Cradled between the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean, Mexico’s Baja California Sur experiences year-round sunshine—and in its capital of La Paz, a delightfully peaceful existence away from the Cabo San Lucas crowds.
La Paz, which translates to “The Peace,” lives up to its namesake with tranquil beaches, a laid-back vibe, cultural offerings, and unforgettable marine life encounters. Visitors and locals gather at the Malecón, the sculpture-lined promenade along the bay, to savor scenic views, rollerblading and dolphins in the water. Beyond city limits, giant cardon cacti dot the desert landscape along Baja California Sur’s transpeninsular highway, which connects La Paz from its perch against the Bay of La Paz (a two-hour drive from Cabo) to the region around it, including the “magical town” of Todos Santos (“All Saints”), the Espíritu Santo (“Holy Spirit”) archipelago, and the old mining town of El Triunfo. The world’s largest fish, the mighty whale shark, makes the Sea of Cortez its home during the winter months. The Bay of Magdalena along the Pacific coast also sees a winter influx of gray whales, which come to raise their young.
Here are eight things to do in La Paz, Mexico:
1. Snorkel with whale sharks in the Bay of La Paz
No amount of video footage of can prepare you for the thrill of swimming with school-bus-sized whale sharks. From October to March, the waters around El Mogote on the Bay of La Paz offer an incredible opportunity to swim and snorkel next to these docile filter-feeders.
Despite their large bodies (they can grow up to 40-feet long), these harmless, white-spotted leviathans are in fact not whales but the largest fish in the sea. Migrating whale sharks feed on plankton and krill at the surface of the water. They’re highly protected, and those who venture out to see them must adhere to strict rules to ensure that the animals are not overwhelmed. Maar Experiences arranges three-hour tours to view and snorkel with these gentle giants up close ($85). A 15-minute ride on a seven-person boat from the La Paz shore brings you right alongside them.
2. Swim with sea lions at Los Islotes in the Espíritu Santo archipelago
Jacques Cousteau called the waters around La Paz the “Aquarium of the World.” They’re home to 39% of the world’s marine mammals and over 800 species of fish, and in 1995 the island of Isla Espíritu Santo was declared part of a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. The greater Espíritu Santo archipelago sees an abundance of rays, turtles, dolphins, and even whales. On the small rock formation of Los Islotes, an island in the archipelago an hour from La Paz, you’ll find a thriving, sunbathing California sea lion colony.
Snorkelers and divers are rewarded with playful juvenile sea lion interactions as the animals swirl around like ballerinas alongside hundreds of colorful fish. A combination tour lasting eight hours to Isla Espíritu Santo and the sea lion colony with Maar Experiences costs $115. You can extend the excursion to include exploring unique volcanic rock formations, kayaking or relaxing on remote beaches. As with the whale shark encounters, the number of visitors to Los Islotes is limited to protect the fragile habitat.
3. Spot gray whales in Magdalena Bay
A three-hour drive up the Pacific coast from the city of La Paz is Magdalena Bay, known as a winter home to a large number of gray whales that migrate from Canada and Alaska. The whales swim thousands of miles to the warm and nutrient-rich waters of this protected lagoon to give birth and raise young from January to March. When the waters are placid and the whales plentiful, you can get close enough to touch their barnacled bodies. The best time to see them is just as the sun rises above the dunes of Magdalena Bay.
Only locals are allowed to lead whale-watching panga (fishing boat) excursions here. Three months of whale-watching sustains the adjacent town for the rest of the year, a testament to the importance of protecting the cetaceans inhabiting these waters. Ecotourism company Coastal Dolphins of Latin America strives to extend programs throughout the year to limit fishing and lessen the number of dolphins and other marine life caught in entanglements. On its multi-day “Healthy Sea of Giants” (whale shark) and “Gray Whale” expeditions, visitors can view megafauna and learn about them via professionals working in the field to preserve their habitats. The “Gray Whale” expedition ($1,840) lasts seven days and includes whale- and dolphin- watching, explorations of the surrounding mangroves and dunes, and overnight stays in Puerto López Mateo, where you get to participate in discussions in the evenings after tasting local food.
4. Take a walking tour of La Paz
Pearl diving put La Paz on the map in the 16th century and led to prosperity in the region for centuries. Attracting only a fraction of Cabo’s visitors, the city today offers a more relaxing Baja getaway. It’s also a great place to go for a walk.
The Malecón, stretching three miles along the Bay of La Paz, features 13 bronze sculptures across the wide beachfront boardwalk. Each reflects an aspect of local culture, from the shining pearl to the whales that draw visitors from around the globe. There’s also a string of hotels, restaurants, shops, bars, and nightclubs along the Malecón overlooking the bay, where yachts, sailboats, and ships make their way toward the harbor.
A short walk from the shore, through tree-lined streets past colorful mural-adorned buildings, brings you to the Cathedral of La Paz. Located in the main square, it was erected in 1861 by Dominican missionaries and features paintings rescued from old missions. The historic City Hall and Teatro Juárez make up the cultural center of La Paz, with historic and artistic exhibits and musical and theatrical performances. A few blocks away is the Mercado, an indoor marketplace selling produce, fruits and fresh-caught fish. It’s open Tuesdays and Saturdays from 7:30am to 1pm.
5. Spend a day at Balandra Beach
Driving north along the coastal road from the Malecón delivers you to the most pristine stretch of coastline in La Paz: Balandra Beach. Made up of a series of small bays, with silky smooth sand and shallow clear waters that stretch for miles until the waves break, this spectacular beach is a popular spot year-round. Sunbathe, snorkel, or rent a paddleboard or sea kayak. Hike up the cliffs for incredible views of La Paz and the Sea of Cortez, or walk around the cliffs to take in Baja California Sur’s famous, precariously balanced mushroom rock, Hongo de Balandra. Shaped by wind and water (and fortified by human ingenuity when nature had other plans), this regional symbol appears on license plates, on postcards, in front of the cathedral, and on many Instagram feeds.
6. Explore Todos Santos on a LocoMotion Tour
As one of two “magical towns” in Baja California Sur, Todos Santos is a refreshing escape where Mexican culture comes to life in a gorgeous setting. The Pueblo Magico program designates towns throughout the country that offer “magical” experiences by way of natural beauty, warm hospitality, cultural richness, and historical relevance. Green vegetation and vibrant bougainvillea permeate this hilly town, which is set against the backdrop of the Sierra de la Laguna along the Pacific. Todos Santos is equidistant from the cities of La Paz and Cabo, which makes it a great day trip from either.
Those visiting for a day can hop on a LocoMotion bike tour to more fully experience the trendy spots around town. Blasting popular songs, the LocoMotion fiesta bike—powered by the peddling of a group of 14 (with a little help from the engine)—makes its way through the town stopping at various local businesses. You’ll learn to make tortillas and salsa, witness the hard work that goes into weaving gorgeous zarapes (shawls), and sip cocktails you helped craft at the beautiful Guaycura Hotel rooftop bar. Taste local wines at Amor D’vina and end the tour with tasty pitaya (cactus flower) ice cream. Be sure to stop by the galleries and folk-art markets that line the main street, and take a picture in front of the iconic Hotel California.
7. Go sandboarding in El Mogote
Descending down a sand dune on a board is just as thrilling as snowboarding but without the cold weather. El Mogote, an arid peninsula forming dunes along the northern shore of the Bay of La Paz, is ideal for first-time sandboarders. You can experience the thrill of gliding down a small, medium or giant dune juxtaposed against the deep blue of the sea. The guides of Baja Desconocida ($55) will make sure you have an exciting and safe experience on the dunes. They’ll even take your picture, so you can enjoy the moment without having to snap a selfie.
8. Learn about Mexico’s mining history at El Triunfo
Did you know that it was miners in Mexico who coined the term taco? Years ago, some miners brought their lunches wrapped in cloth bundles and used them to smuggle out high-grade ore from the mines. These filled tortillas were referred to as “tacos.” In the mountain village of El Triunfo, 45 minutes from La Paz, you’ll find an abandoned mining community that reached its peak during the years of gold and silver discovery (1790s to early 1900s). The mine’s unique chimney smokestack, La Ramona, was purportedly designed by Gustave Eiffel, the man behind the eponymous tower in Paris. During its heyday, the mine attracted immigrants from Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and China. Contributions from all remain visible today.
The mine shuttered in 1912, but El Triunfo has recently experienced a revitalization on the back of the brand-new Museo Ruta de la Plata (“Silver Route Museum”), dedicated to local mining history and featuring a cafe bar serving—you guessed it—tacos and other delicious Mexican cuisine in a charming setting. After a visit, you can stroll around the well-preserved buildings, cemeteries and remodeled houses of the town, and walk among giant desert plants at the Cactus Sanctuary in El Rosario, which showcases cardons, chollas, cirios (boojums), biznagas, and other cacti from the region.
Where to stay in La Paz:
The CostaBaja Resort & Spa (from $113/night) is a luxury hotel and spa overlooking the Sea of Cortez. It offers modern accommodations with ocean, marina or mountain views; a pool; and an elegant restaurant, Steinbeck’s. It’s also home to the first Gary Palmer golf course in Mexico, set on the undulating hills overlooking the bay and designed with a wastewater treatment system for irrigation to preserve the environment.