True blue

The bluffs of Isla EspĂ­ritu Santo are great for hiking, and the waters off the island are ideal for snorkeling and kayaking, weather permitting. (Deborah Abrams Kaplan / LAT)

As I waded out from the Gulf of California, a sight made me smile: Beach chairs were placed in a row so we could watch the sunset. Two cooks were waiting with a vat of premium margaritas and bar snacks, including chile-flavored nuts. A dinner of chicken fajitas simmered on the camp stove.

I was happy that my husband, Mark, and I had decided not to rough it on our kayaking vacation during the holidays last year. Because we had only a few days to spare, Mark and I wanted an inexpensive yet active vacation not far from our Northern California home. We booked frequent-flier tickets to Los Cabos, on the southern tip of Baja California, then searched the Internet for nearby kayaking spots and outfitters.

We found several established companies in La Paz, a city on the eastern edge of the Baja Peninsula, and made online reservations with Baja Outdoor Activities because its four-day guided trip to Isla Espíritu Santo, an island just north of La Paz, was reasonably priced.

Although Mark and I are not totally new to kayaking, we chose a guided trip because of warnings about El Norte. The sporadic but fierce winter winds that sweep from the Great Basin are at their strongest from mid-November to early March, sometimes reaching 30 mph and causing 6- to 7-foot swells. Though windsurfers welcome them, the gusts can make paddling difficult, especially for relative novices such as Mark and me.

Wind and clouds dogged us during most of our stay on the island, forcing us to alter plans one day and making the air feel cooler than recorded daytime temperatures in the mid-70s.

The weather was calm in Cabo San Lucas, where we landed. We rode northeast on a public bus to La Paz, then took a 40-minute motorboat ride to Playa Dispensa, the southernmost beach on Isla Espíritu Santo.

The 14-mile-long island, which has one of the most pristine ecosystems in the region, is host to several species found nowhere else on Earth, among them the black-tailed jack rabbit and two snake species.

Isla Espíritu Santo is frequented by fishermen and kayakers, but it is easy to find secluded beaches on which to camp or picnic. Since 1978, the island has been protected from development, and Mexico's Commission of Natural Protected Areas issues permits to only a few companies that take groups there.

Last January, Espíritu Santo and the adjacent Isla Partida made news when private Mexican and foreign donors, including the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund, purchased the islands and transferred them into the hands of the Mexican government to ensure the islands remain pristine.

Although Isla Espíritu Santo contains a few shacks and storage bins for fishermen, it also has a "pack-it-out" policy for garbage and human waste. No campfires are allowed either.

While the crew unloaded luggage and prepared lunch, our group of 12 paddlers and two guides took to the water. Hector Hernandez, one of the guides, launched us into the water by teaching us the wet exit, an exercise we came to dread. Each of us took turns in a single kayak, ceremoniously tipping it over, then pulling ourselves out from underneath it. The initiation was complete after we hauled ourselves back onto the kayak, shivering like beached whales. I felt idiotic straddling the kayak and inching forward toward the seat as the rest watched my bathing suit ride up.

Thankfully, not long after, we broke for a lunch of delicious tamales, fruit and beer, then hopped back into our kayaks for an easy four-mile, two-hour paddle to our campsite at Fisherman's Cove on the island's western shore. We quickly pitched our tents and put on short wet suits. Just offshore was a snorkeling site, and we waded out beyond the knee-deep water toward the mouth of the cove and swam into it.

Minutes later, we emerged.

"Did you feel any stings?" we asked one another.

The culprits were small, stringy red jellyfish, and Edgardo Cortes Nares, one of our guides, was waiting onshore with a spray bottle of vinegar to treat our raw skin. Fortunately, this was the only beach where we encountered the annoying invertebrate.

Swimming with sea lions

After dinner, Edgardo showed us books identifying some of the fish we saw while snorkeling. The Gulf of California is one of Mexico's richest repositories of marine life, containing 800 species of fish. We saw an array of sea life, including a turtle, manta rays, various starfish and coronet fish. On land the next four days, we saw some of the area's 50 species of aquatic birds, but there was no sign of the black-tailed jackrabbit.

We crawled into bed at 7 that evening. The wind howled all night, and few of us slept much. It even rained a little, but the next morning was clear, sunny — and windy. It never occurred to me that we could be trapped on a beach because of the wind. A plan for a short early hike and morning paddle to a snorkeling spot was scuttled because it was too windy to paddle, and we went for a long hike instead.

We slowly climbed the loose red volcanic rock to the top of a hill for a spectacular view of the 95-mile-wide Gulf of California with other islands tucked into its shades of blue. The peninsula is incrementally detaching from mainland Mexico as it moves along the San Andreas fault.