Playa Ensenada Grande, Isla Partida, BCS

Hiking: ~5 mi / ~1000 ft. climbing
Home: Playa Ensenada Grande campsite

No kayaking today, so that also meant no one needed to break down camp; two nights in one location is a treat when bike-touring, and it translates equally-well to kayak-touring.

Around breakfast we discussed the impending arrival of new group members, who would be “replacing” Paul and Meredith (and Joaquin) as new 4-day tourers joining us for the back half of our 7-day tour. I’m sure I’ve written before about my admiration for how deeply the TV series ‘Lost’ dug into the theme of tribalism, but here, on an actual island, its message would be even more relevant. In the show, one of the initial conflicts is between two groups of survivors of a crashed plane that split in half on the way down. Their division into front and back halves was random (based on seat assignments on their plane), but once sorted that way, they developed strong bonds within each half, which then led them to illogically-but-understandably see the opposite half as “others”, outsiders not to be trusted.

So on our real-world island, it’s likely that our latent tribal instinct would, unless we consciously fought it, bias us against our new arrivals even if by objective measures they were just as cool as our departing friends. It honestly seems a bit unfair to the new arrivals for BOA to introduce them to an existing group that all started together and had already bonded over four days, but at least we all seemed committed to suppressing that tribal instinct as best we could. And anyway, we still had most of a day to enjoy with our current tribe.

Morning at camp.
Fancy sailboat still posing nicely in the morning.
Sunrise coming late over the steep walls of the island to the east of our camp.

First up was another hike, this one a bit more ambitious as we would attempt to head up the arroyo behind the beach and climb all the way up to the ridge where we would be able to see down to the sea on the eastern side of the island. We got a bit of a late start, the valley wasn’t nearly as shady as yesterday’s hike, and there were a lot of large rocks to scramble over. Partway through, Rett, Meredith, and Suzie decided it wasn’t worth it and turned back. That left me, Chino, Ayuko, Dave, and Joaquin pushing onward in more of an athletic event, with Ayuko, the smallest of our entire group, impressively setting the challenging pace. Still, we failed to make it to the ridge before Chino decided that we needed to be heading back. Too bad, because the hike itself wasn’t nearly as visually-interesting as yesterday’s tight valley. However, it did give Chino a chance to reveal another one of his incomparable skills: three times he would somehow spy one of a hundred different rocks we were walking over, pick it up, and show it to be a stone tool created by a prehistoric inhabitant of the island. Each time, after showing us the tool and explaining its creation/usage, he would walk up the slope a bit and hide it out of the way. Preserving history for future generations, and showing again that his knowledge about the island is equaled by his respect for it.

Our group headed up the valley into the island’s interior.
Another outdoor-but-shaded classroom for Professor Chino’s lesson.
A view back down to our side of the water from high up the trail.

The main reason we had to hurry back was because there was a much-higher priority for the day: swimming with sea lions! For this, we all (including the 5 just-arrived “others”) piled into the panga with our snorkeling gear ready to go, and motored over to Los Islotes, dramatic castle-like rocks that make up the final tiny islands at the northern end of the chain. These rocks are covered with sea lions, which we’ve seen in many places down the coast, but it was surprising how much more “wholesome” the colony felt here, far from any human activity, compared to the “urban” populations we’ve seen around harbors. Maybe it was the easy visibility of their swimming forms in the clear water: it showed us a side to them (besides their blubbering, lazy, loudmouthed on-shore versions) that is usually hidden from us. And even their loudmouthed hollering seemed to be in a different dialect, featuring some vocal sounds in their repertoire we’d never heard from other sea lions.

Swimming sea lion.
Snuggling cute sea lions.
A pair of swimming sea lions.

Watching them swim near the boat was already exciting, but next, we’d take the excitement another three or four levels up and actually get in the water with them! There were a lot of snorkeling/diving tour groups on-site besides our own, so we all needed to stick together in our own pod of swimmers. Which was good, because Rett, who normally is the comfortable swimmer and wildlife-encountering enthusiast, suddenly started freaking out. Not because of the sea lions explicitly, but because the water was deep enough that we couldn’t see the bottom, and her incomprehensible love of shark movies was filling that darkness with imagined terrors. Meanwhile I felt totally comfortable and amazed by my surroundings, even if I had to swim really carefully to keep my legs from cramping up.

Suddenly Chino (of course) exclaimed “right behind Neil!” I turned myself around as fast as I could, face under the waterline, and there she was ten feet away: a fluidly-dancing sea lion tumbling gracefully in the shafts of sunlight penetrating the surface, like an ultra-high-definition clip straight out of a nature documentary. Wow!

Then it was time for us to swim through a narrow rock arch to the opposite side of the island. We could only fit two-by-two, so I took Rett’s hand and we glided forward together. A rock arch above the water is an incredible and dramatic thing to simply take a photo of. Being able to swim through one is something I never imagined I would do, and it was far more incredible and dramatic than the surface-level photo suggests. The sheer walls on both sides continued straight down below the water, leaving this deep, colorful crevasse that we could magically hover above.

The arch cutting through Los Islotes.

Then, as we hovered in this wild shelter, faces straight down into the water, a sea lion pup passed directly below us. He paused for a couple seconds, looked directly up at us with his enormous dark eyes, curious, and then continued on his way in the opposite direction. A few seconds later, a larger one (his mother?) rumba’ed her way by below us as well. Communing with wild creatures in a place this natural and unspoiled is a strange trigger for memories of the futuristic metropolises of The Fifth Element and Star Wars, but their 3-dimensional layers of flying cars are the best reference my brain can make to the unorthodox positioning that these waters enabled two alien species to interact in.

Once through the arch, there was then some incredible plant-filled coral to explore (another thing that would have made this visit a top-class experience even if the sea lions had all taken the day off), but the waves were really churning, so rather than risk getting bashed into the coral by the unpredictable changes in water-level, we all turned around and made our way back through the arch. No furry visitors this time, but that just let us isolate our attention on the otherworldly physical environment.

Back on the calmer side, we had a moment of traded roles, with nearby sea lions on the rocks looking down at us in the water (probably thinking we look equally awkward and ugly in the water as we do on land), and then we saw another pair of females cavorting together underwater in an attempt to show us how it’s done. After what felt like too brief of a time, it was time to get back in the boat, where I needed to get Chino to remove my flippers from my feet, because any attempt to do so on my own would cause my hamstring to contract in uncontrollable pain. And I was again left shivering, with my finger gone numb. But those were prices I would pay every time to experience such a place in a way that I never imagined I would have done without my wife convincing me to pay the dollar price to do this tour.

Returning to our camp from the sea lion encounter. Sometimes the water, sand, and sunlight just combine to say “hey, you should really take a picture of us”.

With that final bit of shared-experience bonding under our belts, it was time to say our final goodbyes to Paul, Meredith, and Joaquin. We’d barely even had a chance to meet the new arrivals, but with one of them being a 9-year-old boy who spent the entire boat ride to Los Islotes performatively professing his fear of sea lions, it was already feeling like our illogical tribalism would not be the only reason we’d be feeling the loss of our three new friends.

The OGs (L-R): Chino, Dave, Suzie, Rett, Paul, Elizabeth, Neil.
Joaquin, Meredith, Ayuko, Jorge.
Departing secondary-guide Joaquin, arriving secondary-guide Llendi, Paul, Meredith, and our incredible crew (Edgar, Chino, and new captain Sergio)
A heartfelt goodbye between Chino, a god amongst Espiritu Santo tour guides, and Joaquin, the apprentice with god-like potential but Greek-tragedy complications?
Goodbye! We wish you were staying!

With new guests now on-hand, those of us here from the start got to sit on the beach with some beers and enjoy the new spectator-sport of “watching other people practice wet-exits from the kayak”. Much more-enjoyable than dunking yourself upside-down in the water! Chino then spent a good amount of time out there with Jorge, helping him to advance his already-impressive skills by learning to lean his kayak to the limit (but not past it). I could tell that Chino gets understandably excited by the chance to teach beyond-the-basics to motivated-learners like Jorge.

Then the new people (and most of the old people except Rett and I) went out fairly late in the day for a paddle to a nearby beach for some more snorkeling. At the last minute before departing, Chino ran up to us near the cooler and grabbed a beer to take out on the kayak, something we hadn’t seen him do before. Maybe it was just because it was late in the day and he wanted some caloric hydration, but something about the look he gave us suggested that if even the god-like Chino needed an elixir, we might need to work really hard to suppress our tribalism. On the other hand, another member of our tribe reminded us that there is much hope and potential that can come when tribes mix peacefully in the season of plenty.

Rett and I just decided to just have a relaxing afternoon on the beach, with Rett doing some stretching and coloring. I eventually went out on my own for a more-relaxed no-flippers, no-wetsuit repeat of yesterday’s shallow-water snorkel, where, operating in minimal-movement-mode, I startled both myself and a bug-eyed balloonfish when I unknowingly nearly touched its camouflaged blocky body before it darted away from the rock I was feeling my way across.

Rett’s impressive coloring work in Ayuko’s book, a skill she surprised me with 10 years into knowing her.

Dinner was pretty late with the kayakers not returning until it was nearly dark. As we headed to our tent, Rett randomly sang something her and Paul were singing last night, the title line to James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” to no one in particular (or maybe to the last light of our beach). Given her stylized semi-strained matching of Blunt’s vocal, I instead misheard it as a random collection of Spanish words, “Yo quiero Paul”. Then I did the translation in my head (I’m good enough to mishear things as Spanish now, but not yet translate them on the fly) and realized it actually would have not only been a coherent sentence (meaning “I want Paul”), but it also would have effectively communicated exactly the feeling she was having! Whoa. But, party-nights like last night were now behind us for a while, and not just because of our reformulated group: we were all in bed before 10pm, as we have nine miles to kayak tomorrow!

Last light at Playa Ensenada Grande.


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