Whether You’re Seeking Peace or Adventure Head for Mexico’s La Paz

This beach enclave on Baja California's east coast is a watersports paradise.

February 20, 2019 5:00 am

If paz, Spanish for peace, is what you’re seeking in a sabbatical, then a small enclave on the Sea of Cortez side of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula might just be your  Shangri-La. And the same goes if you want to try nearly every aquatic sport under the sun.

Pleasantly devoid of most chain hotels and restaurants, La Paz is nothing like its more popular and rowdier cousin, Cabo San Lucas, 100 miles to the South. The closest Hard Rock equivalent you’ll find here is photo-worthy Mushroom Rock at the exquisite Balandra Beach south of town. Just to be clear, it’s an actual fungi-shaped rock…not a swim up bar for artisanal hallucinogenic cocktails.

La Paz feels and looks like a more off-the-beaten-path, west coast alternative to the Caribbean, albeit with less palm trees and more cacti. It’s a place that calls to explorers and seekers rather than tourists.

The city itself is sandwiched between the Sea of Cortez and the Sierra Laguna Mountains. In many ways it feels like a traditional Baja town, yet it also seems to materialize out of the desert like a mirage…a patchwork quilt of tradition, art, unexpectedly haute cuisine, a thriving ex-pat community and a paradise for aquatic life aficionados.

As the capital of Baja California Sur, La Paz has one of the highest standards of living in Mexico. And it counts a unique history of pearl diving as part of its colorful past. As a result, the city’s under-the-radar getaway appeal may not last much longer—it’s attracting more and more of the jet set crowd every day.

Sunset over La Concha Beach. (Kinga Philipps)

New hotel properties are popping up like spring blooms, but some of the best and most comfortable stays are still Airbnb rentals. Ocean view condos can be found on our favorite La Concha Beach, private homes offer infinity pools overlooking the malecón (beach esplanade) and Isla Espíritu Santo, and even boat stays round off a superb blend of inexpensive, top-notch accommodations. If you want to get romantic with a side of fancy, glamping options on a nearby island are dreamy beyond words. Check out Camp Cecil Luxury Tent Camping for jaw-dropping, Out of Africa-worthy safari tents set on powder white beaches just a stone’s throw from crystal clear waters and below dripping diamond skies at night. (https://www.tosea.net/trip/camp-cecil-luxury-tent-camping-on-isla-espiritu-santo/)

The cuisine in La Paz is unexpectedly diverse and top notch as well. From rustic outdoor patios that take advantage of balmy summer nights to loungy velvet curtained bars with cocktails crafted from local ingredients, new restaurants appear nearly every time we visit.

Our current top picks for delicious eats and libations are Las Tres Virgenes, Palermos, Sorstis and the Odayaka Sushi Bar…but each trip offers up new culinary experiences that have yet to disappoint. Still, our most delicious meals have consisted of self-harvested fish eaten on the balcony of our go-to rental property under a sunset that literally brings tears of emotion to the eyes. After a glass of wine and a post-dinner dip in the ocean, life is about as good as it gets.

Strolling the beach-adjacent sections of town is the best way to get to know the city. Countless murals and art sculptures speak to the thriving artistic community, the Cathedral Nuestra Señora de La Paz is a worthy stop and an assortment of cafes and ice cream shops beckon just a few more steps away…even in the midday heat.

Nature makes a statement everywhere you look around La Paz, Mexico. (Kinga Phillips)

Never one to stray too far from the water, my favorite walk follows the seaside malecón, a paved pathway that runs along the edge of the sea for three miles, past cafes, bars and restaurants displaying the catch of the day on ice. In the cool of the evening, it’s full of life. Locals and visitors venture out en masse to ride bikes, jog, buy cotton candy off street carts and listen to music as they take in the desert air mixed with salt spray. Statues of mermaids, hammerhead sharks, mantas and Jacques Cousteau remind you that the sea is the heart and soul of this place, even as the desert spreads out majestically in all directions that aren’t shimmering blue.

Those are the logistical bits and pieces, but what makes La Paz extraordinary are the surrounding natural wonders.

For starters, the sunsets are some of the best I’ve ever seen.

It’s mostly locals enjoying the beaches and at sunset they gather on La Concha Beach….a virtual Mexican Waikiki that offers perfect sunset viewing year round. The sounds of children splashing in the warm water, songs being sung, music playing and the beautiful melody of members of our species enjoying themselves permeates the air. An occasional dirt bike rides up the beach and people calmly move their umbrellas out of the way to let it pass. The whole scene is so tranquil its become my go to mental intermission when I’m stuck in L.A. traffic.

La Paz is also a mecca for marine scientists, environmentalists, explorers and ecotourists with a soft spot for big marine wildlife courtesy of its extensive biodiversity. Nearly every month of the year holds the potential for an encounter with some kind of magnificent sea creatures. The area contains 891 fish species, 90 of them endemic. Thirty-nine percent of the world’s marine mammals and a third of the world’s marine cetacean species can be found in the local waters.

January to March is gray whale season, when the behemoths migrate all the way down from Alaska to the Sea of Cortez, making the La Paz area a hot spot for catching a glimpse of the barnacle coated giants.

Magdalena Bay, north of La Paz, has become synonymous with face-to-face whale encounters. The warm waters of the protected lagoon act like a protective whale nursery and new cetacean mothers spend winters there teaching their young the necessary survival skills for the long journey back north to their feeding grounds.

February to June also brings humpbacks. Form March to July blue whales, the largest creatures to have ever existed on our planet, visit local waters.

In June and July, gold colored mobula rays appear by the thousands. They often attract orcas, who show up simultaneously to dine on these smaller cousins of manta rays… much more to the delight of spectators than the mobulas.

October to March is whale shark season, when untold numbers of the biggest fish in the world arrive to feast on plankton and give eager bipeds a chance to swim alongside them. This period is also pilot whale season, so if you have a four leaf clover tucked in your neoprene, you could potentially see both.

If cactus-lined white sandy shores melting into turquoise is on your list, as it should be on everyone’s, the surrounding islands, islets and beaches run the gauntlet of paradise, allowing you to be everything from lackadaisical to full blown Aquaman…depending on your preference at any given moment.

The best beaches in La Paz, after meticulous examination by yours truly—it’s hard work but someone’s gotta do it—are as follows.

Balandra Beach is a local favorite that draws swimmers and photographers alike. (Kinga Philipps)

Balandra Beach: A local favorite and probably the most photographed area of La Paz. The surrounding ocean is so electric blue that it feels unreal…like a theme park ride where the water is tinted for extra vibrance. In extremely clean, clear water, blue is the color that gets scattered back while others are absorbed…giving Balandra its extraordinary signature hue.

As with most bewitching locations, its a good thought to avoid this bay on the weekends, as it’s beauty is no secret and cars parked on the shoulder line the road for half-a-mile before you even reach the parking lot.

Walking across the shallow cove is remarkable and an opportunity for some terrific  right-out-of-a-travel-magazine photos with two Cliffs notes for safety. Shuffle your feet, though, as sting rays love the warm, soft sand as much as we do. Also, check the tide. What might be walkable at low tide becomes necessary to swim across at high. This was proven by my own personal miscalculation, which left our party bouncing back on our tiptoes with backpacks on our heads. Yes, that experience also makes for a magazine-worthy photo, but more set to the theme of an after-school special.

Walking Balandra Bay — bring a spirit of adventure and sunscreen. (Kinga Philipps)

Balandra beach is big, serene, family-oriented and offers plenty of spots to escape other sun seekers. You can find vendors in the parking lot selling fruit, coconut and water, but the ideal day is showing up early enough to grab a palapa with a packed lunch and plenty of sunscreen. Balandra is about 15 miles outside the city and easy to find.

El Tecolote: A long stretch of white sand with shallow water and plenty of bars, restaurants, facilities and rental activities is at the end of the road…literally. If you are OK trading in some quiet for a more active scene, than this beach is a good compromise. Kayaks, wave runners, paddle boats, palapas and beach chairs are available for rent and you can even take the bus from town. It can get windy here, but on the bright side, it’s an excellent place to go fly a kite and let your inner Mary Poppins shine.

El Tesoro: A great beach for families set on one of the many inlets along the Sea of Cortez coast. Warm, shallow water, along with umbrellas and food vendors are all set to the pace of a siesta waiting to happen at any moment.

All three of these beaches are along the same route, so if you want to do a little unforgettable beach hopping via car, bus or Uber, you could really win at life all in one day.

My favorite beach, I’ve saved for last, because it deserves its own space for verbose proclamations of love.

Isla Espíritu Santo: About an hour away from La Paz by boat you will find one of the most glorious desert islands I’ve ever seen. Teeming with life and more postcard-worthy coves than you could Instagram in a day, it’s truly the standout gem of the La Paz area. This idyllic island was declared part of a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1995 and its uninhabited shores have beckoned divers, snorkelers and beach lovers for decades.

Stunning powder-white beaches, windswept dunes and turquoise inlets greet you at every turn of the head. You can choose from day trips, safari style glamping adventures or camping under brilliant stars on your own along the sorbet colored cliffs shared by blue footed boobies and other marvelous seabirds.

Isla Espiritu Santo used to be one of the top destinations on the planet to see scalloped hammerhead sharks…until overfishing and the fin trade wiped out the population almost completely. Slowly, they are returning, and if you are incredibly lucky, you might catch a glimpse of that characteristic shape making its way into the abyss. On our most recent visit, at a pinnacle called El Bajo…popular for fisherman and spear-fishers alike…one materialized out of the blue for just a brief moment before it descended back into cooler, deeper waters.

The island is also home to a colony of sea lions, 500 strong. During the most of the year, with the exception of summer months when mating season makes the males territorial, you can frolic with them to your heart’s content or until your reef-safe sunscreen wears off. Pups climb on your head pulling off your mask, females come in for scratches and individuals engage you in spinning games and bubble blowing. I’m positive that having a sea lion sit on your head qualifies as the highlight of any vacation.

For those who want to experience the frutas del mar with even more salt in their hair and an optional tank on their back, the area offers exceptional opportunities for scuba diving, free diving and fishing.

Jacques Cousteau named this slice of wonderland the “Aquarium of the World,” and indeed it is. Visibility is best between May and October…the better to see the fishes.

The surrounding reefs teem with life and are known for some of the best spear fishing in North America. Snapper, wahoo, amberjack, grouper, yellowtail and yellowfin mingle with rays, parrot fish, turtles, whales, dolphins and even sharks.

The reefs surrounding Isla Espiritu Santo teem with life, including turtles. (Kinga Philipps)

Each of our adventures to La Paz includes at least two days on the water surrounding Isla Espiritu Santo with the Baja Adventure Company’s (BACO) spearfishing charter (https://bajaadventureco.com). We rent the whole boat, which includes a captain, an excellent spear fishing guide (Louise, Jason or Patrick), lunch and a full day out on the water searching the top spots for seasonal fish. The day costs around $580 for one of the smaller boats and you can split that between as many as six people to make it more affordable. BACO also offers day trips to the islands, plane tours, whale shark adventures, free diving, sport fishing and whale watching. If you’re looking for a more luxurious live-aboard boat that can sleep up to eight, they’ve got that covered too. Basically they are your one-stop shop for any water-based adventure visit to La Paz.

Patrick, who started the outfit for fun nine years ago came out from Mexico City and has a background in marine biology, as do several of the guides. Their eco-conscious style of guiding is part of the reason we enjoy our time with them. They self impose limits on spearing certain species and avoid taking fish during spawning and when they are not in season. That, and the fact that they are the most hands-on, well versed spear guides we’ve had in all of the spearfishing trips we’ve done is what keeps us coming back.

On our last venture out with BACO, we brought home a 26-l.b wahoo and two snapper that the team vacuum sealed for us for the return trip home. They’re still making the rounds of our dinner table months later, appearing in various incarnations of stews, filets and creative curry ensembles made from fish head broth. We’ve made it a practice that when we run out of fish, it’s time to go back to La Paz.  

Our best memories from Baja come from being on the water. As far as you can see, you’re surrounded by mesmerizing shades of blue, around 80 degrees F in summer. On a recent trip, a sea lion befriended us for an hour, albeit with ulterior motives of stealing our catch, but as a consolation prize for scaring all fish away she let us scratch her belly and play with her flippers. That’s nearly as good as the sashimi we could have had if she had buggered off. On yet another trip, I got in the water and immediately felt my senses tingle. Inexplicably, I knew there was something big present long before my eyes verified my hunch. It was an eerie, exciting, electric feeling but in no way sinister. I peeled my eyes into the blue and watched a massive tail vanish into the distance, unmistakably that of a shark. Moments later, Louise dropped to 60 feet next to the pinnacle and came back to report a large bronze whaler lounging in the depths.

BACO charters go out of the Costa Baja Marina, a beautifully designed area and clearly a playground for the rich and famous as much as those in the know. A massive boat caught our attention as being considerably larger than any home we’ve ever lived in. Turned out it belonged to a director named Steven Spielberg. Sounds familiar. Even more impressive, after a full day on the water, you can swing by for some sashimi at the Odayaka Sushi Bar, a stone’s throw away from the BACO office.

For day trip options out of La Paz, try renting a 4×4 and exploring the desert expanse north of town or consider heading over to the Pacific side to visit the charming surf town of Todos Santos. The beautiful, rugged vistas of the desert melting into the Sea of Cortez’s calming waters never disappoint. Wisps of dirt roads lead to bays and inlets, to beaches, and to secret surf spots along this majestic bit of territory.

When you need a break from aquatic activities, Rancho El Cajon, an authentic Mexican ranch located about 45 minutes outside of La Paz, serves up the opportunity to satisfy your inner vaquero. From beach rides, where you can gallop along the waters edge, to horseback camping in the mountains, it’s yet another way to experience the mystique of this desert and beach oasis before catching a flight home.

If La Paz leaves you with one final life lesson, let it be this: there is always time for one last margarita and one last stroll along the malecón.

Photos by Kinga Philipps


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