Dispatches: Exploring the Hidden Mexican Gem of Espiritu Santo

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Photo: Carson Davis Brown

The sun shone a bright light on the island in front of us. As we pulled into the cove and shut off the boat’s engine, the turquoise water lapped against the sides of the panga. The boat was quiet—each of the passengers lost in the beauty of what lay ahead.

Espíritu Santo is no ordinary island. Off the southeastern coast of Baja, Mexico, the island is just 6 miles away from the town of La Paz, but once you get to the sheltered northwestern side of its shores, you feel hundreds of miles away from civilization.

Time stops on Espiritu Santo—the passage of the sun across the azure sky reminds you that time is indeed moving along, but there’s no real connection to the hustle we’ve prescribed ourselves as a normal part of life.

The breeze was gentle and the temperature balmy. The sun kissed our faces and shoulders as we waded into shore. The sand was soft to the touch, almost like mud on a riverbed.

Espiritu Santo was named a Biosphere Reserve in 1995 by UNESCO, and is part of the Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna—Islas del Golfo de California.

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The island is just shy of 31 square miles, and is the 12th largest in Mexico. The largest inhabitants are wild goats that roam the hills. Our group never spotted any, although we did stumble upon rib bones and femurs among the boulders. Transfer of energy, life in motion.

Our cove was situated on the northwest side of the island, and was one of the larger, although still incredibly private, indentations into the shore of Espiritu Santo.

Eight canvas tents lined the shore, and our basecamp was situated at the left-hand side of camp, nestled into the small cliffs and rock formations that jutted out into the cove.

The aquamarine water glittered in the winter sun: a gentle light, unlike the harsh hues of summer, illuminated everything with a soft glow.

We would be on Espiritu Santo for four days of camping on the beach, kayaking, snorkeling, and cliff jumping.

Day One

After arriving at our basecamp and exploring the surrounding area, we unloaded our luggage, got situated in our tents, and changed into our bathing suits. It was just warm enough in the sun and shallow water of the cove to splash around, lay on the sand, and take in the scene.

After lunch, we had a quick kayak lesson, and then took to the water, paddling around a small island of rock in the middle of the cove and north around the point, hugging the shore on our left as we made our way back to camp.

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Soon enough it was time for dinner, and on our first evening on the island, everyone was in bed and asleep by 9 p.m.

Day Two

I watched the sun come up over the hills to the east—the light playing on the water, the orange and pink hues turning slowly to a bright gold, and sleepy faces popping out of tent flaps in search of the dark coffee our hosts prepared for us.

Today would be a day of adventure: swimming with sea lions.

I floated a few feet back, content with simply watching the creatures play with my peers, when a juvenile swam toward me. It’s an odd feeling being out of your element, let alone surrounded by creatures that are most definitely in theirs, but I was in the mood to embrace the unexpected. The juvenile nibbled my arm in a playful way and swam circles around me, coming right up to my goggles. As soon as he had come, he was gone, already off to examine another in the group.

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By this point, my teeth were chattering with the cold and my muscles were beginning to shake and shiver, so I made my way back to the panga. I laid on the bow and soaked up the winter sun, wishing for the intensity of the summer’s rays and watching my friends continue to explore the nooks and crags of the small island of rock.

Photo: Carson Davis Brown

Soon enough, we were headed back to camp for lunch and, in the afternoon, more exploration.

Day Three

We reached the small cove, some 20-minutes north of our own, mid-morning. The air was chilly, and the sea had become choppy. Rumors of a brutal storm, of an early return, were floating around camp.

Espiritu Santo is a national preserve, and for that reason, only certain areas are designated for exploration on foot. The trail we had just arrived at was one such place. It was cool in the cove—the sun had no yet crested the hills completely, and the feeling of stillness that comes with the morning still hung in the air.

We began to make our way upward, along the cliffs, hugging the rocks with our shoes and hands. The air warmed with each step, and soon enough even the thin long sleeve I had put on in the morning was too much. Cacti dotted the surrounding slopes in abundance, and reminded me of sentinels guarding their territory, strong and silent.

One of our guides, Alba, explained that due to the recent heavy rains, many of the small shrubs we were seeing were able to bloom; they cannot grow in dry years, but as we walked among them, I couldn’t picture the hills without them.

We reached the top of the cliffs and came upon an unexpected sight: A wide valley floor, many hundreds of feet below us, opening up as we gazed eastward. The African savannah, in miniature. Half of our group stayed on the top of the cliff to scramble amongst the rocks and boulders, while the other half hiked down into the valley floor and across the wide open plain.

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After the hike, we ran down to the cove, now covered in sun and welcoming. We splashed into the water, eager to cool off from our hike, and felt instant refreshment as the cool waters caressed our skin.

As we left the cove and headed back to our own, up ahead, a whale breached, its entire body out of the water. A spout of water nearby showed it had a companion. We raced over to where we had seen them, desperate for another glimpse.

The sheer size of these underwater behemoths boggles the mind, bewitches the sight, captivates the aquatic imagination. Suddenly I was Jacques Cousteau, I was Steve Zissou, I was sailing along on my own journey, and then with the blink of an eye, the magnificent spine was back in the water, my dreams transformed back into mental vapor.

Back at basecamp, we had an afternoon of free time. I hiked alone up into the fold of the canyon—the rock is volcanic, although all I could think was “sandstone” as I gripped the tan and pink folds and boulders, climbing my way eastward and upward.

There was a small well our guide Mario had showed us the day before. Before I could stop myself, a thought popped into my mind: “If I fell in, would anyone hear me?” I gave the well a wide berth and kept to the sides of the canyon as I continued to make my way upward. I heard voices carrying up from the valley floor, and glanced behind me. Another group had come to explore the canyon, and my solitude was broken.

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Rather than stay and chat, I jogged back down into the valley, said a quick hello, and went off in search of more solitude.

That night, after we ate dinner, a plan was proposed. Each of us were to take the portable, solar-powered light bulbs that lit our tents each evening and hike over to the other side of the outcropping that separated the two sides of the cove. We were going to form a circle of light.

We each obliged, and danced in the pale glow of the moon and the dim lights. The waves crashed next to us, warm and inviting. A pitcher of margaritas materialized. There was singing, and more dancing. It felt as though we were in our own self-contained world, a cosmic slice of the universe.

Day 4

The next morning dawned, chilly and bright, and we made our way back to the mainland. Warnings of wind had subsided in intensity, but still prompted the crew to lead us back earlier than intended, to avoid whatever inclement weather did intend to come our way.

We landed back at La Paz with the intention of making the most of the day—exploring downtown and the surrounding area. We tramped about, getting to know the colorful and vibrant seaside town. We heard rumors of a hidden mezcaleria, and sought it out that night after dinner. We took in the sights, smells and sounds of the small coastal city.

The next morning, it was time to go.

Departure, friendly goodbyes and assurances of seeing each other again soon, and comforting thoughts of heading back to our own homes, our own scenes of comfort, made richer by the five days spent at Espiritu Santo, an island of dreams.

All Photos By Carson Davis Brown.

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