How would you like to go back in time to visit southern California, as it was 100 years ago? Imagine unspoiled desert, soaring mountains, and the Pacific teeming with fish, lobster, abalone, elephant seals, sea lions, whales, and sea birds. Those days may be gone in California, USA, but not in Baja California, Mexico. All of this, plus a slice of friendly Mexican culture, can still be found on the remote and vibrant islands of Cedros and San Benitos.
Located in the Pacific Ocean, 310 miles from the Mexico-US border, off the western coast of Baja California, Cedros Island stretches 24 miles along its north to south axis. Characterized by rugged terrain with steep slopes, the island’s vegetation includes coastal scrub, chaparral, pine forest, juniper scrub, and sand dune scrub.
The two towns, Cedros Town and El Morro, are home to most of the island’s 4,500 inhabitants. Fishing for lobster and abalone in Cedros Town, and salt transportation in El Morro comprise the only industries. Tourism, still in its infancy here, brings a much-needed addition to the local economy.
Cedros Outdoor Adventures (COA) is a new eco-tour and sport-fishing company, run by San Benito Island native Raphael Munoz, and marine biologist Jose Angel Sanchez. According to Sanchez, “Our first concern is that our clients have a safe and enjoyable adventure experience.” However, he stresses, COA’s ultimate goals are to stimulate the local economy and protect the region’s natural resources. “We make sure to buy local goods, use local services, and hire local people. And, when locals benefit from sustainable industries, their interest in protecting the area’s natural resources increases.”
According to Sanchez, who has worked in conservation and local economic development for over 20 years, this strategy has proven effective for turning communities into advocates for conservation. Meanwhile, guests benefit from the opportunity to visit an exotic destination and enjoy a variety of outdoor activities, including snorkeling, photography, hiking, fishing, mountain biking and animal and bird watching. Unlike your typical resort or tourist destination, the visitors to Cedros and San Benitos also have the satisfaction of knowing that they are helping to protect the islands for future inhabitants and guests.
Cedros boasts a new hotel, the Zam-Mar, with all the modern conveniences including a café with a charming patio, and Internet service. Two restaurants serve food in the local style – rich in fresh seafood. These developments make it an ideal time to visit Cedros – before everyone else does!
Creature comforts aside, the real reason to visit Cedros is simple: its spectacular and unspoiled natural environment. Desert plants, many of which are endemic (found only on this island), seem to struggle to survive in the desert climate of the lower elevations. However, in the mountains (highest point 3,950 ft), aggregations of endemic Cedros’ pine and oak trees make up small forests that survive mostly from the regular fog-borne moisture.
Endemic species of animals include Cedros’ mule deer, Cedros’ brush rabbit, Cedros’ horned lizards and Cedros’ Pack rat, among others. The surrounding waters teem with Pacific marine species that have been reduced or eliminated near more populated areas.
For this reason, the waters off this island are a preferred destination for most of the San Diego fleet for long-range fishing trips. They’ve known for decades that the fishing in Cedros is among the best in the region. Of course, the locals know this better than anyone; the co-op Pescadores Nationales de Abulon takes an impressive quantity of abalone, lobster and fish each year, in accordance with quotas set by the Mexican government.
The reason for this area’s abundant fish and marine mammal populations is the combination of intensive upwellings and the favorable Pacific winds that emerge at Punta Eugenia and Punta Baja, just in between are the boundaries of the Bahia Vizcaino. An up welling is cold water brought from the depth of the ocean. This water, particularly rich in the nutrients that attract marine life, creates a ripple effect all the way up the food chain to the big predators, including game fish. During summer, water temperatures are warmer and even more tropical species move into the area to seek their prey.
Sixteen miles west of Cedros Island lie the San Benitos, a group of three islands, which together make up 847 hectares. Nobody lives on San Benitos Islands full-time; though up to 70 people live in the small fishing camp on the west island during abalone season. A lighthouse, dating back to 1934, overlooks western San Benitos Island. This island, the most diverse in species and topography, also has one of the most interesting routes for hiking. The trail circumnavigates the island, from the fishing village to the lighthouse on the western side, returning to the east.
During their respective breeding seasons, big colonies of elephant seals and sea lions fill almost every inch of beach on San Benitos Islands. The east island is the only breeding colony of the rare Guadalupe fur seal outside of Guadalupe Island. On the soft terrain, there are thousands of holes where species like storm petrels, shearwaters, auklets and murrelets nest. The total nesting population of this group of birds is estimated to be over 2.5 million. In 1999, an effort to eliminate the European rabbits introduced to these islands in the 1990s was successful. Because of this effort, many species of plants, including endemics, are returning from the seed bank, or surviving roots.
This remote but outstanding fishing and eco-tour adventure destination is now accessible year-round. Cedros Outdoor Adventures, the sole authorized company authorized by the Mexican government to provide expeditions to these islands, can fly you there for same-day fishing or exploring. According to Jose Angel Sanchez, “In order to ensuring the safest, easiest and fastest trip possible, we meet our clients in San Diego, drive them to Ensenada then fly to Cedros. This helps alleviate any worries our clients may have about crossing the border on their own.” Packages include all transportation, lodging, meals and bi-lingual guides.
By Melanie Lamag