Published: May 3rd 2010April 22nd 2010
A desertscape so blistering hot, the rocks beg for mercy
One evening a few years back, my friend Jovan told me about the best kept secret on the Baja. We were sitting around a campfire drinking cheap tequila and eating fish tacos. Jovan has lived in this part of the Baja all of his life, he is a fisherman - same as his father and his father before. It was only until recently, that he, along with the other panga fishermen who ply the waters in this area realized they could make almost triple the pesos in about half the time by taking tourists out to their secret island hideaway for a look-see.
The place I'm talking about is called Isla Espíritu Santo in the Sea of Cortez. Actually the entire site is now protected under UNESCO as a biosphere and has remained remarkably unspoiled. A rarity because the rest of Mexico's landscape has been steamrolled by various industries or ranching enterprises over the years. Only the fishermen of La Paz knew of this little jewel, and guarded it fiercely until UNESCO presented them with the incentive of assisting in eco-tourism for this particular destination.
Last time I was on the Baja, I had kayaked some of the Sea
of Cortez with a local tour group, but intriged by Jovan's secret, I decided to return and go on a four day expedition camping/hiking/kayaking to the Espiritu Santo area. At last minute, my amiga BonBon decided to come along too. We arrived late in La Paz, a bustling city about four hours north of the infamous party town of Cabo San Lucas....or better known as Cobbo...(incorrectly pronounced using your best American twang). We enjoyed a leisurely night out with our friends near the malecon before retiring early.
The following morning, in typical Gringo fashion, we quickly breakfasted and were waiting patiently on the dock at precisely 0830 hours. Someone finally wanders by at 0915 and doesn't know anything about our planned trip. So we start the process of elimination. In typical Mexican fashion we are first told the boat is broken, then there is no boat, then reluctantly get to the truth - they cannot afford to take only two of us out.
Trip suposively finito.
But BonBon and I will not be defeated that easily. I call up my amigo Jovan who heartily agrees to drop fishing and take us out to the islands for a
caves a plenty
lots of little nooks and caves to explore at Espiritu Santo
day trip. We meet at Playa Tocolote, a sprawling beach a few kms past the Pichilingue Ferry Terminal that is eerily empty at this time of year....only a few months prior this area was plagued by 'Snow Birds' that flock here all winter in their gigantic white RV's creating some kind of old-age nudist colony slash burning man rave fest....I know, it's gross on all different kinds of levels...but anyhoo....
Jovan is a typical fisherman, stained mahogany from the blazing sun, he wields his panga around like a pro, ever smiling from behind his reflective glasses. I apologize profusely for calling so last minute, but he tells me he'd rather do this anyday than go fishing...besides the weather 'anomaly' known as El Nino has wrecked havoc on the season. His mom whipped us up some of her famous mango dorado cerviche, and we throw a few beers and some tortillas into his cooler and head off, taking a couple other tourists with us that were loitering near and asked if they could tag along.
The crossing is smoother than normal. We are dwarfed by the gigantic Baja Ferry and an oil freighter. Some days it can be pretty
they know how to chillax in the Baja
hairy in the channel if the winds are up. We decide to circumnavigate the island counterclockwise, so we can spend most of our leisurely afternoon at the northwest side. As we approach, Espiritu Santo is almost reminiscent of a moonscape. The mountainous colours go from stark white all the way through to the deepest of maroons. I wonder if anything can live here. Surprisingly the answer is yes. Species found no where else in the world include a black tailed jack rabbit, a weird little ground squirrel, and two species of snake. BonBon is not impressed with the snake information.
Most of the East side of Espiritu Santo is a miriade of caves. Jovan enjoys maneuvering through those that have been carved out by the relentless angry sea. He yells the odd direction at us, i.e. keep your hands in, while I yell the English translation to anyone that cares. Boulders the size of buses are suspended above us within the deep caves. I can guarantee that you would never even get near a cave like this in Canada - well at least without a hardhat...we have safety laws for that. Amusingly, the imminent danger kind of makes exploring
swimming with the sea lions
....or are they swimming with us?
these caves all that more exciting.
On the mystical front, I had learned that Isla Espirtu Santo was also known by Spanish conquistadors as a place with devil winds, sea monsters, as well as having a tribe of fierce Amazonian women warriors. Cool! It is harsh out here, and I can see how quickly the weather and seas can turn on you. Jovan also tells us that there are fables of currants in these parts that made ships sail backwards, and rocks that float. Very Avatar. Cool!
We transfer to sea kayaks and approach a large colony of sea lions nearing the North side. They yark yark a greeting. Strangely perched on the vertical rocks sunning themselves as we get closer, I suspect they got up there on high tide. But even then it seems too impossible with the 20 foot sheer. Then to my amazement, I see this gigantic male do a spiderman scurry up the cliff, hauling his thousand pound body vertically, knocking another seal off in the meantime. More yark yark ensues....as well as a disgruntled Chewbacca moan...followed with a huge splash that almost sends me tits up off my kayak.
Sea birds of
Moonscape does have flora
From far away there appears to be nothing living on the island, but it is teeming with life
all types spy on us from their little nooks of sandstone yelling 'mine, mine, mine'. They are professional painters by trade but apparently only work with a palette of boring off-white. The pink and coral sandstone is permanently splashed with their handiwork. It smells as bad as it sounds.
One of the tourists along for our ride, a Chinese man named Liu who speaks no English (or Spanish either for that matter), jumps abashfully into the water fully geared with flippers and lifejacket. Gracefully, I use the steps at the back of the panga to gingerly enter the frio waters. I know they always say it's better to cannonball and get it over with, but I don't think my heart could take it. The seas around the rookery are deep blue and fishy smelling...or is that seal shit? Jovan is amused when I hold my nose in protest.
Liu (which sounds like Neo for some reason when he pronounces it) is in frantic mode and he is aggressively splashing his way towards a group of juvenile sea lions. The rule is that you don't approach the mammals, you let them come to you. One darts directly at Liu
swimming in milk
overcast day makes the crystal clear blue waters appear opaque
and gives him a love bite on his forearm. Startled but not defeated, he gives a surprised laugh with a thumbs up before he carries on. Jovan is horrified but I give him a shrug. The other tourists along with us, Julie and Phil, are having none of it and snorkel off in another direction. Let me just say, the snorkeling here is stunning. Endless arrays of coloured fish and juvenile tuna hover in the outcrops. It's a mild day, the waves are just ebbing the shore, crabs scuttle. The seas are teeming with life. This is again where I remind myself how handy it would be if I had an underwater case for my camera - note to self.
Suddenly we are infiltrated and surrounded by sea lions. They acrobat around us. BonBon gets 'goosed'. I have a young male pop his face up right in front of me and yark, but he disappears before I can even issue a startled yell. These animal clowns, I think, may have been comedians in a previous life. We swim with them until exhaustion and a mild hyperthermia set in.
To my horror, Liu has now plucked a starfish off
the mushroom rock
spent half an hour trying to teach Jovan how to say mushroom in english
the rocks and is waving it at us - just as the park 'Policia' pull up in an official looking panga with their one red light flashing furiously. I hold my breath while Jovan attempts to distract them with park entrance fees and gossip. Like any other national park or game reserve, there are usually a million rules for not touching stuff, camping or overnighting, but here in Mexico, it is reasonably lax, they just ask that you not take anything, and take everything away that you brought with you....and if you do a number two, bury it close to shore. The starfish is returned to the sea unharmed.
Back on the panga we enjoy a nice jaunt to the place Jovan had previously described as the 'big secret'. Ensenada Grande is waist level deep and bathtub warm, carpeted with white luxurious sand and gigantic sea shells. I found out later that "The Travel Magazine" voted it one of the top 12 beaches in the world! So that's pretty cool eh? And I can see why. Even on our overcast day the water appears almost milky until it drops off into a dark blue sapphire abyss. Perfect smooth glassy
mire sus manos
El Capitian enjoyed manoeuvring the panga through the endless caverns
waters for frolicking, snorkeling, and exploring by seakayak.
I am intrigued by the variety of plant life I spy from the sandy beach. Jovan explained that there are many caves on this island used by aboriginals for habitation & shelter with open fire pit areas, burial caves as well as various manufactured stone implements just lying around on the ground. Okay so now I'm seriously bummed. Hiking was part of that package tour itinerary I had originally booked!
I love hiking into diverse eco-systems to get up close and personal with plant life and archaelogical sites to learn all about them. Apparently this island is home to 53 regional endemic plant species. Unfortunately Jovan reminds me we don't have the time to explore, but I am glad to know at least UNESCO is preserving it for the future generations before it gets trompled on and ruined like the rest of Mexico. In addition, this largely arid land that drastically rises up from the coastal water is home to the world's largest cactus and a variety of reptiles. We spotted several of the humongous Cardon cactus...some are older than 300 years and look to be standing guard over the
waiting for our panga ride to the island under a palapa
seas. Iguanas skittle across the rocks where we picnic'd trying to freak us out, BonBon is relieved there have been no snake sightings.
The Sea of Cortez has a "global" conservation priority because it has such a wide array of marine mammals. Did you know that 1/3 of the world's whale and dolphin species reside here? Neither did I. While it's a little too late in the season to kayak with any grey or humpback whales that migrate through these parts, we are joined by a pod of bottlenosed dolphins as we near another ensenada (where I snapped the shot of the screaming rock). They are hunting food, so not too interested in playing with us, and we try but fail to keep up to their steady pace until they disappear on the horizon.
Only a week prior, I had heard of rare sightings of at least three gigantic (50 foot) whale sharks hanging out in these parts. No one knows why. Jovan makes an attempt to find out by radio if any fishermen have spotted them today, but he quickly learns they are near the bay entrance of La Paz, so we were out of luck. As
The Man and His Panga
Jovan gives us a ride to Espiritu Santo Island
the day turned to dusk and the bo-bo's (no-see-ems) were starting to bite, we took a beautiful sunset trip across the straight and had a couple cervasas as the sun plunges red into the navy sea.
Now that the big secret of the Baja is revealed, I hope you get the chance to visit this amazing place. Not only is it a photographers dream, but a perfect destination for a leisurely sail or kayak adventure, or camping/hiking inland or along the banks.
I plan to return one day so that I can explore it all a little more. Viva Espiritu Santo!
There are more photos below