiant sun aroused us at 6. We quickly gathered our gear and headed for Isla Coronado. Off to our right was an island that had been turned into a bird sanctuary and defied the dominance of tans and browns with a coat of white. At lunch on a rocky beach on the southwestern coast of Coronado, we came across sea gulls with nests above the high tide line. The gulls allowed us to walk up to the nests and look at the eggs without any show of alarm.
We spent two nights on the eastern coast at the narrowest part of the island, not far from a camp set up by Mexican fishermen in a wave-hollowed rock and a pair of Americans who were expecting about half a dozen friends to show up for kayaking and snorkeling. We had not come equipped for snorkeling, because fins would have taken too much of our precious cargo space, but one of the Americans said the waters around the island offered a fabulous array of rays and iridescent fish.
We portaged the kayaks with a minimum of equipment and put into the lagoon to circle the island, a trip of some nine miles that we accomplished in about five hours in the lighter kayaks. We spent the remaining hours of daylight in luxurious laziness on the beach.