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Untamed but for how much longer?

A string of Sonoran villages on the Gulf of California may soon become prime Mexican tourist spots. For now, wildlife and the old ways flourish in a place where desert and sea meet.

January 08, 2006|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

Kino Bay, Mexico — 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.

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