Located less than 100 miles from Cabo San Lucas is the sleepy capital of Baja California del Sur: La Paz. It is here that we celebrated a white Christmas (sand not snow) with Katrina's family.
Flying to La Paz is not an easy feat. Though it has its own airport, getting there from the east coast requires at least two layovers to be affordable. Much easier and less expensive is flying to the tourist destination Cabo San Lucas's airport. From there, we took an airport shuttle to the San Juan del Cabo bus station to catch an Aguila bus to La Paz (they leave every hour or so). For the return trip, you also have the option of taking a Peninsula Ejecutivo bus directly to the Cabo airport from the La Paz bus station--a much comfier ride for only a few dollars more that we highly recommend.
Experiencing La Paz is best done on foot. Though the city is a sprawling grid, most of the action is contained to a condensed area. The Malecon, the paved promenade pictured above that stretches a mile or so along the coastline, marks the length of the compact city center. Many of the larger restaurants are located close to the water and as you walk uphill, you find many small taco stands and street vendors selling candy, mini donuts, and some of the most delicious churros we've ever eaten. Also downtown is the Mercado Francisco Madero where vendors display heaps of luscious fruit and vegetables, fresh fish and seafood. Directly in front of the Mercado was our favorite tortilleria; the tortillas de harina (flour) melt in your mouth.
La Paz is an absolute mecca for seafood-lovers. Between the two of us we ate shrimp, lobster, marlin, manta ray, oysters and salmon during our five-day stay. One of the best taco places in town is Bismarck-cito--but at night they only serve full entrees, which are nowhere near as good as the daytime taco fare. But one of the real culinary highlights of La Paz is La Fuente, an ice cream parlor that caused Pavlovian responses. They offer unusual flavors like corn, tequilla almond and lemon cream in delicious cookie-like cones.
Though La Paz is located on the water, there are no real beaches in town and locals do not recommend swimming in the bay. A 30-minute drive up the Pichilingue Peninsula takes you to many beautiful beaches, so originally we thought we'd rent a car. No luck: all eight or so rental spots in town were completely out of cars (we recommend reserving ahead of time if you want to go this route). We then found a local bus that goes to Playa Tecolote, but alas, the bus schedule is a bit more flexible in the winter months and after being told three different stories about departure times (from the same Aguila employee) we grew wary. Katrina's dad then found a cab driver who agreed to take six passengers in his compact cab and pick us up at a designated time for about $20 each way. Deal! Omar dropped us off at Playa Balandra, a beautiful beach in a protected cove where we played the day away.
The highlight of our stay was undoubtedly the day-long trip we took to Isla Espiritu Santo. We hired a motorboat, kayaks and snorkel gear through Marlin Adventures, and our guide Javier took us on an unforgettable excursion. Our first stop was when Javier spotted the fin of a whale shark and encouraged us to hop in. We thought he was joking, but apparently these huge creatures only eat plankton and don't have a taste for humans. So we broke out the snorkel gear and chased after him. John and Nicole actually touched the 20 foot beast (we found out only later that touching is not recommended) and we found that the real danger was some vicious agua mala--three of us got jellyfish stings. We also got to see some rollicking dolphins and a spouting whale on the boat ride.
Our next big stop was a rock formation off the coast of Espiritu Santo that is home to some 500 sea lions. We again outfitted ourselves in snorkel gear and got to swim with them! Absolutely amazing, but a bit scary as these large creatures get awfully close--especially the young ones that act like playful puppies (one took a major liking to Daniel!) The water was also teeming with exotic fish that would make any snorkeling trip even without their rambunctious sea lion neighbors.
Back in the motorboat, Javier took us to the stunning Playa Ensenada Grande in a northwest cove of Espiritu Santo where we ate the delicious marlin ceviche we'd picked up from Javier's aunt at Playa Tecolote on the way out that morning. The woman makes a mean ceviche! We then hopped in our kayaks and spent the remaining daylight hours exploring the island shores.
For most of our time in La Paz we stayed at Las Gaviotas, where the family rented a two-bedroom condo. The condos are very comfortable, each with its own private oceanview deck, and there is a shared swimming pool. It was great to have our own kitchen to cook with the delicious ingredients and fresh fish from the mercado.
Since we arrived before the reservation at Las Gaviotas began, we spent our first night in La Paz at Casa Jalisco. This was a very nice hotel--spacious rooms, bubblers of purified water on every floor, beautiful pool, and an exceptionally friendly staff that spoke excellent English. The one drawback is location: Casa Jalisco is approximately a mile and a half from downtown with not much going on in the immediate neighborhood.
Though La Paz is much further than many Mexican destinations, the longer haul definitely paid dividends in the end. We found La Paz to be the perfect Mexican mixture of one part idyllic beach, two parts seafood tacos and one part ocean adventure.