La Paz Love
by Beth Purcell
I’m going to start with a cliche: La Paz is the best kept secret. The thing about cliches though, is that they are generally true, and in this case, completely true.
La Paz IS the best kept secret. I’ve found that people often don’t even know where La Paz is located, let alone about all the wonderful things it has to offer.
So let me quickly lay it out for you. La Paz is the capital city of Baja California Sur. It’s situated on the Sea of Cortez, about 93 miles (150 km) northeast of Los Cabos. It’s a vibrant, living Mexican city, but isn’t too large; there are approximately 250,000 inhabitants. It’s a port city, and to the north of town you’ll find the ferry that goes to and from Mazatlan and Topolobampo on the Mexican mainland. El Mogote, a flat deserted sandbar, sits offshore, and there are numerous still-wild islands close by that are teeming with sea life, the best known and most visited of which is Isla Espíritu Santo.
The city itself is laid out in a classic grid fashion with streets radiating from the city’s waterfront. The town’s very traditional main square, a few blocks from the water, features a gazebo and 19th century cathedral. However, downtown La Paz is best known for its lovely malecón (waterfront walkway), beloved by city residents (Paceños) and visitors alike.
Dave Evans, an attorney from San Antonio, Texas who vacationed in La Paz for the first time last summer with his family shares, “The best experience by far was grabbing ice cream at Palateria La Fuente and taking a stroll along the seaside malecón where everyone in town seems to show up to enjoy some family time as the sun sets.”
La Paz, although an amazing getaway for anyone, does work particularly well for families. As its name attests to, La Paz is an unhurried peaceful place, and the locals are family-oriented. It doesn’t have the party town vibe of Cabo San Lucas, and doesn’t focus exclusively on tourists. However, you’ll feel plenty welcome and there is a lot to do to keep all ages happy.
There are numerous culture offerings, including an anthropology museum (Museo Regional de Antropologia e Historia) and a cultural center (Casa de la Cultura), but likely more interesting for the kids are the brand new Museo de la Ballena (whale museum), actually not officially opened yet, which features the complete skeleton of a gray whale, and the small Serpentario (serpentarium) located to the south of town. Here you can pose for photos with iguanas and not only view, but have hands-on encounters with snakes, lizards, turtles, tarantulas and birds.
Honestly, though, the biggest attraction in La Paz area is the Sea of Cortez and the numerous close-by islands and gorgeous beaches. The average air temperature here is 80 degrees. Water temperatures average 72 degrees, with a visibility of up to 100 feet. It doesn’t get much better than this. Anywhere.
“I think that certain beaches are every bit as lovely as the Caribbean for less money and much shorter travel time. La Paz is less expensive than Hawaii or the Caribbean and safer and less ‘wild’ than Cabo or a similar destination. It has the feel of a sleepy, peaceful fishing village,” explains Leslie Brew from San Diego, who visits La Paz almost yearly with her husband and teenage children.
With these statistics it follows, then, that La Paz is a top spot for all things water sports. Rentals are offered from myriad operators, both in town and at the resorts, so it’s easy to paddle board, kayak, snorkel, scuba dive, sports fish, or join guided tours to the off-shore islands. One of the most memorable things to do while in La Paz is swim with whale sharks. Yes, you read that right. You can swim right alongside the world’s largest fish, which grow up to 40 feet in length! This activity was my family’s favorite, hands down. It was simultaneously scary and exciting, peaceful and educational – an experience none of us will ever forget. (Full disclosure, the whale sharks we swam with were no larger than 15 feet in length, which was just fine with us.)
Depending on when you visit, whale watching tours are also an option (winter and spring), and there are numerous excursions to Espíritu Santo (and some other local islands), where you can snorkel with sea lions and more than 800 fish species. UNESCO designated Espíritu Santo and hundreds of other nearby islands a Biosphere and World Heritage Site in 2010, so you can rest assured that your visit will not adversely impact the islands’ flora and fauna.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed paddle boarding, pool time and the whale shark outing, my favorite thing about La Paz was its breathtaking beaches. Just a few minutes outside of the city you’ll find white sandy beaches void of any development, excepting a palapa restaurant or two offering the freshest of seafoods. The first you’ll come to as you wind out of town north along the Pichilingue Peninsula (Highway 11), is, aptly, Pichilingue. This is easy and quick to get to, and the swarms of tiny fish swimming in the shallow water and the small dock – good for playing on and jumping off of – will keep the kids occupied while you enjoy an ice-cold beverage and chocolato clams as the suns sinks low. Farther down the road you come to Balandra beach, a local favorite. Here you can picnic alongside Paceños or rent a kayak and cruise along the lovely cove’s clear water. Be sure to keep an eye out for El Hongo, the landmark balancing rock formation. My personal favorite, a place I long to go back almost daily, and from which you can get great rates on whale shark and other boat excursions, is Tecolote beach. It sits at the very tip of the peninsula, and offers miles of sandy white beaches, a few palapa restaurants, amazingly clear water and a terrific offshore view of Isla Espiritu Santo (only 4 miles away).
You’ll obviously need a home base while exploring all these remarkable options; not to worry – there are numerous excellent hotels in La Paz, with the nicest properties located to the north of town. By far the best option for families is the 5-star CostaBaja. Its 550-acre residential, master planned community offering amazing amenities. There is a 115-room hotel with a fine-dining restaurant, Steinbeck’s (named after John Steinbeck, who knew a good thing when he found it. He spent ample time in La Paz in the 1940s), and a sweet little spa, Espiritu, that offers all the basics plus numerous signature treatments. There are also the even more luxurious VistaMar Condos & Villas, which sit atop a hill and offer panoramic views of the Sea of Cortez. The larger of these include full kitchens, washer and dryer, wifi and multiple bathrooms that make staying with a family easier, less costly and more enjoyable. My family stayed here, and to our delight the unit came with our own electric golf cart, which made getting around the large property a breeze (and entertained the kids to no end).
The first Gary Player Signature Golf Course ever built in Mexico is located at CostaBaja too. It boasts a par-72, 7,082-yard course with even more expansive panoramic views than Vista Mar, as well as a good restaurant, La Pintada Bar & Grill, which offers Mexican and Mediterranean dishes.
To round it all out there is also a fabulous Beach Club at CostaBaja as well as a marina complete with shopping, galleries and restaurants. We logged many hours at the CostaBaja Beach Club. With offerings as diverse as a fitness center, play structure, ping-pong palapa, beach (offering kayak and paddle board rentals), hammocks, hot tub, kiddie pool, restaurant and giant, gorgeous infinity pool, staying for the day was an easy option. We ate both breakfast and lunch here some days. For dinner we often found ourselves at the marina restaurants. Azul Marino deserves special note (especially the nutella crepes!).
Right across the channel from the CostaBaja Hotel on the marina you’ll find the new and modern Hyatt Place, which is also a great option, your stay includes free breakfast daily and has a market that is open all day every day. It has a professional feel and you can earn nights toward free stays if already a member of the Hyatt Gold Passport program. Hotels Seven Crown is a good option if you prefer to stay in town. There are two Seven Crown locations in La Paz, with the Seven Crown La Paz Malecón being the better choice for vacationers. It offers 55 rooms, some with excellent sea views. Seven Crown is an especially good choice if you’re traveling on a budget.
So, the secret’s out. La Paz is a great destination for a vacation – family or otherwise. Safe, easy to get to and only quietly discovered, La Paz is an excellent option for your 2016 travels.