ISLA CARMEN, Mexico - Across the channel, the setting sun turned the sharp, desert mountains of the Baja Peninsula a dusty red as they plunged into the placid blue and turquoise waters of the Gulf of California.
Darkness brought a brilliant, starry sky and perfect quiet, unmarred by artificial light and sound.
This was why I had traveled so far from my home in Boston. This was truly "getting away."
But not quite "leaving it all behind." I sipped my cocktail and devoured the succulent fish and tomato-and-avocado salad our kayaking guides had prepared. Few are the scenes in nature unenhanced, I thought, by a few, carefully selected trappings of civilization.
Preparing to celebrate/mourn my 30th birthday last winter, I was eager to treat myself to a vacation, but one reflecting my station in life. That meant something vigorous - to demonstrate my ongoing vitality - but not overly so. It was vacation, after all (and frankly I wondered if my 30th might be accompanied by spontaneous frailty).
Money was an issue, but this was a good time to formally close the book on the bare-bones, broke-recent-college-grad chapter of my travel history. Camping was fine - it's the only way to get off the beaten path - but I was willing to pay a premium to upgrade to a cut above rice and beans, and to avoid the stress of planning a trip in a foreign country.
In short, I was ready to graduate to a category of travel I'll call "camping plus," and after a fair amount of research settled on a guided sea kayaking trip in Mexico. No, we didn't get massages or pinot gris with dinner; we paddled ourselves, slept in tents on rocky beaches and shared an outdoor bathroom behind a boulder. But we ate well and didn't have to cook, or worry about missing the best sites.
I settled on Sea Kayak Adventures, which runs trips in the Pacific Northwest during the summer and relocates to Baja for whale-watching and sea-kayaking trips during the winter. Other companies seemed to offer comparable trips and deals - we paid $1,195 per person for a weeklong trip - but Sea Kayak's schedule worked best. I was probably also swayed by the company's emphasis on good food in the promotional materials.
My girlfriend Maria and I arrived on a nonstop flight from Los Angeles on a Sunday afternoon in Loreto, a dusty but pleasant and unpretentious town on the Gulf of California about 700 miles southeast of San Diego. Baja California juts into the Pacific like a finger off Mexico's West Coast; the area was not affected by the recent hurricane that devastated Cancun and other areas on Mexico's eastern Yucatan Peninsula.
There, we met our guides and our group: six gabby but contagiously enthusiastic California schoolteachers on a much-appreciated spring break; ourselves, and the Sikorskys, a delightful Wisconsin family of four. Six days later, they would all feel like close friends. Sharing an outdoor bathroom has a way of bringing people together.
We savored our last restaurant meals and showers, and on Monday morning drove south to the put-in. There, we stuffed the company's two-person kayaks with their tents, sleeping bags, food and water, plus the three small sacks of clothes and personal items we were allowed. Our Canadian leader, Mary Anne, and two local guides, Mario and Alex, gave the safety lecture and led an icebreaking game. And we were off.
Sea kayaking can be hard work, especially when the wind is stiff, but we never felt unduly exerted (and we were hardly a group of jocks). On long stretches we stopped to rest frequently, and even on the busiest days were out for no more than a few hours.
The routine was leisurely. Moving around an area protected as a national park between Isla Danzante, just a few miles from the peninsula, and Isla Carmen, a larger island still farther out, we woke up early, took coffee and breakfast and then would paddle or hike to another beach. There we would set up the sun tarp, relax, follow the guides on an exploratory hike - my cactus knowledge expanded exponentially - and snorkel in the brilliantly clear water of the Sea of Cortez (as tourists call the gulf). After lunch, we would head to camp in time for happy hour and dinner.
This was the time of day when the "plus" in "camping plus" became most evident. I wouldn't order tequila and Kool-Aid in a bar back home, but it tasted mighty fine on Isla Carmen. Even mediocre food seems to taste better outdoors, but Mary Anne, Mario and Alex stuffed us with grub I would have been pleased to eat most anywhere: breakfasts of pancakes and oatmeal, dinners of fish and chicken the first two nights, and after that, vegetarian dishes that were satisfying even to a skeptical carnivore like me. Succulent tomatoes and avocados were part of practically every meal.
There were some snags. We had planned to move to a new spot each night, but the wind whipped up on Day 2 and Mary Anne wisely turned our flotilla back to our first night's camping site. We crossed to Carmen the next day, but wind kept us at the same camping site there for three nights. Nobody seemed to care; both sites were beautiful, and staying put meant we didn't have to pack up camp each day.
We visited too late for the area's whale-watching season of January through early March. But we settled for dolphins and colorful tropical fish in the water, and a lovely assortment of gulls, pelicans and more exotic birds above.
There were also a few creepy-crawlies (five scorpions scurried out from beneath my tent one morning), but the lack of fresh water means few insects. Mary Anne had warned us the greatest danger was the sun, especially for fair-skinned visitors like me. I went into bunker mode, wearing a hat, plus light long-sleeve shirt and pants almost constantly - but I still got slightly sunburned.
To me, eager to escape harried office life, the setting's greatest virtue was its utter emptiness. Here and there during the week, we encountered another kayaking group, and every day saw a handful of boats in the distance. But mostly I was amazed by the emptiness of such a beautiful place.
Our group's quarters, on the other hand, were fairly close. The downside of the steep mountain setting is that beaches are small. During the day, we crowded under the tarp together to avoid the sun. The emptiness was there, somewhere, but at times like that, it was difficult to experience it.
One can only hope the quiet persists. The national park status offers some protection from development, but Isla Carmen is privately owned, and there are some plans to develop it as a hunting destination.
Finally, on Saturday morning, we packed up one last time and made our longest paddle, about five miles, against a current, to the mainland. After one last snorkel near the take-out site, we loaded up the boats and hopped in the kayak company's van, stopping en route for a cold beer and finally in Loreto for warm showers.
We gathered for a final dinner with the group at a restaurant in town. My vegetarian tolerance had run its course; I ordered at 16-ounce rib-eye, medium rare. The next day we were off, our plane turning and banking as it took off from Loreto to offer one last view of Isla Carmen - utterly, wonderfully empty.