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Luxe Rafting Baja's Sea of Cortez
By Eliza Griswold   Photograph by Woods Wheatcroft  
Map by Computer Terrain Mapping
Photo: Towing to shore in the Sea of Cortez
THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT: Hip-deep and loving it while en route to white sand in Baja's Loreto National Park.

A speedy experiment in luxe rafting proves that, after years of being overfished, the waters of Baja's Loreto Bay National Park are again brimming with life.

"Hold on," Russell yelled over the 225-horsepower engine as we pulled out of the small harbor and into the Sea of Cortez chop. The black backs of the waves ruffled before us. We hurtled toward Isla Carmen, which looks like a sleeping stegosaurus with only her spiky backbone sticking above the water. The islands in Baja's Loreto Bay are part of an underwater mountain range that rises out of the ocean in a series of shale peaks. It's pretty bleak rock, and that's why it's so stunning. Captain Russ grinned from behind his Oakleys and opened up the throttle. "We've seen finback whales breach off the bow," he yelled. We were flying. My eyes stung from the salt spray.

Map: Baja California's Sea of Cortez 
Plan a multisport trip to Baja's Sea of Cortez by clicking here >>


The plan for the next few days seemed about as carefree as I felt, a little giddy from the raft's acceleration. In fact, from the start, the whole trip had seemed suspiciously easy—at least on my end of things. My 47-year-old host, Russell Moore—aka Captain Russ—had phoned me from his home in San Diego and assured me that all I had to do was fly to a sleepy, one-chicken town in Mexico, flag down some kind of transport to a tiny fishing marina, and there I'd find him, waiting at the battered, guano-spotted dock in his Navy SEAL–issue raft. "It'll be the only yellow boat in the water," he said. All I needed was a bathing suit, a sleeping bag, and a pair of sturdy water shoes to help unload the boat (these, I conveniently forgot). The rest—snorkeling gear, a giant, inflatable couch, and a bag of margarita fixings—would be waiting on the balmy pier.
 
Our plan for the next three days was to explore Loreto Bay National Park, a string of five pristine islands within 798 square miles (1,284 square kilometer) of glittering ocean and reefs that comprise the largest of Mexico's three national marine sanctuaries. Because of the park's 1996 ban on commercial trawlers and sportfishing, the area's sea life has been staging a major comeback. And because Captain Russ's special raft draws only three feet of water and can skim the waves at 35 miles (56 kilometers) an hour, he could whisk us into hard-to-get-to spots that would take days or even weeks to reach by sea kayak. It sounded a bit like cheating; it also sounded like good fun.
 
There was, however, a possible catch. The captain and crew were coming from Bahia de Los Angeles. Given the size of the 24-foot (7-meter) raft and the 300-mile (482-kilometer) stretch before them down the Baja coast to Loreto, it seemed like a long shot that they'd make it there in a week to meet me.
 
I looked out of my New York City window at the skyline, hunching against February's cold. On my window ledge, a depressed pigeon looked back at me blankly. At the very least, I decided, I'd rather be stuck on a dock in Mexico, waiting for my raft to come in.
 
The marina, it turned out, was less than a 15-minute drive from Loreto Airport. As I pulled onto the pier, there was Captain Russ, swinging his tanned legs over the banana-colored hull of his custom RIB (rigid inflatable boat). With his chiseled jaw and mirrored shades, the captain looked like a Navy SEAL—an observation he found amusing but not unusual. He does look pretty fierce. "The closest I've had to military training was the Boy Scouts," he said, laughing.
 
A few minutes later, the rest of our sunburned crew—Mike Luskin, an ER doctor from San Diego, and photographer Woods Wheatcroft—returned from a resupply in town, lugging ice, shrimp, and beer. We crowded around the blue screen of the GPS chart-plotter, looking at the orange blips of islands off the coast to determine our course. The problem was that the charts we were looking at were 50-year-old military surveys, sketchy at best.
 
In some places, they were dead wrong. "Add 12- to 20-foot [four- to six-meter] tides and it just means we've got to be a little more careful with what we do with the boat," Captain Russ said.
 
Loreto Bay National Park, an area about half the size of Rhode Island, is tucked behind the ominous 5,000-foot-high (1,829-meter-high) Sierra de la Giganta mountain range, which runs along the coast. In 1697 a determined Jesuit priest named Juan María Salvatierra crossed these foggy, jagged peaks to build the first Spanish settlement at Loreto. I could see firsthand how it would be a nightmare to pick one's way over these mountains on the back of a mule, or even get through them on a Toyota Hi-Lux. But by water, life's grand—just a long, hazy drift.
 
Since it's only accessible by water, Loreto Bay National Park has great potential to be a secluded boater's playground. And as far as anyone knows, until our journey in the RIB, the only boats allowed to enter the park had been a handful of yachts, sea kayaks, and local aluminum-frame boats called pangas. Captain Russ's raft—with a weight of two and a half tons and a price tag of $130,000—is designed to travel quickly into challenging shoals. "In 99 percent of boats, you don't travel in an open, rugged environment," he said. "This boat puts people 18 inches (46 centimeters) off the water, but with greater speed and durability. I want people to feel dolphin spit on their faces."
 
Almost a year old, Russell's tour company, Xplore Offshore, gets clients right up close, combining high-end rafting with environmental adventure. While other outfitters in Europe and New Zealand are beginning to use RIBs for tourists, no one has incorporated low-impact luxury camping with these high-performance rafts in the U.S. He hopes to be the first. Our island excursion was designed as a recon of sorts for a four-day expedition out of Loreto that Russell has planned for next spring.
 
We spent the first afternoon lolling about above a shallow reef, snorkeling, watching angelfish and puffer fish swim below us. We spoke to no one else—there was no one else to speak to—and we counted maybe two or three yachts all afternoon. By early evening, it was time to pick a campsite, which, I learned quickly, was the only major decision we had to make on any given day. We had access to every remote and secluded camping cove on Isla Carmen, and it seemed a point of pride that we score the most deluxe spot. It had to have the right gradient of sand, a windbreak, and most important, a killer view of the sunset. Finally, we found the perfect beach. White gravel ran for at least a hundred yards into our own private cove sheltered from the wind by a steep red cliff.
 
Just a hundred yards inland off the rocky shore, Isla Carmen is veined with dry arroyos. Before the sun set, Woods and I hiked some of the interior. Behind the canyon wall, we lost sight of the water. We were surrounded by giant cactuses, which rose twice over our heads. Their spines seemed to catch fire as the sun went down. It was utterly silent and about ten degrees hotter than it was along the water—a momentary look into the desolation of the land that we had zipped by on the raft.
 
As we rounded the last corner through the forest of cactuses, we spied dinner waiting.
 
"Grilled shrimp and five-sided zucchini," Russell said, stirring the wok on a Coleman camp stove. Back in his scouting days, he'd come across a book called Pleasure Packing by Robert S. Wood. "I learned how important it was to carry a little bag of salt and spices," Russell said.
 
John Steinbeck's 1951 classic, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, provides a fairly close study of the area's marine life on a boat journey he took with Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist. Watching snails and starfish inch around tidal pools, Steinbeck and Ricketts worked out a theory on the circularity and interconnectedness of cycles of life. They also saw breaching swordfish and 12-foot (four-meter) manta rays.
 
By the early 1990s Loreto Bay had been decimated by overfishing—something Steinbeck grimly forecast in his book. Nine years ago, the president of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, decreed Loreto Bay a national park—at the urging of a local group of fishermen called Grupo Ecologista Antares—in order to protect the area and attract tourist dollars. The move got the attention and support of the Nature Conservancy, which helped enforce the laws against illegal fishing—using trawlers, some coming from as far away as Japan and Taiwan, and anything more than sustainable gill-net fishing. As a result, Captain Russ was able to show us newly restored populations of frigate birds, anemones, jellyfish, and playful, smelly sea lions.
 
On Steinbeck's six-week journey with Ricketts and crew, the group also collected sea creatures in an effort to document marine life on the then-remote peninsula. He also noticed the hazy peaks of the Sierra de la Giganta mountains. "A dream hangs over the whole region, a brooding kind of hallucination," Steinbeck wrote. The exception is cheery little Puerto Escondido, or "hidden port," which lies along the coast inside the national park. The town sits beside a hurricane hole filled with startlingly blue water; Steinbeck called it "a place of magic . . . fringed by bright-green mangroves." When we arrived, I found that Puerto Escondido hadn't changed, except perhaps that it's even less bustling in the absence of commercial fishing. A half-built hotel sits on the shore and a handful of boats are moored there. We pulled into the secret oasis to fill our freshwater tanks.
 
Later, as we swam in the lee of a cove near the port, Woods spotted a line of dark water about half a mile out. "Dolphin!" he said. Within about 30 seconds, we swam to the boat, yanked up the anchor, and motored out to where hundreds of dolphins were leaping and smacking the water with their fins. It sounded like an enormous belly-flop contest.
 
"They're herding fish," Woods explained as Russell cut the engine. Suddenly, there was only the sound of their bodies against the water. I leaned forward over the bow as one broke the surface to exhale. The spray from its blowhole hit my face. 

After a few minutes of silence, the herd pulled away from the boat. We watched the churning water head north. "We should split," Russell said. Their shifting
direction was less about the fish and more about their attempt to move away from the strange craft hovering over them. "With wildlife, I don't like to get too
greedy," Russell said. As we pulled away, I watched the dolphins return to the spot we'd just left, the line of their shiny bodies stretching to the horizon.

On the third day, we motored to the white-sand beach of Isla Coronado, named after its rocky crown. It's the most stunning island of the five. The evening's
menu featured Russell's tri-tip steak with a Grand Marnier cranberry-orange chutney. ("It's really more of a reduction," he said.) To work up an appetite,
Woods and I climbed a steep scree field and looked out over the bay. There was no path.

Steinbeck wrote about a "some-day road" not far from where we were. His words for these ridges—"steep and slippery with shale"—came to mind. The air tasted like salt—sea and our sweat—as we scrambled higher. It took about an hour of steady hiking to reach the crest, above the big, red boulders. The boulders were loose. A slip here could be dangerous, so we paid attention as the world around us fell away to nothing. Finally, panting and shaky-legged, we reached the peak. The cove below us glittered. Within it a school of dolphins was feeding on something we couldn't see. We could hear them breathing—a huff of an exhale, then a sharp intake of air before they dove again. They, too, sounded exhausted. But content.


Adventure Guide: Baja's Sea of Cortez
To experience the author's deluxe dolphin-spit facial, you'll need to cruise Baja's
Sea of Cortez on Captain Russ's Navy SEAL–raft, or RIB, with Xplore Offshore (www.xploreoffshore.com). You can also kayak, camp, and bike the area. The best time to go is from October to May—the summer just gets too darn hot. Be sure to visit the fish taco stands—they're some of Mexico's best. "Buena suerte!"
 
Getting There:
Loreto Airport is serviced by Aero California, Aeroméxico, Alaska Airlines, and Delta, from L.A. and San Diego. Cabo San Lucas, at the opposite end of the peninsula, accepts flights from most major cities. To drive the 700 miles (1,127 kilometers) from the border to Loreto on Route 1, you'll need a $20 tourist card and Mexican insurance (MexiPass Global Assurance; $240 for 30 days; www.mexipass.com).
 
Getting Around: Budget (www.budget.com) has an office at Loreto Airport and rents cars by the day ($54) or the week ($327), as well as SUVs ($85 a day). Hertz (www.hertz.com) and Europcar (www.europcar.com) have offices in Loreto.
 
Kayaking: For world-class sea kayaking, Baja Expeditions (www.xploreoffshore.com) offers seven-day trips ($1,045) around Isla Espíritu Santo (12 miles or 19 kilometers from La Paz) that include hiking, snorkeling, and interacting with the area's largest sea-lion colony. Tour company Black Feather has a similar four-day option ($370; www.blackfeather.com).
 
Biking:
Sierra de la Laguna, near Los Barriles, boasts miles of cactus-slaloming singletrack. Katun Tours has day-long guided rides ($55; www.katun-tours.com). Pedaling South, out of Loreto, offers eight-day tours ($895; www.tourbaja.com).
 
Camping:
A good place to pitch your tent is the 33-mile stretch of beach between Punta Gaspareqo and Land's End, on the East Cape. An RV park with good security is Aquamarina in La Paz ($8; +52 612 122 3761).
 
Lodging:
Posada de las Flores in Loreto ($140; www.posadadelasflores.com) has charming quarters. La Paz's Club El Moro ($92; www.clubelmoro.com) is a less expensive option.  
—Sam Carmichael


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