Trophy Hunting and the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep in Baja California Sur

Trophy Hunting and the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep in Baja California Sur

Notes for translator:

Bighorn sheep = Borrego Cimarrón
Field Technician = Tecnico
Ecologist = Ecológo

“It was so hot and the terrain was so steep and challenging” recalls La Paz-based bighorn sheep hunting translator Angel Antonio Marquez. “We had to stick to the shadows so the sheep couldn’t see us, making the walking even more difficult. When we were 850 yards from the ram the hunter decided to take the shot. We all thought he was crazy since it was so far and we were not at all surprised when he missed. The bullet went right between that sheep’s legs.” Angel continued, “Now this would have scared away most animals, but there was a female sheep nearby and this male was trying to be macho for her so he just stood there. The hunter got him on the second shot. 850 yards. It is the record for the farthest shot in this area.”

According to CONABIO, Mexico’s National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity, in 1800 over 1 million bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) roamed across the western parts of the US, Canada and northern Mexico. But the introduction of livestock and uncontrolled hunting led to a major decline, and by 1950 there were fewer than 25,000 individual sheep left. The population in northeast Mexico was extirpated and the remaining population in the northwest around Sonora and the Baja peninsula was small and fragmented. It might seem counterintuitive, but hunting is now the main activity, regulated by the Mexican government, helping to stabilize the bighorn sheep population and preserve their habitat.

“This program is an amazing idea” states Biól. Gabriela López Segurajáuregui, the Mexican CITES Scientific Authority Coordinator. “Mexico is a megadiverse country with over 10% of all species in the world. Our conservation challenge is to incentivize people to care for their resources so that they can make a living from them in an ongoing, sustainable way. Bighorn sheep trophy hunting is a major conservation success story in Mexico.”

Gabriela’s colleague M. en C. Luis Guillermo Muñoz Lacy, Chief of the National CITES implementation on Fauna Department, elaborates. “Mexico allows trophy hunting across many species, but bighorn sheep is the most valuable species for hunting in the country, meaning that hunters are willing to pay the most for those permits. The money generated by this program has a tremendously positive economic impact on local communities as well as a tremendously positive conservation impact on the sheep themselves and the lands they roam.” How much money are we talking about? Guillermo explains, “Each bighorn sheep permit in Baja California Sur (BCS) can be sold for USD 50,000 to 90,000. Sonora holds the record at USD 250,000 for one permit. BCS exports about 18 trophies per year.” In other words, it’s a game changer for the rural communities who manage the land and the hunts.

Here’s how it works. In the 1995-1997 timeframe the Mexican government created Conservation Wildlife Management Units (UMAs) to regulate wildlife harvest and non-harvest activities in Mexico, including habitat and species restoration, protection, research and environmental education. In the case of bighorn sheep, UMAs cover most of its habitat. 10 of the UMAs are in BCS and are managed by ejidos, or local communal farmers, and the remainder are across the Sea of Cortez in Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila and Nuevo Leon. Bighorn sheep trophy hunting is carried out within the UMA system in the states of BCS and Sonora. Baja California, the state that occupies the northern half of the Baja peninsula, does not allow hunting.

In 1975 twenty bighorn sheep were reintroduced to Tiburon Island in the Sea of Cortez off the coast of Sonora, and by 2012 that number had grown to 650. Many of those were transplanted to Sonora for repopulation and captive breeding programs and by 2019, the last year for which Sonora published its data, the continental population of bighorn sheep had recovered to 3,829 wild individuals and 4,500 in captivity. By contrast, BCS has only had a couple of reintroduction or reinforcement events and the last aerial survey conducted by SEMARNAT in 2022 estimated about 1,100 individuals in BCS.

The UMAs of BCS pay for a team of technicians to regularly monitor the bighorn sheep population on land, participate in the hunts, and accompany the aerial surveys that are conducted every three years. The technicians are extremely clear in their minds about the value of the trophy program. “If it were not for the economic power of the trophy permits, the Bighorn sheep population would almost certainly have been decimated by now and the ejidos would have sold off most of the land” observes Ing. Antia Duarte Camacho, Field Technician of de Ejido San Jose de la Noria and Ejido Lic. Alfredo V. Bonfil. “The bighorn sheep habitat is all along the Sea of Cortez, making that land extremely valuable.” Her colleague Ecologist Miguel Angel Aguilar Juárez, Field Technician of Ejidos Ley Federal de Aguas 1, 2 and 3 adds, “By 2014 the ejidos, many of which had been impoverished, were really starting to understand the huge, sustained, economic lift flowing from the trophy program. They developed a deep appreciation for the value of the land that they own and the sheep that inhabit it. That is when they all really started working together to make the program work as a whole in BCS. Bighorn sheep move seasonally across a vast territory so corridors are important. Income from bighorn sheep hunting started motivating the ejidos to work together to maintain these huge areas with no other human activities, including the raising of livestock.” CONABIO points to the resulting large-scale habitat conservation and improved connectivity as a major achievement of the trophy hunting program.

Bighorn sheep are extremely desirable among trophy hunters and are part of the sheep Grand Slam. Which leads to the question: how many sheep can you hunt without hurting the species? This is one of the critical questions that Gabriela López of the Mexican CITES Scientific Authority (CONABIO) and her team focus on. The UMAs organize to finance an aerial census of the bighorn sheep habitat every three years in the September-December timeframe. The survey is done in coordination with SEMARNAT, CONABIO and key experts. It is this survey that serves as the basis for issuing the harvest rate. Gabriela explains further, “We estimate that the aerial survey team makes visual contact with roughly 30% of the total population. As a precautionary measure we determine the number of trophy hunts that will be allowed based solely on the number of individual sheep actually observed, not the extrapolated number.” Only males that are 6 years or older can be hunted – an estimation made by the size of the horns – and the number to be hunted cannot exceed 10-20% of the observed population in each region. (The hunting guides note that hunters are not tempted by younger rams as they are going for the largest horns possible and those are, by definition, found on the oldest males. Males can live 9-12 years in the wild.) Based on the aerial survey of 2019, 18 trophy (harvest) permits were issued per year to the UMAS of BCS by SEMARNAT based on the technical and scientific advice of CONABIO. That number increased to 19 trophy permits per year based on the 2022 aerial survey. The next aerial survey will be conducted in December of 2025.

Once SEMARNAT issues the number of CITES permits to export trophies (CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) the UMAs work with brokers based in the United States to auction off the permits in places like Las Vegas and Reno. The brokers retain 15% of the permit fee and the remainder goes to the UMA and its ejido. The UMAs would like to see the auctions moved to BCS.

The horns and skin of the bighorn sheep shot by the hunter at 850 yards are still in the office of the technical team in La Paz. Issuance of the CITES permit for the trophy to be transported across international borders to the US-based hunter could take 3-4 months (SEMARNAT must also be consulted). CITES is a legally binding agreement between governments that works to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals or plants does not threaten the survival of the species. Only Mexico’s bighorn sheep population is listed on CITES Appendix II which covers species that are not necessarily threatened by international trade but that are deemed worthy of a close eye so that they do not slip into the highest category of endangerment, Appendix I. When weighing the permit to send this hunter his trophy they will carefully review, among other things, the report of the UMA technician who accompanied the hunt and took detailed notes on the geographical coordinates of where the sheep was hunted, estimated age, days taken to carry out the hunt and so forth. The technician also took biological samples for disease analysis.

Gabriela, Guillermo and the technical team for the UMAs all note that trophy hunting is extremely controversial in Mexico. Even some of the very officials whose offices support trophy hunting personally speak out against it. The IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, has long supported sustainable, properly managed trophy hunting in conservation when it provides incentives for people to conserve the trophy species and their habitats. Sacrificing a few for the many is a concept that will never unify humanity, but by the IUCN’s measure – and that of CONABIO, CITES and the UMAs – the bighorn sheep trophy program has been a success in BCS, for the species, its habitat, and for the local communities.

How the permit funds are used:
Del pago que se hace a las UMAS por la venta de los permiso para la caza de borrego cimarron el 70% es entregado a las ejidatarios dueños de las las tierras donde se encuentra la UMA y 30% es dedicado a la conservación, donde se realizan las siguentes actividades:

Actividades de conservación implementadas
Colocación de letreros, puertas de acceso
Placement of signs, gates
Censo aéreo
Aerial Census
Plan de Acción para la Conservación y manejo de las Sierras Borregueras de B.C.S.
(Con apoyo de SEMARNAT)
Limpieza y rehabilitación de aguajes
Cleaning and rehabilitation of Aguajes
Monitoreo y Vigilancia
Monitoring and surveillance
Capacitación
Training courses
Delimitación de las áreas de distribución e identificación de corredores biológicos
Delimitation of the areas of distribution and identification of biological corridors
Identificación de la problemática con la fauna feral
Identification of the problem with feral fauna
Entrega de reportes anuales a SEMARNAT
Activity Report
Construcción de corrales para el manejo de fauna feral
Construction of corrals for feral wildlife management
Programa de manejo de fauna feral
Program implementation of feral animal management
Mejoramiento de hábitat
Improvement of habitat
Diversificación de actividades: ecoturismo, cabañas, aprovechamiento cinegético de otras especies
Diversification of activities: ecotourism, cabins, hunting of other species

AFAR MAGAZINE: Is Zero-Waste Travel Actually Even Possible?

AFAR MAGAZINE: Is Zero-Waste Travel Actually Even Possible?

Travelers today are more conscious of their environmental footprint, even if it often seems abstract. But what about the trail of waste travelers create?

Todos Santos, Mexico, is beloved for its rugged coastline and wilderness.

Todos Santos is beloved for its rugged coastline and water. Josh Withers/Unsplash

The shimmering emerald cove beckons; reaching it requires a trek up the cacti-dotted cliffs under the Baja sun, then a scramble across boulders on a small beach. But if you arrive at the right time, the water is calm enough for a swim, and you may spot sea lions on the rocks or a whale in the distance. You might also, unfortunately, see a few plastic bottles.

This popular trail in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, became a favorite of mine during the nearly two years I was based there. Now the small town is grappling with the effects of enchanted visitors who end up staying (hello, me), and it’s trying to avoid going the way of other overdeveloped coastal areas—ones without the infrastructure to support rapid growth, thus ending up with overflowing landfills and waste that leaches into the ocean (hello, Tulum).

“How do we prevent ourselves from becoming just another overrun beach town?” Bryan Jáuregui says. She’s a founding member of Alianza Cero Basura – Zero Waste Alliance, a community-led initiative to implement a plan for a zero-waste future for Todos Santos and the neighboring town of El Pescadero. Jáuregui’s question has urgency: These towns are located in Baja California Sur, the least populated but fastest-growing state in Mexico. As the co-owner of Todos Santos Eco Adventures and Los Colibris Casitas boutique hotel, she calls it “enlightened self-interest” to take on her town’s waste problem.

This tension is not unique to Baja. Around the world, destinations are struggling to balance tourism and economic growth for locals while protecting their natural resources. And even though travelers are more conscious of their environmental footprints than ever, what can they realistically do about them? Is leaving behind zero waste during travel even possible?

Born out of the 1970s ethos of environmental advocacy, the zero-waste movement is focused on sending as little material waste to landfills as possible. The “five Rs” of a zero-waste lifestyle, coined by Bea Johnson in her book, Zero Waste Home, are the movement’s mantra: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot (i.e., compost).

A growing number of individuals are embracing these concepts at home: They are eschewing single-use plastics, purchasing bulk items at grocery stores, and taking their food scraps to community compost centers. It gets harder, however, to keep this mindset on the road: Most travelers eat out for most meals and, depending on where they go, don’t necessarily have access to potable drinking water. Travelers are inherently overconsumers.

In some places, tourists generate up to twice as much waste as residents due to the packaged goods they buy, including travel-size toiletries. Eight out of 10 tourists visit coastal areas, contributing to the 8 million tons of plastic that enters oceans and kills 100,000 marine animals a year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. But it’s more than plastic; often overlooked is food waste. The hotel industry alone produces 79,000 tons of food waste yearly. Cruise ships can generate about 1.3 pounds per person per day on average. Cutting down can make a significant difference, says Vishal Kumar, CEO of Waste Warriors, a nonprofit in the Indian Himalayan Region.

“The creation of less waste means less demand for the production, packaging, and distribution of goods, which results in reduced greenhouse gas emissions throughout the value chain,” Kumar says. When organic waste is dumped into landfills, it releases methane, which has 20 to 80 times more global warming potential than CO2. Aiming for zero waste, then, is a climate solution.

We don’t need 12 people doing zero waste perfectly each year. We need 12 thousand, or 12 million people doing it imperfectly. Court Whelan

In 2007, Natural Habitat Adventures eliminated plastic water bottles from their trips and became the world’s first carbon-neutral travel company. It then took on another ever-growing environmental issue: waste.

Twelve years later, in July 2019, the company led the world’s first zero-waste trip in Yellowstone National Park. To divert 99 percent of the trip’s waste—which would otherwise end up in a landfill—guests carried bamboo cutlery that they washed between meals and a compost bucket for all uneaten food scraps.

While Natural Habitat Adventures isn’t leading 100 percent zero-waste adventures anymore, that doesn’t mean the experiment failed. “We learned that zero waste is possible. However, it is indeed very resource- and time-intensive,” says Court Whelan, chief sustainability officer of Natural Habitat Adventures, of the 18 months researching and planning for the trip.

“I don’t think the extreme confines of zero-waste travel is the end goal. I think examples of zero waste, whether it’s on a certain trip or camp, leave an inspirational echo across the industry.” It’s more about instigating change, and any “waste-lessening movement” is moving toward the goal line, he adds.

“We don’t need 12 people doing zero waste perfectly each year. We need 12 thousand or 12 million people doing it imperfectly.”

One of the best ways travelers can work toward a zero-waste mindset on the road is to dig deeper into where their dollars are going.

Alianza Cero Basura created a way for travelers to support businesses in Todos Santos and El Pescadero that self-assess their waste-reductions impact with a directory of Waste Wise All Stars. Beyond using this guide to find local restaurants and hotels actively working to reduce their waste, travelers can fill up their water bottles at one of Alianza’s refill stations installed throughout town. Alianza also created the first community-led organic waste farm and research center in Baja California Sur; it produces soil-enhancing products and compost, diverting 60 percent of the town’s organic waste from the landfill.

Meanwhile, Norwegian cruise company Hurtigruten—which banned single-use plastics in 2018 and has introduced zero-emissions vehicles and hybrid-powered cruise ships—in April 2024 launched a zero-edible-food-waste program with a goal to, well, reduce food waste to zero grams per guest. Edible food waste from Hurtigruten’s Original Coastal Express ships, which sail along the coast of Norway, will be composted and sent to a local farm that will use it to cultivate products that Hurtigruten will use in its menus. “Farm to fleet to farm” is its goal.

Still, the most obvious and easiest way to create less waste is by refusing. Consider: The more things we acquire, the more things will become waste. On the road, think about what you need. Can you split dishes with your fellow travelers? Get bulk snacks for your road trip? Share some gear instead of everyone packing their own?

Another simple habit is employing reusables—and not just a water bottle. You can buy a zero-waste travel kit, or make one of your own, which could include a reusable tote bag (I carry my trusty Baggu bag on every trip); a reusable silverware kit that doesn’t look like camping gear; and bags and capsules to carry toiletries. My collection of silicone Stasher bags are for more than packing snacks; I use them to carry all my toiletries, which are poured into my magnetic, stackable Cadence Refillable Travel Capsules.

Pack light, and pack items that have multiple uses. Not only does doing so lessen your carbon footprint, but also it can save your sanity and budget. Instead of buying new gear for every trip, consider renting or buying used gear: On a ski trip in Aspen this year, I rented ski pants from Suit Yourself, a mobile ski clothes outfitter. Kit Lender rents outdoor gear and apparel, and Patagonia and REI let you buy and sell your clothing. (Check out AFAR’s guide to places to buy used clothing gear.) Root Adventures also discourages buying new gear by offering a subsidy for any pretrip gear repair, and it includes gear rentals in the trip price.

Mindsets change—maybe not overnight, but slowly, actions create momentum and conservation culture grows. One of the best ways to do this is to let your dollars do the talking, Whelan says. “Single-use is technically easier. Are we happier people because we are consistently able to make and do the easiest thing possible?”

Zero-waste travel is indeed complicated to attempt and even more difficult to adopt perfectly. When we travel, we’re always pushing ourselves—to climb that mountain, to make that plane connection, to attempt that phrase in Spanish. When we put the effort in, we’re rewarded. Leaving nothing behind is just another mindset to get used to.

Kathleen Rellihan is a travel journalist and editor covering adventure, culture, climate, and sustainability. Formerly Newsweek‘s travel editor, she contributes to outlets such as AFAR, OutsideTIMECNN Travel, and more.

This Little Light of Mine: Love From our Guests

This Little Light of Mine: Love From our Guests

WOW! We are so thrilled with the recent feedback we’ve had from guests and we’re excited to share some of it here. Read on to see what folks are saying or check out our instagram pageSpoiler Alert: Our guides, chefs and support staff are at the heart of everything we do and we couldn’t be more proud of our entire Todos Santos Eco Adventures family! Click here to read more about us.

“We have been all over the world with all kinds of companies, and this one is and always will be
one of our most favorite and cherished trips! We had the most amazing and unforgettable time
at Camp Cecil. What a fantastic operation and experience! Paulina was an exceptional guide, all
of the staff were so kind, friendly, helpful, accommodating, and fun to be around. The food was
unbelievably fantastic (we couldn’t believe how creative and delicious every single thing we ate
was and what the staff were able to come up with in a remote camp). The tents were fantastic,
the bathrooms were super nice, and of course the experiences we had were the absolute best.
Literally everything was perfect and I was so impressed with every single step of the
experience.” Maria B. Nov 2023

“Our guide Octavio was superb in every aspect! He is easily one of the top 5 guides we’ve ever
had anywhere in the world.” Erin M. March 2024

“I want to share with you that you really do have the best guides working with you at TOSEA.
Our excursions and activities were wonderful, and I really have to give an extra special thank
you to Guide Hugo and boat Captain Omar. What an incredible duo. They work so seamlessly
together. Omar is wonderfully passionate and dedicated to providing an incredible experience
on his panga and Hugo is quite possibly one of the best guides I have ever had anywhere in the
world. We just don’t quite have the words for how special they made the visit to the
island.” Kelly C., Jan 2024

“Thank you and your team again for a brilliant and enriching experience. Axel & Bernardo were
exceptional guides in their consummate professionalism, passion for the natural world and
unruffled patience.” Mia C. March 2024

“Our guide, Axel, was simply the best! So knowledgeable about everything in the sea, on land,
and in the air. And his kind, fun, and friendly demeanor made our days. Probably our favorite
part was the 3 nights at Camp Cecil on Isla Espíritu Santo. The snorkeling, kayaking, turtles,
manta rays, sea lions, bioluminescence, hikes…really everything about it was fantastic. We
were especially impressed with the delicious meals that Ricardo and team prepared on a 4-
burner stove in a tent!” Penny F. Jan 2024

“Don’t know how they do it, but every meal exceeded my expectations! They even cooked a
special meal for me since I don’t like fish, which I really appreciated!” Diana W. Feb 2024

“Our guide, Manuel, was superb. We have taken many guided trip and he ranks at the top:
knowledgeable, lively, kind, funny, flexible and able to “read” a group.” Josh O., Dec 2023.

“Martin, our chef at the Sierra Camp, was amazing and that was some of the best food we have
had anywhere.” Bev W., Feb 2024

Hugo is smart, mellow, accommodating, knowledgeable, energetic, enthusiastic, spiritual and
caring. His knowledge of the history, culture, plants, animals and other aspects of the peninsula
is tremendous. He has a perfect demeanor for handling a group.” Jack S. Jan 2024

“Axel is a fantastic guide. 10/10. Gracious, accommodating, friendly and knowledgeable. I’ll
request him again if I go on this trip again.” John J. Jan 2024

The guides were amazing. The food was amazing. I can’t really choose my favorite activity –
snorkeling with whale sharks, snorkeling with sea lions, the cooking class. It was all a lot of fun.”
Shelley J. Feb 2024

“I have traveled for many years and I think this trip connected all the activities in a unique way.
The trip was truly outstanding on every level. Sebastian was a fantastic guide, both very
knowledgeable and tuned in to our needs.” Jeff C., Feb 2024

“Our guide Sergio N. did an amazing job with our family of 8, orchestrating everyone’s interests
and activity level at all times, from the young teens up to an 80-year-old. His knowledge of the
land and sea, and his sharing of so many little secrets opened up the island to us and made it so
special. My heart wants to return back sometime soon.” Mark S. Dec 2023

“The food at Camp Cecil de la Isla was some of the best I have ever eaten-SUPER FANTASTIC!
HIGH compliments to Chef Ricardo and full respect for what he was able to do and provide in
such a tiny kitchen space! The menu was creative and fun and the presentation of the food was
FABULOUS. So many small details and I appreciated every little thought and action put toward
the food, camp, and our guides/crew. Our overall experiences will be forever in our hearts,
minds, and souls.” Tanya T. Dec 2023

Our guides, especially Andrea, were excellent and I have only the highest praise for them.
Andrea was knowledgeable, clear and patient. I also want to say that our boat captains were
the unsung heroes of our trip. We always felt safe and they certainly know how to approach
wildlife safely. Kudos to them all and five stars all around.” Bev W., Feb 2024

“Absolutely incredible experience! Amazing guides, excellent activities, incredibly well-
organized, and fun. From booking the trip until we said ‘hasta luego’ to our wonderful guide,
we had a ball, ate well and learned a lot about the Baja peninsula. Can I give more than 5
stars??” Dianne Z, Jan 2024

Seafood, Sustainability, and Sunsets: the Basics of Baja California Sur, Mexico

Seafood, Sustainability, and Sunsets: the Basics of Baja California Sur, Mexico

INSIDER GUIDES
by SARA IANNACONE DEC 7, 2023

Where to stay around Baja California Sur

In Todos Santos: Los Colibris Casitas

todos santos la paz hotel

Photo: Go La Paz/ColinRuggiero

Led by a husband-and-wife team pioneering sustainability efforts in Baja California Sur, the carbon-neutral Los Colibris Casitas is a haven for nature lovers and one of the most charming places to stay in Todos Santos. The privileged hilltop location has casitas in lush gardens, with excellent views of the Pacific and a neighboring palm grove. Rates start around $135 per night.

What to do in Baja California Sur

Go whale or bird watching

baja california sur gray whale todos santos

Photo: Go La Paz

One of the most magical features of Baja California Sur in Mexico is its rich biodiversity, both on land and in the water.

Between January and March, you can watch giant gray whales in the Pacific Ocean as they migrate south along the western coast of the Baja Peninsula. Trips leave from Todos Santos (about 45 minutes from Cabo) or La Paz, in which case your tour company will drive you across the peninsula.

Year-round, you can go bird-watching to meet frigate birds, roadrunners, kingfishers, hummingbirds, and more. It’s a good way to learn what names to put to the melodic beauties likely to serenade you in the mornings and lull you to sleep each evening.

Both these adventures are available through Todos Santos Eco Adventures, which operates trips leaving from Todos Santos. It’s a carbon-neutral tour company pioneering sustainable tourism in the region.

Booking through companies that think about their environmental impact, practice Leave No Trace principles, and use guides certified by NOLS is one of the best ways to protect the natural beauty of Baja California Sur, Mexico, and preserve it for the future.

Read the full article for inspiration here!

Dipping Into Nature: Mexico’s Baja California Sur with Austin Travels

Dipping Into Nature: Mexico’s Baja California Sur with Austin Travels

December, 2023

Espiritu Santo

Above me, a beagle-sized sea lion pup pinwheels through the blue water of the Sea of Cortez. A second darts past with a seagull feather in its mouth, and two more nibble on the tips of the fins I’m wearing.

Scuba diving with a colony of sea lions at Isla Ilotes, a rocky outcropping at the north end of a string of islands near La Paz, Mexico, feels a little like joining recess at the local elementary school. Although my school days are long gone, I’m still having a blast.

My visit is part of a nature-focused, five-day trip to Baja California Sur, in Mexico. I’m traveling solo, and my itinerary includes a night in the artists’ enclave of Todos Santos, two nights of camping on Isla Espiritu Santo, and a night at the posh Baja Club in La Paz before I head home. But this moment, with dozens of sea lions swirling around me, tops the highlights reel.

My guide has warned me not to grab or chase the creatures, but to let them come to me. And they do.

As I swim slowly into an underwater cave where a dozen animals have gathered, a sleek brown pup with blue marbles for eyes nips lightly on the sleeve of my wetsuit. I spin around, and another tugs on the scarf wrapped over my head. I laugh underwater, and they swim into the stream of diamond-like bubbles I exhale.

The sea lions seem thrilled to have visitors.

A night in Todos Santos in Baja California Sur

 

Todos Santos

Los Colibris Casitas is perched on a hillside on the outskirts of Todos Santos, in Baja California Sur. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

To get here, I caught a direct flight from Austin to the main airport in Cabo San Lucas. Then I made the hour-and-15-minute drive to the artists’ enclave of Todos Santos, where I stayed the night at Los Colibris Casitas. From the patio in front of my room at the boutique hotel, perched high on a bluff on the outskirts of town, I can see waves crashing onto the beach far below. Birds circle a fresh water estuary, and a forest of palm trees sways in the breeze. I want to get a better sense of my surroundings, so Sergio Jauregui, the owner of Los Colibris and Todos Santos Eco Adventures, volunteers to give me a tour.

 

Todos Santos

Todos Santos is an artists enclave in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Pam LeBlanc photo

We drive to the town’s center, where he gives me a history lesson as we walk the streets. A mission was built here in 1723, and the last battle of the Mexican-American War was fought nearby in 1848. For the next century, farmers grew sugarcane in the area, but when the town’s main spring dried up in 1950, people moved away.

Things changed again in 1981, when that spring revived. The government paved a road into town, bringing tourists. American surfers sought it out as an alternative to California’s crowded beaches. Then artists moved in, drawn by the golden light.

Today Todos Santos supports 27 galleries, several gourmet restaurants, and a smattering of hotels. The famous song by The Eagles comes to mind when we walk past a pale orange building called Hotel California. We admire murals in the cultural center, duck into an art gallery where tiny images of dancers twirl across colorful canvases, walk across the plaza, and poke our heads into a historic mission.

Onward to Isla Espiritu Santo, part of Baja California Sur

Espiritu Santo

Todos Santos Eco Adventures leads guided camping trips to Espiritu Santo. Pam LeBlanc photo

The next day, I catch a ride to La Paz. The hour-long trip takes me past mountains and thickets of tall cactus, where birds somehow manage to perch without stabbing their toes.

It’s start day for the Baja 1000 car race, a 1,000-mile off-road scramble through the desert that draws souped-up dune buggies, tricked-out pickup trucks and beat up Volkswagen Bugs. I watch a few roll down the starting ramp and speed down the oceanfront boulevard, but I’m more interested in what lies beyond.

From La Paz, it takes about 45 minutes by boat to reach Isla Espiritu Santo, a popular destination for eco tourists. Along the way, we pass a noisy colony of blue-footed boobies. The birds, which show off their teal-colored feet to impress the opposite sex, look almost cartoonish. Frigate birds, with long forked tails and hooked bills, wheel overhead. Rust-colored hills bristle with cardon cacti, their long prickly arms extended skyward, and layer-cake cliffs jut into the sea.

The boat pulls ashore in a cove, and we hoist our duffel bags onto the beach, where a crew has already set up tents. A bucket of water and a rug the size of a picnic table are arranged in front of each one, so we can rinse our feet before stepping inside. This is glamping, after all, and instead of a sleeping bag on the ground, we’ll be snoozing on real mattresses with sheets and pillows.

Camp Cecil

La Paz

Guests dip their toes in the surf at Camp Cecil on Isla Espiritu Santo. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

Our guide, Andrea Hinojos, gives us a tour of Camp Cecil, another arm of Todos Santos Eco Adventures. At the far end of the cove stands a portable bathroom. There’s a solar shower, too, and, at the other end of the beach, a seating area complete with a cushy sofa. While the kitchen staff works on lunch, Hinojos briefs us on camp life.

We can use the kayaks or swim when we want, but hiking isn’t allowed past the dunes. But the ocean is the focus, anyway.

Espiritu Santo

The sun rises over Camp Cecil on Espiritu Santo. Pam LeBlanc photo

That first night, just three other guests shared  the camp with me ––- Joe Oliver and Christine McEnery of Carmel Valley, California, and their friend Rob Goldman of Philadelphia. We hit it off immediately, sitting on beach chairs with our toes dangling in the surf and admiring our surroundings.

McEnery tells me she was looking for a natural experience when she decided to come to the camp.

“I wanted unspoiled nature and it’s not so easy to find that,” McEnery says. She loves outdoor adventure, just like me. “It’s the visuals – looking at the desert in one direction and thinking you’re in the (American) Southwest, and in the other direction it looks like the Caribbean.”

Her husband agrees. “It’s such a departure from work-a-day life of staring at a computer screen,” Oliver says. “It’s such a treat to see great views and have them untouched by developers.”

Diving into the Sea of Cortez

Espiritu Santo

Kayakers glide along a cove on Espiritu Santo, near La Paz, Mexico. Pam LeBlanc photo

The ocean around the island is part of a marine park, and we spend a lot of time exploring it. We snorkel among pufferfish and angelfish. Sea turtles the size of car tires glide beneath us. I dive down to get a closer look at a starfish.

One evening, we push off in kayaks, and paddle past mangroves flush with chirping birds. I can’t take my eyes off a pair of pelicans sitting on a rocky island as the sun sets behind them.

“It’s very beautiful,” Hinojos says, then references ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, who spent time in the area. “It’s secluded. There are no people living here so it’s like a virgin island in the ‘Aquarium of the World.’”

And the food is far from what I’d eat on a regular camping trip. Instead of freeze-dried meals or hotdogs, chefs bring out trays of grilled fish, nachos, ceviche, and flank steak. For breakfast we have huevos rancheros and fresh fruit, and every evening we sample a new cocktail and snacks.

A night in La Paz

I love ocean swimming so much that the guides arrange one last outing before I head back to the mainland.

I leave my snorkel in the boat and dive down deep, touching the white sand on the bottom. It’s here, with the turtles and angelfish, that I feel most at home.

But finally, my water taxi arrives. I towel off and let the wind dry my hair as we speed back to civilization. In La Paz, I check into the Baja Club, then take some time to stroll along the beachfront. That night, I climb the stairs to the rooftop bar, where I sip a margarita and stare at the islands in the distance.

I’m officially spoiled.

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