In The Wilds Of Baja, Mexico
I had never been so happy to see a cactus — even just through the window of an airport shuttle, as it sped towards a promised adventure full of whales and kayaking in what was known as the “Galapagos of Mexico."
A cactus meant warmth, sun, and did I mention the sun?
The description of the women-only adventure was hard to resist:☟
Intrepid explorers and nature lovers will find a slice of paradise in Mexico’s 775-mile-long Baja Peninsula. You’ll feel wild and untamed as you paddle a sea kayak off Baja’s remote Isla Espiritu Santo, and quickly find out how easy it is to escape the ordinary by immersing yourself in this island’s vibrant natural panorama.
I was an explorer. I was a nature lover. And I certainly needed to escape.
My home of Vancouver, Canada is normally wet and gray through the winter, but this year was unusually cold. Altogether, the climate had cast a spell of depression on me, conspiring to keep me from doing all that I’d planned, all that I’d hoped. Maybe this trip would also pull me out of my funk. But as the prickly green stumps blurred by outside my window like beacons of hope, I wondered what nine days with a group of strange women would be like.
“The hole should be as deep as the top of this handle,” said our guide Leah, as she dug, then shoved an 8-inch shovel upright into the sand so that the top of the handle was level with the ground.
I shudder. Shitting in holes we dug ourselves was not part of the plan. Neither was the fact that we were on the west coast of Baja in more sheltered waters. A storm that would hit the east side of the Baja was on its way and our itinerary to kayak the famous Espiritu Santo Island was quickly adjusted.
At first, I’d worried about who I might be sharing my tent and hotel room with. But after the first two nights camping in a remote canyon accessible by a bumpy gravel road, it was clear that not only did I have the best tentmate I could have asked for, we were all doing our part to work together as a group: cooking, washing and drying dishes with headlamps in the dark, helping each other setting up tents in the afternoon sun.
There were 12 of us who’d come together for this Baja Kayak And Whale Adventure. With our two guides, that made us 14. As it turned out, the first real challenge was trying to keep all the names straight: Among us, six had names that started with an L: Liz, Lise, Leah, Louise, Lisa, and Linda.
Names weren’t required though to relax together in hot springs under a million stars at night. In the morning, we hiked to see the cacti up close; they were long, narrow and tall on Baja, rather than the Gumby shape with two arms we often associate with cacti, which are found in the rest of the country. We swam in a refreshing river and gulped in the view that seemed to leap out of a postcard. The murmur of small waterfalls and natural life enveloped us. It was a beautiful and gentle entry to more strenuous camping, and yes, shitting in holes we would dig ourselves. We were now learning how to dig those holes for the next leg of our adventure —this time at sea.
Mary was the easiest to remember; she was the tallest with a well-known but now uncommon name. She was lured onto the trip by the whale watching. “They are majestic, mysterious, and migrating 8,000 miles round trip is mind-blowing.”
Magdalena Bay in Mexico’s Baja is the world-renowned winter nursery grounds for the California Gray Whale. Every year, these slow-moving, barnacle-speckled giants swim south from Alaska to spend their winters in a series of lagoons sheltered from the Pacific Ocean by low barrier islands, the very islands we would be kayaking around and camping on. It was a place of birth and re-birth — and as it would turn out, not just for the whales.
Julie joined the adventure after her husband passed away two years earlier. It was her first trip on her own.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, not expecting such a major event to be the why for her.
“I think probably everyone has a story here,” she said, meeting my eyes.
“If you think your aim might be off, dig the hole wider, but if you’re confident in your aim, not necessary,” continued Leah. Do your business.
Good morning! Leah’s cheery voice fills the air and I rush to start getting ready for our first full day of kayaking. Our first night on one of the islands was gorgeous. On the more sheltered side of the Baja, the sand was smooth and white like that of a desert with soft undulating hills. We ran our bare feet through the sand and took photos of the curvy patterns of the wind etched into the sand. Then marvelled at it all at lunch when we’d made a stop at another island to eat. By night though, I was too tired to explore. I went straight to bed as soon as we’d eaten, freezing from a wet sleeping bag. But the morning sun was warm and comforting on my back. Birds of every kind sunned themselves along the seashore, dolphins literally jumped out of the water for our viewing pleasure, and the water was like glass. Taking in the scene felt like dessert, sated from the previous day of spectacular whale watching.
The gray whales of Magdelena Bay have a special relationship with people visiting these isles. They often come to the pangas, bright blue and white boats that ferry small groups of up to eight into the lagoons. When we were told that we may get close enough to even touch them, I was skeptical. I would have considered it lucky if we got to glimpse a splash of water as they came up for air.
The male drivers were on radios sharing where they might have spotted a whale. And even though we stay our distance, it’s hard not to feel like we are invading their space; it’s hard not to have mixed feelings. That is, until we spot a mother with her calf by her side coming up for air from below the dark water. It is simply, amazing.
“It’s a reminder that we are all interconnected and this Earth matters,” says Leah. Is that what I was feeling? This deep sense of being connected to Nature, a sense of true as I sat in awe of these gentle giants? Was it because it was a mother and her calf, the calf taking two breaths for every one of her nurturing mother’s?
I think this will be the highlight of our adventure. Full of gratitude, but wanting to get back to shore to fill up on food, I am wondering why our panga driver has taken us to a smaller lagoon to join the other half of our group. He turns off the engine, and we float silently on the water. Suddenly, there’s a commotion. A squeal of delight. A whale has approached the other boat and Kat is leaning over to pet it. Oh my god. Oh my god! Then the whale swims over to ours. OH MY F***ING GOD!
“When the whale came to our boats, it was one of the most incredible moments of my life,” said Sandra.
“Do not bury your toilet paper with your poop. Place the soiled toilet paper into a paper bag, roll it up and place it in this dry bag, says Leah. Later, she and Megan, the other guide, would have a special bonfire to burn the soiled paper."
By our third and final night of camping on the islands, we are pros at packing and unloading our kayaks, at keeping to scheduled times and distances. We can all put up a tent in winds so strong, they would be blown away if not tied down. We’d carried fully loaded, double and single kayaks as a team. Cooked, swam and laughed as friends. And yes, shat in holes we dug ourselves.
That night we tried multiple times to spell out WILD WOMEN with lights in the dark, laughs spilling out before Lisa passed around a bottle of mezcal. Once back in civilization, we showered and had dinner at one of the best restaurants I’d eaten at in Mexico. The next day, we journeyed to the eastern side of the Baja where we snorkelled with noisy sea lions at the northern tip of Isla Espiritu Santo. The storm had moved on. We weren’t able to kayak or camp at the protected eco-tourism spot, but we did manage a few precious hours on one of the beaches. Gorgeous volcanic rock formations and turquoise water set the scene, with brightly-coloured parrotfish, angelfish and Moorish idols in abundance. None of us yet ready to end the trip.
In the van heading to the airport where we would all scatter to our respective homes, I ask the others of their thoughts of our nine days together.
“It was like boot camp,” says Sandra. Everyone agrees. “A nice boot camp,” she adds. Nods all around again.
Carissa said she overcame her limitations. Kat loved the challenge of living outdoors for a week with a group of strangers. Olga realized she was more capable than she thought; she may have sat in a kayak before, but this was the first time she’d actually kayaked. Julie felt more confident about travelling by herself, after the death of her husband. Louise loved the rhythm of paddling, the stillness that surrounded us, witnessing her thoughts without judgment and letting go.
Liz thought Leah’s strong leadership created a positive experience for all of us to adapt and do all that we’d done. For Lisa, it’d finally sunk in that she was now retired, after concentrating all her efforts on putting up a tent before it blew away — rather than deal with a corrupt office. Karen said it was coming on this adventure with her longtime friend Sandra that really made the trip, adding that the experience was one that she thought would build confidence in young women and prepare older women for the next phase of life. Mary thought it was a true adventure and not a sanitized experience. True. We did dig holes where we could purge all the yuck we needed to process. Holes we each dug for ourselves.
“I loved being surrounded by strong, amazing, and confident women and incredible guides that made the whole experience very special,” said Mary.
Also true: Strong. Amazing. Confident. Women, we are.