There’s giddy wonder arriving to a new island by boat, no matter how brief the journey—those moments when it’s all sky and passing sea before a tantalizing new shoreline comes into view feel like a story about to be told.
And island arrivals feel more transporting than ever right now.
That was my perception, at least, during a recent trip with my family to La Paz in Baja California Sur, where the highlight was two magical nights we spent surrounded by the Sea of Cortez and all of its wondrous wildlife on Isla Espiritu Santo at Camp Cecil.
I’d spied the uninhabited island from the mainland during hikes near Balandra Beach. Isla Espiritu Santo lies just 18 miles north of La Paz, surrounded by the waters Jacques Cousteau famously called the “world’s aquarium.” Crowned with cardón cactuses and home to a smattering of feral goats and a few seasonal fishing camps that have been grandfathered in, it feels infinitely more remote than the 40-minute cruise over from the mainland implies.
Two honeymooners from Mexico City and a pair of friends from California were among the small group of guests on our private boat shuttle to the camp, during which we stopped to admire a nesting colony of 2,000 frigatebirds that soared like kites overhead, strutted atop rocks and gazed indifferently our way.
As we approached the camp—its white tents appearing mirage-like with the desert backdrop lapped by turquoise waters—the captain steered into a neighboring cove. There, green turtles surfaced all around us as if playing a game of whack a mole—cheekily ducking back under before you could document them with your phone.
By then, we’d lost cell reception entirely. And it hardly mattered. Minutes later, when I stepped off the boat onto the sweep of sand at El Gallo Bay, home to Camp Cecil, my soul synced to island time.
The camp’s eight waterfront canvas tents sit ten mellow strides (I counted with the kids) back from the calmly lapping waters of the sheltered cove and feel like luxury hotel accommodations inside. Plush king beds are pulled taut with starched white linens and floor-to-ceiling screened doors bring the views streaming in.
Our front porch was two lawn chairs set atop an outdoor carpet on the sand with unobstructed water views (just eight steps from the water’s edge, my son let me know).
Meals and socializing with other guests (remember that?) take place in the camp’s main tent, an open-air, shaded affair with tables and couches angled to maximize the views. Happy hour starts an hour before sunset and is accompanied by the food and drink you’ve come to Mexico to enjoy (read: margaritas, flopping fresh ceviche, and the like).
It was March when I visited—the camp opens in October and closes around the end of June—and the chance to be outside chatting with new friends on vacation felt like something brand new again, as careful as we were with keeping the now standard six feet of social distance and making ritual use of those hand sanitizer stations that have found their way even into the great outdoors here.
And Camp Cecil’s outdoor environments are, indeed, great.
Two-day, two-night itineraries are the norm at the camp, although guests are welcome to stay longer. It’s amazing all you can pack in, and that’s mostly thanks to the dedicated camp guides ushering you from one incredible activity to the next (tip them well, especially in these times, it goes without saying).
Camp Cecil assigns at least one naturalist guide to every eight guests (the island accommodates just 16 guests at a time). And since we were such a small group during our visit, we had Manuel Rodriguez, an entertaining and informative La Paz native, pretty much to ourselves.
On our first afternoon, bellies full from lunch, he told us it was great timing to slip into our wetsuits for an adventure on Los Islotes, 20 minutes by boat from the camp.
And if anything can motivate me to yank on neoprene after gorging on tostadas and guacamole, it’s a colony of 700 sea lions barking, grunting and angling for the best position to dry their fur in the Baja sun.
For years, I’d heard about this place famous for interactions with sea lions—about how the energetic pups nip playfully at your fins and swim corkscrews around you, making you feel like precisely the awkward land lubber that you are.
But nothing could prepare me for slipping off the boat and into the swimming pool-clear water, starting at the bellowing bark of an alpha male herding his harem nearby, and finning into a sea cave to spot a tawny-furred, big eyed pup staring back my way. For all the wonder underwater (read: sea lions everywhere), it was equally amazing to float on my back in the water and stare up at the spiky rocks covered with sea birds and more sea lions.
My husband and I took shifts snorkeling and staying on the boat with our young sleeping kids, lulled by the rocking boat, who found other things to love when we were back on land at Camp Cecil.
For my son, 4, trips to the camp’s compost toilet—where he relished throwing wood chips into the “potty” any chance he got — may well be what he remembers most about our Baja vacation. The entire camp runs on solar power and is leave no trace, providing a fully sustainable experience (Camp Cecil’s parent company, Todos Santos Eco Adventures, which has a mountain camp in Baja California Sur, too, is the only Mexican tour operator that’s a member of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council).
My daughter delighted at using her headlamp to patrol Camp Cecil’s sandy trails after dark, scouting for babisuris–wily ring-tailed cats that look like a cartoon cross between a raccoon and a lemur.
My husband, a Caribbean boy, took every moment he could to paddle a SUP (a fleet of them are at the ready, along with kayaks) out on his own, exploring desert-meets-sea landscapes he’d never seen.
The slow pace of camp life is what I loved best. In between scheduled activities like snorkeling amongst clouds of wrasse on nearby reefs or sunset hikes, we’d explore the sea caves at the end of the beach or paddle to nearby bays, where we’d glide past white-bellied pelicans and peer into the crystalline water to spot sergeant majors patrolling the shallows.
At night, after a delicious three-course meal (including seafood delivered right to the camp by local fisherman), we laid on our backs atop carpets spread out in the sand. The naturalist used her laser to trace the brightest constellations I’ve seen, telling stories across the sky.
After we’d walked back along the shoreline to our tent with the kids and zipped ourselves in for the night, I told them we were all made of stars, too, and they giggled.
In a place like Camp Cecil, it was easy to feel it was true.