Magical Towns, Surfing, and Snorkeling With Whale Sharks: The 4-Day Weekend in La Paz, Mexico

La Paz, Mexico
Javier Garcia / Shutterstock

I remain baffled by how many people vacation in “Mexico,” walled in by their all-inclusive resort while one of the most dynamic, hospitable, and flavorful cultures in the world blossoms just past those towering private-access gates. Take Cabo San Lucas, for example: The city’s tourism exploded in the past 50 years, with massive luxury hotels and resorts attracting wealthy travelers to the southernmost tip of Baja California Sur, on the peninsula below California. Surely you’ve had friends visit Cabo, or you’ve visited yourself. But to what extent did the local culture permeate the experience—or was it just about the location and the weather? (Well, at least the guacamole and seafood were fresh.) Two hours north of Cabo, however, is a treasure: It’s La Paz, nestled around a bay off the Sea of Cortez, which is one of the world’s most biodiverse bodies of water (some 900 species of fish and 5,000 microinvertebrates inhabit this ecosystem).

The New York Times called La Paz one of the must-visit destinations of 2020—for the sea fare, water expeditions, and waterfront beautifications. And what’s reassuring about its impending tourism boom is that the city is scaling smartly: Many of its new hotels are being built on the perimeter of the city, so that the small-town feel of the city center isn’t compromised by said influx. The city regulates the number of boats that can take whale-shark watchers and deep-sea divers each day, to not disturb the precious ecosystem there. (Boats must receive daily permission, and patrollers ride by to confirm their permit.)

Yes, La Paz wants visitors. But no, they don’t want to be the next Cabo. Nor do they want the Sea of Cortez, known affectionately as “The World’s Aquarium,” to go the way of the Great Barrier Reef. These waters are UNESCO-sanctioned, after all—yes, you can swim with the whale sharks, mere inches away, but there’s no petting them or disturbing them. So the regulations are a must; you won’t soon see giant cruise ships docking in the port of Baja Sur’s capital. (And, as the Times added, La Paz also passed one of the world’s strictest bans on single-use plastics, restricting pollution on land and at sea.)

The surrounding region is hallowed, too: Equally regulated silver-and-gold mines once attracted many to nearby Triunfo, which is part of your weekend itinerary. Now home to 300 people, this storied mountainside ghost town houses a mining history museum, as well as relics of the town’s glory days—like the smokestack that towers overhead, half the length of a football field. Mining production has ceased, since it risks contamination of the surrounding waters. Similarly, there’s lore in Todos Santos, one of Mexico’s official “Magical Towns” that attracts artists, surfers, and bon vivants thanks to its vibrant spirit and pristine coast. (It’s also got the Hotel California, from the Eagles song.) And this town, Todos Santos, is exactly where your weekend begins.

How to Get There

If you want to fly directly into La Paz, you’ll probably have to connect through Mexico City. (Not the worst news, if you can spend a few days there, too.…) However, you can get plenty of direct flights into Cabo San Lucas and hire a car (or rent one) up the peninsula to La Paz. It’s a two-hour drive, but the itinerary below makes things even more practical by giving you must-see stopping points on your way into and out of La Paz.

Guaycura Hotel
Guaycura Hotel at sunset Courtesy Image

Where to Stay

The 4-star Hotel Catedral is in the heart of the humble city center, adjacent to (you guessed it), the main cathedral. It’s a few minutes’ walk to anywhere in the very-safe center, and the hotel has a rooftop pool and bar if you require R&R. These accommodations are humble, but the breakfast is tasty, the location unbeatable, and it’s all you need for your two or three nights in the city. You’ll start by spending one or two in Todos Santos (pictured above), wherein the obvious hotel is Guaycura Hotel, for its warm hospitality, rooftop views (and pool, and dining), onsite spa, and cozy-as-ever Mexican-decored rooms.

Hacienda at Todos Santos, the Magical Town
Hacienda at Todos Santos, the Magical Town MelBrackstone / Shutterstock

Day 1: Overnight in Todos Santos

After landing in Cabo, start your drive toward La Paz, but point yourself to Todos Santos for the first night (or even two, since it’s just another hour to the capital from there). Todos Santos, the region’s Magical Town, is 50 miles north of Cabo and makes for a relaxing, if not inspiring, first stop. You can pop over to the famed Hotel California, or head to the coast for some sunbathing or surfing. For this, head to Cerritos Beach, or save a full-day tomorrow for lessons if you want. Todos Santos is the kind of town you meander, spending a couple of hours stepping into art galleries, shops, cafes, ice cream parlors, and more. You’ll see it all if you trace the few-block grid at the town center. You can also book a hired walking tour and visit blanket makers and candy shops.

In the evening, get yourself up the hill at the edge of town (in a car, don’t hike it), to El Mirador. Try to beat the sunset, if you can, for panoramic views. This is a great spot to pass some hours by day too, at the neighboring El Faro Beach Club and Spa. Both are owned by the same team at Guaycura Hotel, which was recommended for your Todos Santos accommodations above.

Then, go for a nightcap back in town, at the brew-centric La Esquina, or Santo Vino wine bar, inside Hotel California.

Surfing at Los Cerritos
Surfing at Los Cerritos VG Foto / Shutterstock

Day 2: Surfing + La Paz Intro

This is the day to book some surf lessons in Todos Santos. Tailor it to your own desired length—Mario Surf School can offer something to your skill level, plus they offer rentals (as well as kayak tours, too).

You can make your way into La Paz around lunch or dinner—ideally, you can save two meals in the day, one for the locally adored roadside restaurant La Garita en route to La Paz. (They close by 6 p.m. daily.)

Once you’re in town and checked into your hotel, freshen up for an evening stroll along the boardwalk, El Malecon. Locals flock here for fitness, social outings, sunsets, and more. There are numerous sculptures and installations along the way, and lots of spots for a drink across the street, so you can watch the sunset with a cold one in hand.

If you’re early enough, you can meander the small center’s side streets to discover vivid, commissioned street art; fall into Mercado Madero or the favorite watering hole, La Miserable Mezcaleria; or fawn over the 19th-century La Catedral Nuestra Señora in the town’s main square.

La Paz, Mexico, whale sharks
weera bunnak / Shutterstock

Day 3: A Day on the Water (and/or Sand Dunes)

You’re at the shores of the World’s Aquarium, so you have to build an entire day around the water (or the nearby sand dunes, if the water is choppy and the sea-excursions are compromised).

Your options range from fishing charters to snorkeling with whale sharks. (The whale sharks are most prominent in fall.) You can visit the remote island beaches of Espiritu Santo and mingle with sea lion pups. Contact Tuna Tuna Tours and reserve a spot. They’re one of the most reputable boats on these waters, and they’re sure to get a daily permit, given the sanctions on the number of boats that can be out in the water at any time. If luck throws you a curveball and the waters are too choppy to chart, then they also have day trips to the nearby sand dunes, where you can race along remote coasts for three hours in an RZR off-road vehicle.

Divers—if you’re PADI-approved, you can also experience the awesome ecosystem up close and personal, perhaps encountering hammerhead sharks, humpbacks, and sperm whales (best odds for the whales are in winter, hammerhead sharks in winter and spring, and whale sharks in fall); you’ll also get to encounter caves, wrecks, and reefs.

Bar El Minero
Bar El Minero Courtesy of Bar El Minero restaurant

Day 4: El Triunfo and Go

Assuming you’ve got to get out of town and back to Cabo’s airport—or onward to Mexico City if you’re flying out of La Paz, then focus your final morning and afternoon on El Triunfo. This is the former silver-mining town that was once occupied by 10,000+ miners, and is now home to just 300-ish people. You’re mainly here to visit Museo Ruta de Plata and learn about the silver-mining boon that helped shape this region in its two centuries of operation. You’ll see relics of centuries past, like the 154-foot tall smokestack overhead. And you’ll eat lunch onsite at the museum grounds, at the excellent Bar El Minero. Perhaps you’ll be just in time for tea, too—or can at least visit the pristine onsite tea room. (I’d recommend a drinkable souvenir at El Toggle Wine Cellar, too.)

Nim Restaurante
Nim Restaurante Courtesy of Nim Restaurante

5 Restaurants to Try

Quinta la Peregrina: Newly opened, with a cozy outdoor ambiance, plus top-tier seafood and meats.

Mariscos Bismarkcito: Your best seafood fix in town. Make it one of your first meals, since it’s also going to be a likely candidate for your final meal, too.

Doce Cuarenta Cafe + Bakery: A great meeting place to devour breakfast or desserts, catch up on emails, or to patch some WiFi so you can plan the rest of your visit.

Sorstis: Fine-dining Mediterranean and Italian, if you’re planning a date night (or need a break from fried sea things).

Nim: From a catch of the day to almond molé to cochinita pibil soup, Nim has fresh, flavorful fare in a homey setting.

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