Isla Espiritu Santo: The World’s Aquarium

LA PAZ, BAJA CALIFORNIA SUR - I slipped off my flip flops, hiked up my backpack and waded into the warm water of Bahia La Paz, just off the malecon in La Paz, Baja Sur. As the small covered panga backed toward me with four passengers already onboard and two smiling local crewmen, I knew that I was in for an adventure.

Bahia Ensenada Grande, Isla Partida. View of the beach and Sea of Cortez, Bahia Ensenada Grande, Isla Partida.

Espiritu & Baja Tours, La Paz, Baja Sur

Interpreter Carlos and Cap’n Eduardo of Espiritu y Baja Tours. Loving their jobs!

Your gringo and his family had just arrived in La Paz a few days prior as part of an extended road trip all around the cape region. One of the things we definitely wanted to do while in La Paz was take a boat tour of Isla Espiritu Santo and surrounding islands. The island is a biosphere and UNESCO World Heritage site boasting 23,000 rugged acres of undeveloped shoreline, arroyos and mountains, 12 postcard-perfect bays, abundant wildlife and a fish population representative of 39% of the world’s species.

Bahia Ensenada Grande, Isla Partida.

View of the beach and Sea of Cortez, Bahia Ensenada Grande, Isla Partida.

Isla Espiritu Santos’ proximity to La Paz (a little over an hour each way) makes it within reach for a day trip. Originally, we had toyed with the idea of taking our rambunctious four-year old on the tour, but ultimately couldn’t picture Wolfie confined to a panga for an extended period of time sans incident, so I was on my own. Perhaps on a day when the channel wasn’t as choppy, a kid with more patience than mine would enjoy this, but I wouldn’t recommend touring the islands this way for very small children.

The friendly front desk staff at the Hotel Marina in La Paz hooked me up with Espiritu & Baja Tours. The morning of the tour, their shuttle driver was running a touch late, picking me up after the boat had already left the marina, thus the panga rendezvous at Bahia La Paz. My panga mates were two friendly girls from Colorado and a couple from Canada down here “doing La Paz”…enjoying a broad itinerary of dining and entertainment options in the area. I joked that between the 7 of us, we were a pretty good representation of NAFTA. The panga headed north along the Pichilingue peninsula, past Playa Tecolote and across the choppy channel to the islands.

Isla Espiritu Santo western coastline, La Paz, Baja Sur

The rugged western coastline and gorgeous turquoise waters of Isla Espiritu Santo.

As we left the channel and cruised north along the island’s west coast, the water changed from a rich, dark blue to an amazingly bright turquoise reminiscent of the Caribbean. We eventually passed Isla Partida (a smaller island, connected to Espiritu Santo thousands of years ago, now separated by a narrow channel) and arrived at Los Islotes…home to a colony of approximately 300 sea lions, some of whom were to become our swimming buddies in just a few minutes.

Los Islotes, La Paz, Baja Sur

The guano-covered islands of Los Islotes, La Paz, Baja Sur.

The sea lion colony of Los Islotes, La Paz, Baja Sur

The sea lion colony of Los Islotes, La Paz, Baja Sur.

Donning our snorkeling gear and dropping into the clear water, we headed toward the island with Carlos and Eduardo, our fearless interpreter and captain, respectively. As we neared the shore, a group of baby sea lions plunged from their rocky perches into the sea and headed toward us. At first, it was a bit disconcerting to have a relatively large wild animal swim right up to my face and look me in the goggles with very alien, curious and dark eyes. But after a few passes with these guys, I felt secure given their playfulness and lack of any sign of aggression. Putting my fist up to approaching sea lions (as instructed by Carlos), the pups enjoyed nibbling on my knuckles, just like a puppy. We were warned to stay away from the lone bull male on the island, and when he decided to swim in my direction, I gave him plenty of berth!

The sea lion colony of Los Islotes, La Paz, Baja Sur

Sea lion colony basking in the sun on Los Islotes, La Paz, Baja Sur

After playing around with the sea lions a bit more, swimming through walls of schooling sardines and exploring a cave that Eduardo led us in and out of, we slowly made our way back to the panga and to our next destination, Bahia Ensenada Grande on Isla Partida. The panga pulled in and Carlos and Eduardo anchored it to the completely deserted and stunningly gorgeous perfect white sand beach.

As Carlos and Eduardo set up lunch, I hiked inland a little, taking a path along the arroyo past yucca, cacti, brush and an amazing outbreak of tiny yellow wildflowers that cascaded down the rocky red hills to the shimmering Gulf of California and blue sky. What a view! We dined on excellent ceviche that Carlos had made with his morning’s catch of tigerfish, as well as sandwiches for those who may not have a proclivity for seafood (i.e. no one in our party…Carlos’ ceviche was duly devoured).

Bahia Ensenada Grande, Isla Partida, La Paz, Baja Sur

The stunning and remote beach of Bahia Ensenada Grande, Isla Partida.

Ensenada Grande Arroyo, La Paz, Baja Sur

An arroyo leads inland and dead ends in a canyon. Bahia Ensenada Grande, Isla Partida.

We reluctantly piled back into the panga, leaving Bahia Ensenada Grande and headed south back toward La Paz, slowly skirting the western shore of the islands. We stopped for some more snorkeling in a larger bay where Carlos scooped a baby pufferfish off the surface of the water for us to check out. I think I saw his dad swimming below me!

Pufferfish, Sea of Cortez, La Paz, Baja Sur

A baby Pufferfish “gets his defense on” off Isla Espiritu Santo.

Our final stops were along the rocky cliffs of the southern part of Isla Espiritu Santos. Carlos pointed out the funerary caves in the cliffs of the island’s original native inhabitants – the Pericu – who lived on the islands around 10,000 years ago. As we motored out of the bay, Carlos helped us identify the masks that can be made out in the craggy bumps and hollows of the cliffs. These masks were believed to be spirits by Cortez’s invading army that protected the Pericu against invasion (scrambling for an excuse, perhaps. The conquistadors had a history of being repelled by the able defenses of the Pericu and other tribes all up and down the Baja Peninsula). These eerie rock formations give the island its name, Espiritu Santo, or the Holy Spirit.

Espiritu Santo Mask, La Paz, Baja Sur

The “Mask of the Holy Spirit” can be made out along Espiritu Santos’ rocky cliff walls.

Espiritu Santo Mask, La Paz, Baja Sur

Can you make out the profile of the mask here? Isla Espiritu Santo.

Our final stop was at a natural jetty that was home to thousands of squawking frigate birds, performing mating rituals. The sky filled with them. The males on the jetty puffed out their red chests in an attempt to attract the flying females. Mothers fed their chicks and went off in search of more food. Eduardo stopped the panga and we sat watching in wonder for about 15 minutes.

Frigate Bird Colony, Isla Espiritu Santo, La Paz, Baja Sur

Frigate Bird Colony, Isla Espiritu Santo.

Jacques Cousteau called Isla Espiritu Santo, “The world’s aquarium”, an apt description only lacking in its addition of the landscape to fully describe how impossibly beautiful these islands are. Now that the Mexican government has granted the islands protection from any kind of development, this slice of untouched Baja will remain as a reminder of the natural beauty of the region before modern civilization.

Your Gringo in Mexico,

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