Waking up with the light of dawn coming through the tent. To lookout to see that we have slept under the shelter of a vast cactus, a few meters from a paradisaical beach and with the distant silhouettes of volcanic mountains drawn on the horizon. A hearty breakfast before an intense yet soothing day of kayaking in the warm waters of Loreto Bay.
WE ARE IN THE SEA OF CORTEZ. BAJA CALIFORNIA SUR, MEXICO. THE AQUARIUM OF THE WORLD.
First of all, we have to warn you of a few dangers,” says Axel, our chief guide on the three-day sea kayaking trip in Loreto Bay. “On land, watch out for scorpions and tarantulas. Above all, close your backpacks and tents tightly, and be careful before reaching in or lying down. When you enter the water, try not to step on the sand but slide your feet to avoid being stung by the blankets. And once inside watch where you rest your hands, the scorpionfish camouflages itself very well in the rocks and its stings are fearsome and very painful.”
Wow, it seems that the rural sunrise picture hides a not-so-friendly nature. “Don’t believe it,” Axel tells me: “the most common and most serious problems we deal with on these trips are the result of dehydration and sunstroke… Ah! And a lot of cuts from walking barefoot on the beaches.”
We are on the island of Nuestra Señora del Carmen, one of the largest islands in the Sea of Cortez and the largest in the Loreto Bay National Marine Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its more than two hundred thousand hectares include five islands: Coronado, Danzante, Montserrat, La Catalana, and the one where we are camped, as well as a series of islets.
Our journey began this morning from a beach a few miles south of the town of Loreto, on the east coast of the Baja California Peninsula. It is December, but the air temperature – and the water – is hot and pleasant, almost summer-like. This is one of the reasons why the Sea of Cortez and Baja California are world-famous destinations for sea kayaking in the winter months.
“In 1535, the mere mention of the Gulf of California made one think of a mystical and untamed place, populated by Amazons and mythological animals and plagued by pearl banks that attracted the attention of adventurers of all kinds.”
Hernán Cortés, the discoverer of the Gulf of California that today bears his name, fell in love with the area and lived here for a few years.
The state capital, La Paz, was founded by him in 1535, at a time when the mere mention of the Gulf of California made one think of a mystical and untamed place, populated by Amazons and mythological animals, and plagued by pearl banks that attracted the attention of adventurers of all kinds.
They admired the mysterious islands and their beaches from their boats, comparable to unseen paradises. However, curiously still in the first half of the 20th century, it was a practically unexplored territory… And now, it is our turn.
“The wind feels like a bastard,” Ramón, the captain of the panga that will serve as logistical support during our crossing, tells me. “You’re going to have to work hard to get to the beach.” As we all know, Eolo is the canoeist’s worst enemy. But the truth is that the group members are so motivated to explore the area that we will not be intimidated by the wind, the Waves, or the fatigue they entail. A few minutes later, we say goodbye to the pelicans resting in a fishing boat on the shore, and we head for the first landmark our guides point out to us: Punta Coyote.
The transparent turquoise blue waters contrast with the landscape of red, green, orange, and yellow shades. I slow down my paddling pace so that my kayaking partner can more easily match her paddling with mine, as she also has to deal with adjusting the intensity of her footfalls on the rudder pedals. The waves hit us from the side, and some of them manage to scare us, even though we are aware of how difficult it is to capsize a double kayak. A fierce sun beats down on us, and wind and saltpeter do the rest so that we have to stop several times to drink from our bottles and rest our still stiff muscles, recently accustomed to the movements and efforts of paddling. We take advantage of these pauses to renew the sunscreen, which the sweat has been in charge of wiping off our faces.
Finally, we turn around to admire the Sierra de la Giganta behind us. Their sharp volcanic contours still survive traces of the Guaycura ethnic group, with numerous cave paintings and remains of a pre-Hispanic dialect more than 300 years old.
Some pumas have also been seen prowling around.
We set out to enjoy our leisure time on the island. And if we want to do it actively, we have three ways: trekking, kayaking, or snorkeling. Or a combination of all three. We load the kayaks with the bare minimum: just a few snacks and snorkeling gear, and of course, a bottle of water per person. Baja California Sur is one of the minor humid areas on the planet. The climate is dry and desert-like, with very marked temperature variations between day and night, when temperatures drop drastically. We admire the unique landscapes from the canoes—the blue shades of the sea contrast with the desert and its steep mountain ranges populated by cactus. Finally, we arrive at Playa Blanca, brimming with marine fossils in the rocky areas and in the sands that honor its name. We put on our shoes, ready to walk through the arid terrain above the coast.
It is always surprising to see how living things in these harsh areas have managed to cope with wáter scarcity. In these conditions, plants and animals have developed ingenious adaptations over millions of years: protective armor, innovative moisture storage systems, and a diet that makes the most of the available wáter. Still, above all, they have developed a way of life and metabolism that allows them to survive and reproduce even in the harshest years.
In these conditions, plants and animals have developed ingenious adaptations over millions of years: protective armor, innovative moisture storage systems, and a diet that makes the most of the available water.
During the walk, Axel stops us at several points to show us several plant species famous for their medicinal properties: the matacora, a shrub whose root is considered a miraculous home remedy for diabetes and prostate; or the torote, a small tree whose bark and stem are used to cure or relieve diseases such as bronchitis, hot flashes, colds, sore throat, and even scorpion or black widow bites. “Who wants to taste the dragon fruit?”. We did not hesitate to taste the pitaya: an attractive fruit of the stenocereus cactus, red with soft, sweet pulp and numerous tiny black seeds. Delicious.
BACK 4 SNORKELING
I came for the kayak. I’ll come back for the snorkel. That’s what I think while -fascinated- I walk along the coast chasing banks of fish with my camera hanging from my wrist. I try to take a picture of one of the many fish that flee from me—what a contrast between the short terrestrial life at a glance and the overflowing marine life. Now I know why they call these waters the aquarium of the world: angelfish, starfish, seahorses, sea urchins, a scorpion fish… I swim hurriedly back to camp because of the scare I get from a horrible moray eel as it emerges from its lair on the rock.
“Now I know why they call these waters the aquarium of the world: angelfish, starfish, seahorses, sea urchins, a scorpion fish…”
“These tamales are delicious,” I say to Ramon, who, in addition to being captain of the panga, is the camp cook. I have always admired the ability to cook in improvised camps.
However, I recognize that the logistics of ours are excellent: the tents scattered with a particular order in front of the sea, with the imposing cardon cactus standing like totems of the desert, the kitchen sheltered in a rocky area two steps from the water; and the shade of a tent that serves as a living area, with books on fauna, flora, and history of the region; and a table with chairs for the inevitable sessions of Mexican bingo before animated nightly chats at the high tide of tequila.
A squadron of pelicans flies overhead as we paddle, with the landmark of Danzante Island on the horizon on the last day of our trip. Finally, we stop at one of its beaches of crystalline waters in a bay-shaped Eden from which we should never have left.
Already on the beach, while we repack our luggage, I ask Ramón about the name on his panga: “Xiomara.” “It’s an old love,” he replies, “and you always have to remember your youth.”