On the face of it, it didn’t seem like a good idea… to paddle solo in an absurdly overloaded sit-on-top kayak along 100 miles of arguably the remotest and most rugged section of Baja’s Sea of Cortez shoreline.
I knew well from having walked the awesome coastline from Gonzaga to LA Bay over 30 years before, there would be no help or company for most of it. My memories, aided by the few photographs I had from back then, were of walking a narrow, boot-destroying rocky strip beneath seemingly endless cliffs. From a distance it looks impossible, but 99% of the shore is walkable, climbable, or readily skirted, certainly at low tide, but the final 1% was the real challenge, often necessitating wading chest deep in the sea usually beneath towering headlands. It was splendid and beautiful, and I always wanted to go back with time and supplies... and a digital camera.
Knowing it was probably beyond my sixty-year-old self to repeat that struggle, recounted in my book Into a Desert Place, I decided to return by kayak in late October 2015, setting off south from Gonzaga Bay. My sit-on-top kayak, a large, stable Cobra Tandem, was rated to carry 600 lbs. I packed it with all the food and water (and beer), camping and fishing gear I could. In fact, I took three point-and-shoot cameras.
Overloaded, I would be at the mercy of wind and current. A sudden violent west wind, blowing offshore, can and has often proved fatal to kayakers in the Sea of Cortez. Safety required that I follow the coast as close to shore as possible.
As I was running north to south, or more accurately NW to SE, I could expect help from the prevailing NW winds at that time of year. Ideally, I’d be paddling with a moderate tailwind while riding a draining tide.
And such was the temptation to go with the tides, I several times launched in the dark, and beneath the cliffs took my chances colliding with a rock or reef as I streamed along.
And what compensations there were – breathtaking night skies, magnificent shooting stars, and mesmerizing bioluminescence. Nevertheless, it was always a relief to see the first light of dawn and feel the warmth of the sun. Daylight meant I could move in and hug the coast even closer and make a safer landing if I had to.
Temperatures were pleasant. I was often still in shorts and t-shirt when retiring to my tent at night. The sea was warmer than I expected, at least close to shore, as I found out several times when a rogue wave dumped several gallons of it into my lap.
For additional safety, I carried a Spot GPS device which allowed me to send a signal to several email addresses pinpointing my location and stating if I was OK or needed help. And to supplement my water I carried a Katadyn reverse osmosis desalinator which weighed about as much as a gallon of water but enabled me to hand pump close to a gallon of drinkable water an hour from the sea. I would love to have had both devices back when I was walking.
The coastline was every bit as wild and wonderful as I remembered. I recalled vividly several camp sites I had chosen all those years before… And some I chose again. A beach after a long stretch of boulders and cliffs often dictated that choice.
La Asamblea, midway on my journey, was memorable for its wonderfully colored hills and cliffs. One calm and beautiful evening, I pulled into a small, almost completely sheltered cove. Large island rocks isolated the cove and largely concealed it from the open sea. It was an unforgettable former campsite. As night approached and I was setting up my tent, a panga crept slowly north just offshore with tarps covering a cargo that rose a yard over the gunnels. Fortunately, the occupants didn’t spot me. And next morning with the wind gusting ominously and the seas building and sending waves crashing into the rocks, the panga returned south… empty. This time the occupants looked up and appeared shocked to see me. I waved, they halfheartedly waved back. Perhaps fortunately, they weren’t able to land.
And with the wind came clouds, rain squalls, and dramatic lightning displays. Rainbows added extra color to the scene. The wind grew to near gale force. The sea became a wild confusion of roaring surf and sand-colored quivering foam. I had to move the tent and kayak three times as the waves grew bigger and more threatening. There was no way I could get clean sea water to use the desalinator.
Three days later, clear skies returned and crisis averted… I was able to depart the cove, continue my journey and pump more drinking water.
The sea was alive with fish. At one point it seemed I was about to crash into a reef rising suddenly out of deep blue water. As I thrust my paddle to take evasive action, dozens of small fish leaped into the air. I was passing over a huge dark ball of sardines or anchovies. Looking back, the water erupted and boiled as a school of larger fish dashed in to take their share.
Apart from all the plastic and trash, signs of human presence on the shore were few, but I was always glad for whatever shade and comfort the remains of a palapa offered. There were several at the deserted fishcamp of Calamajue. I had spent nearly a week there in 1983 enjoying the extraordinary hospitality of shark fishermen and their families. Memories and ghosts accompanied the further three nights I camped there after pulling my kayak up on the black sandy beach… mice and kangaroo rats overran the structures, and coyotes were abundant, gathering in howling groups in the nearby salt flats.
Contrary winds forced me to take several days to work my way around beautiful Bahia Guadalupe. My final campsite in the bay was the same one I chose in 1983. Back then, desperate for water, I departed that campsite in the dark and with disintegrating boots struggled along the rugged shore almost 20 miles to reach the town of Bahia de los Angeles. When I paddled off into the dark, November 2015, I was prepared to take several days to cover the same distance.
However, there was a perfect tail wind. And the tide was falling. Racing along, I kept on paddling and by coincidence was able to cover the same distance to exactly the same beach in LA Bay as I had in 1983.
It was a dream finish. Bahia had never seemed more bursting with marine life. Whales, manta rays, turtles and fish boils lined my path.
Two of my three cameras didn’t survive, but the memory cards did. Looking back on the 100 miles I had covered, I realized just how much of Baja remains pristine, still waiting for those who seek solitude, challenge and adventure.
During October and November last year I spent 3 weeks paddling a somewhat overloaded sit-on-top kayak from Bahia Gonzaga to Bahia de los Angeles. By the time you read this I hope I’ll be safely paddling my way south from LA Bay. I’ll have no particular goal or deadline in mind… except to relax, explore, and enjoy the ride.
It’s easy to imagine drifting along a remote section of the Sea of Cortez on a warm, calm day, wind and current gently moving you south; colorful cliffs, hidden coves, surprise beaches, wondrous bird and sea life, amazing beachcombing – all yours to enjoy in peace and freedom.
It would be terrific if every day were like that, but as I discovered last year there are no guarantees. I’ll be largely at the mercy of Mother Nature. I may cover the distance with ease or struggle to get on the water at all. Most days will bring challenges and anxieties. I will start with plenty of food and water and even a few beers and I will just keep going till I run out of something… hopefully it won’t be luck!
Kayaking has enabled me to relatively painlessly re-visit some remote and memorable sections of my solo walk around the coast of Baja in the 1980s… as told in my first book: Into a Desert Place. Back then I often fantasized about having a means of floating my gear past difficult cliffs and headlands. Now I can fulfill that fantasy and have access to all kinds of gear and supplies that I could only dream about back then.
My number one consideration is, as it was on my coast walk – water, water, and water! I’ll carry as much as I can, pick it up when I can, and during periods of shore time, pump seawater through my Katadyn handheld reverse-osmosis desalinator which, under ideal conditions, is capable of producing about a gallon of drinking water an hour.
If that fails, I’ll go through the familiar but laborious process of boiling seawater and condensing the steam. I’ll have a kettle and a length of copper tubing for the purpose, and there’s usually no shortage of driftwood fuel on the shore. It takes a little tending and work but you can make about a gallon of water a day with that still.
I have a Spot GPS device, a little bigger than a cigarette packet, which can relay my position and enable me to send one of four messages instantaneously to up to ten email addresses by satellite. I trust the only message I’ll send will be: “All’s Well. No problems!” Otherwise, my options are SOS, Trip over, and Require Assistance. Carrying a Spot is a great comfort, both to me and to friends and family, and a huge advance over the reality of my Into a Desert Place walk when I was sometimes out of touch for weeks at a time.
I’ll also be carrying a handheld marine VHF radio and a small Walkman FM/AM radio for both news and entertainment during long nights in the tent, and also for clues about the weather.
As I may be weeks in the wilds, just about everything I’m carrying – flashlights, cameras, radio, digital tape recorder, etc. is powered by AA or AAA batteries, which I can recharge with three small solar chargers.
Given my fair skin, I’ll be taking an abundance of sunscreen and keeping myself as covered as possible.
I like to keep a low profile when ashore so I’ll have some camouflaged tarps to conceal my kayak and gear when I’m away from camp.
And I wouldn’t contemplate such a trip without a tent to help keep coyotes, rattlesnakes and bugs at bay.
Carrying so much and having such a high profile, I’ll have little ability to battle contrary winds. I need to be patient and pick my days and times to move, and seek to ride wind and current as much as possible.
As I did coming down from Gonzaga I’ll possibly paddle at night to take advantage of draining tides – a most exhilarating and nerve-wracking experience. The nighttime phosphorescence can be spectacular especially when seated only inches above the water with paddle strokes sending back glowing whirlpools into the night and sudden eruptions and flashes as unknown creatures dash beside and under the kayak.
Currents will be wild at times as the extreme tides of the Northern Sea of Cortez flow past the choke point of the Midriff Islands. The Salsipuedes Islands, which translates as, “Get-out-if-you-can,” are well named. Historically, navigation in these waters was hazardous and frustrating. Jesuit padre Ugarte tells how in the early 1700s his ship spent eight days battling up the Gulf past the Salsipuedes only to be suddenly swept back that distance in six hours.
Ugarte wrote: “These are not currents like one sees elsewhere in the Gulf, where one scarcely notices a choppiness or a little noise like that produced by a school of fish. These currents create foaming breakers and the noise is like a river that runs through a boulder field.”
Currents are at least predictable, and at their most extreme around the time of the Full and New Moon. The winds however are the big unknown.
Conditions can change dramatically, especially with sudden, dangerous offshore west winds. I’ll need to hug the shore closely, stay in the shelter of the cliffs, and be always ready to land even if it means an uncomfortable night on rocks or boulders, and possibly even the end of my trip if the kayak is damaged.
My kayak is a well-used, blue Cobra Tandem “sit-on-top.” It has lots of room to carry supplies and camping gear on and under the deck, and is rated to carry as much as 600 lbs. It’s broad and remarkably stable. The downside is it’s not the fastest, and except on the calmest days I’m going to get wet. I chose a sit-on-top because if I flip or end up in the sea I can climb right back on without protracted fiddling, pumping or the need for assistance.
If you cross paths with me between LA Bay and Santa Rosalia, say hi if you can. I’ll always appreciate the latest weather forecast. And I wouldn’t say no to an extra gallon of water or, here I go fantasizing again, a nice cold beer.
Amazing what you can pack into (and onto) a 12-foot-long sit-on-top kayak… and into a day of Baja adventure.
Carrying over six gallons of water and a handpump desalinator to make more, I set off at first light November 1 heading south from Bahía de los Ángeles. I was hoping I could make it at least as far as Santa Rosalía to access the Transpeninsular Highway.
With my embarrassingly overloaded Cobra Tandem kayak looking more like a top-heavy battleship than a sleek sea kayak, I knew safety meant sticking close to shore and quickly finding a place to land if conditions became too challenging.
First day, after a glorious sunrise, with a moderate west wind blowing, and knowing all wind forecasts suggested no surprises, I found myself pushing my luck and cutting more and more directly across Bahía de los Ángeles. Sure enough, mid-bay, a white-capping north wind kicked in which meant I was battling the waves, bracing with my paddle, and taking water over the side. It was a big lesson! Three hours after I launched I was glad to reach the shelter of Puerto Don Juan.
Later that afternoon, I exited the bay and turned south before paddling ashore on a fine sunny, sandy beach and making camp. Part of the setup was placing all food and water inside the kayak or a large plastic bin I brought for the purpose. Everything not in the tent had to be secured and weighed down to coyote-proof for the night.
Sure enough, as I was inside my sleeping bag listening to a World Series game, I heard a scraping noise outside. A coyote was running off with perhaps the one thing not secured – my tatami mat from the tent door!
I settled into a routine of getting up about 4 AM and making ready to go at or before first light. It took me well over two hours to break camp and get underway. Knowing it would take another two hours to land, set up camp again and coyote-proof for the night I was never in a hurry to finish early.
The water was warm, the air temperature was generally pleasant, and I was able to paddle almost two weeks without needing a day off because of the wind.
Nearly every day was a constant procession of dolphins, manta rays and sea turtles, and all kinds of fish including dorado splashing and chasing. I was surprised to see so many blue-footed boobies. In some areas they seemed to be the predominant sea bird. I had brief but close encounters with two large whales… probably finbacks.
The coast itself was spectacular, with colorful cliffs and sea arches, and caves to paddle in and explore. Some of the beaches and coves invited me to pull out the fishing gear and stay a week. But if it was possible to paddle I would. I knew I might be sooner or later forced to sit out a week or more if a powerful north wind pattern developed.
I stopped just for short breaks, to take pictures and enjoy a few reminiscences from the 1980s and the time I walked that coast carrying a backpack. The few fishcamps and communities there brought back fond memories of picking up water and meeting wonderful hospitable characters: Las Animas, San Rafael, San Francisquito, La Trinidad. I picked up water again at the same places.
I only needed to use my desalinator once, just north of Santa Rosalía, at the notoriously windy Cabo Vírgenes.
On three occasions I launched in the dark to take advantage of a receding tide, which meant needing to paddle a little further offshore than I would like to minimize the chance of colliding with a rock or reef. I reveled in the glowing phosphorescence, but it was always a relief to see the light slowly coming into the world. And some of the flaming sunrises were unreal and breathtaking, portraying cliffs and mountains in the most amazing warm purple and orange hues.
One surprise was the amount of driftwood on some of the beaches. Otherwise fine landing spots were untenable because recent hurricane deposited wood and debris was stacked several feet high almost down to the water.
South of Santa Rosalía, late in the day, I ran into a line of cliffs and every landing spot was rocky and uninviting. I dithered too long. It got dark and I was searching the shore in vain with my headlight for somewhere suitable to make camp.
Beyond the cliffs and following a long, steep cobblestone embankment, I paddled more than two hours by starlight knowing San Lucas cove was up ahead with soft sandy beaches and an RV park. I gladly pulled into the bay after 8 PM and headed for the most likely looking lights. Unfortunately, it was a very low tide and the bay was so shallow I kept running aground hundreds of yards from shore. After an hour of that I retreated to the entrance to the bay and did what I’d been trying to avoid all evening, dragged the kayak up the steep rocky slope and made camp on stones and boulders. It didn’t matter; I was so tired I slept like a log. Next morning, the tide was now so high I was able to paddle away almost from my tent door.
The last place I picked up water was San Bruno several miles north of Punta Chivato. I spotted a kayaker in the bay and paddled over to where he’d landed to find out where I could buy water and maybe some fruit. With wonderful kindness he and his wife supplied both and threw in lunch as well.
Shortly after leaving San Bruno I found myself in a sudden wild and dangerous sea. Less than a mile past the last house I carefully rounded a foaming headland and made a tolerable surf landing. I quickly jumped off the kayak and grabbed the front handle to drag the heavily loaded kayak up the beach. Unfortunately, the handle attachment broke! I had to grab the rear handle and spin the kayak around in the surf and drag it up that way.
There was enough of a gap in the driftwood to get my kayak through and enough sand to set up a comfy campsite. It took considerable skill to get the tent up in the wind. The seas looked horrendous. A ship waiting to take on a cargo of gypsum from Isla San Marcos seemed to be precariously anchored in the shelter of the island. I knew I was stuck for a while.
Even though I was a few yards above the last tide line and the tides were falling, I soon realized with the sea running and breaking so furiously it would be a long watchful night to be sure the tent wasn’t washed away. And sure enough about 2 AM I had to get everything out and move the tent to higher and less level ground. It was only just enough.
Next morning, I got a taste of true Baja hospitality. Ed, who had supplied the water in San Bruno, was so concerned he was out searching for me along the shore. He stopped at a little beach rancho to speak to his Mexican friend Pepe. Pepe said he’d seen me paddle by and he too was concerned. Together they came looking for me with a jug of hot coffee and were relieved to see me there.
And even though Pepe’s place was almost a mile away he walked back every day with more coffee and plates of delicious food that his wife had prepared for me. Nothing tasted better. And Ed returned again to bring more fruit and see if I needed anything. It brought back so many memories of my long walk around the coast of Baja all those years ago. So often I heard, “Out here we are all brothers.” And once again I was reminded of that wonderful generous sentiment and the good folks in Baja who help make it such a special place.
Underway again, from San Bruno I made my way past all the beautiful homes at Punta Chivato and camped alone a couple of miles beyond, at the south end of its gorgeous long shell beach.
Next morning, after a little rain in the night, I enjoyed one final spectacular sunrise and made my way past Mulegé and several shrimp boats anchored offshore into Bahía Concepción and ended my journey at Playa Naranjos where I had friends kindly willing to store some of my gear till I could return.
It was another memorable Baja adventure. I certainly had much to give thanks for at our Thanksgiving Dinner in Mulegé.
The latest stage of my kayaking the Sea of Cortez got off to a great start. I stopped at Bahia de los Angeles on the way south to check out my “new” kayak and immediately found myself paddling in the company of several docile giant whale sharks. An amazing experience to have them all to myself for over 30 minutes.
Then it was on to Bahia Concepción and Playa Coyote to continue my journey south. I departed Coyote, November 9, where I’d parked my car with friends, then paddled north to Los Naranjos, where my other stage had ended in November 2016. From there it was a shorter crossing to the other side of Bahia Concepción, but I still had 3-4 miles of open water to cross depending how directly I approached the other side.
I left Los Naranjos at 4:30 AM in the dark. It was calm so I angled more towards the mouth of the bay. I crossed Bahia Concepción by the fading light of a lingering old moon, but I could still see bioluminescence as the overloaded sit-on-top moved through the water. The sun was coming up as I made it safely to the other side. Instead of cobble beaches, my route had taken me to a sand beach and I could see the small fishcamp of Punta Hornitos ahead approaching Punta Concepción.
Although anxious to exit the bay before the wind came up, I had phone service from Mulegé so I made a few quick last minute phone calls then rounded Punta Concepción glad to finally have the prevailing north wind at my back.
I carried about 5 days’ supply of water. My satellite Spot device, hand pump desalinator, and the warm sea gave me confidence.
My first protracted stop was at the old Manganese mine a couple of miles outside the bay. I enjoyed looking around at the remains of the buildings. I might have camped on the pebble shore, but it wasn’t yet noon and I didn’t want to stop so early. Everything seemed fine. I was keen to get a good start and have a long paddle on the first day out of the bay.
I was enjoying the delicious feeling of having the beauty of Baja all to myself. As long as the weather was good and the wind was down or moderately from the north I kept going. I had 3 weeks to make it to Loreto and I was conscious I could lose a week or more if the wind blew for days.
A little wind from the north helped. Not only did it move me south, it created enough waves to spot the hidden rocks and reefs just offshore. The coast was surprisingly reefy; even paddling 200-300 yards offshore I was occasionally surprised to see dangerous rocks beneath the kayak.
For days I saw and spoke to no one. It was just me and the manta rays and the turtles and the fish. What I thought was a person on a beach ahead turned out to be a buck deer with full rack grazing right by the water. That was a Baja first for me.
The Cobra Fish n’ Dive kayak was remarkably stable. I didn’t cut a very elegant figure with the decks so loaded and it would be hard to control in a strong head wind, but my profile was acting like a sail and the wind from the north was doing half the work. Safety for me meant sticking as close to the shore as possible, and being always ready and able to head in and land.
Unless it was calm and flat, I preferred to go ashore as few times as possible, especially on cobble or pebbles. It was easier to see the world go by paddling close to shore.
In the evening, I had to dry out the kayak and the gear, make camp, and coyote-proof everything. Experience had taught me coyotes would be around at night and anything not secure in the tent or hatches or bungeed down was likely to be gone in the morning. By the time the day’s work was over, I usually had little energy to fish or cook. A piece of fruit, a couple of cereal bars, a warm beer for a few days, coffee if I had the energy to get a fire going… and I was ready to sleep.
I was typically up and packing at 4:00-5:00 AM, ready to launch close to first light. Paddling in the dark on the outside of Bahia Concepcion was not such a good idea. The hidden reefs were too dangerous. And I saw a scorpion on the kayak while about to launch one morning! Heading north to south was definitely the way to go with the wind, but the downside is you’re paddling in the morning, half-blinded, into the sun and you feel obliged to move even further offshore.
When the wind was from the north and the tides were falling and draining… that’s when I made the most progress. But occasional south winds made for really hard work.
I picked up my first water and had my first conversation at the tiny protected cove of San Sebastian. I recalled walking in there in 1984. Memories came flooding back. But now, instead of trailers and humble homes really nice houses ringed the beach.
Late afternoon I paddled on to the Mexican fishing community of San Nicolás. The wind and the seas picked up. The kayak was being thrown around in the waves which occasionally came breaking over the deck. I could see the palm trees and the inviting sand ahead. The landing was going to be through the surf and wet. I passed a couple of outlier fish camps and landed near the lagoon in the main village, a hundred yards from the pangas lined up on the beach.
The friendly fishermen offered slightly contradictory advice… one wasn’t going to fish next day as he thought it too windy, another thought it would calm down in the afternoon. I was left alone and slept well on the broad sandy beach.
I was in no hurry the next day. Mid-morning, I launched into surf and white caps hoping it would calm down. It didn’t. If there weren’t beaches on shore in Bahia San Nicolás I wouldn’t have launched. After two miles, with the wind howling, I had to go ashore or risk rolling the kayak. White caps gave way to breaking waves as I paddled in. I surfed ashore onto a sandy beach and quickly as possible got the loaded kayak beyond the waves.
The beach was wide and sandy, but it was a fine sand that blew easily in the strong wind, covering everything. I unloaded the kayak to dry out and kept my gear on a tarp at the high tide line to make sure it wasn’t covered by sand.
As the wind eased near dark I managed to get the tent pegged and most of my gear inside. I was anxious not to be stuck on this shadeless north-facing beach. I might be there unable to launch for a week if the north wind continued to blow.
Although conditions were far from ideal, I was packed and ready at dawn. The seas were still scary. But the wind was sure to pick up. I watched the waves for 15 minutes and got a sense of the pattern of the biggest sets. Even so when I pushed the kayak through the waves I was swamped, and wet, but happy I hadn’t overturned and was soon paddling beyond the breakers.
I rounded rocky Punta San Antonio. And shortly afterwards faced the awesome mass of Punta Pulpito. If I could get beyond that I’d be relatively sheltered and safe. I paddled toward it with the early sun in my face. It was hard to see, and I had to move out to minimize the chance of running onto a rock or reef. Deserving of the utmost respect, Punta Pulpito had been staring me in the face for days. Kayakers had died beneath its towering mass.
Slowly I made the turn, and just as I thought I’m protected I found myself dealing with a powerful headwind on the other side. There were two sailboats at anchor. I slowly paddled towards the bigger of the two. I was able to top up with water and get information from a catamaran off to the South Seas.
Just south of Pulpito, I saw a lovely canyon with a narrow beach entrance. I was able to float and drag the kayak over smooth rock at high tide and unload in beautiful protected seclusion; my plan was to leave the following morning during the high tide. According to the sailboaters – there should be just moderate winds the next day.
After a peaceful night, I was ready at first light. Feeling good with all my water and a reliable wind forecast, I ran directly from Pulpito six or seven miles to the beautiful anchorage and bay of San Juanico (San Basilio). Half way there, I found myself about two miles from shore, and as the wind picked up became increasingly nervous about that distance. I angled closer.
The wind as I approached San Juanico became really strong… really too strong for my kayak. Even though the wind was from the north and I was whizzing along it was tiring continually surfing the waves and trying to keep the kayak pointing in the right direction using the paddle as a rudder.
I was glad to pull into the shelter of the famed bay. Suddenly it was so calm, and spacious inside. There were large houses, beautiful islands, beaches, a shrimp boat and sailboat at anchor. San Juanico is one of the treasures of Baja. After chatting with the sailboater, I camped on a lovely shell beach with early shade and no road access.
Back in 1984, I thought the bay looked wonderful. I promised I’d be back. Well, it took me 33 years and in spite of the houses I wasn’t disappointed. It seemed back then that the line of rocks at the south end – Punta Mercenarios – looked like those at Cabo. I still had that impression.
I was exhausted but I’d made it, and even though tomorrow was forecast to be fine I took a day off and attended to necessary chores like trying to stem a few leaks on top of the kayak. It was too beautiful to go anywhere. As well as caulking the hatches and the rod holders, I explored, photographed, and paddled around the vast bay. San Juanico is a place you may not want to leave.
A week into the trip I took my first day off in beautiful, sheltered Ensenada San Juanico. Late afternoon, a multi-million dollar powerboat, registered in the Caymen Islands, pulled in and anchored.
I paddled out and the kindly crew filled all my empty water containers with clean water. Equally important I got a reliable weather forecast. The next day would be pleasant and calm, then starting mid-morning the following day there would be strong, possibly violent, north winds! The powerboat intended to run to the shelter of the harbor at Loreto.
Back on my beach, I studied maps. I could easily wait out a north wind in San Juanico. Or I could paddle a few miles down the coast to the shelter of Punta Mangle, but I was a little concerned, my kayaking guides mentioned a hotel and development in the bay. I was not sure what I’d find but I thought it wise to get a little closer to Loreto while I could. If camping was not an option at Punta Mangle, there was another less protected beach a little further south or I could run to the beach at San Bruno.
First light Friday I paddled out of San Juanico, passing the dramatic line of rocks at Punta Mercenarios. It was calm, exactly as forecast… and kayaking was a great way to see and photograph a beautiful colorful coast. It was hard to believe a big storm was coming.
I noted that there were few camping options beneath the cliffs. Most beaches were poor and narrow, often with rock fall danger above.
It was still calm and warm as I paddled around the point at Punta Mangle. It offered great north wind protection, and I was glad to see that all the buildings were abandoned. I walked around and explored. There was a largely disused road coming in along the shore from the direction of San Bruno and Loreto. But I was fairly confident there was no one around. It was a ghost resort. White columns stood like Greek or Roman temples on the Aegean. Storms and hurricanes had dumped enough driftwood on the beaches to finish five resorts.
There was all day shade at the northwest end where I camped right on the beach. Judging by the carcasses, fishermen obviously visited and cleaned their catch in the shelter of the bay. There was evidence of recent fishcamp use, and why not. From my point of view it was just perfect and gorgeous. A few vultures waited patiently on the rocks - fascinating rocks that were full of shells and fossils.
I made camp, unloaded the kayak, and assessed my fruit and vegetable position. The only survivors from what I carried from Bahia Concepcion was a still fine looking cabbage – I’d been eating two or three leaves a day – and the inevitable couple of limes.
I slept soundly, alone beneath the stars. Next morning a fishing boat that had been out all night came ashore to clean its catch – further along the beach than before, no doubt as a concession to my presence. They were friendly folks. While two fishermen dealt with the catch, mostly pargo, sea bass, and manta rays, another boiled water for their morning coffee. I gave them a pack of Graham Crackers. And they were soon gone… in a hurry to get to Loreto. They also warned me of strong winds coming in just an hour or two.
I moved the tent up the beach and moved the kayak beside it. Then I boiled my own water for coffee. As the wind increased I found Punta Mangle very well protected. The bay was relatively flat, while the seas outside were white and churning.
I followed the road a mile out from the beach. It seemed more used by horses and coyotes than vehicles. The ruins were intriguing. Punta Mangle looked like not just a failed or unfinished resort, but the walls and staircases were maybe deliberately destroyed. With a nearby mangrove swamp the location might be buggy, but at first glance Punta Mangle deserves a resort. I loved the place and was glad to explore it Saturday and Sunday while the winds blew themselves out.
By Monday I was ready to go. I did most of my packing the previous evening, dragged the kayak back to the water. I was awake early, got the tent down and left in the dark.
There were big waves. I was concerned that if the north wind added to the seas, conditions would quickly become difficult. I paddled down to San Bruno where there is a relatively protected beach to land on. There were boats, palapas etc. but there was no one around. Was another storm coming? I paddled out and looked ahead… to miles of tough cliffs with few landing possibilities. I decided to go for it… then, as the wind picked up, thought better of it and retreated to the sandy beach at San Bruno. After half an hour of dithering, emboldened by the sun, I finally gambled and went for it. It was just too early to camp.
There was enough of a north wind that at least my paddle past the cliffs went fairly quickly.
It was a long run down the coast to Punta Bajo, to where a road runs past dozens of houses and developments to Loreto. It was generally a low rocky coast; numerous signs told of private land just in from the shore. There seemed to be no beaches or inviting places to land or camp.
I had tried to run to Isla Coronado to camp on sand. I attempted to kayak at it from the north but the shallow channel over had big waves and what looked like dangerous breaking surf. Reluctantly, I gave up on that idea as too hazardous, but approaching from the south using the island as protection seemed like a better plan, especially as that seemed to be the way the taxi boats from Loreto were reaching the island.
The distance wasn’t great, just a mile or two, but I was now battling a headwind. It was hard work, taking over two hours to reach the beautiful island. I was glad to round the southern tip and dodge the breakers to finally reach the main beach where the tourist boats anchored. A friendly Mexican was about to leave with his family. He gave me a liter of water and invited me to grab a palapa and enjoy its shade. The last boat took everyone off the island and I was camped alone.
I had shade and tables and benches, and a beautiful beach. There were no coyotes to bother me, just a few bold and ultra-friendly gulls that actually were happy to get inside my kayak and see what I’d brought them. And they soon disappeared. I felt like I was in paradise.
Next morning the boats and the tourists came. Soon there were maybe fifty folks there with me. Most seemed to be wearing wrist bands and had purchased a $3 US day-pass back in Loreto. I had an annual pasaporte permit bought for the San Pedro Martir for 333 pesos or about $17-18 US.
It was good to swap stories. I invited some of the island visitors to use my shade and facilities while I explored. There were great hiking trails all over island, wooden signs identified many of the desert plants for you. I enjoyed my first cold beer for nearly two weeks and it was heavenly. Hadn’t had a drink for days. I was in great shape and a few pounds lighter.
The wind blew strong from the north. But the landing beach was relatively sheltered. Again by 4 PM everyone was gone and I had the island to myself.
It was so wonderful to be there and I was very tempted to stay, but the real world beckoned. I readied the kayak for an early departure next morning. The wind was forecast to be less. The problem would be the residual seas coming from the north. The plan was to kayak off the island to Loreto, more or less back the way I came, using Isla Coronado as protection.
First I angled over to the Baja coast, then headed south past a series of points into the shelter of Loreto Bay before I felt able to get off the kayak and stretch my legs and call Mike Younghusband to let him know I was on my way.
Then all that remained was to paddle to town. After four hours of paddling I pulled up on the beach north of the harbor and was greeted by Mike and his very senior little dogs Max and Rusty.
It was a fitting end to be greeted by someone who walked a burro and a dog from the border to Cabo San Lucas. I enjoyed another cold beer… the first of many to celebrate safely completing the stage: Bahia Concepción to Loreto.
Kayaking Loreto to La Paz
By Graham Mackintosh
Part 1: Loreto to Santa Marta
Over the last 3 years I’ve been kayaking the Sea of Cortez, usually in October and November. I began in Bahia Gonzaga, and the first stage took me to Bahia de los Angeles. The second, from LA Bay to Bahia Concepcion. And last year I paddled to Loreto.
After attending a wedding in England, I started a little later this year – November 25.
Driving to Loreto I stopped at Bahia de los Angeles to enjoy Thanksgiving with friends and test my “new” Cobra kayak and my essential equipment. I was thrilled to find myself paddling with a whale shark.
In Loreto, Baja burro man and adventurer Mike Younghusband offered to look after my vehicle, and to get me down to the shore before sunup. Nearly two hours later I was packed and ready to begin. The winds were calm to moderate northerly – the perfect first day as I made my way past the airport and resorts to land at Juncalito.
The next day wasn’t quite so calm – and I was glad to round a headland and make a protected camp just before the entrance to Puerto Escondido. The winds continued to gust next day, so I busied myself hiking into the hills, admiring the views.
That was the pattern – paddle when conditions allow, hike and fish and relax when unable to get on the water.
Paddling solo… on an overloaded sit-on-top kayak, my goal was to pick my days and launch only when the seas were reasonably calm. Moreover, as far as possible, I paddled close to shore, ready to head in and find a campsite at the first sign of trouble. Wind gusts and white caps generally meant my paddling was over for the day. Safety equipment included a hand-pump desalinator and a SPOT satellite messenger.
Heading north to south allowed me to take advantage of the prevailing winds; but dealing with the morning sun in my eyes proved to be a real problem with rocks and reefs to negotiate.
Glowing eyes and circling paw prints revealed the presence of coyotes most nights. Before getting into my tent I coyote-proofed everything left outside on the kayak, tying it all down and together with at least 25 bungees. The work was worth it… I didn’t lose anything and usually slept uninterrupted.
Often I would launch in the dark if I suspected it would be calmer. That was eerily beautiful but I had to be more careful of colliding with a rock or running aground and would move offshore a little more than I liked.
In spite of the amazing bioluminescence, I was always glad to see the sunrise. The coast was magnificent and colorful. But my main concern was always looking for the next landing spot or sheltered headland. Mercifully, the winds stayed moderate as I passed the three or four worst cliffs or points.
Otherwise, among the cliffs and rocks there were so many beautiful, protected beaches… many with no road access. I would gladly have camped on any of them a week. But if conditions allowed I kept paddling as long as I was able, knowing I could be “stuck” for days if a wind storm hit.
Dolphins, sea lions and sea turtles were seen most days. Approaching Agua Verde I kayaked with a pair of whale sharks, wondering if they were part of the Bahia de los Angeles population heading down to La Paz for the winter.
It was good to have the security of my desalinator… but I preferred to pick up water as pumping took time and was hard work. There were a dozen boats at anchor in Agua Verde and I gladly accepted a water top up (and the wind forecast) from one of the sailboats.
Many intrepid tourists had braved the challenging road into Agua Verde and were camped on the beaches around town. There was a well-stocked store where I bought fruit and supplies (they also sell drinking water), and a lovely friendly restaurant on the beach – Brisa del Mar – enabling me to vary my diet with delicious tacos and a salad.
I hiked the same coast in 1984… as told in my 1988 book: Into a Desert Place. I had several photographs from that walk… including a picture of a pair of Agua Verde fishermen loading their rifles who shot a rabid burro for me. I showed them to the folks at the restaurant. Veronica, the young lady serving me, pointed to the picture and excitedly said, “That’s Antonio, my father.” She was able to add that the other person in the picture, the guy holding the Winchester, Manuel, had passed away a few years ago.
I gave the photograph to Veronica but sadly didn’t get to meet her father again. He was out fishing.
I left Agua Verde at first light and was delighted to round dramatic Punta Marcial with little wind and moderate seas.
Then heading south I paddled past beautiful Santa Marta and thought back to the rabid burro and the kind fishermen who had killed it there for me, allowing me to safely walk on south towards Timbabiche and Mission Los Dolores.
Seen from the perspective of a kayak, the coast between Agua Verde and La Paz is often beautiful and colorful with numerous high cliffs and challenging headlands.
Sharing one protected headland – San Telmo - with the sailboat Schatzi, I made radio contact and was glad to make the acquaintance of intrepid sailors Roger and Lynne from Seattle, and their cute little dog Salty. Next morning, I paddled over to their boat and was able to pick up water and treats and the forecast that I had three relatively calm days before a major wind storm was due.
During that spell I landed on the beach at Dolores del Sur, left my kayak, and hiked a couple of miles inland to visit the remains of the old Jesuit mission. It was a place of memories. I had hiked up there in 1984 as part of my round Baja walk. I had photos of me standing by the same arches and walls.
Back on the beach, I was surprised by rain. So much fell so quickly there was no point trying to get my tent up. I covered what I could with tarps. Fortunately, I managed to make camp when there was a lull. Over an inch fell. But at least I slept warm and reasonably dry inside my tent. The sleeping bag and blankets were securely stored inside a “dry bag.”
Next day, rain threatened again, but knowing winds would be light I paddled beneath a long line of massive cliffs towards the fishcamps of Punta Alta and Nopolo. As always I looked for places to land in an emergency. There were few. There was a monument to a drowned fishermen set into the cliffs. It was a reminder that this was no place to be when the weather turned ugly.
Again, I reveled in memories. Back in 1984, informed that there were places along the shore I could not possibly walk, I’d climbed up those awesome cliffs and tried to make my way along the top. I soon ran short of water and got into trouble. I was eventually rescued from the verge of heat exhaustion by a young Mexican who was up in those mountains rounding up his goats. He carried my pack and escorted me down a precipitous trail to his fishcamp where his family looked after me till I was able to carry on.
I arrived at Punta Alta with my photos from 1984. And just about everyone I met was either in the photos or was related to those that were. I was informed that the fisherman who rescued me – Francisco Leon – had three grown children and was now living in Loreto. But I did meet his two brothers – Ishmael and Jose - on the water. They both greeted me as Pato Donald, a name I had used back then. Graham didn’t work too well in Spanish.
I didn’t always have a reliable weather forecast. Some mornings I’d pack and be ready to launch, not really knowing if the wind would settle or pick up. As packing would take at least two hours, it was a disappointment not to go. That happened twice south of Agua Verde. After all the work, it was difficult to call it off and make camp again.
Once, I set off and wished I hadn’t. Keen to get to get about 4 miles to the village of San Evaristo and pick up water and supplies, I launched in the dark into an increasingly wild sea and found myself battling Matterhorn like waves bouncing back off the cliffs. Watching surf exploding against the base of those cliffs, I realized that I was a broken paddle, a misjudged wave, or a collision with a rock away from disaster. About forty minutes after I launched, I was glad to get safely behind a low headland, and ride the surf to shore. Apart from that one brief aborted attempt I spent 4 days going nowhere, waiting for the wind and seas to subside. And that was the time to hike and explore and enjoy remote Baja.
Finally in San Evaristo, I paddled over to the water plant. A sign directs you to a nearby store and invites you to call Tony on VHF channel 16 to get water. Perfect. I filled every bottle and container I had. Tony was excited by a family shot I’d taken in 1984. “I think that’s me,” he said, pointing to one of the young kids. I gave him the picture.
From San Evaristo south there was the comfort of a road generally less than a mile inland. Dramatic and fascinatingly colorful cliffs and mountains rise up from the shore. Punta Mechuda demanded the utmost respect from kayakers. Long lines of colorful faulted cliffs alternated with occasional magnificent bays.
The road led to a big surprise. Thinking I had landed on a beach miles from anywhere, I was woken at midnight by a trio of youngsters from La Paz. They partied for a couple of hours more. I woke late and found them asleep surrounded by beer cans. I was glad when they drove out next morning, especially as the seas were too rough for me to depart. They told me they had come to see a meteor shower but much of the night was cloudy.
Next night was starry and clear, and tipped off to the event, I emerged from my tent in the dark and counted 14 shooting stars in 15 minutes.
Next day, even though it was a little rough, I launched and headed to San Juan de la Costa, which was served by a paved road from La Paz. Several times I nearly chickened out and landed but in spite of a couple of good dunkings I kept going. Again the attraction of a store and a water pickup was too much. When I finally pulled up on the beach in the small, spread out mining town, it was gray and cold. I made an ugly surf landing. Looking like a drowned rat, I was wondering how I’d get my tent up and where was the store and how would I pick up water. And as so often happens in Baja someone came to my rescue. A manager from Earth Ocean Farms, on his way to La Paz, saw me and kindly insisted I load my kayak and gear in his pickup and offered me the use of their facility which included hot coffee and warm showers. Tent and gear secure in their base, another employee drove me almost half a mile to the store and offered me all the drinking water I needed.
For two days I waited out the wind and rain and enjoyed the security of my surroundings, hearing about all the fish they were farming in their submersible cages in the nearby sea.
The forecast was marginal for a week. But I was in no mood to linger that long so close to La Paz and Christmas with friends. I had to launch on a slippery concrete ramp in surf with rocks either side. Any miscalculation and I could roll the kayak and spill everything I carried on the deck into the sea. I got wet… but I was underway. La Paz was 35-40 miles away.
The day warmed, the cliffs ended, and then the Mogote peninsula beckoned. It was a long exposed coast. Reckoning I was about halfway to La Paz I ran ashore early afternoon when the wind picked up. I got wet launching and landing but had time to more or less dry out before evening.
I had phone and internet service from La Paz. Next day, the wind was forecast to pick up strongly around noon and blow for days. Knowing there was a major resort at the end of the Mogote I was determined not to be forced ashore needing to camp surrounded by condominiums.
Last day… or what I hoped would be the last, I was awake and packing shortly after 2 AM, ready to launch in the dark at 4 AM. At first, there was a reasonably gentle south wind, but then it blew stronger… and colder. Paddling hard towards the lights of La Paz provided some warmth. I was glad to see the sunrise. I found myself paddling with three whale sharks, and then dozens of playful dolphins.
The tour boats were soon out from La Paz. I kept looking at the shallows and the long rolling surf knowing if the north wind caught me, for safety I’d have to run ashore.
Fortunately, the north wind held off till I got inside La Paz Bay. I was on the Mogote, delighted to look across at the big city, and within twenty minutes the wind was blowing hard. Instead of forcing me ashore, I was able to run with it and cross the bay to my friends waiting on the other side.
It was good to have a hot meal and a warm bed without putting my tent up. But it had been wonderful to relive so many memories from 35 years earlier and to look back on a new adventure… paddling alone, in an overloaded sit-on-top kayak, along all the Sea of Cortez from Bahia Gonzaga to La Paz.