"Here, put this on," Alex says, tossing me a wetsuit. I'm confused – I've just returned from a two-hour kayak trip, and my damp bikini bottom is finally starting to dry. Why, when my next activity is rappelling, would I need protection against the cold?
"Because you won't just be going down the cliff," my instructor explains. "Once you've done that, you're going to rappel over there."
He's pointing at a rocky island, 30 metres offshore. Pounded by waves. Surrounded by the icy Pacific Ocean. The only way back, Alex tells me, is to swim. I don the wetsuit.
The last thing I expected from a summer adventure on Mexico's Baja Peninsula was to be chilly. But with the infamous "June gloom" shrouding the wrinkled folds of this semi-arid coastline just south of the US-Mexico border, the weather this morning is surprisingly cool and not exactly conducive to water sports.
Under a snug lifejacket, however, I work up a considerable sweat during my first activity, kayaking around the bay at Punta Banda, a peninsula that juts into the Pacific south of the Baja town of Ensenada.
Ensenada, 125 kilometres south of San Diego, is a major cruise ship port and the third-largest city in Baja California after Tijuana and Mexicali. It is the jumping off point for the increasingly popular Valle de Guadalupe wine region and has a growing reputation as an adventure hub, attracting weekend visitors from San Diego as well as cruise day-trippers in search of an adrenalin rush.
During a full day of activities, organised by San Diego-based tour company Boca Roja Wine Adventures, I explore the Ensenada region from a few different approaches – from the water, over its cliffs and from the air, flying over sagebrush and olive-cloaked hills on a zip-line course.
My first adrenalin hit occurs halfway through the kayak tour with Shawii Outdoors, an eco-adventure company based in the isolated, largely off-grid community of Punta Banda. After paddling over tangled kelp forests and around rocky inlets where cormorants and pelicans plunge and perch, we round a corner to see a towering spurt of water gushing from a narrow cavern, splintering with a thunderous boom into a rainbow-hued fountain that soaks the surrounding cliffs.
This is the blowhole La Bufadora (roughly translated as "the snorter") the most prominent landmark and the main attraction in this sleepy village. But while most visitors ooh and ahh from a clifftop platform above the spray, we inch forward from the water, our kayaks drawn by the swell towards the geyser. I'm a little edgy about being sucked in by the surge but when we're around 40 metres from the rocks, our guide, Roberto, asks us to stop, form a line and down paddles. We cling to our neighbour's kayak for added safety. Being so close to such compelling energy is thrilling stuff.
Back on terra firma, and now clad in an unflattering, constricting wetsuit, I embark on the second chapter of my adventure tour, descending backwards over a 30-metre cliff onto a rock platform. I'm not afraid of heights and have abseilled before; but there's still something daunting about making that first leap of faith, resisting every urge to clutch the rope that serves as your anchor. But I'm soon at the bottom of the precipice, then scrambling back up a goat track to the top where Alex converts the rope into a makeshift zip-line, to be anchored on a rocky islet just offshore.
This time, I make a forward descent – in my opinion, a far scarier option – sliding down the rope over breaking waves before making a precarious landing on the slick rocks. Then, bracing myself, I fling myself into the treacherous channel, struggling against the riptide before discovering the dangling rope, which I use to haul myself to safety. The water is frigid and knocks the wind out of me, and this 45-second encounter with such a dynamic force, so close to shore and in a seemingly benign location, gives me renewed respect for the ocean.
My next adventure, however, is more liberating – flying through the air on Baja California's largest zip-line course, located on a sprawling winery, glamping hotel and ranch north of Ensenada called CuatroCuatros. Operated by Desert Nest, the 3.6 kilometre zip-line circuit features five high-speed double-cabled lines, flying over gulches, gorges and olive groves. After harnessing up in Desert Nest's headquarters near CuatroCuatros' sunny al fresco tasting room, we begin our three-hour adventure with a bumpy ride to the top of the boulder-strewn sierra in an army-style jeep, where we are greeted with 360-degree views stretching to the Pacific coastline.
There's a sense of isolation as I fly above the first barren gorge peppered with prickly pear and sagebrush, the buzz of metal on metal muffling the thump of my heart. I embrace the freedom, spreading my arms and legs in a rock star gesture that only serves to slow my progress, causing me to limp to a halt 50 metres from base. I'm stuck, dangling like an electrocuted bat over the abyss – but my trusty guide Bruno comes to the rescue, dragging me back to the landing, much to my chagrin and the amusement of my fellow zippers.
On Bruno's advice, I curl my body into a ball on my next turn, defying the wind and allowing the momentum to build. It feels like I'm travelling at the speed of light, and I can't help but whoop with exhilaration.
After the third cable, we hike in afternoon heat along a rocky trail to a wobbly suspension bridge, before the final two cables – the fastest, followed by the longest. The latter stretches for a kilometre, the end platform out of sight on the far reaches of an olive orchard, tree tops inches above my dangling feet.
After the requisite high-fives on completion of the course, we unharness and head back to the waiting jeep, only to discover a final surprise – a sailcloth-covered deck nestled in a tranquil grove, with a pop-up bar offering soft drinks, beer and tequila.
After a day when my heart has been in my throat and my body pushed to its limits, I opt for the higher alcohol option, celebrating a day of thrills, chills and hills with the traditional Mexican toast: "Arriba (glasses up), abajo (glasses down), al centro (glasses to the front) y pa'dentro (inside)!"
Julie Miller was a guest of the Ministry of Tourism of Baja California, Boca Roja Wine Adventures and Encuentro Guadalupe.
Delta Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne (via Sydney) to Los Angeles, with domestic transfers to San Diego. See delta.com
Accommodation at Encuentro Guadalupe starts from $US399 a night for a single loft or $US1272 a night for the Eco House. CuatroCuatros offers glamping in cabana tents from $US240 a night. See grupoencuentro.com.mx; cabanascuatrocuatros.com.mx/en/
A kayak and rappelling package with Shawii Outdoors costs MXN$1400 ($A107) a person. A three-hour zip-line tour with Desert Nest costs $US80. Boca Roja Wine Adventures arranges tours of Ensenada and the Valle de Guadalupe wine region. See shawiioutdoors.com; bocarojawineadventures.com