A different way to sea life

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 November, 2011, 12:00am


For the kind of adventure I was embarking on, a kayak was the only way to go. Not only can it get into places where nothing else can, any idiot can use one. Well, I'll qualify that - any idiot can use one in calm conditions.

Dealing with white-water rapids is another matter altogether and something best left to the experts. There were no real experts on our mini-expedition, though, just a mixed group of keen outdoor types from different corners of the globe who were being guided around the Mexican desert islands of Espiritu Santo and Isla Partida in one of the least-known but most fascinating seas on earth.

The Sea of Cortez separates Mexico's Baja California Peninsula from the mainland, and despite its modest size (1,126 kilometres long with an average width of 150 kilometres), it's biologically the richest body of water on the planet - but more on that later.

It's very warm both in and out of the water, even in winter, and it rarely rains in this part of the world, which means that paddling a kayak around desert islands during the day and camping on their beaches at night is easy. Granted, if you're not used to physical exercise, you might find the paddling a bit of a strain at first, but anyone with a reasonable level of fitness will soon get into the swing of things.

Kayaking technique is easily picked up, and once a kayak is in motion, it actually takes relatively little effort to keep it going. Your biggest problem is likely to be keeping it in a straight line, as most people have one arm stronger than the other, which results in a tendency to veer off in one direction, but you soon learn to compensate for this.

We'd set off on our adventure from the small city of La Paz, a pleasant little coastal metropolis in southeastern Baja and the base for Baja Outdoor Activities, which guided us on our two-day adventure. To get out to the islands, you have a choice of paddling your kayak from the mainland across a two-mile strait to the southern tip of Espiritu Santo, or doing it the easy way and being taken with your kayak in a panga, or motor boat. This panga, driven by local boatman Javier, then provides backup on the trip, transporting cooking and camping equipment, although if you wish, you can take on more self-sufficient voyages in which you carry all your own gear - something for the more experienced (or masochistic, perhaps).

Our Welshman guide Ben kept us away from what few tricky ocean currents there were, located the best camping beaches and provided information on everything from how to use our kayak more efficiently to what fish had just leapt across our bows. Once you arrive at the islands, the schedule each day is simple - wake, paddle, eat/drink, sleep, repeat.

Espiritu Santo and Isla Partida are uninhabited volcanic masses, rising out of the Sea of Cortez in a jumble of red and black sun-blasted crags interspersed with dazzling white sandy beaches. As soon as we'd glided ashore after a day in our kayaks, the first thing everyone did was leap into the translucent turquoise waters and dive among the corals and neon-bright fish.

Here you're in a totally elemental landscape - blue sea, bluer sky, baked landscapes and dusty green cactuses, which are the only real vegetation. John Steinbeck was entranced by this part of Mexico and described it as 'the burnt coast', yet for all the heat and dust, it's not barren. All the wildlife is underwater - and occasionally flying through the air above it.

This is where the advantages of kayaking become apparent. If you fancy getting to within a few metres of sea lions, stingrays and manta rays, dolphins, porpoises, and maybe even whale sharks and grey whales, this is the place to be. The same applies if you want to swim among them. At the sea lion colony of Los Islotes, for example, you can slide over the side of your kayak, don a mask and snorkel and go and cavort with sea lion pups.

These fellows are synchronised swimmers, surfers and snorkellers all wrapped into one, and some of them will even come and sit on your kayak with you. You need to watch out for their fathers; the bulls weigh several hundred kilos, and while it's extremely unlikely they will attack you, it's not advisable to get too close to them or their harems.

Almost every hour that you're out on the water, some sort of sea life will pop up to surprise you. Just after our visit to the sea lions, for instance, we found ourselves surrounded by literally hundreds of small manta rays, leaping out of the water and landing again with an ungainly smack.

Each day winds down with your shoulders tightening pleasantly from the day's exercise, your skin tingling from the sun and sea spray, and a cold beer slipping down nicely as you watch the sun sink behind the horizon of the distant mainland. It doesn't come much simpler than this, and there's a lot to be said for the simple things in life - especially knowing that at the end of all this hard work you can return to 'civilisation' and luxuriate in one of La Paz's new boutique hotels or spas.

Baja beyond

Where to stay

CostaBaja Resort & Spa (www.costabaja.com) is the region's first five-star resort and offers rooms with a choice of ocean, mountain, golf course or marina views, with spa packages from US$249 per night.

For a more intimate appreciation of La Paz, try Posada de las Flores (www.posadadelasflores.com), a Mexican colonial style boutique hotel located on the city's bustling promenade, with great sunsets virtually every night. Rooms from US$150 per night.


Baja Outdoor Activities (www.kayactivities.com) offers bespoke fully supported kayaking trips in the Sea of Cortez. It can also organise other activities such as sea fishing and whale watching.

When to go

Trips run from late October to the end of April.