where the desert meets the sea


“In the afternoon we sailed down the coast carefully, for the sand-bars were many and some of them uncharted…The shore was low and hot and humid, covered with brush and mangroves. The sea was sterile, or populated with sharks and rays. No algae adhered to the sand bottom, and we were sad in this place after the booming life of the other side.”

John Steinbeck, Sea of Cortez (1941)

When John Steinbeck, writing and collecting marine specimens aboard the research vessel Western Flyer in 1940, visited the Agiabampo Estuary off the southern Sonoran coast in Mexico, it came as the final stop on a long, adventurous coastal voyage. For six weeks Steinbeck and crew had hugged the Baja Peninsula and skirted the Sea of Cortez, coming ashore to collect and identify and preserve marine critters in the name of scientific understanding. They had sailed south from Monterey, California, in March, catching their meals off the prow and anchoring wherever they pleased. They had seen manta rays, sea turtles, sailfish, coral reefs, urchins with foot-long spines, poisonous pufferfish, and all manner of exotic intertidal life. Prior to entering Agiabampo, they had just torn themselves away from a hedonistic stopover in nearby Guaymas to the north. At that point, wrote Steinbeck, “[the crew was] bloated with stories, and they wanted to get back to Monterey to tell them.” They were, almost to a man, ready to head home. So perhaps it should come as little surprise that Steinbeck would write so dismissively of the estuary, given the circumstances.

Probably the tallest buildings in Tucson

Probably the tallest buildings in Tucson

Had Steinbeck been less sea-weary and homesick that spring some 70 years ago, he undoubtedly would have given the Agiabampo and its environs a fairer shake. I am sure of it. Recently I spent a week in Navopatia, just northwest of the area described in the above passage, and I believe Steinbeck is selling it short just a tad. Though I haven’t personally seen the other locales visited by the Western Flyer crew and chronicled in the book, I remain staunchly convinced that coastal Sonora is one of the most beautiful and wondrous places on earth.

I took the trip in March, accompanied by my lovely partner, Leah, and our bestest friend Joanna. We flew into Tucson, where we immediately changed into shorts and skirts and marveled at the ornamental cacti planted around the airport. We spent the better part of a day wandering around town, ostensibly sightseeing but in reality trying to mentally prepare ourselves for our 12-hour overnight bus ride to Navojoa, Mexico, that evening. The 80-degree heat and unmitigated sunshine were a shock to our Seattle-in-springtime sensibilities. We plodded about, squinting in the glare. People noticed our backpacks and asked where we were headed; when we told them, the invariable reply was, “Mexico? Really? What, you a fan of being shot at? You don’t want to go there. Mexico’s way too dangerous.” This happened frequently enough to border on the absurd. We first tried to assure them that we would be safe, and when that didn’t sink in, we just nodded politely, as if their unsolicited advice—“Don’t go. You sure you want to go? You shouldn’t.”—was uncommonly sage and worth taking.

There are some strange people in Tucson. Well-meaning, but a little weird, and perhaps a little paranoid. The city itself appeared rather one-dimensional to my eyes, with almost all its buildings standing two stories or shorter and its trackless sprawl stretching out to the horizon. I’m used to skyscrapers, hills breaking the line of sight, and green, towering trees in leafy abundance, shading the sidewalks and lining the roadways. Don’t get me wrong, there were some trees in Tucson, but they were sparse, irrigated, manicured—a Potemkin forest if I ever saw one. What little I took in of the city was enough to discourage future visits, sorry to say. (Except for the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, which is awesome and definitely worth a trip. Also, apparently the late-night Tucson crowd subsists on something called the “Sonoran hot dog,” whose culinary prominence admittedly intrigues me. It is a delicacy I have yet to try.)


View from the roof, Navopatia

At the Arizona-Mexico crossing, a meathead border patrol agent rifled through my passport and loudly remarked on the numerous immigration stamps: Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Guatemala. “So, bro, what were you doing in all these places?” It was almost 11 p.m. Everyone on the bus was sleepy, bleary-eyed, murmuring in Spanish. “I was traveling,” I said. He noticed the tattoos on my arm. “Hey, is that ink on your arm? Cool tattoos, bro.” He looked over the passport again, handing it back. “All right. Cool experiences, bro.” I thought to myself, Did this exchange actually happen? Was I really just interrogated by Officer Brody McBroski? After the agent stepped off the bus, I looked over at Leah and she mouthed to me, “Cool experiences, bro.”

It was just past dawn as we barreled into Navojoa, where I get my first glimpse of the Sonoran countryside. It is mostly flat, litter-strewn, and uniformly dun-colored. What struck me most about Navojoa was its smell, discernible at seventy miles per hour from within the bus cabin: rotting garbage, baking fragrantly in the morning sun. It was deeply reminiscent of all the decent-sized equatorial cities I’ve stepped foot in over the years, a subtropical fetor ripe with food refuse and less-than-optimal sanitation. We disembarked and took stock of our surroundings. As much as I had dreaded the lengthy bus ride, it really wasn’t that bad—once it was over. Frigid air-conditioning and Glee en Español were, in retrospect, tolerable but just so. Later that morning we boarded another bus that took us further south, to Los Toltecas, where our friend Sallie and her niece, Jess, had agreed to pick us up.

Sallie and her partner Adam are fellow Washingtonians who run the Navopatia Field Station, an ecological research facility near Las Aguilas on the Agiabampo Estuary. Reachable only by a rutted dirt/sand road several miles off the highway, the field station is a place of conservation science, where migratory birds are banded and counted and native plants surveyed in kilometer-wide transects. We weren’t there as scientists, however. (Although Sallie and Adam did try to foist some bird-censusing on us when we boated to Bird Island to see blue-footed boobies.) We were just spring break vacationers. For the next five days we would call Navopatia home—sweet, paradisiacal home.

Navopatia is off-grid and charmingly rustic, a villa of clay-and-brick communal structures and cactus-wood huts, called palapas, linked by sandy, seashell-lined footpaths. There is no running water, but with the estuary a mere two-minute walk away, showering ranked low on our list of priorities. Bottles embedded in the kitchen’s clay walls served as stained glass windows. An incredible mirror-lined solar oven, positioned on wheels like a piano, provided us our daily bread. Sallie and Adam’s dog, Abbie, offered endless opportunities to play fetch—and I mean endless. She lived for the thrown stick, following its arc in bounding strides and catching it deftly over her shoulder, like a wide receiver. It was her singular obsession. A truly gifted, indefatigable dog, that Abbie. Completely by accident, our visit happened to coincide with Semana Santa, the weeklong religious holiday in Mexico, so we basically had the place to ourselves. Two Navopatia regulars, Patrick and Wes (both Washingtonians, incidentally) were vacationing there as well, and their extensive knowledge of the region’s flora and fauna—not to mention their affable company—added immeasurably to our stay.


The “hecho” cactus, Pachycereus pectin-aboriginum

How do I begin to describe this place? Words can be a paltry tool in such depictions, too blunt and dull and, well, catachrestic to be of much use. But let me attempt a sketch, just to provide an idea of its splendor.

Navopatia is located where the Sonoran Desert meets the Sea of Cortez, a conflation of habitats so seemingly incongruous as to beggar belief. In reality, the field station sits on an estuary, not the sea, so the water there is brackish but not quite briny, the tidal currents powerful but not quite oceanic. Hot desert wind and cool maritime air commingle at the coast, and the result is humid, balmy, and mostly dry. The central Sonoran coast receives less than five inches of rain annually—and, perhaps predictably, we saw nary a drop of it during our visit. The temperature hovered near the low eighties, a bit cooler than average.

All of the region’s plants are highly adapted to drought. Tall, multi-trunked organ pipe cactus is the most prominent floral feature, called pitaya by the locals. It grows on the dusty hillocks in sparse stands called pitayal, along with almost a dozen other varieties of cacti; some of which, like the hecho, attain tree-like proportions. Mesquite and creosote bushes dot the landscape. Acacias, palo verde trees, and other large legumes rub shoulders above the pitayal, along with the candelabra-like flower stalks of the agave plants. Succulents like pickleweed ring the marshes, while mangroves of multiple species crowd the shoreline in thickets. Everywhere there were thorns, spines, prickers, barbs. It seemed a challenging place to live as an herbivore.

The birds of Navopatia are almost too numerous and spectacular to mention, but mention them I must. (Surprise, surprise.) A station-wide list of species runs into the low two hundreds, to give an example of their feathered plenitude. Many of them were visible right from the palapas. I will not soon forget the calls of cactus wrens and curve-billed thrashers in the moments before dawn, nor the ceaseless chattering of laughing gulls and royal terns that would carry across the sandbars to our breakfast table. It was magical. Roseate spoonbills, frigatebirds, and reddish egrets were exotic highlights, to be sure, but perhaps equally exciting—for me, at least—was seeing some familiar faces, birds I recognized from Washington summers that were still wintering down south: cliff swallows, red-breasted mergansers, Caspian terns, buffleheads. Seeing so many species in such a short period of time was, to be honest, a bit overwhelming. I almost became inured to the birds by the end of it. Almost.

Our days at Navopatia were filled with swimming, kayaking, birding, and lots of good old-fashioned down time. It was sunny and hot but not excessively so. We drank lots of cheap Mexican beer. We skinny-dipped in the Sea of Cortez. We saw dolphins, jackrabbits, sea hares, bats, sphinx moths, even a spadefoot toad once, fooled somehow into emerging from its burrow before the summer rains. Visiting Navopatia was probably the most enchanting trip I have ever taken, one I would recommend to anyone inclined to explore an ecosystem quite unlike anything else in the world. But please, don’t take my word for it. And don’t take Steinbeck’s, either, for that matter. Just see it for yourself.

Abbie, beachside

Abbie, beachside

(All photos by Leah and Joanna)


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