Arriving in the heat of the afternoon, I almost mistake the southern Baja outpost of La Ventana for a ghost town – until I see that its vast bay is filled with scores of neon-colored kites. The town is deserted, but the sky is so crowded that it looks like a balloon drop on New Year's Eve.
Just a decade ago, kiteboarding was so dangerous that only the best watermen in the world – surfer Laird Hamilton, windsurfer Robby Naish, big-wave guru Pete Cabrinha – dared to master it. Then in 2005, a new system was invented that automatically stops the kite when the kiter's hands leave the control bar. Overnight, kiting became something anyone could do for the price of some lessons and about $2,500 worth of gear. The kite pulls you along much as a speedboat does, letting even novice riders skim over the top of the water at up to 15 mph. But wave-riding is the real thrill: You can tow yourself into big waves, no Jet Ski required. The ultimate daredevils take to the air, flying as high as 50 feet. Today there are an estimated half-million kiters, and La Ventana is fast becoming ground zero.
Thirty miles south of La Paz, La Ventana is a one-street town with a gas station and just a handful of small hotels. I head down a dirt road and find accommodations in a spare room owned by a fisherman.
My first evening, I visit a little bar hidden behind the walls of a beach club called Baja Joe's. A lone patron sporting a Vandyke beard and a battered cowboy hat takes one glance at me and says, "So you're here to learn how to kite, eh?" It's not even a guess. There is no other reason to come here, and if I could kite, I wouldn't be a stranger. "Kiteboarding ruined my life," he says with a grin.
He introduces himself as El Vagabundo (he didn't want his name used) and proceeds to tell me his story. It took him two days to learn how to kite back in Vancouver and another week to quit his job and sell all his worldly possessions. For six months every winter, Vagabundo lives out of his Mazda pickup in La Ventana. "Kiteboarding is not about an adrenaline rush," Vagabundo says. "It's about the feeling of flying."
As the bar fills up, I find that I'm surrounded by Vagabundos. David Grove, 39, is good enough to receive free gear and beer money from a couple of kiteboarding companies. "I'm in it more for the laid-back, party kind of vibe," he says. His 35-year-old brother Steve is a ship captain and flies down to kite in between stints loading oil tankers off Alaska's North Slope. Jessica Withington manages the kiteboarding school by day and gives free salsa lessons at night. Nicole Eden is the village yoga instructor: Her classes are held on standup paddleboards in the middle of the bay.
La Ventana, I realize, is not so much a vacation destination as the winter stop for a seminomadic tribe. They assemble at this remote beach to take advantage of the reliable winds that blow upward of 20 knots every afternoon. Some, like Vagabundo, live on the cheap in makeshift campgrounds. Others have RVs and campers, which they park on the beach. When spring arrives, they all migrate north like a flock of birds. Most will land in Hood River, Oregon, to camp and kite for another six months. It's an 'Endless Summer' existence, except these surfers follow the wind.
Life in La Ventana has a distinct rhythm. Mornings are for cappuccinos and yoga, snorkeling, and standup paddleboards. Lunch could be anything from a pizza fired in a brick oven to a ploughman's lunch of fresh queso, smoked fish, and warm bread picked up at the seaside farmers market. One night there was the costume party where a fishing-net-clad Vagabundo came as "the catch of the day"; on another, a wedding on the beach, to which the whole town was invited, and then there was the after-hours rave at the kiteboarding school and a trip into La Paz to hear a jazz combo at an open-to-the-sky art gallery and cafe.
I sign up for kite lessons with Jessica at Playa Central. Day one is ground school, devoted to safety procedures: how to pump up your kite, lay out your lines, launch the kite, and eject from your harness in case of an emergency. Day two is "body dragging" – basically kiteboarding without the board. The water in the Sea of Cortez is 65 degrees, and the beach is shaped in such a way that it's impossible to get blown out to sea. While drifting downwind, I practice my power stroke, an acrobatic move that propels the kite in quick figure eights across the sky.
On day three, my instructor hands me a board and tells me to body-drag away from the beach, get into position while sliding my feet into the straps, and then power-stroke until the magic happens. Kiteboarding has a reputation for being relatively easy to learn – easier than skiing, easier than surfing, and certainly easier than golf. That may be true, but it's still not very easy, I realize, as I try to control the kite with one hand and hold on to the board with the other. Imagine trying to learn how to ride a horse – while drowning – and you'll get the gist.
Then comes the hard part: the power stroke. Too little whip and you'll just twist out of position and have to start from scratch. Too much, and...it's face-first into the sea. One moment you're walking on water, and the next it's crucifixion by kite. It's every punishment ever visited on a sailor: You're keelhauled and taken for a good old-fashioned Nantucket sleigh ride punctuated by a yard sale.
It took me about 10 hours of instruction – which is average – but finally that kite popped me up. I leaned back, pointed my board forward, and began soaring across the water.
Once free from the clutches of the ocean, I find myself quite literally soaring across it. Suspended between wind and water, I'm in a graceful state of flux. The slightest lean and nudge on the bar sends me in a new direction. I can hear the board slapping against the chop, but I feel weightless. The sun starts to dry my wet skin, and the wind's howl, now that I am traveling with it, turns into a whisper. I'm relaxed and, with a rooster tail behind me, more bird than boat. It feels good, really good.
That night I hit Baja Joe's totally exhausted and with a back that hurts like someone took a sledge to it, but I want to celebrate – and I've got a whole town offering to buy me cervezas. "Congratulations! You're a kiteboarder now," says El Vagabundo, sliding over a tequila Jell-O shot. "Addicted yet?"
See also: Where to Learn to Kiteboard