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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Desert drives and sea lion dives: The enduring draws of La Paz, Mexico

The cobalt coastal waters of the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, on the east coast of Baja California Sur, near La Paz, Mexico, an area with a distinctive mix of ocean and red-hued desert, March 24, 2024. New hotels and destination-worthy restaurants now complement the ever-appealing outdoors surrounding La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur. (Tanveer Badal/The New York Times)

By Lauren Sloss

For our last night in La Paz, Mexico, we kept it simple: A couple of cans of cold Pacifico, a bench on the malecón, the city’s waterfront promenade, and the sunset glowing orange over the shimmering silver-blue Sea of Cortez.

My husband, Alex, and I had spent nearly a week taking scenic desert drives and lazy city strolls, visiting stunning beaches and mountains, and enjoying a steady diet of fish tacos and mezcalitas. But now we were salt-coated and sinking into a blissful exhaustion that comes only after a day spent scuba diving.

La Paz is the capital of Baja California Sur, the Mexican state where about 42% of the land and water are natural protected areas, and the city lies on the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, considered one of the world’s most diverse marine environments. Travelers have long been drawn to the region’s glorious outdoors, a distinctive mix of ocean and red-hued desert, to spend days not only diving but also sailing, kayaking, fishing, kite surfing, mountain biking, camping and hiking.

In recent years, the city has maintained its strong commitment to environmental conservation but has also welcomed new restaurants and accommodations, meeting a growing desire among many travelers to Mexico for authentic experiences found beyond the walls of an enormous resort.

“This is an adventure destination,” said Luz Maria Zepeda, director of the city’s tourism board. “We want people who want to explore, who want to preserve the environment the way it is, and to help us protect it.”

Growth, but kept in check

Home to around 300,000 people, La Paz has a decidedly laid-back feel — “The Peace,” it’s aptly named — and is often overshadowed by Los Cabos, a municipality on the state’s southernmost tip that includes San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, as well as by tiny Todos Santos, a stylish destination for art and food on the Pacific coast.

Indeed, while La Paz had a record-breaking 600,000 tourists in 2023, Los Cabos — through cruises and air alone — welcomes 3 million travelers annually.

La Paz’s comparatively modest number of visitors is, in part, a question of access: La Paz’s airport almost exclusively serves domestic destinations, with direct flights primarily from Mexico City and Guadalajara. Most international visitors opt to fly to the larger Los Cabos International Airport and take the two- to three-hour drive to La Paz.

The drive from the airport is its own worthwhile journey, with routes running along the Pacific coast through Todos Santos and El Pescadero, home to Playa Los Cerritos, a popular surfing destination. A slightly longer, but epically beautiful, drive winds through the Sierra La Laguna mountain range.

La Paz is a walkable city with good roads and ample services. It does not have any large resorts, and there are no current plans to build any. This is not a destination with aspirations of imitating the all-inclusive, tourist-heavy spring break vibes long associated with Cabo. Instead of a waterfront dominated by restricted private access, La Paz has the malecón, which was renovated in 2020 and 2021. Last April, a proposal to build a large port for cruise ships was withdrawn after local pushback.

“We don’t want massive tourism,” said Ivan Félix, manager of the tour and travel department of the La Paz tourism board. “The idea is not to grow in numbers but in quality.”

That has translated to a bevy of smaller, higher-end hotel openings: Hotel Indigo, formerly the Costabaja Resort & Spa, was renovated and reopened by IHG in December, and Republica Pagana, an adults-only boutique hotel with a rooftop bar and restaurant, welcomed its first guests in January. Grupo Habita opened the Baja Club Hotel in a former colonial villa in 2021 on the malecón. Hilton plans to complete a renovation of the historic La Perla Hotel, which first opened in 1940, by the end of this year.

That sophisticated growth can also be found in the city’s culinary scene, which continues to be dominated by the region’s fresh seafood, flour tortillas and ranch-driven fare like meat-filled molcajetes and snack-sized burritos. Fried fish tacos remain stalwarts, from street stands to casual eateries like Taco Fish La Paz (featured on the Netflix series “Taco Chronicles”) and Toto Frito, where you can try sustainably farmed totoaba, a fish native to the Sea of Cortez.

We feasted on a variety of chilaquiles at Maria California, a popular brunch spot, and inhaled spicy shrimp aguachile at a beach stand at Playa El Tecolote, just north of Balandra. At Los 32 Sabores, a memorable dinner of manta ray and tripe tacos on fresh tortillas and Caesar salads made tableside hinted at the city’s ambition to become a bona fide food and drink destination.

Nemi offers riffs on traditional dishes, which might include fresh fish served raw or topped with hoja santa butter, duck confit in flour tortillas or pork belly served with beans and nopales. The restaurant is the first solo project of Alejandro Villagomez, who in 2011 moved from Mexico City, where he was chef de cuisine of Pujol.

“La Paz is a magical place,” Villagomez said. “We are surrounded by sea and desert, and we strive to find the best ingredients both inside and outside the city.”

White sand, cobalt waters

Still, for all of the new hotels and destination-worthy restaurants, the natural world remains La Paz’s main draw. Chrissy Cappellano, a certified master scuba diver trainer from Long Island, in New York, has been living in the city since 2018.

“You have to plan multiple trips to see everything,” she said of the area’s rich marine life. “There’s a time that’s good for whale sharks, for whales, for sea lions.”

I met Cappellano when she led our daylong dive trip with Carey Dive Center that included a surprise sighting of humpback whales and a swim with whale sharks, the wide-mouthed, filter-feeding fish that can grow up to 30 feet. The rest of the day was spent around the islands of Espírito Santo and Partida — the archipelago is part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, a national park and a 45-minute ride from the city — diving around a protected sea lion colony called Los Islotes.

It’s not hard to see how and why visitors fall in love with these cobalt waters, and why local residents are so protective of them. Espiritu Santo is a geological layer cake carved with countless small anchorages, beloved by sailors and fishing enthusiasts. But there’s also much to explore on land — the island is a popular destination for hiking and glamping, while Playa Balandra, famous for its white sand and shallow turquoise waters, is consistently named one of the most beautiful beaches in the country. An easy 20-minute drive from the city center, it is also a protected area, and limits the number of visitors allowed per day, with timed entries at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m.

La Ventana, a 40-minute drive, is a famous kite-surfing destination. There’s mountain biking, dune buggying, hiking and camping, too.

“You can pick a beach depending on the wind. There are waterfalls and hot springs. Every sunset here is usually amazing,” Cappellano said. “There’s just so much nature to be enjoyed.”

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