travelog 26

Update November 2010

At the request of Jose Angel Sanchez, a marine biologist with Cedros Outdoor Adventures ( or click here), we would like to point out that our travelog was written in May of 2000. As everyone knows, many things change with the passing of years and thus it's not surprising that some changes have taken place on Cedros too. Nature is still as spectacularly beautiful as it was 10 years ago, but the hotel and restaurant situation for example has changed for the better.

Following our original travelog from May 2000 you can read Melanie Lamaga's impressions of a recent tour with Cedros Outdoor Adventures.

Tourism usually has many advantages for the locals. Unfortunately the local flora can suffer because of too much tourism. We would like to remind the kind reader and next Cedros Island (or Mexico) visitor that it's absolutely forbidden to take plants home as souvenirs! Many of these endemic species need a certain climate to survive that they will not get in their new "home" in a flower pot. Rare species like Dudleya pachyphytum definitely never belong into a suitcase as a souvenir. They are the most beautiful when you take pictures of them and then let them grow and multiply where they belong, on Cedros!

Trip to Cedros Island, May 2000

They open their office in Guerrero Negro only twice a week, right before their machine, a very old rattletrap DC-6 Convair CV-440, flies to the island of Cedros. On schedule, they say... but this has nothing to do with "on schedule".

Aero Cedros, an airline that belongs to the abalone fishery cooperative of Cedros, takes "normal" passengers only for goodwill. Normally they're responsible only for the transport of their employees and goods. You have to pay considerably more for these flights (which go twice weekly, if at all) than for the daily flying air taxi operated by the salt plant of Guerrero Negro (the world's biggest salt producer). However, that's something nobody bothers to tell a dumb tourist. We only should find this out on our return journey.

We pay our small sum for the flight and take an ungodly expensive taxi to the airport together with two other passengers. According to the taxi driver, this makes the fare a lot cheaper! This "airport" only deserves the name "airfield" because there's no departure lounge at all. For the arrival of the plane from Ensenada we wait outside a storage shed in blistering sunshine. The flight is scheduled to depart shortly after noon. We're there waiting around 11am and pass the time talking with other passengers.

Time passes and it's 1pm, then 2pm but no plane comes into sight. In the meantime everybody gets comfortable. The kids doze and the adults nibble on chips and chocolate bars. Around 3pm some people from the "airline" arrive in a ramshackle pickup with lots of luggage. With difficulty, we learn that the plane had a mechanical breakdown in Ensenada. What a fine prospect! As they weigh us and our luggage, our stomachs feel queasy. Then we have to wait another two hours. Finally the old tub arrives and lands. Then things happen very quickly. Within half an hour luggage and passengers are loaded (you look for the cleanest seat and avoid the mess of your predecessor). The luggage and the mail are stacked (but of course not secured) and after another half hour we land on the island of Cedros between huge white salt slagheaps.

SeŮor Aguilar, a taxi driver, approaches us. It turns out that he's also the owner of the only hotel on Cedros. How practical - for him!

During the short drive into the town of Cedros we notice the picturesque wrecked cars and trucks lying everywhere. Even the center of the little town is full of them. Everywhere we find garbage and big dust clouds because most of the roads are unpaved. Soon we arrive at our "hotel" in the middle of town.

Soon enough it also turns out that this so-called "hotel" is a cheap and slummy hotel of the very worst kind. Deliberately, SeŮor Aguilar collects the rent for the room for three days in advance and in cash. He leaves telling us that he will return and bring us back to the airport. Now we realize why a local doctor advised us earlier to ask at the hospital for free rooms. Anyway, we have made our own bed and now we have to lie in it...

It's pitch-dark in the room. The naked light bulbs all have loose connections and function only when you look at them very politely. The "bathroom" looks as if it had suffered a heavy bomb attack. The washbasin is tilting and we decide that it's better not to lean against it. The warm water faucet of course doesn't work, so there's only cold water. However, the messy-looking toilet works even without a bucket to pour water for flushing. Wonders will never cease: our host has even supplied a roll of toilet paper! The shower is the final touch: a pipe standing out of the tiled wall which spits cold water. Everywhere cracks and big breaks reduce the fun of taking a shower to a dance on your tiptoes between moldy edges and holes. In the room is a chest of drawers where we discover some formerly used q-tips. Nothing invites you to put your bags or other personal belongings down. The bed is cold and damp. It is covered with a revolting-looking synthetic fiber cover that has certainly not been washed for years. On the sheet you can still discover the residue from previous guests. Finally there's only one tiny little cushion, so Julia quickly decides to use her warm jacket as a pillow. It's a situation we can only manage with a good portion of black humour.

It's around 6pm and we go over to the Abalone Cooperative office to inquire about the daily boat to Punta Norte. An official immediately asks us for our permit from SEMARNAP (this is the Mexican federal authority which takes care of the environment). We don't have one and so we leave the office without having achieved anything. But we don't let things like this get us down! We stroll over to the harbor and find some fishermen. They describe the very difficult life on Cedros since the island's former source of income (deep-sea fishing for tuna exported to the US) dried up practically overnight because of the US embargo. The current export industry (fishing for abalone shells exported to Japan) has also failed because for two years the abalone shells showed some very strange growth disorders and the Japanese now cultivate their own abalones. Most of the families, the fishermen tell us, live without income and depend on aid from the government. So we immediately find a grateful fisherman who agrees to take us (for a nice contribution) to Punta Norte. We pay him something in advance so he can buy the gasoline for the ride and agree to leave early the next morning.

Dinner in one of the two restaurants in town is a very sobering experience. There's no fresh fish, so they serve frozen fillets. Julia's dish, "Pescado al Diablo", is buried under a thick layer of ketchup and my dish also tastes far below average. The decision to have breakfast at the other restaurant is not very difficult.

After a horrible night, which we pass staying awake for most of the time because the mattress is rock-hard and our spinal columns suffer a lot, we find ourselves at the other restaurant for breakfast. The menu is very long. We decide on scrambled eggs with machaca (cooked, dried and crumbled beef - very typical for this part of Mexico and very tasty!) and scrambled eggs with chorizo. There is a big discussion in the kitchen after which several people go out to buy the desired ingredients. Their search is unsuccessful because there's a shortage of machaca right now. Julia changes her order to chorizo too, thinking that this would make things easier. How wrong one can be! After a few minutes we learn that there's also no chorizo and we get the menu card again. Now we turn the tables and ask what we can have? It turns out that there's only one dish we can have: scrambled eggs with sliced ham. Why not tell us earlier? So we decide to have this dish! Without any other alternative, this is a pretty easy decision...

After breakfast I need to go to the john so I go out looking for the toilet that is in the courtyard. I'm very surprised to find toilet paper!:) I do my business (Numero dos if you must know) and want to flush... no chance! There's no water in the cistern since it's not connected to any water pipe. So there must be a bucket with water to flush the toilet. But again, no chance! Nobody's in sight... well, in that case, forget it! I leave a small present for the next tourist! I leave and we decide later (for a very simple reason ;-)) not to consider this restaurant again!

The boat trip to Punta Norte is fascinating and wonderful. But it's also very cold and we're happy to have our anoraks with us. On the way, the fisherman shows us big colonies of seals and elephant seals. One hour after departing we arrive at Punta Norte. Everybody's asleep there. There is supposed to be a guardian who has everything under control, but he's asleep too. We step ashore and walk across the small settlement. The surrounding landscape is fascinating. It looks like a garden made by nature - thousands of agave plants (Agave sebastiana), big grey balls, each one nicer than the other. Among them, as though they were planted, are cacti and dudleyas: Echinocereus maritimus, Ferocactus chrysacanthus - with yellow and red spines - Mammillaria pondii, Mammillaria goodridgii or rectispina - they seem to be very hard to distinguish... so why not give them the same name!... Dudleya sp. - most likely Dudleya albiflora. These plants are growing here in such unimaginable quantities that we instantly know that no cattle or goats are at work. What a natural diversity when mankind does not have its finger in the pie!

We take pictures for all we are worth and we try unsuccessfully to find Dudleya pachyphytum. Even though it's my birthday ;-), it was not to be! After a rough trip back, we enjoy a quiet evening.

The next morning we set off very early in the direction of Cerro Cedros. The climb to one of the highest peaks on the island should normally take about 3-4 hours, but we get distracted too many times. Here we see a flowering Agave sebastiana, there a Mammillaria pondii in bloom. This means that we have to take a break and take out our camera equipment. The weather god is very kind to us and the sun waits until noon to break through the low stratus clouds (on normal days this happens around 9am). We appreciate that because we can take the digital pictures without having to shade the scene. Besides, it's easier to climb the steep mountain without the burning sun.

After about 3400 feet I sit down in the shade of a rock and let Julia climb the last 340 feet by herself. Nothing can stop her from peeking around the next bend of the path. She wants to enjoy the view to the north but she doesn't succeed because the next hill now blocks her view. After a long, laborious and sometimes very steep ascent and some very nice views, it's a sobering result: the plant life up here is far more sparse than at the bottom of the mountain.

Again we realize during the descent how much human beings use the environment as their refuse dump. The last 1000 feet before the village are covered with garbage, and the arroyos are filled with every kind of discarded goods.

When we arrive at Cedros the sun has already set and we choose a restaurant to have some antojitos. We had eaten dinner here before - the selection is unfortunately very limited. After we have ordered, an inconspicuously dressed man comes to our table, produces his card, and tells us that he's the local deputy of the Mexican federal authority SEMARNAP. He asks us for our permit to visit the island of Cedros. Of course we don't have a permit and ask him in astonishment why nobody had told us about such a permit when we were buying the airline ticket. He explains that economic interests are of prime importance in that case. Then he informs that since beginning of the year all Mexican islands are closed to visitors without a written permit from SEMARNAP. They fear that the unwelcome foreigners will take home all the plants. He also tells us that we need a special permit for taking pictures. Of course we can have a look at the villages without a permit but there's not much to see besides garbage... After a short dispute we counter that it should be one of the first goals of an environmental authority to solve the garbage problem. He replies that this is not his area of responsibility, and that he is only responsible for the beaches and the observance of the fishing regulations. Then he wants to know if we are planning to visit the islands of San Benito the next day - that's what he heard in town. We assure him convincingly that we want to leave the island with an airplane for Guerrero Negro. This, obviously, calms the situation.

Since we're very tired and we have to get up early the next day we go to bed very early. As always, we close the main entrance door of the hotel because we're the only guests. Since the air in the room is very stale, with our combined efforts we push up the stuck window and prop it open with a gallon water container. I wake up in the middle of the night because of a strange noise. It sounds like somebody is trying to enter the house but cannot because we have locked the door. After it's silent again I go outside and open the main door. As soon as we are asleep again, there's a bang that not only wakes us up but also makes us sit straight in the bed and scream for our life. Both of us think that somebody is out to kill us. But it's quiet again and something gurgles. The water container that we used to secure the window has simply slid to the side, causing the window to slam closed with an explosion. We clean up the mess and fall asleep again - this time without any more disturbances.

We bought the return tickets the day before the planned flight back. At the office in Cedros they gave us 100% assurance that the aircraft would fly, and that it would be right on schedule. The next morning the taxi driver SeŮor Aguilar doesn't show up (probably he already knows what we will learn very soon) so we have to take another taxicab to the airport. We are the only passengers and we already fear the worst. The plane arrives on schedule but we learn that the flight from Cedros has been postponed until the next morning. Most of the passengers are headed to the dentist in Guerrero Negro. What a delightful prospect! Another night at our cheap and crummy hotel and once again the difficult decision of which of the two gourmet-temples we should consider. We feel stranded until a nice guy tells us that we could probably get a flight with the air taxi from the salt company (for 30% less money!). We demand our money back from the airline. Amazingly, this is easily done - they even bring us the money to the airfield. Two hours later we fly back to Guerrero Negro in a 10-person airplane. After a turbulent landing (with our stomachs under our chins!) we meet a very friendly lady who, in the absence of a taxi, gives us a ride to our PocoLoco. She gets real Swiss chocolate for that big favor! We have had enough of all the Mexican puttering about and head north. Of course not before being searched very thoroughly by a nearby military control crew.

May 2000

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen

Trip to Cedros Island, March 2010

By Melanie Lamaga, Writer and photographer

I recently had the pleasure of traveling to Cedros Island, off the west coast of Baja California with a group of desert plant enthusiasts who had booked an eco-tour with Cedros Outdoor Adventures. This is the second time in the past year that Iíve had the opportunity to visit Cedros Island, and I really enjoyed the trip, both times.

Iíve heard that in years past it was difficult for tourists to get to Cedros Island, and not always pleasant once they arrived, but what a difference a decade can make! Those interested in visiting these days can expect a safe, comfortable and enjoyable trip.

Jose of Cedros Outdoor Adventures picked up the group of plant lovers in San Diego, in a comfortable Mercedes Benz mini-bus. We headed south across the border into Mexico. After a brief stop at customs to get our tourist permits (about $27), we stopped at what, to the uninitiated, looked like just another non-descript mini-market in Rosarito Beach. However, once inside we were amazed to see hundreds of brands of high-end tequila (and other types of liquor) arrayed around the walls of a large, windowless room. Even if you are not a drinker, many of the bottles themselves are works of art crafted in glass or ceramic. Itís a sight worth seeing! From there we traveled the scenic, toll road south, winding along the Pacific coast. After a pleasant two-hour drive we arrived at the small Ensenada airport. In years past, to fly to Cedros you had to drive ten hours south to Gurerro Negro, and try to hitch a ride on a salt company plane. No more! Now there is commercial plane service from Ensenada. Our plane was a thirteen passenger Cessna Grand Caravan. The flight was short (about 1.5 hours) and very smooth. You get great views of the Baja California coast, several islands, and Cedros island from the air, too.

As you arrive by plane you can see much of the mostly uninhabited, 25 mile-long, mountainous island stretching out below. Stands of endemic Cedros Pines that survive on fog-borne moisture cling to the highest peaks. The mountains go straight down to the water, and all along the island are tiny beach coves, many with colonies of Guadalupe fur seals and sea lions lounging in the sun. The new airport at Cedros is small and very clean, with chairs in the waiting area. While on Cedros we stayed at the new Hotel Zam Mar. Juan Carlos and Josefina, the owners, are friendly and helpful, and Cedros Outdoor Adventures had arranged for them to pick us up at the airport when we arrived.

The Zam Mar Hotel is attractive, with clean, modern rooms, a landscaped patio and cafť facilities. Internet can be accessed from the hotel office or via wireless if you bring your computer. The showers were hot and the bed was comfortable. There is also satellite TV, though I didnít spend any time watching it. Too many other interesting things to do on the island!

The food on the island is fresh and delicious, especially if you love seafood. The first day I had White Sea bass, cooked in butter and garlic; it was a huge portion served along with beans and tortillas, of course. Other memorable meals included shrimp salad, fresh tamales, grilled lobster and sushi.

The main event of this trip was hiking and looking at plants. One day we took a panga up the east coast of the island, past lounging sea lions and seals, to the small fishermanís camp at Punta Norte. From there we hiked up a rocky arroyo, past the old mine to the endemic Cedros Pines, overlooking the cliffs and ocean on the west side of the island. Just magnificent. On the hike everyone had a great time looking at and photographing the many varieties of cacti and other succulents growing on the island. There has been a lot of rain this year, so many plants were in bloom. On other days we drove along the west coast of the island, hiking and looking at the plants on that side, which is drier and has a very different look than the east coast. We also hiked up a ridge above Cedros Town to see one of the only three Cardon cacti on the island.

Other activities during the trip included a tour of the Mitsubishi salt company, which processes and distributes industrial sea salt, and sightseeing around Cedros Town. This is a village of a few thousand people. It features a picturesque port, with a stone sea wall and lots of yellow and blue fishing pangas. There is a small, pebble beach where the locals gather to swim and socialize in the summer.

Cedros Island is one of the most remote areas of Mexico, and as I understand it, until recently was not geared to the comfort of tourists. There was no commercial plane service and the accommodations available back then were not pleasant. In addition to this, the island had a problem with trash management. The first two concerns no longer apply, and new policies of trash management are underway. Most of the island has been cleaned and the metal is being sold for recycling. There is still a large dump area outside of Cedros Town but we are told that this area, too, is in the process of being cleaned up.

Jose Sanchez, the owner of Cedros Outdoor Adventures, is a marine biologist who has been working for conservation in this region for many years. Part of that goal involves helping to create environmentally friendly, sustainable economic opportunities for local people in remote areas such as Cedros Island. In years past, the only major industries on Cedros have been the salt company and the fishing co-op, so many locals are eager for the opportunity to bring tourists to Cedros. Jose says he has been working with them to improve services and itís clear that itís working.

Our group went to Cedros to look at plants and take photos. Many other tourists come for sport fishing. For them, there are dedicated pangas that are clean and equipped with fish finders, GPS and satellite phones. The new hotel is geared to serving an international clientele. Overall, Cedros Island is a friendly and interesting destination for outdoor activities like fishing and photography, or for seeing the unique plants and culture of this region. Though it is now opening up to tourism, tourism has not taken over. This makes it a great time and place to experience the real Mexico: friendly people, good food and unspoiled nature.