The first thing you have to understand about Baja California is that it's floating away. Not figuratively, either -- the 800-mile-long Mexican peninsula happens to be attached to a different tectonic plate than the rest of the North American continent, and 5 million years ago it began to drift northwest along the San Andreas Fault at the steady pace of 2 1/2 inches a year. While this bit of knowledge leaves you with a more than fair chance to catch up with Baja before it bumps into Hawaii, it also indicates the best way to vacation there: by kayak.
After all, if the whole peninsula is just floating around out there, it might be smart to do likewise. Now, different people have different responses to kayaks, those small, wraparound, seemingly tippy crafts employed by Eskimos and whitewater adventurers. The modern seagoing versions, though, happen to be Cadillacs of comfort and stability and can be piloted by almost anyone.
To be sure, there are plenty of places that would not be receptive to kayaks. But if you had to design a place for kayaks, it would seem to be Baja. The brochures talk about the calm waters, the 1,600 miles of unnamed bays and coves and islands. They rave about the whale-watching in Guerrero Negro and Scammon's Lagoon on the peninsula's west side. They enthusiastically recount weather (which averages between 70 and 90 degrees November through April), the geologic histories of the rock formations and the abundance of fish, birds and the chubby sea lions.
"I've been a lot of places around the world," says Bob Licht, owner of Sea Trek, an outfitter based in Sausalito, Calif., "and some of them are pretty nice. But Baja has everything."
Everything, this reporter discovered on his first night on the peninsula, includes small mosquitoes evolved enough to recognize a tenderfoot who can't rig his tent netting properly. Ninety-four of them, to be exact, each of which left a popcorn kernel-sized red mark, forming a complex geometrical pattern that I preferred to think of as a Baja tattoo.
We got ready in a hurry. After a 15-minute lesson on paddling ("It's like riding a bike, except with your hands," Kenny, our guide, informed us), ruddering ("Push with the right foot to go right, the left foot to go left") and loading the bow and stern com
partments with 150 pounds of food, clothing and equipment ("Think of it as a big backpack, except you don't have to carry it"), our group of 11 pushed off.
Travel was easier than imagined. A pace of 3 miles per hour was maintained with ease, and could have been improved upon if the views hadn't distracted us. The brochures hadn't talked about the views, since desert tends to be the most unmarketable of landscapes. But the Baja desert is different than others, because of the water. The water cuts the shoreline into weird honeycomb castles for the turkey vultures to roost upon, digs out 10-story sky-lit caves where green morays feed, and lends the khaki desolation of cacti and mesquite a counterpoint that made both seem all the starker and more beautiful.
Kenny and Darryl, who drove the motorized support boat, took us from the town of Loreto, a dozen or so miles south, along Baja's sheltered eastern coast, which fronts the Sea of Cortez. They advised us in the local ways, showing us the best places to snorkel, how to shuffle our feet as we walked in the shallows (the better to scare off stingrays), how to surf a kayak and how to take off the top of a beer bottle with a spatula. The days passed quickly, and soon we grew accustomed to seeing no one but ourselves. "It's not that Los Angeles is that far away," Kenny said somewhat mystically one night around the cook fire, "but it is."
On the last full day of paddling, we paddled to Punta Pulpito, a 1,000-foot dormant volcano that lies on the edge of the water, a formation known as the Gibraltar of Baja. We hiked up; there was nobody else around. Everybody sat silently at the top, squinting down at a pod of whales making slow progress along the coast.
Then someone asked about that small road we had seen before, the one by the last bay, the one with no name. "Someone's talking about building a hotel," Darryl said. "And they're not the only one. People are discovering this place -- so enjoy it while you can."
These companies can provide information on a kayaking trip on the Baja peninsula:
Baja Expeditions: 2625 Garnet Ave., San Diego, Calif. 92109; telephone (800) 843-6967.
Sea Trek: 85 Liberty Ship Way, Sausalito, Calif. 94965; telephone (415) 332-4457.