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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.

Filed under: Hiking, Paddling, Stories, Mexico, Camping, Ecotourism, Airports, Central America

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