Finding the Holy Spirit in Baja: Darwin would be proud

Imagine an uninhabited island with clear bays of turquoise water edged with rocky cliffs. Sea turtles, blue-footed boobies, and sea lions make their home on its shores. The surrounding waters contain giant manta ray, shark, dolphin, orca, and the mighty pacific gray whale. This island boasts one of the most biologically diverse bodies of water in the world, so you might think we’re describing the famed Galapagos. We’re in Baja Mexico, the island of Espiritu Santo to be exact.

The cockpit of a kayak is the best place from which to view the island. Paddling the shores allows you to experience the water and take in the beauty of the landscape. I trolled for jack and bonita while paddling and even caught dinner for my camp one night. There are several operators on the island, but be sure to go with a trusted tour provider. For example, Boundless Journeys provides week-long all-inclusive trips (under $2,000) to the island and practices leave-no-trace camping ethics.

To see the unique desert landscape of Espiritu Santo strap on a pair of boots or sturdy sandals and explore the dirt paths criss-crossing the rocky landscape. After a rain the dry island transforms into a colorful wonderland of flowers and plants. Summer temperatures can easily skyrocket into the 90s and sunscreen as well as frequent shaded breaks are mandatory. While on a guided hike of the island our group found shelter in one of the caves naturally carved into the cliff line. Self-guided hikes are fine for experienced hikers but a guide is recommended for those unfamiliar with desert hiking.

Setting up camp in one of the natural bays provides a perfect base of operations. From a base camp a panga (small motorized boat) can be used to reach remote areas of the island. A base camp also eliminates the need to trek across choppy water back and forth to the mainland each day. Most pangas are equipped to carry kayaks and can drop paddlers in bays that offer easy paddling as well as mysterious mangrove swamps. The twisted limbs and roots of the mangroves are home to many of the islands bird species such as the long-necked snowy egrets and blue herons.

Although paddling and hiking are two of the most popular activities on the island, wildlife viewing is why most come. Throngs of tourists flood the shores each year to spot the many species that call them home. The playful sea lions on the north shore are a huge draw, as are the wide variety of bird species. The blue-footed booby is one of the most sought after. February and March are the best time to catch mighty gray whales as they spend their winter in the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez.

The closest city to Espiritu Santo is La Paz. The calm waters in the bay where La Paz sprouted create a protective harbor for ships. Although small, the airport has daily flights from Mexico City and Guadalajara to accommodate tourists. Visiting La Paz during the Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, provides an opportunity to experience one of the world’s most unique festivals. Giant skeletal statues, faces painted like skulls, and dioramas depicting tiny skeletons enjoying daily activities are just a few of the ways locals celebrate their ancestors.

After a week of paddling the mangroves and experiencing the diverse mix of bird and sea life, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it might take the Mexican government to get a good grasp on the difficult task of enforcing the rules they’ve set forth on Espiritu Santo.

Locals cash in on the abundant fish populations surrounding the island and are finding employment as guides, camp cooks, and panga drivers. For now, the island seems to be maintaining it’s extraordinary biodiversity while simultaneously providing income for locals and enjoyment for tourists, but this is a delicate balancing act indeed.

Finding the Holy Spirit in Baja: A park is born

Roughly twenty miles off the coast from the Baja town of La Paz lies a desert island no more than ten miles long and four miles wide. For centuries the locals have fished the bountiful waters surrounding Isla Espiritu Santo, or Island of the Holy Spirit. Scores of grouper, snapper, and a variety of fish in the jack family are snagged by locals and visitors daily. However, in recent years, tourists have been flocking to the island not just to fish but to kayak, snorkel, and photograph the diverse array of wildlife that it contains. Up until 2003, there was little regulation for any of the activities taking place on Espiritu Santo and it’s surrounding islands and islets. The tourists that visit, and those that fish the waters, are still trying to come to grips with the island’s new found fame.

According to The Nature Conservancy the island was purchased from the Ejido Bonfil community and then turned over to Mexico. It was designated as a protected area in 1978; the Mexican government acquired the island in 2003. Although all the islands making up this archipelago are now a national park, management resources are scarce.

Spending a week camped out in a sandy bay, I had the opportunity to meet someone with a passion for what happens to this beautiful place, a local guide named Miguel. According to him, as of last year, only two rangers were patrolling the coastline of this 23,383 acre island. As we paddled together throughout the week, I learned more on why the island is struggling.

Large scale commercial fishing is not allowed. Long netting, a form of dredging, is now strictly prohibited as well. Local fishermen have had a tough time coping with the new regulations being passed down to them. As hard as it may be to believe many of these people have no experience with a fishing pole and are using the arduous method of hand-lining to maintain a living. Hand-lining involves dropping a baited hook overboard and pulling a fish in on the line with no rod or reel. After trying this method I can vouch that hand-lining is a tough chore on the hands to say the least.

According to Miguel, the lack of information from authorities initially led to misunderstandings. The fishing community was not exactly pleased with the changes being made when the island went under the wing of the government. Rules included restrictions on certain popular species such as parrot fish. Although dropping explosives in the water or “dynamiting” is outlawed and a thing of the past, fishermen can still be found pushing the limits of the law. Fish are encircled by boats to create a bait ball which makes them easier targets.
Fishermen are allowed to stay overnight on the island in designated spots called “fisherman shacks.” They can use nets to catch bait fish only. Since most fishing boats are equipped with nets and regulation is slim, it is uncertain how many stick to the strictly “bait only” rule for netting.

Although fishing regulations were the main management issue at first, the new threat to Espirtu’s land and waters is unchecked tourism. On Los Islotes, an islet resting just off the rocky shores of Isla Partida, Espiritu’s northern neighbor, the sea lions sun bathe most of the day, awaiting their nocturnal hunt. Snorkeling with these graceful swimmers is a treat for visitors. These dog-like sea mammals dart in and out of underwater grottos, play with starfish and shells, and encircle the odd looking human insurgents to get a better look. While visiting this islet, our snorkel group was not alone. Another tourist boat anchored nearby and within minutes a few of the passengers were on the shore, ignoring the rule that tourists must stay 50 feet away at all times.
In summer, when La Paz receives its annual influx of Mexican and European tourists, the island’s shores become overrun. “There have been times when it was so crowded we couldn’t find a place to anchor when we pulled up to see the sea lions,” Miguel told me. Despite these growing pains park attendance continues to soar, and for good reason. The island’s shores are home to one of the most biologically diverse bodies of water on our planet.

Next: Darwin would be proud (Part 2)

A new twist on Spring Break at Las Animas

Trade those tequila body-shots for a more serene scene at the Las Animas Wilderness Retreat. This is the only boat-in lodge on the Sea of Cortez in Baja, Mexico, and it is getting ready to redefine “spring break.” Keg-standing coeds are in short supply, but regular wildlife is not. Hiking and snorkeling are among the activities that will bring you back to nature in a relaxing environment.

If you’re interested in nature, you’ll find three orders of marine birds – arctic, temperate and tropical in the Las Animas area, as well as more than 50 species, including Blue Footed Boobies, Brown Pelicans, Royal Terns, Frigate Birds, Cormorants, Turkey Vultures and Osprey. While the animals are plenty, people are not. The remote, eco-friendly resort accommodates no more than 16 guests in eight beachside yurts. Each has a solar shower, covered patio and hammock.

Fishermen witness dolphin “stampede”

Fishing is one of those activities that’s tailor-made for relaxing. Sure, there’s some action involved when you finally hook a fish on the line, but until then there’s pretty much nothing to do except sit back and relax. That was not the case however for a group of fishermen on a recent expedition in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. The group was out cruising when they came across a pod of dolphins and somebody pulled out a camera to record the scene.

The video clip starts with a few playful dolphins lunging out of the water. Around :35 or so into the clip the anglers are witness to an incredible sight as literally hundreds of dolphins begin lunging themselves out of the water at a frenzied pace. It’s a surprisingly beautiful and amazing sight. Even if these guys never ended up catching anything on this particular trip, I think they probably went home quite happy.

Try the Fish Taco: Baja’s Favorite Food

Maybe it’s just me, but the first time I heard the words “fish” and “taco” together I felt rather nauseous. But, the ol’ fish taco is definitely Baja’s favorite and most famous meal — be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. Just about everywhere you look there is a taco stand accompanied by a sign with a happy looking cartoon fish encouraging you to come over and try this local specialty.

The customs officer who helped us with our paperwork in Tijuana was the first person to mention the fish taco. In fact, he recommended that we eat as much fish as we could in the Baja. I don’t mind fish but it seems like a risky food to consume at an outdoor stand…really how long can shrimp sit in the sun before it becomes a hazard to someone’s health?

Rumored to be a creation of Japanese fishermen, this meal was the word on everyone’s lips by the time we reached Southern Baja. “Try the fish taco” was pretty much a daily occurrence. Usually, I am game to try most foods but for some reason I pictured this dish as a soggy taco with undercooked fish coated in a slimy sauce. I hadn’t even seen a fish taco in actuality but already this figment of my imagination had turned my stomach against it. Soon, though, curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to see whether the fish taco was any good — so I came up with a plan. This well-devised plan was to get my husband Tom to try one and let me know how it was.
I caved once I saw that the fish was deep-fried. We ordered and sat down to enjoy this famous Baja treat. I finally understood what the hype was all about — it was absolutely delicious. If you visit Baja California Sur, eating a fish taco should be on your list of things to do.

“Tacos de pescados” (fish tacos) consist of your choice of fish or shrimp deep friend then wrapped in a flour or corn tortilla. A dollop (or smothering, depends on what your prefer) of mayo is added and then it is up to you to choose from all the fixings. Your choices include: red onion, three or four types of salsa, coleslaw, cabbage, guacamole, and cucumber. Top it all off with the juice from a freshly squeezed lime and you are are ready to experience the best food in the Baja.

A few things to keep in mind:

Eat on the Street
The best “tacos de pescados” are found at the small stands located on the corners of busy streets or tucked away in the middle of town. It might be dusty with only one plastic table to sit at and no ambiance whatsoever but these little vendors can create a meal that will put any five star restaurant to shame.

Pile up your Plate and Save Your Pesos
You can load up your plate with as much of the fixings as you want — it’s not only allowed it’s expected! The first time we ate at a taco stand we tried a little of everything, then we looked around and noticed that everyone had their plates piled high. This is a great way to save money traveling since fish tacos cost around $1.25 US (12.5 pesos) each. Get two and create a great meal that will see you through most of the day.

Eat Right Away

You have to eat them right away while they are piping hot — deep-fried anything doesn’t taste very good even twenty minutes later.

The Spice Factor
The green salsa tends to be way hotter than red salsa.

Get Messy
And, finally, eating a fish taco is a messy process. The taco falls apart, juices will run down your arms–if you haven’t used at least four napkins during this meal you might have missed the beauty of the fish taco.

“No Wrong Turns” chronicles Kelsey and her husband’s road trip — in real time — from Canada to the southern tip of South America in their trusty red VW Golf named Marlin.