The Spirit of Santo: Discovering Baja California

Only a stone’s throw away from California’s sun kissed shores, Mexico’s Baja California is a long, cacti studded peninsula that juts into the Pacific, laying claim to La Paz and its spectacular string of islands, inlets and undiscovered coves. Luxury travel expert, Jules, takes a trip to Isla Espíritu Santo for an unforgettable day exploring the Sea of Cortez, the world’s aquarium. 

So it is 6.15 am but the good news is I am still jet-lagged so waking up at such an hour was not a hardship at all.

I do not know what to expect. All I have been told is that I am going to be taken to the magical isle of Espiritu Santo, in the Sea of Cortez, for a day’s adventure with the legendary Pahoran himself. For the occasion, I pack two sets of clothes, all kinds of sunscreen, a hat, flip flops, espadrilles and review my bulging sack. Then the wonderful hotel butler at Las Ventanas al Paraiso arrives with a bag, sunscreen, hat and towel which seems to tick the boxes so I gladly empty mine, save the bare necessities, for the day ahead.

What I did not expect was that during the day we would be able to travel back in time to the New World through Pahoran’s incredible storytelling. He is the ultimate storyteller, so whatever your passion is, I suspect he can dwell on it for hours. My passion is history and luckily so is his. If it is not yours, bypass the potted history of Baja and move swiftly past the following paragraph.

The two hours to La Paz from Cabo San Lucas pass in a flash as we touch on Mexico and its significant place in history. Without the aid of a Wifi connection or Google, we touch on Isabella and Ferdinand conquering the Moors in the 1400’s, the 1492 Columbine discovery of the New World, the Pope’s division of the New World in 1494, the frankly miraculous journey of Andreas de Urdarneta to Manila in 1565, the discovery of Nippon and the consequential establishment of one of the most lucrative trading routes of the era from Manila to Acapulco, known now as the California Current. The fact they often stopped at Todos Santos in Baja for water and food before moving northwards along the hostile Pacific coast is all part of its history, and part of our journey too. As is the discovery of the inland Sea of Cortez by Admiral Cortés in his quest to find a mystical island of gold ruled by a beautiful queen and her ladies. Whilst his El Dorado was never found, he did instead discover the fierce heat or calor of a coastal desert land, and thus California was born.

Sergio is the captain of our boat and arrives armed with delicious coffee from a wonderful cafe on the water side in La Paz, we wander down the dock and board what is a deceptively simple vessel for our adventure. This relatively spartan boat holds iced drinks, snorkels and flippers, umbrellas for shade, chairs and tables for lunch, Sergio the whale/sea lion and dolphin whisperer and a picnic lunch from heaven. I can see nothing of these hidden treasures when I board and find myself a spot in the shade to watch the water turn from aqua to turquoise as the crystal clear seas and white beaches of Espiritu Santos come into view.

We skirt the volcanic island which morphs from sandy beaches to red-ringed hills and dramatic granite cliffs where Sergio delights in finding caves and arches by skilfully guiding his boat through the narrowest of gaps. Laughing as we rush back into the sun, marvelling at the geological structure of this beautiful island that is totally untouched by human habitation. Like the Galápagos Islands, it is without dwellings save a few historical fisherman’s huts where descendants of local indigenous peoples have the right to come and fish for certain periods of the year bringing their own water, food and all the necessary provisions like days of old.

Soon we arrive at the tip of the island, bypassing tiny islets covered in cacti, one dedicated to the famous blue footed booby birds that I have only ever seen far away on Darwin’s islands. Flocks of pelicans which Sergio calls the ‘Mexican Air Force’ swoop past us in formation skimming over the waves. In the distance we can hear the barking of the Californian sea lions. Donning snorkels and masks we glide through underwater caverns, dance with the playful juvenile sea lions in the water, float over snapper, surgeon fish, groupers, mahi mahi and endless tiny fish glittering like diamonds as they speed through the clear waters. Parrot fish and angel fish light up the translucent water with their colors and sea bass pass slowly beneath us, making me hungry for lunch. Starfish gild the rocks and more sea lions beg to be followed – diving and twisting their way through the water. We hear the strange high pitched call of dolphins which we see later dancing through the waves alongside us like a troupe of benevolent spirits. I cannot get enough of the clear water, the endless fish that flash by in the sunlit water and just love being there. Even if you are a nervous swimmer, Pahoran is by your side constantly like a friendly sea lion; the water is warm and the current gentle. This is for anyone young or old.

We swim gently back to the boat but cannot get back on as three friendly sea lions are actually jumping up to ‘talk’ to Sergio who is rubbing their noses! They love playing with the propeller and the buoy by the anchor and will not let us take our ladder back! Finally, they bore and rush off on another adventure – these are babies and like puppies will be fascinated by anything shiny, moving or fun!

We chug gently towards a beach where white powdery sand frames the bay and I watch our little boat land and disgorge the treasures I mentioned earlier. Once lunch is in place I am treated to the delicious ceviche that Sergio has prepared fresh that morning. Trigger fish ‘cooked’ in lime juice, marinated in clam and tomato juice, onions, parsley, and a few family secret- the delicious combination of fresh tomatoes and corn tortillas. Water (they do have beer and soft drinks too) has never tasted so good! Ham and cheese for extras and fresh oranges complete the feast. Aquamarine, topaz and cerulean waters lap the shore and there is a wonderful sense of place – time has stilled, silence is there but for the whispering sea and call of the birds drifting on the wind overhead. Not many places today can lay claim to such unique peaceful beauty.

But alas there is always a moment when one must turn for home. Sadly we are a month or two early for the sharks which apparently are amazing to swim with, as are the blue and grey whales and orcas which another season brings. That would arguably be one of the highlights of the trip at the time when summer arrives on the southern hemisphere’s shores – Todos Santos is on the Tropic of Cancer so has the same latitude as Hawaii – but that is for another day and another season!

Sea Turtle Bay was full of bobbing heads as these shy creatures came up for air. Bottle nosed dolphins frolicked by our bow as they danced through our waves, performing as our escort as we turn for home. The sun is shining brightly but I have been protected by Pahoran’s extra skin shirt, the shade is still constant on our little boat and Sergio is still laughing. The world is a very special place suddenly.

La Paz comes into view as the last sandy beach slides from view and we disembark salty, happy and so grateful that some places in this world are so heavily protected from tourism and commercialism that there is still adventure in the air, a discovery to be made. The area remains protected, and is recognised by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve, so no commercial vessels or unlicensed boats are allowed into it. Resolutely off limits to swathes of tourists, the area continues to live up to its name as the world’s aquarium.

Back on dry land, I mistakenly think the day’s at an end but if you do not have children (who will no doubt be ready for bed by now) there is one last stop on the agenda on the way home.

Todos Santos. The famous spot where Manilla galleons often pulled in after their two month Pacific crossing is home to the Hotel California, still uncontested as The Eagles’ original muse, and accessed by the ‘dark desert highway’ from La Paz. Original muse or not, we pull in opposite the iconic hotel and spend a pleasurable half an hour in Tequila Sunrise. The owner of the bar is famous for winning the ‘Mixologist of the Year’ title in San Francisco and is acclaimed for adding local liqueur, Damiana, into his margaritas. He is called Mr Margarita because of it and his signature Damiana Margarita is worth stopping for, if only to hear the history of the place and see his daughter Diana pour the mighty cocktail with perfect co-ordination (no measures for her). Three generations of this family have made this place famous for a reason. You need to go and see for yourself – I will not ruin it. The food is great too!

Tired, salty and gloriously sated, we head for home. Las Ventanas Paraiso was a welcoming sight save for one thing. ‘Would you like a special margarita?’ my butler asked as I watched the sunset cast hues of gold over the resort. I declined as Tequila Sunrise not only serve a ‘mean one’ but a very large one too… Their record is someone who drank four, his wife left him locked in the loo for two hours whilst he came to!

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