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La Paz, meaning peace,  in Spanish, is the laid back capital city of the Baja California Sur. It is a tranquil Mexican town where the cactus-studded desert abruptly meets the sea in eye-popping fashion. Located on a large bay on the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California), La Paz is the capital of Baja California Sur, an arid peninsula extending some 800 miles south of the U.S. border. It's famous for its pastel neocolonial homes, beautifully updated waterfront promenade, sandy beaches, fiery sunsets and abundant marine life. Port is principal commercial center and the capital of the Mexican State of Baja California Sur, which comprises the southern half of the Baja Peninsula. With a population of 250,000 residents, La Paz is a midsize port city. When contrasted to the Los Cabos area, La Paz is a much more laid back city with a more traditional Mexican atmosphere.
La Paz combines the unselfconscious bustle of a small capital port city with beautiful, isolated beaches not far from town. Well on its way to becoming the adventure-tourism capital of Baja, it's the starting point for whale-watching, diving, freediving, sea kayaking, climbing, and hiking tours throughout the peninsula. Arrange any of those activities, plus beach tours, sunset cruises, and visits to the sea lion colony, through recommended tour operators Baja Expeditions (tel. 800/843-6967 in the U.S., or 612/125-3828; www.bajaex.com); Baja Diving, Obregón 1665-2 (tel. 612/122-1826; fax 612/122-8644; www.clubcantamar.com); DeSea Baja Adventures, Marina Palmira L3, Carretera a Pichilingue Km 2.5 (tel. 310/691-8040 in the U.S., or 612/121-5100; www.deseabaja.com); Fun Baja, Reforma 395, on the corner of Guillermo Prieto (tel. 612/121-5884 or 125-2366; www.funbaja.com); or in travel agencies along the malecón. You can also arrange activities through agencies in the United States that specialize in Baja's natural history.
Most tour agencies offer city tours of all of La Paz's major sights. Tours last 2 to 3 hours, include time for shopping, and cost around $15 per person.
Once a simple spot for sport fishing (John Wayne and Bing Crosby were frequent visitors), La Paz has evolved into something of a hot spot for ecotourism. Its proximity to the gray whale winter breeding grounds in Magdalena Bay, pristine islands of the Sea of Cortez and Sierra de la Laguna mountains attracts whale watchers, kayakers, hikers, birders and scuba divers.
Still, exploration and adventure are nothing new to La Paz. Nearly five centuries ago, Hernan Cortes arrived there, followed by Jesuit missionaries. English and Dutch pirates raided treasure-filled Spanish galleons trapped in the La Paz Bay. In the early 19th-century, La Paz became the capital of Baja after a hurricane wiped out Loreto. The city prospered as a pearl center until the 1930s, when local oyster beds were destroyed by disease.
While nearby Cabo San Lucas attracts hordes of tourists, La Paz still offers an authentic provincial experience, although in recent years beachfront condos have been springing up at the north end of town. Of all Baja's cities, La Paz draws most heavily from the traditions of mainland Mexico. Many pacenos (locals) are descended from mainlanders who came in the 19th and 20th centuries to escape political upheaval.
When Cortez landed here in 1535, he named it Bahía Santa Cruz. The name didn't stick. In April 1683, Eusebio Kino, a Spanish Jesuit priest, arrived and dubbed the place Nuestra Señora de la Paz (Our Lady of Peace). It wasn't until 1720, however, that Jaime Bravo, another Jesuit priest, set up a permanent mission. The mission church stands on La Paz's main square on Revolución and Independencia.
Today, this university town has a large cultural center that features a theater for dance and music performances, plus whale and anthropology museums. The biggest annual holiday is the pre-Lent Carnaval, a six-day party with parades, costumes, music, dancing and fireworks. In early May, Cortes' 1535 landing is reenacted during the Fiesta de la Paz. In mid-November, the Baja 1000 off-road racers roar into town at the end of their dusty, 1,000-mile race.
La Paz has been a boutique port for Carnival Cruises and Holland America, as well as ships from smaller luxury cruise lines, on voyages to the Gulf of California. While Carnival and Holland Americal have pulled out this year, Princess Cruises has taken up the void in 2015.
In 2015, ships arrive at the city's cruise ship pier at 7:00 am or 8:00 am, and depart between 2:00 pm and 6:00 pm. Princess Cruises' ships will be in port for an average of just under 8 hours. In 2015, La Paz is slated to welcome 20,100 passengers sailing on 10 ships, down 20% and even, respectively, from 2014.
Where You're Docked
Azamara Club Cruises, Holland America and Princess dock 10 miles (about 30 minutes' drive) north of town at the cruise ship terminal at Pichilingue, near the mainland ferry terminal. The smaller ships of Un-Cruise Adventures dock in town, within easy walking distance to attractions.Strolling from the in-town Port of La Paz along the three-mile-long Malecon Alvaro Obregon is a local tradition. The tiled seaside walkway is dotted with sculptures of marine animals and offers great bay views, as well as shops, cafes and restaurants. One block away is the Centro Cultural La Paz, housed in the restored 1910 city hall. Inside are a bookshop and Baja-themed exhibits (open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily). Three blocks inland is the city's main square, Plaza Constitucion, also called Plaza Jardin Velasco, with its tile-roofed gazebo and 1865 cathedral. The adjacent Centro de Artes Populares showcases art and photography (open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday).
At the Pichilingue dock, a craft market is set up on cruise ship days. There are no other facilities.The best way to get around downtown La Paz is by walking. For cruisers that aren't taking part in a shore excursion, taxis (and rental cars; which aren't really the best idea for cruisers due to the typically limited time in this port) are typically available to take you to the destination of your choice. With its streets radiating from the waterfront in a classic grid, La Paz is best explored on foot.Cruise lines such as Azamara offer complimentary shuttle buses from the Pichilingue cruise pier to town. Public buses leave daily at set departure times from the pier to Terminal Turistica on the malecon. Some buses stopping at the pier continue to the beaches at Tecolote and Balandra. Be sure to check the return schedule because buses can show up as infrequently as one every two to three hours.
Cab fare from the cruise ship terminal to downtown runs about $20. To visit beaches north and south of the city, either take a cab (La Paz taxis don't have meters, so agree on the fare upfront) or rent a car.Most major car rental chains have offices along the malecon.
La Paz is surrounded by turquoise waters teeming with exciting marine life, so swimming, snorkeling and diving with sea lions and whale sharks rate as top attractions. Anyone planning to go in the water should be aware of the chance of encountering jellyfish or getting a warning bite from a sea lion. Always follow the lead of your dive guide, wear protective gear (a wetsuit) and check out your underwater companions carefully.
The island rookery of Los Islotes is home to a colony of sea lions accustomed to divers and snorkelers. If you're not already smitten watching these charismatic pinnipeds sunbathe, nurse and fight for prime real estate, you will be after joining them for a swim. Juvenile sea lions will somersault beside you and blow bubbles in your face. The only things to watch out for are the adult males (up to 600 pounds) and the many other snorkelers in the water.
A popular and very worthwhile cruise is to Isla Espíritu Santo and Los Islotes. You visit the largest sea lion colony in Baja, stunning rock formations, and remote beaches, with stops for snorkeling, swimming, and lunch.. Both boat and bus tours are available to Puerto Balandra, where bold rock formations rise up like humpback whales and frame pristine coves of crystal-blue water and ivory sand. Tour operators can arrange these all-day trips, weather permitting, for about $80 per person, or arrange them yourself at www.playaeltecolote.com.
Things To See and Do
Save $5 on Any Fortify Probiotics. La Paz's first golf course, the Arthur Hills-designed par 72 Paraíso del Mar (tel. 612/165-1818; www.paradiseofthesea.com), is on Isla Mogote, a 5-minute water taxi ride across the bay. Golf Magazine named its cactus-rich landscape one of the top five new international golf courses for 2010.
Sea Kayaking
Kayaking in the many bays and coves near La Paz is a paddler's dream, and because some of the area's special sites for swimming and snorkeling are accessible only by kayak, daylong or multiday trips can't be beat. In the waters near La Paz, the water clarity gives the sensation of being suspended in the air. Bring your own equipment, or let the local companies take care of you. Several companies in the United States can book trips in advance. Locally, Baja Quest and Sea & Adventures (tel. 800/355-7140 in the U.S.; www.kayakbaja.com) arrange extended kayak adventures, from $250 for a 2-day trip to Espíritu Santo to $1,150 for a week paddling between La Paz and Loreto, as well as simple gear rental.
La Paz, justly famous for its sportfishing, attracts anglers from all over the world. Its waters are home to more than 850 species of fish. The most economical approach is to rent a panga boat with a captain and equipment. It costs $125 for 3 hours, but you don't go very far out. Super pangas, which have a shade cover and comfortable seats, start at around $180 for two persons. Larger cruisers with bathrooms start at $240.
You can arrange sportfishing trips locally through hotels and tour agencies. La Paz Sportfishing's (tel. 310/691-8040; www.lapazsportfishing.com) rates start at $250 per day for two people. English-speaking David Jones of Fishermen's Fleet (tel. 612/122-1313; fax 612/125-7334; www.fishermensfleet.com) uses the locally popular panga-style fishing boat. Average price is $225 for the boat, but double-check what the price includes -- you may need to bring your own food and drinks.
Swimming with whale sharks is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. These amazing bus-size plankton eaters are the largest fish on the planet, reaching 65 feet in length. The Cortez Club, a watersports outfitter, has pangas to take you out where whale sharks traditionally gather in the bay. If you would rather look than swim, you can stay aboard the open fishing boat and be awed by one or more of these gentle giants. The small boat ride can be rough. If you are prone to seasickness, take appropriate precautions.
La Fuente is a small ice cream shop on the malecon with legendary appeal. Look for the tree out front that's painted white with colorful polka dots. Ice cream aficionados line up for homemade treats in usual and not so usual flavors. Try the tequila with almond or elote (corn). Also delicious are fruit paletas or popsicles in exotic flavors like pitahaya (from the cactus; deep purple with seeds). (Alvaro Obregon and Ocampo; open 9 a.m. to midnight daily)
The whale museum Museo de la Ballena is noted for its collection of gigantic whale bones in the garden. (Navarro at Altamirano; open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday)
At Artesania Cuauhtemoc, visitors can watch weavers at their looms, spinning cotton from the Santo Domingo Valley into rugs, blankets, wall hangings and clothing. (Calle Abasolo 3315) Also, artisans create colorful, hand-painted ceramics at Ibarra's Pottery. They sell ready-made dishwasher and microwave-safe items, or you can have your pottery custom-made. (Guillermo Prieto 625; open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday)
La Ventana and Los Barriles, about 45 minutes and an hour south of La Paz, respectively, rank as world-class wind surfing destinations, with winds of 20 to 30 mph and curving shorelines. Lessons, even for beginners, are available mid-November to March.
Regional Anthropology & History Museum
The Museo Regional de Antropologia e Historia traces Baja's interesting history from pre-Columbian cave paintings to pirates, plus the development of Mexico since independence. (5 de Mayo at Altamirano; open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily). Explore a wealth of fascinating artifacts and exhibits detailing the history of the indigenous peoples who made this enchanting area their home from ancient times to the beginning of the 20th century.
Cathedral de Nuestra Senora de la Paz
Sitting in the historical heart of the city, this charming 19th century cathedral reflects California mission style of architecture. Inside are a number of paintings and statues dedicated to Virgin Mary, La Paz's patron saint.
El Serpentario Reptile Center
Get up close and personal with snakes, iguanas, lizards, tortoises, albino cobras and giant pythons at this non-profit attraction. Observe naturalists, hold a creature, or even adopt an animal.
La Casa de Artesanias
Dedicated to preserving the customs, traditions and expressions of Mexican art, Artisan House features a diverse collection of jewelry, paintings, sculptures, clothing and fine works of silver.
Todos Santos
Located on the southern Baja Peninsula, this charming paradise lies between the desert and the Sierra Laguna mountain range. Quaint village life, abundant agriculture, and miles of unspoiled beaches abound. Todos Santos is an artsy town on the Pacific coast, about an hour's drive from La Paz. It boasts more than a dozen art galleries, casual outdoor cafes and the renowned Hotel California. Though it's not the hotel made famous by the Eagles, you'll hear their song playing in nearby shops. You won't be able to get the tune out of your head when you leave.
Underwater Adventure
With an average temperature of 60°F in winter and 80°F in summer, the astonishing natural wonders of golden sand and turquoise water beckon you to swim, snorkel and scuba.
Whale Watching
The Sea of Cortez plays host to a wide and breathtaking variety of marine life including finback, gray and blue whales, as well as dolphins, sea lions and exotic fish.
The farther you move away from town either north or south, the nicer the beaches. Whether you stretch out on a blanket on the golden sand, go for a refreshing dip, or explore a cove or rocky islet, the best beaches in Baja are within easy reach of La Paz.
Best for Families: Playa Balandra, 3.5 miles north of Pichilingue, is a series of shallow bays with white-sand beaches and snorkeling at the south end. It's open to the public, with no fees. The city council declared it an environmentally protected area in 2008.You'll recognize the beach by the often photographed Mushroom Rock balancing precariously atop a thin spire. Measuring about 12 feet in height and 10 feet in diameter at its top, the 18-ton icon has been righted several times over the years.
Best for an Active Day: Playa El Tecolote, a few miles north of Balandra, is a long wide, white-sand beach facing the lovely island of Espiritu Santo. You can swim anywhere in the roped off area along the beach. You can also rent beach chairs, umbrellas, fishing tackle, kayaks and paddleboards. The beach (free to the public) has pay showers and free public palapas for shade. Two restaurants, El Tecolote and Palapa Azul, offer seafood, cold drinks and boat tours. Note: It can get windy here.
Best for a Stroll: El Mogote, a seven-mile peninsula facing La Paz and separated from it by the Canal de La Paz, features five miles of sandy waterfront. Once an out-of-the-way escape, resort and condo development has changed its look from unspoiled to manicured. There is also a golf course. While most of the beach is public (no fees), resorts are starting to offer private areas, and sections of these golden sands are turtle sanctuaries. The beach is about a 40-minute drive from La Paz.
Shore Excursions
Best for First-Timers: A four-hour city highlight tour takes you to the Anthropology Museum to learn about the once booming pearl industry in the Sea of Cortez. Visit the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, built in 1861, before shopping for crafts at the arts center. Your tour ends with a stroll along Tecolote Beach.
Best for Bragging Rights: The big attraction in La Paz is the water and what's swimming in it. The best excursion for doing something your friends probably have never done is snorkeling with whale sharks. A three-hour tour takes you by small boat to the whale sharks' usual hangouts so you can snorkel with the world's largest fish. Some cruise lines impose lower (must be 8 years old) and upper age (maximum 70) and weight (280 pounds maximum) limits.
Best for Families: If you have a budding herpetologist in the family, head to El Serpentario Reptile Center and Cactus Nursery. The serpentarium is home to a number of indigenous and foreign species of snakes, lizards, turtles and crocodiles. A naturalist shares information about the critters. During the 2.5-hour excursion, they pass around some of the friendlier species for visitors to hold. This is not a place for the squeamish.
Best for a Fun Snorkel: Snorkel with playful sea lions at Los Islotes, a marine park. You may also encounter dolphins and other marine creatures. A meal is provided on the 6.5-hour tour. Some cruise lines offer a 3.5-hour sea lion snorkel at San Rafaelito Island.
Eatin Out
La Paz has a growing assortment of small, pleasant restaurants that are good and reasonably priced. In addition to what's listed here, try Caprichos, Madero at 5 de Mayo (tel. 612/125-8105), Estancia Uruguayo, Revolución 785 at Salvatierra (tel. 612/122-5412), and Tres Vergines, Madero 1130 (tel. 612/123-2226). Reservations are generally unnecessary
One of the highlights of a day in La Paz is sampling the local cuisine, especially anything fresh from the sea, plus the homemade ice cream from La Fuente. Affordable restaurants outnumber chains, and tasty meals can be widely found throughout the downtown area.
La Terraza pairs Mexican and Italian dishes with great alfresco people watching. (Paseo Obregon and Calle La Paz at Hotel Perla; open noon to 10:30 p.m. daily)
El Bismarkcito has been serving fresh fish tacos and seafood with a view since starting out as a food truck in the 1960s. (Paseo Alvaro Obregon)
La Fonda de los Brisenos serves large portions of home-style Mexican dishes at reasonable prices. (Revolucion and Bravo; open 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily)
Mariscos El Carrito serves fresh seafood dishes. (Corner of Paseo Obregon and Morelos; open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily)
Las Tres Virgenes prepares Baja cuisine with a Mediterranean touch. Try the venison tostadas and rose petal quesadillas. (Madera and Constitucion Hidalgo; lunch from 1 to 4:45 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday)
Los Magueyes dishes up Mexican favorites (Avenida de Allende No. 512 e; open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday; 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday)
Il Rustico serves pizza and tasty Italian treats in a garden setting. (Calle Revolucion N 1930; closed Tuesdays, winter hours are 5 to 11 p.m. weekdays, 3 to 11 p.m. Saturday, 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday, summer hours from 6 to 11 p.m.)
Palermo's Ristorante serves wood-fired pizza and mesquite-grilled steaks. Their international wine list is extensive. (Paseo Obregon and Hidalgo; open noon to 11 p.m daily)
A night in La Paz logically begins in a cafe along the malecón as the sun sinks into the sea. Have your camera ready.A favorite ringside seat at dusk is a table at La Terraza, next to the Hotel Perla (tel. 612/122-0777). La Terraza makes good, schooner-size margaritas. Papas & Beer (tel. 612/128-5145; www.lapaz.papasandbeer.com) is the star attraction for the late night set at the trendy Vista Coral entertainment center, located at the very start of the malecón at Marquez de Léon. Jungle Bar (tel. 612/125-7666), on the malecón at 16 de Septiembre, has spring-break-style Ladies' Night and shot specials, open until 2am Sunday to Wednesday, and till 4am Thursday to Saturday. For a lower-key night on the town, La Encantada gallery and wine bar (tel. 612/185-3469), on Dominguez between 5 de Mayo and Callejón Constitución, showcases local jazz musicians in the garden until 10:30pm Monday to Saturday.
For dancing, two of the hottest clubs are Casa de Villa (tel. 612/128-5799), where current pop music has young paceños (La Paz locals) dancing till late on the second-floor terrace above La Paz-Lapa on the malecón, and Las Varitas, Independencia and Dominguez (tel. 612/125-2025; www.lasvaritas.com), which plays Latin rock, ranchera, and salsa. Both are open from 9pm to 3 or 4am Thursday through Saturday (occasionally open earlier in the week as well), with cover charges around $5 (the charge may be waived or increased, depending on the crowd).
Shopping in La Paz should bring you bargains on arts and crafts that other more popular resorts sell at higher prices. You will also find art galleries. Most shopping for the tourist is along the malecon or within a few blocks of it. Mercado Madero or the central market is located at Revolucion and Degollado. Here you'll find crafts, household goods and small food stalls.

La Paz has all the shopping necessities of a capital city and you will be able to find pharmacies, grocery stores, furniture and household goods, and much more. La Paz has little in the way of folk art or other treasures from mainland Mexico. But the dense cluster of streets behind the Hotel Perla, between 16 de Septiembre and Degollado, abounds with small shops -- some tacky, others quite upscale. This area also holds a very small but authentic Chinatown dating to the time when Chinese laborers were brought to settle in Baja. Serdán Street, from Degollado south, offers dozens of sellers of dried spices, piñatas, and candy. On Tuesdays, there's a natural products street market in front of Buffalo BBQ from 9am to noon; on Saturdays, it decamps to the street in front of Corazón Café.
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