The boat guy flung his hands toward the water and shouted something urgent. The gist was: Go go go! So I pushed on my snorkel mask and went, toppling into the chilly Sea of Cortez. Righting myself, I peered down into the cool water. And saw it.
The whale shark was so calm and lithe, I didn’t register what I was seeing at first. Its gray polka-dotted body moved like a school-bus-size shadow. By the time I realized that I was almost close enough to stroke its vast back, I was watching it taper to a tail, and then I was letting out a snorkel-muffled squeal at something else: a baby whale shark swimming alongside its mother.
A minute later, the guides helped me scramble out of the water. Back in the boat, I sat grinning and panting among five fellow tourists who’d also taken their first swim with these gentle giants. This was one of many moments that would leave me breathless — sometimes quite literally — during a trip through Baja California.
I got to know Mexico’s famous peninsula over two weeks from late December to early January on a 36-passenger motor coach with Green Tortoise Adventure Travel that brought a group of us roughly 1,000 miles from San Francisco to the bottom of Baja California Sur and back up again.
By the end of the trip, I’d seen landscapes both lush and dry, mountainous and flat; communities both affluent and subsistent; sights for the historian and for the adventure-seeker alike. And they all surpassed my expectations.
We started along the western coast, which borders the Pacific Ocean, and continued on the east side, learning why Jacques-Yves Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez “the world’s aquarium.” But there were lots of surprises long before my first experience with the ocean creatures that enchanted the legendary diver and conservationist.
One of our first stops was the city of Ensenada, a busy west coast port town about a 90-minute drive from the U.S. border. This was early in the trip, when my boyfriend and I had just met our fellow passengers. Both Washington, D.C.-based university faculty members, we joined an eclectic group that included college students from China and Korea, young professionals and free spirits from the U.K., the United States and Australia, and a retired truck driver living in Colorado. Some had already tucked five or six Green Tortoise trips under their belts. Others were newbies like me. Somehow, we all fit together — at first socially, and soon physically.
The two bus drivers formed their own complementary band. William brought Reiki skills, a penchant for hats and decades of experience behind the wheel. Sandy-haired Charles wore sunglasses with a built-in bottle opener — even though the drivers never cracked a cerveza during travel days. He handled orientations to new places.
Our drivers’ m.o. in Ensenada, as it would be in most cities, was to hand out a map, let us know when and where to meet the bus in a few hours and send us on our way. Charles did mention a few attractions, though. One of the highlights was an 11th-floor hotel bar billed as the highest point in the city.
As my boyfriend and I walked around, I spotted a banner advertising a fireworks display to take place that night. A bustling city on a Saturday evening, a vantage point to die for and a show — that combination sat in the back of my mind as we pushed through the streets lined with restaurants, coffee shops, an outdoor gift market and no-prescription-needed pharmacies.
As night fell, we strategized for the fireworks. That high vantage point sounded perfect. The air grew cool. Boat owners were lighting up their vessels with strings of lights in red, orange, blue and white. I expected that a top-floor bar would be clogged with revelers and sight-seekers on a weekend like this. Yet when we arrived, we found a lone couple at a table. We had the place to ourselves as the fireworks’ canopies bloomed over the water.
The next morning brought its own surprises. As the sun warmed the air, I left the bus and waded into chilly water in a beachside town. I was just awake enough to be confused. Not confused about how Charles had safely maneuvered a 20-ton bus through loose sand without sinking. Or about how, the night before, William had led us in performing what Green Tortoise folks call the Miracle: transforming the seating area of our bus into a huge bed and the overhead luggage compartments into bunks so that all 30-plus passengers could sleep lying down as we drove through the night. I didn’t even question why this water was so cold, when arid desert stretched all around.
No, I was wondering about food.
Hadn’t the itinerary mentioned waking up to breakfast? And hadn’t the Green Tortoise website indicated that the coaches had kitchens? As a freelance food writer, I was sure that I remembered those details correctly. But I had yet to see so much as a hot plate on our coach.
Then all of a sudden, a kitchen materialized. I stood stunned as my fellow travelers pulled folding tables and cases of food from the bus’s luggage compartment. To the clattering music of plastic dishes and metal flatware, perishables emerged from a cooler under the passenger seats. In no time, we were enjoying a generous breakfast. We would dine on gourmet-caliber meals for the rest of the trip, thanks to savvy shopping by our drivers, passenger involvement in meal prep, and ice and water available along the way. A three-bin dishwashing system with seawater, soap and a touch of bleach always followed.
We spent the days around Christmas at a rustic campsite tucked between the Sea of Cortez and tree-covered hills, aptly called Playa Escondida, which means “hidden beach.” This was the private beach and winter home of Green Tortoise owner Lyle Kent. It was also where I started to understand why this place so impressed Cousteau.
A few minutes after donning snorkel and mask, I found myself in water that buzzed with more life than all my other snorkel adventures combined. Schools of neon-striped yellowtail raced below me. Sea anemones swayed. Bright blue fish flitted by. Only through glass aquarium walls had I ever seen such a vibrant marine hub.
In the first two days, we hiked through narrow slot canyons, dry riverbeds and mud flats. On the third day, local guides from the nearby Rancho San Cosme hoisted us on mules and led the group along cliffs with majestic views of ocean and towering rock islands. We later ambled down to a cove, dismounted and waded out to a hidden hot spring. Just the range of terrain and natural phenomena within a few miles was stunning.
Back at the beach camp, holiday festivities geared up. The Christmas Eve dance floor, with generator-powered speakers, was so hopping that I decided I had to hold my own despite having twisted my ankle on one of the hikes. With a permanent set of tables and a propane grill, the meals here became more elaborate, culminating in a gasp-worthy sushi dinner on Boxing Day. Things were so magical, I wasn’t entirely shocked when the ankle injury disappeared the day after it happened, or when I learned that the mahi mahi and wahoo that we rolled into sushi had been at the end of Kent’s fishing line in the Sea of Cortez a day or two before.
By the time the Green Tortoise bus crawled back toward the border as New Year’s Eve approached, I recognized one more way the trip had surprised me. Although I love exploring nature and sleeping under the stars, I usually prefer to do so in ways that don’t threaten my extremities, with a car full of supplies and a flush toilet close by.
But at this point, I’d taken in stride not only a twisted ankle, but also days with just the sea as my shower, no access to the Internet, nearly two weeks without my laptop and a range of bathroom situations that sometimes consisted of just a shovel and a roll of toilet paper. I also noticed that even with stretches of beach camping and sardinelike sleeping arrangements on the bus, the chronic pain I’d felt for years in my shoulders had disappeared.
We continued down the Baja coast, stopping to camp in the Parque Nacional Cabo Pulmo marine preserve. There, I swam with sea lions, watched manta rays jump six feet in the air and even glimpsed whales. I marveled at the up-close view of the hulking ballerinas of the sea and the power of Baja’s signature flying pancake of a fish.
We spent New Year’s in La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur. The seaside city awash with tourists produced a surprisingly calm night. Our group of Green Tortoise travelers shared a quiet dinner, and we had to hit a nightclub to find noise and bustle.
On our last morning in Baja, the bus pulled over in pure darkness. My watch read something around 4 a.m., but Charles was urging us to get up and come outside. Groggier than even that first morning at the beach, I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and stumbled off to join the others who were looking up at the sky.
“Did you see that?”
Daylight would reveal Cataviña’s ancient cave paintings, and we would scamper up the rock formations. But right now, our drivers had stopped for a view of the Quadrantids meteor shower.
Trails of light. Flashes of stars. Winks from heaven. While friends back in Washington were driving out to the suburbs and waiting for hours for a single blip, we gasped at this sky virtually sparkling with meteors. I’d never seen anything like it, and I might never again.
Green Tortoise Adventure Travel, 494 Broadway, San Francisco; 800-867-8647; www.greentortoise.com. Offers nine- and 14-day Baja tours. Round-trip from San Francisco starts at $899 and $1,299, respectively, including food and park entrance fees.