In Baja, Happy Campers

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 13, 2004

Off the port bow, the late afternoon sea was suddenly boiling with thousands of sardines jumping out of the water.

Our guide, Cuco, a rugged fisherman with skin like old cowboy boots, steered in close. We were after whatever had scared the little fish to the surface.

We dropped a couple of lines into the water, and within minutes one of them doubled over like a cat's back. My daughter, Kate, reeled the line in as far as her 9-year-old arms would let her, and then she handed the rod off to our friend Hugh, who finished the job. When the fish got close enough, Cuco grabbed it by the tail -- no nets, no gaff, just his tough leathery hand -- and we cheered the flapping arrival of a yard-long, 16-pound yellow jack.

An hour later, the fish hit the dinner table at our island camp.

Andrea Tamagnini, an Italian campmaster and gourmet chef, had turned it into a silver platter of thinly sliced, blood-red sashimi, served with a bowl of fresh limes and a few drops of soy sauce. We ate it with chilled Sonoma Valley chardonnay by the light of hurricane lanterns, at a long wooden dinner table set with china and linen napkins, under a large tent pitched a few feet from the gently lapping surf.

"Whatever the sea provides," said Tamagnini, crunching a slice of the meaty fish, followed by ceviche made with an octopus caught in the shallow turquoise water maybe 50 yards from the dinner table.

Technically, the experience at Tamagnini's Baja Camp is "camping," the way that shoveling down a Dunkin' Donuts cruller is technically "dining."

What Tamagnini has created here, on a perfect strand on a completely unspoiled island in the middle of the Sea of Cortez, is something unique and luxurious. There are tents, but that's about all Baja Camp has in common with our family's previous experiences with roughing it in the wild.

Except for the camp and a few fishermen's shacks, the 38-square-mile Isla Espiritu Santo (Island of the Holy Spirit) is totally free of human interference. The island is a rare triumph of conservation and philanthropy in Mexico, where both concepts are relatively new. Last year, a group of Mexican and U.S. environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund, raised more than $3 million to buy out the group of local residents. Those local folks had perpetual rights to use the government-owned island under a system created after the 1910-17 Mexican Revolution to ensure that people who worked a plot of land had rights to it.

The locals had tried to evade strict regulations governing land use on islands in the Sea of Cortez by building a half-dozen concrete bungalows on the island's longest and most spectacular beach. That set off alarm bells with preservationists, who ultimately raised the millions to buy the rights to the island. The bungalows were destroyed and the preservationists turned over the island to the federal government for conservation. President Vicente Fox traveled to the island in January 2003 to sign the decree formalizing the deal, the first of its kind in Mexican history.

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.

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