Wilds of Baja

November 29, 2005
Filed under Camping Destinations, Southwest Camping

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As we enter the iridescent blue water, sporting our snorkeling gear, a terrific barking sound suddenly begins to echo in our ears. The group of flipper-clad snorkelers stare wide-eyed at one another, swallowing hard, trying to remember to breathe. Pablo, our dive master, smiles easily and gracefully descends amid a colony of playful sea lions.

Floating face down upon the surface, we all watch entranced as Pablo touches the shallow ocean floor, gently grabs on to a rock ledge and blows air bubbles toward the sky. Ring upon perfect ring of bubbles drift upward for the young bull sea lions to play with. Suddenly, one of the whiskered mammals grabs a snorkeler’s fin, while another swims straight at someone’s mask, then veers away. The sea lions are playing tag. They’re playing chicken. And all the while, they’re performing one of the most beautiful underwater ballets. Pablo joins the ballet and, like the rest of the troupe, rises to the surface for a breath of fresh air.

Snorkeling with sea lions off the waters surrounding the island of Los Islotes is just one of the many adventures you’ll encounter while exploring El Espiritu Santo Island, adjoining La Partida Island, and the region surrounding it. An uninhabited island complex north of La Paz, colonial capitol of Baja California Sur, Mexico, in the south Sea of Cortez, it offers more than 25 miles of shoreline with many numerous sandy coves and inlets for exploring. In addition to sea lions, you’ll swim with a variety of fish ranging from tiny, delicate creatures to large pancake-flat rays to species representing all shades of the rainbow.

Other activities include sea kayaking, hiking, birding and searching for numerous botanical delights. If that isn’t enough or you’re just into something a little less strenuous, you can sit back and enjoy the easy pleasures of pastel sunrises and crimson sunsets.

El Espiritu Santo Island and its sisters may seem barren to some, but a closer look will prove that they’re not. Instead, the fascinating plants of the Sonoran Desert blanket the islands. The Espiritu Santo Island complex is located in the eastern bay of La Paz and consists of several islands. Among those are Los Islotes, Isla Partida, Isla Espiritu Santo, and the smaller islands of Ballena, Gallo and Gallina. At low tide, Isla Partida and El Espiritu Santo Island join fingers to become one. At high tide, a narrow and shallow channel separates the islands.

Most of the islands in the Gulf of California lack water, so the region has never seen the kind of development other Baja hotspots have undergone. These islands of paradise remain relatively uninhabited. Most of the human population is concentrated in the few coastal areas with a dependable water supply.

Although the Mexican Navy inhabited the islands at one time, the first known occupants were the Pericues natives, who survived mostly by fishing. The Pericues inhabited the islands prior to the first arrival of Spaniards in 1533 and remained on the islands until 1734.

Although uninhabited today, semi-permanent fishing camps have been established in six of the 11 ensenadas. Animals are the only full-time occupants, some of which include non-native pests such as the feral goat.

Hiking along sections of the island is the best way to get a feel for the area. As you explore some of the canyons, you’ll see wild strangler fig trees clinging spiderlike to vertical volcanic ash cliffs painted in yellow, black and red washes. The giant cardon cactus aims for the heavens, capturing the “tallest cactus” award.

While searching the island, look for the black jackrabbit, endemic to this desert climate. At night while you’re lounging around camp, gaze to the west after a fiery sunset or look up at the zillions of stars shining down upon you and watch for a furry camp visitor, the ring-tailed cat.

Snorkeling is a favored pastime for many visitors. The protected bays of Espiritu Santo are perfect for beginners. The same goes for kayaking. If you’re new to the sport, you’ll have no problem learning close to camp in one of the sheltered bays. And unlike white-water river kayaks, sea kayaks are very stable and do not tip easily.

Sea kayaking is a perfect way to do some serious bird watching, too. Close to 70 species of birds have been recorded on the islands and in nearby waters. Look for turkey vultures as you cruise the shoreline and offshore rocks, as well as brown pelicans, magnificent frigate birds, and brown- and blue-footed boobies. Known as one of the world’s most comical-looking seabirds, the blue-footed booby is so called because its lack of fear and its clumsiness on land have made it easy prey for man. The name “booby” comes from the Spanish word bobo, which means “stupid fellow.”

Although fall visitors will not have much of a chance of seeing whales, those visiting in the spring have the best opportunities to spot blue whales, the world’s largest mammals, ply the deep waters. Look for pods of orcas, sperm whales and common dolphins as well.

And, of course, there are the sea lions. The rookery at Los Islotes, a popular tourist attraction, is used as a haul-out site by both male and female sea lions on a year-round basis.

So if you want to be front row with the wilds of Baja; if you want to enter the turf of a sea lion; if kayaking along a golden cliff at sunset sounds like fun; if sharing a meal by moonlight with fellow travelers is something you would enjoy; if sitting atop a volcanic summit with someone special is something you’d like to share; then come to El Espiritu Santo Island for any or all of many fun-filled adventures that await travelers visiting the crown jewels of Baja California, Mexico.

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