In the Wake of Giants and The Sea of Cortez

by Cyndie Zikmund

When John Steinbeck launched a boat expedition in March of 1940 with the purpose of
cataloging creatures living in the Sea of Cortez, he didn’t think his resulting book would have a large audience. He was right. There is limited appeal to science nonfiction; however, the trip provided inspiration for characters like Doc in Cannery Row, and it gave others a curiosity to see first-hand what he had witnessed below the surface of the sea. It also exposed dredging practices that have since been stopped, mitigating the losses of the large shrimp that flourished in the area. Seventy-nine years after John and his marine biologist friend, Ed Ricketts, traveled through the East Cape of Baja California Sur (BCS), my husband and I went on our biennial trip to Mexico, whale watching and enjoying quiet time along the lovely coast also called the Gulf of California. Like Steinbeck, we started our journey in Cabo San Lucas and headed north to La Paz. Unlike Steinbeck, who traveled by water in a 76-foot fishing boat, we drove a white Volkswagen midsize across a dusty, bumpy watch-out-for-that-drop-off road.

That wasn’t my first trip south of the border. My fondness for Mexico began decades earlier and quite by accident. It was November of 1976 when my then roommate and I decided to spend Thanksgiving break driving to Mexico and back from Phoenix where we attended a technical trade school. That was the extent of our plan. Drive as far south as we could in two days, turn around, and drive back. Sometime after we crossed the border, Kathy told a waiter we wanted dos cervezas. These are the first two Spanish words I learned. At age eighteen, this expression seemed more relevant than Hola or Como esta. After Kathy ordered the beers, the waiter drew two Xs on the napkin. At that moment, Mexico was only the second country outside of the United States I had visited, and that’s counting Canada as my first foreign country. In my limited view of the world, I thought,

This waiter is trying to sell us moonshine!

The waiter assured us that Dos Equis was beer.

When Steinbeck and Ricketts came through Baja, Cabo San Lucas was a sleepy town, whereas the capital of BCS, La Paz, was already a bustling city. Cabo San Lucas didn’t become a place of interest until the 1950’s after a huge fish was sighted. Seriously, when a 500-pound marlin was discovered in the Sea of Cortez, sport fishermen as well as dove hunters flocked to the region to kill its wildlife. In the 70s, Federal Highway 1 was laid from San Diego, CA to Cabo. In 1984, the Cabo airport opened for business. Exclusive resorts were built, fashionable people visited, and celebrities claimed rights to their own personal bars like Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo.

Back in 1976, when Kathy and I went on our first trip to Mexico, we made it as far as Hermosillo, a pleasant village about 172 miles south of the US-Mexican border with Arizona. Our hope was to reach Guaymas, a coastal town where Steinbeck’s group stopped for supplies and partied with the locals on their way back down the Gulf. Our schedule didn’t allow us the leisure time of Steinbeck and crew. After finding a place to stay near the main plaza in Hermosillo, Kathy and I strolled past vendors selling bright woven blankets, colorful bags, jewelry, and small hand-painted wooden figurines. Musicians played big-bellied guitars strapped around their shoulders as they sang Spanish songs with so much gusto it gave me goosebumps. We inhaled the evening air filled with sweet and savory aromas like it was a magic elixir. A favorite food of mine became churros and chocolate. To remember the first night I spent in Mexico, I put the hotel’s clay ashtray with the word Hermosillo hand painted across it in my bag when we left the next day.

Decades later, in 2019, my husband and I flew into Los Cabos International Airport
which has become a modern transportation center. The long desert peninsula nicknamed “Baja” is framed by the Sea of Cortez along the east, and by the Pacific Ocean on the west. About a quarter of the way up the east coast rests Vinorama, one of the most remote areas along East Cape. Few travelers venture away from the so-called Tourist Corridor where all-inclusive resorts populate Federal Highway 1, serving unlimited food, drink, and pool charades. Maybe it’s the off-the-grid nature of Vinorama that keeps the masses away. Power lines end four miles south of Vinorama, making solar power the only way to receive electricity. Washing water is supplied from wells, drinkable water is brought in by truck, and cell phone service is about a twenty minute drive. The only connection to the rest of the world is through satellite internet.

Apart from the occasional Canadian in an RV parked at an arroyo, we didn’t see another
human being in the thirty miles of pristine beach we drove along until reaching Vinorama. When we arrived, calmness over took us as we heard the delightful sounds of songbirds while butterflies lightly kissed our noses. Okay, the butterflies didn’t actually kiss my nose, but it felt as though even the insects are relaxed in Baja. After showing us around our beachfront casita, Loreto brought us our beach towels and gave us a rundown of the activities available right there in the middle of nowhere. The newish 16-room boutique hotel across the arroyo offered live music starting at 6pm, and a guided half day ATV tour was available whenever we liked. Having no TV or radio, these two pillars of activity framed our four-night stay and guaranteed a relaxing time.

With its occasional volcanic rock outcroppings where lobster, crabs, and cormorants spend their days feasting in the nutrient rich water, the Sea of Cortez was famously studied and its wildlife documented in John Steinbeck’s book, The Sea of Cortez. Making their journey as we did during whale season, Steinbeck and Ricketts described their sightings of whales with about as much fanfare as I had for the fish carcasses littering the beach at Los Frailes Bay otherwise known as cell phone beach. When they reached the northern most point in their journey, Isla Ángel de la Guarda, they encountered many whales which Ricketts wrote about in the boat’s daily journal. The author seemed more concerned with the lingering stench of a whale’s wretched breath than the incredible beauty of earth’s largest mammal. Unlike these earlier smell sensitive explorers, we had enthusiasm for our whale sightings. One whale followed us, or maybe we followed it, along the shoreline for twenty minutes or more. We rode our ATVs alongside the swift moving giant, exclaiming each time it surfaced and playfully patted the water. I wondered if whales are as curious about humans as we are about them. It’s wishful thinking on my part, but I felt as though the wild spirit had sensed our presence. Places with this much natural beauty and idyllic weather conditions don’t stay remote for long. Several five-star resorts have purchased property and at least one is breaking ground on their most exclusive property yet. When complete, The Grand Mayan Vidanta, will host “the largest pool on the planet,” says their website. Each time we visit, a little more road gets built, and a few more people visit. We know Vinorama won’t be ours alone for long.

Less than an hour north of Vinorama, Cabo Pulmo National Park is home to the oldest
coral reef on the west coast of North America. Steinbeck wrote with enthusiasm about the
complexity of the reef, the teeming fauna, and the massive number of unique species they
cataloged. The small eco-village of Cabo Pulmo is located inside the park, having been built
before the area became a preserve. In past visits, we stayed in the bungalows, enjoying world class snorkeling and home cooked Mexican food. Since then, the village has grown into a comprehensive dive center, adding several large boats, and numerous dive experts. An hour walk south on the beach is our favorite snorkeling area, Playa Los Arbolitos. Locals call it Dinosaur Egg Beach after the pastel colored rocks perfectly shaped like large eggs. Schools of cigarette-looking reef cornetfish, brightly colored king angel fish, yellowtail surgeonfish, bicolor parrotfish, Moorish idols, and dozens of other species are all easily spotted a short distance from shore. Besides a snorkel mask and a pair of sandals, a beach towel is all that’s needed to see the sights here.

On their return down the Gulf of California, Steinbeck’s boat docked in Guaymas to restock, and party with the locals. While Kathy and I never made it to this port town in ‘76, we did experience the Mexican people as a friendly, helpful culture. One day, I broke a beer bottle in my hand using my pickup’s door handle to open it, a trick I learned growing up in Montana. Earlier that day, the Red Cross had stopped us to “suggest” we donate. We went back to them, and this time we asked for their help. The crew pointed in the direction of a white building with a small red cross. When we arrived at the building, I showed them my hand and asked to use the bathroom sink. They stopped me from using the tap water, cleaned the wound with a bottled solution, and put a small butterfly Band-Aid across the deepest cut on my middle finger.

In our many trips to Mexico, my husband and I have accumulated similar stories of
kinship. One time, on a snorkeling trip out of La Paz to the Isla Espíritu Santo, we were joined by a Mexican family of five. All except their youngest rented gear. I soon had my fill of December’s cold water and opted to sit out the last snorkel. After watching his siblings have fun in the water, the youngest boy seemed to regret his decision to abstain. I offered him the use of my gear which he accepted with excitement, quickly jumping into the water, and joining the sea lions whose neighborhood we were visiting. On the way back to shore, we chatted with his appreciative father. It shouldn’t have surprised us, but it did when we learned the father workedas a marine biologist for an organization dedicated to saving the whales. His love for the sea had begun when he was his son’s age. Following in the footsteps of other marine biologists, like Ed Ricketts, the man had realized his dream to spend his life saving the great creatures of the sea. The surprise was to have wildlife conservation in common with a person raised in a poorer nation than our own.

The last time I laid eyes on my stolen ashtray from Hermosillo was in October 2011
when we packed our house before moving. It had lived safely in the desk drawer for thirty-five years. When it came time to unpack, I had lost track of the box containing the cherished memento. Maybe it’s time to move on from the past and let my memories reside on this page.

Years had gone by without my ever looking for the ashtray, but I never missed it more than when I realized it might be gone. This made me wonder, if it is possible to stop missing something when you think it isn’t gone.

During our recent trip to Mexico, my husband and I reflected on the book that inspired us to explore the Sea of Cortez. We’re grateful for Steinbeck and Rickett’s discoveries, paving the way to new learnings about the Gulf, and saving the shrimp from over catching. We continually find reasons to return, the whales, the music, the churros and chocolate, the unabashed kindness of strangers, and the potential need to replace an ashtray. I added new experiences to my Mexican travel catalog while leaving with the same perspective as in the past. An open mind is all that’s required to be welcomed with open hearts.

Cyndie Zikmund is a graduate student in the MFA Creative Writing program at Queens University of Charlotte. She works as a marketing writer in Silicon Valley, CA. Her personal experience blog has more of her travel stories:


All photos by Cyndie Zikmund

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