MX - San Felipe to Mulege - 2008/10/13 to 2008/11/17 - 500 miles

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We were headed to a land of stark contrast – a giant crack in the crust of the world where a dynamic earth challenges our perception of an unchanging continent. On one side of a great geologic gash, high mountains and searing desert force life to scratch out a harsh, reserved existence. On the other side, deep cool seas offer a cornucopia of boisterous, abundant life. For seven hundred and fifty kilometers, we would be travelers on that knife edge between two opposing realities. We were going to paddle down the coast of Baja on the Sea of Cortez.

Together with my friends Rick Wiebush and Joel Beckwith, I flew into San Diego from Baltimore. Jen Kleck, owner of Aqua Adventures, gave us our choice of plastic kayaks from a large rack of day rentals. Baja is notoriously hard on kayaks and the fiberglass boats were understandably off the menu. I checked the deck rigging and inspected the skeg and rudder cables for wear and kinking. We all tested the fit of the tiny world we would inhabit for the next four weeks. I wanted a boat with a rudder so I could use my sail. We finally settled on three Wilderness Systems boats, two Tempest 170s with skegs and one ruddered Tsunami 165, along with pumps, floats, skirts and spare paddles to round out our own buoyancy vests, paddles, VHF, sea anchors and other safety gear we brought with us. Joel tested the bulkhead integrity by filling the hatches with water and switched out a couple of hatch covers to get a good tight fit. He had holes drilled into the skegs and attached pull down strings.

We purchased two extra copies of the Baja Fishing Charts which show the bathymetry and general position of the islands. These charts are neither detailed nor accurate, but they are better than nothing. Joel had bought the Baja Atlas, a book of topographic maps of the entire peninsula. This book lists for a price of about $30.00 U.S. It has gone out of print. He located a copy on at the price of $300.00 and we were all happy that he did. Between the Atlas for detailed land forms and the fishing charts for bathymetry and reef locations we had what we needed. We also had some satellite photos from Google Earth. (Since our trip a new publication The Guide to Baja Sea Kayaking by Dave Eckardt has been published. It is great for information on camping places with descriptions and GPS co-ordinates, pictures and satellite photos. It has neither topography nor bathymetry so it is unfortunately not a replacement for the Atlas and fishing guide.)

We planned to break the trip into two roughly equal parts from San Felipe to Bahia de Los Angeles (~360 km) and from Bahia de Los Angeles to Mulege (~390 km). We would travel north to south to take advantage of the predominant wind. We would get water and supplies at small towns along the way – Puertocitos (80 km), Gonzaga Bay ( 170 km), LA Bay (360 km) and Santa Rosalia (710 km). Our plan called for a two day stop over in LA Bay. It also allowed for one wind day per week and assumed an average daily distance of twenty five kilometers.

That final evening in San Diego we repacked our equipment and got last minute provisions. In the morning we began the 350 kilometer shuttle. Clearing the uniquely dysfunctional Mexican customs procedure in quiet Tecate, we made it by late afternoon to our launch point twelve miles north of San Felipe. The road first reaches the coast there. We unloaded the pickup bed of our mound of gear and set about packing it all away. With amazing speed and simplicity, everything disappeared into the hatches. We then took the water bags and the heaviest supplies back out. The next morning we would move the boats out to the low tide mark where we could catch the favorable flood tide.

We intended to paddle north into the Colorado delta before returning south. The delta is a unique and challenging place of seven meter tides surging over miles of red mud flats. Here we were just at the narrowest of those flats, but as the six meter tidal range reached its low, the water had fled 750 meters from our encampment at the high tide mark.

We dragged the boats by the stern, keeping the end of the half laden kayaks away from the compacted sand and mud that might jam the skeg mechanism. Several round trips were required to haul the boats and the twenty four liters/kilos of water we were each carrying. We started before daybreak. It took three hours before we were all packed and ready to launch at the water’s edge.

Just as we were about to head north, the El Norte that had been blowing 20 to 25 knots all day for the past few days began to come in. Marked by high temperatures and strong winds in Southern California and driven by a high pressure system in the Arizona desert, these spells of steady northwest to northeast winds blow all day for two to five days. Calm mornings and moderate 15 knot afternoon breezes are more common to this region. We talked out our options and decided to save the hard upwind foray across the shallow waters of the delta for another time.

We placed the last of the Dromedary bags under our legs in the cockpit and launched into the breaking ripples crossing the shallow mud flats. I struggled to put on the battered, low quality rental skirt. I had had no trouble with it on shore. Try as I might I just couldn’t get the darn thing to stay on. With only 5 centimeters of freeboard, my cockpit was swamping with water. Soon it was apparent that I was going to have to return to shore, empty the swamped boat and start over. I hand signaled Joel and Rick, who were understandably confused about what could be the matter so soon. They beat their way back up wind and helped me lighten my load by taking some of the drinking water. I discovered that a loop of my tow rope was blocking the successful attachment of the bulky, stiff skirt. I swapped my spare skirt for Joel’s skirt, making the recalcitrant rental skirt the spare. We continued downwind and wave in our loaded and unfamiliar boats. By the time we reached the point at San Felipe, it was blowing 20 knots with one and a half meter waves. On the landing I snapped my Greenland paddle in half. It was a discouraging first day start.

For the next few days we paddled down along the shore under the newly constructed gringo houses. In Mexico, no one can own the beach itself and camping is allowed anywhere. Most nights we stopped at places free of houses, but our days saw us paddling outside the beach break in front of a string of absurd beach house communities sure to disappear in any major storm.

The tidal currents we experienced were very modest for such a large tidal range. As we went south, the tidal range gradually lessened. Many mornings found us up hours before daybreak to catch the high tide and avoid the long carry to the water. An hour of paddling in the dark was rewarded by a gorgeous Baja sunrise over calm waters.

We reached Puertocitos, a very small and poor community that marks the end of the major development along the coast. We topped off our water bags there. Although we had only been out three days, we wanted to carry an extra three days of water at all times in case we were forced to shore by another El Norte. In the hot dry climate of Baja three liters per person per day is the minimum amount of water you should carry.

Every drop of moisture is squeezed out of the air rising up over the three thousand meter backbone of northern Baja. Air tumbles hot and dry down the eastern slope, resulting in single digit humidity and minimal rainfall. Past Puertocitos, a Martian rubble of red rocks devoid of bushes or cactus supports only a few stalks of dry grass. On land, life seems to be barely holding on with a hard and determined look. Even in October, heat waves dance over rocks frying under a cloudless sky. The only fresh water available is filtered from the springs located at the communities along the coast. Small lizards scrabble over the baked earth surviving off early morning’s dew.

Ahead, suspended above the horizon, were the Islas Encantadas, the enchanted islands. While a mirage makes them appear to float, these islands actually would float if they were not attached to the bottom. The rocks that fall off the cliffs of these volcanic islands do not sink. The ultra light pumice floats away and washes up on the high tide to form a line of small tan pebbles on the beaches for a hundred miles to the south.

These little volcanos popping their heads above the sea surface are a sign of the titanic forces ripping Baja from the mainland of Mexico. As the great plates of earth’s crust grind past, over and under each other on a bath of molten rock, a rift has formed creating high mountains next to deep valleys flooded with sea water. In places all along the giant split, molten rock has welled up creating volcanic cones along the shore.

On these islands some four to eight kilometers off the coast, washed by the surging tides and dissolved nutrients brought for millennia down the once mighty Colorado River, the bounty of the sea life contrasts with the scarcity to be found ashore. Vast quantities of shrimp and small fish support staggering flocks of terns, boobies, frigate birds, gulls and pelicans. Terrorized balls of sardines erupt in spray as predatory fish force them to the surface. Relentless birds dive into them. Pods of dolphin join in. Overhead clouds of frigate birds wheel in the updraft of the mountain peaks. Speckled sting rays leap three meters into the air and arch their bodies to create a satisfying pop as they return to the sea. At night Humboldt squid ascend from the depths to feed on the bounty. Three types a sperm whales dive deep to feed upon the squid. Other baleen whales, fin, humpback, blue and right, strain the small shrimp and plankton blooming in the water. Sea lions slip their warming rocks to catch an easy meal before returning to their newly arrived pups. Food is so abundant that a few short moments of frenetic pursuit is all that is required for most at the top of the food chain. This maelstrom of life seethed around us every day.

Mexico 5 is the only road down this side of the Baja peninsula. When it is forced to bend inland at Bahia San Luis Gonzaga by mountains that plunge straight into the sea, civilization ends. The rest of the trip would be desolate desert shoreline and high rugged mountains widely interspersed with little enclaves of houses that pass for towns here.

We caught a ride into the store at Gonzaga Bay for a last chance refill of water, tequila, tortillas and refried beans. Our volunteer taxi driver told us tales of severe problems with theft and increasing violence from drug smugglers, a growing problem that has reached alarming levels on the mainland of Mexico.

We left quickly and camped about eight kilometers short of a sixty kilometer stretch of difficult shore known as “The Wall”. We had heard varying descriptions of this section of the trip and considered it and another section of strong tides, the “cruxes” of this trip. We started the next morning in calm conditions that began to develop wind and sea as the day wore on. At twelve kilometers we came in to El Calamajue’ - an abandoned scallop fishing community. It was the only known easy landing for the rest of this section. We ran up on the steep beach in modest surf. There we stayed for the rest of that day and the next day as the El Norte and our ignorance of the remainder of the coast kept us on shore. With the extra days we had gained by not heading north and the mileage we had made in excess of our planned twenty five kilometer days, we had no worries about running short of time or drinking water.

On the morning of the third day, we left the beach in decreasing swell and continued down “The Wall”. We are of the opinion that the name is not really justified. Under calm conditions there are many narrow beaches and arroyos that provide a place to get out. Few of these are tenable on any kind of real swell or waves on the exposed shore. Indeed there is no protected shore anywhere along the coast. However, there are several widely separated steep cobble beaches to crash land on with places to pitch camp behind them. Inability to stay off a windward shore under high winds and waves would make this a very dangerous stretch, but I reserve an ominous name like “The Wall” for places where there is nothing but steep cliff the entire distance. With calm conditions, we traversed this section with ease.

South of “The Wall”, the second largest island in the Sea of Cortez , Isla Angel de la Guardia , squeezes the tidal flow between the seventy seven kilometer island and the mainland twelve kilometers away. The water flows north and south through the twelve hundred meter deep slot with one hundred meter sills on both ends. This topography causes whorls and boils of tidal current and greatly increased current velocities. We had timed our arrival to be near the neap when tides were smaller. We had very little difficulty with the currents other than slowing our progress in some eddies and speeding our transit to over six knots in other places. We eased into Bahia de Los Angeles well ahead of schedule.

After a much needed shower and two days resting in the town of Bahia de Los Angeles, we used a couple of our slack days to tour more islands in the bay. It certainly is a beautiful place. In my opinion, it is the most beautiful in Baja.

Returning to town, we topped off the water bags and emailed home from the internet café. There was no bank or ATM in the entire town and round the clock electricity had only arrived six months earlier. We would have run out of cash except for the one restaurant set up for credit cards that let us get some extra money when we paid our dinner bill.

On the paddle south from Bahia de Los Angeles, we saw our only rain of the trip, two or three drops and a beautiful rainbow. Some stormy clouds slipped over the mountains to the west as the sun set behind the mountains.

We slipped through the purportedly difficult Salsipuedes, which translates roughly to “leave if you can”. Strong tidal currents made this stretch difficult for the ponderous Spanish galleons that sloshed back and forth with the tides and light winds of this region. We had no problems here either as we slipped by at a time when the strange asymmetrical neap tides gave us only one high tide during the morning and falling favorable tide all day long.

In spite of our attempts to keep the skegs clear of the beach while dragging the boats to the water, they became jammed with small stones, shell or sand as we launched. With the pull down strings, we could free them by reaching under the hull from another kayak. Even with careful treatment, both skegs failed when the stop on the slide wire came loose and we discovered that we did not have a tool to retighten the set screw. We improvised a system of ropes running between the skeg slider and the stern toggle that would pull up the skeg or allow it to fall down. It was simple and effective.

As we moved south along the coast of the Baja peninsula, the mountains to our west were lower and set further back from the coast. There was more vegetation on the shore. Cactus of many types, palo verde, ocotillo, elephant trees and grasses grew at respectful distances that made it easy to walk between them, but looked impenetrable from the water. The plants were unusually verdant, a result of a rare tropical storm that had pushed far up into the gulf a month earlier. During two other El Norte periods, we spent pleasant shore time walking along the coast and into the interior. Many of the plants were still in bloom. The cardon cactus dwarfed all other cactus I had ever seen.

The daily routine of cooking, breaking camp, loading, paddling, unloading, setting camp and cooking became automatic. This is the part of the trip I like the most, when the mechanics of the trip recede to the back of the mind and the aesthetics of the trip emerge. The feel of the sun on your shoulders, the wind in your face, the scratch of the salt on your sleeve, the sound of the surf at night, the smell of the desert when the hot winds roll in at night, the crunch of the sand underfoot - these are all things that I take special care to notice. These are the things I wish to ingrain in my memory. These are the things I enjoy recalling when I think back on a trip. When the discomforts, fears and frustrations have faded, these are the things that remain.

Near the end of our trip we came into the interesting town of Santa Rosalia. Once a prosperous, now abandoned German copper mine, its misplaced Bavarian train station and French cathedral clashed with the smell of fresh baked tortillas and fish tacos. We spent two days here walking around and visiting the stores and restaurants.

With a final push, we ended our trip in Mulege. With careful planning, good timing on the tides, respectful caution regarding strong wind and some luck, the trip had been easy.

We had arranged for our kayaks, ourselves and our gear to be shuttled back to San Diego by an American living in Mulege. He makes the 900 kilometer trip every couple of months and we happened to catch him at the right time. The trip took two days and we were delivered across the border directly to Aqua Adventure where we returned the rental kayaks and gear. This was a very great convenience considering the difficulties of crossing legally into the United States at the Tijuana border for Mexican nationals living as far south as Mulege.

In San Diego with a night before our morning flight back home, we set off to find a restaurant with a salad bar. Except for the tedium of a cross country flight, a trip of ten thousand kilometers of flying, twelve hundred kilometers of shuttling and seven hundred fifty kilometers of paddling on the knife edge of Baja was over.

Home water for Hank McComas is the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, USA. He writes and produces video shorts for




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