After lunch and a brief siesta, we board another boat and go snorkeling in the shimmering topaz waters of a nearby reef, surrounded by parrotfish, angelfish, trumpet fish, Moorish idols and rainbow wrasse. Sharks, rays, turtles, and dolphins also inhabit the Sea of Cortez, as well as migratory whales in winter. Here, where the desert straddles the sea and giant Cardon cacti cling to the cliff sides just above the water’s edge, it's like Arizona meets The Life Aquatic.
Back on the beach, the food just gets better. Ivan has prepared fresh Mahi Mahi for dinner, served with tomato, aubergine, kale, and ricotta-stuffed bell peppers and carrot salad, followed by grilled pineapple and caramel sauce over tiny sweet red plums. Clearly, we're going to eat very well on this movable feast. After dinner and another spectacular sunset that could have been painted by Chagall, we continue to lounge beneath a brilliant canopy of constellations as Sergio gives us an astronomy lesson. As he talks, a babisuri approaches the open-air kitchen like a thief in the night, a reminder that we share this sublime solitude with other creatures.
Swimming With Sea Lions
After a breakfasting on fresh fruit, granola and yogurt, refried beans, scrambled eggs and fresh tortillas the next morning, we set off on another snorkeling adventure. Our destination is Los Islotes, a cluster of rocky islets that is home to a colony of several hundred sea lions. The young ones are habituated to human visitors, explains Bernardo, cautioning us not to stray too close to the rocks, where the fierce older bulls produce a symphony of bellicose snorting and bellowing as they jealous guard their harems. "Just let the youngsters come to you if they want to," he adds. "They will play with you and try to nip at you, at your mask or snorkel but just stay calm and brush them away and don't be afraid."
Clad in our black wetsuits and clutching waterproof cameras, we probably resemble fellow sea lions to our curious hosts. Bernardo dives deep as youngsters swirl around him. One torpedoes straight up at me, eyes wide, whiskers bristling, baring its teeth as if to attack before swerving away just inches from my diving mask. Spiraling up toward me again and again out of the depths, these mischievous underwater acrobats are clearly enjoying themselves. As am I, mesmerized by their grace and agility.
Back at Camp Colossus, Ivan has prepared a lunch of breaded whitefish, cole slaw, quinoa, and grandma's white-hot mayo diablo, washed down with white local vino. Afternoon adventures start with paddling the glassy waters of the Sea of Cortez, exploring the island's rugged coastline, followed by a vigorous hike across the island over landscapes of black lava and pink volcanic ash and through forests of giant cacti. Our destination is a spectacular clifftop viewpoint, from where we watch dozens of flying mobula rays leaping out of the water, wings spread wide, three or four at a time.
Because of their protected status, no permanent structures of any sort are allowed on Isla Partida or Isla Espiritu Santo, aside from the camps of the local fishermen who have traditionally made their living from these rich waters. Ecotourism companies like Todos Santos Eco Adventures must be fully licensed and registered to conduct operations on these islands, and any seasonal camps must be completely dismantled for a few months each year to allow the beaches to recover. It's reassuring to know that we are abiding by strict environmental protocols within this most fragile of marine environments.
Enter El Norte
After two nights on Ensenada Grande, we set off to paddle past the coves, inlets, shoreline and mangroves of Isla Espiritu Santo to our next Camp Colossus, already set up on a gorgeous strip of sand Playa El Mesteño. Isla Espiritu Santo, which means Island of the Holy Spirit in Spanish, has a not so divine surprise waiting for us—El Norte, a fierce desert wind that often blows here. Despite the camp staff's best efforts to keep them standing, our Colossus tents soon collapse in the blasting winds. Sergio reluctantly orders us to evacuate rather than risk remaining in this howling natural wind tunnel and calls Captain Juan to come fetch us. Amid heavy seas, he expertly surfs six-foot swells, depositing us safely to La Paz, where a TOSEO van is waiting.
Mother Nature has decided that remaining on Isla Ispiritu Santo for another night isn't in the cards. But that's ok with me. I've already packed a kayak load of amazing memories into this aquatic adventure. I've swum with exuberant sea lions, snorkeled amid beautiful reefs teeming with life, hiked volcanic trails, and paddled in the emerald waters of Cousteau's aquarium.
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Review and photos by Mark Sissons.