Skip touristy luxury resort party town Cabo San Lucas or make it your jumping-off point to La Paz, Mexico. Just 2 hours north on the Baja California peninsula, find a slower pace and a more authentic Mexican feel in La Paz where it’s easy to connect with nature, fascinating local culture, and marine wildlife. As the Gateway to the Sea of Cortez, there is a reason Jacques Cousteau described the area as “the world’s aquarium.” Teeming with wildlife on land and sea, many species can only be found here.
Make the most of your time in La Paz by not missing these top experiences:
Admire the street art all over this seaside town.
Thanks to a project called Ciudad Mural La Paz, organized by a nonprofit organization to help beautify cities in a creative way, La Paz shines bright with over 30 mural paintings – most depicting the city’s story. Works from a collective of Mexican artists include brightly colored bold paintings Sea of Cortez wildlife, fishermen, and the local desert Baja habitat. Look carefully to discover the meaning of the street art on the streets of Independencia, Melchor Ocampo, Ignacio Zaragoza, Mijares, Mutualismo and Lerdo de Tejada, and more. Stop in for a coffee at Big Sur Café Organico (and take some coffee home) while admiring the mural outside the shop.
Stroll the Malecón before sunset.
The seaside boardwalk runs for 5 kilometers beside the water. Absorb an enchanting sunset over a fun flavored ice cream or paletta (Mexican popsicle often with fruit or creamy) at colorful La Fuente. The large selection consists of unique flavors you will only find here like pinon, corn, pitaya, guava, and chamoyada (mango with spice). Peruse the nearby side street market stalls and the fabulous art along the Malecon showcasing the importance of the sea to the people.
Look for grand scale installations of the Whale Shark, Jacques Cousteau looking out at the whales and dolphins in La Paz Bay, The Old Man and the Sea, the La Paz Dove of Peace, the Mermaid and the Dolphin, shell bodies playing instruments, and the Giant Clam with silver pearl – which speaks to La Paz’s history as a thriving pearl industry center in the 1930’s. Palm trees and nearby buildings reflect on the gleaming pearl.
Sample a Mezcal flight at a Mezcaleria.
Become educated and entertained at La Miserable, a hipster cool (but not trying to be cool) Mezcaleria in La Paz town with many small-batch Mezcals. Wash the smoky goodness down with some tasty spicy grasshoppers with a crunch. Say hello to the cat on the way to the bathroom or take your party to the adorable outside patio. With over 60 Mezcals served from various regions (Guerrero, Michoacán, Oaxaca) - many bottles sporting just a basic slapped-on label - it is fun to learn about the history (sourcing and production) behind each spirit. Our favorite Mezcals included the Coyote and Mezonte. If we could come back to this friendly spot every night, we would.
Dine on seafood in La Paz town.
Besides sampling fare on the street, when you want a sit-down dinner, make sure to dine at upscale Nim and newcomer NEMI. Both restaurants were my favorite meals in La Paz. At Nim – the chic basket wrapped bar with hues of aqua and yellow greet you. Follow the art deco floor tiles to a meal of oysters, ceviche, mole, and seared fish. The fresh buttery garlic Oysters Rockefeller are irresistible and every bit of the sauce should be dipped with bread. Start with guacamole and red snapper ceviche on wonton chips and order the catch of the day prepared your way – like seared crusted yellowtail. The casual stylish restaurant could be described as a comfortable art gallery.
Brand new 3-month-old modern Mexican cuisine restaurant NEMI is where you dine for inventive dishes and artistically plated food – asparagus topped with squash blossoms drizzled with a cream sauce, plated grilled fish atop corn ready for you to make your own fish taco with pineapple sauce, lime sorbet sprinkled with a crunchy dust and dill. Besides the talented chef, NEMI’s cocktail game is strong. Sample one of their intricate medleys or ask for a drink with XILA, a flavored Mezcal liqueur made from 7 ingredients.
Swim with whale sharks.
La Paz is the best place to access the Sea of Cortez. The number one reason to come to La Paz is to spend a day or more on the water. The Sea of Cortez is filled with wildlife and adventure options. For the brave, book an all-day boating experience with On Board Baja that you will remember for the rest of your life. Our all-day trip consisted of hundreds of dolphins swarming and frolicking around our boat in the middle of the Sea of Cortez. Even our outing began with a welcome from numerous dolphins following our boat and riding our wake on our way out of the harbor.
The big excitement of the day was swimming with whale sharks. The gentle giants, only found in certain locations in the world, filter plankton and fish from the surface and can grow upwards of 40 feet long. For some reason, whale sharks have consistently been coming to the La Paz Bay area for the last 5 years. Some think it is due to food offshore. Juveniles (5 – 20+ feet) frequent La Paz from October to February, peaking in February with 70 whale sharks seen in La Paz recently.
We swam swiftly with these spotted beauties in the greenish-blue sea thanks to our passionate knowledgeable guide Dorian who prepared us and directed us when to jump in. Snorkeling with whale sharks requires swimming endurance, but gliding along next to the largest fish in the sea may make you contemplate your place in the universe.
Snorkel with sea lions and tropical fish in Espiritu Santo.
The day continued with more Oohs and Ahhhs as we snorkeled with tropical brightly colored fish, massive schools of sardines, and a friendly and curious sea lion colony along Espiritu Santo Island (UNESCO World Heritage Site). Baby and big sea lions swirled around us playfully as we swam through a rock tunnel and in and out of a cave at Los Islotes, a pair of rocky inlets at the northernmost part of the land. Due to a lack of predators in the area, sea lions aren’t like the ones in California but are curious and unafraid of humans.
Mid-afternoon, our boat was guided into a deserted private beach (Mexteno Beach), a pristine spot with turquoise crystal-clear water with no other visitors surrounded by cacti desert limestone cliffs and a beach stuffed with pearly whole shells and some intriguing dead puffer fish. We had the whole paradise to ourselves as our guide parked the boat and prepared a fresh shrimp and fish ceviche tostada picnic lunch for us on the sand. A welcome reward after so much swimming activity! Depending on whether you dive, snorkel, or admire marine life from the boat, wildlife is everywhere - schools of rays, sharks, and whales can also be seen at certain times of the year.
Kayak or paddleboard off Balandra Beach.
Nearby the deserted beach off Espiritu Santo Island is Balandra Beach, considered the most beautiful beach in Mexico, where paddleboarders like to cruise out in the low clear warm calm sparkly waters. The beach can also be accessed by car or you can rent a board at the beach. At low tide you can walk out at least a ½ mile out to observe the inter-tidal marine life or just go for an easy dip.
For another type of experience, consider a kayaking adventure where you can stay on the beach in one of the mesmerizing coves in Espiritu Santo Island. Camp Cecil glamping (with beds on a beach) comes with a chef to prepare your food, an expert guide, and can be booked with Todos Santos Eco Adventures. The adventures on the Sea of Cortez are limitless.
Gawk at birds and wildlife that can only be found in the Sea of Cortez.
On our return boat trip with On Board Baja we made stops to gawk at wildlife. It felt like watching a National Geographic episode. Swarms of nesting birds like brown footed boobies and frigates puffing their red chests hugged the coastal shores while brown pelicans, snowy egrets, and great blue herons soared. The area is a bird lover’s delight. We also passed carved weathered cliffsides that look like gargoyle heads and learned the storied fate of a former pearl farmer.
Spend a day visiting El Triunfo, an old mining town.
An hour from La Paz and in the La Paz Municipality, El Triunfo grew out of mining and became the most populated city in Baja California Sur several decades ago. Although no hotels exist today, El Triunfo is having quite a Renaissance thanks to a beautiful mini cultural hub (Regional Interpretive Center) with a shaded courtyard centered around the impressive Ruta de la Plata Museum detailing the history of Baja, the arrival of the first explorers in the mid-1500s, and the silver route.
Take a day trip to this former thriving mining town where people once flocked for gold and silver from all over the world. You could say this was the first “Gold Rush” that led to a very rich and multicultural community but in 1926 when the mines closed, the area became primarily a ghost town. Today only 350 people live in this Mexican village (now a Pueblo Historico) and besides the museum, lunch next to the museum at El Minero should be part of your journey consisting of homemade gourmet sausages, local goat cheeses, Baja oysters, and locally raised totoaba fish. Visitors can also linger for wine tastings in a small brick room (Toggle Wine Cellar) open to the courtyard with juicy red Mexican wines from various regions in Baja and around the country, as well as handmade cheeses from nearby Rancho Dos Hermanos.
Stay awhile on the historic terrace, enjoy a bottle of wine under the shade of the mesquite trees or listen to sweet stories about how the locals use to swing open their shutters to listen to the piano music that would soar out of everyone’s homes through the town. For those who plan in advance, sign up for a piano concert or traditional high tea with your choice of a vintage hat in their upstairs tea parlor. Who would think such activities would be offered in Mexico?
Peruse the mini gift shop, amble the quaint teeny cobblestone town (with a café serving fresh bread, pastries, and pizza café) and walk to the remnants from the old mining days – smokestacks (once called La Ramona). Surrounded by the green desert-like countryside in the mountains, imagine how they roasted ore to separate arsenic from the gold and silver.
Also, inside the museum, a reconstructed display showcases what life would be like inside the mines – even explaining how the word “taco” originated from the miners.
Mountain biking is a popular activity in the surrounding area too. A Cactus Sanctuary is often open along the drive to El Triunfo and presumably, there is a Piano Museum in town. Soon, this tiny Mexican town will see a natural history museum too.
Sleep at a beachside resort in a quiet cove.
La Paz is known for more of their boutique hotels and not being overdeveloped with crowded resorts. Located in a luxury development and a few minutes from town is CostaBaja Resort & Spa, a five-star beachside desert oasis tucked in a cove surrounded by the 250-slip double basin Puerta Cortes Marina.
Upon arrival in the elegant lobby with a ceiling tall Christmas tree for the holidays, the view overlooked a backdrop of palm trees, a wavy shaped pool, and glittery bay. In my second-floor beachside room dragonflies swarmed in front of my balcony as the mountainous desert landscape hugged the ocean. Facing the majestic Sea of Cortez, a sunset can’t be missed from your private balcony. Truly tranquil!
The resort’s modern but laid-back Beach Club is a real stunner with a bar, recliners in the pools, and lounge chairs all on a perch above the bay. Come here for sunrise or sunset with a Carajillo (coffee with Licor 43) in hand to soak in the beauty and peace. Besides the spa and multiple dining options, 24-hour room service, the resort also offers exclusive access and preferred rates at Mexico’s only Gary Player-designed golf course. CostaBaja Resort is relaxed sophistication.
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Written by Melissa Curtin
Read more posts by Melissa Curtin