by Melissa Gaskill
A tent on the sand with a solar-powered light, solar shower hanging nearby, composting toilet behind a gnarled palo blanco tree. Travel doesn’t get much more eco than this.
Organized by Baja Expeditions, one of the oldest outfitters on the Mexican peninsula, and SEE Turtles, a non-profit promoting conservation tourism, this trip includes three days in the Gulf of California and three on Baja’s Pacific coast with a night in La Paz in between. We also take part in a local sea turtle monitoring project that, once a month, puts out nets to catch sea turtles, measuring, tagging and then releasing them. The data helps determine the success of efforts to help these endangered animals.
The first day, the group gathers in the hotel lobby for a quick van ride to Baja Expedition’s office for breakfast, wetsuits, masks and snorkels. Then we load onto a panga, one of the blue-and-white fiberglass boats common along both coasts of Baja. Our route crosses La Paz Bay to Isla Espiritu Santo, an uninhabited mountainous island. A line of white tents along a fingernail of matching sand overlook a gem-blue bay where pelicans, cormorants, and brown and blue-footed boobies crash into the water on a dawn-to-dusk pursuit of fish. Two cooks prepare our meals on a gas stove inside the kitchen tent, using fish straight from the nearby waters, peppers grown north of La Paz, hand-made tortillas, and other fresh, local ingredients.
After settling in, we motor to the island’s north end to snorkel around Los Islotes, a collection of craggy rocks populated by sea lions and birds above the water, a massive school of sardines and riot of tropical fish below it. The young sea lions hanging out at one end of the rocks came ready to play; when I follow them under the water, they dart in close, swoop away, and dive deeper than I can go. The day ends with a brilliant sunset over the peninsula followed by stars spilled across a black sky, then the full moon rising from behind the island’s mountainous spine.
Next day, we kayak along red and cream-colored cliffs weathered in intricate patterns, dipping into each cove. Some hold tiny beaches, others rocky shores or swaths of green mangroves. A panga brings lunch, then takes us farther down the island to the ruins of a pearl-collecting village and a healthy reef only about 20 feet below the surface for another snorkel. The following morning, we hike up the rugged slope behind camp, spotting huge blue lizards and colorful hummingbirds, before heading back to La Paz for the night.
For the three-hour drive to Puerto San Carlos, we pile into one van, giving the trip less of a carbon footprint than it might have had. From there, another panga ride ends at a mangrove and shell spit in Bahia Magdalena, a mangrove-lined bay on the Pacific side of the peninsula. Our camp here is eco-friendly, too; we sleep in tents on the narrow shell beach, eat clams and shrimp caught with sustainable methods in this very bay, and compost our waste.
By participating in the sea turtle monitoring program, we tourists provide direct financial support for the monitoring. We also support and encourage this kind of alternative to typical tourism development (i.e. high-rise resorts, desert golf courses, and other eco-unfriendly options), and help create meaningful, dignified work for people in the local community. Our camp crew, members of a local cooperative, trained by working with established cooks and guides on Baja Expeditions outings before striking out on their own here.
Our group of ten, plus two guides and four members of the monitoring project, heads out in two pangas to place nets in the bay where turtles come and go with the ebb and flow of tide. Starting at 6 PM today through 4 PM tomorrow, two crew members and two guests check the nets every two hours. We can also help with measuring and tagging, and get to name untagged turtles.
In between shifts, we take a panga ride through lush mangroves, where we see a variety of herons and egrets as well as kingfishers, jays, pelicans, and osprey. After lunch, we cross the bay and hike over dunes towering more than four stories high and about a half-mile wide, forming a barrier between the bay and the Pacific Ocean. The beach there is broad and disappears into the distance in either direction, with no signs of civilization. The clear water is a perfect temperature for swimming, and sand dollars the size of my hand litter the sand.
Next morning, we observe local fishing methods, including handlining, crab traps, and a specially designed shrimp trawl that doesn’t drag bottom and moves slowly enough for fish and other potential bycatch to get away.
Returning to the San Jose del Cabo airport the following day, I’m struck by the contrast between the sprawling, gated hotels, bright green of golf courses, and cruise ships bobbing in the distance and the cozy camp that, by now, has completely disappeared from that tiny island. I can truly call this an eco-adventure.