There I was – floating on a clear sea under the warm sun with amazing scenery in every direction when this wave of pure contentment went through me. I’m so glad I’m here, I thought.
“Here” was Baja California. The first time I saw Baja was in 1987. I had gotten one of my “notions” that a Baja Sea Kayaking course with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) was just what I needed at that time in my life. Turns out I was a total babe in the woods -or desert as it were. No one could have convinced me that nothing I’d done so far in life had prepared me for NOLS.
Even though I was totally out of my element on that course, the experience definitely proved to be a big influence on my life. I fell in love with the remote beauty of Baja. It was where I learned to paddle. It was responsible for my ongoing struggle to master Spanish… to learn more about the night sky and maybe something about the ocean and flora and fauna…
In the early years, I returned often. In more recent years I often looked into going -but was unable to work out the right trip …or flight arrangements. This fall, I realized that it had been 15 years since I’d last been in Baja to paddle and I knew it was time to go back. Luckily I was able to find space on two back-to-back trips with Baja Expeditions AND a really good flight -although it meant that I’d have to fly into Cabo San Lucas and take a van transport several hours North to the city of La Paz.
Baja Expeditions has been around for a very long time in Baja. They operate a variety of tours in the region for activities like whale watching, kayaking and diving. Their island hopping kayak trip followed a route to the North from La Paz toward the town of Loreto. The coastal kayaking trip started near Loreto and worked it’s way South back to La Paz. It seemed like the perfect combination. So I booked it.
It was a long travel day. I was OK with taking the van from the airport to LaPaz, but I wasn’t prepared for the milk run… There are two ways to get to La Paz from the airport. The driver took the long way, which probably adds an hour to the trip. We did get some scenic experiences along the way… I was able to spot Lands End (the very end of the Baja Peninsula) as we passed through Cabo San Lucas. I snagged a picture (blurry) of the famous (courtesy of the Eagles) Hotel California in a nice town called Todos Santos and we also got to go through a Mexican army checkpoint! (We don’t need no stinking badges!) After about 4 hours of “scenery” I finally arrived at the Hotel Marina in La Paz.
The next morning, I found myself in the hotel lobby anxiously waiting for the trip to begin. That morning and the night before I’d looked around the hotel restaurant and grounds trying to identify possible fellow travelers, but couldn’t spot any likely candidates. I was immensely curious to know who was going out into the wild with me!
The van pulled up and still no co-adventurers… Then, all of a sudden it seemed as if they descended all at once. They sort of did. That’s when I found out that a group of 10 people from the Denver area had all signed up for the trip together and I was lucky number 11. Of course, my first worry was that they were going to treat me like the weird cousin that everyone wishes wouldn’t show up to the family reunion, but they assured me they were a fun group and would not leave me feeling left out. My first impression was that they were entirely too happy…but true to their word, they worked hard to make sure that I was not excluded and they turned out to be a very fun, energetic and extremely nice group of people who I’m grateful to for making the first half of my adventure really special.
Off we went in the van to Baja Expeditions HQ where everyone that needed it was fitted with snorkel gear.
Next we were transported to the marina where our “mother ship” the Pez Sapo awaited our boarding. The Pez Sapo was our transport when called for, housed the kitchen facilities for Juan Carlos (our chef), carried the kayaks and other gear and pulled the panga (Delfin -dolphin) when we were moving camps.
Our guide was Pedro (yes the “Vote for Pedro” joke was made – many times!) He was one of the best, if not THE best, guides I’ve ever had on a trip like this. He obviously not only loves Baja, but knows Baja and enjoyed teaching us about the environment we were in. He did it with humor and patience. He had us all eating out of the palm of his hand within moments.
The first camp was on Espiritu Santo island, which is the crown jewel of a developing natural park system in the Baja region. Baja Expeditions has permission to have a couple of base camps on the island and we were brought to one after about a three hour ride.
At our camp, the first order of business was a wet exit exercise with the kayaks, something we all approached with the same enthusiasm as Marie Antoinette approached the guillotine. Basically what the wet exit does is show the inexperienced paddlers how to get out of the kayak if they do happen to tip over and what to do next. I haven’t done a wet exit accidentally or intentionally in years. Let’s just say it’s not very glamorous getting a nose enema! Once we were in the water we were supposed to go through the motions of flipping the kayak back over and climbing back in -which is not easily done and which really takes a lot of practice to do. More practice than this trip was going to provide. That said, I do think it is a good thing to go through a wet exit in a controlled situation. I think it helps remove the nervousness of “what if I tip over?” for novice paddlers.
If there is one area I’m woefully out of practice on -it is self-rescue. Have you seen the spinning squirrel feeders? The ones that have a piece of corncob on them and when the squirrel jumps on it for the corn, the feeder starts spinning round and round? It took everything Pedro had to keep the kayak upright while I was thumping around on it trying to get back into the seat….with visions of me clinging to the kayak and spinning around and round like a squirrel if he let go!
Once we finished losing our dignity, we set up our tents. Baja Expeditions supplies all the camping gear. We were given a dry bag with bedding in it (sleeping pad, bag, sheet, blanket and pillow) and a tent. The tent was not difficult to set up -although it is always easier when someone lends a hand. There was always someone to lend me a much appreciated hand. As I stood on the beach clutching my tent bag that first day I was faced with a dilemma of delicate proportions. Where to set up my tent? Evidently, I snore. And, according to Mike, it is not an adorable, girly sort of snoring; I apparently routinely break the sound barrier. Of course I took refuge in denial (deliberately ignoring the fact that Mike has stock in the foam earplug company). Denial worked for awhile…until one of my sisters’ put her new iPhone to use during a sleep over, recorded me and played it back. After that, I took on a Mother Theresa-like crusade to spare the innocent from being subjected to my horrifying affliction. I debated: I could just nonchalantly set up my tent and pretend I didn’t know -but I imagined the awkward morning after…the averted eyes…the whispers… “did you HEAR her?” “Who didn’t?” If I just went off far far away on my own I worried that I’d be seen as not a team player…. What to do? Suddenly I blurted it out… “I SNORE! I’m going to spare you all by going over there… it’s not you, it’s me!” I owned it. I created the official sub-division of Snoreville at every camp -and I wasn’t alone. And, as it seems to happen every time I made a big deal about it everyone claimed they didn’t hear a thing.
As a beautiful sunset painted it’s welcome, dinner arrived. The crew consisted of Oligario, our captain; Mario, the deckhand; Juan Carlos, the chef; and Aaron, the panga driver and all around helper. They were absolutely great – and full of fun. The food was fabulous!
These trips are billed as paddling trips, but the truth is they are a bit of everything – paddling, snorkeling, hiking, relaxing… If the weather was too windy and we needed to stay on schedule, we were often transported to the next camp on the Pez Sapo.
Waking up on our first morning, the plan was to do a day paddle along the island’s shore with a possible stop for snorkeling. We set up our kayaks and put our gear in them and pushed off of shore – only to find out once we were out on the water that our plans were changing due to a weather report.
It was decided that we would now paddle along the shore and then be picked up by the Pez Sapo and taken to the sea lion colony (at the far North end of the island). One of the things I’d been looking forward to on this trip was swimming with the sea lions. I brought my GoPro video camera with me on the trip mainly so that I could film them – having been there before in the past and knowing how hard it is to photograph them because they move so fast. Because I was saving my battery for that occasion, my GoPro had been left in my tent for the day -because when I left the beach we weren’t going to the sea lion colony! I didn’t have time to go back and get it. SIGH…. I did manage to get some pictures, but I was quite disappointed that I didn’t have my video camera with me.
After paddling for a couple of hours, we loaded the boats onto the Pez Sapo, then had lunch, and then took a short ride to the colony.
Los Islotes is one of the biggest sea lion colonies in Baja with up to 500 sea lions living on this really small rocky protrusion sticking out of the Sea of Cortez. On one end of the island there is a rocky arch that we were able to swim through to the other side and back. It was a very fun experience -a highlight of the trip.
The next day’s plan was to move to the next island North – San Jose. The big winds they were concerned about didn’t materialize, but it was plenty windy to give us a bit of a bumpy ride on the Pez Sapo for a few hours as we motored our way North. After the open crossing between the islands, we arrived in a protected enough spot at the South end of San Jose to stop the boat and have lunch.
Some of the group used the stop to go snorkeling. I stayed on board because I was avoiding getting wet. Before the trip I decided I needed a couple of new bathing suits. Anyone from Michigan knows that it is nearly impossible to find a bathing suit this time of year -and I found that to be true on the internet too. I finally found a tankini in my size, with two different patterns and happily bought one of each. What the website that sells these bathing suits didn’t mention was that you need to be a contortionist to get out of them -especially when they are wet! They also didn’t dry fast. Whenever I had to go into my tent to change out of my bathing suit, I imagined that from the noises I was making and the obvious struggle going on inside (picture the imprint of my feet, elbows and various body parts pushing out the sides of the tent in my desperate bid for freedom) that if they didn’t know better, my fellow paddlers would have thought I was wrestling alligators in there! The good news is that the more I wore them, the easier it got.
Anyway, on a nearby small island was a fishing village called Partida. At first glance my impression was that it had been inspiration for the Popeye movie set village. It looked like there might be maybe 8-10 houses there and it looked like the zoning had been decided by a toss of pick-up sticks. An American woman who has a house on the island swam out to our boat and invited herself aboard. She was hoping, I think, that we would all drop what we were doing and go help her get a roof on her house… she was a bit odd to say the least. We asked why the fishermen didn’t settle on the bigger island (San Jose) that they were just offshore of and the answer was that it was too “buggy” on that end of San Jose and the little island provided a better situation for the fishermen.
While the group was snorkeling, the crew was leaning over the side of the boat spotting clams on the bottom -about 12 feet down. When people started to return from snorkeling, Aaron borrowed a mask and dove down and got several of them -which were used a day or so later in one of our meals.
We eventually made it to our new camp on the island of San Jose -and got our camp organized.
The next day we woke up to rain – pouring rain. Pedro convinced us to seize the day and do a morning paddle around the bay we were in. Being a fair-weather paddler, it didn’t sound like a plan to me. I have to say it was actually pretty fun. We saw two dolphins while we were out.
Just as we called it a day and went to shore, it really started pouring and blowing, so they loaded us up and took us out to the Pez Sapo for the rest of the day since we didn’t have a shelter set up on the beach to hang out under. We passed the time playing games and waiting. We all tried to get some of our wet things dried out in little protected nooks and crannies on the boat, but the gusty wind often made our makeshift drying spots precarious. One woman’s shirt blew right off the boat and sank! Pedro is a swimming coach and loves to swim -he jumped right in and started diving for it. He actually found it! As that was going on and we were watching the action, another man from the group was standing at the back of the boat and happened to look up toward the upper deck (where the kayaks usually were -and where we were trying to hang things) only to be practically hit in the face with my shirt which was next to blow off. Thank goodness he caught it!
Back on shore, we learned that 5 of 7 tents had taken on water. Luckily mine was one of the dry ones. Since I hadn’t been using my sleeping bag, I was happy to donate mine to another couple so that they could have something dry to sleep on.
We became something like Pavlov’s dogs. Most of the time breakfast, lunch and dinner were prepared on the Pez Sapo and then loaded into the panga to be delivered to the beach. When we heard the telltale sound of the panga engine being started and motoring to the beach, we tended to drop everything and head to the “dining hall” (essentially a couple of tables to use as a buffet and plastic chairs to sit on as we ate with our plates in our hands) ready and willing to eat whatever was being delivered. Each dinner was preceded by about 1/2 hour with happy hour. When they landed with the happy hour “drink of the day” and some snacks, Juan Carlos would yell… Happyyyyy houuuuurrrrrrr! Usually that was a formality because we would already be there!
One couple in our group had decided to go for a little solitude and went a respectable distance down the beach which -as my pictures show- turned out to be a bit of a conflict of interest with the placement of one of the bathrooms!
It was time to move camp again. We had a very long, bouncy-castle ride crossing over to the mainland. We pulled up in a bay near a settlement called Timbabichi where lunch was served aboard and we were then taken to shore to stretch our legs. The area held an estuary and there were lots of crabs, birds and other wildlife to see. We climbed a small hill where Pedro found and opened a pitaya -a cactus fruit- for us to taste. It is good, but sort of stringy.
After our short walk, it was a quick hop up the coast past a couple of bays and we were at our next home away from home -Puerto Gato. It was a very pretty spot.
We quickly set up our camp and settled down for the afternoon. Several of us took mini-baths in the ocean and then rinsed off with fresh water. It was nice to have clean hair. It was also Halloween and, if you’d met them, you wouldn’t be surprised to know that my co-adventurers had brought Halloween costumes with them! It was a very fun thing to do.
The next morning, we again awoke to less than optimal weather wind-wise so instead of paddling, it was decided that we’d hike 3-4 miles to Timbabichi. The day before we’d met Timbabichi’s patriarch, Manuel. He was a nice man who obviously took advantage of any opportunity that passing travelers provided to try to make some extra money. He had offered to lead our group from our beach to Timbabichi and then drive us back in his pickup truck.
It is difficult to describe these fishing villages and settlements along the coastline. They live very simply and, as I commented during the trip, are the ultimate recyclers. Things we might think of as trash are put to use in imaginative ways by the locals. But it is a tough, hand-to-mouth existence.
Arriving in Timbabichi, we were invited onto the patio area of Manuel’s home where he showed us some dinner napkins that his wife had embroidered in hopes we would buy some – many in the group did. I would have, but the one I wanted was spoken for before I could do so. Manuel brought out some very old family photos and a framed copy of the story of Timbabichi. It was started when a man arrived there around 1900. Within a couple of years, this man found a large pearl that he was able to sell for an amazing amount of money (for the times). He used the money to buy a boat to continue fishing and looking for pearls. A few years later, he found an even bigger pearl and sold it for enough money to hire workmen and buy materials to build a large house. He married and had 12 children. Over time, the winds of fortune changed and Timbabichi fell on hard times. The house is now a ruin -but Manuel’s wife is the grandaughter of the man who settled Timbabichi and about 65 other family members live in the settlement.
There was a thriving pearl industry in Baja from the time of the Spanish explorers up until the early part of the 1900’s. By the 1940’s it was gone due to over fishing and an unknown disease that wiped out the remaining beds. I am thinking about reading Steinbeck’s The Pearl again because it was written about the Baja pearl industry and I think small places like Timbabichi often claim that their little corner of Baja was the inspiration for the book.
Manuel had also offered to fish for lobsters for our group, an offer which was heartily endorsed by at least 10 of us! (I don’t eat seafood). It was a dinner that (almost) everyone was looking forward to. While we were waiting, we decided to climb up to a cross that had been placed at the high point at the Northern entrance to the bay. Pedro said that these crosses are usually placed by fishermen. I have seen several along the coast of Baja.
It was quite gusty – so I didn’t take the last small section to the cross itself. The way was quite narrow and it was like walking a balance beam while being batted by wind. I decided to live to hike another day. The view from where I was was enough for me.
You can see our camp down below in the third picture if you look close. We had chosen to go up to the cross around sunset time, thinking it might be interesting to see it from higher up (although we knew we needed to get safely down before it got too dark). While we were up there we heard the very unmistakable call… “Happppppy hoooouuuurrrrrr!” We made record time getting back down to our camp!
Also while we were up there, the battery on my camera died. I had discovered during the week that I’d brought the wrong cable for charging my camera batteries -so when they were gone, they were gone. I had a teeny amount left in the other one -and wore that one out later that evening taking pictures of the lobster dinner.
Our last move for camping was to a bay called Ballenita (little whale). I asked the Denver-ites for pictures of our last beach – but haven’t gotten them yet. Turns out I was going to see that beach again anyway (so you’ll see it in Part 2). Again, it was too windy to partially paddle the distance, so we traveled on the Pez Sapo. It was a tough job to laze about on the boat watching the scenery go by! By now, we were a drill team when it came to unloading our gear and getting our camp set up -and so we did.
The group decided to paddle South (more protected from the wind) around the next point and do some snorkeling. I decided to stay in camp and write… or… maybe watch the back of my eyelids. The panga had followed them -and ended up bringing the paddlers back while pulling the kayaks behind.
That evening we had our last night “fiesta”. They brought a simple grill to the beach and grilled some beef to use in making fajitas. It was a fun, but bittersweet, night because the next day we’d be returning to civilization -Loreto- and the trip would be over.
We woke up on our last day just after the wind had blown in and a brief shower had fallen -enough rain so that we could enjoy packing up wet tents- with Pedro reminding us to watch for scorpions underneath them! They were only baby ones.
We had to pack up and be on the Pez Sapo by 9:00 so we could meet our transport to Loreto at a beach called Ligui. The ride was gorgeous (no camera) but made even more amazing when several dolphins decided to race us along our bow wave. We all rushed up front to watch their antics. They were jumping, slapping their tails, spinning just below the surface…and always checking us out to make sure we were being an appreciative audience! No worries, we couldn’t take our eyes off of them. They stayed with us for about 20 minutes. Pedro said that if it had been another day (not our last) that they would have stopped the boat so we could get in the water with them because their actions indicated a willingness to interact with us. Thanks to Ralph (a friendly “Denver-ite”) I can share a couple of pictures of the dolphins.
Before long we were unloading our baggage at Ligui, hiking to the van (stuck on the other side of a muddy section of road the driver had no intention of crossing) and riding in the van to Loreto. Loreto is one of the historic mission towns along the coast -settled by the Jesuits in 1697. It is a medium sized town that I like very much. They seem to be doing a lot of projects to “dress up” their public areas such as the Malecon (the promenade walkway along the shore) and the historic center of town. The hotel was cute, with a nice courtyard/pool area. We all probably rushed straight for the showers before anything. Later that evening, we met up for a final farewell dinner. The next day, I waved a fond farewell to my new friends from Denver and started to get ready for the second trip. I was able to take a few pictures around town with the GoPro camera. Luckily, I found a generic charger at a photo store in town that allowed me to re-charge the camera batteries before I went back into the wild the next day.
Categories: Baja 2013