It was millenium New Year. Punta el Custodio and Villa Estrella were filled with excited families friends and guests, all of us there for several weeks of amazing vacation. It was decided to embark on adventure trip by sea to the legendary Isla Isabel. We launched the panga from the beach of Platanitos Bay at dawn. The sun barely colouring the sky above the Sierra Madre Mountains to the east. Slipping seaward on glassy waters we immediately disappeared into the thick fogbank which had settled over the Pacific Coast for the past few days. We were beginning our adventure journey to Isla Isabel National Park, a bird and underwater sanctuary located 40 miles Northeast of Punta el Custodio, in the open Pacific.This was the maiden ocean voyage for the good ship Media Luna, a joint venture between several of our neighbors and our Captain, Armando Santiago, who keeps the boat docked in San Blas. With seven passengers and Armando, and all the supplies to feed and sleep ourselves as well as another six voyagers in an accompanying boat, we spread ourselves over the comfortable cushions like lizards looking for basking spots. But no sun would warm our cold blood quickly, as we slipped into the fog just a short way from shore. As fog is normally not a problem, Armando had requested that we bring a compass, but was not very happy with my $1.75 K-Mart special. But one person had brought his fancy binocs with the built in compass, with which Armando seemed more pleased.As we got up to cruising speed, the blankets came out, pillows were arranged and we settled in for the 3 ½ hour voyage. The sun continued to hide behind a thin fog layer as we passed Piedra Blanca near San Blas and Elephant Rock, a rounded hump of bird whitewashed lava which protrudes from the ocean several miles out to sea from the beaches of Camichin.
A shout from one of the kids roused us to find that the boat was cruising though a sea of dolphin dorsal fins. Armando slowed the boat, and immediately we found that several of the pod were skimming beneath the bow, their glistening gray bodies sliding effortlessly below us, while others of their bottle-nosed contingent danced and leapt in the waters surrounding us.
The fog was slowly burning away in the morning sun, and blue skies came and went, with the occasional burst of sunshine warming our blankets and beckoning our attention. The hours had passed quickly and we began to scan the Western horizon for a glimpse of the Isla. Almost at the same moment that Mona caught the first glimpse of land, and our attention was focused on the vague outline in the distance, a humpback whale did a complete spiral breach directly in our line of sight, as though it had waited for us to all be attentive before going through the trouble of putting on a show. Soon we were viewing tail and flipper splashes in every direction. The whales were giving us a welcoming display, pointing the way to the shallows surrounding the island.
As we approached the island, we could see the outline of the two rocky “stacks” known as the “monas”, Spanish for statues, which stand guard on the leeward side of the island. Just as we approached the entrance to the protected bay where we would disembark, a whale exploded in another breach several hundred yards before us, dove and showed us his tail as an invitation to enter. At the same moment the skies cleared, bringing to life the colors of the ancient lava flows eroded by the sea, the turquoise waters of the shallow bays, the green hillsides beyond, and above us a thousand swirling frigate birds, whose nesting grounds we were about to co-inhabit for our short stay.
Entering the shallow bay, which is home at times to fishermen from San Blas, but which today only had empty beach huts, we unloaded the boats and packed everything to our camp. Some years ago, the Mexican government had constructed a beautiful edifice to house scientists and tourists, but now only roof and walls remain, a skeleton of dreams eroded by peso devaluations and hurricane Rosa, whose waves and winds in 1993 did extensive damage. Mona and I had come to the island three years ago with 50 architects, engineers, and scientists to determine if the site was salvageable, but to this date 1/1/2000, nothing has come of the studies and conversations from that trip. The sheltered area beneath the immense roof gives the few who venture here a place to sleep, as every other square foot of the island is covered with birds.
After a quick lunch we sent one boat to snorkel around the “monas”, while the Media Luna set off fishing for dinner. Armando had told us that there would be plenty of fish and not to worry about dinner, and he was true to his word, as the first fish, a sierra mackerel was in the boat in 10 minutes, and this was followed by a quick run of bonita tuna that gave everyone in the boat a chance to land a fish, and would provide more of a feast than we had intended.
We met up with the snorkelers on the North side of the island, and exchanged a few people to allow others to fish, whereupon Jesse, Tom & Laurie’s 12 year old daughter gave us big boys a quick lesson by latching onto a 4 ft needlefish which was almost as big as Armando. After taking pictures we set the fish free and went chasing the whales, who were cavorting not far from where we had been fishing. By then it was getting late and we completed our circumnavigation of the island and headed for camp while Armando filleted the fish.
Before sunset, some of us wandered up to the high peak above the bay to watch the sunset, which was spectacular, especially with the foreground filled with birds on the wing. The trail leads through a brown booby colony, where the birds were patient with the intrusion, more worried about their neighbor boobies invading their territories than with the clumsy hikers mucking about.
We gathered up enough driftwood to make a cooking fire and Armando did the fish very plainly, with salt & pepper, grilled slowly – and both the sierra and bonita were melt-in-your-mouth delightful, and much more than enough. But the campers in all of us still held out for a hot dog and a marshmallow to top off a great day.
We laid out our pads in one long row, at the edge of the roof canopy so that we could look out and gaze upon the stars, fixed and shooting, which filled the sky during the moonless evening. Then to the lullaby of squawking frigates and snoring campers, we tucked ourselves in and awaited another day of adventure.
In the morning Tom, Shawn, his 8 year old, and Min went fishing in the predawn hours, catching fish to bring home to Punta elCustodio. Catching plenty in a short time, they went to the lair of the big yellow jacks, where Min got hold of something big enough to take out all the line, and finally with the drag tightened, straighten out the hooks and depart.
The wind had picked up during the night, and on the windward side of the island big rollers could be seen, foretelling an exciting trip home, especially for those not on the Media Luna, which was built especially for these seas.
After a good breakfast, there was plenty of time for some bird study and hiking. Just above the camp the entire hillside was covered with blue-footed boobies just in the process of nest area assignment, which would have been great to watch for hours, but there were some who still wanted to do more snorkeling in the crystal clear waters, so another trip was arranged to a different area.
By noon we had the boats packed, the sun high and warm, and a breeze at our backs for the journey back to Punta el Custodio. As we left the bay we were bid an “adios” by another whale breaching to send us off. The rollers made the journey interesting, but not dangerous, as the boats would climb one side and then surf down the other, moving just a bit faster than the waves. The combination of waves and wind, and a better direction for lack of fog, made the trip home almost an hour faster, and we returned to those waiting at the villas in time to spend the evening recounting all of our adventures and planning the next expedition to this strange and beautiful natural wonder.
Villa Estrella is a stunning base at Punta el Custodio from which to explore the natural wonders of the Nayarit coastline, which is known as the Riviera Nayarit. Come to Mexico, we are not far from Puerto Vallarta, our beaches are stunning.