by Peter Breslin
Just when you think you know Baja and what it has to offer, the peninsula presents a surprising new adventure. For the past few years, I’ve been exploring the islands off both coasts of the peninsula, in conjunction with botanical field work toward a PhD in environmental science. After years of passing through Guerrero Negro and repeatedly thinking to myself, “I really should take that trip to Isla Cedros,” I finally made the necessary advance plans.
I had been reading about Isla Cedros for several years due to the presence of many rare, island endemic cactus and succulent species. There are a few species of plants on Cedros that only grow there; if you want to see them in habitat, you have to visit the island. This phenomenon of island endemism is common in Baja, especially in the cactus family. It means that botanizing the peninsula with an eye to seeing all of the species makes island trips necessary.
The island, part of the Islas del Pacífico de Baja California Biosphere Reserve, is the largest island off the Pacific coast of Baja, at about 135 square miles. It is inhabited year round at a few locales with an estimated population of 1,350, most notably the village of Pueblo Cedros itself, the economy of which is based on the salt exporting business in Guerrero Negro as well as abalone and lobster fishing industries. There are also a few small villages, accessible only by boat, including tiny Punta Norte, the main goal of this botanical adventure.
Our staging area for this excursion to the island was the reliable Hotel Ballenas in Guerrero Negro, with comfortable and clean rooms (Calle Victoria Sanchez 10, Tel. 011-52-1-615-157-01-16). We stayed there the night before the plane trip and the night we returned, and enjoyed excellent adobada and carne asada tacos at Tacos El Poblano, on the main street in Guerrero Negro, always an amazing culinary indulgence after a few nights camping.
Although you can make arrangements to get to Isla Cedros by boat, especially from Punta Eugenia north of Bahia Tortugas, which is only about 14 miles south as the crow flies from the southern tip of the island, it is quicker and more convenient to fly. Two airlines, Aereo Calafia and Aereo Servicio Guerrero serve the route from Guerrero Negro to the airport on the island, both with single prop small plane service a few times a week. Round trip, flights are about $104 US, with an allowance for a single checked bag of 18 pounds and a carry on weighing 3 pounds. Extra charges apply for more bags and special gear, such as fishing tackle or surfboards. Both airlines allow advance reservations either on the internet or over the telephone. Be sure to plan your trip with advance tickets, as flights regularly fill up a week or two in advance. It was logistically interesting trying to get our backpacks down to the weight limit, but to also have enough for our planned two night camping excursion to the north of the island.
The flight between Guerrero Negro and Cedros takes about 45 minutes and provides spectacular views of the estuaries and dunes outside Guerrero Negro as well as Isla Natividad, the smaller island between the peninsula and Isla Cedros. Once at the airport on the island, it is easy to hire a taxi for about $10 to get to Pueblo Cedros, the village a few miles northeast. Ask the taxi driver to take you directly to Hotel Zam-Marr, a well appointed place with a few inexpensive rooms (approx. $45 US) and hot water, near everything in town, geared mostly to sport fishing excursions. If you are looking for good food in Pueblo Cedros, there are a few restaurants specializing in excellent fresh seafood, as befits a Pacific island.
Our main goal for this visit was the densely vegetated northern point of the island, Punta Norte. We made arrangements with Pelon Toba and his son, Toro, for a boat ride along the coast (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org). For about $275 US, we got a great ride that took about an hour, were dropped off and camped for two nights along the coast north of the tiny village of Punta Norte, and were picked up again (on time!) for the return ride. Fishing along the way would probably result in some great catches to stock up for campsite grilling, but we were exclusively on the hunt for plants to see and photograph. Along the way, we did see a huge California Sea Lion colony and a few elephant seals. An elephant seal also kept noisy company with us on the beach, near our campsite.
Once at Punta Norte, an excellent day hike is up the arroyo to the old mine, and then along the trail from the abandoned mine site to the crests of the mountains looming over the western side of the island. At the tops of these crests reside the endemic pine trees from which Isla Cedros derives its name, a case of Spanish explorers mistaking the pines for cedars. Also along the crest are rare endemic succulents and great views of the Pacific. Allow about 3-5 hours to make this trek, which can be strenuous. Another great way to spend a few days at Punta Norte: surf fishing, hanging out on the glorious, untouched coast and watching the sea lions swim past.
Back in Pueblo Cedros, we had a day to wait for our return flight to Guerrero Negro, which afforded a little more exploring of the town. Bring all of the pesos you will need for the taxi, lodging, meals, supplies and side trips as there are no banks or atms currently in the town and credit cards are generally not accepted. It is possible to withdraw money from your checking account at the telegraph office to the south of town, but the commission is somewhat steep and the exchange rate is weak. The people of Pueblo Cedros were great hosts and the town has the feel of old Baja, unhurried and quiet. Boarding the plane to leave, we were already thinking of when we could return to the isolated paradise of Isla Cedros.
Peter Breslin has traveled the length of the Baja California peninsula by car 10 times in the past 4 years and more than 20 times in the past decade, attempting to locate, study and photograph as many of the cacti of that botanically rich area as possible. Along the way, he enjoys camping at remote, undeveloped beaches, eating unforgettable Baja seafood, visiting the islands and hiking the central mountains. He has been published in Cactus & Co., Kakteen und Andere Sukkulenten and The Cactus and Succulent Journal. He began study toward a Ph.D. in Environmental and Life Sciences at Arizona State University in fall of 2014.