Only an hour ride from La Paz, Mexico via panga boat, you’ll arrive at a desert island paradise. Isla Espíritu Santo, often called the Jewel of the Sea of Cortez, is a small, rocky island with over a dozen white sand beaches surrounded by water so clear you can see the colorful fish from above the surface. The island’s name means Holy Spirit, which seems fitting for a place that leaves you feeling cleansed and renewed by its magical mix of solitude, sun, sand, and saltwater.
Isla Espiritu Santo is a protected, deserted island, but it almost had a much different fate. In the 1990s, a real estate developer had plans to build out a large casino. Fortunately, a group of conservations rallied together to purchase the land and donated it back to Mexico. Espíritu Santo Island is now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and protected as part of the Flora and Fauna Protection Area of the Gulf of California Islands.
All of our days in La Paz were a thrill, and the afternoon we spent out in the Sea of Cortez with Punta Baja Tours exploring Isla Espiritu Santo was no exception.
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What to bring with you on an Isla Espiritu Santo boat tour
The easiest way to visit Isla Espiritu Santo is with a tour company. Many companies offer Isla Espiritu Santo tours, and we had a great experience with Punta Baja Tours. Punta Baja provided snorkel gear, a life jacket, water and drinks, and a simple lunch of sandwiches and what looked like a never-ending bucket of fresh ceviche. Here’s what you’ll want to bring with you:
Swimsuit – You’ll go from the boat to snorkeling to lunch on the beach, so it’s best to wear a swimsuit if you’re planning on enjoying the water.
Wetsuit – You can rent a shorty wetsuit from Punta Baja Tours for $150 MXN (about $8 USD). Or, bring your own if you have one. I brought along one a 2/1 mm shorty wetsuit like this, and Aaron brought a neoprene jacket like this. We took this tour in May, and the water was still pretty chilly when we stopped to snorkel at Los Islotes. We were only in the water for about 15 minutes which I wish was longer. Since it was so quick, I would say you don’t need a wetsuit if you’re going in the late spring and summer months, but a thin wetsuit is nice to have just to make it a little more comfortable in colder water.
Towels – We always bring these compact microfiber towels when we travel. The tour company does not provide towels, so you’ll definitely want to bring your own.
Windbreaker/sweater – Though Baja weather is warm and sunny, it started to feel pretty chilly on the boat getting full blasts of the wind. I definitely wish I’d brought along a windbreaker or sweater, but wrapped myself up in my towel to stay warm.
Sun protection – It’s a pretty long day out on the water, so wear a long sleeve shirt or rash guard, hat, sunglasses, and reef-safe sunscreen. We’ve shared why using only non-nano zinc oxide sunscreen is so important to the survival of the coral reefs here if you want to learn more. Our favorite reef-safe sunscreen is made by Raw Elements, which you can purchase on their website here (use code NOMANBEFORE10 for 10% off) or on Amazon here.
Isla Espiritu Santo tour with Punta Baja
Our Isla Espiritu Santo tour with Punta Baja left from Playa Plinguiche, which is about 30 minutes north of La Paz on Highway 11. Punta Baja offers pick-up and drop-off at hotels in La Paz if you didn’t rent a car or don’t want to drive yourself. Tours cost $1,200 MXN (about $63 USD) and last about 6 hours.
➳ To book a tour, check out the Punta Baja website here.
We reached Punta Baja’s beach hut on Playa Plinguiche at about 11 am and got fitted for fins, a snorkel, and life vest. We boarded the panga boat with a small group a bit before noon. The boat was basic but clean with plenty of seating and storage under your seat. The tour is 5+ hours, so don’t worry, the boat does have a bathroom.
The main stops on this tour are Los Islotes, home to a breeding colony of sea lions, and Ensenada Grande Beach, a white sand beach with crystal clear water where we stopped for about an hour for lunch, snorkeling and swimming.
Before these main stops, we followed the cliffy coastline of the islands and drifted in a few spots where our tour guide shared fun facts and the interesting history of the La Paz area. We first zoomed past by Playa Balandra, a large, shallow and protected bay that is often voted as one of the most beautiful beaches in Mexico. We had just been stand up paddleboarding the day before at Playa Balandra, so it was cool to see if from the ocean this time.
➳ Read more: Stand Up Paddle Boarding at Balandra Beach
La Paz means “The Pearl” in Spanish, with most of the world’s pearls coming from this region starting in the 1500s. By the 1940s, the oyster beds were depleted from over-fishing, and then completely wiped out from disease. A biologist tried to artificially farm pearls by building a small pearl farm on Isla Espiritu Santo. He was actually successful, but the farm was destroyed during the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s.
Thousands of black seabirds called frigatebirds nest along the coast of Espiritu Santo Island. Though frigatebirds live off of fish, they would be in serious trouble if their feathers got wet because they don’t have a waxy coating that repels water. They circle the skies and hunt on the surface, scooping up the fish before they swim too far below and out of reach.
Snorkeling with Sea Lions at Los Islotes
After making our way past Espíritu Santo and Isla Partida, another small island that’s separated by Espiritu Santo by a narrow canal, we reached Los Islotes. These few large rocks jut out in the ocean several minutes offshore from the northern tip of the islands. A large colony of sea lions resides here, sunning themselves on the rocks and hunting the plentiful fish in the surrounding waters.
We put on our snorkel gear and hopped in the chilly water. While most tour companies highlight the fact you can snorkel with sea lions, I was blown away by the vibrant coral reef and thousands of tropical fish. Most of the sea lions kept their distance while we snorkeled around the reef and through the rocks that form a natural arch, though a few did quickly glide under and around us. This stop was only about 15 minutes for us, which was far too short for the amount of amazing coral reef that’s here. As I was swimming through the rock arch, I was suddenly right above a massive school of fish. I also spotted several brightly colored starfish, parrotfish, angelfish trumpetfish, and rainbow wrasse, plus so many more fish I don’t know the names of.
Los Islotes is a protected area, and you can only visit it with a licensed provider. Our guides requested that we keep our life jackets on while snorkeling, which may be part of the official rules as we noticed that all the groups that stopped here kept their jackets on too.
Playa Ensenada Granda
After this quick snorkel, we hopped back on the boat for a short ride to Playa Ensenada Grande, a beautiful beach on Isla Partida. Our guides set up a tent for lunch, where we all assembled our own turkey sandwiches and piled fresh ceviche on to corn tostadas. After lunch, we had time to swim and snorkel in the impossibly clear waters.
This calm bay was so stunning and an amazingly relaxing way to spend the afternoon, it was hard to board the boat back to La Paz. On the way back, we saw a few turtles popping up to say hi, and even spotted a manta ray fly out of the water. If you take this trip between December and April, you may see the gray whales that migrate to this area to mate and give birth.
Sunset at Playa Plinguiche
We arrived back at Playa Plinguiche at about 6 pm, with enough time to do a small hike and find the perfect spot for sunset.
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Thank you to Punta Baja Tours for hosting us on this tour to Isla Espiritu Santo! All opinions are our own. Click here to learn more or book a tour.