The city of La Paz, Mexico appears aptly named. It was peaceful enough here in 1535 when Hernando Cortez became the first European to sail up the Gulf of California. Near what is now La Paz he marveled at a grand bay teeming with fish.
But Cortez found few signs of human habitation along the shore. The arid landscape he imagined to be part of an immense “Isla de Cardon”, referring to the giant cacti similar to the saguaro found elsewhere in the Sonora Desert. Having no idea how to exploit such a remote location, Cortez set course back to central Mexico.
Thus the Great Conquistador struck an attitude of indifference which held sway for centuries.
The Mexican War brought a U.S. Army contingent into the territory. Although its forced withdrawal saved Baja California for Mexico, one Mexican entrepreneur attempted to broker the sale of the entire peninsula—55,000 square miles, roughly the size of Illinois—to the United States for $50 million in gold.
In 1853 adventurers led by American journalist William Walker captured La Paz with the nutty idea of forming an independent republic. The Mexican Army put an end to that scheme, chasing Walker and his friends back across the border.
Only in the 1970s did the Mexican government get around to promoting Baja California Sur. Sunshine, beaches and deep sea fishing made for a splendid playground. New airports and paved roads opened up the Baja to tourists.
The pristine Ballandra near La Paz.
Along the southern cape—the Cabo—sprouted scores of hotels, condos and time shares. Not surprisingly, hasty construction and inadequate planning resulted in degradation of an ecologically sensitive environment.
Development has divided Baja California Sur into two regions, two mentalities. To simplify, Cabo exists to exploit the Yankee dollar. The older towns—the capital La Paz, the former territorial capital at Loreto, the art colony Todos Santos, and their hinterlands—are inclined to maintain the relaxed atmosphere of Viejo Mexico.
In La Paz some resident Paceños have a foot in both camps. Although the La Paz airport handles only 65 direct flights per week (Cabo lands nearly 300) eco-tourism drives the economic engine of the region.
Jacques Cousteau referred to the Gulf of California as “the world’s aquarium”. The Sea of Cortez is dotted with nearly one thousand islands, a quarter of which are protected by UNESCO as World Heritage Bio-Reserves.
The Sea of Cortez . . . The World's Aquarium.
The Bay of La Paz shelters the Isla Espiritu Santo group where, a short boat ride from the city can be enjoyed extraordinary diving, snorkeling, and kayaking. One can swim with sea lions and whale sharks near Ensenada Grande Beach, one of the most beautiful in all Mexico.
Visitors to La Paz may frequent five star resorts or dock their yachts at one of several marinas. Fishermen from around the globe support a busy service industry of marine shops and boat rentals—with or without guides—to facilitate endless days in pursuit of bountiful game fish.
But most of these attractions—not to mention numerous entrées into la vida loca--are available 100 miles to the south at Cabo San Lucas. So why come to La Paz?
Gary Player golf course on the Bay.
Paceños claim to offer something more like la vida serena. A sunset stroll along the Malecon without swarms of peddlers. Afterwards a cold beer with fresh mahi at a beachfront restaurant, locally owned not some chain operation.
Sensitivity to the natural environment has become a by-word here. The spectacle of depredation loosed upon Cabo has emboldened agencies like The Center for Environmental Law in La Paz to lobby for legislation protecting fragile ecosystems—wetlands, pristine beaches, marine and desert habitat. Battle is being joined against commercial fishing interests whose use of gill nets threatens to deplete stocks in the Sea of Cortez.
Kayaking is great sport in BC Sur.
On a recent trip to La Paz I visited Azul de Cortez, one of new real estate projects which aim to combine luxury living with sustainable development. This nascent 2,000 acre golf, beach, and marina complex on the Sea of Cortez “has been designed to combine the spirit, lifestyle, and culture of Baja with the site’s unique natural landscape.” This means not only architectural detail and workmanship in keeping with Mexican tradition but a commitment to environmental stewardship through practices like reduction of water usage, recycling, and non-recyclable trash disposal.
Pools at the CostaBaja Resort.
Too often in the past, such “commitment” has been given lip service. Officials of Azul de Cortez and other emerging projects in the La Paz area indicate that the bad old days of unregulated development in the Baja are no longer to be tolerated. Let us hope this comes to pass.
La Paz has come to embrace its reputation as sweet shadow-land of an earlier day, the sort of place Keats might refer to as "Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness! Thou foster-child of silence and slow time."
John Steinbeck explored La Paz and the Gulf in the spring of 1940. It was unspoiled nature that attracted the author to join a marine-specimen collecting expedition. The Log from the Sea of Cortez, published in 1951, includes a number of meditations on the primal rhythms of such a place.
Snorkel pristine reefs.
Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl (1947) recast a tragic Indian tale of greed among the pearl divers of La Paz. Pearl fishing in the local oyster beds had been a profitable activity since the 1500s. When the U.S. Army arrived in 1847 more than 100 boats were engaged in the practice, extracting gem-quality pearls like the 400 grain “Pearl of La Paz” which had been presented to the Queen of Spain. Alas, by the time Steinbeck arrived the industry had been decimated by a mysterious marine disease and the vagaries of the gem business.
In recent years the issue of safety has clouded discussion about the wisdom of travelling or settling in Mexico. Fortunately, Baja California Sur has experienced little of the drug-related crime endemic in the border towns and much of Mexico.
Obvious reasons? Remoteness from large population centers for one. Urban agglomerations like San Diego /Tijuana are a thousand miles distant. The inhabitants are relatively wealthy. Many Mexican nationals have resettled here to enjoy a living standard that includes a daily wage scale four times higher than that of the mainland. The illiteracy rate (3.6%) is the lowest of any state in the Republic. A large majority of the population—70 to 80%--was born in the United States and English is spoken as commonly as Spanish.
La Paz offers remote adventures.
For good or ill, Baja California Sur has a character as much American as Mexican. The sanguine response of the typical Paceño seems to be: “No problema! Let us live together in friendship, blending the best of both worlds.”
La Paz presents a wide range of lodging opportunities. On a short trip, I managed to experience three different types of accommodation.
The CostaBaja Resort & Spa is situated in a large marina development on the Bay, just few miles north of the Malecon and city center. This smartly laid out five star property offers 115 rooms with views either of the Sea, marina, or new Gary Player-designed golf course. All the best and most up-to-date here: rooms with Wi-Fi and large flat screen TVS; pool & gym facilities; business center; full-service spa.
CostaBaja, a five star resort.
Prefer something a bit more traditional? Try Casa Tuscany Inn, a delightful bed & breakfast run by Carol Dyer, an American lady with long-time ties to La Paz. The lovely garden courtyard building is located in the heart of the old city just a short walk from the Malecon – four guestrooms, including the “Romeo and Juliet” with balcony over the garden.
If you are planning an extended stay, perhaps you can persuade owner Jeffrey Curtiss to offer a deal on one of his fabulous digs at Playa de La Paz. This sumptuous enclave on the Bay was built and designed by one-time Londoner Curtiss as the ne plus ultra of luxury living in the Baja. I don’t doubt it is all of that — residences from 2800 to 9400 square feet, each a gem of interior and architectural detail. And there is a tennis court, where you might be able to talk up a game with Señor Curtiss himself.
The Cathedral at La Paz.
Of course sea food is the main attraction of La Paz’ many restaurants, most located near the Bay. A popular spot off the Malecon is Bismarkcito. Great chocolate clams, octopus, shrimp tacos, and all manner of grilled fish fresh from the Sea of Cortez. Mexican specialties at Las Tres Virgenes and numerous restaurants include a wide variety of fish entrées. This is also the case at Trocadero, a new Continental bistro downtown. One could dine out nightly for a month in La Paz without exhausting the possibilities of Mexican, Italian, Chinese, and other international fare.
The day-long boat excursion to the bio-reserve at Isla Spiritu Santo makes for an extraordinary experience. The Gulf waters are surprisingly cool, so a wet suit is standard gear for snorkeling or a frolic with the sea lions. When the frisky critters spit water into your face just spit back. It’s all in the game. If a lion decides to take your hand in his mouth, not to worry. Let him play with your fingers for a while. Eventually he’ll return them.
— Feature by Jerry Nemanic, Adventure and Golf and Tennis Editor at Jetsetters Magazine; photos courtesy of La Paz City Tourism and CostaBaja Resort.