Visitors to La Paz can take a dip with sea lions in their natural habitat. // © 2013 Costa Baja Resort & Marina
La Paz has been flying under the radar for years while Los Cabos, its neighbor to the south, has been gobbling up all of the media attention. Luckily, this sleepy and historic city on the Sea of Cortez has discovered a tourism activity that sets it apart from the crowd. What really elevates the La Paz experience is the opportunity to take an excursion to Espiritu Santo Island, where visitors can snorkel among sea lions in their natural habitat, which happens to be a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Bio-Reserve.
I joined an Espirtu Santo Island tour operated by Grupo Fun Baja, a company conveniently located at the CostaBaja Resort & Marina. The tour, which features snorkeling with sea lions, is offered year-round, although it can be canceled in the case of bad weather.
We cast off on a 32-foot boat for the hour-long trip across the bay to Espiritu Santo Island and the sea lions’ rookery. The water is a clear Caribbean blue, but instead of tropical green foliage, the Sea Of Cortez is bordered by a stark desert landscape of browns and grays. Along the way we passed one tiny island after another, each with its own micro-climate, according to our guide, Juan Beltran.
The route also offers ample opportunities for wildlife viewing. While passing the nesting area for Great Blue Herons, Beltran told us that the herons mate for life. When one mate passes away, the surviving partner refuses to eat and dies with its mate. This display of devotion has led La Paz to embrace the heron as its symbol of love.
As we sailed, flocks of pelicans glided low over the water. Beltran shared that orcas had been sighted in June and dolphins often follow the boat, but also explained that it’s impossible to predict a sighting on any given day, since the dolphins follow the currents.
A group of investors bought Espirtu Santo Island (including the owner of the Mexico Walmart chain) to preserve it from development. Although Espirtu Santo Island is protected, the rights of local fishermen have been grandfathered in. The island’s San Gabriel beach was the setting for John Steinbeck’s famous novella, “The Pearl,” when he visited back in 1940, and black pearls are still harvested in the waters surrounding La Paz today.
Our boat set anchor offshore from rocky Los Islotes Island, with its population of 300 sea lions. Some of our group chose to don wetsuits — although the water was temperate, it’s a good option for those who are sensitive to the cold.
After a few safety pointers from our guide, we ventured into the water. Our group followed Beltran’s lead, approaching within a dozen feet of the creatures. It was a fascinating up-close look at families of sea lions ranging from curious youngsters to heavyweight elder bulls.
When we snorkeled into a narrow cave, we were followed by one of the young sea lions, who swam beneath us, darting back and forth. It was only seconds before he was fetched by an older sea lion and hustled back to the group. I had heard of sea lions coming close enough to make contact, but that wasn’t in the cards that day.
With the anchor up we proceeded to Espiritu Santo Island’s Playa de Mangrove, where Grupo Fun Baja operates a beachside campground with enough tents for 60 people.
“A stay at the camp is a great way to disconnect,” Beltran told us.
One night and two days of recreation costs $370 per person, which includes five meals and drinks, including tequila and beer. The camp has shower and toilet facilities and environmentally-conscious campsite practices maintain the ecology of the area. The rate includes snorkeling among sea lions, sportfishing, kayaking, guided trail walking and stargazing.