The City of Peace
La Perla Del Mar De Cortes
by Richard and Cheryl Johnson
The Johnsons live in Yuma, Arizona, on the Mexico and California borders. Truly Mexicophiles, the Johnsons travel Mexico, especially the Baja, whenever possible. Travel possibilities are getting better since Richard recently retired and Cheryl will soon retire. In retirement, the Johnsons are transitioning from writing educational books to travel writing. “La Paz – the City of Peace,” is their first travel article for The Mexico File.
La Paz, Baja California Sur (pop. maybe 180,000), is a laid-back, beautiful Mexican city on a bay in the Sea of Cortez near the southern tip of the Baja. La Paz is about a three and a half-hour drive north of Cabo San Lucas, but really, the two cities share very little in common. Although they are geographically close, in many ways, they are worlds apart. La Paz is Mexican; Cabo appears to exist solely to satisfy American tastes and values.
Granted, there is much beauty, both natural and artificial, in and around Cabo, but La Paz made us feel as if we were in Mexico and part of Mexico. Even though there are many activities for tourist in La Paz, the activities are not there solely for Americans. They are there as much for the native Mexicans as they are for the foreigners who join them. And there seems to be as many activities in the La Paz area as there are foreign countries represented to participate.
If getting to La Paz is supposed to be half the fun, or, if not fun, at least an adventure, then I guess we took the correct route. La Paz is not an easy place to get to by air. There are few flights to La Paz because there are limited hotel rooms available. There is limited hotel space because there are few flights to La Paz. You get the picture? Perhaps that is why it has not been Americanized?
Unless one is in a hurry or does not like to drive, it is probably more efficient, at least economically, to fly to Los Cabos (which has many daily flights) and drive up Route 1 to La Paz. It is a three-hour, mainly mountainous, drive up Mexico 1 on twisty, narrow roads with some spectacular mountain/desert/water scenery. As are many mountainous Mexican roads, it is a great road for cars and small trucks but not so great for RVs and trailers.
One of the most scenic spots on the trip is the area in and around Los Barriles. The Bahia de Palmas contains some of the most beautiful waters in the Sea of Cortez. The bay area is home to many American/Canadian ex-patriots who come for fun in the sun – world class fishing, wind surfing, snorkeling, scuba diving, biking, boating, or just relaxing on the beach. All terrain vehicles (ATVs) seem to be the normal mode of in-town transportation. Los Barriles presents a relaxed beach town atmosphere without all the rules, regulations and laws of a beach in the U. S. of A.
Further up the road in the mountains away from the Sea is the town of San Bartolo, a town that you may smell even before you enter it, especially in August. Ripe mangoes have a heavy, sweet smell, which some people call a cross between passion fruit and oranges.
This is a town to drive through with your windows rolled down. The town seems to hang on to the side of a very steep hill. Route 1 traverses directly through this little village along the side of the mountain, and the mango trees grow on the side of the hill below the town all the way down to the rain fed arroyo a few hundred feet below the village.
After leaving San Bartolo, we traveled winding mountain roads through the Sierra de La Lagunas to San Pedro with many photo opportunities along the way. Two scenic towns worth exploring on this trip are San Antonio and El Triunfo.
Following the discovery of silver in 1748, San Antonio grew to more than 10,000 people, many of them Yaqui mine workers. Known as the Real de Minas de Santa Ana, San Antonio was the first non-mission town founded in Baja California.
Today, the more scenic town is El Truinfo a few miles north of San Antonio. In the nineteenth century the large Progresso mining concern established several gold and silver mines in the area. One of the most handsome and well-maintained churches in the Sierra is located on the north end of town.
After leaving El Truinfo and coming off the mountain, we drove through some flat cactus desert until we came to the junction of Mexico 1 and Mexico 19. Mexico 19 branches south to Todos Santos and then on to Cabo San Lucas. Mexico 1 leads right in to and through La Paz.
This junction proved to be a sign that we were again approaching civilization. And we were. We soon passed through San Pedro. Although the village of San Pedro is small, about 400 habitants along Mexico 1, we could not get through it quickly.
San Pedro is the town of seven and a half topes, seven jarring speed bumps and one baby bump, which is the first bump on the south side of town. The topes slowed us down enough so we could stop and visit the well-maintained shrine at the south end of town.
Once we left San Pedro, we soon entered the outskirts of La Paz, but we were still thirty to forty-five minutes from the malecon (waterfront) along the bay.
If you like Mexico, you have to love La Paz. Pacenos take great pride in their city’s reputation as a peaceful, friendly place. Pacenos are faithfully proud of their city and brag about it being called the City of Peace. They exhort visitors to join together with native Pacenos in the slow, friendly rhythms of their city. La Paz feels more like mainland Mexico than any other Baja city.
Upon checking in to our hotel, we were told of the friendliness of the people and the lack of violent crime, and were told that we should not worry about communicating if we did not speak Spanish: “Everyone here speaks sign language very well.” And with our limited Spanish, communication was never a problem in the area. La Paz presents a great “feel” for us Mexicophiles.
La Paz is not overrun with Americans, especially in August/September when the rains, humidity and heat invade the peaceful setting. The afternoon rains give La Paz a tropical feel, and the palm tree encrusted city steams alive with car splashes along the Malecon Alvaro Obregon, a beautiful street where people can enjoy the lazy bay, beautiful sunsets and leisurely evening activities. La Paz is proud of its wonderful waterfront promenade. One imagines a Mexican Caribbean.
The summer afternoon rains normally begin in late July and oftentimes bring dirt from the roads above the city down onto the malecon. City crews are up early every morning cleaning mud off the streets and picking up fallen palm fronds, sometimes sweeping the dirt into the bay off the malecon.
La Paz is a beautiful city, acknowledged for its beaches, for excellent sport fishing, and for its beautiful sunsets. La Paz is a great place to just relax, but there are a number of activities locally to keep any visitor busy.
La Paz has beautiful beaches. But they are not in La Paz. The beaches near the city are not for swimming. There are shallow, rocky tidal areas near the shores, and the bay area is small, considered too taken with boat traffic and the pollution they generate to be considered safe for everyday swimming. But, of course, a few locals will always be seen playing in the water and water skiing in the bay.
Although not recommended for swimming, the bay is a great area for bird watching and sometimes dolphin watching. And sunsets over the bay are sights to behold.
La Paz’s beautiful, fun-filled beaches are outside the city, to the east and north on the Pichilingue Peninsula. Some of the most beautiful beaches in Baja, that draw large crowds but rarely seem crowded, can be found on this peninsula heading towards Isla Espiritu Santu.
The first beach you will see as you drive towards the ferry station from La Paz is Playa Corumuel. This beach is only about a ten-minute drive from La Paz, is just north of Pichilingue, and allows camping; it has twenty-four hour restroom facilities and a restaurant.
The next beach you will come to is Playa Balandra, a beautiful beach with some of the clearest waters off the Baja. The cliff overhangs are an added attraction at Balandra. The overhangs allow swimmers a chance to get out of the sun, providing up to ten vertical feet of cave-like protection. Bring food and water with you because Playa Balandra has no services.
A beach with services and beauty is Playa Tecolote located at the tip of the peninsula. Food, drink, man-made cabanas, and plenty of beach expanse make Tecolote a popular beach retreat for many Pacenos.
Swimming With the Sea Lions
North of the peninsula, three islands line up in diminishing size. The smallest island, the one furthest out is Isla Los Islotes. Isla Los Islotes is a sea lion rookery just north of Isla Partido, which is just north of Isla Espiritu Santo.
For us, the chance to swim with the sea lions was a must-do. Early one morning we took a fast panga trip to this little island to see the sea lions. They did not disappoint. They were everywhere. Some in the water; some reclining on rock outcroppings above an eternity of blue. Our guide proclaimed that the area has the largest gathering of sea lions in North America. Who were we to argue? We were getting a “Custer” feeling, however.
After being mildly warned that there were young pups about, and that their Daddies did not want us getting too close, we jumped into the water and headed straight for the largest concentrations.
The guides were right about two things. The Daddies did not want us getting close to their pups, and the beauty of the clear water and abundance of colorful tropical fish in the area added to our enjoyment.
Other Water Related Adventures
Guides can be located in La Paz for numerous water related adventures. Boating, sailing, wind surfing, kayaking, diving, snorkeling, whale watching (in winter), beach combing, and fishing are a few of the activities available to the adventurous.
Diving and snorkeling are mostly accessible only by boat. Along the shores of Isla Esprito Santo and Isla Partida are many good diving reefs. In our group, we were the only American divers. The others were young, serious university students from Japan. Our skipper told us that most of his clientele are Japanese. He also lamented the financial times Japan is now experiencing because he said that during Japan’s roaring “80’s” there were many more Japanese visitors.
Fishing in the La Paz area is very good. Pangas can be rented and are necessary because on-shore and surf-fishing are very limited. The outer bay area west of the islands holds yellowtail, sierra, roosterfish, amberjack, pompano, pargo, cabrilla, bonito, jack crevalle, and needlefish, to name a few.
North of the island protected area, the fish get bigger: marlin, grouper, dorado, tuna, and sailfish, to name some big ones, are just waiting to be caught. The best fishing in the Sea of Cortez is reported to be from April to November.
It is easy to charter fishing boats in the area. If you bring an ice chest and lunch, most charters provide all fishing equipment, ice, filleting, and packing.
Pichilingue is important to La Paz. Because the channel leading from the Sea of Cortez to La Paz is too shallow for deep-draft vessels, La Paz’s port facilities were built at Pichillingue, about fourteen miles out the peninsula north of La Paz. Pichilingue serves many important functions. The terminal for the ferries to Matzatlan and Topolobampo is located here. There also is a passenger terminal to support ocean-cruise ships for La Paz.
An industrial park has sprung up in the area for various industries that require access to the sea. La Paz is southern Baja’s commercial center and all produce and materials entering or leaving the region come through this port. Pichilingue is La Paz’s shipping dock, but located out of town.
La Paz is a university town and has numerous cultural attractions and activities. There are several museums. There is an excellent library, and there is an important theater and cultural center.
Museo Regional de Anthropologia e Historia
Wow. If you are interested in the anthropological history of the Baja, this is the place to visit. There are more than 1,200 pieces here. If your Spanish is not very good, bring a dictionary. You will want it because there is a lot to read as you peruse the exhibits. This museum on three floors chronicles the Baja’s past from pre-history to modern times. On display are pre-Columbian rock art, fossils, minerals, mining booms, independence, the Mexican-American War, and William Walker’s invasion. Next to the museum is Biblioteca Justo Sierra, a children’s library.
Biblioteca de la Historia de las Californias
Speaking of libraries, La Paz’s former Government House (Casa de Gubierno) is now a history library containing a valuable collection of materials in both Spanish and English about the Californias. There also is a section of the library that features interesting graphic exhibits of the Baja. The library is housed in a beautiful building built around 1880.
La Unidad Cultural Profesor Jesus Castro Agundez
La Paz’s cultural center takes up nearly a city block. The sprawling building contains an art gallery, community art school, research archives, the city’s general library, and the Teatro de la Ciudad, La Paz’s city theater.
As you enter La Paz’s city theater, a 1,500 seat performing arts facility, you see sculptures of men who fought against the William Walker invasion of 1853 and the French mainland invasion of 1861. The theater is a centerpiece for La Paz, housing performances of groups from throughout Mexico.
Ice Cream and Coffee Beans
There are many tiendas selling nieves (Mexican-style ice cream) in downtown La Paz. In fact some people refer to La Paz as the ice cream city. There are more flavors of ice cream in La Paz that we had never heard of before than anywhere else we have ever been. Having just read Graham Mackintosh’s Into a Desert Place about his two-year solo, 3,000-mile hike around the Baja peninsula, I had to try the pitahaya ice cream. Quite frankly I think something must have been lost in the transition from cactus fruit to ice cream flavor.
Some Pacenos say that you have not been to La Paz unless you’ve walked out on the new municipal pier with an ice cream cone to enjoy the view of the bay and the city waterfront. We don’t know if it is that much of an exciting adventure, but it makes for a very relaxing evening treat.
And for those who need a good cup of coffee, La Paz will not disappoint. Although we found no Starbucks, nor any other American franchises in the downtown area, we did find several very good coffee houses, some which would give Starbucks real competition. Café Batalla is our favorite, but Café del Tropico with its fresh-roasted Veracruz beans is a strong contender.
The sunsets in La Paz are some of the most spectacular in Baja. The best place to watch the sunsets is probably from the terrace of our suite at Las Gaviotas resort, but there are many places to watch this nightly, invigorating light show.
We also recommend the La Concha Hotel about two and a half miles out of town. You will also find “The Cortez Club” annexed to the hotel with a nice palapa from which you can relax and enjoy the great views of the beach and sky.
Other spots with great views include La Panga, The Dinghy, Vista Coral, El Capri, Las Bugambilias, and the popular Los Arcos Hotel.
La Paz is southern Baja’s capital city and the region’s commercial, cultural, and political center. Even with all that importance, La Paz still remains an undiscovered, tranquil city. La Paz is unspoiled, safe, soft, and inviting. Although there is tourism, the tourists are mainly Mexican nationals who come here to enjoy the water, the nearby islands, and the isolation of the desert.
Recently the tourist pier in La Paz was refurbished with an archway over the entry that tellingly reads, “Bienvenidos a La Paz, Puerto de Ilusion” (Welcome to La Paz, Port of Dreams).