[This is a continuation of Adventuring Through Baja Part 1]

Over the past decade I’ve migrated south to Baja for a half-dozen combination paddling, hiking and snorkeling adventures. Recently three companions and I flew into Loreto with our gear and foldable kayaks to embark on my favorite Baja journey: a trip from Loreto to La Paz.

We spent that first afternoon, and all of the next day, purchasing fuel and other consumables, assembling our foldable kayaks and enjoying the local cuisine. Early the following morning we loaded our gear into our kayaks and prepared to shove off.

Most self-supported kayaking trips to La Paz begin somewhat farther south, at Puerto Escondido, a natural harbor and marina. Instead, we decided on the simplicity of launching directly from the beach in front of our hotel, which had been the beginning or ending point for three of our previous Baja expeditions. The vistas along the coastline from Loreto to Puerto Escondido are well worth the extra mileage.

We launch and paddle southward through calm, cobalt seas between two spectacular sights, the Sierra de la Giganta to the west, and Isla Carmen, an extinct volcano and the largest island in the national marine park, to the east. On our most recent previous Baja trip we circumnavigated Carmen. The island’s close proximity to the Loreto airport, and its varied geological features, make it a good destination for both frequent and first time Baja adventurers.

Paddling among off-shore rock formations ©Diana Vann

Carmen’s many arroyos provide good hiking grounds, though hiking is generally limited to locations near the shore. Much of the island is privately owned, and the interior includes hunting habitat for big horn sheep, so permission should be sought before hiking inland. The majority of visitors focus on the island’s south end, where good camping areas, protected beaches and excellent snorkeling sites are more plentiful. Nooks and crannies and caves invite exploration, and limestone shelves extend underwater, which help to make the water color a translucent turquoise blue.

On the north end of Carmen, sheer cliffs plunge into the sea, and there are few landing places.  Because of strong currents in the channel, paddling directly to Carmen is not a good choice for inexperienced kayakers, unless they are accompanied by a guide.  Local vendors provide combination trips ranging in length from a single day to a week, but the island is also easily accessible for those who prefer to hike, snorkel or kayak on their own. On days when the sea is calm, a number of pangas, the type of boat used by local Baja fishermen, wait, tied up along the Loreto waterfront. They can be hired on-the-spot to taxi adventurers to Carmen or to one of the other marine park islands.

The Loreto shoreline falls away, and I tune into the rhythm of the sea’s gentle swell, and the soft splash of our paddles. In the distance, Frigatebirds soar. With a wing-span over seven feet, they ride air currents, remaining motionless for long periods of time. When they dive, it’s often to snatch a fish, jelly or baby turtle from the water’s surface. But they also use their superior speed and maneuverability to harass gulls, cormorants, pelicans, boobies, and other sea birds, then steal their prey in midair. This spectacle is awesome and breathtaking to watch.

The shoreline curves, and we paddle closer to land. Some of the Frigatebirds sit perched on cliffs. Because their giant wings can become entangled in vines and foliage, they only land on rocky promontories or on open treetops. Though swift, majestic and powerful in the air, they’re awkward on land. They can’t walk well or take off from water or other smooth surfaces.

Frigatebirds in the air and at rest ©Diana Vann

We continue paddling for several hours, then stop to make camp for the night on a cobblestone beach. As the sun sets, a pale, pink glow reflects on the water’s surface and over Isla Carmen. Squadrons of pelicans glide past in formation, barely clearing the water’s surface.

The following morning we rise early and paddle to Isla Danzante, where we spend two days hiking, snorkeling and hanging out on the beach just “feeling the Baja beam.” I’d heard that phrase from a friend as we sat on this same beach during my first Baja paddling trip. I’ve found no comparable words to describe the feeling I get when I’m out here.

We continue our journey southward, and in a couple of days we arrive at the location of a trip highlight, hot springs located in a shallow bay adjacent to Isla San Cosme.

On a previous trip we’d spent a lot of time looking before we found the hot springs. Though we had a good description of their location, the rocks that form the shallow pool around the springs are indistinguishable from the other rocks in that area. And the pool is completely covered by the rising tide, so the hot springs are only visible during times of lower tides.

But this time we arrive knowing exactly where the pool is located, so we paddle straight to the beach at the southernmost part of the bay. The current tide height should be just about right for a soak. Once our tents are pitched, one of my companions and I pull on masks, fins and snorkels and swim toward the hot springs.

Sunlight strikes the water at a perfect angle, and the display of marine life is the most dazzling I’ve seen on this trip. Rainbow Wrasses, a vivid blend of pink, yellow and shocking blue, dart among sea cucumbers, soft, pale corals and swarming schools of fish. Yellow and black King Angelfish, blue and yellow Parrot fish and the ever present gray, yellow and black Sergeant Majors are the most abundant. We arrive and find our companions, who’ve kayaked here, already soaking in the hot, bubbly water. The wide vista of tranquil sea appears deserted except for the gulls that soar overhead, and I think of the life that teems beneath the water’s surface. I’ve read claims that over 800 species of marine life inhabit the Sea of Cortez.

The next morning the wind is blowing, and it’s too strong for paddling, but not for hiking, so we rise and go for a hike. The hot springs are located near a dirt road. We take the easy route and walk up the road before branching off to climb to the top of the hill. We cross an arroyo, and there we find evidence of a recent horse camp. Many of our stops along the way are far from the nearest road, but this location’s close proximity to one makes it accessible for many types of visitors. In the afternoon the wind dies down, so we snorkel to a rocky point outside the protected waters of the bay. We encounter delicate red sea fans and many schools of large fish. One of my companions spots a barracuda.

Rocky shoreline ©Diana Vann

Traveling farther south, we stop at the tiny town of San Evaristo to replenish our water supply. Antonio, the man who refills our water bags at the town’s reverse osmosis desalination and purification plant, tells us that a strong, north wind is predicted, that it could blow for up to three days, and that it might be accompanied by heavy rain. We had been planning to camp on a north-facing beach just outside town, then rise before dawn and paddle across the channel to Isla San Jose. Strong wind would make that crossing inadvisable. Isla San Jose had been high on our list of places to explore during this trip. But when Antonio senses our hesitation to change our plans, he urgently repeats his strong warning, and we decide to heed it. We load our water bags into our kayaks and paddle back to the north, where we make camp on a more protected beach that we had passed earlier in the afternoon.

During the night I’m awakened abruptly by strong wind. It continues to blow, and rain begins to fall. I don earplugs and drift back off to sleep to the steady drum of raindrops on my tent. The next morning the rain continues, but it’s on and off. The wind is variable; sometimes it’s fairly mild, but strong gusts threaten to flatten our tents. We decide to stay onshore, and I reinforce my tent with extra guy lines. The rain stops, so I open bags to sort gear and study maps of the terrain still to come. But the sky grows ominously dark, and rain starts falling again. Confident it will stop soon, I quickly stash my maps and gear inside a duffle, not bothering to zip it shut. I cover it with a tarp, pile rocks on top, and crawl inside my tent.

The rain soon becomes a torrential downpour, something that almost never happens in this part of Baja unless there’s a hurricane. I’m warm and cozy inside my tent, and I’m engrossed in a book, so when the rain shows no signs of lessening, I skip dinner and stay inside.

The rain finally stops the next morning, and while I’m still in bed, I hear one of my companions exclaim that four scorpions are loose inside her tent. This gives me quite a shock, and I try to decide whether to flee my own tent or to start searching it for invaders. I breathe a sigh of relief when she says that the scorpions had not found their way into her securely zipped tent overnight. They’d been clinging to a pair of shorts she’d left hanging in her tent’s vestibule. When she brought her shorts inside, she gave them her customary shake before pulling them on. The scorpions flew off the material, landing inside her tent. When I rise and start dressing, I shake out my shoes, which had been outside in my vestibule, with particular care.

Once outside we begin to discover that dozens of scorpions have crawled into every nook and cranny of the gear bags we’ve left outside our tents. Perhaps the scorpions had crawled onto the shorts and into our gear bags to escape the rising water. We painstakingly go through our gear to liberate them. As we free them, some express their displeasure by threatening us with their stingers. Despite our careful search, we don’t manage to find all of them. Several days later we would discover a few more scorpions, though no longer living, in remote corners of our gear bags.

When the wind dies we break camp and continue our southbound journey.

[The final part of this journey is available here!]

Sunrise over the Sea of Cortez ©Diana Vann
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