Mexico Life
Isabel Island, Mexico's Galapagos. Isabel Island, Mexico's Galapagos.

Forget the Galapagos: Mexico’s Isabel Island has it all

A naturalist’s paradise with frigatebirds, boobies, whales and dolphins just 32 kilometers off the Pacific coast

Located 32 kilometers off Mexico’s Pacific Coast and 150 kilometers northwest of Puerto Vallarta, Isla Isabel is a small basalt island measuring only two square kilometers, but much appreciated by naturalists, scientists, scuba divers, photographers, fishermen and those who seek adventure off the beaten track.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau, of course, fell into all of these categories, so it’s not surprising that he celebrated the island’s attractions in a 1975 documentary called The Sea Birds of Isabela.

In 1980 Isabel was declared a national park. In 2003 it was designated a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance, and in 2005 it joined the ranks of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.

Because the birds and iguanas on the island have no natural enemies, human visitors can get quite close to them, for which reason the island is sometimes called The Galapagos of Mexico.

You can take a boat to Isabel from San Blas or Mazatlán, but my friends and I decided to get there from the little village of Boca de Camichín, in the state of Nayarit. Although Camichín is well off the beaten track, from here it’s only a 90-minute boat ride to the island, while the trip from San Blas supposedly takes twice as long.

Iguanas pop up in the strangest places, always looking for a treat.
Iguanas pop up in the strangest places, always looking for a treat.

After spending a night swatting mosquitoes in the tiny town of Santiago Ixcuintla, we drove the next morning to nearby Boca de Camichín, where we arrived at 7:00am ready for adventure.

Our guide and captain, Julio Mata, started things off with a short introduction to the No. 1 local industry of Camichín: oyster farming. “The system we use,” said Julio, “was invented by the Japanese and introduced to us in 1976 as Project Pider Pesca.”

To become an oyster farmer with this ingenious approach all you have to do is string old oyster shells — interspersed with short plastic tubes — on a two-meter length of strong cord or wire. This is then made to dangle in the waters of the estuary.

At a certain time of year, sweet water flowing down from the San Pedro river is full of baby oysters which then attach themselves to some 2,000 strings of broken shells placed in the water by the enterprising people of Boca de Camichín.

Saltwater and sweet water alternately bathe the strings as the tide goes in and out and eight months later each string is heavy with new oysters ready to eat.

“This industry turned out to be so successful,” says Julio Mata, “that Camichín is said to be the only town in Mexico with not a single citizen working in the U.S.A.”

Unafraid, boobies nest on the ground at Isla Isabel.
Unafraid, boobies nest on the ground at Isla Isabel.

After picking up a load of fresh oysters for us to eat during our island visit, we headed out of the estuary and came face to face with a great wall of water separating us from the open ocean.

“The surf is ferocious today,” explained Julio. “We have to wait for exactly the right moment between two waves, when the sea is flat for an instant, and then zip out past the surf line. Don’t worry — in all the years we’ve been doing this, we have never flipped over.”

Well, tension mounted in us landlubbers as our crew tried again and again to break through the surf barrier. The procedure was as follows: after bobbling around for a while, the engine would suddenly come to life and with a jerk we would rocket straight at the wall of white water in front of us. Then, at the very last instant, the pilot would suddenly make a hairpin turn, just as the giant wave was crashing upon the very spot we occupied a tenth of a second before.

Now we would race in the opposite direction for dear life, or, if we happened to be in the wrong position, the pilot would throw the boat into reverse and we would back away from the crashing froth. This scenario was repeated over and over for some 25 attempts until suddenly we sailed right through the wall of surf.

What an adrenaline rush and what a relief to find ourselves on the other side, in relatively calm waters! A half-hour later, as if rewarding us for our patience, a gorgeous whale shark appeared next to our boat and swam around us in circles for a long time, as if welcoming us to the open sea.

Although this did not turn out to be the “short” ride I had expected, we eventually arrived at the island, which has a naturally protected harbor. A few minutes later, we discovered what is truly unique about Isabel Island: the air is always full of hundreds of birds and so are the garlic-pear (Crataeva tapia) trees, which aren’t much higher than two meters.

A frigatebird can spread its wings and take the sun without fear of predators.
A frigatebird can spread its wings and take the sun without fear of predators.

Thousands of frigatebirds have built nests in these trees and, because they have no predators, you can walk right up to one of the “babies” (which are bigger than chickens) and take all the photos you like. We deposited our sleeping bags and gear inside a huge, roofed building, the only place on the island where ecotourists are allowed to camp. It’s also the favorite haunt of dozens of iguanas which, like the frigates, showed no fear of us.

A few minutes later we were climbing a nearby hill where countless seagulls and boobies nest on the ground. These birds have a special squawk to advise intruders like us whenever they step within the boundaries of their personal space, a distance that varies from about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 meters.

This, of course, is plenty close for taking photos of the famous blue-footed booby, as well as its red, brown and green-footed cousins, which roam the island.

From the top of the hill we could see most of the two-kilometer-long volcanic island and could make out the other members of our party happily snorkeling in pools near our campsite. The snorkelers said the coral and fish they saw were spectacular and that’s the only word I can use to describe the taste of the home-grown oysters and fish smoked over mangrove wood, which we enjoyed later that day, not to mention the spectacular sunset we witnessed in the evening.

As we prepared for our return voyage the next morning, we asked Julio: “Do you think we’ll see any dolphins on the way back?” “Caray,” he said, “I wish I could say yes, but around here we don’t see them very often. Sorry.”

Well, we were enjoying a calm sea and a beautiful blue sky when suddenly the entire horizon was filled with hundreds and hundreds of silvery shapes leaping high into the air. It was more than a school of dolphins, it was a whole university of them!

We turned and drew near to them and they just kept coming. Their joyful exuberance and energy filled the air. As if that was not enough, a little while later a family of humpback whales appeared next to us and frolicked around our boat for the longest time.

A visit to Isla Isabel is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If you don’t mind roughing it, you ought to put this extraordinary island on your bucket list. You’ll get to see much of what the Galapagos have to offer without ever having to leave Mexico!

The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for more than 30 years and is the author of A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area and co-author of Outdoors in Western Mexico. More of his writing can be found on his website.

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