The first Europeans ever to arrive on the Baja California peninsula landed at La Paz. The initial sortie was led a mutineer named Fortún Ximénez, who had killed the captain of an exploratory expedition sent by Hernan Cortés. The conquistador-in-chief had heard tales as early as 1524 of an “island” rich in pearls off the western coast of México. A little over a year after Ximénez made landfall, Cortés himself arrived. That was May 3, 1535.
Over the next 482 years later, La Paz remained at the forefront of peninsular history. It was the site of a fiercely contested siege during the Mexican–American War, and for hundreds of years adventurers flocked to its picturesque shores in search of its fabled black pearls. It became capital of what was then the Baja California territory in 1830, after a hurricane devastated Loreto, and since 1974 has been the capital city of the state of Baja California Sur.
Today, La Paz is still a destination of consequence, renowned for its architectural monuments, beautiful beaches, venerable cultural institutions, and, most of all, its warm and welcoming people. The modern city – home to well over 200,000 residents – boasts thriving dining and nightlife scenes, abundant shopping options, and by far the greatest collection of museums on the peninsula.
In short, it’s a mandatory stop for anyone considering, or in the midst of, a Baja road trip adventure.
Here’s a short guide for first-time visitors.
The most notable natural attractions are the three-mile malecón, or seaside promenade, which looks out over the Bay of La Paz and the tip of the El Mogote peninsula; and the string of gorgeous beaches that stretch northeast of the city towards Punta Las Pilitas. Local families throng the malecon each evening – strolling or riding bicycles – enjoying the gentle sea breezes and the invariably spectacular sunsets (La Paz is on the eastern coast of Baja, but its seaside vantages angle towards the northwest).
Playa Balandra is the most famous beach, thanks to soft white sands and the sort of electric blue water seldom seen outside of Quintana Roo. Balandra is also home to El Hongo, a mushroom shaped rock that is La Paz’s version of El Arco in Cabo San Lucas. Nearby Playas El Tecolote and Pichilingue are also worth a visit. The latter is located near the ferry terminal (with service to Topolobampo and Mazatlán) and offers good swimming conditions and platters of fresh local seafood. El Tecolote also features plenty of ceviches and almejas (chocolate clams), plus water sports and picturesque views of the uninhabited Isla Espíritu Santo, one-time home to the world’s first pearl cultivation farm (an achievement often erroneously attributed to the Japanese instead of visionary Paceño scientist and long-time La Paz municipal president Gastón Vives).
The local food scene is diverse, but first-class. Las Tres Virgenes is considered by many locals to be the city’s finest restaurant, despite the fact that Chef Jesús Chávez is originally from Tijuana. Chávez’s facility with mesquite grilled meats and seafood paired with romantic moonlit courtyard dining provides a memorable local dinner experience. Bismark-cito offer seafood pleasures overlooking the malecón, as well as the best micheladas in Baja Sur. Taco lovers will want to check out the downtown stand operated by the Hermanos González. The best comfort food options, however, are found at Bandidos, where enormous half-pound burgers are grilled under the hood of a bisected pickup truck, and served up with delicious french fries and ice cold cervezas.
La Paz has a surprisingly varied nightlife scene, ranging fron nightclubs like Las Varitas and La Cabaña, and popular malecón based bars like Jonathan Roldan’s Tailhunter, to off-kilter spots that show off the city’s penchant for vintage décor and sophisticated pleasures. La Miserable is far and away the best example of the latter group, a downtown hangout that features eclectic good-time music curated by the Ireland born bartender, as well as a potent collection of artisanal mezcals. The nearby Beer Box, meanwhile, offers the finest selection of craft beers in the region, from international bottles to Baja born microbrews from producers like Rámuri, Fauna, Cucapá, Agua Mala and Baja Brewing Company.
La Paz is not just the seat of government for Baja California Sur, but the state’s cultural capital as well, with a superb collection of museums, and a large theater capable of seating more than a 1,000 people. The Whale Museum – Museo de la Ballena y Ciencias del Mar – is the chief attraction, with a central location on the malecón, and a large number of life-sized whale skeletons pieced together from specimens that washed up on regional shores. Sharks, porpoises, sea turtles and other marine creatures are also well-represented at the popular museum, which together with the reptile focused Serpentario de La Paz, offers a relatively complete look at the natural history of the region. The local chronology is filled out in even more detail at the recently renovated Museo de Antropología, which offers insightful displays that exhibit the beliefs, customs and primitive tools of indigenous peninsular inhabitants like the Pericú, Guaycura and Cochimí.
Ibarra Pottery leads the list of shopping attractions in La Paz. The family-owned workshop has been in operation since 1952; in La Paz since 1983. Visitors can watch as handmade, hand-painted ceramics like bowls, tableware and tiles are brought into being by skilled artisans (all of the creations, by the way, are microwave and dishwasher safe). Antigua California is the best option for traditional folk art sourced from mainland Mexican states, and Allende Books is a mandatory stop for literature starved daytrippers from Los Cabos.
Spiraling exchange rates in recent years have made even the best hotels in La Paz a certified bargain. Rooms at the historic Hotel Perla, a fixture on the malecón since 1940, start at just over $50. Trendy inn el ángel azul, which occupies the historic site of a former courthouse, offers a comfortable central location with shared kitchen and bar privileges for only $75–85 per night. The absolute best bet for budget conscious travelers, however, is Hotel Arte Museo Yeneka. Rates begin at about $30 U.S. at this bohemian downtown lodging, which features a complimentary continental breakfast, air-conditioning, and a courtyard filled to bursting with family heirlooms and found objects.
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