Our crush on Baja, still unabated, keeps inching closer to an obsession…but a healthy one. The aptly named La Paz is a major culprit for this attraction, perhaps because it is still the real Baja—not at all fabricated, but completely homegrown, where flip-flops are the preferred footwear year-round and boats are always waiting for their next adventure. It’s where you can truly experience the authentic side of Mexico.
Part of the escapist quality that La Paz provides lies in the Sea of Cortez. It’s not uncommon to see dolphins at play, sea lions preening and whales putting on impromptu shows—even off-season, as we just saw some weeks ago. Manta rays and turtles will swim just feet away as you jump in and the fish you have for dinner won’t have time for a brief stop at a freezer—it will go from the sea to the boat to the grill.
La Paz and its waters have been the subject of adoration and inspiration for centuries. Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, who hailed from California, spent time here in the 1940s with marine biologist Ed Ricketts, resulting in the oft-quoted “The Log from the Sea of Cortez” and in his novella “The Pearl,” based not just in La Paz, but also on a local tale.
That sea’s provocative nature has spilled over into La Paz, where not even a hot desert sun wilts the spirited constitution of a state capital that is surprisingly low-key. At least it seems that way on the surface.
More than five miles of peaceful, camera-hogging boardwalk, recently spruced up, wrap around downtown La Paz’s bay and its beaches, with gorgeous sculptures commemorating the area’s main attractions: whales, hammerhead sharks, the sea. One of the latest ones commemorates Jacques Cousteau, who brought worldwide fame to the Sea of Cortez. This malecon is the place to be in the late afternoon, when families, jogging buddies and couples step out to enjoy the breeze and the view. Shops and restaurants like Bismarkcito, famous for its fish tacos, face the water on the other side of the boardwalk, with a few late-night spots like The Jungle Bar La Paz adding to the mix.
You can’t really talk about pretty, perky La Paz without talking food—whether it’s seafood, like the large chocolate clams for which the area is known, or home-style Mexican cuisine like that served at La Fonda de los Briseños. A local meeting place here is Mercado Bravo, good for a fresh juice at Don Pepe’s, a hearty pozole at one of its loncherias, or a peek at fresh fish and produce coming in. Downtown La Paz hosts an organic market on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. with lots of vendors selling an array of products and produce—keep an eye on oranges and fat, juicy strawberries at a low, low price, both from Baja. One of the stands here will most probably belong to the Sabores de Mexico store, known for its sea salt, jams and essential oils, and Ibarra’s Pottery with dishwasher- and microwave-safe pieces that are unique to La Paz. Better yet, stop at textiles factory Artesania Cuauhtemoc for a look at the painstaking process of weaving together a rug or bedspread, sold at almost impossibly low prices. One more important stop in downtown La Paz: the smallish but fascinating anthropology and history museum, which reveals much about the history of the region, its original inhabitants and the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century.
La Paz also has calmer, more family-friendly swimming spots than its southern neighbor Los Cabos; quiet, intimate coves with clear aquamarine waters are not uncommon and beaches such as Tecolote, Pichilingue and Balandra are within easy driving distance of downtown La Paz. Yes, it’s a definite plus to rent a car here, if only to better explore one’s surroundings. But there are also outfitters such as Fun Baja, available on property at CostaBaja Resort & Marina, which offers a variety of city, snorkeling, diving and other tours. Bareboat, crewed and power yacht charter company The Moorings, which operates out of the marina, also offers a variety of day trips or overnights at sea.
Perhaps the most popular maritime excursion from La Paz is a boat ride to the island of Espiritu Santo, less than an hour away. In the 1800s, Espiritu Santo was one of the world’s largest pearl exporters; today, it’s a still-pristine protected park. The waters off a couple of its beaches, including Ensenada Grande, are crystal-clear; on the way, visitors glide past Los Islotes and sea lions sunning themselves and complaining to whoever will stop to listen.
Clients who have the pesky problem of having their own boat need not fret. There are 250 boat slips at the state-of-the-art Marina CostaBaja, which also houses various shops and popular restaurants, including the new Dayaka Sushi Bar. Within CostaBaja, there are also condos and homes for sale for those wanting to stay longer than a couple of days.