Untamed but for how much longer?

Times Staff Writer

STATE Highway 100 cuts across the Sonoran Desert from Hermosillo to one of the great Mexican dead ends: At Kino Bay, you can't go any farther west unless you swim into the Gulf of California, formed when the San Andreas Fault split open and saltwater poured in.

That was millions of years ago, but it could have been yesterday by the day-after-creation look of Kino Bay. Here, the parched desert ends in a wide, sandy beach tended only by waves. An otherworldly seascape begins, in milky blue, and the shark's-tooth silhouette of Tiburon Island looms on the horizon.

People say the meeting of Namibian Desert sand dunes and Atlantic Ocean on the western coast of Africa must be seen, like a clash of titans. At Kino Bay, the Sonoran Desert and Gulf of California meet more harmoniously and hauntingly, as my brother John and I discovered in early November.

We flew to Phoenix, rented a Jeep Cherokee, drove south to the border at Nogales, then across the Sonoran Desert where Father Eusebio Kino -- for whom the bay was named -- evangelized among the native people in the late 17th century. We ate cheese puffs, listened to Bach and argued, which is how John and I communicate whenever we embark on the occasional off-road-and-map adventure I wouldn't have the nerve to do by myself. He pushes the envelope. I make sure we have enough gas.

When we reached Hermosillo, the visibly thriving state capital of Sonora, we turned west on Highway 100, where I kept telling John to slow down because construction crews were working in the dark to finish widening the road (expected to be completed by mid-May). The improvements, it's hoped, will spur development at Kino, prime tourist territory but hard to get to compared with Puerto Penasco to the north and Guaymas to the south. By 2009, Kino could be even easier to reach if the government completes a planned coastal road connecting all three beach towns on the eastern side of the Gulf of California.

More than just visiting Kino, we wanted to get to Tiburon, the largest of 900 islands in the Gulf of California, separated from the mainland by a channel sometimes so tempestuous that it is called El Infiernillo, or Little Hell.

It is hard to say why one place should compel a traveler more than another. John loves deserts, I love islands, and we both tend to believe that the harder it is to get to a place, the more likely it is to be exceptional.

Isle of the Seris

TIBURON is a quintessential desert island. It has been a nature preserve since the 1960s and is a seedbed for the rich plant and animal life of the Gulf of California, the frigate birds and brown-footed boobies, saguaro, boojum trees, bottle-nosed dolphins, piebald chuckwallas, starfish, sea cucumbers and loping jackrabbits.

Development -- especially commercial fishing and the harvesting of ironwood trees for charcoal -- has taken a toll on the region's astonishing biodiversity, which is partly why a Mexican marine base was established on Tiburon, why environmentalists guard it so jealously and why scientists line up to do research on and around the island.

The human history of Tiburon is equally compelling. It is the ancestral homeland of the Seri Indians, one of Mexico's most distinctive indigenous peoples. The semi-nomadic Seris remained hunter-gatherers into the 20th century and fiercely resisted Spanish and Mexican efforts to subdue them.

Loathed by ranchers, who shot them on sight, and rumored to be cannibals (an accusation denied by the Seris), their population plummeted to fewer than 100 by about 1850, when they were forcibly moved to a ghetto in Hermosillo and their young were placed with foster families.

But like some Old Testament tribe, the Seris found their children and escaped to Tiburon, the setting of their myths and their source of wisdom about the natural world.

Later, when the island was turned into a preserve, the government built for the Seri the villages of Punta Chueca and El Desemboque on the Sonoran coast overlooking the island.

In 1975, Mexico gave precious Tiburon back to them, along with exclusive fishing rights in the Infiernillo channel. Though the Seris don't currently live there, they visit the island, sometimes with guests.

Before leaving, I tried to line up a Seri guide to take us to Tiburon, but everyone told me just to drive the rough, unpaved road north of Kino to Punta Chueca or El Desemboque and ask.

After we reached the bay, we spent the night at Posada Las Aves, a neat little motel court a few blocks from the beach, then went to the Seri Museum on the northern side of Kino, where I had arranged to meet Ruben Garcia, the director.

The museum's explanations, mostly in Spanish, tell the harrowing history of the Seris and describe how they live. Vintage photos show Seri men in traditional pelican-feather skirts and Seri women sporting delicate patterns painted across their cheeks and noses. There are tightly woven baskets and ironwood carvings, for which the Seris have become famous; models of their ocotillo cactus-framed dwellings; and shallow reed canoes in which Seri fisherman masterfully navigated El Infiernillo.

Garcia had brought along an English-speaking friend, Filiberto Vargas, who offered to take us to Punta Chueca, about 20 miles north of Kino, to meet a Seri guide.

We set out on the gravel road that leads to the village through forests of saguaro cactus that cross creosote flats and climb hot, rocky mountains like infantrymen on a mission. The countryside appears fearsome to the untrained eye. But those who know where to look for its flowers, hummingbirds and waterholes see it as a "place wildly alive," as ethnobiologist Gary Paul Nabhan wrote in "The Desert Smells Like Rain," a book about another group of Sonoran Desert dwellers, the Tohono O'odham people of southern Arizona.

A village of contrasts

THE Seris learned how to harvest this singular cornucopia, though the population never numbered much more than several thousand. It is estimated that there are now 650 Seris who subsist mainly by making crafts, fishing and selling licenses to hunt bighorn sheep, introduced on Tiburon Island in the 1970s. Each license sells for more than $100,000, a windfall that has brought striking changes, as anyone approaching Punta Chueca could guess.

Satellite dishes bloom in trash-filled yards, and shiny, new trucks sit beside windowless concrete-block houses that lack electricity and running water. The village has a basketball court, bunker-like church and ramshackle marina but no shops, restaurants or tourist attractions.

That tourists and others do occasionally visit Punta Chueca became clear when a group of women appeared selling beaded jewelry, carvings and baskets, including a small, beautifully woven bowl priced at $1,200. When I got out of the car, a young Seri in a camouflage suit that could have come out of an Orvis catalog asked me in English, "What are you studying?"

Filiberto easily found the home of Ernesto Molina, an experienced Seri guide. Molina, a quiet man who speaks some English, agreed to take us to Tiburon in his boat the next day. He wanted $150 for a half-day visit, with a hike, or $500 to take us around the island, camping on the beach overnight. John leaned toward the longer trip, but I was feeling cautious, so we chose the shorter itinerary.

Thus assured of reaching our objective, John and I drove back to Kino with Filiberto. He took us to El Pargo Rojo, the restaurant where he works. There, John cheered when he was presented with a huge plate of perfectly gritless steamed clams.

Kino is actually two towns. The new section along Mar de Cortes street, which parallels the beach for about six miles north of the town's sole gas station, is lined with convenience stores, RV parks for stray North American snowbirds, and a few vacation homes built by well-to-do Hermosillans. On the palapa-dotted public beach, people find shells, coral, bleached fish bones, sponges and the occasional sand dollar. Brown pelicans dive-bomb for fish, and trucks rattle by, including one that goes from house to house selling fresh flowers.

But there are no big resorts or malls, and the closest cash machine is 25 miles away.

John and I stopped at the Club Desportivo in New Kino, an organization for North American retirees and the headquarters of Rescue One, their emergency land-and-sea rescue service. The club also offers aerobics, desert golf, fishing derbies and theme dinners; that night it was a late Octoberfest complete with bratwurst and beer.

Commercial fishermen in the 1930s established Old Kino to the south, which is almost exclusively Mexican. Kids play soccer in the street, fishermen sell shrimp and scallops near the waterfront and a cottage industry has developed in carving ersatz Seri souvenir whales, dolphins and pelicans in ironwood, which is now thought to be in jeopardy.

John and I watched the sun set in a pink puddle from the Old Kino pier, then had dinner at the nearby Marlin Restaurant, shrimp that tasted as though it had been frozen. We had stopped arguing by that time, a pretty sure sign that we were both feeling a little despondent. Off-season beach resorts often have that effect. Anyway, all trips have their ups and downs.

But the sun was shining the next morning, and there was no wind, boding well for our expedition to Tiburon. Around 8 a.m., we were back in Punta Chueca, following Ernesto and his wife to the waterfront. With a few spare, elegant movements, he launched his 26-foot panga, a wooden boat with an old motor.

Contrary to its reputation, El Infiernillo was glassy smooth that day. Flocks of birds shot into the sky as we neared Tiburon, its stark mass coalescing into details: a mucky beach and sand shelf stepping up to the desert floor, where someone had built a few empty ocotillo huts; the long, broad skirt of the island with its pattern of low desert scrub rising to the mountainous backbone of 30-mile-long Tiburon. When Ernesto finished anchoring the panga, we put on our hiking boots and set out west toward one of the few waterholes on the island.

It was easy going at first, as creosote and elephant trees yielded to a forest of twisted ironwood. There was no path, but Ernesto knew the way, leading us through blue-flowered desert mallow, around prickly cholla cactus and across rocky dry washes. He spotted a mule deer, and I almost stepped on a tarantula, then stopped to inspect it from a safe distance. A jackrabbit leaped out of the brush, each hop seemingly as long as a kangaroo's. John found a coyote skull near a grove of Easter-green-and-yellow palo blanco trees.

We rarely spoke. Ernesto seemed to want it that way, though he told us he had lived on the island as a boy and showed interest when I mentioned a trip to Costa Rica, where I worked with scientists who were monitoring the breeding habits of endangered sea turtles. The loggerhead, green, hawksbill, leatherback and olive ridley turtles of the Gulf of California have great cultural and mythological importance to the Seris, who are exempted from the ban on harvesting them as long as the animals are used in tribal rituals.

The route got rougher and steeper, and the walk became a desert bushwhack. I was hot and tired by the time we reached the waterhole, brackish and shrunken, sunk in a pile of boulders at the head of a narrow canyon. We passed around trail mix and collapsed on the cool red rocks, shaded by the canyon walls.

Somehow Ernesto found exactly the same route back to the boat. That impressed John, who knew every fence hole and shortcut in our suburban St. Louis neighborhood when we were kids. "Imagine having Tiburon as your backyard," he said.

We saw dolphins as we recrossed the channel and, back in the village, John bought a beautiful, taut basket made by Ernesto's wife. An Apostolic Christian service was underway in the church, accompanied by a four-piece band. Most of the worshippers were women and demure little girls who wore squares of white lace pinned on their dark-haired heads.

Untrammeled

AS we drove out of the village, we took one long last look at Tiburon Island. Now we could say we'd seen it, although getting to a place you've long wanted to see can be dangerous because the reality rarely matches the dream. Tiburon was, I think, like that for John and me, as untrammeled and beautiful as we'd hoped but sad too.

With new development probably coming to Kino Bay, the island and the way of life it symbolizes seem ever more tenuous. The cellphones and satellite TV brought to Punta Chueca, thanks to the revenue from bighorn-sheep licenses, are another kind of encroachment.

But as Richard Felger, co-author of "People of the Desert and Sea," a landmark 1985 study of the Seri world, told me, "The license and guide fees for bighorn hunting provide much-needed income for the Seris. They are people, not museum pieces. They deserve the same rights to make choices and obtain the benefits of modern society as anyone else. They have generally been rather astute in choosing which aspects of their traditional culture to retain and which part of the outside world to embrace."

I only hope Tiburon Island will always look the same to the Seris when they watch the sun set in the Gulf of California.

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Desert and the sea

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, nonstop service to Hermosillo, Mexico, is available on Aerolitoral (flying for Aeromexico and Aero California) and connecting service (change of plane) is offered on Aviacsa, Aeromexico and America West. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $200. Kino Bay is about 65 miles west of the Sonoran capital by way of State Highway 100, which is under construction and scheduled to be completed by mid-May.

If you're driving from the U.S., Kino Bay is about 235 miles southwest of the border at Nogales, by Interstate 15 and State Highway 100. I flew to Phoenix and rented a car from Dollar, (800) 800-3665, www.dollar.com, which allows its cars south of the border, with Mexican auto insurance.

Whether you rent or take your own vehicle into Mexico, tourist permits are required, available at a checkpoint near the border; applicants must show a passport, birth certificate and picture I.D., military I.D. or voter registration card.

WHERE TO STAY:

Hotel Posada del Mar, 011-52-662-242-0155, www.hotelposadadelmar.com, a complex with a restaurant and pool. Doubles $45.

Posada Las Aves, 011-52-662-242-0242, www.posadalasaves.com. Simple but pleasing and has a pool and picnic pavilion. Doubles $74.

WHERE TO EAT:

El Pargo Rojo, on Mar de Cortes in Nuevo Kino, 011-52-662-242-0205, where two people can dine sumptuously for less than $30, including drinks.

TO LEARN MORE:

Mexican Government Tourism Office, (800) 446-3942, www.visitmexico.com.

Sonora Department of Tourism, (800) 4SONORA (476-6672), www.sonoraturismo.gob.mx.

Ernesto Molina's Punta Chueca Guide Service can be reached at P.O. Box 163 Bahia Kino, Sonora, Mexico CP 83340; e-mail guiaeco@hotmail.com

Kino Bay programs: Prescott College in Prescott, Ariz., (877) 350-2100, www.prescott.edu/highlights/kino/visitors.html, has a Kino Bay Center, where students pursue research projects on the cultural and natural history of the area. Other good information sources are the University of Arizona's Southwest Center in Tucson, (520) 621-2484, www.web.arizona.edu/swctr, and the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, (303) 444-9779, www.boss-inc.com, which offers courses dedicated to exploring the Kino Bay area, including Tiburon Island.

-- Susan Spano

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