Standup Paddleboard in Baja
Five hours north of Cabo, Highway One cuts east through the mountains. Two lanes cling to brown slopes and jagged canyons for 30 nerve-racking miles of S curves and hairpin turns. This dangerous drive protects a stretch of empty coastline where Baja California remains true to its desolate, wild-wild-west self. It’s a place where the seafood is fresh and the siesta is sacred. It’s also the best place to strap your gear to a standup paddleboard and hit the Sea of Cortez.
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Kayakers have been coming to these parts for decades for the calm seas and long stretches of remote coastline, perfect for pitching a tent and frying up some freshly caught fish. But there’s a cluster of deserted islands in the Loreto Bay National Marine Park, off the town of Loreto, sitting so close together that standup paddleboarding between them — even on a board laden with a night or two’s worth of gear — is a very doable proposition. In fact, outfitters have started offering SUP trips here that include support boats for luxuries like Costco-size bottles of tequila and Dutch ovens. After a previous SUP mission on a river with Class III rapids, this seemed like the perfect place for my second attempt.
The seaside ranch town of Loreto greets me with nods, smiles, and octopus tacos. This is old Mexico: one main road, one traffic light. Visitors must register at the park office for a fee of 27 pesos (about $2), a process that can take days unless you’re renting equipment through the town’s lone paddleboarding outfitter, Sea and Land. First, you have to convince owner Juve Orozco, a former Mexican marine, that you are seaworthy. I have no skills and no knowledge of currents or weather patterns. Instead, I have 36-year-old Art Noll, a local tour guide and expert paddler, accompanying me. Noll is a Wisconsin native who learned to paddle with a Huck Finn rig on the Mississippi.
Standup paddleboarding is inherently light on gear, which makes for carefree traveling. Still, we bring along as many supplies as we can, stashing water and filling dry bags with clothes, sleeping bags, mats, wetsuits, snorkels, food, a backpacking stove, two dromedaries, a half dozen beers, and tequila in a small plastic water bottle.
We drive to our put-in point at Puerto Escondido, 15 miles south of Loreto. Across the water lies tomorrow’s destination: a rocky spine of an island called Isla Danzante. But for now, we paddle to the nearby headland of Punta Coyote to set up camp, where I spend some time getting used to the board. The learning curve is quick, but not instant. “Keep your weight distributed evenly,” Noll says, “and don’t look down, or that’s where you’ll end up.” I keep my knees bent, my paddle in the water, eyes on the horizon. Height is a disadvantage, and I’m 6-foot-4, but my double-wide beginner’s board is built for stability. My quads and calves tense up, but I breathe through it, gaining enough control to practice dropping to my knees, the proper reaction to losing your balance. “From here on out,” Noll says, “it’s just time on the board.” The exposure and body movement make it a much more visceral and engaging way to move across the water than in the cockpit of a sea kayak.
We push off at dawn the next day, when the water is calmest. With whales spouting in the distance, we aim for the north end of Danzante — a two-mile, two-hour slog. I celebrate our arrival by jumping into the turquoise waters of Honeymoon Cove. After a quick rest, we head south with a helpful breeze, along the contours of the island and its reefs. Paddling feels almost meditative now. Pitaya cacti spread like anemones on the hills. Pelicans stare. Dolphins surface and submerge in orderly fashion. Our campsite on Danzante is Punta Arena, a pristine white beach near the southern tip. After lunch we paddle south and hike the Arroyo trail to a high saddle. I catch the angles of a time-share complex, but resorts don’t define the landscape — at least not yet. Dropping to the eastern shore, we scramble over rocks and tidal shelves to a grand ventana, a tunnel of sorts, carved into the stone by the water.
During the paddle back to camp, Noll lets me use his board — narrower and less stable, it wants to move. So this is what safety costs me. Then we see something moving on our beach — 10 people with white plastic chairs. “They better not touch our beers,” I say. Something switches, and I forget everything — board, paddle, form, horizon, sun, my sore quads — everything but those beers. Stroking hard, I leave Noll behind, staring down the breeze, board slapping the swell, balance never in doubt. I feel like a paddler.
Instead of beer pirates, we find a kayak tour with a support boat, a kitchen, and a reservation for the same beach. Their guide diffuses tension by inviting us to move our camp and then come back for dinner. So after some chicken tortilla soup, rice, and birthday cake, we fade into the night, paddling with no lights, no wetsuit, and no cares in the world.
As dawn breaks on my final day on the water, the sky looks foreboding. “Wind is the decider,” Noll says. (SUPs go downwind. Period.) Our handheld marine radio forecasts a northwest wind at five to 20 knots, which would make our crossing impossible. A true norte can turn dangerous fast, so we decide to leave Danzante early.
Paddling back toward the mainland, I’m exhausted and a little nervous fighting the mild swell. A sea lion crosses our path. I lose focus, falling in one last time. It’s a fitting reminder that after just three days, I’m no expert. But I’d gladly keep learning in a place like this.