As I straggle to shore, exhausted but happy, the owner of Todos Santos Eco Adventures in Baja California gives me the thumbs up. I've just spent the morning learning to surf with Sergio Jauregui's instructors and I can't stop smiling – I actually got up!
But as we dry off and change back into our clothes, I'm not so sure about the next adventure we have planned. Soon, we'll be leaving the coast and heading inland. The Spaniards who colonized Baja California called it a 'hot oven.' And that's got me worried: I melt in heat.
"We walk from sea to sea in four days," says Jauregui, telling me about an excursion he offers clients that starts on the West coast of the Baja peninsula, crosses a 2,100-metre mountain range and ends up on the Sea of Cortez. "That's the Grand Canyon in reverse," he adds. It also sounds like the hiking holiday from hell. Good thing I'm not doing that trip, I think.
Instead, we'll be driving in an air-conditioned van — a more sane way to experience a desert, I figure — with short hikes along the way. We'll travel north, past La Paz and Loreto, all the way to the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, Mexico's largest protected area. We'll learn about life in a desert, we'll overnight in an oasis, meet a mission — or two — and marvel at 7,500-year old rock paintings. Hot or not, here I come!
Baja may be part of the Sonoran Desert, but it's cooler and moister than I feared, thanks to the California current — an extension of the Aleutian current — which brings cold water down its Pacific coast from Alaska.
The first visible proof of this comes the morning we leave Loreto. I spot a turkey vulture sitting atop a tall cardon cactus, black wings spread like he's doing a yoga salutation to the morning sun. "He's drying his wings," says Orloff Nagorski, owner of Aventuras Mexico Profundo and our guide for the next few days. "They're wet from the morning dew."
More than 160 species of plants grow in this desert according to Nagorski, including the biggest of all cacti, the cardon. "They can weigh up to 20 tonnes," he tells us when we stop at a dry riverbed for a closer look. "Half the weight of a whale."
This desert is not only cooler — at least in winter — than I expected, but it's also more colourful. When we pass Conception Bay, the contrast between green cactus, turquoise water, and pink volcanic rock is stunning.
Still, when we pull into the oasis town of San Ignacio that evening, the comparative lushness startles me. Tall date palms, first planted by the Jesuit missionaries in the late 1700s, surround a small spring-fed lake. The Jesuits who first colonized Baja always looked for a source of fresh water when deciding where to locate their missions, says Nagorski. The elegant church they built from volcanic rock still dominates the town square.
Early the next morning we leave San Ignacio and head for the mountains. As we gain elevation we come to the most beguiling landscape yet — a cactus-covered plateau with deep canyons on either side. Behind us, a fog has rolled in off the Pacific, covering the ground in a sheet of white.
Further along we hike to a spot where engravings have been discovered in the lava rock. Nagorski — who is also a cultural anthropologist — tells us this is where the indigenous people of the area came to celebrate the pitaya fruit harvest with eating, drinking and sex. "It was an orgy, with fertility rites," he explains. "The idea was to get every female pregnant to increase the strength of the group."
Back in the car we soon reach the end of the pavement and continue bumping along a deeply potholed road until we come to the site of more rock art. Cueva del Raton is one of hundreds of caves in the Sierra de San Francisco region whose walls and ceilings the Indians painted some 7,500 years ago. Together, they make up "one of the largest prehistoric rock art sites in the world," according to the UNESCO World Heritage Site description.
The figures of antelope, puma and people are vivid orange and black, but they've been painted over each other, as if the artists ran out of canvas. "They continually over-painted figures," says Nagorski, adding "the act of creation was important, not the outcome."
That reminds me of a popular adage these days, that the journey is more important than the destination. As we walk the remainder of this dirt road to the tiny goat-farming village of San Francisco for a simple lunch provided by the rancheros, I decide this trip to Baja California has been both — a fascinating journey and a remarkable destination.
Pick up Pique next week for part two of Suzanne's Baja travels.
If you go:
Todos Santos Eco Adventures (www.tosea.net)offers surfing and yoga camps, hiking, and multi-sport adventures. Aventuras Mexico Profundo (mexicoprofundo.com.mx) offers hiking adventures and organizes gray whale watching tours.
Note: If you choose to explore Baja independently, rental car companies may not allow you to drive the seven-kilometre section of dirt road to the village of San Francisco.