“To find the Baja of myth and legend, one must do what adventurers have always done—travel light and fast and beyond the creature comforts of so called eco-tourism.” Kenny Howell, veteran Sea of Cortez kayak explorer and guide
Over two decades ago I made the kayaker’s pilgrimage to the Baja peninsula in northwestern Mexico to experience first hand the Desert Sea of California Sur. It was winter and chilly at night, but the beautiful azure water was cool, not cold. My friend Jim Kakuk and I spent two weeks with our girlfriends walking and camping on the beautiful beaches of Danzante and Monserrate, diving for our supper, island-hopping in our kayaks, and simply enjoying spectacular views of the Sierra Gigante to the west, conical volcanic islands, and golden sunsets across blue seas. It was heaven on earth. I didn’t want to leave and couldn’t wait to return.
I hitched a ride home with fellow kayakers and all was groovy until we were stopped by the police a few miles south of Ensenada. The senior policeman scratched his head and said, “Uh, you get ticket for uh, having kayaks on top of car.” That meant our vehicle would be impounded, and we’d have to hang around a few more days, at best. Our driver protested but finally we convinced the officer to “take care of it” by giving him a bribe of $50. The incident was just one of those things that often happens in semi-lawless Baja, and was part of the experience. I laughed it off.
A few years later, Jim Kakuk and I went to Baja again for three weeks with Misha Dynnikov. On this trip, we were stopped five times by the Federales (young soldiers with big machine guns waving in all directions). It was a disconcerting nuisance, but we still had a wonderful time once we left shore. Again, I fell in love with Baja. There were fewer fish, but other than that, it was just the same—same sea, same sky, same sunsets.
I’ve been hankering to visit Baja again, but over the past few years, banditos have really bothered visiting kayakers. Jim Kakuk went back a few years ago and the transport vehicle was broken into and ransacked. Another friend of mine (not a kayaker) was robbed and shot (he lived) while buying pottery. Neither of these events was newsworthy, but highlights the risks associated with a trip to Mexico.
Lately I’ve read the daily news about shootouts on the streets, drug gangsters decapitating and blowing up each other and the police, and two dozen tourists who were killed and dumped in a ditch. True, most of the violence is by Mexicans toward Mexicans. But American gringos with kayaks really stand out. I’ve decided the risk outweighs the reward. I won’t be going back anytime soon, but I yearn for Baja. It’s in my soul and will never go away.
My good friend Kenny Howell disagrees with my pessimistic assessment. He admits that northern Baja (especially around Ensenada and Tijuana) can be really bad for tourists, and should be avoided. He says the southern tip of Baja around Cabo San Lucas is also problematic. But he insists that the Sea of Cortez from Muleje through Loreto and down to La Paz is still worth visiting today. A look at the map shows where these three kayaking put-ins are located.
One of Kenny’s favorite places is Espiritu Santo island, off La Paz. In fact, Kenny plans to go back to Espiritu Santo as soon as possible. Right, Kenny?
From what I remember, the best times to visit Baja range from November to March, since it is not too hot, as it is in summer. So now really is the time to go. If you are willing to take some risk for a trip into a wild world, hook up with your adventurous (and competent) amigos, or better yet, seek an old hand who knows the ropes. Before you go, contact Kenny. He may guide for you, and if he can’t, he’ll give you good advice and help you plan your trip. Kenny can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or go to the California Canoe and Kayak website at www.calkayak.com to find out more about upcoming trips to Espiritu Santo.
As Kenny says: “Baja can be many different things to different people, but I know what it is for me; a kayak, desert island, a few adventurous and skilled friends—or maybe just your lover, a spear gun, and the rest is gravy. You never know what you are going to see, but you can count on amazing things happening out there. Baja is still good for you, and good for the soul.”
I would love to hear any stories you readers may have about your sojourns to the Sea of Cortez. Please tell of your experiences with coyotes, frigate birds, moray eels, big winds, capsizes, banditos, the search for drinking water and firewood, the awe of being in cosmic bliss….
Vaya con Dios!