by Tom Bol

< first appeared in Canoe & Kayak Volume 31

"Seor, donde esta El Mar de Cortez?"Iaskthe stern-looking policia at the checkpoint. I see my pale reflection in his dark aviatorsunglasses as he leans against the side of my rusty
old Toyota truck.

The M16 slung over his shoulder is making me nervous; my only weapon is a paddle. Holding back a snicker, the stern policia suddenly smiles, revealing a few gold-capped teeth. "Just head down Highway 1, you won't miss it," he says in perfect English, then waves us through.

Welcome to Baja. Cheap tacos, hot sun, world-class sea kayaking, and a few intimidating border police.

The Baja peninsula stretches 806 miles, from the border-town poverty of Tijuana to the opulence of Cabo San Lucas at its tip. At its narrowest point, the peninsula is only 28 miles wide. To the west is the Pacific Ocean. To the east lies the Sea of Cortez, so named for the exploits of Hernn Corts in the 1500s.
This 700-mile-long ocean bathtub offers miles and miles of rugged Sonoran Desert coastline with towering cardon cacti lining emerald coves. The Scripps Institution labels the Sea of Cortez as the most biologically rich body of water on the planet, supporting a plethora of marine life, from fingerlike corals to colorful tropical fish. Take your diving mask—the snorkeling, as well as the sea kayaking, is unbelievable.

Splash! Splash! Splash! Dawn is announced by a squadron of brown pelicans. These awkward-looking birds crash into the clear water, chasing schools of black-striped sergeant majors and other common reef fish. My wife, Cree, and I are camped in an idyllic protected cove. Overlooking our little piece of paradise is a narrow spire of knobby rock, capped by a huge osprey nest with its bandit-masked occupant.

"We'd better pack up," Cree says, sipping on a steaming cup of Caf Combate, the local coffee, which is
combat strong to jolt you awake. "The wind is already picking up. It feels like it could really blow today." A couple of hours later we are on the water, paddling south with a steady north wind at our back.

The Scripps Institution labels the Sea of Cortez as the most biologically rich body of water on the planet…

Plan your own Baja adventure, Baja 101.

There are three good reasons to get on the water early in Baja, especially in the winter. One, you can avoid the dehydrating midday heat. Water is limited on the coast. Two, you can get into camp early and spend the afternoon snorkeling or exploring the desert. Three, and most important, you can avoid paddling in strong diurnal winds, common during Baja's winter months.
In addition to diurnal winds, northerly winds can be fierce. El Norte, as the locals call it, is a strong north wind that blows down the gulf. These winds can be upwards of 35 knots, and normally blow for two to four days. However, I once got "winded in" on a beach for 11 days. By paddling in the early morning, you can avoid diurnal winds as well as the worst of El Norte.