A Visit to Isla del Carmen
Isla del Carmen rises like a rust-colored slice of Dakota badlands out of the slate-blue sea. It's the largest of Loreto's offshore islands, and it's privately owned, so you'll have to go through one of a number of tour companies in Loreto to go ashore. Choose your company based on your preferred activity and mode of exploration (usually kayaking or snorkeling, sometimes hiking).
The island was once the site of an impressive salt-mining operation, but increased competition -- not to mention the opportunity to earn a dollar from granting landing permissions to tourism purveyors -- encouraged the company to shut down and refocus its economic endeavors. You can see the ghost of the salt-mining town, completely abandoned in 1983, at the northeastern tip of the island.
Volcanic in origin, Isla del Carmen also has deposits of coquina, a limestone-like rock of cemented shell material that was quarried by the Jesuit missionaries for use in constructing the church and other buildings in Loreto. One favorite cove on Isla del Carmen is Puerto Balandra, where bold rock formations rising up like humpback whales frame crystal-blue water and ivory sand.
The craggy desert terrain offers a cornucopia of plant life, including elephant trees, desert asparagus (pickleweed), mesquite trees, jojoba, agave, cardón cacti, and passionflower vines. Be careful of the cholla cacti, whose spines enter your skin in a crisscross pattern. To remove them, cut the spines from the plant and then pull them out one at a time.
The topography on the island alternates between salt-crusted ground, spongy surfaces -- a sure sign that snakes, iguanas, and burrowing animals are nearby -- and the rocky remains of former riverbeds. The large variety of fauna includes a population of mountain goats that were introduced to the island to provide a meat supply for its inhabitants, and now are game for paying hunters. You'll spot feral cats, blacktailed hares, and birds ranging from osprey to gila woodpeckers, among other wildlife.