In Baja, Happy Campers
Now Espiritu Santo remains a sanctuary in the middle of the 800-mile-long Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, which Jacques Cousteau once described as "the world's aquarium" because of its vast array of marine life, including whales, dolphins, sharks, manta rays, turtles and sea lions.
Tamagnini managed to navigate the complex bureaucratic barriers and won permission from the Mexican government to operate his camp, the only one of its kind in the Sea of Cortez, from May to October each year; he is now in his fourth season.
The vast majority of his customers have been Italians and other Europeans. A few Americans have come, but the camp has remained largely undiscovered by the throngs of U.S. tourists who come to Baja California. They generally gravitate toward the golf and deep-sea fishing offered a couple of hours down the peninsula in Los Cabos.
Tamagnini's camp sits on a stretch of white-sand beach called Ensenada del Candelero, about halfway up the island's western coast, facing the desert mainland of Baja -- about an hour's boat ride from the port city of La Paz and its international airport. The beach is at the head of a shallow cove of sparkling emerald water, protected on three sides by steep canyon walls of loose rock and tall green cactuses. The walls rise 300 feet or more, and in the soft light of sunrise and sunset they become huge canvases of pinks and greens and browns, linking perfect blue skies with the impossibly green and blue sea.
The camp has one main tent, about 20 by 25 feet, which is divided into a dining area, with a heavy wooden table that seats 10, and a living area with 10 reclining canvas deck chairs facing the water. Two huge coolers hold blocks of ice and drinks. Another tent at the back houses the camp kitchen, which has two huge freezers powered by solar panels, a full-size range with an oven and gas burners, a mesquite charcoal grill and all the tools Tamagnini and his crew of five need to prepare elegant meals in the style preferred by his Italian mother: simple, with light seasonings that let the fish and the pasta speak for themselves.
Set out along the beach are four guest tents (a fifth is available), each fitted with two single beds on wooden frames, with crisp fresh sheets and a light cotton spread, and a large wooden trunk for clothes. The tents have high ceilings that make it easy to walk around, and at 13 by 13 feet, they have plenty of extra room. Kate and our son, Tom, 7, decided that they'd rather bunk in with Mom and Dad than be in their own tent. But even with four beds in the tent, plus our luggage, we had plenty of space.
A shower stall and toilet are set behind each guest tent. The shower consists of a wooden platform in the sand, surrounded by six-foot-high canvas walls. Water, collected in a natural spring in the canyon at the back of the cove, falls from a bucket fitted with a shower head in its bottom, suspended on a rope overhead. For all of us, nothing felt better than a sun-heated shower of fresh water to wash off the salt and sand at the end of each day. In keeping with the island's strict environmental regulations, the toilet is another canvas enclosure with a small commode with plastic liners, which are emptied regularly.
It is the kind of place Tamagnini, 43, has wanted to create since he was a boy growing up in Mogadishu, Somalia. His grandparents went to Africa to flee Mussolini and his fascists, and Tamagnini lived there well into his teens. Every summer his family set up a safari-style tent camp on a remote beach, where he learned to love camping and catching his dinner in the sea -- often by spear-fishing.
Tamagnini still keeps his spear-gun handy. One afternoon during our three-day stay, we spotted hundreds of huge yellow jack darting about in the shallows right off the camp. We spent an hour chasing the fish in the camp's 26-foot launch and dropping Tamagnini into the middle of them. He hit one of them with a spear, but it managed to get away. Tamagnini shrugged -- whatever the sea provides, and sometimes it's stingy.
But never dull. My wife, Mary, and I and our kids, along with our friends Hugh and Cindy and their two boys -- the only overnight guests on the island -- spent hours every morning snorkeling among plenty of yellow, blue and green tropical fish. We took the camp's four ocean kayaks out every day, paddling to a couple of small islands where scores of pelicans eyed us curiously.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
At Baja Camp, on Mexico's Isla Espiritu Santo, roughing it isn't so tough, with gourmet meals, relaxing tent living rooms (above) and water views.
(© Luca Tamagnini)