continued For the flight to San Luis Gonzága, Orta says, "We are planning on charging around $190 round-trip and having the plane there waiting for them for the two days. Very reasonable. The passengers can take all the drinks that they want, and then we'll provide the meals for $20 a day."
A trip to Isla Cedros or Bahia Tortugas is a little less, "$80 to $85 each way," Orta says. "But Cedros is not a tourist destination. The people we fly there are locals and people doing business there. There is not much beach, and the only things on the island are a fishing cooperativa and a salt operation."
At 8:45 a.m., about an hour after we arrived at the airport, Robles, Cervantes, and two flight mechanics show up in two Suburbans. "Buenas tardes," Orta calls to them, a sarcastic reference to their tardiness. The group drives past us and over to the plane. After another 45 minutes of loading and preflight checks, Cervantes and Robles fire up the two engines, and the rest of us enter the plane via a fold-down staircase about six feet in front of the spinning left propeller. Onboard, the plane has a used feel to it. But the 20 tan upholstered seats -- some of them arranged facing each other -- are comfortable, recline farther than an average airline seat, and have plenty of legroom.
Orta buckles in across the aisle from me. He's leaving the flying to Cervantes and Robles today. Once the ladder is pulled up, and the hatch is closed, the pilots rev up the 2850-horsepower, 18-cylinder engines. The noise and vibration are louder, lower-pitched, and more pronounced than they are on a jet-powered plane. We taxi to the east end of the runway, turn around, and begin lumbering westward down the runway. "Eight hundred meters," Orta says when the plane lifts off, indicating the distance it took to get airborne.
The flight to Ensenada, flown through the pass between two mountain peaks, lasts only eight minutes. The break to fuel up and take on 10 passengers, 25 or so cardboard boxes, and 10 pink cellophane-wrapped boxes of pan dulce lasts about an hour. At 9:40 we take off east to west and immediately bank into a left turn. Climbing gradually, we pass over the headlands that form the south rim of Ensenada bay. Todos Santos island looms to the right, about 15 miles out to sea.
Cruising at about 199 knots, at 9500 feet, we follow the jagged coastline on its southwest march. At 11:40, we pass the farm town of San Quintín as crewmembers offer coffee in Styrofoam cups and donuts out of one of the pink boxes. The crew has an informal feeling about it. The cockpit door is open, and half a dozen men -- some of them crew members, some passengers -- crowd behind it, chatting away. At 11:35, the plane veers right, away from the coast, which is soon out of sight. We're crossing the mouth of Bahia Ojo de Liebre -- Eye of the Jackrabbit Bay -- toward the point of land known as Punta Eugenia. It takes 45 minutes to cross the bay. At 12:20 we cross over the point, circle around 180 degrees to the left, pass over a town at the end of a cove -- both the cove and town are called Bahia Tortugas -- and land on a roughly paved runway just north of the town. The plane taxis to a parking area where half a dozen vehicles are waiting.
The landscape here is hard desert -- tan-colored sand, red rock formations, dunes, and scarce, scrubby vegetation. The town of 2000 owes its existence to the abalone and lobster in the local waters. About half the passengers get into the cars and head for town. The other half, plus a few new passengers, get on the plane. At 12:40 we take off and fly between two rocky spires at the end of the runway, like a football through goalposts.
We're headed for Isla Cedros. The three-pointed island rises 3500 feet out of the Pacific. Cedar trees, after which the island is named, crown its tallest peaks. It's eight miles to the island, and the landing strip is right on the coast, so Captains Robles and Cervantes fly low across the strait. As we approach the island, out of the window it looks as if we're flying straight toward the sandstone bluff. Only a second after we cross the coastline, the pilots set the plane down at the very beginning of the runway. The strip is only a kilometer long, and the Convair 340 needs all of it to land and stop. The landing is a bit rough, and I feel the adrenaline surge in my body as the pilots bring the big plane under control. We park in a paved area at the land end of the runway. Next to the parking lot is an open hangar under which sits a plane almost identical to the one we flew in on. It's coated with white dust. At the ocean end of the runway looms a mountain of salt, 50 feet high, covering an area equal to 10 or 12 football fields. "The salt is harvested in the lagoons over on the mainland," Orta explains. "It's brought over here on flat barges, then cargo ships, mostly from Japan and Korea, dock over here and load up with salt." Turning to the plane under the hangar, Orta says, "It belonged to AeroCedros. It's actually newer than ours -- it's a '59, and ours is a '55 -- but ours has been treated better, and it has fewer flight hours. Still, this other one has got some good use left in it. We'd like to buy it and run two planes, but we'd have to do it quickly, before the end of this year, because the salt blowing off that pile is killing it."
At 1:10 the plane is rumbling back down the runway. We lift off and bank to the left toward Ensenada, an hour and a half to the northwest. I notice a fishing village clinging to the clay-red mountainside rising steeply out of the water before the loud humming of the engines lulls me to sleep.