Kayaking Baja: Isla Espiritu Santo

Isla Espiritu Santo is a beautiful, medium-sized island just north of La Paz.  We spent nine days paddling around in April of 2011, from 4/20 to 4/28.  It’s a magical place for kayaking and exploring, complete with crystal clear tropical turquoise water, great snorkeling and spearfishing, wonderful camping, fantastic rock formations and arches to paddle through, lots of sea life, and the list just keeps going…


Unfortunately these attributes are not exactly a secret and it’s a very accessible place with La Paz so close, so the island can see a of visitors.  It can get especially crowded around Semana Santa, Mexico’s Easter week celebration in April, which of course was right when we visited.  We spent nine lazy days circumnavigating the island in our folding Feathercraft K2 kayak, and there was a lot of boat traffic, with a very steady stream of pangas buzzing by every day shuttling day visitors out to the sea lion colonies and beaches.  There were also many sailboats and a surprising number of giant luxury motor yachts, and even a few other kayakers.  That said, even with all the traffic for the most part we found our preferred campsites empty each day, especially the smaller non-sandy ones that we generally prefer.

Our kind of camp

You’re required to have island permits for visiting Espiritu Santo, available from any outfitter in La Paz for $5 per person per day, but the better alternative for anyone going for more than a few days is a yearly pass they call a Passport.  It’s good for most of the islands in the Sea of Cortez, as well as Cabo Pulmo, and only costs 260 pesos per person, a real bargain.  I did have to track down the SEMARNAT office (the governing agency, located on Abasolo in La Paz out towards the Walmart) to purchase the passes, but it wasn’t too difficult and saved us a lot of money.  We were checked for passes while on the island.  You’re also required to have a portable toilet, which I made out of some PVC pipe; the rangers never asked to see our toilet, but it’s good practice to dump your poop out to sea especially in such a frequently visited place.

Espiritu Santo was actually part two of an extended kayak journey for us.  We’d spent 22 days kayaking from Mulege to La Paz, and then rested for five days in La Paz where we had some reasonably priced dental work done, stocked up on food and water, and consumed way too much tequila and tacos in celebration of being in civilization again.  Now with a temporary crown over a formerly cracked molar, I drove us out to Playa Tecolote where we set up our kayak and did a final check of our gear and supplies.  We paid one of the beach restaurants about $30 usd to watch our car, and early the next afternoon we set off on the 5 mile crossing.  We would have started sooner in the morning but this area has a distinct wind pattern known as Corumuels, strong southerlies that start up at night and usually die off by the end of the morning.

Getting ready to cross from Tecolote to Epiritu Santo, in the background

After the southerly died down we had calm conditions and an easy crossing that took us a bit less than 1.5 hours.  About halfway across a whale surfaced pretty close to us, and we could hear it singing, which is a pretty amazing experience.  When we reached the southern tip of the island we were greeted by a school of big 2-3ft  roosterfish patrolling for food, their distinctive dorsal fins often above the water.  I trolled for a while with my handline and was probably lucky not to get a bite; I probably would have ended up with a dislocated shoulder!

We paddled a bit further up the west side of the Island (we were doing a clockwise circumnavigation) and found a decent beach to camp on inside one of the many fjord-like bays that the island is famous for.  We cooked dinner watching the light change on some pretty pink cliffs near our camp and were visited by some wild goats nibbling at the shrubbery on the steep hill above us.

cookin'

The next morning the Coromuels were up again but we were feeling antsy and headed out early anyway, finding some pretty big waves outside of our little bay.  Within a couple hours the wind had died and the water was totally calm again.  There were a lot of motor boats around, from buzzing pangas to 20 million dollar luxury yachts, and it had me feeling a little irritable.  We’d been traveling under our own muscle power for so long in our unobtrusive little boat, totally silent and non-polluting, and here we barely even saw a sailboat that wasn’t motoring.   There were jet skiers pulling inner tubes!  The noise pollution was getting to me.  But… it was the highest of high seasons so we had to expect company, and as far as the scenery went this was the best we’d seen yet.  The water was so clear, and varied between an amazing number of shades of blue. We found a great camp in a tiny inlet, and fended off the ringtail cat that had obviously found some meals at people’s camps in the past.   We secured our food in dry bags but forgot about a bag of tortillas that we’d left on a boulder, and he stole the whole bag!  That night when we’d shine our lights around camp we’d always see a few sets of eyes glowing hungrily, hoping for more.

Ringtail cat / thief in the night

The next day we took a layover day, getting in some good reading in the shade and doing some snorkeling from our camp.  We took a day paddle around a small nearby islet called Isla Ballena, which is a big bird nesting site and smelled terrible.  We saw baby pelicans on the clifftops, gangly white little things.  That evening a couple hawks hung out on the cliffs near us, and must have kept the ringtails away, although we heard lots of rustling around that night while we were in our tent.

I love taking pictures of my kayak

We slept in the next morning to allow the usual winds to die down, and then made our way north, exploring each cove we came to.  We passed a couple semi-permanent looking outfitter’s camps situated on some incredibly beautiful white sand beaches.  They’re actually not that great to camp on, as sand gets into everything and becomes a real pain, so we were fine with leaving them to the people taking tours.

Beautiful arch we paddled through

In one bay we heard some big tell-tale whooshing sounds and immediately looked around for a whale, who was a fair ways off and soon went underwater.  A couple minutes later though it surfaced less than 50 feet from us, and slowly swam along as we kept pace beside it.  It was an incredible encounter and went on for minutes, and we could hear its beautiful whale song with amazing clarity.  Unfortunately a 50′ motor yacht noticed the whale and drove straight for it from about a quarter mile away.  They approached too close and never cut their engines and the loud idling ruined any chance of hearing the whale any more and it soon disappeared under the water.  We paddled a ways off hoping to guess where it might surface, and the boat followed us!  I guess they thought we had some inside information.  Did I mention how I was feeling irritable about motors?  At this point I was having some serious Monkey Wrench Gang style sabotage fantasies.

Paddling along we saw some sea lions playing, and in another bay we had our best sea turtle encounter yet: a larger turtle saw us coming, and rather than instantly diving as normal he watched us approach, and then went under and resurfaced at least five different times.  He seemed just as curious about us as we were about him!  When we paddled right up to him he lazily went under, but the water was so clear we could still easily see him under our boat, staring up at us.  We like turtles.

I love my pole spear!

That evening we camped in a nice little cove backing up to an arroyo (canyon), and did some hiking and snorkeling.  I speared a delicious little Mexican Hogfish, and got my heart rate up a bit when I was bluff charged by a big Moray eel.  Later that night while I was brushing my teeth at the water’s edge I noticed a Moray coming right up to the beach feeding; he was in water so shallow he was only half submersed.

The next morning we left camp set up and paddled about four miles north to Los Islotes, a pair of islets just off the north tip of Espiritu Santo and home of a famous sea lion colony.  It’s a big tourist attraction because people here swim with the sea lions!  You’re not allowed to land on the island so we tied our kayak up a free mooring ball alongside some pangas, and gathered our courage to actually enter the water.  Those sea lions are big…  When we finally got in it was pretty cool, with the lobos swimming and diving all around us.  They’re very graceful and fast underwater, and they seem to enjoy messing with people a bit, doing things like swimming straight at you and veering off at the last second.  It was really fun, and there were a surprising number of fish around to watch also.  When we finally left the place was getting pretty busy with panga loads of day visitors, and somebody warned us that three orcas had been spotted in the area.   I was happy that I hadn’t known that while I was in the water with some of the orca’s favorite food.

Snorkeling from our kayak at the sea lion colony

The next morning we read in a shade cave until the winds had calmed down, then headed back north to a popular camping spot called El Embudo.  We set up camp and went for a hike up the arroyo to a dry lake bed that fills up during the summer rains, then hung out in camp and relaxed.  There was a steady stream of people landing at the beach, and we had a conversation with a panga captain about Morays, and how you had to be careful with them especially with blood in the water, which tended to make them aggressive and sometimes bite.  Not two hours later I speared my best fish of the trip, a nice flag cabrilla, and turned around to see another big moray not six feet behind me!  All was fine though, and the fish was delicious.

flag cabrilla, the best fish I speared

The next day brought more of the same, lots of snorkeling and reading, playing cards, and other wonderful forms of tropical relaxation.  I speared another cabrilla, and was really enjoying using my pole spear.  Some park rangers came by and checked our island permits, and a tourist gave us an icy cold Pacifico!

Shade is a fine thing out there in the desert

The next morning a half-dead squid had washed into a rocky area, and soon enough a Moray came and ate off his tentacles!  And so the eel adventures continued.  We rounded the tip of the island fighting some strong currents and used up a ton of energy paddling out toward what we thought were Orcas but turned out to be dolphins.  Distance and size can be tough to judge out in that clear desert air.

Our camp at El Embudo

Dry lake bed

The intrepid couple

Heading south along the east side of the Island the topography became a lot more rugged and we saw a lot less people.   There aren’t a bunch of bays like on the west side and in general it isn’t so spectacularly beautiful, so this side of the island sees much less traffic.  We ended up paddling about fifteen miles all the way to Playa Bonanza, a several mile long white sand beach where we camped and entertained ourselves by messing with the plentiful hermit crabs.

Playa Bonanza hermit crabs, arranged as art installation

The following day we packed up and rounded the northern tip of the island, completing our lazy circumnavigation in nine days.  The winds were calm so we made the crossing with ease, pulling into Playa Tecolote where we found the car extremely dusty but otherwise unharmed.  We drank a celebratory beer while we broke the kayak down into its duffel bags, then headed into La Paz for a couple more days in the city.

This recently dead ray washed up at Playa Tecolote shortly after we landed. A few minutes after this picture was taken somebody chopped off the wings (delicious in burritos with machaca, apparently) and the carcass was buried in about two inches of sand.

Still to come: circumnavigating Isla Carmen, near Loreto.

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7 responses to “Kayaking Baja: Isla Espiritu Santo

  1. The water is so remarkably beautiful, I can only imagine what it was like in person….. living in a beautiful painting or dream. I love the pics of you, Denae with your straw hat on in the Kayak and the underwater shots. i see why you like taking pics of the Kayak, Andy it is super cool.
    I smiled the whole time I read your entry, thank you!

  2. I am totally envious of your trip to the island. We will be taking our kayak (hard shell) foe the last three weeks in December of this year.

  3. Udo, you’re going to have a great time! Be careful crossing to the island that time of year, winter Norte winds can be very dangerous from what I’m told. If you decide to have a Panga shuttle you out there, I’d suggest these guys: http://www.kayakbaja.com/

    We stayed at their hotel in La Paz and they let use their facilities to clean up our gear, and I was generally impressed with their operation. You can leave your car with them safely while you’re at the island, and the shuttle is reasonably priced.

    Andy

  4. Loved this post — made me feel like I was there! Loved seeing the kayak in action (and the spear) — loved everything about this leg of the journey.

    Imagine it must be great to be enjoying the memories as you work toward the next adventure. oooo

  5. Very interesting and Well Done, as usual. Thanks for sharing!!!

  6. Hi!

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful pictures.

    I found your post looking for information about kayaking solo in Isla Espiritu Santo in ten days time. It would be great if you had time to answer a few questions via email.

    Best, piem

  7. This location is on our dream list. Thanks for posting all the helpful and interesting information!
    Greetings from north of the Arctic Circle.

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