Around Isla Espmritu Santo

Kayaking the Sea of Cortez
By Andromeda Romano-Lax
  |  Gorp.com

Given the way that La Paz has so wholeheartedly embraced its modern role as a capital city, its past is a little hard to find. Was this really the place where mutineer Fortzn Jiminez and his crew landed in 1533, only to be killed by natives for trying to rape the women and loot the pearls of La Paz Bay? Was this the place that Cortez landed in 1535, lured by the rumors of those same pearls? Were there really once Indians here, who according to one missionary dove for pearls from their dugout canoes, suffering great headaches, until by the fifth day their ears bled? Were there really pirates who hid in the natural harbors here, waiting out hurricane season and hiding from Spanish ships?

What is difficult to find in dusty libraries, and even more difficult to imagine with one's own eyes, can still be found in words, anecdotes, and place names. Take Pichilingue Bay, for instance, the modern site of the ferry terminal and public beach. The word"pechelingue" was an old term for pirate, derived from the name of the home port of Flemish freebooters: Vlissingen. The word for the southerly summer breeze, "coromuel," may be a corruption of the name of the pirate Cromwell, who in legend sailed out with the southerly late afternoon breeze and returned the next day with the northwesterlies. The kayaker has much to learn from local legend.

With our romantic visions unsatisfied by these tantalizing hints, we headed for Tecolote to start our kayak trip; there, we discovered an amazing thing. Though the summer crowds throng, and the traffic of La Paz spills all the way over to this small beach, it stops there. Espmritu Santo Island, just across the channel, seems to be in its own world; in the past, perhaps.

"My grandfather found skulls, human skulls, in a cave on one of the peaks there," a Mexican man told us, pointing to the island.

"Pirates?" I asked.

He smiled."Well, there have been stories of treasure, of gold . . . "

Paddling into the Past

Once on the island, Holy Spirit Island as it is called, we began to imagine legends for ourselves. Caves dot the southeast shore, and striated cliffs loom farther up the east side, obscuring the island's interior. On the west, there are at least 13 coves, each one of them a perfect hiding place for pirates, waiting for well-heeled yachties to pass by and be snared. In one cove, we found the foundation of an old building, which a fisherman told us had once been part of a pearling operation.

Here, away from the noise and bustle of La Paz, one could easily imagine Indians in dugout canoes, conquistadors appearing on the horizon out of the coppery haze of sunset, and treasures being wrested from the sea.

And where there were no pirates, or legends waiting to be discovered, we nonetheless found incredible beauty. Espmritu Santo has some of the finest beaches in Baja, the eeriest multi-hued bluffs, and the most alluring campsites, guarded by high, cacti-studded slopes and backed by thickly vegetated arroyo valleys.

We left the island only after our food, water, and time ran out. From a remote beach on Espmritu Santo, where only two of us had shared a wide stretch of white sand, we crossed back over to Tecolote on the mainland, where perhaps a hundred people all huddled on no larger a beach. Far from the city, we'd found what we were seeking — perhaps not pirates or authentic treasure, but certainly the most beautiful pearl the Cortez has to offer.


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