The following is an extended trip report based on my recent 4 night, 5 day paddling/camping trip to Espiritu Santo, a large desert island just off the coast from La Paz in the Sea of Cortez. I'm a very experienced paddler, having done unsupported paddling/camping trips all over North America and the Caribbean for over 25 years.
After extensive research, I would recommend you use the same paddling company we did -- Mar y Aventuras or "Sea and Adventures" in English ("S & A" used in this report). They are not perfect (read later in the article) but they do several things very well and have a very long and proud history of serving kayakers in this area. First off, this company has a website (www.kayakbaja.com) that is hands down the best I could find on the net. They just don't cover the kayaking and equipment you will need, but also include extensive information about every aspect of your trip -- right down to the name and size of the best lure to catch fish with.
S & A is co-owned by a long time American Baja guide (Mary Harter) and her former husband Ricardo Amador, a Mexican national who worked his way slowly into the business; first as a fisherman, then as a kayak guide and then eventually, as co-owner. They employ Mexicans, most of whom are very reliable, hard working and fun to be around. Essentially they run their business right out of the excellent hotel they are connected with -- Posada Luna Sol (more on that later). They can rent you a fiberglass single or double kayak (with bulkheads and two large hatches)that is stable and in decent condition. Prices I thought were very reasonable. My paddling buddy paid $140 for 5 days -- and that included a paddle; plus an extra back up paddle, a PFD, spray skirt, pump and paddle float. I brought my own folding boat -- a Feathercraft K-1 (which I find are better suited for the rough conditions that are a potential, on a trip like this).
S & A will also stay in contact with you, from the start of your trip until well after you finish it (if you like). Renee, who is the company's main state side contact,(800-355-7140 or 406-522-7596) is excellent at answering any question you have.
I could include all kinds of ideas about how to fly into La Paz, but I think S & A's website does a fine job of explaining your options. For example, my buddy flew directly into La Paz using Aeromico, while I chose to use Southwest and flew into Cabo San Lucas, via Denver. Should you opt for Cabo San Lucas, the great staff at S & A (Bel., Mely and the others)can set you up with transportation right to the hotel in La Paz (about a 3 hour van trip). I would highly recommend using Fernando and his father's company, Dos Mares. They are a bit more expensive than some other alternatives, but they are faster and just fantastic, trustworthy people. Their vans are quite modern, comfortable ... AND they will pick you up with a sign at the airport, as soon as you walk through customs! S & A will even try to pair you up with other arriving paddlers -- and if they can, the cost may go down to as low as $40 per person.
Ok, the big deal here is the 4 1/2 - 5 mile open water, ocean crossing, from Tecolote Beach to the first beach on Espiritu Santo (E.S.)-- called Playa Ayla. You'll need transport out to Tecolote and S & A does this for around $75 pp (a 45 minute ride from downtown). Thing is, although most paddlers will do this trip in the Spring (WAY too hot in the summer and sometimes WAY too windy at other times), the wind can still kick up and create huge problems -- even for the most experienced paddlers. Now keep in mind that S & A seems to kind of specialize in "supported trips." In these, they take you over (with rented kayaks)in large, stable power boats -- Mexican Pangas. If you are going solo like us, the owner (Ricardo) told me he will not allow any of his rented boats to even attempt the crossing on their own... if the winds are up at all.
That being said, if you do want to make the paddle yourself, your best option would be to camp the night before at Tecolote -- so you can start as pearly as possible the next morning. Your second option would be to talk to Ricardo in advance and really "stress" the need for his van to get you to the put-in at Tecolote "early as possible". For us, this became a little bit of an issue, as the day we left there were so many paddlers trying to organize their gear that S & A was not able to get us to Tecolote until around 11:30 am.
On this day, it worked out -- at least for the crossing. The winds happened to be almost flat when we launched, but later in the day, around 4 pm, we ran into some strong swirling winds (up to 20 - 25 mph) that changed directions as we paddled past steep cliffs and points heading north up the western side of the E.S. Best advice I can give you is just make this crossing as early as possible and do NOT even try it, if there is any chance of winds picking up beyond 15 mph (at least in the open water crossing).
Ok, the cool stuff: the colors of the water in the Sea of Cortez seem to emanate out of some kind of wild paddler's dream -- velvety emerald, sparkling turquoise --- and with a dream-like clarity that drops down to around 20-30 feet in depth. We ran into a very vivacious school of dolphins about 3/4 of the way into the crossing. Being curious, they seemed to slow down for us; then circled our boats and would come back up just in front of our paddles. This went on for about 15-20 minutes before they apparently found other more interesting toys to play with .... and then just as suddenly as they had appeared, dashed off into the horizon. We also saw several beautiful turtles of various sizes and lots of brown and gray pelicans. Note: no whale sightings on this trip, but we did wake up in the middle of the night once, with Mexican fisherman screaming "ballena, ballena!" (We found out in the morning from another group of paddlers staying on our beach that apparently the fishermen had accidentally caught the whale in their nets; then had to cut them to free the whale.
Ok here's the big deal -- even in the Spring when the nights and mornings are cool (around 60 degrees F.), it is VERY hot here in the afternoons! More importantly, it is an absolute barren desert and there is VERY LITTLE shade. I highly recommend you bring a good sun shade/tarp with very good anchors/stakes (sooner or later, the winds are gonna howl). I brought a Kelty Noah's Tarp, but not the poles (trying to save space in my boat). Next time I would bring something more substantial -- like an MSR Zing AND the poles. I would also bring better stakes to hold up to the higher winds you're likely to encounter most afternoons. Having some protection from this brutal heat can make all the difference in the world on a trip like this. But here's the secret -- and all the local guys know it: there is one very good camping spot on Playa El Gallo -- which is a good destination for the first day if you are crossing from Tecolote (around 10-12 miles total). BTW -- advisable to head West around the island because if you try to head East, there are shear rock cliffs and very limited beaches on that side -- plus much more potential to run into winds, as this is the more exposed side of the island -- especially for the often prevailing Northerlies.
At Playa El Gallo (Cock Beach if you will), both ends of the beach have a kind of mushroom shaped sandstone rock formation. The northern end actually provides shade all day, while the southern end provides some shade for all except the hottest final 3 hours of the day. Thing is, E.S. is a very popular place and all the outfitters and tour guides know about this beach. Although we had plans to paddle up the west side to Los Islotes to see the sea lion rookery, we decided to stay on El Gallo all 4 nights -- simply because shade was such an issue AND the snorkel diving was good here.
I would definitely bring at least a good mask -- and some fins too -- if you can fit them in. I wore a shorty wetsuit too as the water was refreshing but cool at about 74 degrees F. With the wetsuit, I was able to stay in the water for about an hour. Excellent array of multi- colored, healthy looking coral and all kinds of gorgeous tropical fish. Overall I was impressed (and this coming from someone who live 7 years in the Virgin Islands and used to go diving before work every day). Both ends of this little bay are good but probably better at the south end. Note: be advised that it would be a good idea to wear light booties of some sort, or at least shuffle your feet when you walk in the water, as the beaches on E.S. are known for stingrays (very, very painful if you happen to step on one).
GETTING HOME, PADDLING NORTH OR CIRCUMVENTING THE ISLAND:
For us, since we only had 4 nights, we had made the wise decision (ahead of time) to have S & A pick us up the afternoon of day 5 with their power boats. Doing this allows you to have a full last day to enjoy the island, AND more importantly, takes the ever present wind factor -- out of the picture. For example, the first 4 days of our trip we probably only saw a few brief gusts (in localized spots) up to 20-25 mph. Most days there was only a slight breeze in the morning, and then maybe -- 10 to 15 mph winds in the afternoons. But on our last day, the famous El Norte started to blow --good and early.
Winds in the crossing (back to La Paz) were easily a steady 25 mph, creating some very large breaking and confusing waves. Would have been VERY dangerous to try and paddle across to Tecolote Beach that day. The Panga guys did a great job of loading our boats, securing them well and getting us back to La Paz harbor safely. We actually enjoyed the raucous ride back to the port as even the captain had to take some care managing the wild seas, even in his beamy 27' Panga (with 175 hp outboard). They did rush us a bit to get ready on our final day, (arriving 2.5 hours earlier than they said they would), which we didn't appreciate. But I think there was a rush on their part to secure the couple of nice shady spots on this beach for their "supported trip" clients.
Had we more time, I think we would have opted for one of the smaller northern beaches as our next campsite-- like maybe beach #15 (Playa El Embudo) or maybe the larger beach # 14 (Playa Ensenada Grande). From there, it would have been easy to get to Los Islotes and the sea lions.
About circumnavigating the island -- although very doable -- you would want to pay extremely close attention to the winds -- AND get around to the East side of E.S. as early as possible in the morning. This is because the Eastern side -- although magnificent -- is very exposed and there is very long paddle south down to the next viable (landing) beach. You also probably need to give yourself an extra 3-4 days, because if the El Norte winds kick up, you could very well find yourself stuck on E.S. (since these winds are known to last several days). Note: at least one guide book claims you can predict these winds the day before, as high cumulus clouds will build up and hang on the mountains in the distance (which proved to be true in our case).
A recommended alternative would be to paddle north up the western side of E.S., see the sea lions at Los Islotes and then paddle north around the tip of Los Islotes, heading south and back through a small cut in Isla Partida (technically a separate island and north of Espiritu Santo). This route would eventually get you back to the generally more protected western side of E.S. (But of course, all of this depends on the wind direction, the day you go.)
Of course the normal stuff -- good PFD (might want to bring your own, the rental stuff is old and I suspect would not hold you afloat very long in a capsize), bilge pump and paddle float. I also strongly recommend you tether both yourself and your paddle to the boat and always paddle close together with your paddling partner(s). About VHF radios -- mine worked back at the hotel - Channel 12 came in loud and strong on Ricardo's radio at the hotel. However for the rest of the trip it did not work at all; which I had read would be the case on E.S. Especially for non supported ocean crossings, it is a VERY good idea to have a working EPIRB or Spot GPS tracking device -- secured well -- inside your PFD and ready for activation. In the case of a capsize -- and breaking waves can and do develop if the winds pick up in this particular crossing -- these devices can save your life. I also carried my I-phone in a waterproof case, strapped to my chest. Probably be a good idea also to pre-program important contacts in your phone-- the hotel number, S & A, and at least one other emergency number. BTW, the phone worked to call back to the states -- just had spotty connections that would drop pretty frequently. I used a Goal Zero Nomad 7 solar charger with battery pack to charge my phone -- which worked well. Change your plan with your cell phone provider before you go (to include Mexico)and make sure to turn off roaming when you get out of the U.S. Texts are extra ($) but usually worked too.
Surprisingly, I combed the Internet and could not find real good marine charts for this specific area. However, S $ A makes and sells a very good map of the island -- complete with beaches/camping spots (by name and number); as well as other important information. Their map is even waterproofed, and they sell it for $10 at the hotel. You do NOT want to leave without this map.
BOOKS: The authority on paddling in Baja seems to be Dave Eckart's "The Guide to Baja Sea Kayaking" (pp 211-219 on Espiritu Santo). It is very useful -- and recommended. Also has some nice photos of the beaches, camping spots and coves.
HOTEL: I highly recommend staying at Posada LunaSol. Very reasonable, clean and attractive rooms. Seems secure and the people who work there appear nice and honest. I recommend the upper level suite rooms -- can hold 3-4 people. Very nice views of the city and marina, plus they have full kitchens. Comfortable but laid back. You'll also meet a lot of other paddlers here -- many who have done this paddle several times before (and so can offer all kinds of pertinent information.
MONEY: Although the hotel and S & A say they accept credit cards, I would advise you to "only" use your cards at the hotel -- if you must. When I got home, I found about $2500 worth of fraudulent charges on my Visa Debit Card (which did later get reversed). I think it is highly unlikely this happened at the hotel, but much more likely at one of the large supermarkets about six blocks from the hotel (that we shopped at). Most places take U.S. dollars -- so I'd take that or change to get dollars at the airport. Maybe get a few pesos too -- but not really necessary. It was about 13 or 14 pesos per U.S. dollar when I was there. Everything was still relatively cheap.
FISHING: Yes, yes and yes. I brought my 4 piece spinning rod and my 3 piece fly rod. However, fishing is best in the Sea of Cortez a little later in the year -- when the water temperature rises a bit. According to S & A: "medium to small, minnow type, sinking lures such as a Rebel jointed Fastrac or mid sized Rapala Magnums (4.5" or 9-12 cm) work well." They suggest these color patterns: blue/silver, black/silver, black/gold and green mackerel/gold. S & A can also rent you the poles, equipment and the needed fishing licenses (about $35 for a week). I trolled similar lures at various depths. If you could trap some live minnows at the beach (in the tide pools), that would be even better. Hook them through the mouth and let them swim around on top of the water near shore and near some rocks (mornings and evenings) for Rooster Tail. Prize catches would be Dorado, Yellow Fin or Rooster Tail. Keep a sharp knife handy -- in case you hook the BIG one! Going deeper, you can catch Grey Trigger Fish, which run just 1-3 lbs, but are just tremendous fighters. They provide firm, sweet white meat (we caught several of them) and taste a little bit like lobster. Great for fish tacos! However, better have a very sharp fillet knife for these guys -- their skin is tougher than raw hide. Of course, it is extremely "sporty" to catch a big fish in a kayak (and potentially dangerous). But if you just want to "cut to the chase", arrange with S & A ahead of time to have one of their Panga guys pick you up and take you sport fishing. Some Canadian campers on our beach went out one day and caught two very nice Dorado (15-20 lb range). Of course, being cool Canadians, they expertly cooked these fish and later shared them with us ... and our cold beers (see later note about coolers/ice and friends)!
COOLERS: Back country kayak campers know this -- simple pleasures make all the difference in the world on trips like this. "You WILL STAY thirsty my friend." Bring a quality cooler (NRS make some good ones that fit into a kayak) and then place a pre-frozen "Nu-Ice Cooler Pack" in the bottom of it. Fill with ice the night before and freeze. We had cold Dos Equis and Coronas con lims for the first 2 1/2 days(even in 90 - 95 degree F. heat); then got some free ice from some Mexican fisherman who came by our beach for lunch. This provided us cold beer for all 5 days we were at E.S. -- to the envy of all ... I might add! And we made a few friends because of it.
FOOD/WATER/CAMPING SUPPLIES: No drinking water on the island but you can buy various sized bottles of water (and beer) at a convenience store just up the street from Hotel Posada Luna Sol (and they are open fairly late, but also open late in the morning). There are also larger grocery stores within walking distance of the hotel (but as mentioned, use cash). S & A usually has white gas for your stoves but check ahead of time(because they were out of it when we arrived). Did not see any MSR ISOPRO gas canisters, but did see lots of larger Coleman type of canisters. There is a small hardware type of store not far from the hotel that had a limited supply of white gas -- sold in clear, glass bottles no less!
SAFETY: Due to recent events on the mainland, there may be some who question the safety of a paddling trip to Mexico. However, Baja California -- although clearly Mexican -- is VERY unlike the rest of the country. By most people's account, there does not seem to be any cartels running drugs. Like any large city though, there are sections you probably do not want to be in and certainly avoid walking around very late at night (do stay in groups as much as possible). But for the most part, La Paz seemed like a safe place; especially around the hotel and down on the main Malecon.
Heh, if you've never been to the Sea of Cortez ... this is simply one of those ... "bucket list trips" -- ya just gotta do it.
Fiberglass rental kayak (from S & A)
Feathercraft K-1 Expedition
Yes, I believe $5/day pp camping fees and the island is a park -- you must use port-o potties -- which Sea and Adventures can also rent you (they can also get you the camping passes).
Well, you could drive down from San Diego -- if ya had about a month.
Dave Eckardt's, "The Guide to Baja Sea Kayaking"