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Eight days, two notebooks, three camcorder batteries.
"Bienvenidos a Mexico!" the sign at Loreto Airport announced.
"You can't get lost in Loreto," said Judy, the tour guide who fetched our group at the airport and delivered us to the Hacienda Suites Hotel. A good starting point for sightseeing,she said, is the famous mission - the first in all the Californias. Another guest and I strolled down Avenida Salvatierra, named for the Jesuit padre who founded the mission in 1697, until we saw the bell tower rising above the rooftops in the late afternoon sun. The old clock on the tower, not original equipment, is correct twice each day at about 10:30. Oh well - the rest of the place is still very much in use. Mass is held in the chapel, and the storehouse building next door is now the Museum of the Missions.
People taking kayaking trips should understand that they can be somewhat strenuous. The next morning, after waiting twenty minutes for my breakfast at a small outdoor café across town, I had to sprint a mile with a tummy full of chorizo and eggs to catch the tour van from the hotel. I think it was the toughest part of the trip. Many restaurateurs here seem also to be in "vacation mode."
The van, with Judy as our guide, was taking us southwest to Magdalena Bay for whale watching. The twenty-two-foot open boats, owned by the local fishing cooperative, are used for tours in the winter when the Gray Whales are in town. Our young boat captain, Jimmy, knew how to get close to the whales without crowding them. He loved his job and cooed over the calves as if they were his own children.
Judy has been living in Baja for over ten years. An English tourist traveling in British Columbia, she came down to escape winter's onset and never went back. Many people come south down the Peninsula in airplanes or R.V.s to get away from inclement weather or the bustle of civilization. We thought we were about to escape both, but things don't always go according to plan.
Paul also introduced us to Lino and Jesús, our other kayaking guides. These two had grown up. in the area and knew the islands well. The waters around the three local islands, Coronado, Carmen, and Danzante, are now a marine park, and the fish stocks are recovering after having been depleted by years of large-scale commercial fishing. We would visit Danzante and Carmen, and while we couldn't catch any fish, we could look all we wanted. Paul went over our tentative itinerary but explained, "We have to be flexible, because everything depends on the weather."
Usually it helps a lot to speak some Spanish down here, but after I ordered my ceviche and burritos in what seemed a pretty authentic accent, the waitress brought the wrong dish. Next time I'll use the universal language: pointing.
Fifteen water bags, one propane tank, and six bottles of rum and tequila; would they be enough?
Our three-mile crossing to Isla Danzante had its ups and downs - literally. There wasn't much wind on this overcast day, but our boats rocked gently on six- to eight-foot swells. I shared a boat with our guide Paul. We were in no danger of capsizing, and I found the motion enjoyable. It made us work a bit harder, though, and we arrived at Honeymoon Cove looking forward to the avocado-and-cheese sandwiches we would have for lunch.
A short hike up the hill gave us an excellent view west to the Sierra de la Giganta range on the Peninsula. Named "The Mountains of the Female Giants" by the Jesuits, the range was reportedly inhabited by Amazon-style giants according to a legend told by the native Indians. However, tour guide Judy thought it came from the feminine shapes of many of the peaks. Missionary work was lonely, remember.
We didn't paddle very far down the west side of Danzante before making our first camp on a rocky beach in Manta Ray Cove. Paul wanted to stay near the north end for an early crossing to Isla Carmen the next morning before the wind kicked up. We now measured time by the cycle of meals, and after setting up tents and sleeping bags, we were looking forward to happy hour. As we sipped our piña coladas and munched on fresh pineapple, we noted the dark clouds to the southwest and pondered Paul's warning about flexibility.
Next morning, a pattern was established: any dessert left over from last night became the breakfast appetizer. The cake went surprisingly well with egg tacos, and after breaking camp, we paddled north until we could assess the channel conditions. Piece of torta! The water was still smooth, and we could easily see two dolphins cruising by in the distance. I was determined to get some underwater footage of the magnificent mammals. Reaching Carmen, we paddled south to Punta Arena, a low-lying point covered by rocky beach. As Lino and Jesús were cutting up carrots and cheese, it happened.
Okay, they hadn't warned me about the jellyfish. SKA arranges rental of "shorty" wetsuits to vacationers who request them - more for the cool winter water than for sting protection - but the full-length suit I had brought was better for the occasional jellyfish-infested bay. Too bad I had decided against taking the extra two minutes to dig it out and don it. Thirty minutes later I emerged hypothermic and covered with red welts. I'm not fond of cold water or wounds, but this experience was worth every "ouch" and every shiver.
Kayaks can handle very shallow water. Near Punta Baja at the south end of Carmen, we glided across a glassy surface and looked at the reef just a foot or two below the emerald-green water. We planned to camp for two nights on a sandy beach nearby. SKA provides tents, sleeping bags and pads, sheets, and camp chairs. The pads are crucial on rocky shores. At this beach most of the guests pitched their tents among the bushes up on the dune, but a few of us chose spots on the beach, well above the high-tide line. After the boats were secured nearby, we took a hike inland.
Peanut butter on French toast isn't bad. Syrup was available, but I needed protein to fill me up for what would be our longest paddle, about 2.5 hours. Lino stayed to mind the camp as we headed around Punta Baja to a beach on the east side of Carmen Island. After a lunch of bean burritos and fresh papaya, Jim and Cathy gathered several hermit crabs for a race. We all chose from the bunch and placed our racers in the middle of a circle in the sand. My crab never even moved. Rats - first the Loon thing, now this!
After a stop at Punta Baja to check out the layers of ancient fossilized seashells and poke around in the tide pools, we returned to camp and were soon - clean! We had been hoping for warmer weather, but we couldn't wait any longer to bathe in the calm water - especially the people who had to share tents. We all agreed that a good bath will quickly change your outlook.
Speaking of quickly changing outlooks, I glanced up from my rum punch and noticed a spot of color in the otherwise grey western sky. A small cloud below the overcast had turned bright pink, and in the next few seconds, the entire cloud ceiling lit up, tinting the glassy water and the sand below. People scrambled like fighter pilots to retrieve cameras. In five minutes it was over, the sky suddenly turning slate grey again.
Late that night I was awakened by Paul. He had gotten up to check the boats again and seen that the waves were reaching well above the high-tide mark - and high tide wasn't for seven more hours. It was time to move up onto the dune. We simply dug up the stakes and sand anchors and lifted my tent in one piece. Thank heavens for modern dome tents - this is a snap! Ooh, poor choice of words. As we struggled up the sandy slope in the strong wind, a loud snap announced the failure of one of the three structural aluminum poles, and the tent began to collapse like an accordion. We found a somewhat sheltered spot among the bushes, and Paul went for the repair kit. He's been guiding all his adult life, here and in Canada, and was well prepared for just such an emergency. A splint was applied, the pole was reinstalled, and I crawled back inside to doze off listening to the wind howl.
Sunshine! After spending a rainy morning under the tarp sipping tea and reading, I felt the air grow almost hot the instant the clouds parted. A big blue patch appeared in the sky, and we all became fighter pilots again. Soon the bushes around our tents were festooned with colorful bedding and clothes, damp from the rain and humidity. They dried surprisingly quickly - a good thing, too, because thirty minutes later the rain threatened again. By dusk the sea was a bit calmer, and Paul said that if it were like this the next morning, we would cross to Isla Danzante.
Great - more headwinds! We fought our way around Danzante's southern tip and turned north, now having to paddle parallel to the waves. This condition presents the greatest danger of capsizing, but the seas today weren't rough enough to be dangerous. Jesús entertained us with constant singing, his high, husky tenor competing with the wind. We rounded Punta Arena - without seeing any dolphins this time - and soon eased into Manta Ray Cove, site of our first night's camp.
After camp had been set up and a late lunch devoured, several of us swam out to the edge of the bay to view the angelfish, puffers, and huge schools of sergeant-majors as the low sun sent its rays slanting down through the blue-green water. Later a ring-toss game was improvised on the beach (using a discarded piece of rubber hose), and one of our lady guests proved to be quite a ringer. Another proved somewhat less skilled but very persistent at tossing pebbles into the luminaria bags, to everyone's amusement. The nearly-full moon rose over the island's hills, and I persuaded Paul to drive me around the bay so I could film the scene while he paddled.
The wet weather was very unusual for the area. It provided me a
One friendly whale, one broken tent pole, eleven new friends - would they be enough?
The Hacienda is just one year old and is built around a nice patio with a swimming pool, restaurant, and outdoor bar. We partook of the weekly Saturday-night fiesta, with its excellent buffet dinner and performances of Mexican music and dancing. The 25 spacious rooms are reasonably priced, and the hotel offers special package deals. The on-site Hacienda Adventours can arrange a variety of sports and leisure activities for guests.
The Villas de Loreto has 11 rooms and a couple of rental cabins surrounded by nicely landscaped grounds. Besides a pool, restaurant, bar, and gymnasium, it contains the Dolphin Dive Center, Loreto's only full-service PADI facility.
No matter where you stay in Loreto, you'll find plenty to do and friendly people to help you with your vacation needs.
Feature and most photographs by Robert LaGrone, Las Vegas Correspondent.